The complex of ideas concerning the ka is one of the most important in Egyptian religion. Since these ideas have no exact analogues in European cultures, it is impossible to translate adequately the word kʒ and to identify the ka with more familiar concepts. Interpretations of the ka are numerous, ambiguous, and usually unsatisfactory, and they range from its identification with the Latin genius to analogy with “mana.”
The word ka was expressed by the hieroglyph of two upraised arms, usually considered a symbol of the embrace (or protection) of a man by his ka, although other interpretations are possible. A distinction should be made between the internal and external ka, as well as between the royal and the human ka, since these concepts were qualitatively different.
The idea that there was something securing the physical and mental activities of man arose in Egypt and elsewhere in prehistory. The ka (internal ka) was one of those entities. Its nature is reflected in numerous words going back to the same root: kʒj (“think about,” “intend”), kʒ.t (“thought”), nkʒj (“think about”), kʒj (“speak”), kʒ.t (“vagina”), bkʒ.tj (“testicles”), nkj (“copulate”), nkjkj (“fertilize”), bkʒ (“be pregnant,” “impregnate”), nkʒkʒ (“good condition of flesh”). Such words as ḥḳʒ, ḥḳʒ.w (“magic,” “magic spells”), ḥḳʒ (“enchant,” “be enchanted”), ḥḳʒj (“sorcerer”), and ḥḳʒ(w) (“god Heqa, personification of magic”) reflect the supernatural essence of the ka. The reproductive role of the ka is obvious, but its connection to thought processes is less clear. The mind was usually related to the ba (as in the Dispute of a Man with his Ba, where confusion of thought is described as a dialogue with that entity), but the word ḫmt (“think” or “to act three together”) leads one to suppose that there was also an idea of thinking as a trilateral process, with the ka playing some obscure role, along with the ba. Owing to the role of the ka in thinking, kʒ could designate human individuality as a whole, and in different contexts it could be translated as “character,” “nature,” “temperament,” or “disposition.” Since character to a great extent preordains the life of an individual, kʒ also means “destiny,” or “providence.” This use of the word engendered a tradition of interpreting the ka as a kind of universal vital force, but this idea is too abstract, and even the examples cited above show that the meaning of kʒ was far more concrete in each context.
The ancient mind adopted personifications readily. It transformed this “inner motor” into a certain being. It seems that this being (the external ka) was primarily associated with the placenta, (the twin of a man), and was born with him. Supernatural associations of the placenta and the umbilical cord are reported by ethnographers in central Africa, but in Egypt such notions were forced out early by more elaborate ideas, and only allusions to them can be traced in dynastic times.
The scenes of the king's birth depict Khnum forming the baby king and his ka on a potter's wheel. In Old Kingdom pyramid temples, New Kingdom royal tombs, and the temples of the gods, there are many representations of the ka accompanying the king, either as a personified kʒ sign or as a human form with the kʒ sign on its head. The kʒ hieroglyph holds the serekh with the Horus name of the king, while the ka itself bears an ostrich feather (the symbol of the world harmony, or maat) in one hand, and a long staff with a final shaped like the king's head (mdw-špsj) in the other hand. Thus, the royal ka is related to the Horus name describing the presence of the sky-god in the king. This portrays the dualism of the king's nature, which combines divine and mortal components: divinity is realized through the ka. In a number of cases (especially in the Old Kingdom), the finial is arranged at the level of the head of the falcon on the serekh, thus forming a composition structurally and semantically similar to the statues depicting the king with his head embraced by the falcon's wings, and demonstrating his double nature. The relation between the royal ka and Horus is apparent in its identification with Harsiese in the New Kingdom (although it could hardly be originally associated with Osirian ideas).
Another, qualitatively different aspect of the ka can be seen mainly on the monuments of private persons. The Egyptians were amazed by the fact that depiction can evoke in consciousness an image of the represented. These images were objectified, turned from a part of the psyche into a part of the medium, and identified with the external ka. As a result, these representations (at first statues, but also murals) became the main cult objects in tombs and temples. This is further supported by the words n kʒ n NN (“for the ka of NN”), which were almost obligatory in the adjacent offering formulas. The most common translation of the word kʒ as “double” is applicable mainly to this external human ka.
Unlike the royal ka, the human ka was never represented as a separate figure, because any representation itself is the ka. This explains the indifference of Egyptian artists to rendering individual features. They did not reproduce the portrait of an individual, but that of his ka, who was eternally youthful and in perfect shape.
In an Old Kingdom private tomb, the pictures created an entire world for the ka. It is an exact although incomplete copy of the earthly world: only people and objects essential for the owner are depicted. Being a reproduction of everyday life, this “doubleworld” is surprisingly realistic; nothing supernatural, the gods included, is represented. Every tomb formed its own Doubleworld, and their total did not merge into an aggregate next world.
The notion of the ka was a dominating concept of the next life in the Old Kingdom. In a less pure form, it lived into the Middle Kingdom, and lost much of its importance in the New Kingdom, although the ka always remained the recipient of offerings.
- Abitz, Friedrich. König und Gott Die Götterszenen in den agyptischen Königsgräbern con Thutmosis IV bis Ramses III. Ägyptologsiche Abhandlungen, 40. Wiesbaden, 1984.
- Bell, Lanny D. “Luxor Temple and the Cult of the Royal Ka.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 44 (1985), 251–294. The most influential modern interpretation of the royal ka.
- Bell, Lanny D. “The New Kingdom ‘Divine’ Temple: The Example of Luxor.” In Temples of Ancient Egypt, edited by Byron D. Schafer, pp. 127–184. Ithaca, 1997.
- Bolshakov, Andrey O. Man and His Double in Egyptian Ideology of the Old Kingdom. Ägypten und Altes Testament, 37. Wiesbaden, 1997. The most comprehensive study of the human ka, with extensive historiographic study.
- Bolshakov, Audrey O. “Royal Portraiture and ‘Horus Name.’” In L'art de l'Ancien Empire Égyptien, edited by Ch. Ziegler, pp. 311–333. Paris, 1999.
- Brunner, Helmut. Die südlichen Räume des Temples von Luxor. Mainz, 1977.
- Greven, Liselotte. Der Ka in Theologie und Königskult der Ägypter des Alten Reichs. Ägyptologische Forschungen, 17. Glückstadt, 1954. This and Schweitzer are somewhat out of date but still important.
- Lacau, Pierre, and Henri Chevrier. Une chapelle de Sésostris Ier à Karnak. Cairo, 1959.
- Schweitzer, Ursula. Das Wesen des Ka im Diesseits und Jenseits der alten Ägypter. Ägyptologische Forschungen, 19. Glückstadt, 1956.
Andrey O. Bolshakov