The Egyptian Neters, Part 3

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.

sekhmetThe 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 Wall.

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 . [1]

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 on Earth.

ptahThe 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. [2]

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’.


[1] Israel Regardie: The Tree of Life, a Study in Magic
[2] Bernard Bromage, MA: The Occult Arts of Ancient Egypt