The preeminent God of the city of Memphis, one of the earliest administrative centers of the unified Egyptian nation, Ptah apparently lent his name to the nation itself, at least in the Greek tongue. The Egyptians called their nation Kemi, or something approximating to this, but the Greek name which we have inherited to refer to this land, Aiguptos, appears to be a Greek transliteration of an Egyptian name for the city of Memphis, He[t]-ka-Ptah, ‘House of the spirit of Ptah’. Due to its position at the junction of Upper and Lower Egypt, Memphis is described as “the Balance of the Two Lands, in which Upper and Lower Egypt had been weighed” in the conflict between Horus and Seth, representing Lower and Upper Egypt respectively (Lichtheim vol. 1, 53). Ptah, a God of life, intelligence, speech (especially the word of command) and craftsmanship, is depicted as a standing mummiform man, wearing a skullcap and a broad collar with a large tassel at the back and holding a sceptre combining the ankh, djed, and was (uas) symbols. Ptah is mummiform, not because he has funerary associations, but to symbolize his participation in the state of changeless perfection with which mummification is associated. Ptah’s consort is Sekhmet and Nefertum is his son. The Apis bull was regarded as Ptah’s mortal representative and the deified vizier Imhotep came to be regarded as Ptah’s son as well. In addition, some late depictions of Ptah in magical contexts depict him as a beardless dwarf—fully humanoid, unlike Bes—in most cases holding snakes in his hands; in one instance, this image is labelled “Ptah endowed with life,” (Holmberg, 182). This image is apparently also commonly intended to depict the triune fusion deity Ptah-Sokar–Osiris. Ptah is also so frequently allied with Tatenen in the fusion deity Ptah-Tatenen that in many cases ‘Tatenen’ seems simply to have become an epithet of Ptah’s, but it is always safer to assume, given Egyptian conservatism with respect to theological formulae, that references to ‘Tatenen’ in texts embed a reference to Tatenen himself.
Until Ptah came to be allied with other deities associated with the afterlife such as Sokar, his role in the literature of the afterlife was slight. Only oblique references are made to Ptah in the Pyramid Texts, from which it appears, however, that Nefertum was already regarded as his son; PT utterance 573 urges Re to commend the deceased king to “him who is greatly noble, the beloved of Ptah, the son of Ptah, that he may speak on my behalf.” Ptah is best known for his role in the famous ‘Memphite Theology’, an Old Kingdom text existing in a 25th Dynasty copy. In this text (trans. in Lichtheim vol. 1, 51-57) Ptah is said to be the “heart and tongue of the Ennead,” the nine who conventionally represent all the Gods. In the Memphite Theology, the other Gods come into being through the thought and speech of Ptah, indeed as the thought and speech of Ptah. On the one hand, Ptah is thus given precedence even over the primordial God Atum; among “the Gods who came into being in Ptah” are “Ptah-Nun, the father who made Atum” and “Ptah-Naunet, the mother who bore Atum.” This sort of precedence, however, which is accorded to many if not all Egyptian deities when they are the focus of contemplation, at the same time does not displace the inalienable attribute of all Gods in Egyptian theology, namely the power of self-creation. Hence in the ‘Memphite Theology’ itself, the ‘tongue’ (i.e., creative utterance) of Ptah is that through which “Horus had taken shape as Ptah, in which Thoth had taken shape as Ptah” (ibid., 54). That is, to the degree that Ptah’s creative utterance is prior to all the other Gods, it also renders Ptah’s identity relative, for it becomes the instrument by means of which Gods such as Horus and Thoth create themselves. The purpose of the ‘Memphite Theology’ therefore is not solely the glorification of Ptah, but rather the glorification of the all-pervading power of mind itself, through identification with which Ptah is perceived as supreme: “Thus heart and tongue rule over all the limbs in accordance with the teaching that it is in every body and it is in every mouth of all Gods, all men, all cattle, all creeping things, whatever lives, thinking whatever it wishes and commanding whatever it wishes,” (54).
CT spell 647 is called “Protection through Ptah.” In this spell Ptah speaks in the first-person, attributing his name to an exclamation by Atum: “‘O my son, how beautiful is your face’,”—’beautiful of face’ (nefer-her) being a common epithet of Ptah— “‘My likeness [i.e., Atum’s] is created [p-t-h],’ and that is how this my name of Ptah came into being.” Ptah’s functions in this spell seem to center around being the ideal ruler as well as the lord of natural generation. He performs the typical royal act of offering Ma’et as a symbol of promoting harmony in the universe: “I have lifted Ma’et onto the altar of Shu who is in the coffin.” Ptah thus carries forward the cosmogonic work of Shu just as a royal successor ideally carries forward the will of his predecessor. Ptah’s special association in this respect is with living things. He affirms that he makes “the herbage to grow … I make the riparian lands of Upper Egypt green, I the Lord of the deserts who makes green the valleys in which are the Nubians, the Asiatics and the Libyans.” Elsewhere, he states that he is charged with “nourishing the grain of the Field of Offerings and knitting the seed together,” and that he “give[s] life, controlling offerings for the Gods the lords of offerings.” Ptah also identifies himself here with Nehebkau “who grants souls, crownings, ka‘s and beginnings … when I wish, I act, and they live.” He calls himself “the Lord of Life,” and the operator identifying with Ptah states that “Seth is my protection because he knows the nature of what I do,” for as lord of life and vitality Ptah can legitimately invoke the assistance of Seth, who favors the strong. This subtly underscores that Ptah’s sphere of activity does not lie in the afterlife, but in this world; compare in this respect BD spell 82, “For assuming the form of Ptah,” that is, “eating bread, drinking beer, excreting from the anus, and existing alive in Heliopolis.” Ptah here is paradigmatic of the living state. Ptah manifests his characteristic qualities of perception and command, just as in the ‘Memphite Theology’, expressed here through a union with Sia and Hu, respectively embodying these attributes: “I am Hu who is on my mouth and Sia who is in my body.” These qualities permit the extension of Ptah’s power into any domain, and hence Ptah states here that “I have steered the Night-bark and the sailors of the bark are in joy.” In CT spell 1143, Sia (perception) is said to be “in Ptah’s Eye.”
A specific funerary role was seen for Ptah in the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony, which is more typically the role of Anubis. BD spell 23, however, explains the nature of the association when it says “my mouth has been parted by Ptah with this metal chisel of his with which he parted the mouths of the Gods.” Here Ptah’s role as God of intelligent speech combines with his role as artisan, for the “mouths of the Gods” in question belong to the cult statues which Ptah, as patron of craftsmanship, has fashioned. This important function with respect to the Gods’ statues is doubtless one of the factors underlying the attribution to Ptah of power over the entire pantheon, as in the ‘Memphite Theology’; cf. BD spell 15: “Ptah art thou, for thou fashionest thy body.” It should be noted that Ptah’s name is often connected in later texts with an Egyptian verb p-t-h, meaning ‘to open’ or ‘to sculpt/engrave’, although this is not the word for ‘open’ which occurs in the name of the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony. It is doubtful, also, that this verb is the origin of Ptah’s name, insofar as it appears to be a Semitic loan word (Holmberg, 10). Ptah’s craftsmanship is characteristically expressed by the verb n-b-i, meaning to mould or model, and particularly to melt or cast metal. Ptah sometimes appears to be especially associated with metalworking, as in a text from Edfu, in which Horus is urged to “Grasp the harpoon which Ptah, the goodly guide, fashioned for Sekhet [the Goddess of the marshes], which was fashioned in copper for thy mother Isis,” (Holmberg, 46). Ptah as smith or sculptor can be contrasted with Khnum as potter, as in a scene from Denderah which portrays the fashioning of Ihy, the son of Hathor, by Ptah and Khnum together, Khnum turning Ihy on a potter’s wheel while Ptah sculpts his form with a chisel (ibid., 47).
Other common epithets of Ptah are ‘south of his wall’, apparently referring to the position of a shrine of Ptah within his temple at Memphis, and ‘under his moringa tree’, referring to a tree sacred to Ptah which was cultivated for its oil seeds. Ptah is also depicted sometimes as raising up the sky, probably from his association with building (see, e.g., CT spell 626 where Ptah erects the coffin by analogy); this image and its associated ideas have been studied exhaustively in Berlandini 1995.
Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]
Berlandini, Jocelyne. 1995. “Ptah-Demiurge et l’Exaltation du Ciel.” Revue d’Égyptologie 46: 9-41.
Faulkner, R. O. 1969. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [PT]
Faulkner, R. O. 1973-8. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd. [CT]
Holmberg, M. S. 1946. The God Ptah. Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup.
Lichtheim, Miriam. 1975-80. Ancient Egyptian Literature. 3 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press.