This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
2004 First Web Paper
For the Ancient Egyptians the "afterlife" was a very important concept. Once a person died there were a number of steps that needed to be taken to ensure their continued existence. Mythologically the deceased person came before the god Osiris and denied having committed any offenses in their lifetime. The most famous and telling trial was the weighing of the heart. In this ceremony the feather of Ma'at, the goddess of truth, was weighed against the heart of the deceased. If the heart was not heavier than the feather the person was able to continue on into their afterlife, however if, because of sins, the heart was heavier than the feather, the soul of the person was devoured by a chimeric amalgam of hippopotamus, crocodile and lion. (1)
For each step of the journey to the after-world the Ancient Egyptians believed that their soul or "self" had a different aspect. There were five parts: the ka, the ba, the akh, the name and the shadow or shade. (2) Each of the aspects of the Ancient Egyptian "self" was unique, yet interrelated with the other four elements.
The ka was depicted in two ways; in many instances it was simply a smaller version of the individual. It is thought that this represented, not a distinct facet of the individual, but a way of representing the ka as being within the person. (3) Alternatively, the ka was depicted as two arms upraised. Sometimes, such as in text, this symbol would be seen alone, however often it was attached to the top of the head of the individual. There is no accurate manner in which to translate the meaning of ka, however for the sake of discussion it is often referred to as "sustenance". (4) It was the primary differentiation factor of a living person from a dead one. When born, every ancient Egyptian received their ka and it would stay with them until their death. (5) It was believed that when the god of creation, Khnum, formed the person on his potter's wheel , he also formed their ka. (6) After the person had died the ka still required food, this was supplied in the tomb, either in the form of actual food, or symbolically as tomb paintings. The ka did not so much eat the food, as absorb the life-energy of the sacrifices. Upon the moment of death the ka became dormant, and stayed thus until the end of the mummification process when it was rejuvenated and the ba came to join it in the afterlife. (7)
The ba is the closest manifestation of the modern idea of a "soul". It was always illustrated as a bird with a human head, and sometimes with human arms. (8) Because of the avian depiction the ba is often connected to migratory birds, which were thought to be peoples' bas going from the tomb to the afterlife and back. (9) Humans were not the only creatures with bas, they were also possessed by gods, for example the Benu bird was considered the ba of Re, as the Apis bull was that of Osiris. (10) The ba was all of the nonphysical aspects of a person that defined them, it is sometimes considered to be the modern equivalent of personality. It was the role of the ba to travel to the ka in the afterlife, in place of the body, which was unable to make this journey. Once it had reached the ka, the two joined aspects of the "self" were transformed into the akh. It should also be noted that without the ba, the body of the deceased person would not be able to survive, and thus their entire being would die. There were two things required by the ba in order for it to endure. First, it must return to the body every night. Second, it required the same sustenance as a person, to supply this, food and drink were left in the tomb and their depiction was painted on the walls. (11)
The akh was the combination of the ba and the ka. This was the form of the "self" that lived in the after-world. (12) The akh was believed to have direct influence on the world of the living, for good or ill. In fact, when people believed themselves to be suffering from malice, they would write letters to the akh of dead people to ask for their forgiveness and beg pardon. (13) After the heart of the deceased person had been weighed and had been accepted into the after-world, the ka was allowed to join with the ba creating the akh. This new form was often portrayed as a mummified figure. However, the hieroglyphic form that describes it is the crested ibis. This akh was believed to be the link between the human and the divine, in fact, dead ancestors, who were not royal, were often given a place of exaltation in the house. (14) The akh was one of the aspects of the "self" that was allowed to freely wander the land, and thus able to interact with the living. The akh was believed to be forever the same, it never changed or perished. (15)
Names were given at the moment of birth to all children, for without a name, that child never really existed, and was thus unable to live. Often the name given was adapted from the name of a local deity or a god that was particularly powerful at the time. (16) The only way for a person's name to be preserved was to have it inscribed, either on texts within their tomb, or even directly onto the tomb wall itself. In fact, if one wished to eliminate a person's akh, indeed their entire being, they would remove all mention of the dead person, scratching their name out when carved in stone and destroying any textual reference to that person. (17) One of the most famous examples of this is Hatshepsut, whose probable son (or stepson) ordered all examples of her name to be annihilated. Because of the power that the ancient Egyptians believed true names to hold, gods' true names were often never known. They might have hundreds of names, but none would be the power-relating true name. Conversely, if one knew the name of an evil spirit, it could be vanquished, the ritual words used were "I know you and I know your names." (18) One of the most telling examples of the power of the true name was that it was believed that Ptah, one of the creator gods, brought everything in to being, simply by speaking the name for each. (19)
The shadow (or shade, as it was also know) was a form of the "self" often represented by a darkened painting of the individual. Apparently it was imperative to protect the shadow from any harm, (20) although it itself was considered a form of defense for that individual. This protection was well known, for even in the Valley of the Kings the tombs were built taking the shadow of the sun into account. (21) This idolization of the shade is understandable given the intensity of the sun in Egypt, anything could rapidly become burned, thus something that protected from that heat would be considered powerful. (22) In a similar vein it should be noted that pharaohs were often depicted under the shade of a fan made of feathers or palm leaves. The final defining factor of the shadow was that it moved with tremendous speed and contained great power. (23)
As is clear from the above information, each aspect of the "self" was viewed as unique; each had its own purpose and use. There are, however, also many ways that these aspects are interwoven.
The ka and the ba are the most closely related. They both represent different portions of a person's personality. They are, in fact, so closely related that after death they become joined into one, the akh. Thus it is clear how these three aspects relate to each other, and how without one, the rest would be powerless. The name and shadow are less obviously integrated. Both of these aspects were more closely related to the world of the living than the ka, the ba or the akh. The name was an actual continuous link to those living, just as the ka was, both could be affected by the actions of the living. The name was also similar to the ka because when a child was born, the two thinks that it received were its name and its ka. The shadow was more closely associated with the ba. Both the shadow and the ba were thought to stay with the body after death. Because of their presence the body was sustained and protected.
It can now be seen that the ancient Egyptian "self" was a complicated and intricate idea. By loosing just a single aspect, the dead person was doomed, they would never go into the after-world, instead they would simply cease to exist. It was this symbiosis that created such a strong sense of self and unity among the ancient Egyptian people.
A beautiful example of this unity and power is the name of the pharaoh Akhenaten. The name when translate conveys the idea that the pharaoh is the akh of the god Aten, the lord of light who creates shadow. Thus he has combined into his name all the five element of the soul, the name, the ka and the ba as the sacred akh, and the shadow formed by the passing of the sun, Aten.
1) The Spirits of Nature: Religion of the Egyptians, a summary of the basic tenets of Ancient Egyptian religion
2)Death in Ancient Egypt, a summary of the funerary customs of Ancient Egypt
3)Death in Ancient Egypt, a summary of the funerary customs of Ancient Egypt
4)Ka, a summary of the ka
5)The Afterlife, a summary of the aspects of the ancient Egyptian afterlife
6)The Concept of the Soul in Ancient Egypt, a summary of the five forms of the Ancient Egyptian soul
7)The Afterlife, a summary of the aspects of the ancient Egyptian afterlife
8)Death in Ancient Egypt, a summary of the funerary customs of Ancient Egypt
9)Ba, a summary of the ba
10)The Concept of the Soul in Ancient Egypt, a summary of the five forms of the Ancient Egyptian soul
11)The Afterlife, a summary of the aspects of the ancient Egyptian afterlife
12)The Concept of the Soul in Ancient Egypt, a summary of the five forms of the Ancient Egyptian soul
13)Death in Ancient Egypt, a summary of the funerary customs of Ancient Egypt
14)Akh, a summary of the akh
15)The Afterlife, a summary of the aspects of the ancient Egyptian afterlife
16)Name and Shadow, a summary of the two aspects of the soul, the name and the shadow
17)Death in Ancient Egypt, a summary of the funerary customs of Ancient Egypt
18)Names, a summary of the concept of names in ancient Egypt
19)The Concept of the Soul in Ancient Egypt, a summary of the five forms of the Ancient Egyptian soul
20)Death in Ancient Egypt, a summary of the funerary customs of Ancient Egypt
21)Shewet, a summary of the shewet or shadow
22)The Concept of the Soul in Ancient Egypt, a summary of the five forms of the Ancient Egyptian soul
23)Name and Shadow, a summary of the two aspects of the soul, the name and the shadow
| Course Home Page | Course Forum | Brain and Behavior | Serendip Home |