ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egypt: The four kas, human happiness as a gift from the gods
Main menu Main Index and Search Page History List of Dynasties Cultural chronology Mythology Aspects of Life in Ancient Egypt Glossary of ancient Egyptian terms Herodotus on the pharaohs Ancient Egyptian texts Apologia and Bibliography

  For best results save the whole webpage (pictures included) onto your hard disk, open the page with Word 97 or higher, edit if necessary and print.
  Printing using the browser's print function is not recommended.


The four kas:
Human happiness as a gift from the gods

    The ancient Egyptians strove to live a fulfilled life, happiness in this world and eternal bliss in the next.
He who keeps to the road of the god, he spends his whole life in joy, laden with riches more than all his peers. He grows old in his city, he is an honoured man in his nome, all his limbs are young as those of a child's. His children are before him, numerous and considered foremost in their city; his sons follow each other from generation to generation... At last he reaches the necropolis in joy, in the beautiful embalmment of Anubis' labour.
Tomb of Petosiris, Early Ptolemaic Period
After G. Lefebvre Le tombeau de Pétosiris, Première partie p.39
    Late in the history of the country these expectations took on a fourfold identity and were referred to as the four kas. In the temple of Ismant el Kharab they appeared in the company of the sphinx god Tutu, the Lord of the Book, who had control over shay (SAj), destiny, the fate of the human being. These ideals which make life worthwhile were a happy and long life, children, riches and a proper burial, [1] or–alternatively, as in the Esna inscription–riches, children, burial and eternal life:
May you (Khnum) maintain in good shape your son whom you love, king of the South and the North, pharaoh, anywhere, because he is your heir who does as you wish. May the four favours which follow in your wake be granted to him, for you are their master in this role of yours of Tanem.
May he have eternal life, for you are the great god, pillar of the heavens
May he have a great many possessions, for you are the master of the plain
May he have gentle children, for you are the god of revolution
May he have a splendid burial after old age, for you are the god of the divine shrine, whose power is great among the gods.
Esna inscription, Roman era
Sauneron, 1958, p.163
Inscription on the Hor-nefer statue     The ka, one of those Egyptian terms for which there is no good translation, is generally thought of as a person's life force, coming into existence at birth. Since the Middle Kingdom the plural form kas, Egyptian kaw (kA.w), came to mean the food needed to sustain this force, but not partaken of excessively, as greed and excess were harmful. [4] The kas were offerings, depicted as genii bearing boons.[5]
    Ordinary people could hope for four kas, [6] Re, and his mortal sons, the pharaohs, had fourteen[3] Many gods were apparently involved with granting these blessings. Ptah, creator of worldly goods, was among the foremost, [2] Khnum, shaper of a person's ka at birth, was implored to confer them, [12] as was Amen-opet [11] and also Khonsu to whom the Late Period royal scribe and Khonsu priest Hor-nefer prayed:
The four boons which you have granted me, may you accord them to [my] children (too).
Hor-nefer's inscription.
Wild, 1954, p.199

Hor-nefer's statue.
On mouseover: The inscription on the back of the statue:
The passage translated above is to be found towards the bottom of the seventh column from the right.
Source: Wild, 1954, pls. I and II

