The Egyptian Neters - Part III
by Billie Walker-John
Before we begin our re-view of the Neters of
Egypt and the cities associated with them it might prove helpful
to state that the ancient Egyptians differentiated their concept
of creation into four main parts or sections. These differentiated
sections, while seen as separate, were actually complementary
versions of the one overall concept. They were: Ra at Heliopolis:
Ptah at Memphis: Amon at Thebes and Thoth at Hermopolis.
theme at Heliopolis is that of the abstract, the creation in principle;
while at Memphis Ptah carries this cosmic abstraction a stage
further and brings 'fire down from heaven'. The concept acknowledged
at Hermopolis saw this divine fire beginning to act within the
concrete terrestrial world. Thebes, to state a very complex process
very briefly, was a reiteration of these three processes, or functions,
summed up in one within both the triad of the city and the triad
which was in Amun.
But let us take one part of the
greater story out of context, so to speak, and begin with Ptah
at Memphis. Historically speaking, Memphis is a most appropriate
place to begin, for this city was the first capital of a unified
Egypt. Egypt had prevlously thouqht of itself as two separate
countries, the North and the South, or upper and Lower, with capitals
at Buto and Hierakonpolis. The unification, carried out by the
legendary Menes (or Narmer) took place circa 3200 BC, was a deeply
significant event for the Pharaonic Egyptians, for this was the
beginning of the civilisation we know today as 'Ancient Egyptian'.
Memphis was buiit by Menes as
his new capital, on the border of the two countries, to signify
their unity, and it remained a sacred city for the three millennia
or so of its existence. Even after the official unification, Egypt
still considered itself the Two Lands, and was to do so for the
remainder of its long Pharaonic history, but now it had a single,
recognised capital in Memphis. After Menes, Egypt depicted his
achievment as two halves made into one whole, symbolised by the
tying together of the two identifying plants of Upper and Lower
Egypt in the sma-tawy, the 'union of the two lands'.
The name 'Memphis' is thought
to be a Greek corruption of Men-nefer, one of the city's Egyptian
names. Memphis had other names in addition to Men-nefer, which
means 'Established in Beauty or in Harmony'; Ineb-hedj or 'White
Wall' and Ankh-Tawy - 'That which binds the Two Lands'. It was
not only the capital of the entire country throughout the Old
Kingdom period, circa 2649-2100 BC, but the capital of the first
nome, or province, of Lower Egypt which was also called White
The Pharaohs, of all periods
of ancient Egyptian history, came to Memphis to be crowned in
the great temple of Ptah which would eventually - through Greek
mis-pronunciation of the Egyptian name - give its name to the
whole country we know today as Egypt. The name of Ptah's temple
was Hi-Ka-Ptah (Temple of the Ka of Ptah) which became in Greek
Aegyptos and later, in English, 'Egypt'.
Royalty often maintained second
palaces in the city, even long after the capital had been moved
to Thebes at the beginning of the New Kingdom, circa 1550 BC.
Its ancient past meant that Memphis had an impressive backdrop
of tombs and temples, not the last of which were the Pyramids,
the Sphinx, and the massive funerary complex of King Djoser of
the Third Dynasty who built the first pyramid at Saqqara, the
so-called Step Pyramid. Though virtually nothing remains of the
old Memphis today, in its long-lived heyday it was a great and
thriving metropolis that stretched over some eight miles, surrounded
by equally sprawling cemeteries, the oldest being Saqqara. This,
then, was the home of Ptah, Sekhmet and Nefertum.
Ptah's name is thought to mean
'The Opener' which may not convey much on the surface of the matter,
but esoterically, it is full of meaning. In The Tree of Life Israel
Regardie equates Ptah with Kether on the Qabalistic glyph, because
his appearance inaugurated or commenced a cycle of cosmic manifestation
The Symbolist, following on from
this introductory definition, gleams yet more from the way the
Ptah is always depicted in the reliefs and statues made of him.
This was as a seated or standing male figure in a close-fitting,
almost mummy-swathed, garment which leaves only his hands - they
always grasp a composite staff or sceptre of three symbols - free.
His head is covered with an equally close-fitting skull cap.
As is noted in the Qabalistic
comparison, Ptah appears in the Egyptian Heaven World as the Divine
Artificer or Cosmic Architect, an attribute reflected in the Terrestrial
Realm as his assumption of the role of patron of the arts, crafts,
builders and sculptors. The Egyptians considered him the moulder
of form which began in Heaven and reached its concrete manifestation
on Earth. He was the shaper who opened a channel for manifestation
from one plane to another.
