Benu Bird

Benu : The most famous sacred bird, the Benu is a  mythological creature that appears in the Heliopolis  creation myth. Mentioned in the Pyramid Texts,  the Benu is said to be a form of the god Atum who  has “risen up, as a benben in the house of the Benu  in Heliopolis.” Other myths claim that the Benu  emerged from a burning Persea tree in Heliopolis  or sprang from the heart of Osiris.

The Benu was believed to be the incarnation of Re,  for at the dawn of creation, the Benu rested on the first  bit of dry land as it emerged from the waters of chaos  and, by so doing, symbolized the sun’s rays touching the  first earth mound (see benben). A Middle Kingdom  (2055–2650 b.c.) papyrus refers to the “Benu of Re”  and “He who came into being by himself.” Seemingly,  like Re, the Benu was thought to have created itself.

The name Benu derives from the Egyptian word  weben “to rise,” and the Benu may have been the basis  of the Greek phoenix bird that rose from its own  ashes. Herodotus, the Greek traveler, visited Egypt  in the fifth century b.c. and noted that he had never  actually seen a Benu bird (he called it a phoenix),  only a painting of one. The priests of Heliopolis told  Herodotus that the Benu bird appeared only every  500 years, when its parents died.

 Then the Benu  carried the bodies of its deceased parents, encased  in a chunk of myrrh (an aromatic substance used to  preserve bodies), to the sun temple at Heliopolis, the  final resting place of the deceased Benu. When Tutankhamen’s solid gold coffin was  opened, a black scarab with a Benu bird carved on  its back was one of the magical objects found on his  mummy. A symbol of rebirth in the Netherworld,  the image of the Benu was frequently carved on  scarabs and buried with the mummy to help with  resurrection in the next world.

Ba Bird

The Egyptians believed that each person  came into the world with five separate parts, or facets,  that made them a whole being: the physical body,  the ka, the name, the shadow, and the ba. The ba is  the most difficult to describe. At times it was a part  of the soul of the deceased—the person’s spirit—and  at other times it seemed to be the entire soul or the  essence of the deceased. The ba is also described as  something like the “personality.” It was able to fly  from place to place and is often shown hovering  over the mummy or resting on a shrine. Most com- monly it is represented as a bird with a human head  and arms. Supposedly it could assume any form it  chose, and the Book of the Dead has many spells to  assist the  ba in its transformation.

One of the most  important functions of the ba was to unite with the ka  so the deceased could reach the heavens and become  an akh spirit. Egyptians rarely mentioned the  ba of a living  person, so it seems as if the  ba came into existence  after death. Like the living person, the ba had physi- cal needs. Relatives of the deceased were supposed  to leave food offerings in front of the tomb to feed  the ba until it reached the next world. Illustrations in  the Book of the Dead show the ba flying inside and  sometimes outside the tomb. In some ways the ba was  the alter ego of the deceased.

One Middle Kingdom  (2055–1650 b.c.) papyrus tells the story of a man who  was feeling weary of the world and wanted to kill  himself. He had an argument with his  ba, who told  him to “throw his complaints on the woodpile” and  threatened to desert the man in the next world. The  end of the papyrus is missing, so we don’t know if the  man followed the advice of his ba or not. Because the  ba was essential for existence in the  next world, a special chapter in the Book of the  Dead ensured that the  ba would be reunited with  the deceased. In the following spell for “Causing the  Uniting of the Ba and its Body in the Netherworld,”  the reader is instructed to recite the words over an  amulet of the ba made of gold, inlaid with the stone  that is placed on the deceased’s neck

. . . . Oh great god, cause that my Ba may come to  me from anyplace where it is. If there is a prob- lem, bring my Ba to me from any place where it  is . . . If there is a problem, cause my Ba to see my  body. If you find me Oh Eye of Horus, support  me like those in the Netherworld . . . May the Ba  see the body and may it rest upon its mummy.  May it never perish, may it not be separated from  the body for ever.