Ancient Egyptian concept of the soul

Book of the Dead Fragment
Fragment from the Egyptian Book of the Dead

The ancient Egyptians believed that a human soul was made up of five parts:

the Ab, the Sheut, the Ren, the Ba, and the Ka

heart, shadow, name, personality, spirit

In addition to these components of the soul, there was the human body, called the Ha (sometimes plural, Haw, meaning the sum of bodily parts).

According to Egyptian creation stories, the god Atum created the world out of chaos, utilizing his own magic (Heka). Because the earth was created with magic, the ancient Egyptians believed that the world was imbued with magic, and so was every living thing upon it. When humans were created, that magic took the form of the soul, an eternal force which resided in and with every human being.

Ka (spirit, life force)

The Ka was the Egyptian concept of vital essence, which distinguishes 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 on a potter's wheel and inserted them into their mothers' bodies. Depending on the region, Egyptians believed that Heqet 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 be alive. This resembles the concept of spirit in other religions.

The Egyptians also believed that the Ka was sustained through food and drink. For this reason food and drink offerings were presented to the dead, although it was the Kaw (plural of Ka) within the offerings that was consumed, not the physical aspect.

Ba (personality)

The Ba was everything that makes an individual unique, similar to the notion of "personality". In this sense, inanimate objects could also have a Ba, a unique character, and indeed Old Kingdom pyramids often were called the Ba of their owner. The Ba is an aspect of a person that the Egyptians believed would live after the body died, and it 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 Zabkar argues that the Ba is not merely a part of the person but is the person himself, unlike the soul in Greek, or late Judaic, Christian, or Muslim thought. The idea of a purely immaterial existence was so foreign to Egyptian thought that when Christianity spread in Egypt, they borrowed the Greek word psyche to describe the concept of soul instead of the term Ba. Zabkar concludes that so particular was the concept of the Ba to ancient Egyptian thought that it ought not to be translated but instead the concept be footnoted or parenthetically explained as one of the modes of existence for a person.

In another mode of existence, the Ba of the deceased is depicted in the Book of the Dead returning to the mummy and participating in life outside the tomb in non-corporeal form, echoing the solar theology of Ra uniting with Osiris each night.

The word Baw (plural of Ba) meant something similar to "impressiveness", "power", and "reputation", particularly of a deity. When a deity intervened in human affairs, it was said that the Baw of the deity were at work.

Ren (name)

As a part of the soul, a person's Ren (name) was given to them at birth and the Egyptians believed that it would live for as long as that name was spoken, which explains why efforts were made to protect it and the practice of placing it in numerous writings. It is a person's identity, their experiences, and their entire life's worth of memories. For example, part of the Book of Breathings, a derivative of the Book of the Dead, was a means to ensure the survival of the name. A cartouche (magical rope) often was used to surround the name and protect it. Conversely, the names of deceased enemies of the state, such as Akhenaten, were hacked out of monuments in a form of damnatio memoriae ("condemned memory", that is, to be erased from memory). Sometimes, however, they were removed in order to make room for the economical 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 to be read and spoken.

Sheut (shadow)

A person's shadow or silhouette, Sheut, is always present. 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 representative to Egyptians of a figure of death, or servant of Anubis, and was depicted graphically as a small human figure painted completely black. Sometimes people (usually pharaohs) had a shadow box in which part of their Sheut was stored.

Ab (heart)

An important part of the Egyptian soul was thought to be the Ab, or heart. (In some places referred to as the Ib or Jb)

The heart was believed to be formed from one drop of blood from the heart of the child's mother taken at conception. To ancient Egyptians, the heart was the seat of emotion, thought, will and intention, evidenced by the many expressions in the Egyptian language which incorporate the word Ab. Unlike in English, when ancient Egyptians referenced the Ab they generally meant the physical heart as opposed to a metaphorical heart. However, ancient Egyptians usually made no distinction between the mind and the heart with regard to emotion or thought. The two were synonymous.

In the Egyptian religion, the heart was the 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 (Khat), the heart was a necessary part of judgement in the afterlife and it was to be carefully preserved and stored within the mummified body with a heart scarab carefully secured to the body above it to prevent it from telling tales. According to the text of the Book of Breathings:

They drag Osiris into the Pool of Khonsu, and likewise the Osirism Hor, justified born of Taikhebyt, justified after he has grasped his heart. They bury the Book of Breathings which Isis made, which is written on both its inside and outside, wrapped in royal linen, and it is placed under the left arm near his heart.

It was thought that the heart was examined by Anubis and the other deities during the Weighing of the Heart ceremony. If the heart weighed more than the feather of Maat, it was immediately consumed by the monster Ammit, and the soul became eternally restless.


The Egyptian concept of the soul and the parts which encompass it varied over time, from the Old Kingdom to the New Kingdom, at times changing from one dynasty to the next, from five parts to seven to nine. Some ancient Egyptian funerary texts reference additional different parts to the soul: in addition to the Ka, Ba, Ren, Sheut, and Ab, they include the Khat (physical body), the Sahu (spiritual body), Khu (intelligence), Sekhem (form), and the Akh (the combined parts of the soul of the dead person).

Rosalie David, an Egyptologist at the University of Manchester, explains the many facets of the soul this way:

The Egyptians believed that the human personality had many facets - a concept that was probably developed early in the Old Kingdom. In life, the person was a complete entity, but if he had led a virtuous life, he could also have access to a multiplicity of forms that could be used in the next world. In some instances, these forms could be employed to help those whom the deceased wished to support or, alternately, to take revenge on his enemies.

