The Souls of the Egyptians


for Mayu

The Egyptians believed that a soul (ka/ba) was made up of many parts; in addition to the body itself, known by a term which translates as the sum of the bodily parts. Another version is remains.

The god Atum created the world, using his own magic—perhaps his own sperm. Because the world was made by magic, it was imbued with magic, and so was every living thing upon it. When humans were made, that magic took the form of soul, an eternal force which resided within every human being.

Funerary texts detail the parts of the soul: physical body (ht), spiritual body (sh), name or identity (rin), double (ka), personality (ba), heart (jb), shadow (swt), power or form (shm); the combined spirits of a dead person who has successfully completed its transition to the afterlife is akh.

1. ht, physical body

The ht had to exist for the soul to have a chance of being judged by the guardians of the underworld. Therefore, it was necessary for the body to be preserved as efficiently and completely as possible; and for the burial chamber to be personalized, with paintings and statuary showing scenes and triumphs from the deceased’s life.

In the Old Kingdom, only the pharaoh was granted mummification and, thus, a chance at an eternal life. However, by the Middle Kingdom, all dead people could avail themselves of that opportunity.

Herodotus observed that grieving families were given a choice as to the type of mummification preferred: The best and most expensive kind is said to represent [Osiris], the next best is somewhat inferior and cheaper, while the third is cheapest of all.

Because the state of the body was so closely tied to the quality of life after death, there were small figurines, shabti, of servants, slaves, guards (and, in some cases pets) included in the tombs, to be with the deceased in the afterlife.

Eternal existence was by no means assured. Before a person could be judged by the gods, they had to be awakened through a series of funerary rites designed to reanimate their remains.

The main ceremony, the opening of the mouth, performed during internment, was to wake up each section of the body: brain, head, limbs, so that the spiritual body, sh, would manifest.

2. sh, spiritual body

If all the rites, ceremonies, and preservation rituals for the ẖt were observed correctly, and the deceased was found worthy of passing through, the sh, a representation of the physical body, formed.

This spiritual body was able to interact with the many entities extant in the afterlife. It was seen as an avenging spirit which could return from the underworld to seek revenge on those who had wronged it in life.

3. rin, name

A person’s name was given them at birth and the Egyptians believed that we would live as long as that name was spoken; which explains the efforts that were made to protect it and the practice of placing it in numerous writings.

The rin is a person’s identity, their experiences, their life’s worth of memories. A cartouche (magical rope) was used to surround the name and protect it. Conversely, the names of deceased enemies of the state were hacked out of monuments by way of damning their memory.

Sometimes, however, names were removed in order to make room for the insertion of the name of a successor, without having to build another monument. The greater the number of places a name was used, the greater the possibility it would survive.

4. ka, double

The ka was a concept of vital essence, which is the difference between a living and a dead person, with death occurring when the ka left the body. The Egyptians believed that Khnum created the bodies of children from clay on a potter’s wheel and then inserted them into their mothers’ bodies.

Depending on the region, they believed that Heget or Meskhenet was the creator of each person’s ka, breathing it into them at the instant of their birth as the part of their soul that made them alive. This resembles the concept of spirit in other religions.

The Egyptians believed the ka was sustained by food and drink and for this reason offerings were presented to the dead; although it was the ka within the offerings that was consumed, not the physical things.

5. ba, personality

The ba was everything that makes an individual unique. Inanimate objects could also have a ba, a character, and Old Kingdom pyramids were often called the ba of their owner.

The ba is the aspect of a person that would live after the body died, and is sometimes depicted as a human-headed bird flying out of the tomb to join with the ka in the afterlife.

In the Coffin Texts, one form of the ba that comes into existence after death is corporeal—eating, drinking and copulating.

Egyptologist Louis Vico Žabkar argued that the ba is not a part of the person but the person her or himself; unlike the soul in Greek, or late Judaic, Christian or Muslim thought.

The idea of an immaterial existence was so foreign to Egyptian thought that when Christianity spread to Egypt, they borrowed the Greek word psychē to describe the concept of soul; instead of their own term ba.

Žabkar says that so particular was the concept of the ba, it ought not to be translated but instead should be footnoted or parenthetically explained as one of the modes of existence for a person.

The ba of the deceased may be depicted participating in life outside the tomb in non-corporeal form during the day, before returning at night to the mummy.

