Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

The 5 elements: The Ancient Egyptian Concept of the Soul

Posted by Fredsvenn on March 21, 2014

The ancient Egyptians believed that a human soul was made up of five parts: the Ren, the Ba, the Ka, the Sheut, and the Ib. In addition to these components of the soul there was the human body (called the ha, occasionally a plural haw, meaning approximately sum of bodily parts). The other souls were aakhu, khaibut, and khat.

Ancient Egyptian concept of the soul

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.

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.)
  • 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.
  • 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

The Ancient Egyptian Concept of the Soul

Ba – the ram

Osiris’ soul, or rather his Ba, was occasionally worshipped in its own right, almost as if it were a distinct god, especially in the Delta city of Mendes. This aspect of Osiris was referred to as Banebdjedet, which is grammatically feminine (also spelt “Banebded” or “Banebdjed”), literally “the ba of the lord of the djed, which roughly means The soul of the lord of the pillar of continuity. The djed, a type of pillar, was usually understood as the backbone of Osiris, and, at the same time, as the Nile, the backbone of Egypt.

The Nile, supplying water, and Osiris (strongly connected to the vegetable regeneration) who died only to be resurrected, represented continuity and stability. As Banebdjed, Osiris was given epithets such as Lord of the Sky and Life of the (sun god) Ra, since Ra, when he had become identified with Atum, was considered Osiris’ ancestor, from whom his regal authority is inherited. Ba does not mean “soul” in the western sense, and has to do with power, reputation, force of character, especially in the case of a god.

Since the ba was associated with power, and also happened to be a word for ram in Egyptian, Banebdjed was depicted as a ram, or as Ram-headed. A living, sacred ram was kept at Mendes and worshipped as the incarnation of the god, and upon death, the rams were mummified and buried in a ram-specific necropolis. Banebdjed was consequently said to be Horus’ father, as Banebdjed was an aspect of Osiris.

Regarding the association of Osiris with the ram, the god’s traditional crook and flail are the instruments of the shepherd, which has suggested to some scholars also an origin for Osiris in herding tribes of the upper Nile. The crook and flail were originally symbols of the minor agricultural deity Andjety, and passed to Osiris later. From Osiris, they eventually passed to Egyptian kings in general as symbols of divine authority.

Ka (Kaldi?)

Atum, sometimes rendered as Atem or Tem, is an important deity in Egyptian mythology. Atum’s name is thought to be derived from the word tem which means to complete or finish. Thus he has been interpreted as being the ‘complete one’ and also the finisher of the world, which he returns to watery chaos at the end of the creative cycle. As creator he was seen as the underlying substance of the world, the deities and all things being made of his flesh or alternatively being his ka.

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