The Deification of Imhotep


Media is loading

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



My book Death, Power, and Apotheosis in Ancient Egypt: the Old and Middle Kingdoms (2021) explores the deification of exalted dead and offers a framework for identifying these figures in the archaeological and textual records. I argue that the deification of the dead in ancient Egypt was not an imported practice, as has been suggested, but has origins in emic ancient Egyptian socio-religious constructions of power and access, evinced as early as the Old Kingdom. Not included in my study is, arguably, the most famous deified dead, Imhotep, who is the focus of this paper. Though Imhotep was an Old Kingdom official (c. 2650 BCE), evidence for his deification is not known until the New Kingdom (c. 1400 BCE), at the earliest. Imhotep’s deification is in many ways paradigmatic and in others unique. In this paper I highlight examples of each in an effort to contextualize this famous case study within the historical phenomenon of apotheosis. Though the long “delay” in his deification is often cited as unique, I suggest that this was not entirely uncommon, using the cases of Heqaib and Isi as antecedents, and explain that it is likely a result of his royal lineage, (presumed) burial near the King, and issues of preservation. I further show that Imhotep’s fame—like the fame of other esteemed dead such as Hordjedef, Ptahhotep, and Kagemni—was transmitted through oral culture, echoes of which are recorded in papyrus Chester Beatty IV and the Harper’s Song (p. Harris 500). Imhotep’s deification is most extraordinary in the dynamism of his varied legacies, from son of Ptah, to Hellenistic god of medicine, to Universal movie monster. Imhotep’s deification aligns with established practices, but also differs from other cases of apotheosis in tangible ways that marks him as distinct, even among other exalted ancient Egyptian dead.

This document is currently not available here.