Living in Maat - the Natural Order
Ancient Egyptians observed early on that natural phenomena repeated itself in cycles. Maat was the name given to this concept of natural immutable laws, similar to the Greek concept of Logos. The annual flooding of the Nile was a recurrent event critical for the well being of the nation. Nobody knew the cause then, but the Nile always replenished the soil with nutrients year after year, fertilizing it for the next crop. Egyptians believed that without Maat there would be only primal chaos, ending the world.
The principal role of the Pharaoh was to preserve Maat, in other words, his rules and actions were to be subjected only to Maat. He had to exercise sekhem, or authority to ascertain that this natural order never be broken, and it would be a great misdeed if he himself as ruler stepped outside of these bounds. In this sense, Maat also became a divine personification of Truth and Justice, a moral standard by which every Egyptian could distinguish right from wrong. The pharaoh had also to perform heka, meaning the daily prayers and rituals necessary so that his will remains in the rightful state to preserve Maat.
Many pharaohs from the 18th and 19th dynasties had Maat in their prenomen:
Hatshepsut (Maat-Ka-Re) 1473 -
As a deity, Maat was personified as a goddess, most often in a seated posture with one raised knee, holding a scepter in one hand and an ankh in the other. An ostrich feather crowns her head. Sometimes she has wings on each arm. Later on she was paired with Thoth as her male counterpart, guiding the Boat of Re on either side.
As a concept of truth and order, Maat is a special kind of divinity in the Egyptian pantheon, not worshipped in the same religious fashion as the deities of Egypt. Only one small temple at Karnak, now in ruins, exists dedicated solely to her.
Living in Maat also meant that the deeds you perform in this life would be amply rewarded in the Land of Osiris. The salvation of the deceased depended on his heart weighing exactly like the feather of the Goddess Maat in the Balance of Truth at the Hall of Maat.
When he states before the gods that during the course of his life he has done no wrong to his fellow men and helped those more unfortunate, the deceased is declared maa kheru, "true of voice".
Replica Painting by Ben Morales-Correa
Maat is central to ancient Egyptian religion, one of the most fascinating topics of discussions for egyptologists today, a subject of continuous research and new interpretations. Did ancient Egyptians believe in many separate deities or only One with multiple manifestations, capable of assuming masculine, feminine and animal roles?
In those days, every culture had their particular divinities. The first thing a respectful traveler would to was to go to the temple of the local god and pay his respects. Mika Waltari, in his wonderful novel Sinuhe The Egyptian mentions that it was the custom for one king to call upon another king with whom he was in peace to pay a tribute in gold. The precious metal was used to erect an image of his brother king's god. Both nations would thus benefit, one with gold and the other with an image of his authority in his ally's land.
It times of war, however, it was "my God against your God". That is how victorious Amen-Re, Lord of Thebes, became the most powerful god of his time. His temple at Karnak was so large that the entire St.Peter' Basilica and the Church of Notre Dame fit in. But even Amen-Re's authority was once challenged, by his High Priest no less. The son of Amenhotep III, who's name means Amen is in Peace, changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten and established the worship of One God with only One manifestation, the Solar Disk Aten. It was a time of upheaval that is masterfully recreated in Waltari's novel.
Today, of course, Egyptians, whether Islamic or Christian, worship only one God and, although the ancient gods and goddesses are no longer worshipped, there is Maat bringing truth, justice and joy to the Black Land.
Category: Ancient Egypt