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The Soul's Journey Through the Ancient Egyptian Afterlife

Updated on July 12, 2017
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Jackie is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in History from Montclair State University, and thoroughly enjoys researching history.

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The ancient Egyptian idea of the afterlife is vastly different from what many believe today. Today, most people believe that their life will be judged upon their death. If they are judged to have done well by their religion's standards, then they are admitted into a paradise. If they have not done well, then the possibility of eternal punishment awaits them, often in a fiery realm. Some religions do believe in a halfway realm—not quite a punishment but not quite paradise either. Others believe in reincarnation, where the soul of the deceased returns to be reborn into a new life on Earth. For the Egyptians, things were not quite that simple.

The Soul

For the Egyptians, the soul was not a single unified entity. Rather, the immortal soul was split into three important parts—the Ka, the Ba, and the Akh. The Ka is the spark of life for each individual. It is said that the moment Khnum finishes creating the body out of clay is the same that the Ka enters the body and gives it life. It is identical to that person and is immortal. The Ka makes sure that a person will continue to exist after death, but it does need sustenance. This part of the soul is able to absorb the energy from food offerings left by the living. Often, images of food and drink will be painted on the inside of tombs, in the hope that this will sustain the Ka in case no offerings are left by the living. Some priests would say spells to entice a god to grant loaves of bread or cups of beer to the Ka. The Ka would typically stay in the tomb after death, and many ancient Egyptians placed small statues in the tomb to encourage it to remain, giving it something tangible to possess if the body was damaged.

Representation of a Ba

Note the human head and bird wings
Note the human head and bird wings | Source

The Ba was considered to be a more "mobile" aspect of the soul, able to leave both the tomb and the realm of the dead by day. It would take the form of a large bird, with the deceased persons head. The Ba was considered to be representative of the person's heart, and would hold the personality of said person. When the Ba left the safety of the tomb, it needed to be cautious. If it were damaged in anyway, it would "forget" where to return to, and would destroy that part of the soul as it wandered aimlessly evermore.

The third, and last part of the immortal soul would be the Akh. Little is known about this part of the soul. Some believe that this is the part of the sould that would pass to the afterlife, and with any luck, the Field of Reeds, their version of the afterlife. According to Wafaa el-Saddik, in "Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs" this is the part we would most closely identify with our current definition of an immortal soul. Some believe that the Akh is only achieved when the Ba and Ka come together. Others believe that it is a separate part of the soul entirely, and is the part that deals with religious matters.

The Journey

When a person died, at least a part of their soul (most likely the Akh) would travel to the underworld (also known as Duat), for judgement. Anubis was said to have guided the souls, to ensure they did not become lost in the underworld. For ancient Egyptians, the judgement process was two-fold. In the first test, the person's heart would be measured against Ma'at in the Hall of Truth. Osiris would oversee this weighing of the heart. On one side of the scale, the heart. On the other, a single feather from Ma'at. Ma'at was the goddess of truth, balance, justice, harmony, as well as many other concepts. If a person's heart was equal to, or lighter than, one of Ma'at's feathers, then that person has led a life full of what she represents and passes the first judgement. If the heart was heavier than the feather, that person was condemned. Egyptians had no concept of hell or eternal torment. Instead, those that failed would be devoured by Ammit. She was the devourer of the unworthy dead, and was part lion, part hippopotamus, and had the head of a crocodile. Those who were devoured simply ceased existing. There would be nothing more for them, and they would never be reincarnated or enjoy eternal life. Those who made it past the weighing and Ammit would then be judged by 42 gods.

The Weighing of the Heart. See Ammit waiting patiently to devour the unworthy hearts?
The Weighing of the Heart. See Ammit waiting patiently to devour the unworthy hearts? | Source

Each would look for a specific sin, and it was up to the person being judged to convince the gods that they never committed that particular sin. It was recommended by the Book of the Dead for the soul to name each god before making his argument. The Book of the Dead also informed the soul of what sin each god was looking for, giving them a better chance of convincing the 42 judges of their innocence. If each god was convinced, then the deceased was allowed past and entered the Reed Fields (also known as Aaru) by crossing the Lake of Flowers.

For the Egyptians, Paradise was nearly identical to what they had in the mortal realm. One would find loved ones, animals, pets, and one's home. The only difference is that one would never die here. That transition was already complete, and would not need to be repeated.

Conclusion

One of the defining features of the Egyptian afterlife is what is not actually present. Most religions promise eternal torment for those who commit evil deeds in life. The Egyptians promise something far more sinister- complete oblivion. Also unique to the Egyptian afterlife is the idea of a split immortal soul. Many consider the immortal soul to be a whole and singular entity. Most interesting of all is the Egyptian idea of Paradise. The ability to continue one's existence in essentially the same state as it was in the mortal realm spoke to a deep contentment within the Egyptians. They could not envision any place better than what they already had on Earth.

Sources:

Brier, Bob, and A. Hoyt Hobbs. Ancient Egypt: Everyday Life in the Land of the Nile. New York: Sterling, 2009.

Schulz, Regine, and Matthias Seidel. Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs. S. l.: H. F. Ullmann, 2007.


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