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The Ancient Egyptian Conception of the Soul

Akh - Spirit
Ba - soul
Ka - DoubleKha - body - link to be added

illustration from Lucy Lamy, Amazon com Egyptian Mysteries; p.26 (Thames & Hudson, Art and Imagination Series)

The ancient Egyptians had a  profound insight into the various principles that make up the individuality.  Ancient Egyptian belief referred to a number of souls that together constituted the individual.  According to the funerary texts, man is composed of a mortal body, kha, and at least three subtle, immortal or at least able to survive bodily death) elements, the ka, ba and akh (see above diagram).  These are sometimes translated as "double", "soul" and "spirit", but these Western terms do not really give the full nuances of the concepts implied.  What is more, in addition to the ka, ba and akh, there are further principles, so that one is left with a bewildering array of different psychic and spiritual principles.  Just consider the following (brackets describe the ideogram used):

Khat or Kha - (a fish) - the physical body, the corpse, something which is liable to decay, and can only be preserved by mummification.

KaKa - (a pair of upraised arms) - the double, image,  character, disposition, or individual ego, which is  created with, or even before, the physical being.   Originally the daimon or genius or spiritual double  of the pharaoh, which guided him in life and protected him in death; it later became the human presence which remains in tomb, and partakes of funerary offerings; an abstract individuality or personality which possesses the form and attributes of the man to whom it belongs.  The Ka has the following powers:

BaBa - (a human-headed bird) - the "soul".  Connected with the ka, in whom or with whom it dwells. In many texts the Ba also lives with Ra or Osiris in heaven.  The Ba seems to be able to assume a material or immaterial form at will; as a material form is depicted as a human-headed hawk.  Although the Ba ascends to the heavenly realms and enjoys an eternal existence there, it can also return to the tomb and partake of the funerary offerings.  Seen bringing air and food down to the body.  Can visit the body at will.

Ab - (a vessel with ears as handles) - the "heart".  Closely associated with the soul; held to be the source both of the animal life and of good and evil in man.  The source of good and bad thoughts; the moral awareness of right and wrong.  Can move freely, and separate or unite with the body, and also enjoy life with the gods in heaven.  Regarded as being the centre of the spiritual and thinking life, and as the organ through which the manifestations of virtue and vice reveal themselves, typifying conscience.

Khaibit - (a fan; an object which intercepts the light) - the "shadow"; Closely associated with the Ba and regarded as an integral portion of the human being.  Like the Ka and Ba it partakes of funerary offerings; and is able to detach from the body, with the power of going wherever it might.  References to the Khaibit are infrequent, and the meaning usually obscure.  It may be that it was a redundant hold-over from an earlier  magical conception of the physical shadow.

AkhAkh, Khu, or Akhu - (the ibis or phoenix) - the "spirit".  Often mentioned in connection with the ba.  The Khu cannot die, and dwells in the sahu (spiritual body).  It is the radiant shining one; the transfigured dead which ascends to heaven and dwells among the gods, or among the immortal pole stars which never set.  As spirit, the akh is the opposite of the perishable body, kha. "Akh is for heaven, kha is for earth", we read in the Pyramid Texts.

Sekhem - the power or form; generally the references are obscure.  The incorporeal personification of the vital force of a man, dwelling in heaven among the Khus.

Ren - the "name", which exists in heaven.  Vital to a man on his journey through life and to the afterlife.  In any psychically (as opposed to spiritually) based magical philosophy - and in this context the Egyptian system is no different - to know the secret name of a person or entity is to have power of that being.

Sahu - (a mummy and a seal) - the "spiritual body"; - forms the habitation of the soul; springs from the material body.  Within it, all the mental and spiritual attributes of the natural body are united to its powers.   A body which has obtained a degree of knowledge and power and has thus become incorruptible; it associates with the soul, and can ascend into heaven and dwell with the gods.  There is an interesting parallel here with the Taoist conception of the "immortal spirit body".

Web links Links Web links

web pageThe Ka and the Ba - mirror

web pageThe Shaman Sickness - Schizophrenia and Shamanism; also refers to Egyptian concepts

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content by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 27 July 1998, last modified 10 October 2005