Kemet Klub

Words spoken by: Rob W ‘How many hearts did an ancient Egyptian have?’

This blog is dedicated to fellow travellers in the Kemet Klub Hieroglyphs group. 

‘The dead cannot tell us that we have misunderstood them …’ (Richard Parkinson)

The “puzzle” I explore is why the ancient Egyptians had two words for ‘heart’ – ib and HAty – and why it is often implied an individual had both.  Investigating this linguistic feature  and considering the implications for translation have led me to draw on the three PhD theses listed in the Reading List.

What’s the standard explanation?

An appealingly simple explanation sees the HAty as the physical heart and the ib as the centre of thought and emotion.  When a tomb scene caption refers to tearing out a sacrificed animal’s heart, the phrase used is Sdi HAty.  In contrast, in texts where memory or courage is involved, ib appears. Moreover, compounds with ib constitute a huge range of metaphorical expressions such as Aw ib ‘to be happy’ (literally, ‘long of heart’).


What’s the problem?

Statistically, the standard explanation has some validity.  The problem is that there are  many exceptions.  Indeed, HAty and ib can even swap places.  It seems clear that ancient Egyptian concepts do not align with modern biomedical perspectives. 

Here, for example, is Sinuhe describing support he received as he faced an enemy:

every heart (HAty) was burning for me,

the married women were wailing,

every heart (ib) felt pain for me …

No one was literally on fire so HAty here must be metaphorical.  It also seems unlikely that Sinuhe was suggesting people’s responses came from different parts of their bodies.  Somehow, ib and HAty complement each other.

More troubling are references to the ib in texts that regard it as a physical entity. On a stela of Kamose, the ib  is the place of (absence of) procreation:

The women of Avaris shall not conceive,

their interiors shall not open up (nn sn ibw=sn)

inside their bellies,

when the battle-cry of my army is heard.

What’s the solution?

Key points:

  • When the ancient Egyptians wished to refer exclusively or primarily to the physical heart, they turned to HAty. Crucially, however, they still had the same word available for quite other purposes.
  • We need to set aside any assumptions about mind/body distinctions and recognise that ib and HAty are rarely, if ever, understood as abstract, mind-like entities. Texts like Sinuhe recognise the interconnectedness of mental and physical states.
  • As with Egyptian conceptions of god(s), ib and HAty constantly shift and inter-change. They were never reduced to “scientific” fixity.
  • Sometimes, ib seems closer to our word ‘mind’ than ‘heart’ but, in choosing one or other, we may mispresent ancient understanding.
  • Translating ib as ‘heart’ usually brings our language – ‘cold-hearted’; ‘having a heart to heart’ etc. – closer to that of ancient Egyptians.

Ancient Egyptians each had only one heart but their understanding and language about it were wonderfully, sometimes bewilderingly, complex. 

(With thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the heart amulet images)


Reading List  The three PhD theses (the second of which is exclusively about ib and HAty):

Nyord, R., 2009. Breathing
Flesh: conceptions of the body in the ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts
Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

[Extract from Kamose stela: adapted from p.421] 

Piankoff, A., 1930. Le “cœur” Dans les
Textes Égyptiens depuis l’Ancien jusqu’à la fin du Nouvel Empire: thèse
présentée pour le doctorat de l’Université de Paris
. Paris: Paul
Geuthner.  Available from:

 Walker, J., 2021 (1993). Studies in Ancient Egyptian Anatomical Terminology. Macquarie University, New South Wales: Macquarie University.

[Extract (lines 131ff) from Sinuhe: adapted from p. 171]


Epigraph: Parkinson, R. B.,
2009. Reading Ancient Egyptian Poetry: among other histories.
Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.

 summary of Nyord’s arguments: Taking Phenomenology to Heart: Some heuristic

remarks on studying ancient Egyptian embodied experience.  In: R. Nyord and A. Kjølby
(eds.), Being in Ancient Egypt. Thoughts on Agency, Materiality and
, BAR International Series 2019, Oxford 2009, pp. 63-74.

Available from:

 On Egyptian concepts of god(s): Hornung, E., 1996 [first published: 1971]. Conceptions of God in

Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many [Der Eine Und Die Vielen]. transl.
Baines, J. ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Rob Whatmough:

Since retiring from roles in secondary education, I have been able to act on a longstanding, but previously completely side-lined, interest in the ancient world.  To get started, I took undergraduate-level courses at Cambridge in Archaeology and Early Medieval England, and then the two-year Manchester Diploma in Egyptology.  Since then, I have completed three accredited courses in reading ancient Egyptian with the University of Glasgow. More informal learning has involved participation in Kemet Klub courses and the Hieroglyphs Reading Group.    I am currently a trustee of the Friends of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology (University College, London). 

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