This stela was set up by a man called Pakeshi, who held the title God’s Father of Amun, as did his father Nespautitawi. Pakeshi stands before Osiris and the Four Sons of Horus, and the text below is a fairly standard offering formula. It’s not known where it was found.
It dates to the 25th or 26th Dynasties, somewhere around 750-525 BCE. It’s made of wood with gesso over it and painted in this pastel style that’s typical of the time period (so says the Met Museum, and I assume it’s on this basis that they date it to this period).
Despite looking nicely made it’s got one feature that looks like the artisans who made it dropped the ball – you can see in front of the face of each figure there’s a neatly outlined space where the name should go, but no-one’s come back and written the text in!
As part of my holiday in Egypt in 2016 we visited Beni Hasan (which has tombs set high in the cliffs) and the Speos Artemidos (where Hatshepsut built a temple claiming to’ve brought order from the chaos of the Second Intermediate Period).
These photos are from the outside areas of these sites, and one thing I was fascinated by here (as I so often am in Egypt) was the juxtaposition between the desert and the cultivation. The way you can stand up in the cliffs on dusty stone and see lush greenery so close to you.
4 years after this visit to Egypt I attended a talk by Dr José Ramón Pérez-Accino where he talked a bit about how the people of Egypt thought about their landscape. He noted the contrast of the order of the square-edged fields with the chaotic desert, which you still see today.
Thinking about it like that makes a lot of sense of the way that distinction of order vs. chaos is so fundamental to Egyptian thought. All around them are square-edged fields that bring them life and all good things, with the untamed and hostile desert always within sight.
Even though a lot of people who talk about Ancient Egypt draw a line either at Alexander or at Cleopatra obviously Egyptian culture didn’t just vanish overnight when the Greeks or the Romans took over. This mummy mask dates to c.60 CE and is clearly of Ancient Egyptian culture.
It’s probably from Meir (based on stylistic assessment), and is made mostly from painted cartonnage. I particularly like that they’ve made the wig from plant fibres, so it looks like the real thing. And the jewellery is modelled from plaster, again looking like it’s real.
The decoration round the headpiece is pretty cool as well. The lower register of the bit facing us in this photo has (from L to R) the goddesses Seshat, Hathor and Tefnut and the god Anubis. The upper register has djed pillars and tyet knots, representing Osiris and Isis.
I enjoy the way that Egyptian furniture often has feet that are modelled after the feet of animals. This example is shaped like a bull’s hoof and is particularly finely carved from elephant ivory.
It was found at Umm el-Qab, a royal cemetery at Abdyos with burials of 1st Dynasty kings as well as some pre-dynastic tombs and two 2nd Dynasty tombs. Bulls are a symbol of the king’s power, and the beauty of this carving suggests to me that it was a piece of royal furniture.
It’s a reminder that even 5000 years ago at the beginning of a unified Egyptian state they were already a highly sophisticated society. The elites lived in luxury, surrounded by beautiful objects.
This object is now in the Met Museum, acc. no.: 26.7.1282.
This is a close up of the innermost coffin of a man called Kharushere, who was the Doorkeeper of the House of Amun sometime in the 22nd Dynasty (c.800 BCE). His father Bes had the same title, and his mother Tanetheretib was a Chantress of Amun as well as Mistress of the House.
This vignette is on his chest, and shows the man himself being presented to Osiris (seated) by Thoth. Behind Osiris is Isis, and to the right is another goddess (she might be Sopdet but I’m not sure as I can’t find the hieroglyphs for her name in the text).
It’s rather nicely drawn – I particularly like the detail on Kharushere’s fine transparent linen clothing. It’s a shame tho that the person who has painted the blue colour seems to’ve gone for quantity over quality, and so has gone outside the lines in all the hieroglyphs!
It was found at Sheikh Abd el-Qurna by Maspero, and is now in the Met Museum, acc. no.: 86.1.33.
Last time I talked about the deity Ptah I talked about the way he looks, and where and when we find him. The sort of things you’d find in a “Spotter’s Guide to Egyptian Deities”. But today I’m going to talk about what the point of Ptah was, his main role in the ancient Egyptian system of thought. Ptah was a maker of things – both in terms of crafts and in terms of the whole world.
Throughout most of Pharaonic Egyptian history, from at least the Old Kingdom, Ptah was seen as both the patron deity of craftsmen and as a universal creator deity. Ptah’s original role was as the patron deity of crafts and craftsmen. He was associated with the mineral aspects of the world – the stone, the metal ores – and was seen as a metalworker. He was thus the patron of those who created metal objects, as well as those who created using metal objects. And this role became expanded to covering all the crafts, which he was said to have created. The places associated with Ptah (in particular Memphis from very early on and Deir el-Medina in the New Kingdom) were centres of crafts and production for the royal court and funerary complexes. The titles of his High Priest reflect this – one of these titles was wer kherep hemw which means “Supreme Leader of Craftsmen” (or “Greatest of Those who Supervise the Craftsmen”).
