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The Memphite Theology

Ptah, Sekhmet, and Nefertum
illustration from Amazon com Egyptian Mysteries; p.10 (Thames & Hudson, Art and Imagination Series)

The Memphis theology is based around Ptah (equivalent to the Greek Hephaistos, the divine blacksmith), (shown above on the left), who himself becomes the primordial fire and gives it substance.  This cosmological system was developed at Memphis, when it became the capital city of the kings of Egypt.  Ptah is the creator-god of Memphis, and during the long period the city served as the capital of Egypt it was known as Het-ka-Ptah or "House of the Soul of Ptah". Ptah is one of several Egyptian deities attributed with a myth about fashioning creation. Ptah, as the god Ta-tenen (the primordial mound), creates in the so-called "Memphite Theology" the world, its inhabitants, and the kas of the other gods.  Reference is again made to the Ennead, this time with Ptah at its head.

The whole Memphite theology is preserved on a slab of basalt now exhibited in the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery. It was composed at a very early date, and committed to stone during the Twenty-fifth Dynasty by the order of the Nubian king Shabaka. The Shabaka Text (c. 710 BC) which was intended to preserve "a work of the ancestors," this text is alternatively known as The Memphite Theology, and based upon the generative power of God's thought and speech.  The Shabaka Text is perhaps the earliest record of theistic creation in existence.

Unfortunately, this Shabaka Stone was subsequently used as a nether mill-stone and much of the text has been lost. The document known as the Bremner-Rhind Papyrus includes, among other religious texts, two monologues of the sun-god describing how he created all things.

As with all the Egyptian theologies, the Memphite religion was also political, justifying the primary status of the new capital.   Ptah, the principal god of Memphis, had to be shown to be the great creator-god, and a new legend about creation was coined.  But it was also important to organize the new cosmogony so that a direct breach with the priests of Heliopolis might be avoided. Ptah was the great creator-god, but eight other gods were held to be contained within him, including some of the Heliopolitan Ennead and the Hermopolitan Ogdoad.  The Heliopolitan Atum held a central position, and the Hermopolitan Nun and Naunet were also included.

The Shabaka Text enumerates Ptah's eight hypostases or qualities as "the Neterw who have come into existence in Ptah".  Ptah himself incarnates the primordial Eight, and then becomes Tatenenn, 'the earth which rises up', an evocation of the primordial hill.  "He who manifested himself as heart, he who manifested himself as tongue, in the likeness of Atum, is Ptah, the very ancient, who gave life to all the Neterw."   Tongue means speech, or in later philosophical idiom the logos.  Ptah conceived the world intellectually before creating it 'by his own word'.  The heart and the tongue 'have power over' all the other members, since the tongue describes what the heart conceives. Thus Ptah re-creates the Great Ennead, and gives rise to all the qualities of things, through the Desire of his heart and the Word of his tongue.

Ptah's name means "Creator". He is depicted as a mummified man with only his hands free to grasp a sceptre composed of the symbols of life (ankh), power (was), and stability (djed). He is also typically shown wearing a skullcap and standing on the plinth-shaped hieroglyph that is part of the name for Ma'at, the goddess of fundamental truth.

The Memphite theology, like the Theban religion, is based on a primordial triad of deities.   In this case we have Ptah who is accompanied by Sekhmet, the great lioness whose name means 'the powerful', and Nefertum, 'the accomplishment of Atum', thus making up the first causal triad.

There are also interesting parallels here with the Hindu trinity, viz.

Ptah - creator (Brahman)
Sehkmet - destroyer (Shiva)
Nefertum - preserver (Vishnu)

In another, although related context, Sehkmet has always seemed to me quite a bit like Kali. Ptah therefore would have a connection with Shiva (as the spouse of Kali).

The monotheistic element is interesting here as well.  In the Memphite Theology it is said of Ptah:

'He who made all and created the gods.' And he is Ta-tenen, who gave birth to the gods, and from whom every thing came forth, foods, provisions, divine offerings, all good things. Thus it is recognized and understood that he is the mightiest of the gods. Thus Ptah was satisfied after he had made all things and all divine words.

(Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I: The Old and Middle Kingdom translated by Miriam Lichtheim)

We have here a strongly developed theism, which gives the lie to the oft-asserted statement that Akhenaten was the first monotheist. Ptah constitutes a creator figure, in contrast to Atum is more of an Emanator. Yet this was still within the same overall tradition (albeit with a different deity).  There was no cultural break such as Akhenaten attempted.  An analogy could be made between, say Kashmir Shaivism (emanationist) and the Vaishvanite (which is more dualistic and devotional).  Or like the difference between the God of Mystical vs Legalistic Judaism. Emanationism is more prone to a philosophical based mysticism in which human growth is the key issue, while creation based is more on a creator who gives laws that you must follow. The Hermopolic creation story (in which everything emerges from the primordial Eight or the Nun) is more prone to left-hand path belief systems since there is no pre-existent God, and the Theban seems like it would be purely mystical, with it's abstract symbolism.

Ptah as the divine craftsman also recalls Judaeo-Christian themes of God fashioning the world, making Adam out of clay, etc.  I leave it to the reader to decide whether this similarity is due to diffusion (the Memphite ideas filtering through to the rest of the Mediterranean world) or archetypal convergence (the same symbol or motif reappearing)

Heliopolis Theology
Memphis theology
Hermopolis theology
Theban theology

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page uploaded 2 December 1999, last modified 10 October 2005