Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ma’at: That which is Straight

I wrote this for V. Walter Odajnyk's course on Egyptian Mythology during my third year at Pacifica's Mythological Studies program. I loved Walter's classes and was terribly, terribly sad to hear of his passing.

For this class on two occasions, Walter passed around a bowl full of folded slips of paper to determine which Egyptian deity we would present about (and then of course, write a short paper). Less creative than my classmates, I opted for PowerPoint presentations. No masks or costumes for me, though I did find a pattern and made a nemyss; I just never wore it during the presentations (I chickened out). The image below is from the
I drew Ma'at, the goddess with the single feather headband (in the first draw, I got Anubis). The fact that I'm an adjunct professor in an Administration of Justice department is just a cosmic coincidence, I'm sure.

Ma’at: That which is Straight

            The Egyptian word ma’at encompasses two ideas: the abstract concept of truth and correctness (maat) and the Goddess who personifies truth and order (Ma’at).  The concept of maat can be seen as balance, close to the Hindu concept of dharma.  On the balance idea of maat, historians Faraone and Teeter observe “Maat, in short, represents an elaborate and interconnected sense of truth and cosmic order in all aspects of life and cult. Each individual was responsible for maintaining maat through correct action and truthful speech” (187).
            “In Egyptian art Ma’at is portrayed in human form wearing a headdress with an ostrich feather attached to it” (Mercatante and Bianchi 90). In other depictions she is shown holding the feather in her hand, while in others, she is shown headless with the feather taking the place of her head.  In tomb depictions of the ‘weighing of the heart ceremony’ Ma’at is shown presiding over the procedure and it is just her feather in one side of the pan balance that is used to judge the newly-deceased’s heart. (Mercatante and Bianchi 90). Variant spellings of her name are Maa, Maet, Maht, and Maut (Mercatante and Bianchi 90).
            The goddess Ma’at was of immense importance to the Egyptian’s understanding of the universal order, most prominently exemplified by the course of the sun, Re throughout his daily journey. She is seen several times in Amduat panels decorating pharaoh’s tombs, showing the cyclical passage of the sun, Re, through the underworld during the course of the evening.  She is shown doubly in the first hour of the sun’s underworld journey, signifying totality and “guiding him on the way of darkness” (Abt and Hornung 25).  Ma’at is also seen in the second hour, the region of the netherworld, and her presence there guarantees order and balance in the beyond (Abt and Hornung 38, 40).  In the fourth hour, Ma’at is present as a reminder that “Whoever knows it (maat) is one with right paths” (Abt and Hornung 58-59).
            For students of myth or classical studies, the dual idea of an anthropomorphized Goddess and an abstract concept will be familiar in Hesiod’s story of Métis, the Greek goddess of truth. The comparison between Métis and Ma’at go further, and connects on so many levels that it seems certain that Ma’at is the prototype for Métis.  Egyptologists Faraone and Teeter have highlighted the similarities between the goddesses to show the connection, shown in the table below:

Table 1

Similarities in the Ma’at and Métis mythology cycles
·      Both Ma’at and Métis are goddesses of truth, righteousness, and order.
·      Both maat and métis are abstract concepts of truth, balance, rightness, and order.
·      Both Ma’at and Métis are closely connected to kingship, in the case of Ma’at, to the pharoahship itself and in the case of Métis, to the kingship of the gods, particularly to Zeus.
·      Both Ma’at and Métis are ‘eaten’ or ingested: Métis is engulfed by Zeus and Ma’at is offered in miniature as ‘food’ to the gods and to the king.
Source: Faraone, Christopher A. and Teeter, Emily. “Egyptian Maat and Hesiodic Métis”.
Mnemosyne. Vol. 57, p.177-208, 2004.

            An additional similarity reported by Faraone and Teeter is of the goddess’ names and it has been suggested in the past that an etymological link must exist. However, recent work in Egyptian phonetics “has shown that the Egyptian word maat was probably pronounced something like ma’art, a pronunciation that weakens the argument of phonetic similarity” (193).  Regardless of the phonetic difficulties, the story similarities are strong evidence of Egyptian influence on the Greek myth as Hesiod recounts it.
            It is difficult to express precisely the meaning of maat and the importance of Ma’at to Egyptian life, because the Egyptian language is one of ambiguity and nuance, with words often holding dual (or more) meanings.  For the ancient Egyptians, context is everything:

"Ma’at was more than just a goddess – she was the embodiment of an important concept for the Egyptians. The literal English translation of this concept would be “straight,” but depending on the context, it can mean right, true, truth, real, genuine, righteous, steadfast, and unalterable; there is no single word in English that embraces all the meanings of this term" (Mercatante and Bianchi 89).

