Along with the body, the ka (kʒ; “life force”), the shadow, and the name, the ba (Eg., bʒ) was one of the major components in the Egyptian concept of an individual. Its closest analog in Western thought is the “soul”—a term with which ba is often translated—although the two concepts are not fully comparable.
In some respects the ba seems to have been understood from the point of view of an observer rather than that of the individual with whom it was associated, personifying the impression that individuals make on the world around them or their effect on others. This aspect of the ba is embodied in an abstract term, bau (bʒw), meaning something like “impressiveness,” “effect,” or even “reputation.” The Instructions for Merikare summarizes its advice to the pharaoh on the proper conduct of kingship with the words “A man should do the things that are effective for his bau”—that which enhances his image in the eyes of others and the gods. Similarly, the king's actions against Egypt's enemies or the gods' intervention in human affairs are often called the bau of their agents. The ba itself seems to have been a property only of human beings or the gods, but the notion of bau is also associated with objects that would otherwise be considered inanimate. Warning against the misappropriation of grain, for example, the Instructions of Amenemope admonishes that “the threshing-floor of barley is greater of bau [i.e., has a greater effect] than an oath sworn by the throne.”
Like the soul, the ba seems to have been essentially nonphysical. Unlike the soul, however, the ba could be viewed as a separate physical mode of existence of its owner, even before death. Any phenomenon in which the presence or action of a god could be detected could be viewed as the ba of that deity: for example, the sun as the ba of Re, or the Apis bull as the ba of Osiris. In the Late period, sacred writings are frequently called “the bas of Re.” One god could also be viewed as the ba of another. This is particularly true of Re and Osiris, who coalesced each night in the depths of the Duat (netherworld), a union through which Re received the power of rebirth and Osiris was resurrected in Re; the combined deity was occasionally called “He of two bas.” Like the gods, the king, too, could be present as a ba in another mode of existence: Old Kingdom pyramids were often called the bas of their owners (for example, “The ba of [King] Neferirkare”) and officials sometimes bore names that identified them as a ba of the king, such as “Izezi is His ba” (commemorating a pharaoh of the fifth dynasty).
Texts rarely refer to the ba of ordinary human beings during their lifetime. This silence has been interpreted as evidence that such individuals did not possess a ba before death, but the Middle Kingdom literary text known as the Dialogue of a Man with His Ba presents a major obstacle to that view. In this unique composition, a man living in difficult times argues with his ba the merits of life, even in misery, versus the uncertain nature of life after death. The text concludes with the ba's advice to “Desire me here [in life] and reject the West [land of the dead], but also desire that you reach the West when your body is interred and that I alight after your death: then we will make harbor together.” This passage demonstrates the existence of an individual's ba during life and reflects the view of the ba as a separate mode of existence—in this case, an alter ego with whom its owner could hold a dialogue.
The ba appears most often in texts that deal with life after death. In these sources it is both a mode of the deceased's new existence and a component of the deceased as in life. The Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom, the earliest textual source for the concept of the ba, inform the gods that the deceased “is a ba among you” and assure the deceased that “your ba is within you.” In the Coffin Texts of the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom, the deceased appears as the ba of various gods but also as his own ba, with the physical powers of a living body. The latter view is also reflected in the destiny described in the eighteenth dynasty tomb of Paheri at Elkab: “Becoming a living ba having control of bread, water, and air.”
At the same time, however, Paheri's text also states that “your ba will not abandon your corpse,” echoing the Coffin Texts: “my ba cannot be kept from my corpse.” This relationship is reflected in vignettes of the New Kingdom Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), which show the ba not only returning to the mummy and hovering over it but also participating in activities outside the tomb. This vision of the afterlife, which appeared in the earlier Pyramid Texts, is based on the daily solar cycle. Like the sun, the ba reunites each night with Osiris—embodied, in this case, in the mummy—and through that union is enabled to be reborn again each day among the living in a new, noncorporeal form of existence.
No depictions of the ba earlier than the New Kingdom have been identified with certainty, although some funerary statues of the Old Kingdom have been interpreted as showing the ba in fully human form. The illustrations that first appear in the Book of the Dead depict the ba as a bird with a human head and occasionally other human attributes, symbolizing both its human nature and its mobility. This image was adopted by the Meroitic civilization of Sudan in statues of the deceased—essentially as human figures with the wings of a bird. Whether the angels or birds of Coptic art can be traced to the same motif is doubtful. Coptic texts adopted the Greek word psyche in place of the native bai (from bʒ) as the term for “soul,” demonstrating an essential difference between the Christian concept and that of the earlier ba.
- Frankfort, Henri. Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Interpretation. New York, 1948; repr., New York, 1961. Includes a good discussion of the ba.
- Žabkar, Louis V. A Study of the Ba Concept in Ancient Egyptian Texts. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, 34. Chicago, 1968. The primary study of the ba in all periods of pharaonic civilization.
James P. Allen