This initial association with crafts then expanded into a more general role in creation. The imagery used to describe Ptah’s creative powers is full of references to his origins as a craftsman. For instance he’s described as the craftsman who crafts kings – he moulds the body of the deceased and newly divine Ramesses II from electrum, copper and iron, a reference to his particular association with metalworkers. He’s described as crafting bodies for the gods to inhabit – in the same way as human craftsmen would make the cult statues for the temples. As an aside, this also leads to him being credited with “inventing” one of the key funerary rituals, the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. These bodies of the gods (statues) need to have their mouths ritually opened (with an instrument reminiscent of a craftsman’s chisel) before the ka of the god can enter and live in the statue. This ritual is then recapitulated on the mummy or coffin of the deceased as part of the funerary rites, opening the mouth so the deceased will live in the afterlife. But back to the main point – even the way in which he creates the universe uses this same language of crafts: he is referred to as the sculptor of the world, or as having smelted the world.
And this genesis as a craftsman fundamentally shapes the sort of creator deity that Ptah is. Creation narratives come in multiple flavours – the world might be created by the substance of the deity becoming the the world, or perhaps that deity makes it like you’d make a pot, or procreation is involved i.e. the world is birthed by the deities. The better known Egyptian creation myth (the Heliopolitan one, where Atum “gives birth” to Shu and Tefnut to start the whole thing off) is a procreative myth, in contrast to the Christian myth where God brings the world into being by commanding it (which is a making myth – he’s not quite a potter, but the potter works on his orders!). But the Heliopolitan creation myth is not the only Ancient Egyptian creation myth. There are broadly speaking three different creation narratives with three different focuses – once upon a time Egyptologists would think of these as competing traditions, but that’s now a rather outdated view (tho our names for the myths still reflect that idea). The Hermopolitan myth is interested in how the universe went from non-being to being and what there was before there was anything. The Heliopolitan myth is interested in how, given we have a universe in existence, it formed into the world around us complete with all its parts including human society. And the Memphite Theology (which tells us about Ptah’s creative power) is interested in the mechanics of creation itself.
Although all three are told in terms of narratives (this god, that god, doing those things, sometimes to each other) under the hood they’re actually really rather abstract, the various deities are personifications of forces and aspects of the world (like Shu is the air etc). And that is definitely the case for Ptah in the Memphite Theology – he is the personification of the transformation of an idea or concept into a real physical object, he is the creator as a craftsman. And like the Christian God (tho in actuality the linkage will be the other way round) he is creator as commander – Ptah thinks, and speaks, and it is so. In the Memphite Theology he is said to create the world via the thoughts he forms in his heart and the words he forms on his tongue. This is a part of Egyptian ideas about the power of language, particularly the written word – words can shape reality. Ptah is also said to have created the hieroglyphs as he created the objects – the thing and its written form in one moment of creation – and the hieroglyphic script was called “the god’s speech” in Ancient Egyptian.
In the Memphite Theology Ptah was positioned as the ultimate source of creation. But this was not the only tradition involving Ptah as this craftsman creator of the universe. During the New Kingdom there was an effort to merge the various Egyptian conceptions of creation into one coherent whole with Amun as the primary creator. As part of this the deity Ptah was no longer seen as a creator in his own right instead he was seen to be the means by which Amun created the universe. Amun “spoke in silence” to kick off the creative process, but this speech operated via Ptah. Garry Shaw (in his book on Egyptian Myths) uses the metaphor of commissioning a sculpture (or other piece of craft), which I rather like. Amun is the commissioner – without him there would be no creation, but he does not make it himself nor is he the material from which the sculpture takes shape. Ptah is the craftsman, who moulds the raw material but does so only by the request of the commissioner. And finally Atum and/or Tatenen are the raw material from which the creation is actually made – by themselves they cannot transform into the sculpture but it takes shape from their substance.
But the Ancient Egyptians rarely seem to’ve had only one explanation or understanding of any given phenomena (over time, or even simultaneously). And so it’s possible to overstate the idea that Ptah’s creative abilities operate via a crafting model – the ways that he is merged into broader Egyptian ideas about creation often have some flavour of procreation to them, particularly when he is being positioned as the ultimate creator. For instance one of his epithets translates as the “father of the gods, from whom all life emerged”. And in the Memphite Theology as Ptah-Nun he is referred to as the “father who begot Atum” and as Ptah-Naunet the “mother who bore Atum” – positioning him as the father & mother of the sun and creation itself. Ptah is also sometimes shown in art creating an egg on a potter’s wheel, and in a very late myth (dating to the Graeco-Roman period) he’s said to have fertilised this egg he created with his seed and thus created the Hermopolitan Ogdoad (whom he then goes on to bring together into Amun).
