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.
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