The word baw, plural of ba, meant something similar to ‘impressiveness’, ‘power’ or ‘reputation’, particularly of a deity. When a deity intervened in human affairs, it was said that the baw of the deity were at work.

6. jb, heart

The jb was formed out of a drop of blood from the heart of the child’s mother, given at conception. It was the seat of emotion, thought, will and intention. When Egyptians said jb they meant the physical heart, not a metaphorical heart.

They made no distinction between mind and heart with regard to emotion or thought. The two were synonymous.

The heart was key to the afterlife. It was essential to surviving death in the nether world, where it gave evidence for, or against, its possessor.

Like the physical body (ẖt), the heart was a part of judgement in the afterlife and it was to be preserved and stored within the mummified body, with a scarab carefully secured to the body to prevent it from telling tales.

It was examined by Anubis and other the deities during the weighing of the heart ceremony. If the heart weighed more than the feather of Maat (Justice, Rightness), it was consumed by the monster Ammit, and extinguished.

7. šwt, shadow

A person’s shadow is always there. Because of this, Egyptians surmised that a shadow contains something of the person it represents. Through this association, statues of people and deities were sometimes referred to as shadows.

The shadow was also a figure of death, a servant of Anubis, and depicted as a small human figure painted completely black. Sometimes people (usually pharaohs) had a shadow box in their tomb in which a part of their šwt was stored.

8. sḫm, form

Little is known about the Egyptian interpretation of this portion of the soul. Many scholars define sḫm as the life-force of the soul, which exists in the afterlife, after all judgement has been passed.

sḫm is also defined in The Book of the Dead as ‘power’ and as a place within which Horus and Osiris dwell in the underworld.

9. akh, ‘magically effective one’

The akh was associated with thought, but not as an action of the mind; rather, it was intellect as living entity. The akh also played a role in the afterlife. Following the death of the ẖt (physical body), the ba and ka were reunited to reanimate the akh.

The reanimation of the akh was only possible if the proper funeral rites were executed and followed by constant offerings. The ritual was termed ‘to make a dead person into a living akh’.

It developed into a sort of ghost or roaming dead being (when the tomb was not in order any more) during later dynasties.

An akh could do either harm or good to persons still living, depending on the circumstances; causing, for example, nightmares, feelings of guilt, sickness, and so forth.

It could be invoked by prayers or letters left in the tomb’s chapel, in order to help living family members, by intervening in disputes, or making an appeal to other dead persons or deities with authority to influence things on earth for the better; and also to inflict punishments.

The separation of the akh and the unification of ka and ba were brought about after death by making the offerings and by knowing the efficacious spell; there was always the risk of dying again.

Texts in Egyptian funerary literature were intended to aid the deceased in ‘not dying a second time’ and as an aid to becoming an akh.


Ancient Egyptians believed death occurs when a person’s ka leaves the body. Ceremonies conducted by priests after death aimed to release a ba‘s attachment to the body. This allowed the ba to be united with the ka, creating an entity known as an akḫ.

Egyptians conceived of an afterlife as similar to normal physical existence – but with a difference. The model for this new existence was the journey of the Sun. At night the Sun descended into the Duat or underworld. Eventually the Sun meets the body of the mummified Osiris.

Osiris and the Sun, re-energized by each other, rise to new life for another day. For the deceased, their body and their tomb were their personal Osiris and a personal Duat. For this reason they are often addressed as ‘Osiris’.

For this to work, some sort of bodily preservation was required, to allow the ba to return during the night, and to rise to new life in the morning. The completed akḫs were also thought to re-appear as stars.

The Book of the Dead, a collection of spells to aid a person in the afterlife, had the Egyptian name of Spells for Going Forth by Day.

These spells helped people avoid the perils of the afterlife, ensuring ‘not dying a second time in the underworld’; and to ‘grant memory always’ to a person. In the Egyptian religion it was possible to die in the afterlife; and that death was permanent.

Your life happening again, without your ba being kept away from your divine corpse, with your ba being together with the akh . . . You shall emerge each day and return each evening.

 A lamp will be lit for you in the night until the sunlight shines forth on your breast. You shall be told: ‘Welcome, welcome, into this your house of the living!’

Nefertari’s Tomb|Nefertari playing Senet; Nefertari with her Ba

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