Me and My Shadow The Shadow as Part of the Ancient Egyptian Individual

Me and My Shadow

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Jefferson Monet

To the ancient Egyptians, an individual had various components, a belief that is not foreign to some modern religions that believe us to be both flesh and spirit. However, to the Egyptians, the individual was somewhat more complex, consisting of flesh (the body), the ka (life force), the ba (soul), the name and the shadow (shut, swt), all of which were necessary to form a functional human being. The shadow was certainly thought to be an important part of an individual, for it was, like the body, visible.

It is not surprising that the ancient Egyptians would recognize their shadow as an important element, for they certainly gave reverence to the sun, and the shadow's relationship to light was understood. In the Prophecy of Neferti, the absence of sunlight is described as "no one will distinguish his shadow".

Like other components making up an individual, the shadow was both viewed as a component of its owner, and as a separate mode of existence. Furthermore, the image of a god that was carved on a temple wall could at times be referred to as the god's shadow, and even the temple itself was sometimes known as the shadow of its deity.

Ka Statue of Auibre Hor

Most of the references that we find informing us of the shadows of individuals occur in funerary text that deal with the afterlife. In the earliest examples, where the shadow is most often related to the ba, these references come to us from the Coffin Texts of the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom. Hence, the shadow could be viewed as a mode of existence after death. In some references, the shadow and ba could even appear to be parts of an single entity. For example, in one such instance, we find the command, "Go, my ba and my shadow, that you (singular) may see the sun". Because of such references, and the fact that the ba was regularly said to have physical attributes enabling it to eat, drink and copulate, Egyptians may have thought that the ba had its own shadow.

However, there are other references in the Coffin Texts that set the ba and shadow completely apart. Though closely related, we are informed that the ba is "in the earth", while the shadow is "in the inaccessible places" (in other words, the burial chamber). Hence, the deceased states that "my ba belongs to my body, my shadow belongs to its (body) arm".

In some passages, the ba and shadow seem almost to work as a team. In the Papyrus of Nebseni, we find a prayer asking the Eye of Horus:

"O keep not captive my soul. Okkp not ward over my shadow, but let a way be opened for my soul and my shadow, and let them see the Great God in the shrine on the day of the counting of souls, and let them hold converse with Osiris, whose habitations are hidden, and those who guard the members of Osiris, and who keep ward over the ba, and who hold captive the shadows of the dead, and who would work evil against me, so that they shall [not] work evil against me."

The ba was often depicted as a bird with a human head

Each night (in the afterlife), the shadow returned to the mummy of the deceased just as the ba did. The Coffin Texts tells us that "my ba and my shadow going on their feet to the place where the man (the deceased) is". At times, however, the shadow is more closely related to the body than the ba, as reflected in both the Coffin Texts and Pyramid Texts that that describes the deceased's consumption of the gods' bas "while their shadows remain with their owners".

Though the human ba was often depicted in funerary scenes, the shadow was represented only rarely. When it was, it most often took the form of a human silhouette, sometimes with an eye.

It should be noted that the shadow (swt) was also recognized for objects other than human beings, such as the shade cast by trees and buildings. Tuthmosis IV, on the Dream Stela located between the paws of the Great Sphinx, describes how the king "rested in the shadow of this great god" at noon. The term was also applied in relationship to protection, both from the heat of the sun and in a broader sense. This is perhaps understandable in Egypt's hot climate. In the regard, the king might be protected by a god extending over him, or the king might protect his subjects with the shadow of his arm.






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Last Updated: June 21st, 2011