I talked a little while ago about the length of Egyptian civilisation and its continuity using Khaemwaset’s reconstruction work on Unas’s pyramid as my example, and today my photo is of another example of the deep, deep roots of Pharaonic Egyptian culture.
The implement in the photo is a pesesh-kef, a knife which was used in one of the key funerary rituals throughout ancient Egyptian culture – the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. This was performed on the mummy and it rendered the deceased able to breathe and eat in the afterlife.
It was a ceremony that was also performed on statues, rendering them able to be vessels for the deceased’s ka. This was a key part of what we might think of the soul of a person, and it was this part of your person that received food offerings left at the tomb after your death.
And this example of a pesesh-kef dates to waaaay before the time of Pharaonic Egypt: it was excavated at a place called el-Ma’mariya and it dates to the Naqada I period around 3800-3500 BCE, so something like five to eight centuries before Narmer unified Egypt.
Of course we can’t be at all sure that it was used for the same purposes, but it does demonstrate that the rituals grow out of deep roots in the local Egyptian culture and that even before the concept of Egypt as a country existed elements of that later culture were developing.
When an Egyptian deity was taken on procession its statue was placed in a shrine on a small boat (called a barque) which was carried by the priests. As well as the main deity there was also an entourage, including a sphinx like this one mounted on a pole at the prow.
The Ancient Egyptians called it a “sib”, and it stands poised and alert ready to defend the deity in the shrine – it was described as “trampling the sun god’s enemies”. Accompanying it on its stand are two snakes with raised heads, also protective symbols.
Even though the description references the sun god, I think these sibs appeared on barques carrying other deities – rather than being literal it’s intended to reference the night and day voyages of the sun god in his boat, as are detailed in the Egyptian funerary texts.
It’s not known where it was found, but it dates to the 26th Dynasty (c.600 BCE) and is now in the Met Museum (acc. no.: 2011.96)
This is a close up of the front of the coffin of a woman called Ankhshepenwepet who lived during the second half of the 25th Dynasty, around 2500 years ago. She was buried in the temple grounds of Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el Bahri, and her tomb was robbed in antiquity.
Around the middle you can see the deceased being led from the far right of the photo towards several divine beings. Thoth leads Ankhshepenwepet away from the weighing of the heart, which you can just see around the right hand side of the coffin as you look at it.
The queue of beings is headed by Osiris with Isis behind him, but I think most of them are the judges from the Hall of the Two Maats. These are the divine beings to whom the negative confessions are addressed as the deceased demonstrates they are worthy to enter the afterlife.
The coffin is now in the Met Museum, acc. no.: 25.3.202.
This rather fine piece is a little over 40cm tall, and represents an ancestor or some sort of revered person. I don’t think the provenance of this piece is entirely known, but other examples have been found in houses or tombs mostly at Deir el Medina dating to the 19th Dynasty.
I don’t think it’s clear what their function was, but one place I looked when looking them up had a drawing of a stela which shows a woman making offerings to a bust like this – so clearly the focus of some sort of ritual.
This example is unusually large and well made, and given how much paint remains it must’ve been particularly vivid and eye catching when it was new. The face has a serene expression that I find compelling, and I like the details like the earrings and the elaborate broad collar.
This coffin belonged to the Noble Lady Shep, and dates to around the 25th or 26th Dynasty (around 2500 years ago). It’s quite a different style to the earlier 21st Dynasty coffins – where they are bright, yellow and busy this one is almost minimalist by comparison!
The scene on the left of her chest (right of the photo) has the Devourer eagerly waiting in front of Osiris. But the scene on the left of the photo shows that she was disappointed – the Noble Lady Shep has passed the Judgement and is escorted by Thoth and Maat to Osiris.
Below these two scenes are, I think, two of the Sons of Horus protecting the deceased. There’s 4 registers of pairs of figures and at the bottom on her feet are two jackals sitting on shrines. Above you can see the bottom of her broad collar necklace and the ends of her wig.
This is an apotropaic rod – it was used to ward off harmful spirits. It comes in four segments, which might be related to the “birthing bricks” used to protect women during childbirth. And it’s covered in protective motifs, particularly protective animals.
This is a Middle Kingdom object but the animals on the top remind me a lot of some Early Dynastic objects that are also in the Met. I don’t know if they had the same meaning or not – the earlier frog & crocodile were donated to temples, these are magic in a domestic setting.
It’s not known where this rod was found, but it’s now in the Met Museum (acc. no.: 26.7.1275).
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!
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.
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. David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books. 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. ———. 2005. The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. 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. 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. 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.
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!
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).
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