By crass modern standards he might have been considered a man of smallish stature. To his contemporaries this detail had no relevance; instead his outstanding characteristics were a neatly groomed moustache and freshly shaved head. Some felt that he carried his own personal hygienic regimes to an extreme – imagine shaving the entire body and bathing three times a day! But no one could question the results of those measures as he never seemed to suffer from the maladies that afflicted the rest of the villagers: sores, worms, lice, and a whole host of gastro-intestinal ills. Dressed as he was in a simple white loincloth and wearing common sandals made from the tough, but plentiful papyrus reeds, at first blush he appeared quite average – almost plain. But anyone who chanced even to briefly converse with the man knew far, far better.
As the man sat cross-legged upon his tightly woven papyrus mat in the cooling shade of a fragrant sycamore, he found himself thinking deep thoughts as his reed brush delicately traced out graceful hieroglyphs across the papyrus roll that lay cradled on his lap. While sitting in this scribal pose, he was so deeply engrossed in the task before him that he almost missed a potentially bothersome black scorpion, which had skittered across the sun-warmed sand before him. Vaguely noting the movement, Ptah raised his eyes in quiet recognition to follow the insect’s progress that led off into the shade of a nearby shrub.
So, he considered. Now why is that nocturnal creature scurrying about in the afternoon heat? What caused that?
Slowly looking around, the learned priest soon found his answer. For in the direction from whence the arachnid had come he spied a rather skinny desert cat digging into the base of a nearby clump of bush.
Ah ha! That little one was displaced and had to move on. How appropriate, and so much like me. He smiled inwardly as he too was just a wanderer looking for a safe haven.
Looking down and returning to the partially completed column of text before him, he sighed deeply.
Ah, the challenge of it all! As I carefully and unobtrusively attempt to imprint my thoughts upon this young world, all the while being constrained by its earthy, unsophisticated vocabulary and nascent script! Thoth himself would have been proud of my labors!
Thoth, my old friend, I haven’t thought of you in years. You were indeed such a fine teacher – and a better friend.
So the priest bowed his head and silently returned to his labors. But in order to continue where he had left off, he had to reread that which he had written.
There first took form in the heart and there took shape on the tongue of the Great One the image of the god Atum. This act by the very Great One is unknowable. The Great One who gave essence to all life and things through the heart and through the tongue.
Sight, hearing, breathing, these all report to the heart, and the heart makes every understanding come forth. As to the tongue, it repeats what the heart has devised. Thus all the gods were born and the Great One’s Ennead was completed. For every word of the Great One came about through what the heart devised and the tongue commanded.
So did the Great One’s heart and tongue rule over all as if mere limbs of a body in order that its essence is in all things, even the mouth of the gods, all men, all cattle, all creeping things, whatever lives, thinking that whatever this essence wishes and commanding whatever this essence wishes.
As Ptah leaned back from his reading, he sighed again and considered.
I wonder just how long it will be before someone truly appreciates the meaning of these words? But whenever that moment finally occurs, then I will be assured that this world has indeed taken a considerable step forward.
But that, my dear Ptah, will probably not take generations, but tens of generations! Assuming, of course, that these words are even remembered.
* * *
While the priest sat so engrossed in these heady thoughts, his activity nonetheless did not go unnoticed, for nearby two heavily sweating farmers were getting an ambitiously early start on their bountiful harvest of emmer wheat. Barefoot, dressed only in dirty hip girdles, and with their already damp hair tied back with a carelessly braided length of grass, the pair swung their carefully crafted bone sickles, which were hafted from the ribs of a hippopotamus and edged with razor sharp chert microliths. Humming a rhythmic and age old farmers’ harvesting cadence, the men seemed to sway as they worked in time with the breezes that rippled through the ripe grasses.
With a remarkable economy of motion, they first grasped a handful of stalks at their mid-length, mowed them down near ground level, and then stacking their labors crosswise to the side. An observant witness to this seductively lazy-looking process of sway, grasp, swing, and stack might have even noticed the subtle scalloped angle of each sickle’s passing in the neatly trimmed stubble.
Peeking over his sweaty, dusty and chaff coated shoulder, one of the farmers spat under his breath.
“Look over there Hor. That scribbler of children’s pictures is sitting in the shade, while we toil under Re’s hot gaze! I tell you that it just isn’t right. We work, while that know-it-all priest sits! I’m so fed up that I’m tempted to remove that smoothly shaved head of his with my hab-tool!”
At the completion of this last statement the farmer viciously, but carelessly, swung through his handful of stalks and in the process nearly severed the tip of his left hand’s little finger. Immediately letting out a howling yelp, the farmer unconsciously grabbed at his hand, cradling it against his body as tears leaked from his eyes and excruciating pain stabbed at his brain. Hor, at first wide-eyed and shocked at the sudden appearance of so much blood, staggered back and away from his now writhing comrade, who had taken up a fetal position on his side, gently rocking, moaning.
