Egyptian Myth and Legend
The City of the Elf God
The London of Ancient Egypt--Ptah Chief of Nine Earth Spirits--God of a Military Aristocracy--Palestine Cave--dwellers and Alpine "Broad Heads"--Creation Artificers of Egyptians, Europeans, Indians, and Chinese--Sun Egg and Moon Egg--The Later Ptah--Neith as a Banshee--Sokar, God of the Dead--Earliest Memphite Deity--Ptah and Osiris----Manetho's Folk Tales--A Famous Queen--The First Pyramid.
Now, when there was corn in Egypt "as the sand of the sea", traders from foreign countries crossed the parched deserts and the perilous deep, instructed, like the sons of Jacob, to "get you down thither and buy for us from thence". So wealth and commerce increased in the Nile valley. A high civilization was fostered, and the growing needs of the age caused many industries to flourish.
The business of the country was controlled by the cities which were nursed into prosperity by the wise policy of the Pharaohs. Among these Memphis looms prominently in the history of the early Dynasties. Its ruling deity was, appropriately enough, the artificer god Ptah, for it was not only a commercial but also an important industrial centre; indeed it was the home of the great architects and stone builders whose activities culminated in the erection of the Pyramids, the most sublime achievements in masonry ever accomplished by man.
To-day the ruins of Old Memphis lie buried deep in the sand. The fellah tills the soil and reaps the harvest in season above its once busy streets and stately temples,
its clinking workshops and noisy markets. "I have heard the words of its teachers whose sayings are on the lips of men. But where are their dwelling places? Their walls have been cast down and their homes are not, even as though they had never been." Yet the area of this ancient city was equal to that of modern London from Bow to Chelsea and the Thames to Hampstead, and it had a teeming population.
O mighty Memphis, city of "White Walls", The habitation of eternal Ptah, Cradle of kings . . . on thee the awful hand Of Vengeance hath descended. . . . Nevermore Can bard acclaim thy glory; nevermore Shall harp, nor flute, nor timbrel, nor the song Of maids resound within thy ruined halls, Nor shouts of merriment in thee be heard, Nor hum of traffic, nor the eager cries Of merchants in thy markets murmurous; The silence of the tomb hath fallen on thee, And thou art faded like a lovely queen, Whom loveless death hath stricken in the night, Whose robe is rent, whose beauty is decayed-- And nevermore shall princes from afar Pay homage to thy greatness, and proclaim Thy wonders, nor in reverence behold Thy sanctuary glories . . . Are thy halls All empty, and thy streets laid bare And silent as the soundless wilderness? O Memphis, mighty Memphis, hath the morn Broken to find thee not? Memphis was named after King Pepi, [*1] and is called Noph in the Old Testament. Its early Dynastic name
was "White Walls", the reference being probably to the fortress erected there soon after the Conquest. Of its royal builder we know little, but his mother, Queen Shesh, enjoyed considerable repute for many centuries afterwards as the inventor of a popular hair wash which is referred to in a surviving medical papyrus.
After Egypt was united under the double crown of the Upper and the Lower Kingdoms, and the Pharaoh became "Lord of the Two Lands", the seat of government remained for a long period at Thinis, in the south. The various nomes, like the present-day states of North America, had each their centres of local administration. Pharaoh's deputies were nobles who owed him allegiance, collected the Imperial taxes, supplied workmen or warriors as desired, and carried out the orders of the Court officials regarding the construction and control of canals. The temple of the nome god adorned the provincial capital.
Ptah, the deity of Memphis, is presented in sharp contrast to the sun god Ra, who was of Asiatic origin, and the deified King Osiris, whose worship was associated with agricultural rites. He was an earth spirit, resembling closely the European elf. The conception was evidently not indigenous, because the god had also a giant form, like the hilltop deities of the mountain peoples (see Chapter XII). He was probably imported by the invaders who constituted the military aristocracy at Memphis in pre-Dynastic times. These may have been the cave-dwellers of Southern Palestine, or tall and muscular "broad heads" of Alpine or Armenoid type who prior to the Conquest appear to have pressed southward from Asia Minor through the highlands of Palestine, and, after settlement, altered somewhat the physical character of the "long heads" of the eastern Delta.
[paragraph continues] Allowance has to be made for such an infusion in accounting for the new Dynastic type as well as for the influence exercised by the displacement of a great proportion of the mingled tribes of Libyans. The Palestine cave-dwellers may have been partly of Alpine origin.
