This article originally appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of Tidings.
Someone has suggested that human culture is really little more than an attempt to come to terms with the fact that human life has an end. The 31 dynasties of ancient Egypt have demonstrated the profound stability that can be achieved in a society which appears to have poured all its energies into the “hereafter”. The Egypt we know began when Menes united the Upper and Lower Kingdoms around the year 3,000 BCE – which is also roughly contemporaneous with the invention of writing in both Egypt and Mesopotamia.
The staggering longevity of Pharaonic civilization can claim to have been the most stable and successful in the whole history of our world, since it maintained itself for a monumental three millennia.
The titanic physical remnants are essentially mausolea, viz. the great pyramids and the Valley of the Kings, but the massive Egyptian written legacy is more ambiguous. The hieroglyphics had to be deciphered (by way of the Rosetta stone discovered by Napoleon’s troops in 1799); this meant the voices of ancient Egypt remained silent for a full two millennia until the code could be broken. Many of these writings are now well known, e.g., the Book of the Dead and the Pyramid texts, but the most remarkable is the one designated as “a dispute concerning suicide” or “a dialogue between a man and his ba (or soul)”. This poem from the beginning of the second millennium BCE is not so very far removed from The Epic of Gilgamesh, either in composition or subject matter.
The Egyptians had a complex anthropology. The human person consisted of six fundamental components: the heart, the body, the name, the shadow, the ba and the ka (one’s double or twin, the ka is mostly associated with the ability to reproduce). But the ba is what fundamentally concerns us here: the easy translation “soul” does not capture the complex distinctions that the Egyptians wanted to make. Remember, it is the human heart that is weighed after death in the presence of the ibis-headed Thoth, and this weighing reveals the integrity of a human life, whether that life was lived out in justice or in depravity.
All six components of Egyptian anthropology had to be held together synthetically, if individuals were to make their way to the West, to the land of the setting sun; even the shadow plays its part. Famously, Dracula has no shadow, since he is neither properly living nor dead.
The human ba was represented as a bird (often with a human head) perching on or near the mummified corpse. The afterlife depended upon the succesful reunification of all elements of the former personality, so that the ba could never stray too far from the corpse which originally allowed it to be embodied.
In the so-called “dispute concerning suicide”, the dialogue between the individual and his ba, there is the usual element of despair, but only because the afterlife is so attractive and appealing. This man is weary of everyday life and wishes to hasten his journey to the land of the setting sun, in order that much more quickly to take up his allotted place in the presence of the everlasting gods.
But the man’s soul, his ba, urges caution; bear in mind, the ba says, that your name might disappear from the face of the earth, that life can still be full of pleasures, and that death itself is no pretty sight: have you thought about those rotting corpses on the banks of the Nile? A triumphant journey to the West requires all the elements to make the voyage together: your embalmed corpse, your heart, your name… And then, don’t forget that death is really “heartbreak”; think always of those left behind: your wife and children.
But, now the man appears to gain the upper hand; he explains that death is really to be understood like coming up for air, or like recovering from a prolonged illness; death is like sitting on your porch enjoying a summer breeze, death is like “a clearing sky” after inclement weather, and finally death is like traversing a well-trodden path; death can only be compared to a homecoming after many years of wandering, or the joy of release after long years incarcerated in a dungeon. The ba (soul) seems now to be left speechless in the face of these similes, which for me remain unsurpassed in the whole history of our literature.
FYP Texts originally appeared in Tidings magazine, published on behalf of the University of King’s College Alumni Association. View the archive.