Friday, April 15, 2011

Worldbuilding A to Z: K is for Ka

Whew! I just managed to get a post up! Today K is also for my new Kindle, which just came in the mail yesterday. So far I've only downloaded some free samples to check out plus a bunch of free public domain books. (What a great way to get caught up on the classics.) But I am specifically looking for any good self-published works of fantasy. (Admittedly, the cheaper the better. After buying the device, my means are limited.) I'd love to hear suggestions! On to the topic...

The Ka. Another of those distinctly Egyptian concepts dealing with the person that is almost impossible to understand for us westerners. And yet one of the Egyptian concepts that I wanted to incorporate into my fantasy world and its natural laws. Like the Ba, the Ka is generally equated with the western idea of the "soul". Though the Egyptians didn't really have such a concept. So what is the Ka, from the Egyptian perspective?

To understand this I turned to the book Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt by Egyptologist Jan Assmann. In an attempt to make the Egyptian view of the person more clear, Assmann points to the western concept of body and soul or mind and body and contrasts it with the Egyptian concept of a "physical self" and a "social self". Each of the parts of a person, and there were many in Egyptian belief, fits into one of those categories. Here's where it gets interesting. The ba and the ka both have similarities with the western concept of "soul" (hence why they are often translated as "soul") but the ba belongs to the "physical self" while the ka belongs to the "social self".

To the Egyptians integration into society was extremely important. They believed that there was a crucial aspect of human personality that developed not from the inside to the outside, but from the outside to the inside. One's participation in society and relationships with others were essential to "living" in the fullest sense. (Basically, in Ancient Egypt, if you were a loner you might as well be dead.) It was the ka that helped a person to develop this "social self". The ka was, in Assmann's words, "a sort of spirit, genius or vital energy, a legitimizing, dynastic principle  that is passed along from father to son; for it, the son is dependent on the father."

The ka is represented by a pair of arms in hieroglyphics (like in the image above) which might indicate that it was passed on from father to son with an embrace. The Pyramid Texts describe Amun embracing Shu and Tefnut:

You have placed your arms around them as the arms of ka, that your ka may be in them.

I would discuss a bit how the ka of a person will play its part in my story, but that would spoil it too much. Suffice to say that it will play an important part in how the conflicts raised will be resolved. Together with the ba, of course.


  1. Intriguing concept. Anything that challenges the coherence of a supposedly fundamental concept demands the attention. The idea of the person developing from the outside in is entirely natural too. Perhaps the embrace represents the enabling, or engaging, embracing the social?

  2. Indeed, the main reason that I chose Egypt as inspiration, apart from the fact I have always loved it, is because of how different their philosophy and worldview is from our western one. I wanted to be able to explore those uniquely Egyptian concepts in a fantasy setting where I could ultimately make sense of them in any way I want. :)

  3. That is really interesting. Lots of fun stuff you can do with that in your WIP.

  4. Egypt is a fascinating country, I loved it and the culture is unique! I am researching Kindle, But not sure if it will work in my country.

  5. I haven't tried writing any historical fiction yet, but I am fascinated by all things Egyptian. I'll definitely be back.

    I guess the concept of Ka would be like our modern day take on fellowship/developing relationships with those around us.


Comments, Precious, we appreciates them!