In Ancient Egypt, they believed that the human spirit was made up of five parts: The Ib, Sheut, Ren, Ba, and Ka. Although all five were of importance, the Ba and Ka are of major significance. The Ba is the most similar to the western idea of the soul, and the Ka is closely tied to it.
As mentioned, the Ba is a notion similar to our concept of the soul; although, it has other aspects to it as well. The Ba was seen as a collection of traits that made the individual unique such as a similarity to our concept of personality. Despite these similarities, the Ba is not completely interchangeable with the concept of the soul. It is different enough that when the Christian notion of the soul reached Egypt, they chose to refer to it by the Greek word “psyche” instead of Ba, seeing them as two separate concepts.
The plural form Bau, is translated as “power” or “reputation,” often in relation to a deity. If an Egyptian believed that there was divine intervention with an event, it would be stated that the Bau of the deity was at work. This also tied into the Pharaohs, as many of them were believed to be the Ba of a deity. This demonstrates the importance that the Ba played within Ancient Egyptian society and culture. The Ba was seen as an aspect of humans that lived after the body died. It was depicted as a bird with a human head often flying out of the tomb of the deceased. At times, the Ba was shown in corporeal form eating and drinking in texts.
The Ba had an important relationship with the Ka, one that was of immense importance for the Ancient Egyptians. Where the Ba was seen as the part that lives on after death, the Ka was seen as being related to life itself. The Ka is the differing factor between the living and the dead as the Ka leaves the body upon death. Egyptians believed that the Ka was given to a person at their birth by Heket or Meskhenet which breathed this “energy” into them.
Egyptians believed that the Ka required sustenance from food and drink. This provided an explanation as to why humans needed to eat and drink to continue on living. They also believed the Ka required sustenance after death, so offerings of food would be left out for the deceased. Since the Ka would then be lacking a material form, it fed upon the Kau, not the actual food itself, leaving behind the physical aspect of the offering. This played an important role in the afterlife; therefore, tying into the funeral rites and processes of Ancient Egypt.
During the preparations of the body after death, one of the most important things done was the opening of the mouth. This broke the Ba’s attachment to the physical body, allowing it to leave. Being able to leave the body, the Ba could reunite with the Ka to form what was known as the Akh. This was only possible if the funeral rites were performed correctly and this process was of utmost importance to the Egyptians. The Egyptians believed that this reunification could go awry if they were not careful. This caused them to develop literature which provided guidelines into the afterlife such as The Coffin Texts and The Book of the Dead. The entire process of the funeral rites, offerings and the reunification, were known as Se-akh.
However, the Ancient Egyptian concept of the afterlife was very different from that of other cultures. It was based on one of their myths that involved Osiris. It was believed that each night the sun set and descended down into the underworld, Duat. While in the underworld, the sun would meet with the mummified Osiris. The two would then be energized by the presence of the other, allowing both to rise again the next day. The Egyptians believed that each person followed a similar cycle. The mummy was a representative of Osiris, which made preservation of the body important. The tomb where the mummy was kept was a personal Duat. The Ba would descend into the tomb each night much like the sun, and would return to the physical body. Each morning it would depart to once again join with the Ka.
The cycle that the Ba went through was the journey of the sun. As mentioned before, when combined, the Ba and Ka would form an entity known as the Akh. The Akhu, the plural form of Akh, were believed to be stars in the night sky. This signified that the Akhu were complete and that the Ba and Ka were able to reunite. Throughout the majority of Ancient Egyptian society, it was believed that this cycle was reserved only for those belonging to the royal family. However, during the Late Period of Ancient Egypt, they came to believe that anyone could experience this afterlife.
The afterlife was seen as another life to the Egyptians. Many parallels ran between life on Earth and the afterlife. One such parallel is the dangers that exist in both. The Egyptians believed that there were many dangers that existed within the afterlife. The Book of the Dead provided tips for avoiding these dangers to assure that persons would not die a second time, as death in the afterlife was permanent.
The Ancient Egyptians took life, death, and the afterlife very seriously. The various rituals tied to these served both religious and practical uses to the individuals and the society as a whole. The role played by the Ba and Ka demonstrate the importance of these concepts within Egyptian culture. With the ties to mummification, tombs, and other rituals, these concepts were connected to some of the most commonly recognized aspects of Ancient Egyptian culture.