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The Ka or Double

The Ka
The Ka

difficulty of Exoteric understanding
the Esoteric meaning
an interpretation

The Egyptians used the term "Ka" to designate the soul which remains in the tomb; i.e. the "double".   It is represented by a glyph of two upraised arms in a gesture of calling, or offering or prostration (perhaps of the lower self to the higher self, or the higher self to the Divine).  Lucie Lamy, in her sympathetic study of Egyptian religion and symbolism, describes the Ka as follows:

 "The ka is a complex idea for which we have no linguistic counterpart...It is currently thought that the ka is a manifestation of vital energy but this fails to explain why statues, formulas, and offerings are dedicated, in the funerary ritual, to the ka; or why a narrow "false door" is left in the tomb for the ka to come and go and eat of the food figured on the walls."
[Lucy Lamy, Amazon com Egyptian Mysteries; Art and Imagination  Series, Thames & Hudson, 1981, p.25]

The Ka - difficulty of Exoteric understanding

Not only does the Ka remain in the tomb, but it actually partakes of the physical offerings brought to it.  As E. A. Wallis Budge explains:

"The funeral offerings of meat, cakes, ale, wine, unguents, etc, were intended for the ka; the scent of the burnt incense was grateful to it....In the remotest times the tombs had special chambers wherein the ka was worshipped and received offerings..."
[E. A. Wallis Budge, Amazon com The Egyptian Book of the Dead, p.lxii (Dover Publications, New York, 1967 [originally published 1895])]

The Ka is indeed a rather strange concept.  The fact  that it partakes of physical offerings means that one can hardly consider it a "spirit" in the classic Western philosophico-religious sense of the terms; that is, a totally non-material entity, the very opposite of matter.  For it has a certain material dependence.

Confronted with evidence such as this, so alien to the neat conventional idea of "body and soul", earlier generations of scholars supposed that the poor Egyptians were so naive in their understanding, so lacking in metaphysical insight, that they could not conceive of a purely spiritual existence, the way "we", in our Christian-Rationalistic civilisation, can.  Such an opinion is based on a biased Victorian ethnocentric perspective: the "myth of progress", according to which everything is gets better and better, so that the animistic beliefs of "savages" are replaced by the polytheistic and mythological thinking of ancient civilisations, and that in turn by the "superior" monotheistic understanding of Judaism and Christianity, with its clear distinction of body and soul, or physical and mental.  This opinion is not only deeply insulting to the intelligence of the ancient Egyptians, but it is not even correct in its assumption that Judaism and Christianity are able to distinguish between mind and matter, body and soul.  For the very fact that these religions, along with Islam, cling so tenaciously to the dogma of bodily resurrection shows that they cannot conceive of a purely spiritual existence, as something apart from the physical body.  The problem lies not with the ancient Egyptians comprehension of body and soul, but with our comprehension (or lack of it) of what the Egyptians themselves were really saying.

 It is necessary therefore to move beyond the metaphysics of contemporary religio-philosophical thought.  For it is a curious paradox that although the material technology and scientific knowledge of  the West is so extraordinarily developed, its  metaphysical and occult knowledge is extremely  rudimentary.  One should not judge the insights of  an ancient occult civilisation by those of the recent materialistic one.

The Ka - the Esoteric meaning

The ka, an abstract principle, is usually translated as the "double", and was considered inherent in every living thing. Here is an interesting metaphoric representation of the Ka as double.

In the Room of the Theogamy at Luxor, for example, we find on the lower register, Khnum, the ram-headed divine potter from the first cataract, as the modeller of both the divine child and his ka. In the middle register, depicting the child's birth, the infant ka, recognizable by the symbol of the two upraised arms that he wears on his head, awaits the birth of his twin, Two of the divine midwives then present both infants to Amun. Finally on the upper register the two children are being suckled by the divinities, then by the celestial cows, before being presented by personifications of magic power (Heka) and the Nile (Hapy), who give them both life and prosperity.  The infants are preceded by Horus, and it is written that all the purifications are made in 'this place of the birth of Horus-Seth'. This phrase is of the greatest importance, for it reveals that the ka can be considered as the inverse of the being in the same way that Seth is of Horus. In this case the ka or 'double' is indissociable from the physically existing individual. A schist cup, dating from the Thinite period (First Dynasty) bears two linked hieroglyphic signs, ka and ankh, which must signify 'ka gives life'.

A passage in the Book of the Dead, and other references such as the lower register of the north wall of the burial chamber in the tomb of Ramses VI, refer to fourteen kaw.  These can be grouped in pairs and symbolize the maintenance of life:

Lucy Lamy suggests that these fourteen epithets designate the fundamental qualities attached to the notion of the ka.  The first four pertain to the vitalizing powers of food, enabling the development, growth and subsistence of physical life.  The following eight express the moral qualities and social condition of the being, implying submission to a discipline, but also an appetite or thirst for perfection which can act as a stimulus, giving an immediate goal to human life.  The highest two, magic (mastery) and illumination, probably represent the ultimate spiritual call of the being, realizable only through the force and worth of each person's character, giving him splendour and radiance while still in life.

The Ka - an interpretation

My own understanding of the Ka is that it is equivalent to the Etheric bodies.  Not the Etheric body as described in Theosophy, but the Etheric Bodies in the sense of the series of subtle bodies or resonances that constitute the gradation intermediate between the objective physical and the completely non-physical or psychic.  It could be suggested that there are seven etheric bodies or resonances, and if each of these has a dual nature that would make the fourteen the Egyptians refer to.

The Ka and the Afterlife | The Seven Etheric bodies as representing the Ka

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page uploaded 20 July 1998, last modified 10 October 2005