Ptah was the chief deity of the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis and the god of craftspeople. Worship of Ptah began to overlap with that of ancient Egyptian gods Sokar and Osiris, and through them Ptah became associated with the afterlife. His most important role, however, is that of a powerful creator god.
In the temple at Abu Simbel, Ptah is the first of four seated gods. He sits with the creator god Amun, the deified Egyptian king Ramses II (ruled c. 1304–1237 BCE), and the sun god Re. On two days each year, one in February and another in October, the sun's rays penetrate to the gods at the back of the sanctuary. Only Ptah remains in shadow, indicating his role as god of the afterlife.
One of Ptah's temples was called Hut-ka-Ptah, or "mansion of the spirit of Ptah." Ancient Greeks adopted this name and used it to refer to the region of Memphis. They later changed the word to Aiguptos, which appears in the epic poem the Odyssey by Homer (c. ninth–eighth century BCE) when it describes the land around the Nile. From this word came the modern name for Egypt.
Ptah is often shown as a standing, tightly shrouded human figure wearing a broad collar or necklace. The tasseled back fastening of the necklace is shown in profile and is unique. He wears a tight-fitting cap that covers his neck and leaves his face and ears exposed. He also wears the traditional beard: this was originally curved but became straight during the Middle Kingdom (c. 1938–1630 BCE). Ptah's arms emerge from his shroud to hold a was scepter symbolizing power, topped with an ankh—a symbol of eternal life—and a djed, a symbol of stability and strength.
Statues of Ptah often stand on a small plinth or a pedestal. Some archaeologists believe that the stand symbolizes the Mound of Creation, the first land that came into existence. Others identify it with a hieroglyphic symbol of Maat, the goddess of truth and of cosmic law and order. Still others see it as a depiction of a measuring rod, a symbol in keeping with Ptah's origins as a god of craftspeople. In wall paintings, Ptah is sometimes depicted standing inside a shrine.
The details of Ptah's image change when he is combined with other gods, first Sokar and then Osiris, both of whom were gods of the dead. In the New Kingdom (c. 1540—c. 1075 BCE), images appear of a hawk-headed Ptah-Sokar. Later, as the composite god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, he stands upright on a plinth and is shrouded. His hands are flat against his body, and they usually hold a crook and a flail (a tool used for threshing maize). His head carries the horns of a ram, topped with two tall feathers and a sun disk. Statues of Ptah were sometimes hollowed out to hold a copy of the Book of the Dead; occasionally the plinth itself had a small hollow space containing a tiny papyrus or a fragment of a mummy.
Ancient Egyptians had three main creation myths, developed respectively by the priesthoods of Hermopolis, Heliopolis, and Memphis. It is unclear to archaeologists to what extent each priesthood influenced the other, or if any of them were influenced by the many local beliefs from villages along the Nile.
The priests of Hermopolis believed there was a group of eight original gods: an Ogdoad. The priests of Heliopolis declared the group was made up of nine gods: an Ennead. According to the Heliopolis priests, the sun god Atum was the first god and the source of the other eight gods. The two priesthoods disagreed about the identities of the gods included in their groups, however.
The Memphis creation myth was built around the temple's local god, Ptah. A detailed account of this creation myth is inscribed on the Shabaka Stone, now in the British Museum in London. The 25th Dynasty pharaoh Shabaka (c. 716–695 BCE) had this stone erected in the temple of Ptah at Memphis. On the stone is a copy of a 19th Dynasty (c. 1292—1190 BCE) inscription that has its origins in the Old Kingdom (c. 2575–c. 2130 BCE). The text states that Ptah first created himself and then thought about everything in the universe and spoke it aloud—as he uttered the words, the world was created. The priests of Memphis declared that Ptah was both male and female: he was the "father who begot Atum" and the "mother who bore Atum." In this creation myth the gods of Heliopolis are the teeth and lips of Ptah, created by him with his heart and tongue.
The world was created by divine words at the command of the gods in various other ancient Egyptian creation myths. Uttering creation in this way influenced later belief systems, notably religious texts such as the Christian Bible, for example. In the Book of Genesis, God announced the creation of the world by speaking aloud "Let there be," much like Ptah is reported to have done in the Memphis creation myth. The ancient Egyptians were among the first people to record their observations of the physical world and to attribute universal creation to a god in an intellectual, metaphysical context.
There were many gods in the ancient Egyptian pantheon, and each village had at least one deity. There was a natural tendency either to merge deities into one individual or to categorize them in distinct groups. Sekhmet and Nefertem, for instance, were originally gods of the Memphis area who over time formed a triad, a group of three divine figures, with the greatest local god, Ptah.
The lioness-headed goddess Sekhmet, the daughter of Re, was considered to be Ptah's consort. She was a ferocious deity who is said to have breathed fire on her enemies. During one campaign of destruction she almost destroyed humankind. However, she was also a god of healing. Near the temple of the mother goddess Mut, at Karnak (a village on the bank of the Nile, close to ancient Egyptian ruins), archaeologists found hundreds of statues of Sekhmet. Sekhmet's ability to induce feelings of fear was felt as late as the 20th century, when local people broke a statue of the goddess at Karnak because they feared for their children's safety.
Nefertem, the third member of the triad, was often regarded as the son of Ptah and Sekhmet. He was the god of the blue lotus, a flower that sprang up from the primeval sea. A remarkable wooden statue from the tomb of Egyptian king Tutankhamen (c. 1370–1352 BCE) depicts the young king's head emerging from a lotus flower, which identifies him with Nefertem. Scholars suggest that the presence of the lotus flower in Nefertem's myth and elsewhere in Egyptian mythology implies that ancient Egyptians believed in rebirth and the afterlife.
In one myth Ptah is said to have been the father of Imhotep, by a woman named Khreduankh. Imhotep was the legendary adviser of the pharaoh Djoser of the Third Dynasty (c. 2650–c. 2575). He was a physician, and the architect who designed the step pyramid at Saqqara (near modern Cairo). His reputation grew over the centuries until he was regarded as a god. Ancient Greeks identified Imhotep with their god of medicine, Asclepius.
Ptah was lord of Ankh-tawy, or Memphis, and was known to ancient Egyptians by many different names. Ptah res-ineb-ef means Ptah who is south of his wall; this refers to the position of his sanctuary just outside the wall of his great temple at Memphis. Ptah khery-bak-ef means Ptah who is under his moringa tree; this kind of tree was associated with an ancient tree god of Memphis, whom people sometimes worshiped with Ptah. As god of craftspeople Ptah was known as wer-kherep-hemu or great leader of craftspeople. He was revered at places like Deir el-Medina, a village near the Valley of the Kings where the tomb builders lived. Ancient Greeks equated him with Hephaestus, their blacksmith god.
Ptah was also referred to as "sculptor of the earth." This made him an active creator god, like Khmun, who fashioned all life on his potter's wheel. In depictions of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony (a ritual that attempted to allow the dead to breathe, an important concern for ancient Egyptians) in the Book of the Dead, a sem (a specialized priest who conducted the mummifying process, among other important religious ceremonies) is shown placing a ritual metal chisel against the mouth of the deceased. The priest represented Ptah in his role as creator and life-giver.
Ancient Egyptians also knew Ptah as "the ancient one." Scholars believe this alludes to his role in the Memphis creation myth, in which he came into being before all other gods. According to this myth, first there was Nun, the primeval waters of chaos from which all life sprang. Ptah embodied both the male and the female aspects of Nun. As Nun was "father of the gods," Ptah was both father and mother. As the creator god, Ptah also absorbed aspects of Tatenen, the ancient god of the earth at Memphis, and he was sometimes worshiped as Ptah-Tatenen. Ptah was also known as neb-maat (lord of truth) and nefer-her (beautiful, or merciful of face). In this guise his face and hands were the only parts of his body that showed; some ancient Egyptians considered his skin to be like gold.
Finally, Ptah was mesedjer-sedjem (the ear that hears). Ancient Egyptians who wanted help from a god would leave a small stela, a stone or clay tablet with their prayer inscribed on it, at the local temple. These stelae often had ears carved into them to enable communication with the god. Archaeologists have found many such stelae with inscriptions imploring Ptah in his temple at Memphis and all over Egypt. One of the most famous of these stelae carries the plea of Neferabu, a worker from Deir el-Medina, a village near Luxor. He had become blind after swearing a false oath in the name of Ptah. Neferabu confesses his betrayal of Ptah as the lord of truth and begs for mercy from the god.
See also: ASCLEPIUS; CREATION MYTHS; EGYPT; HEPHAESTUS; OSIRIS; RE.
- The Oxford Essential Guide to Egyptian Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. .
- The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003. .
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