Nine Parts of the Human Soul According to the Ancient Egyptians

Nine Parts of the Human Soul According to the Ancient Egyptians

The idea of the human soul has fascinated humankind for thousands of years. Cultures around the world have sought to explain the soul or spirit in a wide and fascinating variety of ways.

The soul is often an important aspect of religion and is closely tied to the afterlife, reincarnation, and spiritual realms . This means the concept of the soul is integral to many belief systems and that in many cases the descriptions and explanations of the soul are lengthy and complex.

For the religious and non-religious alike the soul remains a symbol of self, and the idea of wagering or losing one’s soul has been used as a plotline in stories such as Faustus for generations. In some cultures, such as head-hunting tribes in Indonesia, taking the part of the body believed to house the soul from an enemy is the greatest prize – simultaneously denying their foe the chance to move on to an afterlife and stealing the power of the soul to strengthen their own tribe or family.

Ancient Egyptians had their own complex ideas about what makes up the human soul, and their beliefs involved dividing the soul into nine parts: Khat, Ba, Ren, Ka, Shuyet, Jb, Akh, Sahu, and Sechem.

Eight of these were immortal and passed into the afterlife and the ninth was the physical body which was left behind. The parts all had their own unique functions, and by analyzing these it is possible to understand more about what the ancient Egyptians believed.

Khat or Kha – The Body

Ancient Egyptians believed the physical form itself was a part of the human soul and called this element the Khat or Kha. It was the vessel inhabited by the rest of the soul on Earth. This is part of the reason mummification became so important to ancient Egyptians – preserving the physical body was actually preserving an important part of the soul.

After a person had died, offerings would still be made to the soul at their physical body because it was believed the rest of their soul could supernaturally absorb the benefits and nutrients from the offerings. The body was a link to the essence of the person who had once inhabited it – a concept which is seen in many other interpretations of the soul.

Ba – The Personality

The Ba is perhaps the closest the ancient Egyptians had to the modern ideas about the soul. It made up all the elements of a person that made them unique.

Taking the form of a bird with a human head, the Ba was the way the soul could move between the mortal realm and the spiritual one. The Egyptians believed the Ba still traveled between both realms occasionally while a person was still alive, but that the journey the Ba made between worlds increased significantly after death.

Ba, part of the human soul, in a facsimile of a vignette from the Book of the Dead. (A. Parrot / )

The Ba would visit the gods and the spiritual realm , but it was this part of the soul which would also frequent the places a person loved when they were still alive, maintaining a link between the parts of the soul which dwelled among the stars and the Khat and other elements of the soul which had remained on Earth.

The idea that the Ba would spend time in places a person loved during life is also similar to some modern ideas about ghosts and spirits lingering at a place once loved by a particular person when they were alive. The Ba was also believed to be connected physically to the body and it would remain with the Khat when it was not visiting other physical places or communing with the gods .

Ren – The True Name

Ancient Egyptians were given a name at birth which was kept secret to everyone but the gods. This name was considered an extremely important and powerful part of the soul with the ability to destroy a person and their soul permanently.

Throughout life, an individual was known only by a nickname so that no one would be able to learn their true Ren and gain the powers it contained, or the chance and knowledge needed to destroy it.

As long as the Ren still existed, a soul had the power to keep on surviving. As long as embalming was correctly completed and mummification was successful, the Ren meant a person and their soul would exist for eternity.

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As long as the Ren existed, the human soul survived. (Jacktandy000 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

A series of texts beginning around 350 AD called the Book of Breathings compiled the names of ancient Egyptians and wrote them down physically to try and ensure they survived. The power of the name was acknowledged by the creation of the cartouche – a special way of writing a name inside a protective magical barrier – which was used around royal names.

Just as preserving the name, the Ren was crucial to preserve the soul. Destroying the Ren was a way of making sure a soul was destroyed forever. This is part of the reason some names of hated figures such as Akhenaten were ritually and destructively removed from monuments and texts after their death.

