Ancient Egyptian Temples were the centres of each community. The priests who maintained them accepted gifts and offerings on behalf of the deities and donations of cattle, fruit from the first harvest and revenue from the land. Deities with widespread appeal naturally amassed most wealth, and the priesthood of Ptah acquired a taste for power. They realised that though Ptah was the chief deity of the Memphite Triad, he had mere local appeal; unlike the Sun-god, whose centre of worship was Heliopolis, Ptah was unknown outside Memphis. If he could acquire solar power, then like the Sun-god he would enjoy pre-eminence. If Memphis could become a centre for culture and learning, then the priests themselves would have power and prestige second to none.
In populous Memphis the priests staged a drama which reveals their ingenious plot to undermine the sun cult and Heliopolis for the greater glory of Ptah and Memphis. The drama was in mythological language, and has miraculously been preserved in a late copy on what is known as the Shabaka Stone. Dressed as deities, the priests acted familiar tales of the creation of the physical world from the waters of chaos; of death and resurrection and of the triumph and coronation of a Horus king; each item of the traditional doctrine was presented, but subtly varied in the interests of Memphis. For Ptah God, the priests claimed, was himself the eternal ocean Nun that existed for all time and out of which both the primeval hill and Atum- Ra were created. Therefore their deity Ptah existed before Atum. They explained that the primeval hill rose from the eternal ocean, not in Heliopolis as in the earlier cosmogony, but in Memphis; that Memphis was the ‘Great Throne’, the site where Isis beheld the body of her beloved husband drowning in the water, and, moreover, the burial-place of Osiris God.
The priests did not deny the older doctrine. They merely claimed that since Ptah God was the eternal ocean, all other gods were no more than manifestations of him. One can well imagine the impact on the illiterate masses of the sight of the priests dressed up as their favourite deities, Horus and Set, Thoth the Moon-god and Geb the Earth-god, appearing as men and talking together. It must have been a highly inspired priesthood who at one stroke captured the minds of the masses by satisfying their taste for a tale, and swayed the intellectuals through profound abstract reasoning. For they pointed out that Ptah’s primacy lay in his power over the heart, or lb (which was the seat of thought and judgement) and the tongue, which represented command. In place of muscular effort (as when Shu, the atmosphere, separated Nut and Geb), they described the heart and tongue as the organs of creation. They explained that all things that originated in the heart took shape on being pronounced. The words on the Shabaka Stone: ‘For every word of the Egyptian god came about through what the heart devised and the tongue commanded,’ bear a striking resemblance to St John’s opening passage: ‘In the beginning was the Word’.
The Memphite Drama, staged in the populous capital, is therefore a fascinating intermingling of mythology on the one hand and abstract reasoning on the other. By giving Ptah God credit for the creation of the physical world, for ‘[giving] birth to the gods, [making] the towns, [establishing] the provinces, [setting] the gods “of every wood, every stone, every clay” in their shrines’, the priests of Memphis established themselves as the supreme political power of the state and the custodians of the country’s wealth.
Near the borderline between the Two Lands we now have evidence of political rivals: Heliopolis, situated on the eastern bank of the Nile about 7 miles west of modern Cairo, and Memphis on the western bank some 16 miles further south. Each city had a powerful priesthood which claimed for its deity the creation of the physical world. Their two cosmogonies, the Heliopolitan Ennead and the Memphite Doctrine, had as we have seen many concepts in common. Yet the priests of Memphis had not only reinterpreted the earlier and more widely held view of the creation for the greater glory of Ptah God, but had also deliberately undermined the centre of the sun cult. Up to this point in Egypt’s ancient history the major obstacle to unity between the Two Lands had been internal dissent based on cultural differences. We now have a different problem to consider: which deity, Atum-Ra or Ptah, was the creator of the physical world? Which of the two priesthoods should be looked upon as the guardian of the country’s economy ?
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