The juxtaposition between the two halves of the title may seem strange at first, but they are indelibly linked with one another. To the ancient Egyptians, there were five parts of the soul: the Ka, the Ba, the Sheut, the Ren and the Ib. Each of these parts played a role not only in a person’s ha (or body) or their spiritual experience, but had a great deal to do with why the Egyptian architecture was the way that it was.
As has been mentioned in an earlier chapter, bringing form to something through writing or carving wasn’t just an active action with a passive result, it was at all times active. That is to say that when something was created through even artistic media, it was thought to have been brought forth into the world as a concept that lived and shaped the world around it for its presence. Therefore, the retelling of a story, in the minds of the Egyptians, literally caused the story to happen again. That is why there is no particularly detailed description of the death of Osiris: the Egyptians didn’t want to bring that calamity forth again. Perhaps the belief didn’t go quite so far as that, perhaps it did, but what we have is what we were left and, although new discoveries are constantly being made in Kemet (the Egyptians’ name for Egypt, meaning Black Land,) structures, whether they were for artistic purposes or practical ones served more than their simple function to the Egyptians.
This concept is most notable in regard to the Ka. The Ka is the part of the soul that is basically the breath of life; that which differentiates a live person with a dead one. It can be related to the spirit, and was believed to be breathed into every living person at the moment of their birth by either Meskhenet or Heqet, depending on the locale. For those of significant power or wealth, particularly pharaohs, Ka Statues were created in their likeness in order to provide a place for their Ka, or essence of vitality to live on after their death in this plane.
This aspect of a person’s soul would wander freely over the face of existence, but could only have a permanent home through a body. This is the reason for the Ka Statues. These can be most easily identified by a pair of upraised arms placed atop the head of the statue. This is the symbol of the Ka. Ka Statues, like other statuary depicting people, face directly forward so that the Ka can have an unobstructed view of the world around, although the Ka would technically be part of that which existed within the other realm, through Ka Statues, it could have an earthly seat as well.
The other aspects of the soul (the Ba, the Ren, the Ib and the Sheut) can be described as follows, starting with the Ba:
The Ba can be best described as the individuality or the personality of a person or an object; basically, that which makes one different from any other. A work of art could certainly be said to have a ba, just as a person did. Have you ever noticed a particular attachment that you may have to a particular thing due to its unique character or its sentimental value? This could be said to be one aspect of that thing’s Ba.
The more important aspect of the Ba to the Egyptians was that it was the specific essence of an individual that would live on after their death. It was symbolized in hieroglyph by a bird with a human’s head. The Ba could also be referred to as a representation of this principle as the pyramids of Egypt were also referred to as the Ba of Khufu or Sneferu, etc.
The Ren was a person’s name. It was that which would be applied upon the birth of a child, but would not die so long as it continued to be spoken or written. The latter aspect of this can be related to the phrase, “[person’s name] lives on in our memories,” and to the Egyptians, this was a very real thing. So long as a person’s Ren was to be spoken and/or preserved, it would live on. This being the case, those who were celebrated had their names written all over the land to ensure their Ren’s survival. Conversely, if a person was despised, or fell out of favor, it wasn’t uncommon for their name to be literally removed from all known records.
The Ib is something which we have discussed, although only once by name so far. The Ib is the heart of the individual. The Ib doesn’t only represent the physical organ, but certain principles as well; such as the thoughts, the will, the objectives and passions of the person. The Ib, which comes into being at the conception of the child through a single drop of its mother’s own heart, would stand as to the nature of the individual and that which they carried with them throughout their life. This is why it is the Ib, or the heart that is weighed by Anubis against the weight of Ma’at’s feather. The expression, “It is with a heavy heart…” may or may not have originated in Egypt (probably not,) but it would certainly indicate something very specific to the Egyptian mind. In contrast, the expression “light-hearted” (again, probably not of Egyptian origin etymologically) would also have a celebratory air to it to an Egytpian.
The Sheut, or šwt is the shadow of a person. Due to its omnipresence about a person (at night, it would simply blend with the darkness,) it was believed to be a representation and a crucial part of that person. The Sheut carried certain aspects of an individual. In fact, the term “shadow box,” when used to describe a box for storing something of particular worth actually originates with this concept as many of the pharaohs actually had boxes made in order to contain portions of their Sheuts. The Sheut wasn’t one of the parts of the soul generally preserved (or attempted/thought to be preserved) after a person’s death, unless it was through use of a Sheut Box or statuary, however, it was still considered to be a necessary and important part of the person’s soul.
