Ma’at – the Ancient Egyptian Goddess of Truth, Law & Order

the goddess Ma'at

The goddess Ma’at origin story and significance

The goddess Ma’at was an ancient Egyptian omega-level deity responsible for keeping the universe as we know balanced. She epitomized concepts of divine order, morality, justice and truth. It is believed that she was the force that kept chaos from engulfing the ordered world of the ancient Egyptians. From this perspective, Ma’at can be considered a principle and not necessarily a goddess. This meant that everybody was equal under Ma’at’s laws.

As the daughter of Ra, the sun god, Ma’at’s principles were not to be taken lightly by the living. Flouting those principles meant that one’s soul would not make it into the afterlife (paradise).

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Origin Story and the Meaning of Ma’at

According to ancient Egyptian mythology, the goddess Ma’at (pronounced as “Mayet”) sprung up into existence at the beginning of creation. The ancient Egyptians from the Old Kingdom (c. 2686 – c. 2134 B.C.E) considered her as one of the first daughters of the sun god Ra (Re). The time of her birth coincides with the time that Ra set forth to create the universe.

The myth goes on to say that when Ra (the Supreme Being and creator of the universe) emerged from the primordial waters of Nun (land), Ma’at came along with him. Had Ma’at not emerged in that time, Ra would have been unable to create the universe. This makes her an extremely old and important goddess.

It is also believed that the power of Heka (magic) is what made Ma’at come into being. According to the Egyptians, Ma’at was absolutely crucial in the creation story. Without her none of Ra’s creation would ever have materialized. Her existence allows for divine order, balance and truth across the universe.

To the ancient Egyptians, the meaning of Ma’at connotes “that which is straight”. They believed that without her the stars, ocean tides, seasons and everything that we know of in the vast cosmos would fall into decay and chaos (Isfet). Ma’at was to the ancient Egyptians what gravity is to us modern humans.  That is: space and time would simply collapse without the divine order of Ma’at (and religiously speaking).

Ma’at’s Family Tree

Ma’at is generally considered the daughter of the creator god Ra and the sky goddess Hathor. Being the divine and colossal force that held Ra’s creation together, the ancient Egyptians deemed it fit to pair Ma’at with another very important god – Thoth, the god of knowledge and wisdom. Hence, in most ancient Egyptian mythologies, Thoth was often seen as the consort/husband of Ma’at. Many arts depict the two of them together, especially in the underworld (Duat) during the Weighing of the Heart Ceremony.

In the presence of Anubis, Ma’at’s feather is placed on one side of the scale while the dead person’s heart is placed on the other side. All of this is done in the presence of panel of judges that includes Osiris, the Lord of the afterlife. Once judgment has been passed, Ma’at’s husband Thoth would then record the verdict.

It is believed that Ma’at and Thoth had about eight celestial children – deities of the Hermopolis – that ended playing a very crucial role in ancient Egypt.

Appearance, Portrayals and Symbols of Ma’at

Ma'at

Ma’at origin story and significance | Ma’at depicted with an ostrich feather in her hair, a specter and the ankh in both hands

The most typical depiction of Ma’at is in a seating position. On some carvings and paintings, she is seen standing. Regardless of the painting or art of Ma’at, one thing is always consistent – the feather. Ma’at’s depictions always have some sort of reference to the bird or a feather. The most important artworks of hers usually depict her with an ostrich feather atop her crown. The feather of Ma’at is an interesting one because it is the very piece of item that one’s heart is weighed against in the underworld.

In later depictions, in the New Kingdom Era, paintings of the goddess Ma’at show her as a winged goddess.  As it was common for most Egyptian artworks by then, Ma’at can be seen with the specter as well the symbol of ankh. The ankh is the Egyptian hieroglyph symbol of “the breath of life”.

Another very important symbol of Ma’at’s was the scale. The scale symbolized Ma’at’s unique position as the force that keeps everything in balance. She, along with other deities in the underworld, would use this scale to measure whether a dead person was eligible to spend eternity in the afterlife or be cast into nonexistence.

Bear in mind, everyone, regardless of his/her social/economic standing in the society, was bound to be judged in accordance to the laid down principles of Ma’at. Not even the gods and goddesses themselves could operate outside of Ma’at’s principles.

Significance of the Goddess Ma’at

For a deity to be regarded as “that which is straight”, then one must realize that Ma’at’s significance to the ancient Egyptians was beyond comparison.

Compared to other Egyptian gods and goddess, she did not have as many temples littered across ancient Egypt. Ma’at needed no magnanimous temple simply because she was order in itself. This is why many archaeologists and Egyptologists alike have sometimes stated that Ma’at was more of a cosmic law than a goddess.

What she lacked in physical monuments, she got in unmatched reverence in the hearts of every Egyptian. Ma’at is tremendously significant because she is the mystic force that courses through the divine bodies of the gods and goddesses  themselves. She is what kept the universe from reverting into its primordial and disorderly state before time and creation.

What did Ma’at mean to the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt?

