In Egyptian mythology, Ptah (also spelled Peteh) was the Egyptian god of artisans and craftspeople, and was always most revered for his own creative efforts. In some mythic accounts, he is described as the god who generated the cosmos by manifesting his imagined realities into words: "Through his heart and through his tongue." Given the fertile nexus of associations arising from the notion of a craftsmen god, the worship of Ptah often became conflated with other cults. The venerations of these "cumulative" cults were directed to such composite deities as Ptah-Seker-Osiris (a god of death and rebirth), Ptah-Nun / Ptah-Nanut (a creator god), and Ptah-Tatanen (a god representing the creative power of the primordial mound). (Wilkinson, 124; Budge (1969), Vol. I, 502–504) This final association was often seen as most fundamental to the god's character, as his creative abilities were often thought to represent a "power in the earth." (Frankfort, 20)
In Memphis, Ptah was worshiped in his own right, and was seen as Atum's father, or more specifically, the father of Nefertum, the younger form of Atum. The importance Ptah was given in history can readily be understood by noting the fact that Egypt derives its name from the Classical Greek word Aigyptos, which in turn emerged from the native name of a temple at Memphis (transcribed as Ḥwt-k3-Ptḥ or Hut-ka-Ptah "temple of the soul of Ptah").
Ptah's original name in Ancient Egyptian is reconstructed to have been pronounced as *Pitáḥ based on the occurrence of his name in hieroglyphics, ptḥ, surviving into Coptic as Ptah, just as it is now written in English. The name was also borrowed early on into Greek as Φθα Phtha. The meaning of his name, which can be translated as "the opener," is somewhat ambiguous, though it may be related to the "opening of the mouth" ritual that was often credited to him. (Budge 1895, cviii) However, it should be noted that the only uses of this verb in Egyptian texts place this "opening" in a very particular context, as represented by the verbs "to engrave," "to carve," or "to chisel"—a usage that is also paralleled in Hebrew. (Budge 1969, Vol. I, 500) In this way, the god's name echoes his association with crafting and creation.
As an Egyptian deity, Ptah belonged to a complex religious, mythological, and cosmological belief system developed in the Nile River basin from earliest prehistory to 525 B.C.E. Indeed, it was during this relatively late period in Egyptian cultural development, a time when they first felt their beliefs threatened by foreigners, that many of their myths, legends, and religious beliefs were first recorded. The cults within this framework, whose beliefs comprise the myths we have before us, were generally fairly localized phenomena, with different deities having the place of honor in different communities. Despite this apparently unlimited diversity, however, the gods (unlike those in many other pantheons) were relatively ill-defined. As Frankfort notes, “The Egyptian gods are imperfect as individuals. If we compare two of them…we find, not two personages, but two sets of functions and emblems.… The hymns and prayers addressed to these gods differ only in the epithets and attributes used. There is no hint that the hymns were addressed to individuals differing in character.” (Frankfort, 25–26) One reason for this was the undeniable fact that the Egyptian gods were seen as utterly immanental—they represented (and were continuous with) particular, discrete elements of the natural world. (Zivie-Coche, 40–41; Frankfort, 23, 28–29) Thus, those who did develop characters and mythologies were generally quite portable, as they could retain their discrete forms without interfering with the various cults already in practice elsewhere. Also, this flexibility was what permitted the development of multipartite cults (i.e., the cult of Amun-Re, which unified the domains of Amun and Re), as the spheres of influence of these various deities were often complimentary. (Frankfort, 20–21)
The worldview engendered by ancient Egyptian religion was uniquely appropriate to (and defined by) the geographical and calendrical realities of its believers' lives. Unlike the beliefs of the Hebrews, Mesopotamians, and others within their cultural sphere, the Egyptians viewed both history and cosmology as being well ordered, cyclical, and dependable. As a result, all changes were interpreted as either inconsequential deviations from the cosmic plan or cyclical transformations required by it. The major result of this perspective, in terms of the religious imagination, was to reduce the relevance of the present, as the entirety of history (when conceived of cyclically) was ultimately defined during the creation of the cosmos. The only other aporia in such an understanding is death, which seems to present a radical break with continuity. To maintain the integrity of this worldview, an intricate system of practices and beliefs (including the extensive mythic geographies of the afterlife, texts providing moral guidance [for this life and the next], and rituals designed to facilitate the transportation into the afterlife) was developed, whose primary purpose was to emphasize the unending continuation of existence. (Frankfort, 117–124; Zivie-Coche, 154–166) Given these two cultural foci, it is understandable that the tales recorded within this mythological corpus tended to be either creation accounts or depictions of the world of the dead, with a particular focus on the relationship between the gods and their human constituents.
