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Ancient Egyptian personhood


The most important non-physical aspect of a man was his ka, the entity through which the deceased received nourishment.

The ka needed a physical form to inhabit, and for this reason the corpse was mummified. However, the ka could leave the corpse and enter the tomb chapel, where it would inhabit a statue and absorb the life-giving power of food offerings. Tomb inscriptions regularly stated that funeary offerings were for the ka of the deceased. So that the ka may receive a share of offerings to the gods, ka statues were sometimes erected along religious festival routes, paths to temples or within temples.

The ka came into existence at a person's birth. It was oft depicted as identical to the individual (like a twin). Scenes of the king's mythological birth show the god Khnum fashioning the child-king and the ka simultaneously on a potter's wheel. The ka left the body at death, and the two had to be reunited so that the deceased could survive in the afterlife. The ka was not a physical counterpart and had no concrete form. However, it could travel between the corpse and the tomb chapel (or temple) statue it inhabited. Since the ka could not smuggle tangible food into the burial chamber, it absorbed the food's essence.

The dead were oft referred to as those who have gone to their kas and the tomb as the house of the ka. The ka was an important symbol of conception and male potency. The sounds of the word ka was identical to the word for bull, and formed parts of the words for vagina and to be pregnant. In addition, the hieroglyph for ka was a pair of upraised human arms, perhaps symbolizing an embrace between the deceased and his descendants who nourished him. However, the ka ultimately was connected with nourishment: the sound ka was found in the words for sustenance, food, crops and to plough.


A ba encapsulated the powers of its respective entity.

During the Old Kingdom even inanimate objects had their own ba or bau, while by the Middle Kingdom the ba was more closely associated with the mortal. The deceased's corpse was inert in the tomb, while his ba was able to fly away to visit the world of the living, or ascend to the sky to travel with the sun god in his barque.

The ba could feed itself, but had to return to the corpse, its physical base or anchor. Without this periodic contact the deceased would perish. The union of ba and corpse was essential for the deceased's survival, just as union of the Osiris and the sun god preceded their rejuvenation. Therefore, mummification a necessity as it provided a perfect body with which the ba reunited.



Old Kingdom

The ba of the god or of the king encompassed the powers of that entity. It was the vehicle by which they were manifested as individuals. Even a town or a door had its own ba. A god or a place could have multiple bau (plural) representing the numerous divine powers or deities associated with them. Sometimes ba is translated as personality, but this is not entirely accurate.

Middle Kingdom

The ba was more clearly defined as being an aspect of mortals. In funerary literature of this period, each individual had his own ba and it was one of the modes for his existence after death. Though not a physical being, the ba could eat, drink, speak and move. This capacity to move about was its most important facet, as the ba was the means for the dead to leave the tomb and travel.

New Kingdom

Depictions of the ba in papyri, coffins and tomb-paintings began in the New Kingdom and continued to the Roman Period. Its association with mobility was manifested in its form, a bird with a human head and oft even human hands and arms as well. Mortuary texts began to describe the ba's behavior, such as its ability to separate from the body at death. The Book of the Dead depicted the ba as perched on the façade of the tomb. Some Late Period funerary stelae had a small ba figure attached to the top.

Ren (Name)

The ren (name) was as much a part of the owner as the body, ba and ka. Like these other components, the ren was essential to maintaining individuality, continuing existence and distinguishing oneself.

While alive, a person's name held the essence of his being. Furthermore, a name often incurred wellbeing from the gods, such as the name Amenhotep (Amun is content). A severe penalty was to have one's name changed from a good omen to a bad omen; for example, the name of one conspirator against Ramesses III was changed from Ramose (Ra is the one who gave birth to me) to Ramesedsu (Ra is the one who hates him). Obliterating the written ren from any object nullified its association with its owner, a useful fact for recyclers and foes.

The significance of the name extended into the afterlife. Pronunciation of the name during the offering ritual ensured nourishment of the dead. Tomb chapel inscriptions oft beckoned visitors to pronounce the deceased's name. Inscribing the name ensured its survival and also that the items inscribed were specified to the owner. Thus, inscriptions were included onto depictions of the deceased, public surfaces (ie, doorways, façades, stelae and funerary cones) and private surfaces (ie, coffins, sarcophagi and many items in the burial chamber and tomb storerooms). Furthermore, preparing a tomb for one's parents was oft done in order that his/her name might live.


The body was the most familiar aspect of oneself. It was part of a cycle that extended beyond earthly life into the afterlife.

The body developed and aged in life, then after death harbored one's ba and ka. Many funerary texts praised corpse preservation and decried its destruction.

By the Dynastic Period, the corpse was regarded as an important medium through which the individual could exist after death. It was principally a harbor for the ka and the ba, each of which were united with the body in the realm of the dead and thereby perpetuated the deceased's existence.

Destruction of the body was considered horrific, particularly by fire, as it impaired the corpse's usability as a dwelling place for the ka and ba. Only the most serious crimes incurred death by burning, and in the afterlife opposing the sun god led to decapitation and burning of one's remains.




Proper disposal of the corpse was a matter of concern to the Egyptians from prehistoric times, though perhaps this was as much for hygiene and controllng grief as for preparing for an afterlife.


However by the 4th MILL BCE, the treatment of the body and deliberate selection of gifts placed in the grave point to developing ideas about human survival beyond death. Clearly a physical body was considered essential for the deceased's continued existence. Attainment of the afterlife depended on preservation of the body and the ability of the individual members to function, but more importantly the body served as a physical base for the entities ka and ba which required a physical form.

Dynastic Period

Mummification arose in response to this need. Ancient Egyptian mummification was not simply the preservation of the body as it had been in life, but the transformation of the corpse into a new eternal body: a perfect image of the deceased. This body, the sah was not expected to rise up and be physically active after death since its principle function was to house the ka and the ba. Only through the survival and union of these aspects of the individual after death could resurrection take place. The distinctive appearance of the sah is known from mummies, anthropoid coffins and mummiform statues: it had limps in bright white wrappings; face and hands of gold; long tripartite wig of hair, oft blue. These were attributes of divinities and through mummification they were conferred on the deceased to make him too a divine being. The divine nature of this eternal body is emphasized elsewhere in a genre of texts which equate each of the individual parts of the body with a deity. The creation of this new eternal body invovled the special treatment of the corpse and involved using materials with magical significance. The preservation of the body as in life was not the primary aim.

Some associations,

Body part











She (who presides over her lotus leaf)








Ram, the Lord of the Mendes


The heart was regarded as the center of the individual, both anatomically and emotionally. Medical texts reveal that the heart was believed to be the focal point from which vessels communicated with all parts of the body. it was the heart rather than the brain that was regarded as the center of intellect and memory and morality. Retaining command over the heart was essential for it govened the mental processes but also gave control over the bodily faculties in the afterlife.

Care was taking to preserve it in situ during mummification and the Book of the Dead included several spells to ensure that the deceased shoudl retain his own heart, and that it should not be taken from him or turned against him in the hall of judgment by any of the denizens of the underworld. Further magical protection entailed heart amulets and heart scarab inscribed with appropriate spells from the Book of the Dead.

Besides ensuring continuity from the living to the resurreced person, the importance of the heart was further manifested in the judgement of the deceased before Osiris. The heart was weighed agains the maat to determine the deceased's worthiness to be admitted into the afterlife.


The shadow was least clearly defined as an aspect of the individual. As each body cast a shadow, it was thought to contain some part of individuality. It was oft referred to as one's shade. The shadow could dissociate and move freely and independently as the ba could. It was sometimes depicted as emerging from the tomb. Other times it was closely identified with the body itself.