Ren, Ba, Sheut, Ka & Ib: Ancient Egyptian roots of the modern discipline named Psychology

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“According to the teaching of Buddha, the idea of ‘Self’ is an imaginary false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism and other defilements, impurities and problems. It is the source of all the problems in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the problems in the world.” – Walpola Rahula, 1959.

The emergence of the ‘scientific’ study of the human mind, personality and behaviour led to questions surrounding the true nature of man and the underlying mechanisms influencing man’s reaction to cues in the environment. This inquiry further stoked the passion of its pioneers to discover the ancient origins and ideas giving rise to the structured study of mind, personality and behaviour presently named; Psychology.

Wickramasekera (2014) revealed in his work; ‘Early Psychological Knowledge’ that “Psychology is often thought of as a relatively new field of scientific inquiry, compared to its more established relatives in science such as mathematics or physics.” And this is a positive observation of the Psychology discipline given the fact that the first known ‘scientific’ study of Psychology was undertaken by the German scientist; Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig, Germany, 1879.

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Wilhelm Wundt.
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Wilhelm Wundt’s studies focused on Sensory Perception and the nature of Consciousness; two focal points that were later ‘developed’ by Edward Titchener into the Psychology school of thought named ‘Structuralism’. Structuralism simply sought to study the ‘structures’ of consciousness as initially proposed by Wilhelm and his colleagues.

Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Koehler appeared on the scene in the 20th century with a counter-narrative of their own that forwarded that; consciousness is whole and thus, cannot be dismantled into structures. This theory of theirs led to the formation of the ‘Gestalt’ School of Thought.

Sigmund Freud hopped unto the bandwagon with his ‘Psychoanalytic’ School of Thought which drew on; sex drives and childhood experiences as two major factors that drive human behaviour. J.B. Watson contributed his own share of ideas to the growing discipline of Psychology with his ‘Behaviorism’ School of Thought. His unique observations of human behaviour led him to conclude that; human behaviour was extensively driven by environmental factors and that internal mental processes had little to nothing to do with human behaviour.

Other equally important scientists emerged on the scene along with the aforementioned, also forwarding their own well-thought-of ideas concerning the discipline in question, however, the scientists named so far and their respectable theories were all of a Western and European origin.

Thus we were left with the question as to whether their ideas and theories were binding on the Afrikan and persons of Afrikan descent since they derived their conclusions from observations made within their own geographical boundaries. We were thus led to explore what our ancient ancestors thought of man and woman; their constituent nature and the driving forces of their behaviour.

The ancient Egyptian understanding of Psychology as a discipline was developed within the framework of their spirituality such that; the factors that influenced human behaviour were to the ancient Egyptians, not variables that could be fully understood in a laboratory setting, but could be brought to light with a spiritually intuitive mindset. In view of this, and amongst other influential knowledge bases, ancient Egyptians resolved to the study of ‘Self’ as a seat of human behaviour.

What the Self is, is quite tricky to define unless within the context of a personalized definition. It can be thought of the ‘ghost’ in Gilbert Ryle’s ‘machine’, that unseen aspect of ourselves breathing life into our thoughts and motion into our movements. According to the ancient Egyptians, this Self is made up of five parts namely; Ren, Ba, Sheut, Ka and Ib.

Ren refers to the name given a person at birth, and the ancients believed that a person’s given name had a great influence on the said person’s life and consequent behavioural traits. This ancient Egyptian idea is not far removed from that of their Bantu-Kongo relatives who also held the belief that names embodied the energy force of persons who wielded them in the past, and such forces had a considerable bearing on the behaviour of the one newly named by it.

Ba is what modern Psychologists will refer to as the Personality of any given individual. Represented as a hawk with a bearded human head, the ancient Egyptians regarded Ba as the soul of the individual, the aspect of the Self that moves out of the body when a person dies. It is Ba that defines the extent and quality of one’s personality and interpersonal relations.

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Sheut is the shadow aspect of the Self. Within the parlance of modern science, we know that a shadow is formed when a solid object blocks the path of light. So could this ancient concept of Sheut be similar to Carl Gustave Jung’s idea of the Shadow Personality that is brought to life by accumulated suppressed desires and cravings? The shadow aspect of the Self, however, influences our behaviour and the quality of our interactions with those around us.

Ka is what the ancients call the Life Force of a person’s Self. Ka can thus be likened to Lendo Kia Kukiniakisa of Bantu-Kongo origin which literally translates into; ‘Self-Healing Power’. Ka represented the energizing essence of the individual. One who is low on energy is not one to put up an energetic display in one’s relation with others, and the opposite is true.

Ib, representing the final aspect of the Self is the seat of one’s emotions, thoughts and ensuing behaviours. It can most probably be thought of as the melting pot for all the other aspects of Self aforementioned. The ancient Egyptians pointed to an individual’s heart as the physical location of the non-physical Ib. Ib according to our ancient Egyptian ancestry was measured against the feather of Ma’at by Anubis of the Underworld upon the death of an individual. If Ib weighed more than the feather, a crocodile-headed god would consume Ib and that aspect of the Self will be lost to the individual, to be constructed anew in another life most probably.

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Anubis: Ancient Egyptian god of the Underworld.
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So, in a nutshell, there is enough reason to suggest that ‘Psychology’ as a structured modern discipline derived its essence from the teachings of antiquity, not restricted to ancient Egypt alone. All things emerge from a point in the past and evolve with time and circumstances as made evident in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species thus, it is only courteous to acknowledge the far-reaching sources of our modern-day disciplines as well as the wisdom they bring to bear on the progress of the human race.

Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: July 18, 2019


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