Life in Ancient Egypt

Funerary Customs:The Ka and the Ba

Egyptian religion held that what we call the spirit or soul consisted of three distinct parts: the ka, the ba, and the akh. Egyptologists characterize the ka (represented by two upraised arms) as the individual's "vital force" or "spiritual twin." When a person was born, the god Khnum created his or her ka, modeling both body and spirit on his potter's wheel. Kings could have several kas; mere mortals had only one. During life the ka remained separate from the body. At death a person was said to have "gone to his [or her] ka." This was the Egyptian way of saying that the ka had merged with the deceased's lifeless form.

To survive, the ka needed a body for its eternal home. The Egyptians believed that the ka dwelt within either the mummy or the tomb statue (sometimes called the ka-statue), a spare body needed if the corpse should be destroyed.

The Egyptians called the second element of the soul the ba (or "animation"). It was the part of the spirit that was free to leave the tomb and travel about the earth during the day. The ba was obliged, however, to return to the tomb during the perilous hours of darkness. Artisans had several ways of showing the ba, sometimes as a bird, but most often as a human-headed bird. The ba came into being only when the ka and the dead body were united; without the ka and a mummy or ka-statue, the ba could not exist.

Adapted from Death, Burial, and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt by James F. Romano.
© 1990 The Board of Trustees, Carnegie Institute.

Ba on a Coffin Fragment

Ka and the BaFor the ancient Egyptians, a person possessed many qualities, the most important being (1) the body, (2) the ka or vital life force, (3) the ba, (4) the akh or immortal spirit, and (5) the name. The ba was spirit-like, most often depicted, as on this object, as a human-headed bird. Unlike the ka, which came into being at the time of a person's birth, the ba appears to have been more important in the afterlife. The ba could travel with the sun barque across the sky on its daily journey or leave the tomb and visit the world of the living, returning each night to rejoin the deceased. The ba often was present alongside the deceased at his judgment before Osiris.

This fragment from a coffin's base depicts the ba with its wings outspread. Since this piece formed the canopy of an anthropoid coffin where the mummy's head lay, the ba's wings would have symbolically encircled the head, thereby protecting the deceased. The holes in the edges of the wood once held the dowels that locked this section to the coffin's side boards. The heads of two more gods are visible in the lower left and right corners. Their bodies would have continued on the coffin's sides. The decoration on the fragment's outer side has all but disappeared, exposing mud-brick plaster, thickened by straw, instead of the more common white gypsum plaster.

on a Coffin Fragment
(gessoed wood, paint)
Dynasty XXI
(ca. 1070-945 B.C.)
Provenience unknown
Length 33 cm; width 27 cm
ACC. 2983-6551

Excerpted from Reflections of Greatness: Ancient Egypt at The Carnegie Museum of Natural History by Diana Craig Patch.
© 1990 The Board of Trustees, Carnegie Institute.

spacer spacer spacer spacer