Eternal Life

From the most ancient times to the most contemporary, in Africa human beings have always believed in the idea of eternal life. Although there are slight differences in the models from east to west or north to south, the particular understanding of everlasting life occurs in almost all African societies, and the results of this belief can be seen in the richly textured acceptance of the vital and active ancestral realm. This entry looks at the beginnings of the concept in Egypt and its presence elsewhere in Africa.

Egyptian Roots

The concept of eternal life—that is, living forever—originated with Africans in the Nile Valley and spread to other parts of the continent and the world. Actually, it was believed by the earliest Africans that death occurred when the life force left the body. However, all the ceremonies associated with the funerary care of the corpse ensured that the person would live forever because the various activities of the priests after the person had died, such as the opening of the mouth (wep r), sought to restore a person's connection to the ka that had left the body at death.
In addition, the ancient Africans believed that this restoration would lead to the physical attributes of the person being restored. This could be done, however, only if the ba's attachment to the body was released. Therefore, the union of the ka, the life force that had left the body at death, and the ba, the personality, created an entity referred to in the literature as the akb, meaning the genuine or effective entity.
To have eternal life, ankb nebeb, was to have a relatively normal existence in the sense that the eternal life was modeled on the journey of the sun. One's tomb represented this personal journey through the Dwat, the underworld, and the meeting with the mummified Ausar. Because the tomb was also the personalized Dwat, it was here that the bodily preservation existed that allowed the ba to return to the body during the night's journey, rising again to a new vitality in the morning.
The Book of the Coming Forth by Day and Going Forth by Night is a collection of formulas written to express the manner and rites of movement through the perils of eternal life. It is not a journey without difficulty, but the difficulties can be overcome if the rituals were used that would prevent one from a second death in the Dwat. What one wanted was to have eternal memory as a function also of eternal life.
In the tomb of the 18th dynasty monarch Paheri, regional ruler of Nekhen, it is written that his life was happening again without his ba being kept from his divine corpse, but being reunited with the akh and therefore he should rise each day and return every evening. Indeed, it is said that a lamp will be lit for him every night until the sun emerged and lit his breast. It is only then that Paheri will be told, “Congratulations! You have entered into your house of the forever living!”

African Belief

The idea of life forever permeated the concepts of African people from the Nile Valley period, so much so that the divinity of the kingships was related to the same force. All living force, as Africans understood it, came from a divine power that shared this divinity with humans. Each human born into the world left the realm of the divine with a small amount of the divine material.
Thus, according to the Akan, human creativity affects the way the universe is constructed. There are two aspects to the creation of the universe: one from the supreme deity and the other from human beings; therefore, one is natural, whereas the other is social. It is the responsibility of each person to safeguard the environment for generations that will live afterward. Of course, the power that exists in humans comes from the fact that the Supreme Being, called Nyame or Nyankopon, confronted death and overcame death and therefore has eternal life that was shared with each human. Thus, Nyame is indestructible and cannot be burned; the Supreme Being, according to the Akan, is hye anhye, unburnable.
Inasmuch as all humans have part of the divine in them, that is, the kra, this part of the human will not perish because it is also indestructible. The expression in the Akan language says it all: Nip a wu a, na onwuee, meaning when the person dies the soul is not dead. Of course, there is a further understanding in Akan that the soul reincarnates when a child is born so that the person's kra din (or soul name) represents the day of the week that a particular divinity appears in the physical world as part of the eternal life.



  • soul
  • death
  • valleys
  • dying
  • persons
  • bears
  • will to power


Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Asante, M. K. (2000). The Egyptian Philosophers. Chicago: AA Images.
  • Redford, D. B. (Ed.). (2001). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. New York, Oxford, and Cairo: Oxford University Press and the American University in Cairo Press.