Ancient Egyptian words translated as “to worship, to praise,” also mean “to be awake, to wake up,” just as the Buddha’s name means “He is Awake.” The essential premise in Egyptian theology was that the most powerful force in the universe is an awake consciousness inside an enlightened human being. In this, their philosophy is more like Hinduism and Buddhism than the Greek and Roman mythologies with which it is most often compared.
Despite their many similarities, however, Buddhism and Egyptian theology have opposing views on one vital subject: the value of self-identity. In this, they could not have been more opposite. Buddhists strive to erase self-identity, seeking the bliss of pure consciousness, dissolving in the light. In contrast, Egyptians believed self-identity to be the highest goal of life; they celebrated the uniqueness of each human being. Identity is one of the Five Graces, the imperishable attributes born with you — self, identity, discipline, love and loyalty.
The most basic message of Buddhism is, “All life is sorrowful,” to which the Egyptian replies, “Sorrow is the shadow that gives greater depth to joy. Now, let’s dance!” The Buddhist seeks nirvana in quiet solitude. The Egyptian seeks it in the noisy, smelly, dirty joy of being alive among the living and awake in the Now.
Ancient Egyptian metaphysics was diagrammatic, organized, sorted into separate boxes. They were methodical people. They organized many of their systems into trinities, and a trinity of trinities created their sacred number nine. The initial trinity is the energy of your psyche, the physicality of your psyche and the experience of your psyche.
There has been a long-running debate among Egyptologists about the concept of “multiple souls” in the Egyptian view of human beings, a debate caused by the confusion of their terms for this initial trinity — the ba, the ka and the akh. Most recently, the ka has been acknowledged as the double, although it is also given the ambiguous quality of “carrier of the life force.” The ba, the human-headed bird, has been assigned to the soul.
Ba is represented by a human head atop the body of a bird. The bird-body is metaphor for your universal biological experience. The human head is you. That's where you live. Egypt does have generic terminology for such concepts as “humanity,” “man,” “woman,” etc. The word for “fellow citizens” is demyu, but when referring to the psychology of the individual experience of life and death, the term is ba. The focus of their funeral rituals was the maintenance of you as yourself, holding you intact despite the rending transition from space-time to eternity. Your flesh will die, yet you remain you. That coherency of identity is embodied in the ba.
“My ba emerges to imagine it can walk about any place it desires.
My name is proclaimed; it is found upon the board of things sacrificed.
I am given the offerings out of the embodiment just like the fellowship of Horus.”
Ba is seen most often in tomb art, which has led to the suggestion that it represents the Egyptian soul. There is a well known piece of Egyptian literature, “The Dialog of a Man And His Ba,” in which a man talks himself out of suicide. That is a completely internal debate — a conversation with your own inner experience of your life, where no one else can stand. Haunting images of the ba fluttering alone over the coffin hint at the ultimate privacy of living experience.
Ba is a democratic concept as well as a paradox. You cannot know what I am experiencing. I cannot know what you feel. You are as real to you as I am to me. Nobody knows how you feel. They truly don’t. On the other hand, you truly do not know how I feel, either. Ba is the ultimate privacy of your inner life.
Scientific note: Research in brain functions have shown that we have neural circuits called “mirror cells” that mimic the human activity we perceive, providing a neural and emotional echo response. “I feel your pain” is true in a real sense. We are tuned to the emotions of those around us. Watching humans do amazing physical things does impart a sense of participation in the act. Fun genuinely can be shared. Each of us, nonetheless, experiences this uniquely. We cannot change places. “Walking in someone else’s shoes” can only be imagined.
“You will see the face of everyone except the face of your own flesh,
while your father and your son guard the face of their faces.”
Ancient Egyptians lived in a symmetrical world. The reality outside your skin was balanced by the reality inside your skin. These “dual realities,” or “dual worlds,” were given equal importance in their lives. Your ba is you inside your skin. Ka is you outside your skin. Your ba is your experience of the world. Your ka is the world’s experience of you.
We deal with the ka every day in modern concepts such as “character” and “charisma.” The reputation, the portrait, photograph, boss, celebrity, superstar and cult figure — these are all forms of the ka. Egyptian art shows your ka beside you from your birth to death because your parents, their family and friends knew about you before you were even aware that you existed. Other people see your ka in the ceremonies and important moments of your life. You know yourself only from the inside. You cannot know how others see you. Your ka is you reflected in their eyes. Your ka lives in the memories of those who knew you; your avatar lives in their inner worlds.
The ghosts of the silver screen are a distilled example of ka. An actor’s ka comes to life on the screen whenever witnessed by the living. Humphrey Bogart the man has passed on, yet Bogart as “King of the Silver Screen” is still alive — and still earning money. That is the ka at work.
