In Ancient Egypt, Ma’at was both the abstract concept of law, morality, and justice, as well as its personification as a goddess. Ma’at, as a divine principle, was understood to regulate the orderly operation of nature, the cosmos, and human interaction. As a goddess, she was seen as the daughter of Ra, the primordial creator god, and the wife of Thoth, the god of scribes and law. Her primary role in Egyptian mythology was as the objective standard by which human actions were judged in the afterlife. In later Hellenic syncretism, she represented the Logos of Plato.
Ma’at in an Egyptian Context
As an Egyptian deity, Ma’at belonged to a complex religious, mythological and cosmological belief system developed in the Nile river basin from earliest prehistory to 525 B.C.E. Indeed, it was during this relatively late period in Egyptian cultural development, a time when they first felt their beliefs threatened by foreigners, that many of their myths, legends and religious beliefs were first recorded. The cults within this framework, whose beliefs comprise the myths we have before us, were generally fairly localized phenomena, with different deities having the place of honor in different communities. Despite this apparently unlimited diversity, however, the gods (unlike those in many other pantheons) were relatively ill-defined. As Frankfort notes, “the Egyptian gods are imperfect as individuals. If we compare two of them … we find, not two personages, but two sets of functions and emblems. … The hymns and prayers addressed to these gods differ only in the epithets and attributes used. There is no hint that the hymns were addressed to individuals differing in character.” One reason for this was the undeniable fact that the Egyptian gods were seen as utterly immanental—they represented (and were continuous with) particular, discrete elements of the natural world. Thus, those who did develop characters and mythologies were generally quite portable, as they could retain their discrete forms without interfering with the various cults already in practice elsewhere. Also, this flexibility was what permitted the development of multipartite cults (i.e. the cult of Amun-Re, which unified the domains of Amun and Re), as the spheres of influence of these various deities were often complimentary.
The worldview engendered by ancient Egyptian religion was uniquely appropriate to (and defined by) the geographical and calendrical realities of its believer’s lives. Unlike the beliefs of the Hebrews, Mesopotamians and others within their cultural sphere, the Egyptians viewed both history and cosmology as being well ordered, cyclical and dependable. As a result, all changes were interpreted as either inconsequential deviations from the cosmic plan or cyclical transformations required by it. The major result of this perspective, in terms of the religious imagination, was to reduce the relevance of the present, as the entirety of history (when conceived of cyclically) was ultimately defined during the creation of the cosmos. The only other aporia in such an understanding is death, which seems to present a radical break with continuity. To maintain the integrity of this worldview, an intricate system of practices and beliefs (including the extensive mythic geographies of the afterlife, texts providing moral guidance (for this life and the next) and rituals designed to facilitate the transportation into the afterlife) was developed, whose primary purpose was to emphasize the unending continuation of existence. Given these two cultural foci, it is understandable that the tales recorded within this mythological corpus tended to be either creation accounts or depictions of the world of the dead, with a particular focus on the relationship between the gods and their human constituents.
While Ma’at can be discussed as both a goddess and as an impersonal principle, it must be noted that this distinction was not made in her original religious context. Thus, the understanding of cosmic order always implied the theology (and concomitant ritualisms) centered on the goddess, just as the goddess was, herself, seen as the personification of this self-same order. Attempting to separate the two does an injustice to the cohesiveness and concreteness of the Egyptian religio-philosophical milieu. This being said, such a distinction is still the most efficient means of discursively exploring the goddess/principle, so long as the artificiality of such a distinction is acknowledged.
Ma’at as a principle
As a principle, “Ma’at” designated the fundamentally meaningful and orderly nature of the human and cosmic realms. Thus, the single term would be used in both contexts: cosmically, to describe both the cyclical transformation of seasons and the seasonal flooding of the Nile, and humanistically, to describe the orderly operation of human society and the moral code of its citizens. The conflation of these two realms signifies the extent to which human social codes were seen to be analogies of cosmic cycles, which essentially means that they were seen as both ontologically real and objectively true. Thus, “to the Egyptian mind, Ma’at bound all things together in an indestructible unity: the universe, the natural world, the state and the individual were all seen as parts of the wider order generated by Ma’at.” The connotative richness of the concept of ma’at is attested to by Frankfort, who suggests:
We lack words for conceptions which, like Maat, have ethical as well as metaphysical implications. We must sometimes translate “order,” sometimes “truth,” sometimes “justice”; and the opposites of Maat requires a similar variety of renderings. … The laws of nature, the laws of society, and the divine commands all belong to the one category of what is right. The creator put order (or truth) in the place of disorder (or falsehood). The creator’s successor, Pharaoh, repeated this significant act at his succession, in every victory, at the renovation of a temple, and so on.
Given the immanence of ma’at in all aspects of the cosmos, Egyptian creation accounts often suggest that the principle of order was either the first element brought into existence or, more strikingly, that ma’at was, in fact, eternal (thus predating the existence of the world): “she is the order imposed upon the cosmos created by the solar demiurge and as such is the guiding principle who accompanied the sun god at all times.” After the initial act of creation, the principle of order was understood to be immanently present in all natural and social systems—a notion that essentially ruled out the possibility of development or progress, as the original created state of the universe came to be seen as its moral apex. Further, the universality of the principle meant that it applied equally to mortals and divinities: “all gods functioned within the established order; they all ‘lived by Maat’ and consequently they all hated ‘untruth.’ We may say that in Egyptian thought Maat, the divine order, mediated between man and gods.”