Procreation needs both male and female, and the Egyptians square this circle for the Hermopolitan Ogdoad by having female counterparts for each of the male deities/forces (e.g. the waters are Nun and Naunet). But for Ptah they chose another solution – he combines both male and female within himself. This concept is seen in references to Ptah in multiple periods of Egyptian history, both early and late. In this context he was referred to as “the Ancient One” and this is how he is associated with both Nun and Naunet – he is also seen as self-creating (by begetting himself).
And this multiplicity of understandings doesn’t stop there – Ptah isn’t “just” the craftsman creator, he has other roles and other associations. In the last of these articles on Ptah I’ll be looking at these other aspects.
Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge Univ. Press. Assmann, Jan. 2003. The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs. Translated by Andrew Jenkins. Harvard Univ. Press. ———. 2014. Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Translated by David Lorton. Abridged and updated by the author, repr. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press. Boonstra, Stephanie. 2020. ‘A Memphite Amulet Workshop in Leicester’. Presented at the EES Virtual Study Day ‘Collections from Home: Museum Favourites’, June 13. David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books. Fletcher, Joann. 2016. The Story of Egypt. Hodder. Gahlin, Lucia. 2010. ‘Creation Myths’. In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge Griffin, Kenneth. 2021. ‘Introduction and the Great Triads’. Presented at the Egypt Centre Swansea Short Course on ‘Gods, Goddesses, and Demons of Ancient Egypt’, July 18. Hart, George. 1990. Egyptian Myths. The Legendary Past. British Museum Press. ———. 2005. The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. 2nd ed. Routledge Dictionaries. Routledge. Hornung, Erik. 1982. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Cornell University Press. Kemp, Barry J. 2006. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. Routledge. Martin, Geoffrey Thorndike. 1993. Hidden Tombs of Memphis: New Discoveries from the Time of Tutankhamun and Ramesses the Great. New aspects of antiquity. Thames and Hudson. Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow. Shaw, Garry J. 2014. The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends. Thames & Hudson. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum. Teeter, Emily. 2010. ‘Temple Cults’. In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge. The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. 2007. British Museum. Tyldesley, Joyce. 2010. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson. ———. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. ———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson. Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2001. Early Dynastic Egypt. Routledge. ———. 2010. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Bloomsbury.
This is a large stela from the end of Pharaonic Egypt (dating to the reign of Nectanebo II, sometime around 350 BCE). It was regarded as having magical powers, and was set up by a priest called Esatum specifically so that people could make use of its power to heal themselves.
The Ancient Egyptians of this time regarded written texts as having special properties, which could be activated by pouring water over them. The water would become imbued with the magic of the texts, and could then be drunk as medicine.
Objects like this are called Horus cippi, and most of the others I’ve seen have been small portable objects. This one is a giant in comparison, standing about 85cm (33inches) tall. The texts that cover it are 13 spells to cure or protect against poisonous bites and wounds.
The central niche has Horus standing on crocodiles and clutching snakes, scorpions, an antelope and a lion in his hands – demonstrating his power over these creatures. He’s flanked by Isis and Thoth who protect him in the texts, as well as the sun god Re-Horakhty.
It’s now in the Met Museum (acc. no.: 50.85), and was probably originally in the Temple of the Mnevis Bulls at Heliopolis.
This fine fellow (nose-less though he is) is not the jackal god you’re almost certainly thinking of. Instead of Anubis, this is Wepwawet. Here he is present in his role as a patron deity of Asyut where this statue was made.
The cartouches next to his head are those of Ramesses II and I think they are probably part of the title of the man who commissioned the statue rather than naming the king himself. The statue owner was called Siese, and he was the “Overseer of the Two Granaries of Ramesses II”.
The museum refers to it as having a “rather provincial style” and perhaps the whole piece looks a little chunky in its proportions (see the photo one to the left on my site). But personally I think it’s quite fine and I like the details like the wig curving round his jackal ears.
This is an example of some ancient royal recycling! It was dug up at Lisht North, in the pyramid complex of Amenemhat I (of Dynasty 12), but was originally created for the pyramid complex of Khufu (of Dynasty 4) at Giza (i.e. to go with the Great Pyramid).
This happened a lot throughout Ancient Egyptian history and beyond – why go to the trouble of quarrying new blocks of stone and carefully shaping them when you could just nick some from a monument of a long dead king and flip them round to carve on what had been the back side.
The female figure on this is the personification of an estate which was endowed by Khufu to supply offerings to his funerary cult in perpetuity – the text and cartouche above her head give the name of this estate: Perfect is Khufu. Khufu was not modest! 😉