In Ancient Egyptian Religion, ma’at is the opposite of isfet (chaos), and is various translated as encompassing order, justice, truth and “that which is right”. Ma’at is also personified in the form of the goddess Ma’at, a daughter of Ra.
As a Concept
Ma’at was both an unchangeable, fixed part of the created universe, and a fragile element that must be constantly preserved and strengthened constantly by the efforts of the Pharaoh. The first reflects the divine cosmic order placed upon the cosmos by its creator, Ra–Atum. As such she is the guiding principle and underlying order of the cosmos.
The second is the maintenance of this order. As religion and society are one in Egyptian philosophy to separate this into “earthly” and “ritual” realms is incorrect, for there is no such distinction. The Pharaoh was responsible for maintaining ma’at both through the presentation of Ma’at before the gods in the temple, by ensuring correct ritual practices were observed, the gods honored and temple estates maintained. He also maintained ma’at by ensuring justice, both legally and socially (the former though the judiciary, whose members bore the title “Priest of Ma’at” and possibly wore a small image of the goddess in gold) and ensuring that general law and order was maintained, and Egypt’s enemies subdued. Symbolic and literal representations of these acts and their recounting in literature dominate many Egyptian temples
How central these concepts, and these actions by the Pharaoh were to Egyptian culture are hard to overemphasize. The idea of order (ma’at) being threatened by chaos (isfet) is a recurrent fear in Egyptian literature and mythology.
As a Goddess
Ma’at is often portrayed as an anthropomorphic female with a white feather tucked into a headband. Occasionally she is depicted with outstretched wings under her arms. The feather itself could also represent her, as well as the concept.
Several small temples and chapels dedicated solely to Ma’at exist, including in the Prescient of Montu at Karnak, and a Ptolemaic era chapel at Dier El Medina, though most commonly she is depicted in the temples of other gods. She did, however, form part of very important ritual events, when the Pharaoh “offered Ma’at”, symbolised a small image, to some of the most prominent gods, such as Ra, Thoth, Amun and Ptah, in keeping with his role of upholding the concept of Ma’at on Earth. However, it is possible that all offered to the gods were in some way associated with her.
- Faulkner, R O (1969), The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Oxford University Press, Oxford
- Tydesley, J (2000), Judgement of the Pharaoh, Phoenix, London
- Wilkinson, R (2000), The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, London
- Wilkinson, R (2003), The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, London