The possible meaning of Ptah’s name comes from a Hebrew word meaning to open (path) – Ptah opened mouths of gods and kings as well as the dead. He is also a sculptor (Hebrew: pittuah – the thing made). However, these verbs appear much later and scholars are divided regarding the etymology of Ptah.
Ptah was part of the divide triad of gods at Memphis, together with Sekhmet ‘the beloved of Ptah’, (the goddess often identified with Hathor and Isis) and their son Nefertem who was the god of the blue lotus.
As the sovereign god of the capital city of Memphis, Ptah was also the protector of artisans and artists but little is known about him until the 19th Dynasty (c1300) when Seti I and Ramses II both held him in devotion. Indeed, one of the 4 divisions who fought for Ramses II at the Battle of Kadesh was named “Ptah”.
However, the djed pillar popularly associated with Osiris had its roots in the Memphis god of creation for Ptah was termed the ‘Noble djed’. Not only was he a symbol of stability, Ptah was also the symbol of fertility as the sacred Apis bull of Memphis.
With Memphis as the natural centre of a unified Egypt, Ptah was its source, and all other gods were derivatives of him. He was Ptah, the first father of the gods and humankind. The sacred name of Memphis, Het-Ptah-ka means ‘the temple of the ka of Ptah’. It was through the ancient Egyptians’ assimilation process that Ptah is synchronised with the gods of the Otherworld. Sokar which means the deification of the tomb, and Osiris, the god of the dead. It was not until the New Kingdom (c1540 BCE) that the djed pillar became the symbol of Osiris.
The plurality of three is extended and depicted in the major creator gods of Egypt in the New Kingdom – Amun of Thebes, Re of Helipolis and Ptah of Memphis (see Ramses II temple at Abu Simbel where the deified Ramses is seen with the aforementioned gods.) They form part of a single triune god in which Re was the god’s face, Ptah his body and Amun his hidden identity.
However, Margaret Murray says “in the theology of the xxth Dynasty, Ptah is seen as the pure intellect which is the ultimate origin of all creation and Thoth is the Tongue, the Word by whom all creation came into existence.” This is one example identified with the Christian doctrine of God’s creation of the world by his Word.
Here we have an important clue to the source of the belief of ancient Egyptians that the word, whether spoken or written, brought the “thing” into existence. This is the “naming” principle which carried through into Judaism and Christianity. Yet, the converse is seen in the erasing of, particularly, the name of Tutankhamun by Horemheb the 18th dynasty pharaoh. In the erasing of the name, the person ceases to exist.
But Heliopolis, whose family triad was Re, Hathor and Horus claimed their God Atum was the creator of the universe, humankind and the gods. It is Atum who creates Shu and Tefnut after I had played the husband with my fist. Yet it contradicts the Memphite theology which claims Ptah as the creator. But the Memphite theology, rather than rejecting other gods, absorbs them. The claim is made that Atum is derived from Ptah.
Memphis is, therefore, making a political statement in theological language – this is a legitimate claim that their god is best. Similarly the Shabaka Stone (c700 BCE) which is said to be a copy of an ancient papyrus (c2350 BCE) affirms Ptah’s claim as creator of the universe with all its life forms, through his word. All other gods were members of his body it claims, and Atum was the heart and tongue of Ptah.
But all cities have their cosmology, their theology and tradition regarding their own particular gods and often they become blended into the heritage and history of ancient Egypt.
The iconography of Ptah:
- He is normally depicted in mummified form with his head in a close-fitting skull cap
- In his hands he holds the composite sceptre uniting the symbols of life (ankh), stability (djed pillar) and omnipotence (waas sceptre)
- He stands on a plinth which is the hieroglyph for truth (Ma’at)
- He wears a collar with a tassel
- From the Middle Kingdom onwards, Ptah is shown with a square beard
- In the Book of the Dead he has green skin and hands.