Soul is the incorporeal entity that leaves the body upon death continuing to live itself and should not be confused with the notions of “spirit,” “mind” or “vital spark.”
Any living creature embodies the spark of life and its spirit is reflected in its eyes. “Spirit” and “vital spark,” although not empirical ideas, are ideas that would occur naturally and independently to persons of any culture while the idea of the “soul” has to be taught and be conveyed from one culture to another.
The idea of the soul originated in ancient Egypt and by means of the teachings of the ancient Greek philosophers spread to the rest of the world.
The concept of soul, as we moderns understand it, was known to the ancient Egyptians by the time the papyruses containing chapters of the Book of the Dead were written (1600 – 1100 BCE). The following passage is from chapter 154 of the Book of the Dead:
Preserve me behind you, O Atum, from the decay you reserve for every god and every goddess, for the animals all, for the reptiles all; for each passed away when his soul left after his death; he perished after he passed away.
The Book of the Dead contains vignettes on which the soul is depicted as a human-headed bird flying out of the tomb or spreading its wings protectively over the sarcophagus of the dead body.
The term used both in the above passage and in the name of the human-headed bird of the depiction is ba. No other Egyptian term should be translated as “soul.”
The term ba has been translated by Egyptologist as “soul” for two hundred years. The term, however, looses the meaning of “soul” as we go back in time by studying older texts, and this fact obliged the translators of the hieroglyphic script to stop translating the word and use its transliteration (“ba”) instead.
An example of a passage of the Pyramid texts will demonstrate the problem (Faulkner’s is the older translation and Allen’s the modern one):
Utterance 436 §789
Translated by Faulkner: “This mighty one has been made a spirit for the benefit of(?) his soul.
Translated by Allen: “ this controlling power has been akhified for his ba.
The hieroglyphic text reads:
sAx \ sxm \ pn \ bA \ =f
purified \ divine being \ this \ ba \ his
No rational translation is possible without rational analysis of the texts, but that is an entirely different subject.
In the above passage the term ba can be rendered as “soul” but in other passages where reference is made to the “house of Ba,” which the king went to visit, or to “the neighborhood” where the Ba lives, or when the Ba is said to be “at the head of his brothers“ it becomes apparent that the word ba was once used as an epithet or a title of a person: of the Ba!
From the Book of the Dead it is known that the Ba operated as witness of defense at the procedure of the test of the judgment and thus it can be said that originally the term Ba meant “supervisor” or “caretaker”.
How and when did the term acquired the meaning of “soul”?
As to “when,” judging from the fact that the term Ba occurs 59 times in the Pyramid texts (2400 – 2200 BCE) and that only in two passages out of the 59 it occurs with a meaning close to that of the soul, the obvious chronology would be sometime around 2500 BCE.
As to “how,” it can be said that it happened by accident!
The Ba as supervisor, caretaker and protector was said, in the prayers to be recited, to be “above” the person been judged (the entire corpus of the Egyptian funerary texts is focused on the subject of the judgment of men by the gods), thus reassuring the man for success at the ordeal of the judgment.
There are also prayers where it is said that the Ba is “all around” the person being judged; the expression deriving from the fact that the Ba was standing by his side.
And then suddenly appears a passage where it is clearly stated that the ba is inside the man!
The said passage occurs in three pyramids (Pepi I, Merenre, Pepi II) with the word “inside” written in three different ways thus leaving no doubt as to the meaning of the particular word.
The phrase in question reads:
bA \ =k \ n \ =k \ m - Xnw \ =k
ba \ yours \ belongs \ to you \ inside \ you
Those who manage to go through the judgment successfully are recognized and are accepted as being gods.
One to be god has to have a god’s body.
In Utterance 539 it is said that 25 members of the body of King Pepi come from different gods. It is in this way that the man becomes god: by exchanging his body members with body members of god (which is actually achieved when a god impregnates a woman: the child may be born a god)
There are some standard expressions relative to the transformation into a god:
Srt \ =k \ n \ =k \ Hr
Nose \ yours \ to \ you \ Horus (or King. Usually the man being judged is called ceremonially Osiris)
xpS \ =k \ n \ =k \ Hr
hands \ yours \ to \ you \ Horus
xt \ =k \ n \ =k \Hr
belly \ yours \ to \ you \ Horus
Hnn \ =k \ n \ =k \ Hr
phallus \ yours \ to \ you \ Horus
Such an expression is the one above which locates the ba inside the body of the man.
In those cases that the protégé of the Ba failed the examination of the judgment he was exterminated (gulped down by the Ammit monster) and the Ba, having finished his mission, would leave the Hall of judgment alone.
Upon the death of the man his Ba was leaving!
The ba which found its way inside the body of the man preserved the behavior of the Ba the caretaker: it was also leaving the body of the man upon his death !!
A combination of unique circumstances produced accidentally the idea of the immortal soul. It appeared, therefore, only once and only in Egypt.
No one conceived it. It is no philosopher’s conception!