An Exploration of Ma’at Through Ancient Egyptian History
Who and What is Ma'at?
Like Ma’at, Egypt’s history is marked by duality. From the ancient Egyptians’ philosophies to their politics, the theme of duality is played out time after time. Through it they united diverse cultures, and its recognition helped to create a lasting civilization never seen before nor since. Mankind has marvelled at their accomplishments, and wondered at their longevity. In terms of religion this duality was never more so apparent than in Ma’at.
The dual nature of Ma’at is discovered in an abstract idea embracing order, balance and justice; and as an anthropomorphic goddess. While other cultures struggled to explain the concept of Ma’at by using a multitude of terms, the Egyptians used but one, and in so doing “Provided a positive and constructive single principle of order” (Tobin, Theological Principles 78). Through their literature, whether it be religious, instructional or simply an entertaining story, the many faces of Ma’at are revealed. She was much more than a goddess or a concept. She embodied a way of life which remained a cornerstone of Egyptian thought and behaviour. Ma’at was a unifying force, and a legacy of ancient civilisation we would do well to emulate.
A simplified definition of Ma’at included “the unity of all things” which encompassed “cosmic …[and] … political order, … morality,… and even good etiquette…” (Tobin, Theological Principles 77). Through her connections with Tefnut who was the daughter of Atum, we find Ma’at playing a principle role in the Heliopolitan myth. The difficulty in defining Ma’at comes with our modern inability to qualify her in one word. Civilisations within ancient Egypt’s own time could not accomplish a one word description of their neighbour’s unique conception of Ma’at. Not even the Greek concept of dike’ “gained the all-embracing role which Ma’at held in Egyptian thinking” (Tobin 77). Unlike the Egyptian’s optimistic thinking, the Grecian dike’ “was as much of a threat as it was a blessing”, and because of the necessity of incorporating the idea of Ma’at into many words “the Greek mind had eventually to formulate complex philosophical systems” (Tobin 78). Thus her influence extended beyond Egypt’s borders.
This difficulty of definition extended to others parts of the ancient world, due in no small part to “the Egyptians [being in] .. a happy position of geographic isolation” (Wilson 12-13). Where the Mesopotamians, the Syro-Palestinians, or the Anatolians were constantly on guard against foreign attack, it was unlikely “that that threat would penetrate Egypt with damaging force” (Wilson 13). Such security allowed for an optimistic viewpoint to evolve in the Egyptian psyche, and this optimism was the crux of Ma’at formulation and thinking.
As early as the pre-dynastic and Archaic periods we see the Egyptians’ “aims at the ordering of the world” through “human intervention… from the Ostrich Palette to the Hunters’ Palette” (Grimal 36). The Hunters’ Palette depicts hunting expeditions where “men … are shown organised in a military fashion” (Grimal 36). This penchant for order and balance appears well placed prior to the burgeoning of Egyptian civilization. While the fledgling civilization was still forming during the first two or three dynasties there was no “codification of law” (Wilson 49). Rather, laws and organization of society were established through “the word of the pharaoh [and] articulated by him in conformance with the concept of Ma’at” (Wilson 49). Thus, the interpretation of Ma’at was at the pharaoh’s discretion and “in theory … was subject to the control of Ma’at only within the limits of his conscience” (Wilson 50). Despite this initial limitation of the practice and interpretation, the concept would grow and evolve through the many dynasties.
In the Old Kingdom the vizier took on more duties and gained more power. During the fourth and fifth Dynasties the vizier’s role expanded to include the titles “’the greatest of the Five of the House of Thoth’ and ‘priest of Ma’at’” (Grimal 91-92). Out of the chaotic events of the First Intermediate Period, and into the Middle Kingdom the idea that “Ma’at … was the positive force of social justice” (Wilson 122), is observed especially in the story of the Eloquent Peasant. Again, this optimistic trend of Ancient Egypt resurrected after the confusion of the Old Kingdom’s collapse “without surrendering the central dogma of the state [or] that rule belongs to the god-king” and leaving “concepts of social equality and humanitarian justice” (Wilson 124).
Middle Kingdom and Today?
This optimistic rendering of Ma’at continued into the Middle Kingdom where “surviving works … characterized by a certain degree of moderation … appear more human in scale after the grandeur of the pyramids” (Grimal 181) of the Old Kingdom. Concentration upon Ma’at is reflected through the many names adopted by the rulers of the Twelfth Dynasty. Amen-em-het II chose the names ‘He Who Takes pleasure in Justice’ and ‘the Just of Voice’. Senworsret II claimed ‘He who Makes Justice Appear’, where Amen-em-het III called himself ‘Justice Belongs to Re’, and Amen-em-het IV was “Just of Voice is Re’ (Wilson 133). As if to confirm this claim of justice, the Twelfth Dynasty rulers embarked on improving and expanding irrigation techniques where “it has been estimated that these pharaohs added about twenty-seven thousand acres to the arable land” (Wilson 133). Therefore, Ma’at in theory was a benefit to all class of Egyptian, and through this period “a certain air of peacefulness” prevailed with the influence of Ma’at.
Ma’at’s duality and complexity is unique in history. Perhaps real value can still be derived from her, but depends on careful contemplation of her many meanings. For only in true contemplation can we begin to understand or possibly apply her sense of order, justice and balance.
Grimal, Nicholas. A History of Ancient Egypt. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing,2003.
Tobin, Vincent Arieh, “Myth and Politics in the Old Kingdom of Egypt.” Bibliotheca
Orientalis XLIX (September-November 1992) :605-636.
Tobin, Vincent Arieh. Theological Principles of Egyptian Religion. New York: Peter
Wilson, John A. The Burden of Egypt. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951.