Just as an earthly architect
is not completely at liberty to do as s/he might wish in their
profession, i.e. they are usually commissioned to use their skills,
their shape-giving abilities, to render manifest the ideas or
plans of others, so was Ptah similarly commissioned by the powers
of Heaven to translate their wishes into manifestation. This is
why he is always depicted as tightly bound by the garment he wears,
his activities are carefully regulated in that he is to give shape
to the words of Ra as rendered through Thoth, and give them form
Symbolist also sees Ptah as the divine, creative fire - bound
by the descent into matter into form itself - rendered capable
thereby of physical creation on the earth plane. The sceptre he
holds, with its own trilogy of symbols, the Uas, Ankh and Djed,
underscore this function, for translated these terms give 'verbal'
expression to Ptah's task in shaping the abstract into the visible:
Power, Life and Stability.
Ptah's consort, Sekhmet the Powerful,
is the feminine principle of this same creative fire, but whereas
Ptah is seen as basically beneficent, Sekhmet has dual qualities.
She can heal or destroy, be merciful or ruthless, inspire fear
or reverence. War was carried out under her aegis, yet her placid
side was as Bast, the playful domestic cat. Not only in degree,
but also in form, Sekhmet displayed her changing abilities - she
was primarily depicted as a lioness-headed woman, but she could
also be shown with the unmistakable bodily trait of an ithyphallic
male. In this form, the Egyptians recognised her ability to attract
celestial energy and then to precipitate this energy into form.
Despite this outwardly male depiction,
Sekhmet is very defnitely female, as her devotees aver. One modern
devotee was Bernard Bromage MA, who through the pages of The Occult
Arts of Ancient Egypt could not entirely conceal his devotion
to Bast/Sekhmet. His description of meeting this Great One face
to face is worth repeating:
It is difficult to put into words
the impact of this figure on the consciousness. It is as if one
had entered, without any scathing, some vast primordial fire (for
the cat-goddess is the patron of fire as well as of Creative Beneficence).
But a tonic fire! One that irradiated all one's energies and made
them function with an intensely renewed spontaneity and vigour.
Not all might find such a direct
encounter with Sekhmet so beneficial or renewing, for she was
also called Sekhmet, She to whom men offer sacrifices by night.
As one Egyptian myth stated it so graphically, she also 'waded
about in the blood of men'. Esoterically, her destructive side
was regarded as necessary for renewal and regneration, a trait
she shares with the Theban differentiation as Mut the Mother.
The ever-enterprising Greeks,
believing that the ancient gods of Egypt could be safely equated
with their own pantheon, which was true in some respects, found
no place for Sekhmet within it, and perhaps wisely, left her alone.
But correlations for Sekhmet can be found with the 'terrible'
Kali of India, as has been noted by other writers.
The 'son' of the divine admixture
of the creative male and female fire of Ptah and Sekhmet found
expression in Nefertum, even though the connection can be seen
as tenuous. This is because Wadjet, a cobra-goddess of Buto in
the Delta, also claimed Nefertum as her son, as did the Bast aspect
of Sekhmet. At any rate, he was added to the family of Memphis
to complete the triad. His name carries the connotation of 'Perfection'
and like his mother(s) Sekhmet and Bast, he has solar connections.
He is usually depicted as a human male, sometimes with a lion's
head or standing upon the back of a lion. His symbol was the lotus,
which made him a perfect choice for the ancient Egyptians to consider
him the patron of their extensive and well-known perfumery industry.
On the less mundane level, Nefertum was a form of the young sun-god,
born within the petals of the lotus flower, and to which the setting
sun returned to each night. In the wisdom teachings, Nefertum
represents the unceasing nature of continually renewed creation.
One further aspect of Ptah's
needs a brief mention before we can take leave of Memphis, and
this is in Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. Ptah, in accordance with the very
nature of the Egyptian Neters, is never as clear-cut or as static
as surface study alone would lead one to believe. Closer investigation
into any of the Neters find their sharply defined outer images
beginning to blur and merge, until they fuse or take on other
attributes, becoming further dualities or trinities. Such is the
case with Ptah-Sokar-Osiris.
This triad reflects, or emphasises,
the far more abstract nature of each individual Neter working
in conjunction with the other. Ptah, as the cosmic, creative fire
descends to Sokar, which is the principle of unactivated fire
located at the nadir of the descent, or death. Once this lower
fire is activated by Ptah it is then mediated by the resurrrectional,
or renewal, qualities of Osiris which carries the promise of a
return to the zenith or source of all. Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures
were placed in tombs, sometimes with inscribed portions of Manifestation
in the Light or Coming Forth by Day, ie. the so-called Book of
the Dead, carefully deposited in the receptacle base of the statuettes
- clearly stating the deceased's wish for resurrection/return
to the Heaven World.
So we conclude this necessarily
brief look at the three major Neters of Memphis. The city worshipped
other forms of Ptah, such as the Apis Bull and of Sekhmet as well,
in the mother of the Apis calves, but this can be seen as variations
on the one guiding theme.
In the next article we shall
turn to Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, and see how the Egyptians
conceived of 'The Beginnings of Beginning'.
 Israel Regardie: The Tree of Life, a Study in Magic
 Bernard Bromage, MA: The Occult Arts of Ancient Egypt