In this context, Ptah was a god of craftsmen (often associated with the Hellenic Hephaestus and the Roman Vulcan) who was also associated with primordial earth. His most important contribution to the cosmic order, as recorded in the mythic corpus, can be found in a Memphite creation account, where he generates the cosmos through the power of his speech and ideation (see below).
Given his relative ubiquity in the archaeological record, Egyptologists have long realized the importance of Ptah in the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. However, this does not belie the fact that the craftsmen god is relatively ill-defined, mythologically speaking. This paucity of references (and the disjunction between this fact and the archaeological record) implies one of several possibilities: That the god was a relatively later incorporation into the pantheon, that it was caused by "a lack of function in the mortuary sphere," or that it was motivated by a "desire on the part of the Heliopolitan theologians to minimize the position of the Memphite deity" (as those scribes were the source of the vast majority of extant mythological and theological writings). (Wilkinson, 124)
As mentioned above, Ptah was most typically identified as the god of craftspeople, with a particular affiliation to the stone- and clay-based arts. This association, in addition to providing the god with a role in the creation of the cosmos, also gave him entry into the culturally important sphere of death and rebirth. Specifically, Ptah, as craftsman, came to be understood as the creator of the new bodies, which would be inhabited by individuals in the next life. (Pinch, 181) Further, his creative powers were intimately tied to Tatanen (a god representing the creative power of the primordial mound) (Wilkinson, 124; Budge 1969, Vol. I, 502–504), an association that was fundamental to the god's character, as his creative abilities were often thought to represent a "power in the earth." (Frankfort, 20)
Given his association with creation and rebirth, Ptah also came to be included in the Ptah-Seker-Osiris triad, "a mysterious god who united within himself the attributes of Seker [the god of metamorphosis], and those of Ptah the architect and builder of the material world,...and Osiris the giver of everlasting life." (Budge 1969, Vol. I, 508) Thus, this "triple entity" could be "interpreted as representing the whole cycle of regeneration." (Pinch, 182)
Ptah was understood to be the husband of Sekhmet, a lioness goddess associated with the sun. With his consort, he sired Nefertem (the young Atum) and Imhotep (an Egyptian culture hero who was later apotheosized). (Erman, 76–77) Ptah was also seen as the progenitor of the pataikoi, a race of dwarf craftsmen. (Pinch, 181; Wilkinson, 124; Erman, 77)
In the Memphite theology, a text recording the beliefs of Ptah's cult center, the god was celebrated as the one who called the world into being, having dreamed creation in his heart and spoken it into existence.
This discussion of "emergence" in the final stanza refers to the god's relationship with primordial earth. However, describing this passage, Frankfort notes that this theology never reached national prominence, suggesting perhaps the depiction of Ptah "as a transcendent, not an immanent, power," and that this understanding "possessed a degree of abstraction in which the Egyptians were not prepared to acquiesce." (Frankfort, 23–24)
This aid is explicitly described in another section of the text, where Ptah is credited with performing the first "opening of the mouth" ritual, cutting the lips of Osiris open and allowing him to breathe:
This was seen as the prototypical version of a ritual that played an important role in Egyptian embalming procedure.
Finally, in another verse of the Book of the Dead, Osiris is depicted as being a composite (or perhaps the culmination) of all gods. Ptah, likely in his naturalistic correspondence with the earth, is understood to represent the god's feet.
This account is demonstrative of the weak attributions and characterizations common to Egypt's religious and mythical sources (as described by Frankfort).
Ptah was one of the central gods of the Memphite pantheon and was widely venerated for several thousand years. In addition to his temple in Memphis, he was also worshiped in Upper Egypt, Egyptian Nubia, and in urban areas throughout the country—most often in areas inhabited by craftspeople and artisans (of whom he was considered the patron). (Wilkinson, 126; Zivie-Coche, 112–116) In popular practice, "[A]s the god 'who hears prayers' he remained a favorite deity frequently addressed by the common people." (Wilkinson, 126)
Some early sources suggest that Ptah may be credited with the invention of the "opening the mouth" ritual, which was a central element of the mummification process. This practice was essential to the Egyptian embalming procedures, as it was understood to "symbolically animate cult and ka statues and reanimate mummies." (Pinch, 182)
In art, Ptah is portrayed as a bearded, partially mummified man, often wearing a skull cap, holding in his hands a staff which features a symbol combining the ankh, was, and djed (the symbols of life, power, and stability, respectively). While the deity was also associated with the Apis bull and the two were often depicted together, the creature was understood to be a discrete entity. (Wilkinson, 125; Frankfort, 10)
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