MA'AT

Last updated: 23/05/2007  

The concept of Ma'at brings together several completely disassociated dimensions in Egyptian imaginary. We are not going to separate them for didactic reasons.

Maät

Ma'at is at the heart of understanding Egyptian civilisation in its entirety, and is the foundation of its longevity. It is bound to and confused with ethics (including justice and truth), with universal order (cosmic order, social order and political order) and with social integration based on communication and confidence.

The foundation of Egyptian cultural identity, Ma'at is the great creation of the thinkers of the Old Kingdom. It is she who ultimately offers an ideological setting to the Pharaonic State, both at the level of justification of its existence and in that of the rules which define good government.

But we would not know what this principle covers if a break had not occurred. This break, which is the decomposition, at the end of the Old Kingdom, of the centralised unity of the country embodied by the king. Then the emergence of multiple local power which shared the territory during a couples of centuries (the First Intermediate Period).

The disorder and social anarchy which resulted from it profoundly marked the Egyptian imagination. Through necessity it was clear to formulate and to explain what was obvious in the previous period.
These thoughts are found in literary genre, whose first steps date back to the 3rd Dynasty, and which concern the conduct of individuals: the sapient literature, with its teachings.
It also expresses itself through a new literature type, appropriate for the difficult crossing period: the laments or pessimistic literature. This last more concerns society than that of actual individuals. It is the same for a third kind which are king's writings to his son's and which express, for the first time, concrete suggestions on the government of men.

1. MA'AT, BASIS OF SOCIAL CEMENT :
The Middle Kingdom will be seen to reconstitute the political and social unity of the Double Country, reunified around the central concept of Ma'at. It is the "Tale of the Oasien" or (Eloquent Peasant) which best summarises the concept of Ma'at at this time.
In the nine supplications, which he addresses to his judge, a peasant who has been flown, provides the three fundamental attitudes of a behaviour compliant to the Ma'at: There is no yesterday for the lazy person, no friend for the one who is deaf to Ma'at, no festival day for the greedy.

(1) Laziness - Makes Ma'at.
Laziness, is the absence of action, inertia. For the Egyptian, all action must induce a reaction in a intermeshed joining of past actions (yesterday) to present actions. It is necessary to act for the one who acts and that, for a very clear reason: in order to advise him to remain active.
In a society where the subsistence of the individual is made day to day, in a complex relational maze, the slightest disorder can compromise the survival of the people or the functionality of the administrative machine. Not to forget the good which has been made, it is the basis of confidence. It is a solidarity of survival, based on interdependence, embodied by Ma'at.

(2) Deafness in Ma'at - According to Ma'at.
The greatest wisdom according to ancient Egypt, it is to know how to listen in the silence, to meditate the received word and to consequently act. It is not surprising when one knows the importance of language, of the uttered words which are a living substance, a true food. Social life is only possible by the exchange of harmonious speech, which only permits the integration of one and the other in dynamics based on the confidence of actions which will be achieved.

The deaf who do not listen to the other, are the insensible, the indifferent. Therefore, he has no friend and is not integrated into society. When one doesn't communicate anymore, at the level of the individual or society, it is violence and the law of the strongest which is installed. It is well illustrated in the "dialogue of the desperate man and his soul", another classic text of the Middle Kingdom.

(3) Greed
It is a property of the heart for the Egyptian on which there is no ascendancy; it is, say the sages, an incurable illness.
It is doubly negative:
- for the individual: indeed, during his life, man accumulates a subtle "energy" notably at the time of the festivals, which seem to be in relation to the joy of living. He nourishes his ka, his intangible double. The one who cannot be happy carries harm to his own ka.
- for society: selfishness, the desire of possessions and jealousy, entail the destruction of social relations. The one who despoils those who worked for him, removes from them their means of subsistence, puts them in peril and this fact, is an inducer of violence.
In addition, while trying to remove his dependence on the other, to individualise himself, the man breaks the dynamic system of interaction of society and there again will generate violence. Ma'at is honesty, charity, the absence of jealousy, the exactly remunerated work.

2. MA'AT AND THE TOMB :
The goal of the Egyptian of high society is to become a tomb owner, an imakhu (what is, in itself, the tangible expression of his social statute of "well provided"). It requires that several conditions are met:
- A remunerative function ("a well paid job") and royal authorisation.
- An expensive post-mortem cult supposing either a filiation, or of specialised priests, in any case of important income.
- A good record in the society.

Three pawls of security are thus put in place to morally constrain the man to behave well :
- The functions of experience have been correctly filled in order to have enjoyed royal favour.
- A will must have been written and goods of the deceased passed to his heir; it is not automatic. It is necessary that the will is approved (sealed) by the vizier himself who can disinherit if goods were ill-gotten.
- The good record left with the group, so that the chapel is maintained and is not damaged, and the formulas of life uttered.
It is necessary to have been well beloved by his living (it is not about liking each other !). This arduous task supposes that one followed the way of solidarity recommended by Ma'at.
The biographies in the tombs well specify that one gave to the one who had need (bread, clothes, boats ...) that one didn't commit the sin of language (scandal-mongering, slander ...) and that one rendered good justice.
It is about an impersonal portrait which translates the conformity to the general rule, Ma'at, and which is distinct from the "professional" career.