A people seldom remember their early history, but they rarely forget their tribal beliefs. That being so, the god Ptah is of special interest in dealing with the tribal aspect of mythology. Among all the gods of Egypt his individuality is perhaps the most pronounced. Others became shadowy and vague, as beliefs were fused and new and greater conceptions evolved in the process of time. But Ptah never lost his elfin character, even after he was merged with deities of divergent origin. He was the chief of nine earth spirits (that is, eight and himself added) called Khnumu, the modellers. Statuettes of these represent them as dwarfs, with muscular bodies, bent legs, long arms, big broad heads, and faces of intelligent and even benign expression. Some wear long moustaches, [*1] so unlike the shaven or glabrous Egyptians.
At the beginning, according to Memphite belief, Ptah shaped the world and the heavens, assisted by his eight workmen, the dwarfish Khnumu. He was also the creator of mankind, and in Egyptian tombs are found numerous earthenware models of these "elves". who were believed to have had power to reconstruct the decaying bodies of the dead. As their dwellings were underground, they may have also been "artisans of vegetation", like the spirits associated with Tvashtar, the "master workman" of the Rig-Veda hymns and the
"black dwarfs" of Teutonic mythology. A particular statuette of Ptah, wearing a tight-fitting cap, suggests the familiar "wonder smith" [*1] of the Alpine "broad heads" who were distributed along Asiatic and European mountain ranges from Hindu Kush to Brittany and the British isles and mingled with the archaic Hittites in Asia Minor. The Phoenician sailors carried figures of dwarfs in their ships, and worshipped them. They were called "pataikoi". In the Far East a creation artificer who resembles Ptah is Pan Ku, the first Chinese deity, who emerged from a cosmic egg.
Like Ra, Ptah was also believed to have first appeared as an egg, which, according to one of the many folk beliefs of Egypt, was laid by the chaos goose which came to be identified with Seb, the earth god, and afterwards with the combined deities Amon-Ra. Ptah, as the primeval "artificer god", was credited with making "the sun egg" and also "the moon egg", and a bas-relief at Philae shows him actively engaged at the work, using his potter's wheel.
A higher and later conception of Ptah [*2] represents him as a sublime creator god who has power to call into existence each thing he names. He is the embodiment of mind from which all things emerge, and his ideas take material shape when he gives them expression. In a philosophic poem a Memphite priest eulogizes the great deity as "the mind [*3] and tongue of the gods", and even as the creator of other gods as well as of "all people, cattle, and reptiles", the sun, and the habitable world.
[paragraph continues] Thoth is also credited with similar power, and it is possible that in this connection both these deities were imparted with the attributes of Ra, the sun god.
According to the tradition perpetuated by Manetho, the first temple in Egypt was erected at Memphis, that city of great builders, to the god Ptah at the command of King Mena. It is thus suggested that the town and the god of the ruling caste existed when the Horite sun worshippers moved northward on their campaign of conquest. As has been shown, Mena also gave diplomatic recognition to Neith, the earth goddess of the Libyans, "the green lady" of Egypt, who resembles somewhat the fairy, and especially the banshee, of the Iberians and their Celtic conquerors.
The Ptah worshippers were probably not the founders of Memphis. An earlier deity associated with the city is the dreaded Sokar (Seker). He was a god of the dead, and in the complex mythology of later times his habitation was located in the fifth hour-division of night. [*1] When sun worship became general in the Nile valley Sokar was identified with the small winter sun, as Horus was with the large sun of summer. But the winged and three-headed monster god, with serpent body, suffers complete loss of physical identity when merged with the elfin deity of Memphis. Ptah-Sokar is depicted as a dwarf and one of the Khnumu. Another form of Sokar is a hawk, of different aspect to the Horus hawk, which appears perched on the Ra boat at night with a sun disk upon its head. [*2]
Ptah-Sokar was in time merged with the agricultural
[paragraph continues] Osiris whose spirit passed from Pharaoh to Pharaoh. Ptah-Osiris was depicted as a human-sized mummy, swathed and mute, holding firmly in his hands before him the Osirian dadu (pillar) symbol. The triad, Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, gives us a combined deity who is a creator, a judge of the dead, and a traditional king of Egypt. The influence of the sun cult prevailed when Sokar and Osiris were associated with the worship of Ra.
Memphis, the city of Ptah, ultimately became the capital of United Egypt. It was then at the height of its glory; a great civilization had evolved. Unfortunately, however, we are unable to trace its progress, because the records are exceedingly scanty. Fine workmanship in stone, exquisite pottery, &c., indicate the advanced character of the times, but it is impossible to construct from these alone an orderly historical narrative. We have also the traditions preserved by Manetho. Much of what he tells us, however, belongs to the domain of folklore. We learn, for instance, that for nearly a fortnight the Nile ran with honey, and that one of the Pharaohs, who was a giant about 9 feet high, was "a most dangerous man". It is impossible to confirm whether a great earthquake occurred in the Delta region, where the ground is said to have yawned and swallowed many of the people, or whether a famine occurred in the reign of one pharaoh and a great plague in that of another, and if King Aha really engaged his leisure moments compiling works on anatomy. The story of a Libyan revolt at a later period may have had foundation in fact, but the explanation that the rebels broke into flight because the moon suddenly attained enormous dimensions shows how myth and history were inextricably intertwined.