Ka – The Vital Essence

The Ka was the vital essence of a person which distinguished between life and death. The Egyptians believed that either the fertility goddess Heqet or the goddess of childbirth Meskhenet breathed the Ka into a body at the time of birth. The Ka is what made the new infant truly alive.

They believed the Ka was sustained throughout life through food and drink. They believed the Ka still needed nourishment after death, which is the reason food and drink would be presented to the Khat. They did not think the Ka still needed to eat the food physically, but thought the nutrients were absorbed by the Ka in a supernatural manner after death.

A kind of offering tray called a Soul House which was made of clay shaped into a house was developed to present the Ka with offerings. Some surviving examples even have clay models of food in them, and they have been used as a way of determining what an average house would have looked like in ancient Egypt.

A Soul House.. (Geni / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Some people believe Soul Houses were even intended as a physical place for the Ka to reside, though there is no evidence of this, and it is more likely they were simply an elaborate way of presenting offerings of food and drink to the deceased.

Shuyet – The Shadow

Ancient Egyptians believed the shadow was actually a part of a person’s soul. It was ever present, and they believed it contained a part of what makes each individual unique.

As in many other cultures, the Egyptians also believed the shadow was linked in some way to death. The Shuyet was believed to be a servant to Anubis, the Egyptian god of death and the afterlife. Physical depictions of the Shuyet were of a human figure shaded entirely black.

Anubis was the ancient Egyptian god associated with mummification and burial rituals, here he attends to a mummy. (Jeff Dahl / )

Some people had a ‘Shadow Box’ among their funerary items so that the Shuyet had a place to inhabit. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead the soul is described as leaving the tomb of the deceased during the day in the form of a shadow. This Shuyet is considered only a shadow of the person it represents and not a major or destructive manifestation of the deceased in the physical realm.

Jb – The Heart

Just as many people still believe today, the Ancient Egyptians saw the heart as the home of human emotion. It was also considered the center of thought, will, and intention. This meant the Jb (heart) was a very important part of the soul for them, and the word appears in many sayings and expressions in ancient Egyptian writings. While English expressions often refer to the heart as a metaphor, in ancient Egyptians sayings, mentioning the heart is referring to the physical heart.

As an element of the soul, the Jb was the part a person used to gain access to the afterlife. The heart would be weighed on a scale against a feather – the feather of truth – and if the heart weighed more than the feather, a person was denied access to the afterlife and their heart was eaten by a demon called Ammit who was described as a fearsome lion-hippo-crocodile hybrid.

Weighing of the heart, the Jb of the human soul. (ISa1 / )

To preserve and protect the Jb the heart would be specially embalmed, and then placed with the rest of the body along with a heart scarab which was a magical amulet intended to prevent the heart giving away too much information about a person and jeopardizing their success in passing the weighing of the heart.

Akh or Ikhu – The Immortal Self

The Akh was a magical combination of the elements Ba and Ka which represented the enlightened immortal being after death. This magical unification of Ba and Ka would only be possible if the correct funerary rites were performed after death.

The Akh did not stay with the Khat as many other elements of the soul did, it lived among the stars with the gods, though it did return to the body on occasion if necessary. It was a representation of the intellect, will, and intentions of a person.

The Akh was also the aspect of the soul which could reconnect through loved ones by appearing to them in their dreams.

Sahu – The Judge and Spiritual Body

The Sahu was actually a further aspect of the Akh. As soon as a soul had been deemed worthy of entering the afterlife, the Sahu would separate from all other forms of the soul. Much like some modern ideas about ghosts, the Sahu was said to haunt those who had wronged a person in life and protect those who the soul had loved. Just as the Akh could appear in a person’s dreams, the Sahu could appear to a person.

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Ancient Egypt literature included hauntings by the Sahu, the ‘ghost’ part of the human soul. (SteinsplitterBot)

It was often considered a vengeful spirit and could be blamed for any ill fortunes. There is even an example from the Middle Kingdom of a letter left by a widower in the tomb of his late wife begging her Sahu to stop haunting him.

