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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In the Noblest of Cities: Antinous is Received in the House of Ptah

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Antinous had thus far beheld the wonders of various sanctuaries and monuments- colossal statues hewn from blood-red stone that were the equal of any in Roma, the sprawling urban centers choked with imports from every corner of the earth, a harvest of gold and goldsmiths, whose crafts became the ornaments of the affluent from Roma to far more distant, barbaric lands- yet he had seen nothing that made him gasp in astonishment as did “the noblest of cities”, Memphis, and its very ancient grandeur.

Hadrian’s ship had landed at the water steps of the great southern portal of one of the several imposing palaces that fronted the Nile, scintillating in the fierce heat of the sun that seemed to shatter over everything and everyone in this most hallowed of cities. As their craft had entered the famous port of Memphis, his local guides had enticed Antinous with stories of the renowned shipyards of the God Ptah, the workshops of the goldsmith’s guilds whose handicrafts were well known in Roma, and the elephantine, fortress-like walls of the Temple of Ptah. Here were obelisks piercing the liquid azure of the afternoon sky, with their pyramidions sheathed in glowing electrum. Beyond them rose mountainous pylons, gates and royal statues that seemed to dwarf all else for miles around. It was all very enthralling. And yet Antinous had come to receive the counsel of the High Priest of Ptah, the God for whom all of these marvels had been consecrated.

What perfection was to be seen in the craft of man’s hand…enormous and yet sensual alabaster colossi, sphinxes, divine images, and every other splendid and costly thing the mind could fathom…yet it was the ancient Mysteries of Memphis that had caused mighty Hadrian to make inquiries on behalf of Antinous, whose thirst for high learning knew no bounds.

A retinue stood waiting for Antinous beneath the blessed shelter of the palace portico. Antinous approached, bowing his head, not knowing which of these distinguished foreigners was the High Priest of the God Ptah. A tall, shaven headed and linen draped man came forward, and raised his hands in the gesture of reverence.

“Welcome and blessing to you, Antinous, heart-friend of our Lord Hadrianus Caesar, who is the Lord of Crowns and ruler of the Two Lands! I am Neferkaptah, and I am the Chief of Priests of the God Ptah in the Soul-Mansion of Ptah. Is the noblest city in Egypt fulfilling your expectations and satisfying your heart?”

Antinous relaxed and smiled, noticing the kindness and curiosity evident in the faces of the other priests. “Satisfy?…why no, much more than satisfy! I am stunned by all I have seen of this city of marvels. Our guides today pointed out the endless outdoor market as we approached, which I am told is the largest in Egypt…perhaps in the whole world! There are the giant sphinxes that look like marble, but I am told they are alabaster…and the high walls of the city itself, which our guide told us are the oldest and tallest in the entire land. Alexandria is a wonder of the mind, it is true, but this, Memphis, is a wonder of the eyes!”

The High Priest smiled knowingly, waving Antinous to follow him beneath the bulk of the portico and through an imposing gate in the high wall. Everywhere he looked were to be seen sculpted and painted reliefs of the highest quality, delicately carved statues of glittering stone, columns and tiles that shined a glossy sky blue. Everything around him seemed to focus one’s attention upon the crafts of the hands…that of stone masons, goldsmiths, jewelers. Antinous was taken aback almost to the point of speechlessness, however, he was here to receive the initiations of Ptah, and to take back with him a portion of their wisdom.

“I have seen at a distance the Pyramid that our guides told us was built by Imhotep-“
“Oh, but of course, you want to hear about Imhotep!”

Antinous blushed, but Neferkaptah smiled enthusiastically. “The Holy Pyramid was constructed by an army of the finest craftsmen in Egypt in the service of King Netjerykhet, but it was Imhotep the Son of Ptah who imagined how it could be accomplished, and it was his genius that made what you have seen possible.

“Homage to You Imhotep, Son of Ptah, the Good Physician, the Kindhearted God!

