The Ancient Egyptian Soul

Ancient Egyptian conceptions of the relationship between the soul and the body were complex and fascinating. They believed that the body (in particular the heart – “ib”) housed the individual consciousness of a person. However, in addition to the physical body a person was made up of a number of different components.

What we would refer to as a soul was to them a combination of three separate aspects – the Ba (Soul or Personality), Ka (Life-force), and Akh (Spirit). The other important components were the Ren (name) and the Shuyet (shadow). After death, if they had lived a good life and the funerary rituals had been performed correctly, they hoped to become an akh (effective spirit).

Ib (Heart)

The heart being weighed against the feather of Maat

The heart was the seat of a person’s personality and spirit, and so the most important part of the body. It was not removed during mummification, but was protected by a powerful amulet – the heart scarab.

When a person entered the Hall of Judgment after death, it was their heart that was weighed against the feather of Ma’at to determine whether they had lived a good life and deserved to join the blessed dead. Part of this ritual was the Negative Confession (recorded in the Book of the Dead) , in which the deceased listed the crimes that they had not committed. If they failed this test, their heart was thrown into the lake of fire or gobbled up by the fearsome Ammit and they suffered the feared second death.

Ren (Name)

To have a name was to have an identity. If your name was lost, you were no longer a distinct person and would cease to exist. As a result, tomb owners inscribe their names all over their tombs and texts beg visitors to say their name and so help them to flourish in the afterlife. The name of the pharaoh was magically protected by the cartouche (a stretched out version of the hieroglyph shen which means protection). One Egyptian myth tells that Isis gained power over Ra himself by learning his secret name.

Cartouche of Rameses III
Cartouches of Rameses III

It was possible to attack a person in the afterlife by destroying their name. This fate could befall a pharaoh if he offended his successors – for example Akhenaten who first tried to remove the name of Amun, but later fell victim to the same practice. There are also examples in private tombs where the name and face of the tomb owner has been defaced by people with a grudge to bear.

Ba (Soul)

The term Ba (plural Bau) is often translated as Soul, but this doesn’t really cover its full meaning. The Ba could be seen as the effect a person has on the world around them; their distinctive personality; or even their reputation. The Ba was depicted as a bird with the head of a person. The Ba was anchored to the body in life, but released in death (and possibly also when sleeping).

The Ba of Ani hovering over his coffin, from his copy of the Book of the Dead
The Ba of Ani hovering over his body

The Coffin Texts refer to the Ba leaving the body at death and eating and drinking in its own right. The Amduat describes the Ba leaving the tomb in the morning to enjoy life, before returning to the coffin every night.

In the Instructions of Merikare we are told that a good king does things that are effective for his Ba (i.e. enhance his reputation). It was also seen as a non-physical mode of being which was separate from its owner. So, the sun could be described as the ba of the sun god Ra, and the Apis Bull as the ba of Osiris.

Ptolemaic Ba Bird, MET
Ptolemaic Ba Bird, MET

A statue could act as a receptacle for the Ba of a god, and it was possible for the Ba of a god to be in many places at one time. During the Old Kingdom, officials were sometimes named as the Ba of their king. Pyramids were referred to as the Ba of their owners, and sacred writings were referred to as the Bau of Re.

The Bau could also be a force to be feared. As well as being the manifestations of specific Gods, the Bau sometimes represented groups of undefined gods. These Bau could be sent out to punish people who had offended the gods. Egyptian magicians conjured frightening and bizarre beings to combat the Bau and prevent them wreaking their revenge on the living.

Ka (vital spark)

The Ka was created at the same time as the living body (khat). It was the double of the body and represented the life force, or essence of a person. It was generally thought that Khnum created the ka and the khat on his potter’s wheel, but alternative myths give that role to Heqet or Meskhenet. The hieroglyph referring to the ka is a pair of arms offering an embrace. This glyph was sometimes added to the head of an image of the Ka. Alternatively the Ka would appear as a duplicate of the image of a person.

Ka Statue of Hor
The Ka statue of Hor

The royal Ka had an additional semi-divine nature. It was not just the double of the king, but connected him with all of the kings that had gone before him and with the god Horus.

The Ka lived on after the death of the body. Offering Formulae within the tomb were addressed to the Ka of the tomb owner. The tomb was also referred to as the House of the Ka. Although the Ka received the offerings made in the offering chapel, it was not seen as physically consuming them. Rather it absorbed the energy or essence of the offerings.

The Ba and the Ka were closely connected. Once the Ba had inhabited a statue of a god or king, the statue became the Ka of that individual. Texts inscribed in the Temple of Edfu confirm that the God rests in his shrine after his Ba has united with the image of his Ka.

Shuyet (shadow)

The Shuyet is described in funerary texts as a powerful entity which both requires protection and offers protection. The king is often depicted under the shade of a feather or palm frond. The feather represents the goddess Ma’at, and the palm frond makes the connection with the hieroglyph for a year, implying the person will live a long life. The shadow also has a clear solar connection. When darkness falls, the shadow disappears, only to be reborn the following day as the sun rises.

Theban Tomb 290, shadow of Irynefer
The shadow of Irynefer, TT290, Soutekh67, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The shadow was also a separate mode of existence. The image of a god carved on the wall of a temple was sometimes called its shadow, and the temple itself was occasionally referred to as a shadow.

The shadow was also associated with death, and the funerary god Anubis. The Coffin Texts associate the shadow with the body in the tomb. The Shuyet is said to live in the inaccessible place (the burial chamber), but it could travel freely. It was depicted only occasionally in Egyptian art as the silhouette of a person.

Akh (Spirit)

The Akh is a tricky concept perhaps best understood as the effective spirit of the deceased. When a person died, their Ka left their body. The Opening of the Mouth ritual allowed the Ba to leave the body. The akh was the result of the successful union of the Ba and Ka which occurred if the person’s heart passed the test in the Hall of Judgment. Thus the primary purpose of the funerary texts and rituals was to help the deceased become an akh.

Although the akh was not itself divine, it shared some characteristics with the gods and was immortal. During the Old Kingdom, only kings and gods are identified with the akh, but as time progressed all people could hope to be transfigured as one of the blessed dead. Living people could pray to the akh of their ancestors for help, but the akhu could also inflict punishments on the living if not appeased.

The akh also relates to the effectiveness of a person when they undertook any act considered glorious or righteous. For example, a king building a temple for a god or a man feeding and clothing the poor could both be considered akhut (that which is akh).

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Copyright J Hill 2017