Hardscrabble #14--October 1995


Letter From Hardscrabble Creek: The Ka of Mrs. Benson

By Chas S. Clifton

I had a rough time with the priestess. She simply was not going to cut me any slack. It was the temple's way or no way: she made that perfectly clear, and she had the Legal Affairs department to back her up. All I had was a piece of paper from the probate court appointing me as "special administrator." That got me into the inner sanctum, all right, but I couldn't take anything out with me but the one sacred scroll mentioned in the appointment letter.

"OK, Brenda," I said, slipping Mrs. Benson's will into my coat pocket--a sincere navy blue blazer as favored by us lector priests. "If you won't let me also close out her account, then I'm not going to cover the overdraft."

Dealing with a deceased person's estate is a lot like the old Egyptian religion. I was raised with the relative simplicity of Christianity: die, and your singular soul goes somewhere, is judged, and, depending on denominational preferences, ends up in Heaven, Hell, or running laps in Purgatory. But the Egyptians, with their ba, ka, khu, ren, and the rest, initially were quite beyond me. What were all these multiple souls?

I don't mean to sound like a total environmental determinist, but the climate of Phoenix contributed to my understanding. Driving the rented Ford down one palm-lined street after another, dodging the blazing eye of Ra as I ducked into one financial temple after another, I saw that I was now a minor funerary priest, arranging rituals and transporting texts.

Descending in the elevator from the law firm's office, I thought first of the ba, which of all the Egyptians' terms most nearly approximates "soul." "It could take any shape it pleased; and it had the power of passing into heaven and of dwelling with the perfected souls there," wrote the Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge.

"Let not be shut in my soul, let not be fettered my shadow, let be opened the way for my soul and for my shadow, may it see the great god," reads Chapter 92 of the Book of the Dead. Truly it sails to the West, on the boat made of millions of years, the boat painted hospital green with its levers and cranks.

And the ba has sailed on, aided by the red-faced rector of All-Saints-in-the-Desert, where the funeral service was performed under Coptic-style domes. Does anything incorporeal then follow the plastic box of "cremains," carried across desert and mountain in her white Toyota and finally placed in an outdoor columbarium where another grey-haired priest says his prayers and the homeless men, drunk on fortified wine, sleep nearby on the cathedral lawn? I think not.

Does the shade, the khu, linger in the silent condominium, wandering among cartons packed by the moving crew and left to sit pending shipment out of state? Perhaps. And the ren, the name, is it preserved, mentioned in the alumni bulletin: "Deaths--Class of 1940"?

But it is the ka that grows after death, said Wallis Budge. "It was a subordinate part of the human being during life, but after death it became active; and to it the offerings brought to the tomb by the relatives of the dead were dedicated." (Ancient Egyptians wrote without vowels, and some scholars think the same word was pronounced with the vowel in front: akh. Take your pick.)

James Breasted, another famous Egyptologist, said that the ka was "intended to guide the fortunes of the individual in the hereafter, or it was in the hereafter that he [the ka] chiefly if not exclusively had his abode." (The italics are his.)

Here among the Phoenicians--yes, that's the term used in the Valley of the Sun--one's fortunes in the hereafter are largely expressed in financial terms. Thus, even as the mortuary priest was the "servant of the ka," whatever is furnished to the ka is furnished even also to the deceased.

"O ka, may you eat and drink. I have paid your bills. The air conditioning cools the condominium when Ra is at his height. O ka, I have put a new muffler and tires on the Toyota."

For the ka indeed lives if it is fed with offerings, and these offerings I have made. The financial priests too have made them, the priests of Vanguard, Invesco, Fidelity, the stock priests and the bond priests feed the ka, and it lives. It has life, it has existence, it pays taxes. A pyramid, a shrine of paper, was built for it; it eats and it drinks. Its dwelling is in the room of steel; it is met with homage. There the vault priestess guards it; Thoth is its recorder.

Bureaucrats of the hereafter, the ancient Egyptians prepared for death during life. "I was one who foresaw at the time when he was strong, who kept in mind his dying at a time when he was strong," wrote the priest Petharpokrates.

They planned for immortality; we read Modern Maturity, clipping articles on estate planning and wills. The ka is fed with offerings; a new bank account is opened in its name.

But pious wishes may be overturned, and such may be the ka's own fate. No matter that the tomb inscriptions proclaim that no doer of evil deeds has the power to destroy the "favorite place [the tomb] of [Name] among those who live in this land for ever and ever."

No, think rather of nineteenth-century archaeologists discovering the plundered tomb of the pharaoh Unas: "the paving stones had been pulled up in the vain attempt to find buried treasure; the mummy had been broken to pieces, and nothing remained of it except the right arm, a tibia, and some fragments of the skull and body," wrote Wallis Budge.

Even so, at some time the dwelling of the ka will be plundered, sacred writings burnt and precious objects dispersed to new owners. Bank accounts are closed, stock-ownership transferred: where then is the dwelling of the ka? When the lawyer-priests have collected their fees, they move on to new clients. When the executor has paid the bills, paid off the heirs, and closed the accounts, then the ka is no more. Only a box of files remains--in dead storage.


Chas S. Clifton lives in the Wet Mountains of southern Colorado. He edited Llewellyn Publications' Witchcraft Today series, which included The Modern Craft Movement (1992), Modern Rites of Passage (1993), Witchcraft & Shamanism (1994), and Living Between Two Worlds (1996) and was the co-author with Evan John Jones of Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance. He is now writing a history of American Paganism tentatively titled Her Hidden Children for AltaMira Press.


"Letter from Hardscrabble Creek" is a self-syndicated column furnished on a non-exclusive basis and copyright © 1995 by Chas S. Clifton. For more information, click here to send me E-mail.

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