An Introduction to Ma’at
“Maat” has two meanings in the ancient Egyptian language. Maat is first the goddess of justice and truth, who gave meaning to the world and bestowed order upon the chaos of creation in the First Times. She governs the movement of the stars, the rising and setting of the sun, the inundation and retreat of the Nile, and the laws underlying all of nature. In the Judgement Hall of the Tuat the heart of the deceased is weighed against Maat’s feather, which represents truth. If the heart is found to be free from the weight of sin, the deceased joins the company of the gods; otherwise, the soul is devoured and destroyed. Thus Maat is the standard by which we are measured.
From this role in the Judgement Hall arose the interpretation of “maat” as a systemized spiritual ideal. The order she represents was apparent everywhere in the world around her faithful worshipers. It was observed in the orderly motion and interaction of the heavenly bodies and reflected in the natural laws at work on the earth. It was deemed necessary to act in accordance with universal law and to understand one’s place in the natural order to ensure the soul’s position among the stars above.
Maat is the underlying current that connects all things in an intricately woven network. Each nexus is the balance of the lines of force that pass through it. It was considered essential to live according to the principles of balance and justice so as not to disturb the very fabric of creation. The ultimate will of the gods is that order is to prevail.
Each pharaoh on his or her coronation day would proclaim that maat was restored by this ascension to the throne. The priests of every temple in Egypt would offer a representation of Maat to the presiding god in the temple’s shrine each evening, to symbolize their conviction that the day’s work of worship and guidance was in accord with the universal order. Maat is the reason that things are, and the means by which they continue to exist. It is the voice of divine imperative that at once reigns over this world and promises just reward in the next.
We hear echoes of this voice resounding through the philosophical and metaphysical constructs of all times and nations; the Christian prayer “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, the Muslim concept of “shari’a” or submission to the will of Allah, the familiar edict of Western occultism “as above, so below”, and scores of other observations on the interaction of the divine and the earthly. What is most striking about the systemization of maat is that it found root in such ancient soil. The Egyptian culture was epochs ahead of its contemporaries, and its wisdom embodied concepts that the rest of the world would have to wait centuries to cultivate.
It is clear from archaeological evidence that the goddess Maat was worshiped in Egypt from the earliest dynasties to well beyond the Greek and Roman invasions. It is clear from the depth and sophistication of the Egyptian culture, and the richness of the dreams that it inspires in us, that the philosophical maat persisted and flourished as well.
Ma’at as a Metaphysical System
After a few years of study, one may begin to discern patterns running through the rich tapestry of mankind’s collective metaphysical speculation. The continuum of ideas that presents itself reflects our attempt to make some sort of sense of the fact that we are able to conceive of a highly developed preternatural all around us, even while we dwell in a world that is primarily material.
Metaphysics is a construct assembled over the centuries by masters of the ancient art of holography. Its collective hologram is universally recognized and clearly visible to all peoples of the world. All cultures seem to agree on its most notable characteristics: the origin of Universe is chaos, shaped in the beginning by alien and orderly hands into a world; the world is peopled by mortal beings; these beings are involved in a constant struggle between morality and banality. Cultures are defined by their own opinions of who or what those hands of creation were, why they created the world, and what the fate of the mortal beings (humans) can, should, or will be. This hologram is evident in all world religions, including science, and could very well be the framework upon which systems such as dreams, theology, personality, and so-called racial memory are based.
The essential and exclusively human struggle between morality and banality is probably the easiest facet of the metaphysical hologram to approach. Much research has been devoted to proving this struggle to be at the heart of the phantasms of good and evil with whom we populate our mythologies, personal and cultural. We know no world other than our own, no selves outside ourselves, and therefore are incapable of maintaining a worldview that does not reflect the struggle that defines us. In this we are the quintessential solipsists.
So it seems that the concept of morality, the single most important distinguishing characteristic of humanity, lies at the heart of personal and cultural identity. We have built grand systems to define morality and govern ourselves in its name. The peoples of the Orient developed dharma and karma to cope with the dilemma of morality; the Hebrew race, the Torah and the Kabala; the Christians, a system of salvation and damnation governed by the Church. For the ancient Egyptian, however, there was simply Ma’at.
In the earliest times Ma’at, like all other extra-human conceptualizations, took the form of a divine incarnation. Until their collective culture could reach the level of sophistication capable of mathematically pursuing abstractions, it was necessary to manipulate moral and preternatural concepts through personification and storytelling. Thus the gods began as the divine action figures of Egypt’s cultural childhood, only later becoming capable of bearing the weight both of worship and metaphysical experimentation. The pantheon of Egypt was especially useful as a vocabulary for algebraic speculation on the physics of Universe, as it formed a sacred language that escaped being dulled by daily usage.
Ma’at herself, most often depicted as a woman bearing the Feather of Truth and sometimes blindfolded, was universally worshiped and accepted by the people of Egypt, no matter what religious and political fad was about at the time. Whilst other gods and goddesses enjoyed increased favor only when certain Pharaonic lines or powerful temples were in power, Ma’at was always recognized as one of the great and true powers of nature.
