As with almost everything about the way Ancient Egyptians saw the world their deities were not one note entities, even though we try and put them in little boxes when we talk about them today. So Ptah is not just the “creator as craftsman” that I discussed in my last article on him. That was his primary role, but he also had other roles and associations with other deities.

One of the epithets of Ptah is mesedjer-sedjem which means “the ear that hears” – this refers to Ptah’s role as a hearer of prayers from the ordinary person. Many votive stelae dedicated to Ptah in this role have been found, in his temple at Memphis or Deir el Medina as well as other places. They generally depict ears to show that he is listening. One example includes a text from a man called Neferabu who has sworn a false oath in the name of Ptah and is now blind, and the text begs Ptah in his role as “the ear that hears” to forgive him. Also in this role Ptah is found depicted inside chapels that we call hearing ear chapels. Egyptian temples were not open to the public in the way that a church or mosque are and the further into an Egyptian temple you go the more restricted access is, until the inner sanctuary where only the Pharaoh or High Priest can go. So these hearing ear chapels were built on the periphery of the temple where more people had access, and they could go there to leave their prayers for the god inside. Quite often Ptah was depicted in these chapels even if he didn’t have a sanctuary inside the temple proper – he was the hearer of prayers and would help sort things out for you!

Stela of Ptah with Ears

As an important deity connected with the state religion Ptah might also be seen as one of the rulers of said state. After the gods made the world (however it was whomever it was did it) the Egyptians thought that various of the gods ruled as kings. Some have stories (like Shu or Osiris), others are just referenced. Ptah is one of the latter – in the Memphite Theology he is referred to as the ruler of a unified Egypt, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, and his name appears first at the head of the Turin King List. But there are no stories. This might just be because none survive – there are surprisingly few mythological narratives that survive from Pharaonic Egypt, most are bits and pieces and fragments that we can see match with a later source (like Plutarch retelling the myth of the death of Osiris). Or maybe he was conceptually king, because he’s a universal creator and an important god in the pantheon, but no-one really thought he was an actual king like the current ruler was king.

And of course as with many Egyptian deities Ptah was worshipped as part of a “family” grouping. The primary triad he is part of is referred to as the Memphite Triad and it was one of the most important ones in Egyptian religion. It consisted of Ptah and his consort Sekhmet, and had Nefertem as their child. The development of the triad didn’t happen all at once – Ptah and Sekhmet were associated and worshipped as a duo before Nefertem was added to make a full triad in the New Kingdom. I put “family” in scare quotes, because the family relationships between Egyptian deities in a triad shouldn’t be treated like a genealogical puzzle – the relationships aren’t necessarily exclusive nor commutative, a god doesn’t necessarily have a consistent pair of parents across all places and all times and nor a consistent consort etc. So Ptah’s “son” Nefertem in the Memphite triad is actually not referred to as his son (tho he is Sekhmet’s son), but in other times and places Imhotep may be referred to as the son of Ptah (with no link to Sekhmet). And the Syrian goddess Astarte is sometimes assimilated into the Egyptian pantheon as Ptah’s daughter (or as Re’s daughter in other contexts).

And not all triads are families anyway. Ptah is also grouped together with Amun and Re, and it seems clear this isn’t intended as a family. This grouping is partly a way of representing “all the important gods”. It’s also part of a strand of Egyptian thought that arises in the New Kingdom that seeks to bring together the various gods and mythologies into a unified scheme which centres the god Amun. So this triad can be seen as three different facets of Amun – Re is his face, Ptah is his body and Amun is his own hidden nature.

There are also other ways that Ptah is associated with other deities. A general rule within the Egyptian thinking about divine beings is that they can overlap, merge or separate at various different points in time (or even different places). Ptah is no exception – whilst he’s venerated as himself on his own from the Early Dynastic Period through to the Roman Period he’s also merged with other deities to form composite deities who can also be quite prominent.

One of these composites is Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, whose statues turn up in non-royal funerary contexts (particularly in the Late Period and afterwards). He represents the whole cycle of life – creation (Ptah), death (Sokar) and rebirth (Osiris). The composite deity is attested from at least the Middle Kingdom, even though the statues aren’t common until the Late Period. He did not spring into existence in a single step – the two Memphite gods Ptah and Sokar merged quite a lot earlier, based on similarities in location, role and associations with minerals. At a later date (but still before the time of the Pyramid Texts) the god Sokar merged with Osiris. By the Middle Kingdom these two composites, Ptah-Sokar and Sokar-Osiris, had merged with each other leading to the worship of the composite called Ptah-Sokar-Osiris.

Ptah and Tatenen became associated as the composite deity Ptah-Tatenen from the reign of Ramesses II. They are linked together in three different ways – firstly both are Memphite deities (and Ptah did subsume several other Memphite deities, like the Apis Bull, over time). The pair can also be seen as the creator and the substance that he creates with – either Ptah as sculptor and Tatenen as the earth he uses, or Ptah as creator and Tatenen as the primeval mound which is the first created land. And lastly Ptah himself is associated with the mineral components of the earth, whilst Tatenen is also an earth god.

The deity Ptah, the deity Pataikos and dwarves are all associated with each other in Ancient Egyptian iconography and thought – the composite deity Ptah-Pataikos is represented as a dwarf in Egyptian art and dwarves are often shown working as craftsmen in Old Kingdom tomb reliefs. Although I can’t disentangle which came first (the association with each other, or with craftsmen) it seems clear that the association of all three with craftsmen is the link that holds them together.

And last, but not least, in his role as a universal creator god Ptah is associated with the waters which existed before creation – personified by the pair of deities Nun and Naunet. As Ptah-Nun he is called the “Father who begot Atum”, and as Ptah-Naunet he is called the “Mother who begot Atum” – inserting him at the very beginning of the Heliopolitan creation myth.

I feel a bit like with this article I’ve come full circle to the beginning of the first in this series on Ptah – he’s everywhere and everywhen, with seemingly a finger in every important pie of Ancient Egyptian religious thought.

Resources used:

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Fisher, Marjorie M. 2012. ‘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.
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. British Museum Press.
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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. 2nd ed. London ; New York: Routledge.Malek, Jaromir. 2003. ‘The Old Kingdom’. In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw Oxford University Press.
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.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. 2007. British Museum.
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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.

2 thoughts on “Ptah: Relationships to People and Deities

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