An Exploration of Ma’at Through Ancient Egyptian Literature
Ma'at in Literature
Known as a concept encompassing the qualities of order, balance and justice and as an anthropomorphic goddess, Ma’at embodies a duality typifying ancient Egypt. As found in the literature of the periods, Ma’at underwent changes from the Old Kingdom through to the Middle Kingdom. In the text “The Maxims of Ptah-hotep” we see Ma’at as a concept which if followed and practised will allow for the material success of the individual. This philosophy changes in the First Intermediate Period to concentrate more on how to deal effectively with Ma’at in obtaining a desired after-life in “The Teaching for King Merikare”. Through “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant” we observe a text devoted more to the practising of a social Ma’at where equality and concern for others is a priority.
The priority of “The Maxims of Ptah-hotep” rests in its “conformance to the principles of Ma’at … that brings the desired rewards of property and position” (Wilson 93). Through this text we are shown, in essence, the Egyptian version of what would later be reflected in the Hebrews’ Book of Proverbs’ and ‘Ten Commandments’. Optimism is prevalent which echoes the Old Kingdom attitude that “if one behaves in the right and proper fashion, all will be well” (Ptah-hotep 129). Early in the text the writer states “Great is Ma’at, and its foundation is firmly established” (l. 6,5) which informs us that even in the Old Kingdom the concept of Ma’at was old enough to have established itself in the minds of the Egyptians. The typical optimism of the era is clearly seen in “…in the long run it is Ma’at which endures” (l. 6,7). The writer then launches into a proverb-like dissertation on the benefits of doing what is honest and just, and how Ma’at will benefit not only the reader, but his children as well – “Strengthen Ma’at, and your children will live” (l. 18,1). The writer ends with himself as an example of the advantage found in following Ma’at. He claims to have “enjoyed one hundred and ten years of life” as well as receiving “honours surpassing those of my predecessors … because of my doing Ma’at for the King” (l. 19,6-8). Throughout, the writer strives to stress the importance of Ma’at and its qualities of order and balance, and paints a picture of ideal behaviour to be emulated in the Old Kingdom. Ma’at would continue to endure into, and through, the difficulties of the First Intermediate period, although emphasis would be placed more on the ruler’s responsibilities, as found in the text “The Teaching for King Merikare”.
“The Teaching for King Merikare” is similar in tone to Ptah-hotep’s text, but the optimism of the Old Kingdom is not present. The text reflects the instability of the period giving “a portrait of a monarch who is trying to maintain order and who realises the need for caution and diplomacy” (Merikare 152). According to Wilson “the new emphasis on character shifted the focus from goods to good” (Wilson 119). Merikare was advised that one who is known as a wise man will be free of evil and thus “Ma’at comes to him refined” (l. 30-35). The author includes specific references to Ma’at in accordance with death. Between lines forty and forty-five the writer states that no man will live forever, but the one who practices Ma’at will “depart”, as opposed to one whose life was “pleasure filled … [who] will die”. The subject of the instruction is further advised to “embellish … [his] necropolis/ With uprightness, and with the observance of Ma’at (l. 125-130) as contrasted in times past when rulers “had tried to purchase their immortality by huge tombs and elaborate endowments for perpetual offerings” (Wilson 119). The materialism of the past was not able to “enrich your mansion of the West” (l. 125-130). Like the Ptah-hotep text, observing Ma’at was the secret to a long life, and that “Speak[ing] Ma’at within your palace” (l.45) would gain you respect.
The Eloquent Peasant
This respect, gained through following Ma’at of the First Intermediate Period would expand to include the average Egyptian in the Middle Kingdom. In “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant” we are presented with the idea of something which borders on democracy, or as Wilson coined it a “social equalitarianism” where “Ma’at reached down to embrace the lowliest Egyptian and that he had a right to insist upon such a democratic coverage from his rulers” (Wilson 123).
“The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant” represents this ideal, and puts new emphasis on Ma’at as “a positive search for new good” (Wilson 120). In the story the peasant “argues … Ma’at belongs to eternity” (Wilson 122). The usual concept of unchanging order found through Ma’at changed into a “positive face of social justice” (Wilson 122). Ma’at became not just the domain and responsibility of the ruler, but was a viable concept for all. This is demonstrated in the eventual results of the peasant’s appeals – he receives that which was taken from him and more. The story was a popular one throughout the Middle Kingdom, yet “as ideas about social justice changed” the story of the peasant would lose its popularity (Wilson 122). The rendering of Ma’at in this text impresses the reader with the idea that Ma’at was a concept of “order and righteousness .. [or] … practical justice” (Peasant 25), yet what of the goddess Ma’at? And what came first? The goddess or the concept?
Chicken or the Egg?
Because of the nature of “the mythopoeic mind the existence of universal order would have naturally implied the existence of the personal goddess” (Tobin, Theological Principles 84). Ma’at was closely connected with Shu as an air goddess, and thus connected with creation, yet her importance came though “as a principle of order which contributed to its significance in the Egyptian theological system” (Principles 83). Because Ma’at the goddess seemed “somewhat colourless and two-dimensional” (Principles 83), it seems as if the abstract concept may have been developed first. Yet it is doubtful whether the Egyptians were capable of creating “an abstract principle and then personifying it at a later stage of development” (Principles 83). Therefore we are left with the idea that the two natures of Ma’at were somehow inseparable, as any attempt to separate them would oppose “the function of myth and its symbolism” ( 85).
The concept of Ma’at enveloped all aspects of Egyptian life, from the Nile’s regular inundation to one’s behaviour toward one’s neighbour. Modern man’s inability to comprehend or define this term in one word resides in the “incompatibility of ancient and modern conceptions” (Frankfort 63). Maybe this incompatibility comes directly as a result of our modern tendency to forget the natural order of our universe. Our technical minds have lost the power to envision the life inherent in a term such as Ma’at. We tend to see facts and figures of our sheltered lives, and ignore the larger picture of the cosmos which, despite all our attempts to explain in a scientific vein, keeps marching forward creating and un-creating. Perhaps Ptah-hotep explains it best when he writes that Ma’at “is as a path even in front of him who knows nothing”.
Frankfort, Henri. Ancient Egyptian Religion. New York: Harper and Row, 1961
Simpson, William Kelly, ed. The Literature of Ancient Egypt. New Haven:
Yale University Press, 2003.
Tobin, Vincent A. “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant.” Simpson 25-44.
Tobin, Vincent A. “The Maxims of Ptah-hotep.” Simpson 129-148.
Tobin, Vincent A. “The Teaching of Merikare.” Simpson 152-171.
Tobin, Vincent Arieh. Theological Principles of Egyptian Religion. New York:
Peter Lang, 1989.
Wilson, John A. The Burden of Egypt. Chicago: The University of Chicago
- ANCIENT EGYPT : The Instruction of Khety to Merikare
The Instruction of Khety to Merikare - Papyrus St.-Petersburg - the speculum regnum
- ANCIENT EGYPT : The Wisdom of Ptahhotep : Plain Text of the Maxims of Good Discourse
The Wisdom Sayings of PTAHHOTEP - Papyrus Prisse & variants - the art of listening & good discourse - the tongue of the scales & the state of veneration
- ANCIENT EGYPT : The Wisdom of Ptahhotep : Plain Text of the Maxims of Good Discourse
Further information on Ptah-hotep
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