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Work Imhotep the Wise Deified

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Religious and funerary beliefs

Le sage et savant Imhotep

© Musée du Louvre/G. Poncet

Egyptian Antiquities
Religious and funerary beliefs

David Élisabeth

Few individuals in Egypt rose to the status of a god. Yet Imhotep, a brilliant statesmen from the Third Dynasty, was one of them. This wise man designed the first pyramid for his king, Djoser, in the mid-twenty-seventh century BC. Venerated during the New Kingdom as the "patron saint" of scribes, deified in the seventh century BC, and considered the protector of scholars and doctors, he was often portrayed as a scribe. This statue depicts a seated priest with a papyrus unrolled on his knees.

Imhotep: a famous, though unknown figure

There is no known portrait of Imhotep from his lifetime; we know nothing about his family and his tomb has never been found. Yet the Cairo Museum has a fragment of a statue of King Djoser from the Third Dynasty. The base carries an inscription that cites the name of his advisor, Imhotep, and gives a list of his titles: "Chancellor to the king of Lower Egypt, a subordinate to the king of Upper Egypt, administrator of the great domain, administrator of the Pat, great visionary (high priest of Heliopolis), master craftsman of sculptors and masons." The actual person and his links with stone architecture were therefore not invented merely for the purposes of the cult established one thousand years after his death.

The long road toward deification

The late Imhotep started receiving libations from scribes during the reign of Amenophis III, in the fourteenth century BC. Under Ramesses II, in the eighth century BC, he was named "son of Ptah," the chief god of Memphis - a city where he may have had a chapel. The process of deification was finally complete with mention of a temple and the existence of an Imhotep clergy in the Saite Period (Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, seventh-sixth centuries BC). In the Thirtieth Dynasty (fourth century BC), the new god was also believed to have healing powers. This cult, which arose in the Memphis region, spread throughout Egypt and the Mediterranean Basin, encouraged by the identification of Imhotep with the Greek god Asklepios.

An object of veneration

The statue in the Louvre is Ptolemaic, given the style and the form of its hieroglyphs. It represents Imhotep seated on an austere cubic seat, wearing a priest's attire: a long loincloth and cap. The back pillar is inscribed with the name of the person who dedicated the statue: "The imakh [protected by] Imhotep, Wahibre son of Panehes, born of Paypou." An unrolled papyrus on Imhotep's knees has a "prayer" facing toward the viewer: "May the water in the cup of any scribe [be offered in libation] to your ka, Imhotep." This formula explains the way in which scribes had venerated their patron saint since the New Kingdom, by offering him a few drops from their water cups.


M. ETIENNE, Heka - Magie et envoûtement dans l'Egypte ancienne, Catalogue d'exposition, Louvre/RMN, Paris, 2000, p. 72, notice n 212.

Technical description

  • Le sage et savant Imhotep

    époque ptolémaïque, 332 - 30 avant J.-C.

  • grauwacke

    H. : 45,50 cm. ; L. : 11 cm. ; Pr. : 24 cm.

  • N 4541

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Writing and scribes
    Room 335
    Vitrine 5 : Les dieux qui patronnent l'écriture

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