    People, generally less critical of their own faults than of their fellow men's weaknesses, must have felt that they deserved their happiness, having led impeccable, or at any rate nearly impeccable, lives. On a Roman period stela found at Akhmim [7] the deceased claims to have had a long life because he had been a good son and a man who never committed any sacrilege; that he had enjoyed his possessions, having been full of good intentions, instructed in the divine laws and never having abandoned the temple; that he had been rewarded with an agreeable family circle and good descendants because he had been moved by humane sentiments and had not given a bad example to his fellow men; and that he had died a happy death and received a splendid funeral, as he had always faithfully observed the cult of the dead and had never committed an evil deed during his life.[8]
    A long life, preferably one lived in material comfort, was in a society. which had little experience with old age as people tended to die quite young, an unmitigated blessing. One hundred and ten years became early on the proverbial life span of the wise old man. In the Precepts of the prefect, the lord Ptah-hotep the Old Kingdom vizier Ptahhotep linked his long life with the favour of pharaoh, which guaranteed a life free of want:
... you shall obtain years of life without default. It has caused me on earth to obtain one hundred and ten years of life, along with the gift of the favor of the Pharaoh...
    The impression many modern people get from ancient Egypt is that the Egyptians were enamoured with death, because they invested so heavily in their tombs, but they did so because they wanted life to last forever and since the Middle Kingdom they sometimes addressed the visitors to their tombs–their resurrection machines–with O you! who love to live and hate to die. [13] Their hunger for life may well have become more pronounced, as doubts began to grow as to the quality of life after death. Holding on to what they had in this world may have appeared preferable to a possibly shadowy, albeit eternal, existence in the twilight of the underworld.
    Interestingly, health is not one of the boons. Maybe it was implied in the wish for long life, as disease was a grim reaper killing most Egyptians before they reached forty, and anybody reaching old age must have been pretty healthy; or some physical discomfort was uncomplainingly accepted as part of the deal.
    Yet it was never omitted from the good wishes anx, wDA, snb, rendered as L. P. H. (life. prosperity, health), tagged on to the names of pharaohs in written documents. Not that it seems to have helped them much: Ramses II did reach the ripe old age of about ninety, but suffered badly from arthritis and cannot have enjoyed his food much, as his teeth had been ground down by attrition. [14]
    While a beautiful burial [9] is never omitted from the list of the four kas, an eternal afterlife is not always mentioned. In historical times life after death in Egypt, at least for the upper classes, was conditional on a proper burial and also its consequence: the preparation of the tomb and the body and the offerings necessary for the ka to feed on were sine qua non. The kings were the first to become immortal as early as the Old Kingdom, and their servants saw a burial in their lord's vicinity as the culmination of their lives and as their chance of partaking in their master's immortality, with the king's sponsorship smoothening their path. But already in the Coffin Texts, religious texts inscribed on the coffins of the deceased since the end of the Old Kingdom, there are allusions to a Judgment of the Dead, which since the Middle Kingdom all non-royals had to undergo[10] to be granted eternal life. Thanks to the precautions taken most people must have expected to pass all the tests in the afterworld and overcome all the obstacles and be granted eternal bliss.


Sarah Iles Johnston, 2004, Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide, Harvard University Press
Olaf E. Kaper, The Egyptian God Tutu: A Study of the Sphinx-god and Master of Demons with a Corpus of Monuments, Peeters Publishers, 2003
Hans G Kippenberg, Yme B. Kuiper, Andy F. Sanders, 1990, Concepts of Person in Religion and Thought, Walter de Gruyter
Serge Sauneron, 1958, "La conception égyptienne du bonheur. À propos des 'Quatre Ka'", BIFAO 57 (1958)
Mark Smith, 2002, On the Primaeval Ocean, Museum Tusculanum Press
Donald Redford, ed., Oxford Encyclopedia of ancient Egypt, Vol. I, Oxford University Press 2001
C. Traunecker, 2001, The Gods of Egypt, Cornell University Press
Henri Wild, 1954, "Statue de Hor-Néfer au Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne", BIFAO 54, (1954), pp.173-222
Sarah Underhill Wisseman, The Virtual Mummy, University of Illinois Press, 2003
[1] Kaper 2003, p.64
[2] Smith 2002, p.24
[3] Kippenberg et al. 1990, p.97
[4] Traunecker 2001, p.22
[5] Wild 1954, p.203
[6] These four kas are to be distinguished from the four kas of the goddess Hathor, who was a fourfold deity and as such she is displayed on the square Hathor columns, each side of which shows one face of the goddess.(Wild 1954, p.202)
[7] Berlin Museum Stele No.22489
[8] Wild 1954, p.205
[9] Kippenberg et al. 1990, p.88
[10] Iles 2004, p.515
[11] Statue J.E. 37075 Cairo Museum (Wild 1954, p.202)
[12] Temple of Esna, inscription 319 (Sauneron 1958, pp.163f.)
[13] Maya Müller, "Afterlife" in Redford 2001, pp.32-37
[14] Underhill 2003, p.11


- -Index of topics
Offsite links   (Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content of these sites
-Wild, Henri: "Statue de Hor-Néfer au Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne"
-Sauneron, Serge: "La conception égyptienne du bonheur. À propos des Quatre Ka (Esna 319)"


Feedback: please report broken links, mistakes - factual or otherwise, etc. to me. thanks.


© October 2008
November 2008