Sechem or Sekhem – Life Energy

The Sekhem was another element of the Akh. Not much is known about the Sekhem, but it was considered a kind of life energy of the soul. The Sekhem was present in the afterlife after judgement had been passed and the soul was considered worthy.

In the Book of the Dead the Sekhem is described as a power and the place in which the gods Horus and Osiris live in the underworld.

Sheet from a Book of the Dead. (Alonso de Mendoza / )

The Sekhem may also have been used to control the physical surroundings and outcomes of a person and their actions. Like the Akh, the Sekhem did not reside with the Khat and the physical body, but among the stars with the gods and goddesses.

The Complexity of the Soul

The way ancient Egyptians divided the soul is indicative of how important it was to them. It was clearly something which had been thought about in a tremendous amount of detail, and it was the crux of their beliefs about the afterlife and how a person could reach it.

Their beliefs about the soul also dictated the way they treated a body after death. Mummification, an iconic part of ancient Egyptian culture , was a result of their beliefs about the Khat and other parts of the soul needing a place to live.

The nine aspects of the soul have influenced many other parts of Egyptian culture too. From the violent removal of names to destroy the Ren to the creation of texts such as the Book of the Dead , the soul was pivotal to much of the culture and society of ancient Egypt.

Without this complicated belief system many of the artifacts which have become iconic and world-renowned elements of ancient Egyptian culture would not have been developed, and the fascinating world which has captured many a modern imagination may have left very different treasures behind.


5: Components of the soul in ancient Egypt

The five components are: Ren, Ka, Ib, Ba and Sheut.

The simplest concept is Ren, which is literally your name: it lives for as long as you are remembered, or can be read about on inscriptions, or included in prayers for the ancestors and their achievements.
Ka is also easy enough to translate into modern idiom, for it is that vital essence that makes the difference between the living and the dead, between life and dead meat, between a warm body and cold clay.
Ib is literally the heart, formed from a single drop of clotted blood extracted from your mother's heart at the hour of your conception or birth. By heart, the Egyptians meant not just the organ for pumping blood around your body, but the seat of your soul, the good directing force in your life, searching after truth, peace and harmony.
Ba is that which makes each of us unique and different, that which makes us strive and achieve, the motivator but also the hungry elemental force that needs food and sex. In some form, your ba is destined to survive after death, often depicted or imagined as a human-headed bird, which with good fortune will go forth by day to enjoy the light, but might also end up existing only in the dark, like the bat or the ruin-haunting owl.
Sheut is your shadow, and by extension the other you, as well as being used to describe a statue, a model or a painting of a human.


Sheut (shadow)

A person's shadow, Sheut (šwt in Egyptian), was always present. It was believed that a person could not exist without a shadow, nor a shadow without a person, therefore, Egyptians surmised that a shadow contained something of the person it represents. For this reason statues of people and deities were sometimes referred to as their shadows.

The shadow was represented graphically as a small human figure painted completely black as well, as a figure of death, or servant of Anubis


The 9 Parts of the Human Soul According to Ancient Egypt

In many ancient cultures such as those found in Asian, African, and even America, we find a Soul concept analogously similar to the concept developed by the religions of the Judeo-Christian group (including Islam) and European philosophy.

The soul, from the Vedic or Veda point of view, is the being, which by nature is eternal (without birth or death or without beginning or end) of a substance different from that of the physical body and which has its own consciousness.

From this point of view, material science or that which studies physical or material phenomena is limited because it cannot study spiritual phenomena since its nature is different from physics.

This chapter of Bhagavad Gita deals with the nature of the soul.

But just as those ancient cultures explain in detail the concept of the human soul, the ancient Egyptians, known to have been one of the most advanced ancient civilization to ever exist on Earth developed an extremely interesting concept that explains the human soul.