Yet Manetho's history contains important material.
[paragraph continues] His list of early kings is not imaginative, as was once supposed, although there may be occasional inaccuracies. The Palermo Stone, so called because it was carried to the Sicilian town of that name by some unknown curio collector, has inscribed upon it in hieroglyphics the names of several of the early kings and references to notable events which occurred during their reigns. It is one of the little registers which were kept in temples. Many of these, no doubt, existed, and some may yet he brought to light.
Four centuries elapsed after the Conquest ere Memphis became the royal city. We know little, however, regarding the first three hundred years. Two dynasties of Thinite kings ruled over the land. There was a royal residence at Memphis, which was the commercial capital of the country--the marketplace of the northern and southern peoples. Trade flourished and brought the city into contact with foreign commercial centres. It had a growing and cosmopolitan population, and its arts and industries attained a high level of excellence.
The Third Dynasty opens with King Zoser, who reigned at Memphis. He was the monarch for whom the first pyramid was erected. It is situated at Sakkara, in the vicinity of his capital. The kings who reigned prior to him had been entombed at Abydos, and the new departure indicates that the supremacy of Memphis was made complete. The administrative, industrial, and religious life of the country was for the time centred there.
Zoser's preference for Memphis had, perhaps, a political bearing. His mother, the wife of Khasekhemui, [*1] the last of the Thinite kings, was probably a daughter of
the ruling noble of "White Walls". It was the custom of monarchs to marry the daughters of nome governors, and to give their sons his daughters in marriage also. The aristocracy was thus closely connected with the royal house; indeed the relations between the Pharaoh and his noblemen appear to have been intimate and cordial.
The political marriages, however, were the cause of much jealous rivalry. As the Pharaoh had more than one wife, and princes were numerous, the choice of an heir to the crown was a matter of great political importance. The king named his successor, and in the royal harem there were occasionally plots and counterplots to secure the precedence of one particular prince or another. Sometimes methods of coercion were adopted with the aid of interested noblemen whose prestige would be increased by the selection of a near relative--the son, perhaps, of the princess of their nome. In one interesting papyrus roll which survives there is a record of an abortive plot to secure the succession of a rival to the Pharaoh's favourite son. The ambitious prince was afterwards disposed of. In all probability he was executed along with those concerned in the household rebellion. Addressing his chosen heir, the monarch remarks that "he fought the one he knew, because it was unwise that he should be beside thy majesty".
It may be that these revolts explain the divisions of the lines of early kings into Dynasties. Zoser's personality stands out so strongly that it is evident he was a prince who would brook no rival to the throne. His transference of the seat of power to the city of Ptah suggests, too, that he found his chief support there.
With the political ascendancy of Memphis begins the great Pyramid Age; but ere we make acquaintance with
the industrial and commercial life in the city, and survey the great achievements of its architects and builders, we shall deal with the religious conceptions of the people, so that it may be understood why the activities of the age were directed to make such elaborate provision for the protection of the bodies of dead monarchs.
^78:1 The Greek rendering of "Men-nofer", the name of Pepi's pyramid. Another Egyptian name was Hiku-ptah, or, according to Budge, "Het-Ka-Ptah, 'House of the Double of Ptah', from which the Greek name of Egypt is derived".
^80:1 The suggestion that these represented serpents is not supported by anything we know about Ptah worship. There was a winged serpent goddess in the Delta named Uazit. The Greeks called her Buto, and identified her with their Leto.
^81:1 Ptah has been compared to the Greek Hephaestos (Vulcan). He was not a fire god. His consort Sekhet symbolized fire and sun heat, but his association with her was arbitrary.
^81:2 Eighteenth Dynasty.
^81:3 The poet says "heart", which was believed by the Egyptians to be the seat of intelligence. At the judgment of the dead the heart is weighed in the balance.
^82:1 See Chapter I.
^82:2 Osiris-Sokar is "the brilliant one", "lord of great fear and trembling", "the mysterious one, he who is unknown to mankind", and "enlightener of those who are in the underworld".--The Burden of Isis, Dennis, p. 52-54 (Hymn to Osiris-Sokar).
^84:1 This king's brick tomb at Abydos contains a limestone chamber, which suggests the employment of the Memphite artisans.