Egyptian pharaohs absolutely revered her. Newly crowned pharaohs often asked for her help in bringing balance and morality into their kingdom. She was the first point of call when sacrifices were made.

These rulers were bound to live by Ma’at’s principles, least their households be cast into Isfet (chaos). Also, the Egyptian pharaohs knew that going in contravention of those principles would automatically hinder their chances of ever making it into the afterlife (paradise).

Upon their coronation, the pharaohs of Egypt would present Ma’at to the other gods. This act symbolizes the transcendent role Ma’at played in Egyptian pantheon.

The 18th Dynasty Pharaohs Hatshepsut and Akhenaten were some of the most devout followers of the goddess Ma’at. For example, the throne that Hatshepsut sat on was called Ma’atkare (“order is the soul of Re”).

Places of Worship

Hall of Ma'at

From the “Book of Dead”: the “Weighing of the Heart ceremony” in the Halls of Two Truths

As the incomparable deity that gives the world a purpose, Ma’at was considered omnipresent. This omega-level goddess needed not have several temples or a magnificent places of worship. Archaeologists, however, have unearthed a number temples of Ma’at in Karnak, Egypt.

Notwithstanding this, the lack of any full-fledged spectacular temple of Ma’at indicates that Egyptians saw no need to have a temple made for her. The temples of other gods invariable meant the worship of Ma’at.

The Hall of Ma’at (the Hall of Two Truths) and the “Judgment of Osiris”

Due to her name being synonymous with truth, the ancient Egyptians believed that everybody’s soul had to go through the Hall of Ma’at. Commonly called the Hall of Truths, the hall was like an underworld court where the dead are judged by a panel of judges. This ceremony was called the “Judgment of Osiris”. The panel includes deities such as Isis, Nephthys, and Osiris. Anubis, the jackal god of funeral and embalming, features prominently as well.

The 42 Truths of Ma’at (42 “Negative Confessions”)

42 Ideals of Ma'at

Ma’at origin story and significance | The 42 Ideals or truths of Ma’at

In the Hall of Ma’at, the heart of dead is weighed against Ma’at’s feather. Should the dead person’s heart be heavier than the feather of Ma’at, the soul instantly gets consumed by Ammit. The gobbler Ammit was the devourer of bad souls. The beast had the head of a crocodile, the hindquarters of a hippopotamus, and the forequarters of a lion.

However, if the heart was lighter than the feather, Anubis would usher the soul into the everlasting arms of Osiris, that is the afterlife/paradise (Aaru). A very light heart was an indication that the soul was not plagued by sinful habits and thoughts.

The entire proceeding is underpinned by the forty-two Confessions of Ma’at (42 truths of Ma’at). Regardless of who or what the soul was in the previous life, it must submit itself to the 42 Truths of Ma’at. Many historians have been quick to point out the striking similarities between the 42 Truths of Ma’at and the 10 Commandments given to Moses.

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Other interesting facts about Ma’at

Ra and Ma'at

As Ra sails on the divine boat, Ma’at helps Ra vanquish Apophis

Here are a few more interesting facts about Ma’at, the divine patroness of justice and truth:

  1. In ancient Egypt, judges – also known as Priests of Ma’at – often wore little golden pendants to symbolize Ma’at’s dominion over their courts. Often times, these priests wore an ostrich feather in their hair. Some of them also drew feather images on their tongues. This was meant to say that they were imbued with words of Ma’at.
  2. Ma’at played an influential role in the lives of ancient Egyptians. She is often depicted at the side of her father, Ra (Amun-Ra), while he makes his way across the cosmos in his divine chariot/boat, bringing light to the people of Egypt. And by night, Ma’at stands by her father’s side as they battle the evil serpent Apophis (an agent of chaos and destruction, also known as Apep).
  3. As the force that holds Ra’s creation together, some of Ma’at’s famous adulations are: the Sustainer of the Sun; Right Order; Lady of the Heavens; Perfect Measure; Lady of the Hall of Judgment, and the Supervisor of the Underworld Justice.
  4. Starting around the fourth dynasty era of pharaohs, ancient Egyptians began calling the pharaohs “Possessors of Ma’at”.
  5. Ma’at’s equivalent in Greek mythology certainly has to be the goddess Dike. Like Ma’at, Dike was the goddess of justice and truth.
  6. The Egyptians believed that Ma’at was the force that kept the desert areas beyond the Nile River from seeping into Egypt. Those areas where considered to be full of chaos, and they were under the dominion of Seth (Set), the god of destruction and decay.
  7. For many people, the Logos that the great philosopher  Plato so dearly espoused could be seen as the derivatives of Ma’at’s principles.
  8. Many archaeologists have stated that temples of Ma’at were virtually nonexistent prior to the New Kingdom.
  9. In most paintings of Ma’at, the goddess is usually depicted resting on a stone platform. Thus, ancient Egyptians considered her the foundation upon which their society was based on.
  10. Her association with the feather was so profound that the feather became the Egyptian hieroglyph for “truth”.

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