THE SOUL WAS NOT ONLY ONE’S CHARACTER BUT A COMPOSITE BEING OF DIFFERENT ENTITIES, EACH OF WHICH HAD ITS OWN ROLE TO PLAY IN THE JOURNEY OF LIFE AND AFTERLIFE.

The ancient Egyptians were convinced that the human soul was composed of NINE main parts: the Ren, the Ba, the Ka, the Shuyet, and the Jb, the Akh, the Sahu, the Khat and the Sechem.

(Note) In some eras, the soul was thought to be comprised of five parts and in others seven, but, generally, it was nine. Here we take a look at the NINE parts.

In addition to the components of the human soul, there was the human body referred to as the Ha—Haw—which was interpreted as the sum of bodily parts.

Jb (The heart) was an extremely important part of the Egyptian soul.

It was believed to form from one drop of blood from the child’s mother’s heart, taken at conception.

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the heart was the key to the afterlife.

Shuyet (The Shadow) is always present. The ancient Egyptians believed the shadow summarized what a person represents.

Ren (The name) was another crucial part of the soul. A person’s Ren was given to them at birth and the Egyptians believed that it would live for as long as that name was spoken.

Bâ (The personality) Resumed, the ancient Egyptians believed that Bâ was everything that makes a person unique.

Ka (The vital spark) According to the Ancient Egyptians the Ka was a vital concept in the soul as it distinguishes the difference between a living and a dead person.

Khat (The Body) the Khat was referred to by the Ancient Egyptian as the physical body which when deceased, provided the ling between the soul and one’s earthly life.

Akh (The Immortal Self) according to ancient Egyptians, the Akh was the transformed immortal self which offered a magical union of the Ba and Ka.

Sahu (The Judge) The Sahu was the aspect of Akh which would come to a person as a ghost or while asleep in dreams.

Sahu was differentiated from all other aspects of the soul once the person was ‘justified’ by the God Osiris and judged worthy of eternal existence.

Sechem (Another aspect of Akh) The Sechem was another aspect of the Akh which allowed it mastery of circumstances.

It was considered the vital life energy of the person which manifested itself as the power that had the ability to control one’s surroundings and outcomes.

Furthermore, according to the ancient Egyptians the human being, has eight degrees in personality:

“Ren”, or “he name, being able to keep existing according to the care of a correct embalming.

“Sejem” is the energy, the power, the light of the deceased.

“Aj” is the unification of “Ka” and “Ba”, in view of a return to existence.

“Ba“, which makes of an individual being what it is it also applies to inanimate things. It is the closest concept to the Western “Soul”.

“Ka,” the life force. Sustained by food offerings to the deceased.

“Sheut or Shuyet” is the shadow of the person, represented by a completely black human figure.


The 9 parts of the human soul according to Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, a person’s soul was thought to consist of nine separate parts which were integrated into a whole individual but had very distinct aspects.

In many ancient cultures such as those found in Asian, African, and even America, we find a Soul concept analogously similar to the concept developed by the religions of the Judeo-Christian group (including Islam) and European philosophy.

The soul, from the Vedic or Veda point of view, is the being, which by nature is eternal (without birth or death or without beginning or end) of a substance different from that of the physical body and which has its own consciousness.

From this point of view, material science or that which studies physical or material phenomena is limited because it cannot study spiritual phenomena since its nature is different from physics.

This chapter of Bhagavad Gita deals with the nature of the soul.

But just as those ancient cultures explain in detail the concept of the human soul, the ancient Egyptians, known to have been one of the most advanced ancient civilization to ever exist on Earth developed an extremely interesting concept that explains the human soul.

THE SOUL WAS NOT ONLY ONE’S CHARACTER BUT A COMPOSITE BEING OF DIFFERENT ENTITIES, EACH OF WHICH HAD ITS OWN ROLE TO PLAY IN THE JOURNEY OF LIFE AND AFTERLIFE.

The ancient Egyptians were convinced that the human soul was composed of NINE main parts: the Ren, the Ba, the Ka, the Shuyet, and the Jb, the Akh, the Sahu, the Khat and the Sechem.