Almost instantaneously, or so it seemed, the bald-headed priest appeared at the stricken man’s side with a small wicker basket that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Kneeling down next to the frightened and grieving man, the priest placed one hand on the man’s sobbing shoulder, while the other began rummaging around in his basket. At his mere touch, the man began to calm; his sobs began to subside. Speaking in a quiet but urgent voice, Ptah commanded the injured man’s companion with his direct gaze.
“You there, what is his name?”
“Kawab!” A distressed voice quickly answered.
“So Hor, make yourself useful and fetch some drinking water for your friend.
As Hor scampered off, the priest turned back to the stricken Kawab and began to speak soothingly.
“My friend, you will survive this accident. Now, let me see what you have done to yourself so that I may see to it.”
Shaking from mild shock, Kawab revealed to the priest his bloody injury.
“You are most fortunate Kawab, for I can see no befoulment.”
Now pulling from his basket a small juglet with its plug bound with leather throngs to keep it securely in place, the priest quickly unbound it, glancing at his patient in order to estimate his mass, and removed from his basket a small drinking cup. Measuring out a small portion of the juglet’s content into the cup, the priest then held it to Kawab’s grimacing lips.
“Now Kawab, open your mouth and immediately drink this drought.”
Sensing the man’s hesitation, the priest gently prodded.
“Kawab, if you wish to save your finger. Drink.”
Now accepting with his lips the pro-offered cup that contained a mixture of raw opium, wine and honey, the priest continued.
“Kawab, drink slowly. Try to swallow as naturally as you can. Good. Now that did not taste so bad. Did it?”
Shaking his head in tentative negation, the injured man said, “No, it did not. In fact, what was it? Sweetened wine?”
“No Kawab. It was not just sweetened wine. Now, give me your hand.”
As the priest held the farmer’s hand, he was simultaneously recording the man’s wild pulse, noting his darting eyes, the shock induced pallor, and the blood flow as the open wound cleansed itself and began to clot.
Yes, quite a little mess. Ptah concluded to himself after inspecting the injury. But this man is indeed fortunate. Shaken yes, but fortunate nonetheless. Once the sedative begins to take hold and I get some water into him, then I will mend his flesh together and bind the wound with some seshed-strips – bandages.
About that time, Hor arrived with a small water jar, his chest heaving from running.
“I hurried as best I could Great One!”
Smiling to himself over Hor’s chosen deferential choice of address, the priest took the jar from the man and first held it to Kawab’s lips. As the man drank deeply, Ptah’s clinical gaze began to notice that the man’s pupils had already begun to dilate, his body to fractionally relax. Now finished, Ptah then extended the jar to Hor and stated simply.
“Drink Hor, you too are in need.”
When he returned to his patient, the priest began to gather this and that from his basket all the while Hor’s forearm rested elevated and across Ptah’s left thigh. While now bleeding more slowly, its splatter was nonetheless all over the priest’s once white kilt. With all of his kit now at the ready, the priest looked up and smiled into the curious face of Hor.
“Observe Hor. Placing an injury to a limb above the chest naturally slows the flow of blood, just as a river cannot flow uphill.
“Observe also that there is nothing foul in this wound as the blood has already cleansed the area. This is the body’s natural way.
“Now we must prepare the mending of the finger and its tip with this powder that will ensure that our careful work will properly heal.”
And before Hor’s gaping visage, the priest sprinkled a whitish, yellowish powder over both the finger and its tip.
Intrigued and finally finding his tongue, Hor inquired.
“Most noble Ptah, what is that powder?”
Inwardly pleased at the man’s question, the priest answered conversationally. “Oh, the powder is nothing special, just an even mixture of sea salt and natrum.”
“But why, Great One, are such salty and bitter things so needful?”
“Because they help in the mending,” the priest explained with some pleasure that this one was even curious. Might he eventually become a potential apprentice?
The actual stitching of the torn and sliced fingertip went uneventfully with Ptah working skillfully and with speed while his patient remained blissfully unaware except for the careful priest’s gentle tugging and pulling with the hooked, fine copper needle.
Meanwhile the entire procedure was witnessed by Hor, who openly marveled at the copper sewing instrument, something of the like that he had only seen before used for mending fishing nets. By the time Ptah had applied the antiseptic honey ointment to the fresh stitching and the final bandaging of the repaired finger had been accomplished, Kawab, while conscious, was otherwise as limp as a sagging tree limb. Clearly, he was no longer in distress.
Now looking up to Hor, Ptah smiled again and asked.
“Well Hor, are you Kawab’s neighbor?”
“Yes I am. In fact, we are brothers. I am the eldest.” The man said with a straightening back and sense of obvious pride.
“Ah, I see. Well good. We must move your younger brother back to his household. Will you help me with him?”
As the pair first steadied and then supported the injured Hor between them, Ptah gently but firmly told Hor the following.
“Make sure that your brother pays a visit to my household in two days time.
“Furthermore, under no circumstances is your brother to use his injured hand for those two days, and that absolutely positively, he is not to remove the bindings – no matter how much his finger itches.”
To all of these things the elder Hor readily agreed. While he certainly did not understand their importance, he nonetheless enjoyed the fact that he could now command his not so little brother around for at least the next two days.
