The Ancient Egyptian Ba

The Ancient Egyptian Ba

Inherkhau and his Ba from a painting in his tomb on the West Bank at Luxor

The ancient Egyptians believed that there were a number of different components that made up an individual, such as the ka, which we interpret as meaning "life force", the shadow, and even a persons name, among others. The ba was another one, a major component we believe to have a meaning somewhat similar to our western concept of the soul, though not altogether the same. The Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom are the earliest textual source for the concept of the ba.

One difference is that the ba appears to have been understood from the point of view of an observer rather than that of the individual with whom it was associated. It personified the impression that individuals make on the world around them or their effect on others, so in a way, it also relates to the individual's personality. This aspect of the ba is embodied in an abstract term, bau, meaning something like "impressiveness", "effect", or even "reputation". Hence, in the "Instructions for Merikare", the pharaoh is instructed on the proper conduct of kingship that "A man should do the things that are effective for his bau", and therefore to enhance his image before others and the gods. When the king acted against Egypt's enemies or the gods intervened in human affairs, those actions were often referred to as the bau of their agents. However, there were some very distinct differences between the ba and bau. While the ba appears to have been associated with only human beings or gods, the idea of the bau could also be associated with objects that would otherwise be considered inanimate. For example, in the "Instructions of Amenemope", the warning is made concerning the misappropriation of grain that "the threshing-floor of barley is greater of bau (and therefore has a greater effect) than an oath sworn by the throne.

Nefertari as a Ba

Though, like the soul, the ba seems to have been essentially nonphysical, it nevertheless could be viewed as a separate physical mode of existence for its owner, even prior to death. Hence, the sun could be viewed as the ba of Re, or the Apis bull as the ba of Osiris. In the Late Period, even sacred writings were often referred to as the "bas of Re." In fact, one god could be viewed as the ba of another. This was especially true of Re and Osiris, who formed a union in the netherworld through which Re received the power of rebirth and Osiris was resurrected in Re. The combined deity that they formed as sometimes called "He of two bas." The pharaoh could also be present as a ba in another form of existence. During the Old Kingdom, pyramids were often called the bas of their owners, and officials sometimes had names that identified them as the ba of the king, such as "Izezi is His ba".

The ba of ordinary Egyptians during their lifetime is rarely mentioned. Egyptologists have suggested that this evidences the belief that they did not possess a ba before death. However, "Dialogue of a Man with His Ba," a Middle Kingdom literary texts, certainly seems to refute this idea, even though it is rather unique. In it, a man argues with his ba about the merits of life as opposed to the uncertain nature of life after death during a difficult period. In the end, the ba advises that he should "Desire me here [in life] and reject the West [the land of the dead]. but also desire that you reach the West when your body is interred and that I alight after your death: then we will make harbor together." Clearly at least during this period, this text demonstrates the existence of an individual's ba during life, and even strengthens the view that the ba has a separate mode of existence.

From the Book of Gates, 9th hour, bas of the blessed dead receive food during the night

Nevertheless, and in all instances, the ba is most evident in texts that deal with the afterlife. These texts treat it as both the vehicle of the deceased's existence after his physical death and as a component of the deceased, just as in his life. The Pyramid Texts inform the gods that the deceased "is a ba among you" and assure the deceased that "your ba is within you." Later, during the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom, the deceased appears as the ba of various gods but also as his own ba, with the physical powers of a living body. The second view is also demonstrated in the destiny described in the 18th Dynasty tomb of Paheri at El Kab: "Becoming a living ba having control of bread, water, and air."

Nevertheless, Paheri's text also tells us that "your ba will not abandon your corpse," which supports the Coffin Texts assertion that, "my ba cannot be kept from my corpse." This relationship is strengthened by various chapters in the New Kingdom Book of the Dead (Book of Going Forth by Day), which show the ba not only returning to the mummy and hovering over it, but also participating in activities outside the tomb. The earlier Pyramid Texts were based on the daily solar cycle. In it, the ba reunites each night with Osiris, just like the sun, embodied here in the mummy. Through that union the ba is reborn again each day among the living in a new form of existence.

Prior to the New Kingdom, no representations of the ba are certain, though some funerary statues created during the Old Kingdom are thought to perhaps show the ba in fully human form. Only in the Book of the Dead do we find illustrations that are clearly of the ba, in the form of a bird with a human head, and sometimes other human attributes. This image was also adopted by the Meroitic civilization of Nubia in states of the deceased, basically as statues of human figures with the wings of birds. However, as this may appear to be a historical basis for the concept of angels, note that the Coptic (Christian) texts adopted the Greek word psyche in place of the native bai as the term for "soul," and therefore it is doubtful that such a historic connection exists.