What makes a person a person? What is it that makes a person alive and conscious? What are the necessary constituent parts and what happens to them when the person dies? In Western Christian thought there’s the body and the soul, and the soul lives on once the body is dead. In a more secular framing you might wonder if there’s any such thing as a soul, but would then replace it with the idea of the mind. And is that a separate thing – there’s the body and then there’s also a separate mind that somehow animates the body – or is it rooted deeply in the physical body? It’s a slippery subject even when talking about one’s own cultural concepts, which makes it even more difficult to get a proper handle on a different long dead culture’s ideas. There’s also all the usual problems of ancient Egyptian history – many fewer texts have survived than were written, and those that survive are biased towards particular types. In this case at least the bias is towards texts that deal with making sure the right things happen to the parts of a person after death, but then again these texts don’t start by defining their terms. And anyway, there’s several millennia of Egyptian history and their culture did not stand still any more than ours did. I mean, even if I could give a coherent theologically correct definition of the modern Christian conception of the soul it wouldn’t be the same as the same definition from 500 years ago, let alone 3 millennia (when there wasn’t even any Christianity). So this already slippery and esoteric subject gets a bit more slippery.
So having established that this is complicated, what did the Ancient Egyptians think were the constituent elements of a person? There were at least 5 parts – the body, the ba, the ka, the name and the shadow. The body is the easiest to get a handle on as it’s pretty much the same as our own concept of a body. Of course the Egyptians didn’t realise that the brain is the organ we think with, so the heart was the most important part of the body in their eyes – the seat of reason and emotion. For a person to survive into the afterlife they needed all their parts and so it was important for the body to be preserved after death as a mummy. In a case where the mummy was destroyed statues labelled with the person’s name could function as a substitute. Which means that the many statues of a king were an aid to his long term survival after death rather than simply a matter of propaganda during his lifetime.
The next easiest to think about is the name. For us a name is a label – a convenient way of identifying someone in particular. But for the Egyptians one’s name was an integral part of one’s self, and a person didn’t come properly into being until they were named. Thus it should be no surprise that a person could not survive in the afterlife if their name was erased. People would have their names written as often as possible in their tomb decoration to make it more likely that one instance would eternally survive. Erasing someone’s name – as happened with Hatshepsut or with Akhenaten – wasn’t just eliding someone from the history books it was also an attack on that person’s existence in the afterlife.
The shadow was the least discussed part of the person in the books I looked at while writing this article, and the least consistently described. The general idea seems to be that as the shadow is an image of the body that emanates from the body it is therefore integral to and contains some part of the person, and is thus necessary for existence. It is associated with the ba and some of the spells in the Book of the Dead are to do with its survival in conjunction with the ba. The books variously discuss it as being important for free movement after death and being protective.
There is much more known (and said) about the ba and the ka, which are the two parts of a person that come closest to the concept of the soul as we know it in Western culture. In fact the word ba is often translated as “soul” but I think that’s misleading as it carries all sorts of connotations that don’t really sit right. The ba is more closely akin to our idea of personality – it’s all the things that make someone uniquely themselves other than the physical body. After death the ba is the part of the person that can move freely between the tomb and the living world, and many of the spells in the Book of the Dead are to do with this – in fact the Egyptian name for this text, “The Book of Coming Forth By Day” references this ability of the ba. Many of the spells in this text give the ba the ability to change into another form so that it can go where it wishes. Many of these forms are those of birds, and the normal representation of the ba has a bird’s body and a human head (and sometimes human arms as well as wings). But the ba does not just get to flit about, changing form and enjoying its time in the living world. Each night the ba must return to the tomb and reunite with the body and this rejuvenates the body and is part of what ensures survival in the afterlife.
Human beings are not the only possessors of a ba – gods have them, and so can inanimate objects (like doors, apparently). The bas of gods may be rather more substantial than the human ones, and can be thought of as the earthly manifestation of the god. So the Apis Bull was the ba of Ptah, and the wind was the ba of Shu.
And the fifth part of a person, the last of those I began by listing, is the ka. This is sometimes translated as “spirit” or as “life force” and the latter made the most sense to me in the context of what I read. The ka is made by the creator at the same time as the physical body – shaped by the god Khnum on his potters wheel. Each person has their own, and it is what makes the difference between a living being and a piece of flesh. Once the person dies and the parts of the person separate the ka continues its existence and remains in the tomb (although separate from the body). The ka must be nourished (in life as well as in death) by the energy in food and drink – it is the ka to whom the offerings in a tomb are made. As the physical food and drink is not consumed, just the energy, it makes sense that depictions on the wall might also magically contain the energy required to sustain the ka. The ka was often shown as a double of the body, standing behind the person.
Where the concept of the ka gets really slippery is that it is both this spirit uniquely associated with one individual, and also a life force that is passed from father to son, down the generations from the creator god Atum through his divine offspring to the king and thence to all humanity. This may be the origin of the symbol of the ka as two outstretched arms – it is the embrace that passes on the ka. Kings have two kas – the one that everyone is born with, and also a divine royal ka that they receive during the coronation ceremony. Gods also have kas and these are the part of the god that can temporarily reside in the cult statues that are kept in temples.
I started out this discussion talking about five parts to a person. But even that confident assertion gets a bit slippery once you look a little closer. It’s clear that the Egyptians thought a person was composed of multiple elements, but there isn’t a definitive list of exactly what they all are or how many of them. So these five are the most commonly mentioned in ancient texts, but there may be more – Jan Assmann refers to a text that has 14 different parts, including things like “birthplace”. The mummy is also sometimes elevated to be a part of a person as something distinct from the body (which has ceased to exist with the ending of life in this way of thinking about it). And of course with this being such a long lived civilisation ideas evolved over time. The one that modern scholars seem not quite sure whether to include in the standard list or not is the akh – which doesn’t exist in life, but is absolutely critical to generate in the afterlife. This non-physical form is the result of a union between the ba and ka of the individual that will only occur once they have passed the Weighing of the Heart and been judged as having been virtuous and followed ma’at in their life. If you fail to make it to the Hall of Judgement you are just dead; if you get there and are deemed unworthy you die the second permanent death; and if you pass you are transfigured into a glorified being of light. The word akh can be translated as “effective” and it’s thought it refers to the ability of the deceased now to function effectively in both life and death. The akh has the most freedom of all the parts of the deceased – it can move anywhere in the created world whether that be in the sky, in the Duat (underworld) or the living world.
So that’s my understanding of the modern understanding of the answers ancient Egyptians would give to my opening questions. But I must confess I’m left wondering what the ordinary man on the Nile boat would really think. This is all the stuff of priests and theologians – complex and nuanced and really rather slippery. Would a normal person have had these ideas in mind when they were taking their food offerings to Granddad’s tomb?
“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“Death and Salvation” Jan Assmann (trans. David Lorton)
“Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization” Barry J. Kemp
“The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson
“Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead” ed. John H. Taylor
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson