The Soul in Ancient Egyptian Religion

In the land of ancient Egypt, there was a strong belief that the human soul (i.e. ka/ba) was made up of different parts that complemented perfectly with the human body. What are those major parts of the soul in ancient Egyptian religion? What role did each part play in securing the individual a place in the afterlife?

Below is a quick look at all the major things you ought to know about ancient Egypt’s conception of the soul.

Origin of the soul

The ancient Egyptians believed that the creator god Atum created the world from a sea of chaos (known as waters of Nu). Atum is said to have used enormous amount of magic to do so. Therefore, the world in itself is made of magic, according to ancient Egyptian beliefs. Since the world has magic, the living things that call the world their home also have magic in them.

The myth goes on to say that the magic contained in humans resides in the soul. It is because of this magic that the soul is able to perpetuate beyond the land of the living into the realm of the dead in the afterlife.

Parts of the soul according to ancient Egyptian beliefs

Soul in Ancient Egyptian religion

The generally held belief in ancient Egypt was that the soul had different parts, with each part playing a particular role. This concept was referenced in a number of ancient Egyptian funerary texts, including the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom and the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom.

Khet – the physical body

The ancient Egyptians believed that some sort of physical body structure had to exist so that the soul could carry out its activities both in the land of the living and in the life after. That physical body is known as Khet, which allowed for the individual to be judged in the underworld by the god Osiris and other guardians of the underworld.

The above meant that preserving the body (through mummification) of the deceased was of utmost importance. The Egyptians also included personalized belongings of the deceased in the burial chamber in order to communicate the individual’s identity and life accomplishments chalked while alive.

Failure to properly perform a funeral ritual and mummification on the body could have devastating consequences on the soul in the afterlife. This made the Khet of the soul very important as it was believed that the condition of the body could either aid or hinder the reanimation of the mummified remains in the underworld. The belief was that every part of the body – legs, arms, brain, and head and among others – were reanimated in order for the spiritual body to exists in the afterlife.

Did you know: At some point in the history of ancient Egypt (i.e. Old Kingdom era), only the Egyptian ruler could be mummified? It was not until around the Middle Kingdom that mummification could be done on the ordinary folks.

Ancient Egyptians often placed small figurines of their maidservants, beloved pets, slaves and bodyguards and among others in the tomb of the dead. Their goal was to replicate the living conditions of dead in the afterlife; thus those items were meant to serve the dead. | Image: An ushabti box, Ptolemaic Period. On display at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California. RC 623

Sah – the spiritual body

Granted the proper funeral ritual and protocol were observed on the deceased body, the dead then makes his/her way to a panel of judges that included Osiris and other gods in the underworld. If the dead is deemed worthy, the sah, the spiritual body, forms shortly after. Without the spiritual body the dead will be unable to survive in the afterlife.

In some cases, the sah could even carry out tasks in the land of living, for example avenging a wrong deed done to him while alive.

Ren – the name and identity

Ancient Egyptians believed that the cartouche around a person’s name (Ren) could protect the person from evil forces both in life and the next life. Image: A cartouche – an oval with a tangential line to the base, enclosed the birth and throne cartouches of 19th Dynasty Pharaoh Seti I | From KV17 at the Valley of the Kings, Egypt. Neues Museum, Berlin

Ancient Egyptians held a belief that the name that one receives from birth comes with an important aspect of the soul. It was believed that the name of the individual is capable of lasting forever provided the name is mentioned periodically. As a result, the name of the dead had to be preserved by inscribing it on the walls of the deceased’s tombs.

It was believed that the name gives the individual a unique identity. It also stores the individual’s life experiences and memories. After death, the dead can harness those memories and identity by tapping into his/her name (Ren).

Therefore, it was absolutely important that the dead person’s name be protected and preserved properly. This was done by placing the dead’s name in a cartouche, an oval with a line tangential to the oval. To some extent the chances of the soul surviving in the afterlife depended on the number of places where the name was placed. Thus, the cartouche was an important symbol of good luck, protecting the individual from evil.

Egyptians believed that scrapping off the dead’s name from monuments and tombs in effect left dead’s soul exposed and unprotected. This was seen in the defacing of monuments that belonged to 18th dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh. By so doing the Egyptians were condemning the deceased pharaoh’s memory.

Ba – the personality

The ba in ancient Egyptian religion was that aspect of the soul that gave the individual a distinct identity. The ba in essence was possessed by both animate and inanimate objects; it was the part of the soul that made an object unique.

