ka

Today’s word is very useful for Scrabble players: its form fills an important function, allowing a word with a K to be played alongside a word with an A to connect two words. It can give a shot of life to an ailing rack. Scrabble players of a certain level are likely to use it as often as once every three or four games. It has a certain kinetic something to its form, too, the angularity of the K and the A, each made of a rotated V plus a cross-stroke: angular, hard, but moving.

But what does it mean? Ah, well, now, I’m glad you asked. Allow me to turn to my bookshelf, to a section that has a miscellany of books not otherwise categorized.

There is a book I bought when I was 11 years old. I bought it in the Banff Book and Art Den on February 11, 1979, for $8.95 (marked down from $12.50). Oh, no, my memory is not so good as all that. The book still has the receipt in it. That’s how I remember things: with persistent concrete objects.

Which book? Why, this one, of course:

The Egyptian Book of the Dead, taken from the papyrus of Ani, with translation and commentary. At that time, I had something of a fascination for Egyptology, fostered in no small part by a copy of this book that I had found in a school library.

The truth is that what I really liked was not so much the myths and practices of the Egyptians as their writing, the hieroglyphs. The book has the original hieroglyphic text, sometimes with interlinears. The library copy also had transliterations; this copy, alas, does not. But look, all those iconic representations, a code, so exotic, carrying some meaning – but what? The form has persisted, but the sense? Lost for a long time until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which had the same text in Greek, demotic Egyptian, and hieroglyphs. A parallel text! It came back to life, reaching out to us across the millennia. And among the Egyptian words that gained a new spark of life was ka.

The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary defines ka as “the spiritual self of a human being in Egyptian religion.” This is not quite accurate. What we would think of as the spirit or soul was the ba, the personality that went to the afterlife; it was depicted in hieroglyphs as a sort of bird. The ka was a vital spark, distinct from the body but living in it while the person lived. And after death? The ka roamed as it wished, but it could be given a statue of the person to dwell in – a persistent memorial, a concrete (stone, really) object. It had to be given food, however; if there was none, it would wander in search of it, and might even die.

Its hieroglyph was two arms extended as if to embrace someone.

In a way, then, we might say that the ka is meaning. A word, like a body, is form. While a word is in use, it has that thing that animates it, that sense. If a word passes out of common use, it can be maintained in a stiff, memorialized form, brought out and venerated as needed, as thou may be. We can still maintain an understanding of its meaning if we feed it some thought every so often. But it can also wander away to take up residence elsewhere. And if we simply run out of a need for the sense and stop thinking of it, it can die.

Does that seem like a bit of a reach? Well, so is the ka. Like meaning, it always reaches out. It is the will to connect, and it does not depart as easily as breath or birds.

3 responses to “ka

  1. The parsha [weekly portion of the Torah] Miketz describes the travels of Joseph’s brothers to Egypt. When they stood before Joseph, they did not realize he was their brother. One reason is that Joseph spoke with them through the interpreter, המליץ (ha-malitz), as if he did not understand Hebrew. This word occurs only once (hapex legomenon) in Tanakh with this meaning, at Genesis 42:23. The oral tradition says the מליץ was Menasha, Joseph’s older son.
    Egyptian was written with hieroglyphics/pictures. The Hebrew root for image (make a picture) is צלם (tzadi-lamed-mem). To translate from Egyptian to other languages is to un-picture, hence, the reversal to מליץ.

  2. Excellent! Scrabble anyone? I have my ka on.

  3. Not to mention my initials, ka, verily. Or kra which carries an anagram of ark which might ferry my ka about as it awaits food.

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