The Creator God as Plastic Artist: Comparison of The Hebrew YHWH and the Ancient Egyptian Ptah
In Ancient Egyptian mythology, the primal god Ptah (Ptah-Neb-Ankh), who created himself, the gods and all things, was also revered as the originator of the plastic arts and the artist's workshop. The high priest of Ptah was styled "Chief of the Arts." Ptah was a "Great Father" deity, like the Hebrew deity YHWH, and a great giant in theological union with Tatenen (the earth god). "No father gave you birth, no mother gave you birth," the priests of Ptah inform us about their god.
Ptah was the primal deity who, as cosmic plastic artist, in the beginning, built up his own body and gave form to his own limbs, and in the process of self-creation formed the entire cosmos (in a pantheistic sense). He was, like the Hebrew YHWH, a composite deity ("Tsabaoth") whose eyes were the sun and moon. His breath was the air of the world and the Nile flowed from his mouth. Ptah, in Ancient Egypt, was the patron deity of architects, builders, artists and sculptors.
Ptah is speculated to have been originally a dwarf spirit who became a giant after theological fusion with Tanen, the earth god. Ptah-Tanem, khnum and Herchef formed a triad of gods identified as the primal spirits of the original creation. The priests of Ptah would insist, as their theology evolved and became more abstract and abstruse, that Ptah created himself as pure thought and that all things are the product of his creative intellect (in this abstract conception of the deity, we may think of Ptah as "wind," "spirit," "breath" or as Cosmic Ego and creative demiurge transcendent and immanent in nature).
Ptah was often represented as a "seated" or "enthroned" deity. His representation as a "seated" deity is believed to be derived from the preference of early Egyptian sculptors for the "seated form," a dominant theme in Asiatic art (compare seated Buddha statues). "Seated deities" are cosmical demiurgic giants described in Afro-Asiatic cultures as enthroned deities with the head supporting the sky and the feet resting on the earth(compare the Hebrew YHWH: "Heaven is my throne; the earth my footstool."—Isaiah 66:1)
Of special interest to us is the association of the seated deity with the plastic arts. Otto Rank in his Birth Trauma explains that in Ancient Egyptian language, to create a piece of sculpture was linguistically associated with the act of "bringing into life." The artist's work was seen as sharing in essence with the original creative act of the cosmic Demiurge and the artistic creative process was often described in sexual reproductive birth terms. The sculptor, in bringing a form out of a stone medium, allows it to "grow out" of the stone block in the manner of parturition or birth process: that is, in the process of passage through the birth canal, the baby is pictured as literally "growing into being." The material medium of the artist, thus, becomes a mother-womb symbol, the primal chaos ocean, the cosmic egg of origins.
Of the Egyptian triad of primal creative deities (Ptah-Tanen, Khnum and Herchef), the god Khnum came closest to the Hebrew picture of the primal deity as creative artist. Khnum was a ram-headed god whose cult originated in Elephantine. He was like YHWH, a potter, who, at the creation, shaped men like a potter shapes with clay upon a wheel (the Hebrew picture of YHWH 'loyim as primal potter is demonstrated in Jeremiah 18:2-4). In Memphite theology Ptah, in his association with Khnum, was a dwarf spirit, chief of the nine creative cosmic spirits, collectively referred to as Khnum ("the potters"). The nine Khnum spirits were represented in statuettes with muscular bodies, bowed legs, long arms and big heads.
According to Memphite theology, Ptah, assisted by the Khnum spirits, shaped the world and men like a potter shapes clay on wheel; thus, the dwarfs were often represented as earthenware elves. In the association of the Khnum spirit with clay or earth, as medium of creative-artistic expression, the Khnum spirits were often represented as dwelling underground, like artisans in subterranean workshops, bringing things to life from earthenware material in the "womb of the earth." The idea of subterranean workshop of the creative-artistic dwarf spirits, pictured as "primal potters," is widespread. The Chinese worshiped Pan Ku and Phoenician sailors revered dwarf statuettes. Creative dwarf spirits were associated with Tvashtar the "Modeller," in the Rig-Veda hymns. "Black dwarfs" were also identified as creative spirits in Teutonic mythology.
The highest conception of Ptah the Primal Modeler, in Egyptian theology, was rather abstract. He was (as already mentioned) the embodiment of the Cosmic Ego and omnipresent demiurgic spirit, creator of all things. All things took shape or emerged from his creative mind.
The Creator God as Smith-Artificer: Prometheus as Messiah-Savior Figure
With the development of the technological skills of craftsmanship and artistic production in metal medium, there arises the theological picture of the Creator God as "wonder smithy." Thus, in historic cultures in which metal works became highly developed, we find a prominence of theological representation of the primal creative deity, not as a potter shaping the cosmos (and mankind) with clay on a wheel, but as a "wonder smith," a skilled metal works "craftsman" (Vulcan, Hephaestus or Ogun).
We see the picture of the creative primal deity as smithy at its incipience in the famous Greek myth of Prometheus the god-man, fire-bringer, creator and messiah-savior, who stole the divine spark from the gods and brought it to men. Prometheus, however, is not a metal craftsman for he forms men from the earth and then breathes into them the heavenly fire-essence which brings the warmth of life into otherwise cold, lifeless earthenware vessels (compare the Hebrew creation story–"And YHWH 'loyim formed the man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being"–Genesis 2:7).
The act of creation of the first woman was ascribed to Prometheus in some versions of the Greek myth. Though Prometheus was not a High God (he was only a lesser divinity, an ancestral "Adamic" deity, who stole the divine fire from the gods) the similarity of his character to the Hebrew YHWH is obvious. He formed men "in his image after his likeness," in clay medium, and he was directly responsible for the creative misadventure of "misfortune as wife." However, Hesiod, in his Theogony, tells a version of the almost universal misogynist story in which the woman is blamed for the misfortune of mankind– Hesiod tells us that Zeus allowed the woman Pandora to be created by Hephaestus in order to punish Prometheus for stealing the divine "spark." The woman is, thus, portrayed, as in the Genesis creation account, an entrapment for the man.
Otto Rank, in his Trauma of Birth, portrays Hesiod's version of the Prometheus story as suggesting that Prometheus' punishment, traditionally described as a "crucifixion," really was a metaphor for female entrapment. Like the Christian Messiah-Savior, Prometheus was worshiped as a god-man savior and friend by the Greeks. Zeus punishes him for bringing fire and light to men by fixing him firmly to a rock ("crucifixion") and a bird of prey eternally tears at and devours his liver which grows back overnight (thus, prolonging his torture for eternity). Prometheus' torture by a pecking bird of prey, Otto Ranks suggests, is figurative of the idea of the "henpecked" husband (at the mercy of an eternally nagging wife).
The picture of the creative deity as divine "wonder smithy" comes to full bloom in the personality of Hephaestus (Vulcan). The Egyptian modeller or "craftsman" deity Ptah is not a fire god nor is he a smith. The Greek Hephaestus is, however, a divine smith. He, unlike Prometheus (the Adam god-man of plastic artists) created forms from pure eternal metal before breathing the fire of life into them. He is associated with lightning, for he is said to have jumped from the heavens to the earth.
Closely associated with divine smiths are fire gods whose characters are similar to those of smithy deities. Hephaestus also was a fire god and the Greek Hestia was a goddess of the hearth.
JohnThomas Didymus is the author of "Confessions of God: The Gospel According to St. JohnThomas Didymus"