Ancient man seems hopelessly backward by the standards of our modern sensibilities. We feel comfortably superior in comparison to his ignorance and superstition, which he used to explain a world he couldn’t control. Yet, the more we look around, the more we actually examine, the more we come to the conclusion that we are just as helpless as he was. We resort to different explanations for the world around us. We can do more things than he could. Yet, the implacable forces of the cosmos still govern us just as tightly. Among these are the invisible forces, the ones we can’t measure with our instruments, but only by experiencing them. These forces keep nature and man in harmony. Ma’at, the Ancient Egyptian goddess, was the personification of these forces in that country.
Ma’at was the daughter of the sun god Ra, when he rose from the primeval waters of Nun. Once she came into being, she banished the forces of chaos and darkness. Her task was to uphold the forces of law, order, truth, justice, and the proper balance of the universe. The Ancient Egyptians believed that these things stemmed from her. Not coincidentally, she was married to Thoth, the god of wisdom.
She was depicted as a woman, sometimes with wings, wearing a headdress with an ostrich feather in the center. The ostrich feather itself represented her in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and was synonymous for “truth,” signifying her importance.
Ma’at as Avenger of Wrongs
Ma’at, as the goddess of justice, was tasked with restoring order to the universe when the forces of entropy took root. When disharmony and chaos reigned, Ancient Egyptian people could count on Ma’at to come around again and right the wrongs.
Ma’at was such an important goddess that all Ancient Egyptian kings were tasked with upholding her laws, lest the country be engulfed in entropy. Frequently, the pharaohs described themselves as “beloved of Ma’at” and enemies as “hating Ma’at.” When the pharaohs themselves strayed from the rules of Ma’at, they would be punished by the course of events, when she would inevitably reassert herself. Ancient Egyptian kings would frequently disparage their predecessors by saying they had strayed from Ma’at’s laws and position themselves as having restored it. This was especially true in the case of Akhenaten, who we learned, had placed himself in artwork as being superior to Ma’at.
Yet, the goddess of truth, justice, divine order, and cosmic harmony would have her due. The “heretic pharaoh” died a relatively young man, and his successors restored cosmic order, wiping Akhenaten’s memory and his Atenist religion away.
The goddess had her due after the turmoil of the First and Second Ancient Egyptian Intermediate Periods as well. In the first case, the petty potentates that flowered over Egypt were eventually plucked by the kings of the Eleventh Dynasty, and in the second, the Hyksos were booted out by Ahmose I, who founded the triumphant Eighteenth Dynasty. These times showed that it could take a while, but the goddess would always have her due.
Ancient Egyptian judges were tasked with applying the law in line with Ma’at’s teachings. In fact, the chief justice in Egypt was one and the same as the high priest of Ma’at.
The Goddess that Judged the Dead
The Ancient Egyptian conception of the afterlife is the most famous aspect of that civilization and the way in which it most influenced the modern world. One cannot separate its theocracy on the afterlife from that of Christianity and Islam which succeeded it. The dead would have their souls judged. If they passed, they would move on to the afterlife. If they failed, the souls would be devoured.
And how would the souls be judged? The Egyptian god Anubis would weigh the heart of the dead against the feather of Ma’at. If the heart of the dead was in balance with the feather, the soul was pure and could move into the paradise of Osiris’ kingdom. If not, the soul would be devoured.
In the afterlife as on Earth, the goddess of truth, justice, order, and harmony would have her due. You may think you can use your wiles to escape her, as certain individuals like Akhenaten did, but she will always get her way somehow.
The 42 Principles of Ma’at
How would the Egyptians ensure that they stayed on the goddess’ good side? There were 42 negative statements which one would declare in Ma’at’s halls when preparing for final judgment:
- I have not committed sin.
- I have not committed robbery with violence.
- I have not stolen.
- I have not slain men and women.
- I have not stolen grain.
- I have not purloined offerings.
- I have not stolen the property of the gods.
- I have not uttered lies.
- I have not carried away food.
- I have not uttered curses.
- I have not committed adultery.
- I have made none to weep.
- I have not eaten the heart [i.e., I have not grieved uselessly, or felt remorse].
- I have not attacked any man.
- I am not a man of deceit.
- I have not stolen cultivated land.
- I have not been an eavesdropper.
- I have slandered no man.
- I have not been angry without just cause.
- I have not debauched the wife of any man.
- I have not debauched the wife of any man (repeats the previous affirmation but addressed to a different god).
- I have not polluted myself.
- I have terrorized none.
- I have not transgressed the Law.
- I have not been wroth.
- I have not shut my ears to the words of truth.
- I have not blasphemed.
- I am not a man of violence.
- I am not a stirrer up of strife (or a disturber of the peace).
- I have not acted (or judged) with undue haste.
- I have not pried into matters.
- I have not multiplied my words in speaking.
- I have wronged none, I have done no evil.
- I have not worked witchcraft against the King (or blasphemed against the King).
- I have never stopped the flow of water.
- I have never raised my voice (spoken arrogantly, or in anger).
- I have not cursed or blasphemed God.
- I have not acted with evil rage.
- I have not stolen the bread of the gods.
- I have not carried away the khenfu cakes from the spirits of the dead.
- I have not snatched away the bread of the child, nor treated with contempt the god of my city.
- I have not slain the cattle belonging to the god.
While repetitive and outmoded in some respects, the basic principles enshrined in this particular chapter of the Egyptian Book of the Dead would have the approval of Cicero himself. They enhance the human condition, rather than weaken it, and they encourage virtue.
Egypt, its institutions, and its civilization lasted for thousands of years, albeit with some interruptions. The adherence of the Egyptians to this goddess must have had a positive effect, bringing the order, harmony, truth, and justice that she represented.
We moderns tend to look down on places and times like Egypt, with its quaint notion of truth and cosmic order, but we should remember how much longer the Egyptians lasted. As we see our own order and harmony fray, and truth itself (or at least as close as we can get to it) come under assault through greed, hubris, and the lust for power, we should remember that Ma’at is still watching, ready to reverse the fortunes of those in disrepute, who act unwisely, or who would unshackle entropy for their own ends.
Anyone who seeks to do well in the world should mind the presence of the goddess of truth, harmony, and cosmic order in Egypt, who will always put the universe back in its proper balance.
Ma’at is a central concept in Lives of the Luminaries, unifying the 5,000 years’ worth lessons on character and conduct that it provides. Click the link to take a look at it.
You can also read Stumped to learn about the psychology (and warnings) of power.
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