3. EVOLUTION OF CONCEPTS :
These concepts evolved during the various periods of history.

(1) In The Old Kingdom.
Ma'at is merged with the will of the king who assumes the service of men. It is not the career, since it is spontaneous and bound to ambition. Career in the service of the sovereign and Ma'at are therefore distinctly separated, but form an indispensable complement.

(2) In the First Intermediate Period
After the fall of the monarchy of the Old Kingdom, there is no longer a career in the king's service. A virtuous life compliant to Ma'at can alone lead to immortality.
However, the very word of Ma'at, which remains identified by the Egyptians with the king, with the State, disappears from the inscriptions.
Man's virtue is now the real monument: a good character is a monument; it is a monument to being good; man's monument is his virtue.
Greater need for a tomb or royal career. Could it be that the economic difficulties also played a part in this new vision, because very few people could have access at an authentic monument during this period.

(3) In the Middle Kingdom.
Thanks to literature known as "propaganda" (an unsuitable term, but close enough), the monarchy reintroduces the traditional notion of Ma'at - service to the king, as a necessity of survival.
It is added to the necessities of virtue and the tomb. The tomb and Ma'at become inseparable.

(4) Thereafter, and especially during the New Kingdom.
After the fall of the Middle Kingdom and the invasion of the Hyksos, the Second Intermediate Period showed that it was not possible to be assured of a stable terrestrial world where Ma'at could reign without sharing.

This has a major consequence concerning the beyond: it can no longer be a simple continuation of terrestrial life. The deceased cannot be content anymore with surviving. He must pass in another state, the one of an immortal living God into the kingdom of Osiris.

For this the dead acquires his new state, rituals of passage are necessary: these will be the "Judgement of the Dead" (among others, for the funeral, the Opening of the Mouth, ... are also rituals of passage).

A Ba-bird amulet with a human head. Faience.
Louvre Museum

The Judgement of the Dead constitutes an important initial ritual because it is a divine court which allows the passage to the immortal part of the man man, represented by his ba (unsuitable, but for lack of better, translated as soul). Moving between the worlds, the ba is represented as a bird with a human head.
The teachings of Merikare gives us several basic pieces of information on the court: "the court is not indulgent, yet it is for eternity, that which is there and the one who arrives there without offence to his credit, will be there as a god".

This new image translates as one in which the man becomes responsible for his own actions through what is dictated for him by his heart.

In the traditional funerary text, going back as far as the Old Kingdom, magic plays a dominant role, one proceeded to the shaping of actions having to do with Ma'at. One thus systematically codified them, giving the famous Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead, the one which contains the less famous "Declaration of Innocence".

This "Declaration of Innocence" summarises in the form of a list of negatives, all actions considered as non compliant with Ma'at, being a matter for Isfet ("Chaos"), the opposite of Ma'at.
It is about, among other things, not to have killed, stolen, mistreated, blasphemed, transgressed the taboos, etc. So the deceased can "be separated from his sins", to purify himself.

If his heart is in equilibrium on the balance with the feather of Ma'at, he then becomes capable to be introduced into the world of the gods; he becomes a "maa-kheru", which means "Just of voice", but also one Provided, someone for whom on Earth someone still acts.
Notice also that the heart must not be lighter than the feather, otherwise it would signify that there was an absence of action during the terrestrial life, a "transgression" as serious as the accumulation of bad actions.

Notice also that Osiris and the divine court are only ratifying the judgement which society related to the deceased by letting him provide himself with a tomb, a Book of the Dead and the whole additional material things.

As Ma'at integrated the man into human society, it integrated him into divine society; he becomes a member of the community of the gods and has access to bread - beer of the table of Osiris.

Ma'at thus becomes an essential condition, not only to ba a success in terrestrial life, or to leave a trace in the collective memory, but equally to pass the examination of the balance of the last judgement.

The great idea which arises, and is really new, is that it will be necessary to justify his actions in the beyond.
It is this moral foundation which will be resumed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, even though it won't hear it in precisely the same way.

4. MA'AT THE GODDESS :
Present since the texts of the pyramids, Ma'at becomes to the 18th Dynasty the daughter of Atum-Re, merged with Tefnut, the formidable solar lioness.
Ma'at thus represents, in one of her aspects, a dangerous goddess. Ma'at-Tefnut and her brother Shu are principles who precede at one time and then appear at the same time as the creator god Atum-Re. In a passage from the Sarcophagus Texts, the god says : "the one who lives, Tefnut is my daughter, who will exist with her brother Shu. He is called Life. She is called Ma'at". Ma'at organises the world while justifying her emergence.

Ma'at represents the permanent success of the cosmos who expresses its renewed presence every day at the prow of the solar barque. This perpetuity supposes a continuous effort, requiring a collaboration of the gods and men through the intermediary of the king. The union of Re and Ma'at, of which the uraeus notable testifies, explain the continual embrace of the sun, while presenting Ma'at as food, drink and ointment of the supreme god. In short everything which is beneficial to him and permits him to live, is Ma'at.