“Imhotep was born to a woman named Khreduankh, whose beauty caught the eye of the God Ptah Himself, and it was from His seed that Imhotep came forth, having even at his birth the powers of a Seer together with all the knowledge of a priest of Ra. He knew the stars in their courses, and the measurements of creation, and he had the knowledge and blessedness to heal the sick and cure the diseases of the flesh. Did they point out to you the temple where the God Imhotep, as the Son of Ptah, reveals cures to the sick as they dream? Well, then perhaps you know already the fame of Imhotep throughout the known world, for not only do the people of this city and Egypt come to be healed in His shrine, but also people from across the Great Green Sea….”

“I know that the Hellenes associate Imhotep with Asklepius“, Antinous said, “and that they believe He cures barrenness and impotence, and even fatal conditions. Aren’t there miracles attributed to Imhotep during His life?”

Neferkaptah nodded. “And you saw it!…the Holy Pyramid, from which King Netjerykhet was sent aloft to the Imperishable Stars, to be the divine leader and guide of Egypt for all eternity. My son, Imhotep was an innovator, not merely an architect who followed in the footsteps of others. Memphis, Alexandria and Egypt entire is filled with scholars and architects…so many trained monkeys who mimic what they read and see in the genius of others. What Imhotep did was excel beyond the great works of his predecessors, taking the original design for the tombs of hallowed persons, and shaping it into something truly sublime. His is a miracle of the mind, the imagination, which is one of the greatest testaments to his divinity.

“Your own Hadrianus Caesar is said to be such an architect and visionary…one who takes what he has inherited and pushes it beyond what others thought possible. To exceed the limitations imposed by the lower mind, the mundane intellect…that is the course of one who has received the direct blessing of the Gods. It is that way in your Roma, and so it is that way here in my Egypt, which is the House of the God Ptah, Architect of the World!”

Antinous recalled some of the things his tutors had told him about the origins of Egypt and the Great God Ptah. “Speaking of the House of Ptah, is it not true that the Hellenes gave Egypt its name, or rather, that the name Egypt is taken from the language of the Hellenes, when they beheld the wonders of the Temple of Ptah at Memphis and recognized its universal importance?”

“That is so, my son. The Hellenes knew that the most ancient city of Memphis- which was hailed as Men-Nefer by the Ancients- was the first capital of the Egyptian state, and that it was here, in our very own Temple of Ptah, where every king that has sat upon the throne of Egypt has received the Double Crown. Aleksandras, whom they call Great, the Son of Zeus-Ammon, was crowned as Pharaoh of Egypt in the Temple of Ptah, as was your beloved Hadrianus Caesar, Lord of the Two Lands. For Ptah is the King-Maker, the Establisher of Laws, who founded the first temple in the first city of Egypt, and that city, this city, was known as Ibebu-hedj, the ‘White Walls’, where at its heart rose Hawt-ka-Ptah, ‘The Soul-Mansion of Ptah’.

“The Hellenes pronounced the name of Ptah’s holiest temple Aigyptos, and it was from their speech that the name of our Egypt came forth. And Ptah is the King of the Gods in His temple here, because it is recognized in Memphis that Ptah is the Genius from Whom speech, intellect and thought came into being. Without Him, the Hellenes, Romans, the Egyptians, and indeed the peoples of all the world would not have intellect or speech or even existence itself, for Ptah is the Great God Who gave birth to the Cosmos and all the things dwelling in it!”

Antinous and his hosts had finally arrived at the Great Temple of Ptah, which was just south of the primary enclosure of the ancient capital of Egypt. Its great white walls (from which the oldest district of ‘White Walls’ received its name) were crenelated like some military fortress, and Antinous recognized that its massive corners gave way to high watch towers that were likewise crenelated. Tall flagstaffs sheathed in gold stood proudly before soaring pylons into which were carved, in exquisite relief, images of the God Ptah receiving abundant offerings. The heady fragrance of myrrh incense rose in a palpable cloud above the entourage, and then the sound of chanting, which echoed off lofty stone ceilings.

“Hail to Ptah Who is South of His Wall, who created in the beginning in His loneliness, when there was no one beside Him. Who came into existence by Himself and fashioned in the beginning, in that neither father nor mother had made His body. The truly lone one. He who made the gods and who created, but who indeed was not created”.