* * *
Not surprisingly, this minor incident, just as with all of the many others, did not go unnoticed by the inhabitants of the Predynastic hamlet of Mennefer, a place better known today by its Greek name – Memphis. To them, the priest with the oddly formed and sounding name was someone who freely dabbled in that new and useless fad called writing, someone remarkably knowledgeable of bodily ills and injuries, construction, and a ready source of all manner of things handy and inventive: the mud brick mold, the potter’s wheel, the kiln bellows, use of beaten copper for tools and medical instruments instead of just for jewelry, irrigation channel locks, and the long handed broom. The list just went on and on. He was someone also who said strange things and formed his thoughts in curious, unpredictable, and contrary ways. But despite all of these quirky oddities, his pronouncements – no matter how illogical sounding, always seemed to eventually come to pass. Consequently, the mere mention of the name Ptah became as much a source of respect and awe as well as one that invoked a certain tinge of irrational unease. After all, how could someone be always right?
Even his arrival to their once disease-ridden cluster of crude papyrus huts had been as sudden as much as it had been a godsend. The then village elder, one known by the name Hesy, remembered that event quite clearly and had passed it down to his eldest son Issi just before that much beloved and venerable one had passed on to the West. Issi, years later and now the village elder, guarded what his father had told him with a pent up mixture of prideful knowledge and fearful anxiety.
“Issi,” his father had begun.
“As I know that you will eventually inherit my station as the father-protector of our household and village, I must pass on to you something which you must know, something that you must eventually pass on to your eldest son.”
At first, the young man feared that his beloved father was about to die and almost moaned aloud in that private agony known as “the weeping of the heart.” But as his father spoke in that special way that father’s speak to their only beloved son, Issi quickly calmed himself and thought that what he was about to hear his father’s usual litany of admonitions about this and that, what one must do and don’t, what was polite and not. He could not have been more wrong.
“When I was a young man, much as you are now, a remarkable thing happened. As I best remember, it was a cool night during the growing season, two inundations before your birth blessed our household. As we do even today, your mother and I slept alone on the rooftop far away from the noise of the animals and prying eyes and ears of our neighbors.
“I will never forget that night and I say this with no disrespect to your mother’s formidable talents,” he said with a lecherous wink.
“Have you ever wondered why I taught you so much about the uncountable lights in the night’s sky?”
“Yes, my father. I know by heart all their names and the seasons and times of their appearances. I know that the gods live there and make the sky their household. These things I know because of your instructions.”
“Indeed my son. Indeed I know that you know, for my own ears have heard you teach your children their many names and the seasons and times of their appearances. But what is so marvelous is that one of the many lights in the night sky, one unimportant and without name, moved that night.”
“Indeed! It moved across the dark sky of the goddess Nut’s vast belly as if it was the face of Re himself.”
“Oh no, my son! The light moved with great swiftness and in a matter of just a few heartbeats traveled across the entire breadth of the sky!”
“Really.” The son said without conviction and who was beginning to wonder just what his father’s story was all about.
“Yes, really! And I am not blathering like old Kahepet does either.” The ancient man added for emphasis.
“But my son, the light did not only cross the sky, it fell out of the sky as well and into the Western Desert.”
Now with this last detail his son’s attention was again regained.
“And the following day a most curious thing occurred.”
“And what was that ‘most curious thing?’” His son automatically responded to his father’s all too well-known conversational method of storytelling.
“A young boy walked out of that waste and approached our village. He was unclothed, without sandals, sunburned, and feverish due to great thirst. Your very mother cared for him, fed, and clothed him. After one day’s time his fever relented and so we asked him his name, from whence he had come, and only then discovered that he could not speak. Instead, he slowly moved his lips whenever we spoke as if in imitation, but no sound came forth from his mouth. This boy with long hair the color of wheat at harvest was surely a stranger. Yet, he did not come from that part of the Western Desert where those wild traders and raiders have such hair as you yourself well know. Still, as is our custom, he was nonetheless a stranger in need who was now under our household’s protection. Few of our neighbors knew of his presence at first, as the boy preferred to sit and watch us watch him, noting our every word in soundless imitation, cocking his head in total interest whenever we performed any household tasks – even the most simple.
“By the beginning of the third day, long assured that the boy was not a danger to your mother, I left for the fields in order to weed and water them. But when I had returned for the midday meal, I found my wife overjoyed and smiling broadly as she watched the boy kneading that very meal’s bread dough. As for the boy, he looked up at me, smiled broadly, and greeted me by name!
“Issi, can you imagine my utter shock! Can you imagine my utter joy! I had many, many questions to ask the boy, not the least of which was my curiosity as to the whereabouts of his household!”
“But father, where is this wheat-haired boy now? I know nothing of him. I have never heard of him. And why are you telling me about this wondrous thing?”
“Well my son that is because the boy is now a grown man, a man who lives among us.”
“And my father does this ‘grown man who lives among us’ have a name?”
“Why yes my son, he is the most noble priest Ptah.”
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