During life, all of these parts of the soul resided with the body whether inside (as the Ka, Ba and Ib,) outside (as in the Sheut,) or metaphorically carried by the individual (as in the case of the Ren.) Upon death, each had their place and their direction, in short, their purpose to the continuation of the life of the person beyond the grave.
Many of the monuments of Egypt are in some way connected with one or more portions of the soul. As it has been discussed, the ba could be likened to the pyramids, especially those of more distinct structure such as those of Khufu and Sneferu, but what else did the pyramids symbolize to the Egyptians?
The pyramids were burial chambers. This much is definitely true. It was in the pyramids that the bodies and the offerings to their Kas (as the Ka was seen to be the part of the person which required sustenance such as food or water) were stored, but what else did these structures mean to the Egyptians? Is there a reason behind the specific shape of the pyramids? Were the pyramids built by aliens? How about I stop asking questions and start giving answers?
First off, there is no evidence to suggest that aliens built the pyramids. However, there is also no evidence to suggest that they were built by slaves either. The pyramids were most likely constructed by paid laborers at the behest of their pharaoh.
Rather than focus on the material essence of the pyramids, however, let’s focus on the spiritual significance of them.
The shape of the pyramids represents that of the first bit of land to come forth out of the waters of Nanuet. Being the first shape which was brought forth out of these waters holds a number of different meanings, all of which could be said to apply to the pyramids themselves. Structure out of chaos: in the case of Benben (the first bit of land,) it was land out of the chaos; in the case of the pyramids, it was a permanent structure ensuring that those interned within would not be simply cast to the winds. Another possible parallel is that of moving from one plane of existence to another: in the case of Benben, it was the formation of the earth itself; in the case of the pyramids, it symbolizes the journey from the land of the living to the land of the dead.
The pyramids are, and have long been, a symbol of strength and permanence, and it can’t be ruled out that that was a possible motivation as well. We may never know the reason behind every nuance of these magnificent structures, however, as time goes on, we are discovering more and more about the land, its people and their beliefs. I think it’s probable that we may just learn a lot more about the pyramids as Ra continues his journeys through the sky.
The structures of the ancient Egyptians were more than mere edifices or artistic representations of people or concepts, to the Egyptians; they were living, vibrant things with a life of their own. The parts of the soul were represented throughout the world of ancient Egypt, often preserved, sometimes scratched out, but always a part of that magnificent world.
Of the numerous inscriptions, papyri, carvings and artefacts that have been uncovered, so it seems that more questions arise regarding the mythology of the ancient Egyptians. For a moment, there will be something akin to ultimate clarity, only to be muddled by contradiction or the sheer incompleteness of our present knowledge of this vast and powerful society.
Within the Egyptian religion, many gods do battle with one another; not only within the myths themselves, but through the actions of the people, replacing one with another or merging two into a new form, making a previous version of a concept obsolete. In a way, the mythology of the ancient Egyptians can be said to be like the method of science. At any given point, we have a certain understanding of things, but when we receive new information, there isn’t a single thing that can’t be disputed. So it was with the gods of the Egyptians.
Worshipped far and wide with temples to various deities, the gods of the Egyptians were truly a powerful force in the lives of the ancients, and they continue to influence us today. One thing that I keep coming back to, the more that I learn about Egypt though is the fact that with every new answer, there are a dozen more questions to ask. There is never that sense of completeness or the satisfaction that it’s understood well enough. There’s always that feeling that there is more. And there is.
The more that we respectfully uncover the past, the more that we can understand it, and hopefully the more answers we can find. For now, all that we can do is keep searching, keep delving into the ways of ancient thought. There are many improvements that we have made to our world, but there is much that we can learn from the ancient Egyptians’ beliefs. Wouldn’t the world be such a better place if there were to be a true sense of Ma’at? Some sort of balance where we could all thrive without destroying one another and the world that we live in?
One day, hopefully a very long time from now, the archaeologists of the future will be asking questions about us and our civilization, and I can’t help but wonder: will they have more questions than answers the way that we do with the Egyptians? That, of course, is impossible to say, but interesting to speculate.
From the myth of creation to the path to the underworld, there is so much to learn about the beliefs of these peoples. Everything had a function, a specific purpose, a cause and an effect. There were often multiple gods for the same concept, and more explanations for some things than could ever be fully cohered. And yet still… there are so many questions.
I have greatly enjoyed bringing you this brief glimpse into the magical world of ancient Egyptian mythology, and I hope that you have enjoyed reading it. Check out the other books in this series, including: Discovering Ancient Egypt, Discovering Ancient Greece and Discovering Ancient Mythology.
Again, it has been an absolute pleasure to share some of the fascinating world of the ancient Egyptians with you. I hope you happy reading, and a continued thirst for history!