There is one thing that I keep circling back to in all of my work, and that’s the theology of the ka. This is fundamental, perhaps the most fundamental thing to understand, so I always find it when I’m looking for important things.
You spat out Shu, you expectorated Tefnut, and you put your arms about them as the arms of a ka, that your ka might be in them.
– Pyramid Texts 600
So you see? The ka is there from the beginning.
The glyph of the ka is a pair of upraised arms. Some have suggested that this is hands lifted in praise; others, and I tend to align with this perspective (not just because of the PT reference) to an embrace – whether of love or of protection – and thus a view as if from above.
The ka is threaded all through traditional liturgy and symbology. The entire cult of kings is built around veneration of the royal ka. We see Khnum at His wheel, shaping the forms of body and ka. We present offerings with “May your ka be fed” and gifts with “For your ka.” An ancient euphemism for death was “to go to [his/her] ka”.
To understand the ka, first consider word relationships. Etymology can reveal a lot about concepts that are considered related in the host language. (Further, the ancients placed a lot of value on wordplay and word similarities, even in cases where the words are not actually related etymologically.)
So the ka relates to, perhaps most blatantly, matters of fertility and reproduction: k3.t (vagina), bk3.tj (testicles), nkj (copulate), nkjkj (fertilise), bk3 (be pregnant, impregnate). This is also related to the ‘ka’ that is the bull, as in Kamutef, a divine title meaning Bull of His Mother. The ka is the soul of life, of vitality, of erotic power, and one can see this expressed further in nk3k3 (good condition of flesh).
The ka also relates to matters of magic. Consider ḥḳ3, ḥḳ3.w (magic, magic spells, yes this is that familiar word “heka”), ḥḳ3 (presumably a slightly different spelling or determinant, this one meaning enchant or be enchanted), ḥḳ3j (sorceror), and ḥḳ3(w) (the god Heka). Wikipedia translates “heka” as “activating the ka”, meanwhile.
The ka also has relationships with the process of cognition, with its related words k3j (think about, intend), k3.t (thought), nk3j (think about). It is perhaps here as much as under magic that k3j (speak) goes, given that one of the fundamental conceptions of Egyptian magic involves speech which evokes that which is intended and thus gives it form and being. Here, the understanding of the ka can get murky, as it is usually a different soul – the ba – which is usually associated with the mind. (Another word, ḫmt, gets the translation “think” or “to act three together” in Redford, perhaps suggesting a trilateral process of cognition, consisting of ba, presumably ka, and I would bet the heart.) But life has its own intelligence, its own process, and I suspect the ka’s thoughts are the primal ones rooted in life and magic, as the ka is rooted in life and magic.
But this gives rise to the ka being translated in times as one’s character, temperament, or even, with a little extrapolation from those, destiny and luck. But if we go too far in this direction, we start getting vague, and away from the ka that’s as concrete as your genitalia.
Another word resembling the ka is kau. Victuals. Here the equation is simple and strong: our life energy is fed with, well, food. This seems to be too obvious to state, but really, it isn’t; the holiness of nourishment is fundamental. We offer food, we receive food, we eat food, this is all about nourishing and sustaining our ka and the ka of others.
I will return to the ka over and over again. I wanted to be sure the basics were available before I started to go into greater depth.
Egyptian words and their meanings are mostly drawn from Donald B. Redford’s The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, specifically the entry on the ka.
Yes, I did spend time scouring the bloody internet to find the HTML codes for the funky transliteration letters. You’re welcome.