Merriam-Webster defines the soul as “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life; the spiritual principle embodied in human beings, all rational and spiritual beings, or the universe; a person’s total self.”
A complicated topic, the concept of the soul is one that has been defined and described in many different ways, unique to each individual culture and set of religious beliefs. For example, among Christians, the soul is your true life, the part that, instead of dying, moves to the afterlife when your time on Earth is complete. Meanwhile, others believe in reincarnation, with the soul returning after physical death in a new form, experiencing multiple lives.
The Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul consisted of 9 different parts, each with their own aspects and properties. Of these, 8 parts were believed to be immortal or semi-divine, while the 9th part was the body. In order for the soul to function all 9 parts were necessary, which is why they practiced mummification, keeping the body intact in order to protect the soul.
Egyptologist Rosalie David explained, “The Egyptians believed that the human personality has many facets – a concept that was probably developed early in the Old Kingdom. In life, the person was a complete entity, but if he had led a virtuous life, he could also have access to a multiplicity of forms that could be used in the next world. In some instances, these forms could be employed to help those whom the deceased wished to support or, alternately, to take revenge on his enemies.”
The 9 Parts of the Soul
The Khat was the physical form of the individual. During life, it was a vessel allowing the soul to exist on our physical plane. In death, the body was believed to become a link between the soul and one’s earthly life. After death, they would mummify the corpse and provide offerings of food and drink to nourish the soul. While it was understood that the body didn’t actually eat the food, it was believed that it could absorb nutrients from the offerings supernaturally.
The Ka was believed to be an astral self. Of the 9 parts, this is believed to be the closest to the present day understanding of the soul. All living things, including plants and animals, had a Ka, which was created at the moment of birth, guiding and protecting the individual, blessed with the energy of the divine. After death, it is that Ka that was said to absorb the food offerings, able to move among the tomb.
The Ba was believed to be a human-headed bird with the ability to move between Earth and the heavens, specifically after death. It would remain linked to the corpse after death, however, it had the ability to visit with the Gods, or travel to places the person had loved in life.
Believed to be the shadow of the soul, there is a lot that is unknown about the supposed function of the Khaibit. The soul, in Ancient Egypt, was associated with both comfort and protection, and as such the shadow self was believed to protect and guide the soul in the afterlife.
Akhu (Akh, Khu, Ikhu)
Translated as the ‘spirit,’ the Akhu was the higher, enlightened form of the soul created by the union of the Ba and the Ka. It was believed that the Akhu would reside among the stars with the Gods, belonging to the heavens, however, it would return to Earth as needed to reconnect with the corpse. In the event that some wrong had been done to the individual, the Akhu would return (in the form of the Sahu) as a ghost to haunt the living. It could also visit those that the individual had cared for in life through their dreams.
Once the soul was judged to be worthy of ‘eternal existence’ the Sahu would separate from all other aspects of the soul. At this time, it is the Sahu that the Akh would use to visit the living in the form of a ghost, or in dreams.
Following death, the ‘vital life energy’ of the individual would manifest as in the form of the Sekhem. Also working in conjunction with the Akh, the Sekhem had the ability to control one’s physical surroundings and outcomes. It also resided among the heavens.
The Ab was the ultimate source of good and evil that defined a person’s character and moral standing, known as the spiritual heart. When the individual died, the spiritual heart would disconnect from the physical heart, living among the Gods if it was deemed worthy. If judged to be unworthy by Osiris, the Ab would be eaten by the monster Amut.
The true name given to an individual at birth, this was kept secret, known only to the Gods. Throughout life, people would live by a nickname, the name that was commonly known, in order to protect their true name. Upon death, as long as the Ren exists then the individual will exist throughout eternity.