Honoring Imhotep

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Imhotep is something of a phenomenon in the course of Egyptian history. His deification- as a mortal elevated to godhood- is certainly a rarity, however, Imhotep presents us with one of the very rare examples of a mortal man being given a divine parentage and pedigree. “Imhotep the Great, son of Ptah”, as he is hailed in a text from Philae(1), is said to have been born from a human woman named Kherdankh, who somehow managed to catch the attention of the God Ptah, who became the child’s biological father(2). Imhotep was cited as having a mortal father named Kanefer(3), but this small detail seems not to have made its way into the official cult of Imhotep, which was formal and constant from the time of the sixth century B.C. onward(4).

Imhotep the man was the architect, chief builder and vizier of King Netjerykhet (Djoser/ circa 2687-2668), a priest of the God Ptah, and high priest at Annu (Gr. Heliopolis)(5). His most renowned accomplishment is, of course, the monumental Step Pyramid of King Djoser and its imposing surrounding cult complex. It must have been on account of these architectual wonders that Imhotep was recognized as something quite special, quite on a par with the Divine Craftsman Ptah, Whose ancient cult center was always Mennefer (Gr. Memphis), near the vicinity of Imhotep’s brainchild.

Some time prior to the New Kingdom, Imhotep had begun to be titled “the son of Ptah”,(6) which one might be forgiven for thinking was simply an honorary epithet granted to a priest of Ptah who authored a tremendous piece of sacred architecture for his King. But the status of Imhotep is a thing quite unique, even for a priest of Ptah and vizier. Imhotep was given his own sanctuary at Philae, where, on the western facade, he is called not only “Imhotep, the great, son of Ptah”, but is also said to be “…glorious, god whom Tatenen created and his beloved sister bore”(7). Tatenen, “the risen land”, is perhaps the oldest name of the God Ptah as the Creator God par excellence, embodied in the primeval pyramidal mound of earth from which the Gods and creation were given birth.

It is certain that Imhotep was honored during the reign of King Djoser(8) as the architect of the king’s Step Pyramid, and it is also certain that that pyramid embodied in its shape the symbolism and power of the hillock of creation, the ben-ben. So, it would have been quite natural for the Egyptians to have made a theological correlation between the creation of the Step Pyramid and the hallowed parentage of the man who brought it into being. As a son of Ptah, Imhotep would have embodied the creative power of Ptah-Tatenen, Who, as the primeval mound, gave form and shape to the artistic endeavor of creation.

Imhotep’s power as an architect and innovator, an artist and a priest of Ptah seems to have bolstered his credibility to the community of artisans, who especially revered him as a divine patron of the arts, and academics are not shy in calling him a “patron saint” of the arts(9). However, it was as a healer of the sick, physician and a worker of miracles that Imhotep came to be renowned during the Ptolemaic era, where it appears to have been a common practice for the afflicted to seek healing dreams from Imhotep in special sanatoriums that had been reserved for such purposes(10).

It should be self-evident why Imhotep is of some special significance to me. Yes, the brilliant architect of a great and innovative monument. Yes, a wise counselor, vizier and overseer of works. But of course, the prodigious scholar and scribe, author and designer. But it is as a compassionate hearer of prayers, an answerer of the aches of hearts and bodies, that I seek Imhotep and always find Him attentive. There is a reason why, many centuries after his death, couples unable to conceive, the seriously ill, and those desiring answers, signs, and miracles came to the shrines of Imhotep. They appealed to a demigod who was not only the son of a god known as the Hearer of Prayers, but, more significantly, had been a living and breathing man who knew the suffering and challenges of being in a mortal body, and yet possessed a link with the immortal Gods. It is precisely because Imhotep had been in a body like ours, had walked in the human community, and had risen to greatness based upon his own unique merits, that Imhotep embodies a deity we can readily relate to, and rely upon for human compassion.

If you look at the lap of every single statuette of Imhotep (the famous bronzes that are scattered throughout museums of the world), you will see his ever-present trademark: the unrolled scroll that singles him out as the divine scholar and scribe, the patron of learning, scholarship and the arts. As a Son of Ptah, Imhotep was the inheritor of his divine father’s artistic acumen. This was well recognized by the Ancients, who recorded of him that “the Great God, Father of the Gods (Ptah) rejoices at the sight of him (Imhotep)”(11).

For me, Imhotep, as the Son of Ptah and Patron of artisans/ painters, is the iconographer par excellence, the creator of one of the largest pieces of iconography to have been envisioned by the mind of man, the Step Pyramid of King Djoser. Throughout the ages artisans, stonemasons, architects, sculptors and painters have looked to the genius of Imhotep for inspiration. His life and story are the hallmarks of one of the great artistic moments in humankind’s history. Still, Imhotep sits with his unrolled scroll, silent and ready to hear our prayers.

Before I sit down to work on an icon I have a little ritual that I always perform before any pigment or gold can be applied. I light a candle in front of our votive cult figure of Imhotep from Egypt, and I offer a few drops of my watercolor water in honor of the God Imhotep, the Son of Ptah, Who is well pleased by beauty. This is the prayer I composed in his honor:

Anedj her-ek Imhotep sa Ptah
Imhotep neb hemu nefer netjer

Homage to You Imhotep the Son of Ptah,
Imhotep the Master of Artisans, the beautiful god!
Come and shine, receive, O You beautiful offspring
Of Ptah Who is South of His Wall.
Take unto Yourself all things good and pure,
And give all things good and pure to this
Servant of the workshop of Ptah.

O Imhotep, glorious in Your sanctuaries,
Fashioner of splendors, radiant in Your
Body, make of my hands the hands of
Tatenen.
Make of my fingers the fingers of
Ptah-wer-kherep-hemu
(“Ptah the Great Director of the Artisans”).
Make of my heart the vessel of Ptah the
Beautiful Who is Himself Atum.

May I give form to what is perfect,
May I give breath to what is good,
May my endeavors manifest the sky,
May immortality stream from my earth.
For I am in Your company, O Son of Ptah,
Imhotep the Great Whom the Netjeru (Gods)
Have embraced as one among their entourage.

Bless You, O Imhotep the Beautiful,
The wise, the merciful, the hearer of prayers!
May that which lives in You live in me.
May Your boons be upon my hands,
And the works of the Netjeru come forth
From my heart!

Anedj her-ek Imhotep sa Ptah
Imhotep neb hemu nefer netjer

Homage to You Imhotep the Son of Ptah,
Imhotep the Master of Artisans, the beautiful god!

Notes

1) Holmberg, Maj Sandman. The God Ptah. Lund, 1946, pp. 195.
2) Holmberg, Ibid.
3) Ibid.
4) Holmberg, Ibid., 194.
5) Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London, 2003, pp. 111. Also Holmberg, Ibid., 194.
6) Redford, Donald B. The Oxford Essential Guide to Egyptian Mythology. New York, 2002, pp. 79.
7) Holmberg, Ibid., 195.
8) Wilkinson, Ibid., pp. 112.
9) Redford, Ibid.
10) Wilkinson, Ibid., pp. 113.
11) Holmberg, Ibid., pp. 196.

All text copyright © 2015 Rev. Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa

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