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The Ba is one of the more visually strange Egyptian symbols as well as a less frequently used image. That’s because it had a very specific purpose, compared to other symbols with broader symbolism. The Ba represented a specific aspect of a deceased person’s soul. The meaning of the Ba can be somewhat complex, so let’s break it down.
What Is the Ba?
Representation of Ba by Jeff Dahl. PD.
The ancient Egyptians had a very complex view of the human soul and what happened to it after death. They believed in life after death, and thought that the deceased was able to interact with the living world after death. This is where the Ba comes in.
The Ba was traditionally visualized as a falcon with a human head. The Ba would fly away from the deceased person’s tomb every morning and affect the world of the living throughout the day. Every evening, the Ba would fly back to the tomb and reunite with the deceased person’s body for the night.
This freedom of movement between the living world and the spiritual realm made the Ba an integral part of Egyptian afterlife mythology. It symbolized the unique identity of an individual, retaining personal memories and emotions.
Is the Ba the Soul?
The Ba’s meaning is more complicated than just “the soul”. A better explanation would be that the Ba is one aspect of the soul together with the Ka. However, there are differences between the Ba and the Ka.
- Ba: This refers to the deceased person’s personality left in the world of the living. It’s the physical essence that remains after death. The Ba represented the individual’s personality, character, or essence.
- Ka: Contrary to the Ba’s freedom, the Ka was more static. It remained in the tomb with the deceased’s body. The Ka represented an individual’s life force or spirit. It was believed that the Ka was born alongside every individual and lived on after their physical death, like an entity of its own.
While the Ba and Ka were distinct, they were deeply interconnected in the afterlife. The nightly return of the Ba to the tomb and its reunification with the Ka was a necessary ritual for the deceased to be reborn each morning in the afterlife.
In the older myths, the Ba was ascribed only to the Egyptian royalty as pharaohs and their queens were believed to be god-like. Later on, people came to the belief that every person has “a Ba”, including the commoners.
The Ba was one of the reasons for the practice of mummification. Mummies, their tombs, and often just statues of the deceased when their body couldn’t be recovered, were supposed to help the Ba find the deceased’s remnants every evening.
Other Parts of the Soul
Ancient Egyptians believed that a person had five parts to their soul: Ren (your name), Ka (spiritual essence), Ib (heart), Ba, and Sheut (shadow). This is similar to how we think of the human body as being made up of many parts. These other three parts were:
- Akh: It was the immortal, transformed, and radiant being that a dead person could become through the right rituals and living a morally upright life. The Akh was formed when the Ba and Ka united after death.
- Shut: This referred to the shadow of a person. Ancient Egyptians believed the shadow contained part of the individual’s essence, and it was sometimes depicted in tomb paintings, following the deceased.
- Ren: This was the name given to an individual at birth. The Ren was believed to live for as long as the name was spoken or inscribed.
The Ba of Gods
In many myths, the gods themselves also had Bau (plural of Ba) spirits. And in their case, their Ba was also quite unique than the “standard” human-headed falcon of people. For example, according to the myths of the people in Heliopolis, the Ba of the god Ra was the bennu bird (a mythical bird-like figure similar in description to the Greek Phoenix or the Persian Simurgh). And in Memphis, it was believed that the Apis bull – not even a bird – was the Ba of either the god Osiris or the god creator Ptah.
Nevertheless, the falcon-like Ba with a human head is the most well-known visual representation of the spirit. It was a common belief for Egyptians all throughout their long history and Ba symbols can be seen in any well-preserved tomb. Because the Ba had such a specific meaning, however, the Ba symbol wasn’t really used outside of this context.
The Ba in Art
In ancient Egypt, the Ba’s visual representations were focused entirely on tombs, sarcophagi, funeral urns, and other funeral and mortuary items. In more contemporary art, the Ba is also not used as often as other famous Egyptian symbols. However, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be.
If you appreciate its meaning and symbolism, the Ba can make for a beautiful and unique ornamental piece. Tattoos with the Ba symbol can also be particularly eye-catching and powerful as it’s meant to represent one’s spirit and personality. It can also look great as a pendant or earrings and it can work as a brooch, cufflinks, or other clothing accessories.
The Ba is a uniquely Ancient Egyptian concept and one that doesn’t easily translate outside of this specific context. However, as a symbol of personality, it can be appreciated even in today’s modern world.