In ancient Egypt, the word ka was used to mean the life energy in humans and deities. The word was used in many different contexts, but always at the base of its use was the idea of the life energy of an individual. The ancient Egyptians represented the ka by a pair of up-stretched arms, similar to the vertical horns of a bull. Because the ka was life energy, it did not exist in a dead person; it was a living force, however, that continued even after the person had died. Therefore, the ka could be made to live forever if the proper rituals were performed.
In the tradition of the ancient Egyptians, when a person was born, the ka was created at the same time. In fact, Khnum as creator god would make the ka on a potter's wheel right alongside the human figure. Because the ka was also considered a type of force—indeed, a life force—the idea was that the ka was a double of the individual. It was often depicted in a form smaller than the individual person, but similar to the person in shape.
There are many texts where the words “May your ka live forever!” are written at the end of a particular statement. The worst situation that a human could have is to have a ka that has not been properly cared for in life. Thus, when a person died, the ka continued to live. Because it lived, it also had to be fed with food, and normally the food was offered in scenes on the walls of the tomb reflecting food. This food was activated, made usable by the ka, with an Offering Formula that was addressed to the ka. The ka, once the food was activated, took the food and, instead of eating it, drained the necessary life-preserving energy from the food. The ka could also take the necessary sustenance, a name sometimes used for the ka, from drinks. Among the living, sometimes the ancient Egyptians greeted each other with the words, “for your ka,” while serving drinks.
Elaborate tombs often had false doors, and it was at the false door that offerings were made for the ka. Sometimes images of the ka of the deceased as funerary statues were set up in the tombs. One wanted, of course, to have one's ka live forever and also to have the ka transformed into an Akh, one of the blessed dead. To ensure this possibility, one sought to have the ka protected and ritualized.
The ka was the divine essence of the human being. It was that which lived forever and ever and was therefore indestructible because it was a part of the eternal continuum that connected all living beings. In fact, in the royal continuum, one could say that each new king or queen at birth became a part of the line that stretched across the generations and through history to the time when the gods ruled the Earth.
The way the ancient Egyptians understood their world was through ideas and concepts. The ka was an idea, but it was one of the most powerful ideas in the society because it went along with the nature of the kingship. Such an idea could be made more potent in the minds of the people by the various rituals. When the king, for example, performed the Opet festival at Waset, he would enter the temple with the crowd outside the sanctuary, and when he returned to them he would have merged with his ka to become divine. The king was therefore divinity before the people in a ka ceremony overseen by the god Amen.
- Asante, M. K. (2003). Ancient Egyptian Philosophers. Chicago: African American Images.
- Grimal, N. (1994). A History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
- Karenga, M. (2006). Maat: The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.