Antinous braved a remark as they approached the entrance proper, the hallowed Soul-Mansion of the God Ptah. “The Hellenes know Ptah as Hephaestus, I have been told by my tutors, while my people know Him as Vulcan, and we see Him as the Wielder of the blacksmith’s hammer and fire. We know Vulcan as the creator of the blacksmith’s arts”.

“It is certainly true that the God Ptah is the divine patron of all handicrafts”, Neferkaptah answered, “…which include the arts of the forgers, goldsmiths, metal-smiths and jewelers. All of these are the products of the heart and tongue of Ptah, Who spoke them into existence, but so too are all the labors of the hands…stone masonry, sculpting, painting, architecture, mining and ship building. You have seen the famous ship yards of Memphis, which equal any in the known world, including Alexandria. Here too are the ateliers of the Temple, whose divine images in gold, precious stones and electrum are found in every temple in Egypt, and in the Royal Court.

It is known that the Servants of Ptah, that is to say His craftsmen, are among the finest in the world. They certainly have no equal in all of Egypt; for the God Ptah is not solely the patron of artisanship or craftsmanship, but rather the Progenitor of the finest quality work of which men are capable. It is excellence itself…this quality of having perfected a thing to the point where it cannot be improved upon…that is the hallmark of the God Ptah throughout creation. The very activity or attitude of striving for excellence in one’s work is the very nature of the God Ptah, Who has selected the perfect forms of all creatures and plants, given them birth through the speech of His tongue, and bestowed upon them the breath of life”.

Just then the entourage entered the sanctified outer courtyard of the Temple of Ptah, where grandiose and more humble stone images of the God Ptah stood in the presence of flaming braziers and tables choked with delicious offerings. Priests and acolytes moved to and fro with diligence, trimming wicks and lighting lamps, and dropping pellets of myrrh over the hot coals of the braziers. A presence of devotion and solitude pervaded the atmosphere, which spoke to the heart of Antinous of the first-fruits of the human heart.

“Is love part of the creation offered by the Great Ptah to His servants upon the earth?”, Antinous queried, his heart fluttering with admiration for the beauty and harmony of the images surrounding him.

Neferkaptah placed a warm hand on Antinous’ bare shoulder. “In our ancient teaching- which comes from the time when the Holy Pyramid was envisioned by Imhotep- it is said that the God Ptah thought the names of every thing to be created within His heart, which was then repeated by His tongue, and that it was through this divine miracle that all created things came into being.

“The heart and the tongue are the two instruments by which Ptah the very Great God brought out His vision for the created world, thus making it a reality. It is the heart that is the mind of all creatures in the world, for the heart speaks and the limbs obey. And when the tongue repeats what the heart has engendered, then life proceeds…activity shapes progress, and events unfold. This is the handiwork of Ptah, Who gave form to the heart that it might direct the limbs and the passions.

“But know too that Ptah is called the King of the Gods not merely because of His creative power, which makes kings in the world of men, but because He created the Gods. It was the desire, the passion…the love of Ptah that made the Souls of all the Gods, and determined that they should come to rest in their statues of stone and wood and metal, and it was Ptah Who ordained the cults of all the Gods, Their temples and worship, so that the Gods could receive the first-fruits of the earth from humankind. But also, it was through the love of Ptah that the Gods should receive the offerings of humankind, and intervene on their behalf, for men and women, together with all the creeping creatures of the earth, are the handiwork of Ptah’s heart and tongue. We, Antinous…you and I and revered Hadrianus Caesar, are the thoughts of Ptah’s passion, and the desires of His heart, and the fruit of His tongue…and so it shall always be!”

Antinous was filled with awe and humility in the presence of such a teaching, which inspired within his own heart the desire to receive the Mysteries of Ptah more fully and deeply. And so Antinous followed Neferkaptah into the dim inner court of the Temple of Ptah, and there received an answer from the very Great God Ptah.

All text copyright © 2015 Rev. Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa