Although poorly attested in early Egyptian writing, Ptah was worshipped in Memphis since late prehistory. In addition to being one of the more central creator gods, he was also the patron of craftsmen and protector of Memphis. Throughout Egypt’s long history, he absorbed the qualities of other gods and remained an important deity into the early Christian era. What follows are 9 amazing facts about this fascinating ancient Egyptian god.
1. Ptah And The Source Of The Name ‘Egypt’
The Ancient Egyptians used the word k-m-t or kemet to refer to their own land, but outsiders had other names. The Canaanites, Hebrews, and Arabs, for example, used variants of Misr or Mitsraim. The English word “Egypt” comes from the Greek Aἴγυπτoς (Aigyptos), which is believed to derive from the Middle Egyptian ḥwt-ka-ptah, meaning “House of the Soul of Ptah.” The same name was rendered hi-ku-ptah in Late Egyptian and is also the source for the name “Copt.” The three hieroglyphs straight across from Ptah’s face above which resemble a mat, a semi-circle, and a twisted wick read p-t-h (the Egyptian spelling of Ptah) from right to left.
However, this referred not to Egypt but a temple dedicated to Ptah at Memphis, or to the city itself. The fact that the Greeks chose to use this name to refer to all of Egypt shows that Ptah and Memphis were extremely important even at this late stage. This is remarkable, because his worship extends back to the predynastic period, taking a leading role during the Old Kingdom when Memphis was the capital of Egypt.
2. Unsung Hero And Protector Of Memphis
Although Memphis was the administrative capital for most of Egypt’s early history, few inscriptions have been found in the city from this period. As a result, Ptah is seldom mentioned in writing until much later. The vast majority of early texts stem from Heliopolis, where Ra and the closely associated Atum were worshipped. Nevertheless, the people of Memphis and the surrounding area had the utmost regard for the ancient god.
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The temple bearing his name, mentioned above, was one of the most distinguished features of the city. From the time of its founding c. 3100 BC until 2240 BC, it was likely the largest settlement in the world, home to upwards of 30,000. Memphite theology focused on the triad of Ptah, his wife Sekhmet, and their son Nefertem. Ptah was considered patron and protector of the city.
3. Egyptian God Of Many Names
Fitting for such an important god worshipped over thousands of years, Ptah possessed numerous epithets, titles, and names that described his roles and characteristics. So high were the praises of this ancient Egyptian god that 19th-century historians were tempted to liken him to the Christian God. A closer look at his many epithets reveals a more intriguing picture.
Ptah is variously described as “the creator in heaven and earth, who has made all things, the lord of all that is and is not,” “…the father of the sun-god,” “lord of truth,” “father of the fathers of the gods,” “the king of both worlds,” “the god of light which shows everything in its true form,” “the ruler of the sky,” “the beautiful face,” “master of justice,” “master of ceremonies,” “lord of eternity,” “he who listens to prayers,” “great with love,” and others listed in the next section. The seal ring in the image above reads, “Ptah, (the one with) durable favors” from right to left.
4. Self-Existent Creator Of All Things
Unlike most Egyptian creator gods, Ptah himself is uncreated, having existed before anyone or anything. He willed the world into existence with the power of his mind, like a great conjuror of celestial proportions. Not satisfied there, he uses his speech (literally “word”) to give life to his creation. In Memphite texts, the present tense is used, indicating the ongoing act of sustaining life.
So firm is the association of Ptah with the role of creator that a pillar in Memphis bears an inscription describing him as: “the only unbegotten begetter in the heaven and on the earth…the god who made himself to be god, who exists by himself, the double being, the begetter of the first beginning.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that!
Outside of his home city of Memphis, creation was attributed to other gods. Yet Ptah was seen as the ultimate source of the world – and the gods – in Heliopolis. Here Atum, after being thought into being by Ptah, used other components left by his creator to fashion the world and everything in it. Thus, much of Lower Egypt recognized Ptah as the great origin of all things.
5. And A Crafty Creator At That
Extending from his creative powers, the god Ptah was seen as a patron of all forms of craftsmen, including carpenters, shipbuilders, potters, metalworkers, and the impressive Egyptian sculptors. The head of Ptah in the image above, dating to roughly the 8th century BC, is barely over half an inch tall, beard included. It is certainly not lacking in detail, however!
The ancient Egyptians were highly skilled in art and architecture and were masters of stone-working. Projects big or small were conducted with great care and were believed to be under the guidance of the great god Ptah. The Giza Plateau, which houses the great pyramids, is located just outside the ancient city of Memphis and well within the influence of Ptah. Additionally, the earlier step pyramid of Djoser was constructed under direction from the famed architect Imhotep, who is said to have been the son of the ancient god.
6. A Style All His Own
Not only was this ancient Egyptian god depicted as a mummified man with green skin, but he also was the only god to be consistently portrayed with a straight beard, as opposed to a curved one. His unnatural skin tone was typically associated with growth and rebirth among the Egyptian pantheon, due to the color of vegetation. In his role as the sustainer of life on Earth, Ptah was also the god of rebirth.
Like those of other gods and pharaohs, Ptah’s beard was a false one. It was unique among the Egyptian gods, however, in being straight instead of curved. Egyptian pharaohs wore straight beards while alive to signify the power of Osiris. They donned beards that curved at the bottom after death. Thus, Ptah’s beard probably indicates his association with sustaining life.
7. Symbols Of Stability, Power And Life
Many Egyptian gods have one or more tools or sacred items associated with them, and Ptah is no exception. Apart from his beard and green skin, there are three symbols that almost always accompany depictions of this deity. They are the djed, was, and ankh, and often appear combined into a single staff.
The djed is a column or pillar, typically colored in bright hues. The symbol is believed to have been inspired by the sacrum of a bull or other animal. It represented stability and durability. The was, seen jutting out of the center of the djed above, was a scepter with the head and tail of an animal god, probably Set. It symbolized power and authority. Two ankhs are seen in the hands of Ptah above, although sometimes one encircled the head of the was. These were symbols of life. Taken together, the triad showed the creative and sustaining powers of Ptahand was later used with Osiris or other gods by the New Kingdom.
8. Sacrifice Of The Sacred Bull
The bull sacrum signified by the djed was not the only relation Ptah had to these creatures. In his home city of Memphis, a sacred bull known as Apis was worshipped since the First Dynasty. The purported son of cow goddess Hathor, the bull was also seen as a herald of Ptah (followed by Osiris and Atum in later history).
The Memphites sought a calf with special features in its patterning indicative of its godly status. These included a triangle on the forehead, a scarab marking under the tongue, the wing of a vulture on its back, and a crescent moon on the right flank. When mature or in times of need, the bull was sacrificed, mummified, and “reborn” (replaced). Apis was also a symbol of the powers and qualities of the kings who ruled from Memphis, who weren’t called pharaohs until the New Kingdom (c. 1570-1069 BC).
9. Syncretism Of Ptah And Other Relations
If you’re wondering why the image above doesn’t look like the other images of Ptah, that’s because it represents a fusing of three different gods in one. The entity it portrays is known as Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, a syncretic funerary deity. Two ostrich feathers, representing maat (the ancient Egyptian concept of order and truth), appear above his head, along with two horns and a sun disk. This triad was popular from the Late Period (c. 712-323 BC) onward, combining Memphis’ creator god Ptah, falcon-like Seker of the Memphite Necropolis, and Osiris, Egyptian god of the dead.
Previously mentioned associations include the creator of all the gods (including other creator gods like Atum), Apis as an intermediary, consort of Sekhmet (a lion-headed warrior goddess of healing who later absorbed aspects of Bast), and father of Nefertem (the first light of creation and the smell of the blue lotus) and Imhotep (architect of the Pyramid of Djoser). He also took on the roles of Bes (consort of Bast), Tatenen (deity of the primordial mound of earth), and even some aspects of the sun gods Ra and Aten during the Amarna period. From Osiris to Ra and Atum, there seemed no god too prominent to escape the spreading influence of Ptah!