(Note) In some eras, the soul was thought to be comprised of fiveparts and in others seven, but, generally, it was nine. Here we take a look at the NINE parts.

In addition to the components of the human soul, there was the human body referred to as the Ha—Haw—which was interpreted as the sum of bodily parts.

Jb (The heart) was an extremely important part of the Egyptian soul. It was believed to form from one drop of blood from the child’s mother’s heart, taken at conception. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the heart was the key to the afterlife.

Shuyet (The Shadow) is always present. The ancient Egyptians believed the shadow summarized what a person represents.

Ren (The name) was another crucial part of the soul. A person’s Ren was given to them at birth and the Egyptians believed that it would live for as long as that name was spoken.

(The personality) Resumed, the ancient Egyptians believed that Bâ was everything that makes a person unique.

Ka (The vital spark) According to the Ancient Egyptians the Ka was a vital concept in the soul as it distinguishes the difference between a living and a dead person.

Khat (The Body) the Khat was referred to by the Ancient Egyptian as the physical body which when deceased, provided the ling between the soul and one’s earthly life.

Akh (The Immortal Self) according to ancient Egyptians, the Akh was the transformed immortal self which offered a magical union of the Ba and Ka.

Sahu (The Judge) The Sahu was the aspect of Akh which would come to a person as a ghost or while asleep in dreams. Sahu was differentiated from all other aspects of the soul once the person was ‘justified’ by the God Osiris and judged worthy of eternal existence.

Sechem (Another aspect of Akh) The Sechem was another aspect of the Akh which allowed it mastery of circumstances. It was considered the vital life energy of the person which manifested itself as the power that had the ability to control one’s surroundings and outcomes.

Furthermore, according to the ancient Egyptians the human being, has eight degrees in personality:

“Ren“, or “he name, being able to keep existing according to the care of a correct embalming.

“Sejem” is the energy, the power, the light of the deceased.

“Aj” is the unification of “Ka” and “Ba”, in view of a return to existence.

“Ba“, which makes of an individual being what it is it also applies to inanimate things. It is the closest concept to the Western “Soul”.

“Ka,” the life force. Sustained by food offerings to the deceased.

“Sheut or Shuyet” is the shadow of the person, represented by a completely black human figure.


These Are the Nine Parts of the Human Soul According to Ancient Egypt

In many ancient cultures such as those found in Asian, African, and even America, we find a Soul concept analogously similar to the concept developed by the religions of the Judeo-Christian group (including Islam) and European philosophy.

The soul, from the Vedic or Veda point of view, is the being, which by nature is eternal (without birth or death or without beginning or end) of a substance different from that of the physical body and which has its own consciousness.

From this point of view, material science or that which studies physical or material phenomena is limited because it cannot study spiritual phenomena since its nature is different from physics.

This chapter of Bhagavad Gita deals with the nature of the soul.

But just as those ancient cultures explain in detail the concept of the human soul, the ancient Egyptians, known to have been one of the most advanced ancient civilization to ever exist on Earth developed an extremely interesting concept that explains the human soul.

The ancient Egyptians were convinced that the human soul was composed of NINE main parts: the Ren, the Ba, the Ka, the Shuyet, and the Jb, the Akh, the Sahu, the Khat and the Sechem.

(Note) In some eras, the soul was thought to be comprised of five parts and in others seven, but, generally, it was nine. Here we take a look at the NINE parts.

In addition to the components of the human soul, there was the human body referred to as the Ha—Haw—which was interpreted as the sum of bodily parts.

Jb (The heart) was an extremely important part of the Egyptian soul. It was believed to form from one drop of blood from the child’s mother’s heart, taken at conception. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the heart was the key to the afterlife.

Shuyet (The Shadow) is always present. The ancient Egyptians believed the shadow summarized what a person represents.