     The idea of maat and the anthropomorphic embodiment of the concept are most important to the day-to-day existence of Egyptians in the running of the state, particularly in the person of the king. Ma’at is so closely associated with kingship that she is part of the Pharaoh’s coronation names: Hatshepsut was named Maat-ka-Re, “The Spirit of Re is Ma’at”, Amunhotep III was named Neb-Maat-Re, “Re is the Possessor of Ma’at”, and Ramses II & Ramses III were both named Wser-Maat-Re, “Powerful are Ma’at and Re” (Faraone and Teeter 186-191).
          Non-royal, or average Egyptians, were also expected to “be in Ma’at” or “be right in Ma’at” in the conductance of their daily lives.  A section of the Instruction of Ptahhotep deals with this theme, and this invocation takes on the format of the negative confessions of Ma’at’s forty-two assessors encountered in the afterlife.  While these statements are in the form of the negative confessions (“I have not…”) they can also be seen, and most likely were intended, as a prescription for righteous living:

                        I have come to you, my arms full of maat,
                        and no contrariness in my body.
                        I have not knowingly told a lie,
                        I have not coveted the belongings of another.
                        I have done maat for the lord of maat
                        and have calmed the Light-eye for its lord.
                        I have given divine offerings to the Ennead
                        and mortuary offerings to the ancestral spirits.
                        Open up for me, that I may enter into your midst,
                        I am one of you! 
                                                            (quoted in Assmann Death 60).

But as Jan Assmann points out in another work, “’Doing and saying ma’at’ did not bring men any nearer to god. Only in the Judgment of the Dead did the heart of the just prove worthy (or not) of swelling the ranks of those who would have congress with the gods in the afterlife. (Assmann Mind 239). Assmann’s writings on ancient Egypt also contain, unusually, comparisons with today’s society:

"Maat designates the idea of a meaningful, all-pervasive order that embraces the world of humankind, objects, and nature – in short, the meaning of creation, the form in which it was intended by the creator god. The present condition of the world no longer corresponds to this meaning. The difference manifests itself in the phenomenon of Isfet, “lack.”  Sickness, death, scarcity, injustice, falsehood, theft, violence, war, enmity – all these are manifestations of lack in a world that has fallen into disorder through loss of its original plenitude of meaning. The meaning of creation lies in its plenitude, which yields order and justice. Where all are cared for, no one is oppressed, no one commits deeds of violence against others, no one need suffer. Suffering, scarcity, injustice, crime, rebellion, war, and so forth, had no meaning for the Egyptians. They were symptoms of an emptying or estrangement of meaning from the world, which had distanced itself from its origin in the course of history" (Search 3).

Assmann’s commentary describes a culture that has fallen out of its myth and distanced itself from “that which is straight”, a very apt description of the “problem” as it has been formulated and discussed in many of my classes at Pacifica. For Assmann, the problem is formulated by asking the question, “How do re-establish ma’at in a world that is full of isfet?” 

Works Cited 

Abt, Theodor and Erik Hornung. Knowledge for the Afterlife: The Egyptian Amduat – A Quest for Immortality. Zurich: Living Human Heritage Publications, 2003.

Assmann, Jan. Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Trans. David Lorton. Ithaca and London: Cornell U. P., 2005.

--- The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs. Trans. Andrew Jenkins. Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 2003.

--- The Search for God in Ancient Egypt. Trans. David Lorton. Ithaca and London: Cornell U. P., 2001.

Faraone, Christopher A. and Teeter, Emily. “Egyptian Maat and Hesiodic Métis”. Mnemosyne. Vol. 57, p.177-208, 2004.

Mercatante, Anthony and Steven Bianchi. Who’s Who in Egyptian Mythology. NY: Barnes & Noble Publishing, 1998.

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