Khat (physical body)

The Khat, or physical form, had to exist for the soul (Ka/Ba) to have intelligence or the chance to be 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 as personalized as it could be, 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 and fulfilling afterlife. However, by the Middle Kingdom, all dead were afforded the opportunity. Herodotus, an ancient Greek scholar, observed that grieving families were given a choice as to the type and or quality of the mummification they 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 tied so closely with the quality of the afterlife, by the time of the Middle Kingdom not only were the burial chambers painted with depictions of favorite pastimes and great accomplishments of the dead, but there were also small figurines (ushabtis) of servants, slaves, guards and, in some cases, beloved pets included in the tombs to serve the deceased in the afterlife. However, an eternal existence in the afterlife was by no means assured.

Before a person could be judged by the gods, they had to be "awakened" through a series of ceremonies designed to reanimate their mummified remains in the afterlife. The main ceremony, the Opening of the Mouth, is best depicted within Pharaoh Sety I's tomb. All along the walls and statuary inside the tomb are reliefs and paintings of priests performing the sacred rituals and, below the painted images, the text of the liturgy for Opening of the Mouth can be found. This ritual, which presumably would have been performed during internment, was meant to reanimate each section of the body: brain, head, limbs, and so on, so that the spiritual body would be able to move in the afterlife.

Sahu (spiritual body)

The Sahu is the spiritual representation of the physical body. If all the rites, ceremonies, and preservation rituals for the Khat are observed correctly, and the deceased is found worthy by Osiris and the gods of the underworld of passing through into the afterlife, the Sahu forms. This spiritual body was then able to interact with the many entities extant in the afterlife. As a part of the larger construct of the Akh, the Sahu was sometimes seen as an avenging spirit which would return from the underworld to seek revenge on those who had wronged the spirit in life.

Khu (intelligence)

Very little is written about the Khu, the intelligence and intention part of the soul. It appears in writings from the Old Kingdom, but seems to have been absorbed into the Akh (along with the Ka and Ba) by the Middle Kingdom.

Sekhem (form)

Little is known about the Egyptian interpretation of this portion of the soul. Many scholars define Sekhem as the living force or life-force of the soul which exists in the afterlife after all judgement has been passed. However, Sekhem is also defined in the Book of the Dead as the "power" and as a place within which Horus and Osiris dwell in the underworld.


The Akh (magical union) was a concept of the dead that varied over the long history of ancient Egyptian belief.

The Akh was associated with thought, but not as an action of the mind; rather, it was intellect as a living entity. It also played a role in the afterlife. Following the death of the Khat (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 s-Akh, "make a dead person into a living Akh". In this sense it even developed into a sort of ghost or roaming dead being (when the tomb was not in order any more) during the Twentieth Dynasty.

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

The separation of Akh and the unification of Ka and Ba were brought about after death by having the proper offerings made and knowing the proper efficacious spell, but there was an attendant risk of dying again. Egyptian funerary literature, such as the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead, were intended to aid the deceased in "not dying a second time" and to aid in becoming an Akh.


Ancient Egyptians believed that death occurs when a person's Ka leaves the body. Ceremonies conducted by priests after death, including the Ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth, aimed not only to restore a person's physical abilities in death, but also to release a Ba's attachment to the body. This allowed the Ba to be united with the Ka in the afterlife, creating an entity known as an Akh.

Egyptians conceived of an afterlife as quite 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 process 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. However, the complete Akhs were also thought to appear as stars. Until the Late Period of ancient Egypt, non-royal Egyptians did not expect to unite with the Sun deity, it being reserved for the royals.

The Book of the Dead, the collection of spells which aided a person in the afterlife, had the Egyptian name of the Book of Going Forth by Day. They helped people avoid the perils of the afterlife and also aided their existence, containing spells to ensure "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 this death was permanent.

The tomb of Paheri, an Eighteenth Dynasty nomarch of Nekhen, has an eloquent description of this existence, and is translated by James Peter Allen as:

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!"


  • David, Rosalie. 2003. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books.

  • Allen, James P. 2000. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge University Press.

  • The concept of the afterlife - from (a now defunct online learning site which was shut down by the British government for fraud, but still a pretty good source of information)

  • Body and Soul - another view of the topic

  • Ancient Egyptian concept of the soul - the current Wikipedia version of this page, which has been edited and re-edited into stupidity, but such is the way of the Wiki

Further reading

  • Allen, James Paul. 2001. "Ba". In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, edited by Donald Bruce Redford. Vol. 1 of 3 vols. Oxford, New York, and Cairo: Oxford University Press and The American University in Cairo Press. 161–162.

  • Borghouts, Joris Frans. 1982. "Divine Intervention in Ancient Egypt and Its Manifestation (Baw)". In Gleanings from Deir el-Medîna, edited by Robert Johannes Demaree and Jacobus Johannes Janssen. Egyptologische Uitgaven 1. Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten. 1–70.

  • Borioni, Giacomo C. 2005. "Der Ka aus religionswissenschaftlicher Sicht", Veroffentlichungen der Institute für Afrikanistik und Aegyptologie der Universitat Wien.

  • Burroughs, William S. 1987. "The Western Lands", Viking Press. (fiction).

  • Friedman, Florence Margaret Dunn. 1981. On the Meaning of Akh in Egyptian Mortuary Texts. Doctoral dissertation; Waltham: Brandeis University, Department of Classical and Oriental Studies.

  • Article "Akh", 2001. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, edited by Donald Bruce Redford. Vol. 1 of 3 vols. Oxford, New York, and Cairo: Oxford University Press and The American University in Cairo Press. 47–48.

  • Zabkar, Louis Vico. 1968. A Study of the Ba Concept in Ancient Egyptian Texts. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 34. Chicago: University of Chicago Press