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The coffin found in tomb KV55. The mummy case found under the niche was the first example of the royal "rishi" style ever found in the Valley of the Kings that originally had both the internal and external surfaces covered with gold leaf.


Discover the amazingly lifelike Fayoum mummy portraits >>


The concept of the afterlife

Topics in this section: religion in ancient egypt | gods and goddesses | the afterlife | mummification | astronomy | the temple
  funerary texts

The "ka", the "ba" the "akh" and the body embalmed

Pyramids, temples, tombs, the burials of kings, nobles and the common people, all express the unique Ancient Egyptian idea of death. Ancient Egyptians marked their passage into the hereafter perhaps more so than any other ancient society. For them, death was not simply the end, but was just one of the transformations in life's natural cycle. Egyptians often likened death to rebirth and found comfort in the notion that it was a necessary preliminary to the afterlife.

Man was regarded as a complex being that could exist both before and after death in different manifestations, known as kheperu. The physical body was one of these modes of existence, as were also the heart, the shadow and the name, which embodied a person's distinct identity.

Over the centuries the Egyptians evolved several different concepts of human survival after death. These ideas were first formulated to ensure safe passage for the dead king into the hereafter, but over time people of lower status were able to share in the same destiny. Common to all of the concepts was the idea that resurrection was achieved through integrating the deceased into the natural processes of the cosmos.

During life, the body was known as "khet" or "iru" meaning form or appearance.
At the time of death the corpse was known as "khat".
When the corpse was transformed into a mummy, it was known as "sah". Mummification was considered the transfiguration of the corpse into a new body which was "filled with magic".

The Egyptians believed that a person's essence or soul was composed of several elements that at the point of death would become separate entities:

The "ka"

A fine wooden statue of the 13th Dynasty king, Hor I. The statue depicts the king's "ka", symbolised by the two upright arms upon his head.The "ka" was considered to be the essential ingredient or dimension that differentiated a living person from a dead one. Difficult to directly translate, possibly one of the most concise interpretations is "life force" or "sustenance". The "ka" is represented in hieroglyphs by a pair of arms pointing upwards. 

Each individual's "ka" would come into existence at the moment of birth, subsequently serving as their "double" and sometimes depicted in funerary art as a slightly smaller figure behind the living being. Sometimes the creator god Khnum was shown modelling the "ka" on a potter's wheel, at the same time that he was forming the bodies of humanity.

Although every individual would eventually die, their "ka" would continue to live on after their death, and as such it would require exactly the same sort of sustenance as the living person would have enjoyed during their life. The "ka" would be provided with genuine food offerings, or representations depicted upon the walls of tombs. Whilst not physically eating the food offerings, the "ka" was thought to absorb their life preserving force. 

After death, the "ka" would be "at rest" whilst the body was prepared and transformed into a mummy. The ka then needed to be reactivated so that the spiritual transformation of rebirth could take place. The deceased could then travel to join their "ka", and the link to the land of living through their tomb would then be established. It would be the person's "ba" that would make this symbolic journey.

The "ba"

Representations of the "ba" bird from New Kingdom tombs. A person's "ba" was usually symbolised by a winged bird with the head and features of the deceased.

The "ba" is considered to be an individual's distinctive manifestation, similar to our concept of personality in that it comprised of all the non physical attributes which make each human unique. It was necessary for the deceased to journey from their tomb to rejoin their "ka" if they were to be transformed into an "akh". As the physical body could not do this, it was the job of the individual's "ba" to do so.

In order for the physical bodies of the deceased to survive the afterlife, they had to be reunited with their "ba" every night.

The "ba" was associated with the stork, which had the same phonetic value as the word ba, and consequently the "ba" is often seen depicted as a bird with a human head and arms. Closely linked to the physical body, the "ba" was considered to have the same physical needs as the living body. These needs included earthly pleasures such as food and drink and even copulation!

The journey of the "ba" was still only a part of the final transformation of the deceased. Another journey followed, to the sky, sunlight and stars, and it was in these celestial realms that the deceased hoped to reach higher status, second only to a god, and resurrection as an "akh".

And finally an "Akh"

The "akh", represented by a cresrted ibis bird.The "akh" is the fully resurrected and glorified form of the deceased in the Afterlife. Often translated as "spirit" or "spirit form", the "akh" is represented in hieroglyphs by the symbol of the crested ibis. A fully fledged "akh" comes close to our concept of a ghost or spirit, as it was believed that the "akh" could reach beyond the limits of the tomb to have both positive and negative effects on the realm of earthly life.

As a member of the starry sky, known as the "akh-akh", the deceased is now free to roam on and over the earth. After the successful union of the "ba" with its "ka", the "akh" was considered enduring and unchanged for eternity.

The ka, the ba, the akh, the name and the shadow were the five principal elements which the Ancient Egyptians considered necessary to make up a complete personality.

Related pages:
  Find out more about the Pyramid Texts, the oldest religious literature in the world.
  Find out more about the Egyptian Book of The Dead, and the rituals associated with burial.
  Find out more about the importance of the name and the shadow.

Discover how the process of mummification was carried out by the Egyptians >>



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