Who was Ptah? - Definition, Temple & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The ancient Egyptian religion had a full pantheon of deities, but few were as influential as Ptah. In this lesson, we'll explore Ptah's role in ancient Egypt and learn how to identify him in Egyptian art.

Ptah

Where did the country of Egypt get its name? Like many of the names that we use in English, ''Egypt'' is based on the ancient Greek spelling of a non-Greek word. In this case, that word was Ha-ka-ptah. What's that mean? It was the name of both a temple and the Egyptian kingdom itself, roughly translating to temple or house of the soul of Ptah.

In Egyptian mythology, Ptah was one of the oldest and most influential of deities. In fact, all of Egypt was his temple because, well, he created everything. Ptah was a god of creation in both spiritual and literal senses because he built the Universe, but was also the patron of craftsmen, builders, and sculptors and alleged inventor of masonry. Any question as to why this deity was so important to one of the world's first architecture-obsessed societies?

Pendant of Tutankhamen between Ptah (right) and Sekhmet (left)
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Role of Ptah in Egypt

To fully understand how Ptah became so important to Egypt, we have to go way back, even beyond Egypt's First Dynasty around roughly 3100 BCE. This is where Ptah first appears in surviving, written records, not as a god of all Egypt but as a local deity and protector of Memphis. Memphis was the largest and most important city of the kingdom of Lower Egypt. When Upper and Lower Egypt were unified, Memphis was the most consistent capital city of the unified kingdom. As such, icons of Memphis grew in importance and Ptah grew to become revered across all of Egypt. He was considered part of the Memphis Triad, the three highly revered deities of the capital that included his wife Sekhmet and son Nefertem.

The Memphis Triad of (from left to right), Nefertem, Sekhmet, and Ptah
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So, what was Ptah's role in the Egyptian religion? Basically, he was the creator. Of what? Everything. In most versions of Egypt's creation myths, Ptah essentially created himself out of the void and then created the physical Universe to live in. He is attributed with creating many of the other original gods, the heavens and the Earth. The animals and humans of Earth were created on the potters wheel of Khnum, but since Ptah likely create Khnum we can thank him for that as well.

Considering the intense correlation between Ptah and the act of creation, it's really not surprising to see him associated with various craftspeople. Egypt had a complex material culture which included jewelry, painting, textiles, furniture and monumental architecture, all of which were semi-sacred when done right. Human creations were reflection of divine creation, and Ptah was therefore the patron deity of architects, painters, builders, carpenters, and perhaps most importantly, sculptors. In fact, the very name Ptah may have been a derivation of an ancient Egyptian word for sculptor, because he sculpted the entire physical world into creation.

Depictions of Ptah

So, how do you expect the god of creation, sculpture, building, and Egypt's most important capital city to be depicted? Well, this is Egypt, so naturally he's shown as a dead guy. Ptah is nearly always depicted as a mummy, shrouded in death wrappings, wearing a skullcap and a false beard. Why? Well, in the convoluted Egyptian cycles of existence and logic, something associated with death was also a symbol of life. In fact, Ptah was often believed to directly preside over an important ceremony called the Opening of the Mouth, a funerary ritual to ensure that the deceased person would be able to eat and drink in the afterlife. In this sense, not only did Ptah create existence, but he also made it possible for people to survive in the afterlife.

The staff of Ptah contained parts of both the ankh and the djed
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Apart from his mummified body, Ptah is also identifiable by the staff he carries. It bears a unique symbol that combines the cross-and-circle ankh (symbol of life) with the djed, a column of horizontal lines representing stability. It's always important to remember that the Egyptian cosmology was centered around maintaining order and balance against the forces of chaos, so Ptah's identification with life and stability is significant. He created existence, and he helps maintain its balance.

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