This is in part due to the fact that Ma’at was easily worshiped as a goddess but even more easily understandable as the underlying truth that made existence worthwhile. The truth of Ma’at attained a level of saturation within the Egyptian psyche that only increased as the culture matured, permeating all personal and cultural strata.
Whereas the Qabala remained a closely guarded secret passed only from father to son, and even the complete scriptural tenets of the Christian Bible were carefully meted out by the Church in the days before the printing press, Ma’at was an open spiritual dialogue that was rooted in the very core of Egyptian society. It touched every aspect of life and civilization, including law, the family, the caste system, the work ethic, the political sphere, commerce, and of course the metaphysical and existential makeup of the people.
Its universal scope and the ease with which its tenets could be applied to life and living distinguish the concept of Ma’at from its brethren schools of morality in other times and places. There is no evidence extant of mystery cults or tight-lipped priesthoods to guard Ma’at from the eyes of the profane. Indeed, it was to a large extent so universally accepted that it was nearly taken for granted as the essential justification for all models of behaviour.
As such, it can be difficult from our chronologically removed perspective to assemble a clear impression of what Ma’at really entails. It is my sincere desire to illuminate both you and myself through this work in progress, and to share with others my conviction that the ancient concept of Ma’at, and the perfect structures which crystallize around its framework, can provide a level of metaphysical inspiration unrivaled by the Qabala or any other school of mysticism.
The Heart and the Feather
By a religious man or woman, sin would be defined as any act which is hateful in the eyes of his or her gods. But who can pretend to understand the workings of the divine mind? It would seem that we are required to live in strict accord with rules that are never explained to us.
This paradox is one that we have been wrestling with for aeons. In the end, though we in turn seek the wisdom of the old, the young, the sacred, and the profane, we finally come to rely on that inscrutable and unquestionable measure of good and evil, our conscience.
In the Halls of Judgement, deep within the many-gated Tuat, or underworld, we find ourselves standing before the throne of Asar, judge of the dead. We see ibis-headed Djewhty, bearing the Book of Life in his hands and waiting to make the final entry under our name. Anpu is there to oversee the weighing of our heart against the feather of Maat, as the fierce Amemet looks on, ready to devour our soul should it prove to be burdened by sin.
With a clear voice and clear conscience, incapable of untruth in so holy a place, we recite the so-called Negative Confessions:
“I have committed no evil against mankind.
I have caused no misery to those around me.
I have committed no wrongs against the Throne of Truth.
I have befriended no evil men.
I have committed no evil deeds.
I have demanded no undo praise for my name.
I have deprived no humble man of his property.
I have done nothing that is hateful in the eyes of the gods.
I have inflicted no pain.
I have made no one hungry by means of my greed.
I have made no one weep with sorrow.
I have committed no murder.
I have driven no man to murder another.
I have inflicted no suffering.
I have stolen no offerings from the altars of the gods.
I have committed no unclean acts in the sanctuaries of the gods.
I have taken no milk from the mouths of children.
I have driven no man’s cattle from his land.
I have caught no fish with bait of their bodies.
I have held back no water in its season.
I have extinguished no fire in its season.
I have turned away from no god in fear or shame.
I am pure.”
But are we in fact so pure? Could we say in honesty that we have never caused another sorrow or pain? That we were always humble and meek? That our every deed was worthy in the eyes of the gods?
Certainly not. Humans are not, by definition, perfect creatures. What then makes the scales show our heart to be free of the burden of sin? Rather, what is the burden of sin? Guilt.
If we have committed a wrong, but knew not at the time the consequences, we have no doubt come to remember the event as an unfortunate mistake. If we have done what we thought best, and caused another grief in the process, we think of this as having done what was necessary. We judge ourselves in our hearts every day, and we know the depths of our own souls. No man may judge another, and it seems that no god can judge us, either: for in the weighing of the heart, the verdict only shows our own opinion of the sum of our lives.
The Negative Confessions
Adapted for the modern practitioner from the Papyrus of Ani.
I have not turned the earth without cause.
I have not taken milk from the mouths of children.
I have not made anyone hungry by means of my greed.
I have not deprived a humble man of his property.
I have not exploited the weakness of any man.
I am pure.
I have not disturbed the air without cause.
I have not befriended evil men.
I have not demanded undo praise for my name.
I have not destroyed any just man’s work.
I have not driven any man to act against another.
I am pure.
I have not extinguished the fire in its season.
I have not done anything that is hateful in the eyes of the gods.
I have not stolen offerings from the altars of the gods.
I have not committed unclean acts in the sanctuaries of the gods.
I have not turned away from any god in fear or shame.
I am pure.
I have not held back the water in its season.
I have not caused misery to those around me.
I have not inflicted suffering or pain.
I have not made anyone weep with sorrow.
I have not committed evil against mankind.
I am pure.