HUMAN NATURE IN LIFE AND IN DEATH

 

 

            Modern western civilization frequently differentiates between body and soul, and sometimes between mind and body or between what is inherited and what is learned.  The Ancient Egyptian would go much further and saw each person as made up of five separate elements.  Since all were considered to be of equal importance, they are listed here in random order.

1.      Physical Body: This is the part that everyone could see and the part that related to other living creatures.  It ate, walked, and worked during its earthbound existence.  Mummification provided much information about the appearance of the inner organs, but the Egyptians knew surprisingly little about their function., believing, for example, that the heart  (not the brain) was the seat of emotion and thought.  Although at death the body lost its ability to do things, it remained an essential part of the individual, for the Ka and the Ba required a home. 

2.      Shadow:  Since the sun shone brightly almost every day it should perhaps not be surprising that a personís shadow was considered an integral part of the individual.  The shadow went everywhere the woman went and was always visible except at night with the lamp extinguished.

3.      Ka: We might better use the phrase ďlife forceĒ, for the presence or absence of the Ka marked the difference between life and death.  The Ka did not die, but its flight meant death for the Physical Body.  Like the body, the Ka required nourishment and had to be fed.  The Egyptians knew, of course, that if you left food for the dead at night, the offering would still be there in the morning, but they believed that the Ka could make use of the energy within the food.

4.      Ba: The Ba is not an easy concept for modern westerners to grasp.  It closely resembles our concept of the soul, for it is spiritual not physical, contains the individualís full personality, and comes into being, or at least becomes significant, when the physical body dies for it can then move at will among the living.  It is usually pictured as a bird (commonly the falcon) with a human head to emphasize that each is quite specific and different from every other Ba.   Soul would be a perfect English translation, were it not for the fact that the Egyptians believed that inanimate objects, like chairs and doors, though clearly not alive, also had a Ba. In this sense, Ba seems to refer to the impression a person or thing makes on others.  Osiris was said to be the Ba of Re because both gods share similar qualities.  (Perhaps there is a parallel here with the assertion of Jesus Christ that ďthose who have seen me have seen the FatherĒ.)   As long as you are talking about the Ba of an individual man or woman, however, soul is a good translation and certainly conveys the idea the Egyptians meant.

5.      Name:  The Egyptian word ren is usually translated as name but actually meant a great deal more.  A personís name was not just a means of distinguishing one from another but an integral part of the person herself.  To know a personís name implied power over that person.  Writing a name on a shard of pottery, and then breaking it, was believed to be a way of inflicting harm on someone.  As a means of self preservation each Egyptian god and goddess had names so secret that even the other gods did not know them.  Perhaps the people of today who fear the advent of identity cards and the loss of privacy entailed by the computer age have their roots in the ancient concern about the power of a name.

 

Death occurred when the ka left the body.  The Egyptians did not envision a utopian paradise or heaven for the dead, but rather a continuation of earthly life.  The spirits of the dead moved among the living and continued pretty much as they had before death except that they could not be seen.  All of this was possible, however, only if the proper steps were taken.

The first step was the preparation of a suitable home for the Ba could wander freely among the living during the day but needed a home or a place to go every night.  Some have suggested that the daily rise and setting of the Ba closely parallels the sunís cycle.  The ideal home for the Ba was the original body, but a statue or even the name of the deceased would do as long as it was something recognizable.  If the body was to be the Baís home for more than a few days it had to be dried out to prevent decay.  The poor were wrapped in a reed blanket and buried in the desert sand, but those who could afford the best wanted to be mummified.  After the brain was removed and discarded, the body was covered with natron to remove all of the moisture.  The liver, lungs, stomach and intestines were placed in four vases called Canopic jars.  The body was then wrapped in linen cloth.  The cost of the process varied with the quality of the linen and the length of time the body was dried in natron.  The full process took 70 days to complete.

Tombs, at least for those who could afford them, were modeled after homes.  Once the coffin was entombed the burial room would be permanently sealed, offering the same kind of privacy provided by a master bedroom.  Next to the burial chamber were one or more rooms for the use of family members and friends who wanted to visit the tomb to honor the dead and to bring food and other gifts for his or her use in the afterlife.  The well to do would have many of their favorite and valuable things buried with them.  These objects would be intended to both impress the survivors and to be of use to the deceased in the next life.

The most important part of the funeral ceremony was the Opening of the Mouth.  This was done to the mummy and any statuary in order to allow the deceased to be able to eat, talk and move about.  The Ba could now rejoin its Ka and become an Akh.  The effectiveness of the funeral ceremony was dependent on the deceasedís ability to survive the final judgment where his heart was weighed against the feather of truth, justice and proper behavior.  If the deceased had indeed led a good life he could finally join the society of the dead.  . 

There was a Judgment Day and if the Devourer got your heart then you ceased to exist---there was no Hell or Purgatory as places of punishment---but there were any number of spells that could be used to ensure a favorable verdict, so the link between religion and morality was a tenuous one.

The eldest son was expected to take charge of the funeral arrangements and Egyptian law disinherited any son who failed to live up to this obligation in a manner appropriate to his social and economic class.

 

 

A final word would be appropriate.  Much of our evidence for life in Ancient Egypt does come from tombs and therefore deals with death, but this reflects the kind of evidence that survived several thousand years and is not really a sign that the Egyptians were preoccupied with death.  It was life that the Egyptians loved: they just could not bear the idea of giving it up.