The Ancient Egyptian Ka
by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston
Understanding conceptual ideas related to ancient Egypt thought can be difficult, and there is little more complex than the ideas surrounding the ka. Yet the ka was a most important concept in ancient Egyptian religion. Indeed, the name of Egypt itself is probably derived, though Greek, from the ancient name for the capital city, Memphis, which was Hut-ka-Pteh, or "House of the Ka of Ptah".
The word, ka, was expressed by a hieroglyph depicting two upraised arms, which was usually the symbol of an embrace, the protection of a man by his ka, or a sign of praise, although other interpretations are possible. The ka hieroglyph sometimes appears on offering tables in place of representations of actual offerings, and in its basic sense of life-power, the sign may appear in apposition with the ankh or some other sign.
Unfortunately, the concept of the ka has no exact analogues in European culture and so it is difficult to identify the ka with more familiar concepts. Hence, there are many interpretations that are frequently ambiguous and often unsatisfactory. One will frequently see the term translated as "soul" or "spirit", the ka was much more than that. During very ancient times, the ka may have indicated male potency, and in all periods it is used as a term for the creative and sustaining power of life.
Importantly, the ka needed continuing nourishment in order to survive and offerings of food and drink were made to it. Eventually, the offerings themselves began to be regarded as being imbued with the ka's life-power, and the plural kau was used to mean "food offerings"
This broad diversity in the meaning of the term ka is responsible for a wide variety of uses for the sign. A distinction must be made between the internal and external ka, as well as between the royal and the human ka, because these concepts could be very different.
The idea that there was something securing the physical and mental activities of man arose in Egypt and elsewhere during prehistory. The ka (or internal ka) was believed to be one of those entities. Many ancient Egyptian words, such as "think about" and "thought" have the same basic root as the word for ka, as do other words such as "magic" and "enchant"., reflecting the supernatural essence of the ka. There was also a reproductive role of the ka, but its connection to the thought process is not as clear. It is another part of what the ancient Egyptians considered to be a part of mankind's existence, the ba, which was usually related to the mind. Thus, in the literary work, "Dispute of a Man with his Ba", confusion of thought is described as a dialogue with the ba. Nevertheless, the word hmt, meaning to "think or "to act three together", lends support to the idea that the ka was also considered to be involved in the thought process.
The ka could be thought by the ancient Egyptians to designate individual human traits such as character, nature, temperament or disposition. And since one's character has so much to do with one's life, ka could also refer to destiny or providence. Yet, considering the ka as a kind of universal vital force is too abstract.
The idea of personifications were readily adopted in ancient Egypt. Hence, the Egyptian mind transformed this spiritual idea into a certain being, which we can refer to as the external ka. Apparently this form of the ka was primarily associated with the placenta, considered the twin of a man, and was born with him. Hence, scenes of the king's birth depict Khnum forming the royal baby and his ka on a potter's wheel. At the same time, to "go to one's ka" meant to die, even though the ka continued to live on after the body itself died, and was then supreme. In fact, priests who served in the funerary cult were called hemu-ka or "ka servants".
Within Old Kingdom pyramid temples, New Kingdom royal tombs and the temples dedicated to the gods, there are many representations of the ka accompanying the king, either as a personified ka sign or even in human form with the ka sign on its head. The ka hieroglyph holds the serekh with the Horus name of the king, while the ka itself holds an ostrich feather, the symbol of world order or ma'at, in one hand, and a long staff with a finial shaped like the king's head in the other hand. Hence, the royal ka is related to the Horus name describing the presence of that god in the king. This shows the dual nature of the king, which combines divine and mortal components. His divinity is realized through the ka. The relationship between the royal ka and Horus is apparent in its identification with Harsiese in the New Kingdom..
Unlike the royal ka, the human ka was never represented as a separate figure, because any representation itself is the ka. This explains the indifference of Egyptian artists to rendering individual features. They did not reproduce the portrait of an individual, but that of his ka, who was eternally youthful and in perfect shape.
During the Old Kingdom, the pictures created in private tombs created an entire world for the ka. They are an exact, although incomplete, copy of the earthly world. Only the people and objects essential for the owner are shown. Being a reproduction of everyday life, this "Doubleworld" is surprisingly realistic. There is nothing supernatural about it, including the gods. Every tomb formed its own doubleworld, and their total did not merge into an aggregate next world.