The hieroglyph for ka is a pair of arms. In 2D, the gesture is ambiguous — do the arms reach upward or outward? In the presence of a ka of higher rank, the arms are bowing or prostrating before them. For a ka of equal or lesser rank, the arms are an offer of embrace. Ka is the essence of relatedness, of meeting each other out in real 3D.
Ka is, therefore, a central metaphor for Egyptian morality and compassion, because the realm of the ka encompasses social and personal interaction. Your ka marks you as a civilized person or a barbarian, friend or foe, acceptable or unacceptable. You can know only someone else’s ka; some people rarely share the experiences of their bas. Some can’t stop sharing. You have to learn how others are feeling. They have to learn about you. The dilemma of intimacy.
Many elements of your ka’s image were inherited from your family and your society. These are stubborn elements and they hold fast. Your words and behavior shape your ka over the adventure of life. Your ba is yours and yours alone, but your ka can be stolen, ruined, humiliated or changed, no matter how unchanged you are inside. Your public image and your private self can diverge tragically if you forget which one of you is real, your ba or your ka. Much ancient and modern literature and art is based on the conflict and bond between the two.
Having established the deeper meaning of ba and ka, akh, is therefore, the actual stuff of the “soul/self.” The generic term in Egyptian for your soul is akh, pronounced closely enough to the modern “x” that a capital X serves as a bi-lingual pun. X the Unknown, X-rays revealing hidden interiors, X marks the spot — you are here. Make your mark. This is X, your X. X is the first definition of your total self identity.
X is the generic term for everyone’s soul/self, that most essential part of you, the transcendent substance at your innermost core. X is that part of you that you can never lose nor abandon. Your X is not just who you are. Your X does not just belong to you — your X is you. You will never lose your X. You cannot lose yourself — nor escape from yourself. Your X will always be you, that within which feels like you, your inner sense of permanence. X is the entirety of your living existence, the light as well as the darkness within you, the unknowns and unknowable that are the ground of your identity, your personality and your conscious self-awareness. The foundation of your X stands in the quantum realm, raised up by history and biology. You are the face of your X.
Your X also knew how to grow an adult, conscious human being from strings of molecules. That is some heavy magic.
The symbol of X is a heron, a tall, beautiful water bird. Herons live at the interface of three worlds at once — earth, water and sky. Your X lives at the interface of three dimensions at once — the personal, the universal and the eternal. The heron is a creature of nature, a living function of reality. The human-headed ba is an imaginary construct, in other words, the ba lives only in your mind.
Egyptians perceived the living X to be that most essential part of each person, the actual, transcendent substance at the center of your being: a particle of eternity emerging into space-time through the doorway of birth. Your eternal X is clothed in mortal flesh by entry into life. You cast this garment off again in death.
“I am this: I am an X inside the light, appareled in flesh, designed and created by Nayture’s forces.”
Important Note: the concept of the eternal soul within is at the core of ancient Egyptian worldview, however, belief in the soul as such is not required to understand their belief system; the term “X” is used throughout in acknowledgment of that. The “of being alive is the core mystery. Belief in an afterlife is not necessary, either, because the purpose of their philosophy was joyous spontaneity and effortless self-control in your life among the living. The choice between ancient psychology and modern mysticism is entirely your own.
Osiris was the “Great God,” the ultimate manifestation of the substance of the X, so the term akh is not encountered as often as Osiris and his story cycle. Akh is sometimes translated as “shining spirit.” Spirit is related to breath and the motion around a center, images related to the energy of the soul rather than its substance.
Akh is the root of many Egyptian words, differing by the determinative symbol which indicates the specific nuance of soul-substance implied: (1) It is, for example, at the root of the word akht, arable land, the bodily essence of Osiris that flooded the land with the black mud that was Egypt’s life’s-blood. We find further that the akht or uraeus-serpents are the king cobras of pharaoh’s headpiece and adornment, gestures of the energy. Continuing in this way, we find: Akht is the Eye of God, the awakened soul oriented properly to both inner and outer reality. Akht is flame, body of energy, substance of heat. Akht is the horizon where the Sun rises and sets, that divine thresholds between dimensions of reality; the phrase “images of the horizon” is an idiom for “sacred images.” Akhty is the Horizon Dweller, another name for Rae. Akhu is the substance of the Sun, the sunlight itself. Akh-akh is the verb to grow green, which is the primary activity of Osiris, transforming the black river mud to green shoots of plant life. Akh-akh are the stars in the sky, believed to be the purified being of the Blessed Dead. Akh-akh are the spars of a ship, that which hold the sail open on the mast to catch the breath of wind -- and of life. Sakh is the constellation Orion, which the ancient Egyptians believed to be the body of Osiris. Sakh is the verb form of akh, translated as to spiritualize, and is the root of sekhem, the spirit or energy of the soul. Sakhu are the ritual recitations, the language of the soul. Sak is “to pull together” and is used with the word “heart” to mean “self-possessed.”
1. R. O. Faulkner’s A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. Griffith Institute (1962, 1981, 1986.)