(Maat, Ma’at, Maât; note that there are two vowel sounds in the name) The personification of the multivalent Egyptian concept of ma’et, that is, justice, truth and order, Ma’et is depicted as as a woman wearing a tall ostrich feather (or sometimes two) on her head, frequently with wings extending along her arms and usually carrying the ankh, sign of life.
Ma’et expresses a broad range of concepts: justice in an ethical, social or legal sense, but also the balance and harmony of natural systems or of anything well-crafted; thus what is ma’et is both beautiful and right. Ma’et is also truth in a sense encompassing both the real or actual and the ideal or what should be. Hence the common phrase ma’e hru, ‘true of voice’ or ‘justified’, is appended to the names of deceased persons to express their transposition to a perfected state of existence. In temple images, the pharaoh is frequently depicted offering a tiny seated figure of Ma’et to the Gods in exactly the same gesture with which he offers food or any other item, for the Gods are said to live on ma’et. The royal presentation of Ma’et can be thought of as encompassing all other offerings, as an expression of the king’s legitimacy and his intention to be a just ruler, for just governance places human society in its correct relationship to the Gods and the natural world. The ‘Instruction of Kagemni’ urges one to “do ma’et for the king, for ma’et is what the king loves.” Viziers wore a Ma’et pendant, and priests of Ma’et seem to have been involved in the judicial workings of the government. Ma’et is literally the basis on which the Gods stand, insofar as statues of the Gods stand upon a plinth which has the shape of the hieroglyph that forms the sound ma’e.
As a Goddess, Ma’et is especially closely associated with Re, for as the demiurge of the cosmos it is Re who primarily establishes ma’et for all things. Thus Ma’et is said to “stand behind Re,” (PT utterance 586) or to be the ‘daughter of Re’, not in a mythical sense, but in the sense that the state of ma’et is that of being in harmony with the order of the cosmos, and is thus the ultimate result of the efforts of the demiurge, the inherent goodness of the Gods being manifested in the goodness of the cosmic order. In CT spell 80, Ma’et is said to be the daughter of Atum in a manner which seems again to be more conceptual than mythical, for she is said to be the air and food of her father and seems to be parallel with, rather than added to, his children Shu and Tefnut. It is often said that ma’et is the food upon which the Gods live. Hence in BD spell 65, a spell for “going forth by day and overcoming the enemy,” the deceased says to the Gods, “if thou dost not let me go forth against that enemy of mine and triumph over him in the Council of the great God in the presence of the great Ennead, then Hapy [God of the Nile’s annual flood] shall ascend to the sky to live on ma’et, and verily Re shall descend into the water to live on fish.” The state of injustice and disorder which would exist if the deceased were not allowed to prevail over his/her enemy is here symbolized by the inversion of the natural order, but there is more than a simple inversion here, since fish are associated with the corpse (the Egyptian word for corpse, khat, incorporates an Oxyrhynchus fish) and with those helpless ones among the deceased whose fate is to be trapped in the nets of the netherworld fishermen (as in CT spells 473-481). Injustice for the deceased, therefore, would literally mean that the Gods, rather than ‘living on’ justice, ‘live on’ the helplessness of mortal souls, which is what the spell affirms is not the case.
For reasons which are not evident, Egyptian religious texts frequently refer to ‘the Two Ma’ety.’ Thus in PT utterance 260, the king affirms that “the Two Truths have commanded that the thrones of Geb shall revert to me,” and the famous scene of the ‘weighing of the heart’, that is, the judgment of the deceased in BD spell 125, takes place in the ‘Hall of the Two Truths,’ or Ma’ety, and Ma’et actually appears doubled in illustrations of this chapter. Depictions in which Ma’et wears two feathers rather than her usual one may also illustrate this idea. In the pivotal scene where the heart of the deceased is weighed against ma’et the Goddess is singular, squatting in one pan of the scale while the heart rests in the other.
The image of weighing implies that there should be a substantive difference between exceeding ma’et and falling short of it, being over- and under-weight, so to speak, but we know of no such distinction. Nor are the long series of affirmations and denials presented in BD spell 125 to be regarded as a moral code, but rather as an extended formula for purifying the heart; hence the introduction to the spell states that its purpose is “cutting N. off from all the forbidden things he has done, and seeing the faces of all the Gods.” A better indication of what it means to be in the state of ma’et is to be found in the genre of didactic or ‘wisdom’ literature, the various ‘instruction’ texts bearing the names of legendary sages such as Ptahhotep, Amenemope or Ankhsheshonq. Another important source of information about the idea of ma’et is autobiographical funerary inscriptions. In these autobiographies, it is conventional for the deceased to affirm that he has done and spoken ma’et, and then to specify what the doing and speaking of ma’et is, for instance (all from Lichtheim 1992): “I never did what was hurtful to people, I never let a man spend the night angry with me about something,” (9); “I used to tell the king what serves people, I never told an evil thing against people to the majesty of my lord,” (10); “I have made this tomb from my rightful means, and never took the property of anyone. All persons who worked at it for me, they worked praising God for me greatly for it. I never did anything by force against anyone. As the God loves a true thing, I am one honored by the king,” (10-11); “I judged two parties so as to content them, I saved the weak from one stronger than he as best I could,” (14); “Having done what people love and Gods praise … I answered evil with good … in order to endure on earth and attain reveredness,” (21); “I am one who spoke the good, repeated the good, and settled matters for the best. I am the beloved of his father, the praised of his mother, loved by his siblings, kind to his kindred,” (22). To do ma’et meant specific things in specific professions; thus a physician affirms “I have done rightness in my conduct, when I probed the heart and assessed a payer according to his wealth” (30-31), while a fighter states that he has done ma’et by having “rescued the weak from the strong … I marshaled the town’s young men in order to increase its forces … I saved my town on the day of plunder … I was its wall on the day of its combat,” (27-28). In a conventional formula, the deceased affirms “I have given bread to the hungry, clothes to the naked,” but also, more metaphorically, “I landed one who was stranded … I made a boat for the boatless,” to which should be compared this appeal to the netherworld ferryman in PT utterance 517: “O you who ferry over the righteous boatless as the ferryman of the Field of Reeds, I am deemed righteous in the sky and on earth, I am deemed righteous in this Island of Earth to which I have swum and arrived, which is between the thighs of Nut.” It is sometimes explained that one does the right thing “so as to raise up Ma’et to the great God, the lord of sky,” (20). Through ethical conduct and the fulfillment of their potential, mortals play a cosmogonic role; thus in PT utterance 249, the deceased king, in the form of Nefertum, “the lotus-bloom which is at the nose of Re,” proclaims “I have come into the Island of Fire,” the place where light is born and reborn in the cosmos and from which the divine flame projects, “I have set Right [ma’et] in it in the place of Wrong.”
Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]
Faulkner, R. O. 1969. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [PT]
Faulkner, R. O. 1973-8. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd. [CT]
Lichtheim, Miriam. 1992. Maat in Egyptian Autobiographies and Related Studies. Fribourg: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Göttingen.