Ren (The name) was another crucial part of the soul. A person’s Ren was given to them at birth and the Egyptians believed that it would live for as long as that name was spoken.

(The personality) Resumed, the ancient Egyptians believed that Bâ was everything that makes a person unique.

Ka (The vital spark) According to the Ancient Egyptians the Ka was a vital concept in the soul as it distinguishes the difference between a living and a dead person.

Khat (The Body) the Khat was referred to by the Ancient Egyptian as the physical body which when deceased, provided the ling between the soul and one’s earthly life.

Akh (The Immortal Self) according to ancient Egyptians, the Akh was the transformed immortal self which offered a magical union of the Ba and Ka.

Sahu (The Judge) The Sahu was the aspect of Akh which would come to a person as a ghost or while asleep in dreams. Sahu was differentiated from all other aspects of the soul once the person was ‘justified’ by the God Osiris and judged worthy of eternal existence.

Sechem (Another aspect of Akh) The Sechem was another aspect of the Akh which allowed it mastery of circumstances. It was considered the vital life energy of the person which manifested itself as the power that had the ability to control one’s surroundings and outcomes.

Furthermore, according to the ancient Egyptians the human being, has eight degrees in personality:

“Ren“, or “he name, being able to keep existing according to the care of a correct embalming.

“Sejem” is the energy, the power, the light of the deceased.

“Aj” is the unification of “Ka” and “Ba”, in view of a return to existence.

“Ba“, which makes of an individual being what it is it also applies to inanimate things. It is the closest concept to the Western “Soul”.

“Ka,” the life force. Sustained by food offerings to the deceased.

“Sheut or Shuyet” is the shadow of the person, represented by a completely black human figure.

“Seju” means the physical remains of the person.

“Jat” is the carnal part of the person.

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Facts About Ma’at

  • Ma’at lies at the heart of ancient Egypt’s social and religious ideals
  • It symbolised harmony and balance, truth and justice, law and order
  • Ma’at was also the name given to the ancient Egyptian goddess who personified these concepts and oversaw the stars as well as the season
  • The Ancient Egyptians believed the goddess Ma’at influenced the primal deities who joined forces to impose order on the tumultuous chaos at the instant of creation
  • Ma’at’ was opposed in her work by Isfet the goddess governing violence, chaos, injustice and evil
  • Eventually, the Ra the king of the gods absorbed Ma’at role at the heart of all creation
  • Egypt’s pharaohs styled themselves as the “Lords of Ma’at”

Origin And Significance

Ra or Atum the sun god was believed to have created Ma’at at the moment of creation when Nun’s primordial waters parted and the ben-ben or first dry mound of land rose with Ra astride it, thanks to Heka’s invisible magical power. In the instant Ra spoke the world into being Ma’at was birthed. Ma’at’s name is translated as “that which is straight.” This connotes harmony, order and justice.

Ma’at’s principals of balance and harmony suffused this act of creation causing the world to function rationally and with purpose. The concept of ma’at underpinned the functioning of life, while heka or magic was the source of its power. This is why Ma’at is seen as more conceptual than a conventional goddess complete with a clearly defined personality and back-story such as Hathor or Isis. Ma’at’s divine spirit underpinned all creation. If an ancient Egyptian lived in keeping with her principals, one would enjoy a full life and could hope to enjoy eternal peace after journeying through the afterlife. Conversely, if one refused to conform to Ma’at’s principles one would be condemned to suffer the ramifications of that decision.

Her significance is shown by how the ancient Egyptians inscribed her name. While Ma’at was frequently identified by her feather motif, she was frequently associated with a plinth. A plinth was often set under the throne of a divine being but was not inscribed with the deity’s name. Ma’at’s association with a plinth suggested she was thought of as the foundation of Egyptian society. Her importance is clearly shown in iconography positioning her at Ra’s side on his heavenly barge as she voyaged with him during daytime across the sky while assisting him to defend their boat against attacks by the serpent god Apophis at night.