So Ma'at, daughter of Atum-Re returns to her father that which he gave her. It forms the foundation of the Egyptian offering: one returns to the god that which he gave.
One "brings into being" Ma'at by the divine recitation of prayers in an unceasing effort where one listens to one another, where one acts one for the other. Thus social life and cosmic life inter-twine: they are the reflection one of the other.

If civil society no longer functions according to the norm, it is the whole universe which is threatened. So Apophis, who is always the personification of menacing chaos, is not annihilated in the beyond, it is civil society which will be disorganised (war, rebellion ...) and monarchy destabilised.

5. MA'AT AND THE PHARAONIC STATE :
The structure of the divine world as the one of the human world is pyramidal.

As the creator sun organiser of the sky must answer to Pharaoh, organiser of the land. The king is installed to achieve (se-kheper), to establish (se-mn) Ma'at and to annihilate Isfet ("chaos"). He thus assures the conditions, so that the simple mortal can, at his level, speak of and accomplish Ma'at, which is indispensable for the terrestrial life.

However to establish Ma'at is not a natural phenomenon, because the spontaneous tendency of things is deterioration, entropy, isfet. This is manifest in the disorder, violence, the law of the strongest, the absence of indispensable organisation to render a viable and prosperous country of Egypt.

It is the role of the Pharaoh and the State to fight by all means against this spontaneous tendency to become disorganised.
This Egyptian State, thus presented, which may seem to us stifling, has therefore the aim of making the life of men and gods possible.

This is why the main offering which the king makes to the gods and which is represented so often, concerns the offering for Ma'at. In a very traditional concept of reciprocation, he returns nourishment to the divinity who in his turn justifies his function by it.
During the time of Amarna, the significance which Akhenaton gave to Ma'at changed. I approached this aspect some time ago in my article on Akhenaten and his time, I return you there.

The pharaoh Akhenaten makes an offering of Ma'at to Aten

6. THE TYRANNY OF MA'AT ?
Ma'at contributed much to constructing a human world and appears to us as a very high ideal, of which the emergence at such a remote period is extraordinary.
But Ma'at doesn't only have a positive side, at least from our modern point of view in the west. Indeed one could call the tyranny of Ma'at the globalising and anti-individual tendency which transports this idea.

Ma'at, it is the absolute conservator, the negation of all social evolution; it is the obedient man who remains to his place. The individual doesn't appear as such. He was only one link of a global social fabric where he was asked to fuse himself. Any attempt at modification of the state of the things is not only dangerous for society but for the cosmos itself. Ma'at, as a concept corresponds therefore perfectly to Egyptian social reality, composed of subjects (and not of citizens) dominated by an omnipresent State.

7. MA'AT AND PERSONAL PIETY :
As of the end of the New Kingdom, a period of trouble restarts in Egypt, with, in particular, the confrontation between the army and the ministerial class.
The texts show that it is a period of instability and great anguish, which damages the idea of the traditional Ma'at.
The individual destiny of the man in front of his god is then gradually supplanted by the destiny of the man integrated into an ideal society.
During later times, the appearance of the notion of a personal god and especially of personal piety is going to sound the knell for Ma'at, because the two notions are incompatible.
Indeed, man no longer dependent of his relations with others, but on the will of the god. It is this last and not the king, who establishes Ma'at which now appears like a divine gift. Man now places God in his heart, say the texts. He is responsible in front of him, but more before the community.

Thus the individual appears to be alone face to face with god, a radical negation of the traditional Ma'at who fought the tendency of individualism.

Finally, it is religion in the Judeo-Christian sense of the term, the irruption of transcendence, which results in the disappearance of Ma'at.
This departure can appear as regrettable.
It will have a major consequence: henceforth, to maintain social cohesion, another invention will be necessary but that will not be Egyptian : brotherhood.

Original page by Thierry Benderitter
© OsirisNet 2003-2007

Bibliography

Many numerous works make reference to Ma'at. Here are some of the recent and easily accessible. You will find a more detailed list in their own bibliographic pages.

- WILKINSON Richard : The complete Gods and Godesses of Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, 2003
- WALLIS BUDGE E.A. : The Gods of the Egyptians, Dover publications, 1969 (2 vol)
- REDFORD B (& al) : The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, AUPC, 2001
- ASSMANN Jan : Maat, l'Égypte et l'idée de justice sociale, Julliard, 1989
- ASSMANN Jan : The search for God in Ancient Egypt, Cornell University press, 2001
- ASSMANN Jan : Mort et au-delà dans l'Égypte Ancienne, Rocher, 2003
- MENU Bernadette : Maat, l'ordre juste du monde, Michalon, 2005
- GOYON Jean-Claude : Rê, Maat et Pharaon, ou le destin de l'Égypte antique, A.C.V., 1998
- GOYON Jean-Claude : Rituels funéraires de l'ancienne Égypte, Cerf, 2004
- MEEKS Dimitri, FAVARD-MEEKS Christine : La vie quotidienne des dieux Égyptiens, Hachette, 1993