Ptah is one of the more important gods of the Egyptian pantheon through the whole of Egyptian history, and his name and image are all over the place in the monuments and texts. Yet somehow he’s not one of the gods that we (amateurs, at least) talk about much – he doesn’t have good stories (like Osiris), he’s not associated with heresy and controversy (like the Aten), he’s just there. He’s attested very early in Egyptian history – he is drawn on a bowl dating to the First Dynasty, probably the reign of Den. Unusually for such an early object this bowl has a secure provenance (tomb 231 at Taharkan, excavated by Petrie) and the drawing of the deity not only has the right iconography for Ptah but is labelled with his name in hieroglyphs. As this appears to be a fully developed depiction of Ptah it seems probable that he was worshipped back into Predynastic times.
There are some suggestions that his ultimate origins may lie in cultures to the west of Egypt, but there is little evidence for this. What there is mostly hinges round the fact that the name “Ptah” does not have any secure etymology within the Egyptian language and was not written with the determinative or emblem of a deity until the New Kingdom. However it may be that it is cognate with words that mean “to sculpt” and was based on a root for those words which had gone extinct by later periods, and I am inclined to agree with those that see this as a more plausible explanation. It relates to his identity as a god of craftsmen (which was probably his first role), and as he is such an early deity it would also make sense that his name reflects ancient forms of the language.
During the course of Pharaonic Egyptian history the iconography of the god Ptah changes very little. He is generally represented as a human man (sometimes with blue skin) wrapped up in a tight-fitting garment or mummy wrappings and standing on a plinth. He wears a skull cap like Old Kingdom craftsmen do (often blue in colour) and has a straight beard (added during the Middle Kingdom as the only significant change in iconography). He often wears a heavy broad collar necklace with a counterpoise at the back, and if he doesn’t then he still has a feature that looks like the counterpoise – a tassel from the neckline of his garment. His hands emerge from his wrappings and hold a sceptre topped with the was, ankh and djed hieroglyphs (meaning “power, life, stability”). I’ve illustrated this article with the fabulous statue of Ptah that was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb which has these features.
You’ll’ve noticed that unlike many of the Egyptian deities the iconography of Ptah has no animal elements, no matter the period of Egyptian history. However there is nonetheless a sacred animal associated with this god – a singular bull, the Apis bull, who was regarded as the ba or physical manifestation of the god.
By the Old Kingdom it is clear that Ptah was regarded as a creator deity as well as the god of craftsmen, however he doesn’t show up very much in the Pyramid Texts – in fact he’s almost an aside. Some of the books I’ve looked at suggest that this is because of rivalry between the priesthood of Ptah in Memphis and the priesthood of Re in Heliopolis (who were heavily involved in the funerary cult of the king). But I think this idea of the priests of the various cults being in opposition to each other is fairly old-fashioned, the Egyptians didn’t actually seem to view their gods like we view football teams! So instead I think it’s more likely to be some combination of Ptah not rising to national prominence till later on, or that he simply wasn’t very much involved in the funerary sphere at this point in time.
In the Middle Kingdom Ptah also shows up in the Coffin Texts as a creator deity – crafting the gods, ripening vegetation, and creating the sun – but he really rises to prominence in the New Kingdom. This can be seen by the proliferation of temples dedicated to him (particularly in Nubia during Ramesses II’s reign) and by his worship alongside the extremely important deities Amun and Re in a triad (thus he must be on a par with them). He retains this importance through the rest of Pharaonic Egyptian history and into the Roman Period. In the Ptolemaic Period and the Roman Period the Greeks & Romans tended to equate the Egyptian gods with their own, to bring the two cultures of ruling elite and local peasantry closer together – so during this time Ptah is first associated with the Greek smith god Hephaestus and later the Roman smith god Vulcan. Perhaps oddly, despite this importance very few amulets depicting him have survived – even from periods where large numbers of amulets survive of other gods. Those that have been found are generally plaques dating to the 26th Dynasty with Ptah flanked by the other members of his triad (Sekhmet and Nefertem), and appear to’ve been used in a living context rather than a funerary one.