Ma’at And The White Feather Of Truth

Ancient Egyptians fervently believed each person was ultimately responsible for their own lives and that their lives should be lived in balance and harmony with the earth and other people. Just as the gods looked after humanity, so humans needed to adopt the same caring attitude for one other and the world the gods had provided.

This concept of harmony and balance is found in all aspects of ancient Egyptian society and culture, from how they laid out their cities and homes, to the symmetry and balance found in the design of their sprawling temples and immense monuments. Living harmoniously in accordance with the will of the gods, equated to living according to the dictate of the goddess personifying the concept ma’at. Eventually, everyone faced judgment in the afterlife’s Hall of Truth.

Ancient Egyptians, thought of the human soul as comprising nine parts: the physical body was the Khat the Ka was a person’s double-form, their Ba was a human-headed bird aspect capable of speeding between the heavens and earth the shadow self was the Shuyet, while the Akh formed the deceased’s immortal self, transformed by death, Sechem and Sahu were both Akh, forms, the heart was Ab, the wellspring of good and evil and Ren was an individual’s secret name. All nine aspects were part of an Egyptian’s earthly existence.

After death, the Akh together with the Sechem and Sahu appeared before Osiris, Thoth the god of wisdom and the Forty-Two Judges in the Hall of Truth to have the deceased’s heart or Ab weighed on a golden scale against Ma’at’s white feather of truth.

If the deceased’s heart proved lighter than Ma’at’s feather, the deceased remained as Osiris consulted Thoth and the Forty-Two Judges. If the deceased was adjudged to be worthy, the soul was granted the freedom to move on through the hall to continue its existence in paradise at The Field of Reeds. No one could escape this eternal judgment.

In the Egyptian idea of the afterlife, Ma’at was believed to assist those who adhered to her principles during their life.

Worshipping Ma’at As A Divine Goddess

While Ma’at was respected as an important goddess, the ancient Egyptians dedicated no temples to Ma’at. Nor did she have any official priests. Instead, a modest shrine was consecrated to her in other gods’ temples honoured Ma’at. The single temple recognized as having been built in her honour by Queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE) was erected within the god Montu’s temple grounds.

Egyptians venerated their goddess by simply living their lives in observance to her tenets. Devotional gifts and offerings to her were placed on her shrines set in many temples.

According to surviving records, the sole “official” veneration of Ma’at occurred when a newly crowned Egyptian king offered sacrifices to her. After being crowned, the new king would offer a representation of her to the gods. This act represented the king’s request for her assistance in preserving the divine harmony and balance during his reign. Should a king fail to maintain the balance and harmony, it was a clear portent he was unfit to reign. Ma’at thus was crucial a king’s successful rule.

In the Egyptian pantheon of gods, Ma’at was a significant and universal presence, despite having no priestly cult or dedicated temple. The Egyptian gods were thought to live off Ma’at and the majority of images showing the king offering Ma’at to Egypt’s pantheon of gods upon his coronation were mirror images of those depicting the king presenting wine, food, and other sacrifices to the gods. The gods were thought to live off Ma’at as they were obliged by divine law to maintain balance and harmony and to encourage those specific values amongst their human worshippers.

Ma’at’s temples were set amidst other gods’ temples due to Ma’at’s role as a universal cosmic essence, which enabled the lives of both humans and their gods. Egyptians venerated the goddess Ma’at by living their lives in keeping with her principles of harmony, balance, order and justice and being considerate to their neighbours and the earth the gods gifted them to nurture. While goddesses such as Isis and Hathor proved more widely worshipped, and eventually absorbed several Ma’at’s attributes, the goddess retained her significance as a deity right through Egypt’s lengthy culture and defined much the country’s core cultural values for centuries.

Reflecting On The Past

Anyone looking to understand ancient Egyptian culture must first understand ma’at and the role its core concept of balance and harmony played in shaping Egypt’s belief system.

