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Ma'at, symbol of order

Ma'at, Goddess of Truth, Balance, Order

by Caroline Seawright

Updated: November 29, 2012

 

ma`t

Ma'at (Maat, Mayet, Maae't), unlike Hathor and Nephthys, seemed to be more of a concept than an actual goddess. Her name, literally, meant 'truth' in Egyptian. She was truth, order, balance and justice personified. She was harmony, she was what was right, she was what things should be. It was thought that if Ma'at didn't exist, the universe would become isfet isftsparrow determinative (chaos, wrongdoing) and khenenu khnnnwwSet Animal determinativeforce determinative (confusion, turmoil), once again! Ma'at, Spreading her Protective Wings

For the Egyptian believed that the universe was above everything else an ordered and rational place. It functioned with predictability and regularity; the cycles of the universe always remained constant; in the moral sphere, purity was rewarded and sin was punished. Both morally and physically, the universe was in perfect balance.

-- Richard Hooker (1996-1999), Ma'at, Goddess of Truth; Truth and Order

Because of Ma'at, the Egyptians knew that the universe, that everything in the universe, worked on a pattern, just as, later on, the Greeks called the underlying order of the universe λόγος logos (meaning, order, pattern).

In human history there are numerous concepts based on this capacity for wholeness. In ancient Egypt this logos was the Ma'at, in Zoroastrianism the Asha, in ancient China the Tao. In Greek logos denotes 'reason', 'sense', 'word'. In the Gospel of John in the New Testament it is used to refer to Christ.

-- Juha Pentikäinen, Nils G. Holm & Hannu Kilpeläinen (2000), Ethnography is a Heavy Rite: Studies of Comparative Religion in Honor of Juha Pentikäinen, p. 185

Ma'at wearing her headdress

However, in the English language there is no equivalent word for the term 'ma'at'. Ma'at is associated with measurements, with balance, justice, truth, and, of course, harmony, yet the concept is beyond even this range of words. She is related to order, both on the cosmic and the social scale, from the greatest gods, to the most powerful pharaoh, to the youngest child. Egypt, then, was seen to be nothing without Ma'at.

Ma'at was reality, the solid grounding of reality that made the Sun rise, the stars shine, the river flood and mankind think. The universe itself, all the world around them, was sacred in the ancient view. "Ethics" is an issue of human will and human permission. It is a function of the human world of duality. What is "ethical" for one group is sin for another. But Ma'at, the reality that made all groups what they are is transcendent of ethics, just as a rock or a flower is amoral, a-ethical, without "truth or falsehood." How can a flower be "false" or "ethical." It just is. How can the universe be "ethical or moral, right or wrong"? It simply is. That is Ma'at.

-- Ramona Louise Wheeler (1998), Walk Like An Egyptian: A Modern Guide To The Religion and Philosophy Of Ancient Egypt, p. 16

Despite being a winged goddess (like Nephthys), she was judge at the Egyptian underworld at the 'Halls of Ma'ati' or 'Halls of the Double Ma'at'.

The dead person's heart was placed on a scale, balanced by Ma'at herself, or by the Feather of Ma'at (her symbol that she wore on her head was an ostrich feather).

Ma'at, sitting on top of the scales of judgement in the Halls of Ma'ati Thoth (god of writing and scribes) weighed the heart... if the deceased had been found to not have followed the concept of ma'at during his life (if he had lied or cheated or killed or done anything against ma'at) his heart was devoured by a demon (she was called Ammut - Devouress of the Dead) and he died the final death. If the heart weighed the same as Ma'at, the deceased was allowed to go on to the afterlife.

In life, it was the pharaohs' duty to uphold ma'at. "I have done Ma'at" has been spoken by several pharaohs, as well as being called "beloved of Ma'at" (Meri-Ma'at). Pharaohs also took names incorporating this concept: for example, Ma'at-ka-Ra ("Ma'at is the Double of Ra", Hatshepsut) and Neb-Ma'at-Ra ("Ra is the Lord of Ma'at", Amenhotep III).

The role of the king is to cause Ma'at to reign over the world. The supreme offering that the king makes to the gods is that of a figurine of this goddess. By this offering, the king indicates that, thanks to his personal action, aided by those of men, the terrestrial world conforms to that which they, the gods, demand. It is now their turn to act for men in exchange. It is this reciprocity that is fundamental in all of the Egyptian religion and upon which rests the continuity of the world ... In the traditional concept, the king causes Ma'at to reign over the world but he is not Ma'at.

-- Benderitter, T. 2009, Akhenaten and the Religion of the Aten

Ma'at, as would be logical, was also was the justice meted out in ancient Egyptian law courts. The title, "Priest of Ma'at", may have referred to those who were involved in the justice system, as well as being priests of the goddess herself. Temple of Ma'at

There is a small temple dedicated by Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BC) to Ma'at (in ruins) at Ipet-Isut (Karnak). The temple is inside Precinct of Montu, the smallest of three enclosures at Ipet-Isut. The temple seems to have been built by Hatshepsut, then reconstructed by Thutmose III. There is a computer reconstruction of the temple of Ma'at by Gerard Homann. Also at Ipet-Isut, a temple to Ma'at was by built by Amenhotpe III. There may have once been temples to Ma'at at Mennefer (Hikuptah, Memphis) and Set-Ma'at (Deir el-Medina).

Ma'at did not exist until Ra rose from the waters of Nun (the water where Nun and various other gods and goddesses of Chaos lived). She was described as a daughter of Ra, and thought to be the wife of Thoth, moon-god and god of the wisdom. Without Ma'at, Egyptians believed that Nun would reclaim the universe.

She really was the most important deity of them all.

Ma'at with Open Wings, at the Tomb of Nefertari


Further Information about Ma'at


Video of Ma'at

A video filled with images of the goddess Ma'at (and other deities), by Egyptahotep:


© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2001 - present

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