Ptah was worshipped in many places across Egypt and into Nubia (when it was under Egyptian control), and many temples had a sanctuary dedicated to him. His primary cult centre was at Memphis, where he had been worshipped since at least the Early Dynastic Period if not before. Several of his epithets – like “Lord of Ankh-Tawy” or “South of His Wall (res-ineb-ef)” – reference Memphis, and his largest temple complex was in that city. In fact the modern English name of the country of Egypt ultimately derives from the name of Ptah’s Memphite temple – hwt-ka-ptah (house of the ka of Ptah) became pronounced as “Αίγυπτος” (Aigyptos) in Greek, and then misapplied to the whole country. Sadly not much is known of the temple (or the whole city of Memphis) because people still live in the region and the archaeology is underneath the modern city. The parts of the temple that remain mostly date to Ramesses II’s reign in the New Kingdom, but there is evidence of earlier structures including re-used blocks in that Ramesside temple. The first temple may’ve been built at the time of the unification of Egypt in the reign of Narmer (but the only evidence of that is a reference in the work of the ancient historian Manetho, who wrote c.3000 years after Narmer’s reign). And at its height the complex may’ve rivalled Karnak Temple in size (although I’m not sure what the actual evidence for this is, if nothing much survives!). In another parallel with Karnak and Amun, there was more than one temple dedicated to Ptah in his city of Memphis – for instance there was another one built next to the palace of Merenptah (Ramesses II’s successor).
And speaking of Karnak, Ptah also had a sanctuary in that temple complex). This dates back to at least the Middle Kingdom, and there is also other evidence of Ptah at Karnak dating to that period. Fragments of stone columns which were originally in the first court of Karnak have been found, showing Senwosret I worshipping gods including Ptah. The sanctuary of Ptah was rebuilt by Thutmose III after it had fallen into disrepair – or so he says, but this is also a common trope in Ancient Egyptian kingly rhetoric. Every king is responsible for maintaining maat in the world, and how better to demonstrate that than to do a bit of work on a temple and then write a grand announcement of how you found it in ruins and restored it to its full glory?
Deir el-Medina was another site where Ptah was particularly venerated – not surprisingly as like Memphis this was a place where craftsmen lived and worked. So the patron deity of craftsmen was also the patron deity of the village. More generally Ptah was particularly important during the New Kingdom, and so many temples were built dedicated at least in part to him in contexts outside those where craftsmen were working. For instance several temples in Nubia were dedicated in part to Ptah – in this context it’s due to his associations with Amun. Many of these temples were built during the reign of Ramesses II – not just the famous one at Abu Simbel but also including temples at Gerf Hussein and el-Derr . As a prominent state deity Ptah also has a presence in temples like that of Seti I at Abydos and Ramesses II’s mortuary temple (the Ramesseum).
So as I said Ptah shows up all over Ancient Egypt across both time and space. In the next article in this short series on Ptah, out in a few weeks, I’ll look more in depth at his role as a craftsman and a creator.
Allen, James P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Blyth, Elizabeth. 2006. Karnak: Evolution of a Temple. Routledge.
Boonstra, Stephanie. 2020. ‘A Memphite Amulet Workshop in Leicester’. Presented at the EES Virtual Study Day ‘Collections from Home: Museum Favourites’, June 13.
Bryan, Betsy M. 2003. ‘The 18th Dynasty Before the Amarna Period’. In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw, Oxford University Press.
David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books.
Fisher, Marjorie M. 2012a. ‘Abu Simbel’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
———. 2012b. ‘Derr’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
———. 2012c. ‘Gerf Hussein’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
———. 2012d. ‘The Art and Architecture of Nubia During the New Kingdom’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
Fletcher, Joann. 2016. The Story of Egypt. Hodder.
Gahlin, Lucia. 2010. ‘Creation Myths’. In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge.
Griffin, Kenneth. 2021a. ‘The East Bank Temples (Karnak and Luxor Temple)’. Presented at the Egypt Centre Swansea Short Course on ‘Thebes: The City of 100 Gates’, March 28.
———. 2021b. ‘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.
Hawass, Zahi. 2012. ‘Saving Nubia’s Legacy’. In Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, edited by Marjorie M. Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Salima Ikram, and Sue D’Auria. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
Hornung, Erik. 1982. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Cornell University Press.
Leblanc, Christian. 2011. ‘The Ramesseum: The Temple of Rameses II’. In Valley of the Kings: The Tombs and the Funerary Temples of Thebes West, edited by Kent R Weeks. White Star Publishers.
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.
Snape, S. R. 2014. The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
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.Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2010. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Bloomsbury.