Header image courtesy: British Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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Nine Parts of the Human Soul According to the Ancient Egyptians - History

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Soul, in religion and philosophy, the immaterial aspect or essence of a human being, that which confers individuality and humanity, often considered to be synonymous with the mind or the self. In theology, the soul is further defined as that part of the individual which partakes of divinity and often is considered to survive the death of the body.

Many cultures have recognized some incorporeal principle of human life or existence corresponding to the soul, and many have attributed souls to all living things. There is evidence even among prehistoric peoples of a belief in an aspect distinct from the body and residing in it. Despite widespread and longstanding belief in the existence of a soul, however, different religions and philosophers have developed a variety of theories as to its nature, its relationship to the body, and its origin and mortality.

Among ancient peoples, both the Egyptians and the Chinese conceived of a dual soul. The Egyptian ka (breath) survived death but remained near the body, while the spiritual ba proceeded to the region of the dead. The Chinese distinguished between a lower, sensitive soul, which disappears with death, and a rational principle, the hun, which survives the grave and is the object of ancestor worship.

The early Hebrews apparently had a concept of the soul but did not separate it from the body, although later Jewish writers developed the idea of the soul further. Biblical references to the soul are related to the concept of breath and establish no distinction between the ethereal soul and the corporeal body. Christian concepts of a body-soul dichotomy originated with the ancient Greeks and were introduced into Christian theology at an early date by St. Gregory of Nyssa and by St. Augustine.

Ancient Greek concepts of the soul varied considerably according to the particular era and philosophical school. The Epicureans considered the soul to be made up of atoms like the rest of the body. For the Platonists, the soul was an immaterial and incorporeal substance, akin to the gods yet part of the world of change and becoming. Aristotle’s conception of the soul was obscure, though he did state that it was a form inseparable from the body.

In Christian theology St. Augustine spoke of the soul as a “rider” on the body, making clear the split between the material and the immaterial, with the soul representing the “true” person. However, although body and soul were separate, it was not possible to conceive of a soul without its body. In the Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas returned to the Greek philosophers’ concept of the soul as a motivating principle of the body, independent but requiring the substance of the body to make an individual.

From the Middle Ages onward, the existence and nature of the soul and its relationship to the body continued to be disputed in Western philosophy. To René Descartes, man was a union of the body and the soul, each a distinct substance acting on the other the soul was equivalent to the mind. To Benedict de Spinoza, body and soul formed two aspects of a single reality. Immanuel Kant concluded that the soul was not demonstrable through reason, although the mind inevitably must reach the conclusion that the soul exists because such a conclusion was necessary for the development of ethics and religion. To William James at the beginning of the 20th century, the soul as such did not exist at all but was merely a collection of psychic phenomena.

Just as there have been different concepts of the relation of the soul to the body, there have been numerous ideas about when the soul comes into existence and when and if it dies. Ancient Greek beliefs were varied and evolved over time. Pythagoras held that the soul was of divine origin and existed before and after death. Plato and Socrates also accepted the immortality of the soul, while Aristotle considered only part of the soul, the noûs, or intellect, to have that quality. Epicurus believed that both body and soul ended at death. The early Christian philosophers adopted the Greek concept of the soul’s immortality and thought of the soul as being created by God and infused into the body at conception.

In Hinduism the atman (“breath,” or “soul”) is the universal, eternal self, of which each individual soul (jiva or jiva-atman) partakes. The jiva-atman is also eternal but is imprisoned in an earthly body at birth. At death the jiva-atman passes into a new existence determined by karma, or the cumulative consequences of actions. The cycle of death and rebirth ( samsara) is eternal according to some Hindus, but others say it persists only until the soul has attained karmic perfection, thus merging with the Absolute (brahman). Buddhism negates the concept not only of the individual self but of the atman as well, asserting that any sense of having an individual eternal soul or of partaking in a persistent universal self is illusory.

The Muslim concept, like the Christian, holds that the soul comes into existence at the same time as the body thereafter, it has a life of its own, its union with the body being a temporary condition.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Matt Stefon, Assistant Editor.