Discussions revolving around the human soul are usually complicated. In today’s society, discussions of a spiritual nature are often reserved for conversations centered around human spirituality, religion and the larger idea of the Universe. We speak of the soul as being an entity within our human body, the true essence of what makes a person.
Throughout history there have been many interpretations of the soul, ranging from those that see the soul as the true self which will move on to the afterlife when our time on this planet is through, to those that believe in the concept of reincarnation, with the soul returning in a new form after each physical death. Regardless of which spiritual or religious beliefs that you subscribe to, the idea that the soul is an important part of who we are as an individual underlies all else.
Looking back, we can learn a great deal from the various cultures and people that came before us. The Ancient Greeks, for example, believed in the idea of the ‘world soul,’ also known as anima mundi. This was an essence that surrounded everything in the word, specifically the natural world. When a person died in Greek culture it was believed that their soul would leave the body from their limbs before traveling to the afterlife. The idea of the ‘world soul’ faded into the history books when it became an accepted belief that the world was struggling with true spirituality, and sin had caused a divide between the world and its soul.
On the other hand, head-hunting tribes like those throughout Indonesia treasured the head specifically because they believed that it contained a soul-substance. When the head was removed from their victims, they believed that this soul-substance could be transferred from one person to another bringing the hunter, their family, and their community as a whole, an increased strength. This strength would make crops healthier, livestock bigger and would protect the village from the risk of disease and illness.
The Ancient Egyptians, however, had a much more elaborate explanation for the human soul. Rather than seeing it as a single entity, they believed that human existence was comprised of 9 different parts, 8 of which were immortal and survived death, and the 9th was our physical form. Each of these individual parts had its own name, and its own purpose in our life. While we don’t totally understand the exact meanings of these terms, we do still have a pretty good grasp of the purpose of each of the parts of the soul.
The 9 parts of the soul according to Ancient Egyptians included:
The only physical part of the human existence, the Khat was the physical form that a person would take while walking the Earth. During life, this functioned as a vessel, allowing the soul to exist in the physical world. When the physical body would die the Ancient Egyptians would mummify it and continue to make offerings to the physical form, as they believed that the form would supernaturally absorb nutrients and sustenance from these offerings.
Of the 9 parts of the Egyptian soul, the Ka was the closest thing to the modern day understanding of the ‘soul.’ It was believed that every living thing possessed a Ka – including both animal and plant life. This was an astral self that came into being at the moment of birth, guiding people throughout the course of their life. This part of the soul would return to the tomb after death, and it was believed that it was the part that would ultimately absorb the offerings left with the Khat.
The Ba was believed to take the form of a human-headed bird, and it possessed the ability to move back and forth between the heavens and Earth. While it did make this trip throughout the life of the individual, these trips were more frequent following death as it would visit with the Gods or travel to the places that the individual loved during their life, while still maintaining a connection to the physical form.
Always present, throughout life as well as into death, the Khaibit was the shadow of the soul. Ancient Egyptians believed that this shadow depicted all that a person represented in their life. The Khaibit was believed to most often be found alongside the Ba, and it served a function of protecting and guiding the soul as a whole in the afterlife.
Akhu (Akh, Khu, Ikhu)
Following death, the Akhu was believed to be the ‘immortal self’ of the individual, continuing to live on in the afterlife. It would take up residence with the Gods in the heavens, returning to Earth only when necessary to reconnect with the Khat. The Akhu was the manifestation of a person’s intellect, intentions, and will.
The Sahu is best compared to our modern-day idea of a ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit.’ After the soul was judged to be worthy of ‘eternal existence’ the Sahu could return to the Earth to visit the living either as a spiritual being or in their dreams. It would haunt those that had done the individual wrong or protect those that they had deeply cared for and loved.
Believed to be a manifestation of the life energy of an individual, the Sekhem lived in the heavens with the Akhu. It was believed that it possessed the ability to control both its physical surroundings and ultimately its outcomes.
Believed to be the ‘spiritual heart,’ the Ab would separate from the physical heart after death. This was the part of the soul that would be judged to be either good or evil, defining an individual’s character. If they were deemed to be good, it would live among the Gods. If, however, they were found to be unworthy to reside with the Gods, the Ab would be eaten by Ammut (Ammit).
When one was born the Ancient Egyptians believed they were given a ‘true name,’ a magical entity that could destroy a person if it were damaged or give power to any who discovered this name. They would live their life under a nickname, keeping the ‘true name’ or Ren a secret from the world. It was, however, known to the Gods. So long as the Ren continued to exist, the individual could also exist throughout eternity.
Image via Sutori