The human understanding of ma’at, which was soon codified into Egyptian law, was partially recorded in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Later, these same concepts would be discussed by scholars and philosophers in their culture’s Wisdom Literature (seboyet). While many of these texts seem on the surface to be mundane guides to etiquette (as pertaining to various social or professional situations), even these banal human interactions were understood in light of ma’at. In this way, the most basic human behaviors came to possess a cosmic significance. However, instead of transforming the system into a rigid and punitive standard of behavior, this perspective actually humanized moral discourse:
When man erred, he did not commit, in the first place, a crime against a god; he moved against the established order, and one god or another saw to it that that order was vindicated. … By the same token the theme of God’s wrath is practically unknown in Egyptian literature; for the Egyptian, in his aberrations, is not a sinner whom God rejects but an ignorant man who is disciplined and corrected.
Ma’at as a goddess
The goddess Ma’at is the personification of the physical and moral order described above. As a primordial being, whose very nature was tied to the functioning of the cosmos, she was understood to have been existent prior to the creation of the universe. This understanding of the goddess is echoed in the Coffin Texts, which describe the role of Life (personified as a god) and Order (Ma’at) in the auto-genesis of the primeval creator:
“I was alone with the Primeval Ocean, in the inertness, and could find no place to stand… (the gods of the) first generation had not yet come into being, (but) they were with me.” Addressing himself to the Primeval Ocean, he adds: “I was floating between two waters, totally inert … and it was my son, ‘Life,’ who roused my spirit, who made my heart live and gathered up my inert members.” The Primeval Ocean replies to the creator-god: “Inhale your daughter Maat and raise her to your nostril so that your heart may live. May they not be far from you, your daughter Maat and your son Shu, whose name is life.”
In this vision, the first cyclical action—the inhalations and exhalations of the primordial god—Ma’at is already present. As noted by Meeks, “the very rhythm of the creator’s breath ensured that air—life—would be exhaled, making the birth of the other creatures possible. In a similar creation account, Atum states that “when I was alone in Nun (Primordial Chaos]], inert … they were already with me.” Given the deity’s preeminence, it is also understandable that the Egyptians believed that without Ma’at there would be only the primal chaos, which would result in the termination of created existence.
In the Egyptian pantheon (especially in its more developed forms), she was described as the daughter of Ra and the wife/consort of Thoth. Given the ibis-headed god’s scribal character (and his resultant association with codified laws), his marriage to the goddess symbolizing the cosmic origin of those laws was entirely a propos. These two deities, together symbolizing law, truth, and justice, were understood to accompany and defend the chariot of Ra on its daily travels above the earth and through the underworld. The goddess was likewise seen to be affiliated with many other gods, though often in a similar manner: she and Thoth also flank Horus in his celestial travels; Temu, the evening form of Ra, is described as he ‘whom Maat directeth’; Amun-Ra ‘is said to ‘rest upon Maat’; Osiris ‘carries along the earth in his train by Maat in the name of Seker’; and, in a more general sense, she is described as ‘the lady of the Gods and Goddesses.'” In the human realm, because it was the pharaoh’s duty to ensure truth and justice, many of them were referred to as Meri-Ma’at (Beloved of Ma’at).
The most notable mythic accounts of Ma’at describe her in the context of the posthumous judgment of human souls. However, given that these tales were most significant in their liturgical context, they will be considered in the section on the goddess’s role in religious observances.
Ma’at is often depicted as a regal woman, sitting or standing, holding a sceptre in one hand and an ankh in the other. Given her connection with air/primordial breath (as developed in the creation accounts introduced above), sometimes she is depicted as a semi-avian deity, with wings instead of arms. In fact, the feather itself often was taken to represent the goddess in absentia. Even when entirely anthropomorphized, the connection with the air is symbolized by a large feather worn in her headdress. Finally, a visual “short-hand” often used to represent the goddess was a “hieroglyphic sign … used to write her name which resembled a builder’s measure or the plinth upon which statues of the gods were placed.” Many Egyptian sarcophagi are adorned with at least one of these images, as they were understood to be symbols of protection for the souls of the dead.
Ma’at in Egyptian Religion
Though Ma’at was not frequently honored with temples explicitly dedicated to her, one could argue that her role in Egyptian religion was considerably more fundamental.
In the royal cult, she was revered by the pharaohs prior to their worship of other gods. In fact, one of the most typical religious offerings made by monarchs was a miniature statue of the goddess, which symbolized their commitment maintain “maat in preserving order and justice on behalf of the gods.”
Further, she was central to the Egyptian understanding of the afterlife, in that one’s posthumous fate was determined by one’s adherence to Ma’at in life. Specifically, the hearts of the dead were said to be weighed against the single Shu feather, symbolically representing the concept of Ma’at, in the Hall of Two Truths. The weighing of the heart, pictured in the Book of the Dead, shows Anubis overseeing the weighing, occasionally with Maat looking on (or even perched upon the vertical strut of the balance). Other traditions hold that Anubis brought the soul before the chthonic ruler Osiris who performed the actual weighing. A heart that was unworthy was devoured by Ammit and its owner condemned to remain in Duat (the underworld). Those people with pure hearts were sent on to Osiris in Aaru.
Many Egyptian tombs were inscribed with “confessional” texts, which asserted that their occupants had been faithful to the principles of Ma’at while alive. It was thought that the contents of these declarations would be spoken by the deceased during their posthumous ordeal as a combined testimonial and legal defense. Zivie-Coche notes that the traditional description of these texts as “confessions” is somewhat misleading, arguing that “here it was not a matter of a repentant sinner confessing all his sins so that he might be pardoned, but rather a matter of declaring with the confidence of an innocent person that the list of sins against Maat, which was codified and conceived of as exhaustive, had not been committed by him.” Several examples of these texts are preserved in the Book of the Dead, and are notable for expounding upon the breadth of human actions considered to be the province of Ma’at.