For human beings, the Egyptians believed that the ba continued after death. It is said that the ba, shown as a bird with human head, flew out of the burial chamber in order to be united with the individual’s ka in the land of the dead.

The ba is often depicted as a human-headed bird flying out of the burial tomb to be united with the ka in the afterlife.

Akh – combined spirits of a dead person in the afterlife

The Akh was the part of the soul that got associated with the individual’s intellect. The akh is said to get activated after the ba and ka reunites. Failure to have proper funeral rites prevented the akh from coming to life in the afterlife. It was also believed that the soul of such an individual would then roam restlessly before dying for a second time. Therefore, it was very important the proper rituals be done – i.e. the right spells and prayers ought to be read if the akh is to be reanimated in the afterlife.

Ka – the vital essence of the soul

Did you know: Egyptian god Khnum was known as the “Divine Potter” as he was the creator of human bodies and bodies of the deities?

Egyptians had a belief that the distinguishing factor between a living person and the dead is the ka. The myth goes on to say that the ka departed the body once the individual dies. Where did the ka come from?

The ancient Egyptian god Khnum, an Elephantine deity of the source of the Nile, was believed to be the creator of bodies of children from clay on his potter’s wheel. Once Khnum was done with the body, the body would be inserted into mother’s womb. At the moment of birth, the goddess Meskhenet (or Meskhent), the creator of the ka, would then breathe the ka into the individual.

Without the ka, a vital part of the soul, the new born baby can’t be alive. Food and drink were what kept the ka alive. This explains why Egyptians placed food and drink in the burial chamber of the deceased.

Concept of the soul

Egyptians believed that goddess Meskhenet (or Meskhent), goddess of childbirth, created the ka. This vital part of the soul is then breathed into the individual at the time of birth.

Sekhem – power or form

The sekhem is often described as the energetic life-force of the soul. It was said that sekhem gives the soul the power needed to thrive in the afterlife after judgement has been passed.

Ib – the heart

Ancient Egyptians believed that the human heart (ib) developed from one drop of blood from the mother’s heart during conception. As such the heart served as the dwelling place of human emotions, will, thought, dreams and aspirations. The heart was therefore a very vital part of the human soul.

To the ancient Egyptians, thoughts and emotions were the same and as such both resided in the same place – the heart.

The proof of one’s worthiness (to enter the afterlife) was found in the individual’s heart which is usually weighed against the feather of Ma’at (i.e. truth and law) during the Weighing of the Heart ceremony. A heart that weighed more than the feather instantly got mauled up by the man-eating underworld demon Ammit.  A heart that is devoured by Ammit meant that soul would be relegated to unending suffering and restlessness.

With that said, the Egyptians deemed it necessary to properly preserve the heart of the dead.

Shut – the shadow

Ancient Egyptians noticed how an individual’s shadow was ever present throughout his/her time on earth. As a result, the Egyptians believed that the šwt (shut) (shadow) embodied an important part of the individual’s soul.

In some cases, the shadow of the individual was seen as the aide of Anubis or the figure of death. The latter explains the inevitable nature of death – i.e. it gives credence to the saying: “death hovers around the individual like a shadow”.

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Other interesting facts

  • The opening of the mouth ceremony is conducted to imbue the soul of the dead with the physical abilities that the individual possessed while alive.
  • According to the ancient Egyptians, when one dies, the ka (the vital essence of the soul) departs the body. The ka and ba (the personality) then reunite in the afterlife in order to reanimate the other parts of the soul.
  • Without a proper funeral ritual to preserve the body, ancient Egyptians believed that the soul of the dead could not be reanimated in the afterlife as the ba of the soul would not be able to return to deceased.
  • For quite a long time, only the Egyptian pharaohs and royal family could unite with the sun god Ra and other Egyptian deities in the afterlife. Beginning around the Late Period, that belief gradually changed, meaning non royals were eligible to meet deities like Ra, Osiris or Horus in the underworld.
  • Many of the spells that ancient Egyptians used to perform funeral rituals exist in the Book of the Dead. Thus following the instructions in the book was vital in helping the dead in the afterlife.
  • Failure to carry out proper funeral rituals could spell doom for the soul. Ancient Egyptians believed that it could result in the dead dying a second time i.e. dying in the afterlife. Such a kind of death was eternal and irreversible.

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