The Ancient Egyptian Concept of the Soul

The Ancient Egyptian Concept of the Soul

by Caroline Seawright

To the Ancient Egyptians, their soul, their being, were made up of many different parts. Not only was there the physical form, but there were eight immortal or semi-divine parts that survived death, with the body making nine parts of a human.

A Ka Statueof Auibre Hor from the 13th Dynasty reign of Auibre  Hor

The precise meaning of ka, ba, ach (akh), `shm (sekhem), and so on is no longer clear to us. Well-meaning scholars try again and again and again to force the Egyptian idea of the soul into our traditional categories without enabling us to understand even a little of it any better

-- J. J. Poortman, Vehicles of Consciousness - the Concept of Hylic Pluralism

The Egyptian's other worldly parts include:

  • Khat (Kha) - The physical form, the body that could decay after death, the mortal, outward part of the human that could only be preserved by mummification.

  • Ka - The double that lingered on in the tomb inhabiting the body or even statues of the deceases, but was also independent of man and could move, eat and drink at will. (There was both a higher, guardian angel like Ka and lower Ka that came from knowledge learned on earth.)

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

  • Ba - The human headed bird flitted around in the tomb during the day brining air and and food to the deceased, but traveled with Ra on the Solar Barque during the evenings.

  • Khaibit - The shadow of a man, it could partake of funerary offerings and was able to detach itself from the body and travel at will, though it always was thought to stay near the Ba.

  • Akhu (Akh, Khu, Ikhu) - This was the immortal part, the radiant and shining being that lived on in the Sahu, the intellect, will and intentions of the deceased that transfigured death and ascended to the heavens to live with the gods or the imperishable stars.

  • Sahu - The incorruptible spiritual body of man that could dwell in the heavens, appearing from the physical body after the judgment of the dead was passed (if successful) with all of the mental and spiritual abilities of a living body.

  • Sekhem - This was the incorporeal personification of the life force of man, which lived in heaven with the Akhu, after death.

The ancient Egyptian heart

  • Ab (Ib) - The heart, this was the source of good and evil within a person, the moral awareness and centre of thought that could leave the body at will, and live with the gods after death, or be eaten by Ammut as the final death if it failed to weigh equally against Ma'at.

  • Ren - The true name, a vital part to man on his journey through life and the afterlife, a magical part that could destroy a man if his name was obliterated or could give power of the man if someone knew his Ren - naming ceremonies in Egypt were secret, and a child lived his whole life with a nickname to avoid anyone from learning his true name!

The multiplicity of Egyptian thought is so different from the traditional view of western thought that it can be hard to imagine.

The dead man is at one and the same time in heaven, in the god's boat [Re, the sun-god's, celestial barge], under the earth, tilling the Elysian fields, and in his tomb enjoying his victuals.

-- Lionel Casson, Ancient Egypt

In Egypt one person could have multiple afterlives - each different part of the person would be able to have its own existence after death, if they survived the trials of the underworld and the Osirian judgment of the dead with all of their magic spells.

While the Khat lies in the tomb, ready to be animated by the Ka, the Ba might be traveling the underworld with Ra. While the Ab is with the gods, the Khaibit might be with the Ba on the barque, or in the tomb eating some offerings. At the same time, the Akhu, Sekhem and Sahu might be contentedly living in the stars, looking down at the earth.

An interesting point to note is that the Egyptians believed that animals, plants, water and even stones had their own Ka. A human's Ka could move around while a person slept, and even inhabit a plant if the Ka so desired, rather than the human. The Ka could manifest itself, as a ghost, to others, both when the person it was 'born' with was dead or a live. It was even thought to haunt those who did wrong to it - if family failed to make proper offerings, the starving and thirsty Ka would haunt them until they corrected this error!

The face of the mummy of Yuya, who's daughter Tiye married  Amenhotep III

The Egyptians mummified their bodies because their physical form was an integral part to their afterlife. Being such a practical people, liking what they could see and touch, an existence without a physical body was unacceptable to them. Even the destruction of the heart (the spiritual Ab rather than the physical heart) would mean the death of all of the other parts of the being, but it meant that the physical heart was preserved along with the physical body. Other rituals point to the importance of the physical body after death - the Opening of the Mouth ceremony allowed the body to breath, while other rituals were performed on the corpse to allow the deceased to see and hear in the Land of the West.

Death was a complex affair. Originally this was only for the pharaoh, but the rich soon believed that they could take part in the afterlife, and eventually the poor believed they could join the ranks of the blessed dead. Other reasons for the complexity of life after death came from the Egyptian way of clinging to ideas, rather than discarding them when new ideas came along. The intermingling of peoples, the different religious ideas and cults all were incorporated into the Egyptian belief system, giving rise to this elaborate belief system.

The Ancient Egyptian Soul being Weighed

From the monuments and papyrus scrolls and tombs left today, it's no wonder that Egyptians were thought to have focused their lives around death! But the Egyptians, like any other people, enjoyed life, and did not look forward to death. They followed the maxim "live life not that thou shalt die" - partying and generally trying to enjoy life. But death, to the Egyptians, was a somewhat better version of their current life. They would eat, drink and share good companionship in the stars or in the Land of the West. They would have servants to do their chores for them. Life, after death, would be ideal.

The only problem was that there was no guarantee that they would actually get to the afterlife, and there was always the threat of their names, physical bodies or images being destroyed, killing their multiple parts in the process. Spells, prayers, tomb paintings and statues could help, but if everything was obliterated, then they died, too. No wonder the Egyptians lived their lives to the fullest!