Egyptian Soul Concept
By Ede Frecska
The conception of soul in Ancient Egypt was very complex, one of its own kind, and resists making parallels with other cultures’ soul concept. Egyptians described a person’s individuality as several independent beings, each of which was a personality seen as a whole having separate existence after death, and even during life. Their belief system included a number of souls and auxiliary entities that together constituted the individual. According to the Egyptian funerary texts, man is composed of a mortal body, Kha, and at least three principles which are able to survive bodily death: the Ka, Ba, and Akh. These are not quite to be equaled to the Western concept of the 'soul'.
– Ka represented the spiritual essence, which made the difference between a living and a dead person. It was received at the instant of birth by breath, and death occurred when Ka left the body. The ancient Egyptians contributed life-giving energy to the Ka. This characteristic makes Ka similar to the concept of ‘life soul’ or ‘spirit’ in other religions.
– Ba referred to all those qualities that make up a person, constituted everything non-physical that make an individual unique; similarly to the Western view of personality. In this regard Ba is the closest to the contemporary notion of ‘ego soul’. Ka and Ba were very much attached to the physical body; they had physical needs, like food and water. This is another aspect of their resemblance to Ernst Arbman’s two body souls (life soul and ego soul).
– The most important player with the leading role in the Afterlife was Akh. Following the death of Khat, the Ba and Ka were reunited to reanimate the Akh. The Egyptian funerary customs were intended to aid the deceased in becoming an Akh, to prevent rebirth and “dying a second time in the Afterlife”. In the Egyptian religion this second death was possible and permanent. Akh was associated with thought, but not as an action of the mind; rather, it was some sort of pure consciousness. It was able to wander away (Ka and Ba could also do that), to haunt if the tomb was not in order, could do either harm (sickness, nightmares, bad feelings) or good (protection) to persons still alive. Within the frame of the ancient Egyptian belief system Akh corresponds the best to the ‘free soul’ of a human being.
– In addition to the Ka, Ba and Akh, there were further principles, which make the comparison more difficult: the Ib (metaphysical heart), Sheut (shadow of the person), Ren (name of the person), Sahu (spiritual body for Akh), and Sekhem (spiritual force dwelling in the Afterlife with Akh).
In conclusion, we can say that the ancient Egyptian soul concept is an example for the inflation of the number of souls: in comparison to other traditions (Table 1) a segregation and transformation of soul components is presumable. The idea of a purely and independently immaterial existence was so foreign to Egyptian thought that it assigned spiritual body (Sahu) and force (Sekhem) to the potentially eternal soul form (Akh), and mobilized the other soul forms (Ka and Ba) for its help. It also seems that ancient Egyptians introduced a complementary, ethereal version of the life soul (life force) by granting Sekhem (spiritual force) to the deceased person’s Akh. After all, in Egyptian cosmology nothing existed isolated, only for itself.