The Egyptian worldview is full of dualities – Upper & Lower Egypt, the living world and the world of the dead, the cultivated land and the desert, Horus and Seth, and so on and so forth. Probably the most fundamental of these is the duality of maat (order) and isfet (chaos), it’s set up at the moment of creation and underpins everything about the world of the Egyptians.
Translation between languages which are as different as Ancient Egyptian & English is rarely a straightforward matter of replacing one word with another. So although I glossed maat above as “order” we don’t actually have a single word in English that covers the concept in all its nuances (as far as we understand it). In the books I read for this article it was variously translated as: balance, control, connective justice, correctness, decorum, harmony, justice, the norms of society, order, original state of tranquillity at the moment of creation, proper behaviour, righteousness, rightness, the status quo, truth, the way things ought to be. Listing them all out like that (rather than just picking one of them) gives us a flavour of the concept – although I’m pretty sure there’ll be nuances that’ve been missed – but it’s rather unwieldy for referring to the concept, so as everyone else does I’m mostly going to stick to using the Egyptian word rather than a potentially misleading translation.
The concept of maat is, as you would expect, personified by a goddess and referred to in mythic terms – this is how the Egyptians conceptualised their world. The goddess Maat is normally represented by a human woman, with no associated animal, wearing a feather as her headdress. She may be standing, but she’s more often seated, and she’s sometimes just represented by her feather. You most often see her being offered to the gods by the king, and sometimes greeting the deceased in the Weighing of the Heart scene. She’s often referred to as the daughter of Re, which gives her a close connection with the Egyptian king who is called Son of Re as one of his titles.
Maat (goddess and concept) comes into being at the very moment of creation – before there was nothing but chaos, and the act of creation brings order (etc.). It is maat that regulates the seasons, the movements of the stars, the inundation of the Nile, the cycle of days and nights. One of the Egyptian conceptions of time (djet) is that the pattern of the universe is fixed and unchanging for eternity – and maat is that pattern. So maat permeates the whole universe, but it’s not something that just “is” it’s something that needs to be maintained and it’s in that context that it affects the lives of humanity.
The primary role of the king – the point of a king, if you like – is to maintain maat and present it to the gods, and if he does that then all will be as it should be in the universe. One of the ways in which he does this is to defeat and control the world outside Egypt and some of the familiar parts of Egyptian iconography represent this. The Egyptian way of life is seen as conforming to maat and all foreign ways of doing things are therefore not in accordance with maat – and so when you see the king smiting foreign enemies on the walls of a temple, that is the king maintaining maat and defeating chaos. When you see the king portrayed with bound captives beneath his feet (or the bows that represent the nine traditional enemies) then once again he’s imposing order and defeating chaos.
Maat also needs to be maintained within Egypt, and this is done via the legal system and administration – maat is the concept that underpins all the bureaucracy. The king is pivotal here as well – with his connection to the gods as the Son of Re he has the duty and necessary knowledge to create laws that uphold maat. But these laws were not handed down as divine in origin – they were essentially practical: behaviour which promoted harmonious and balanced relations between people was maat and should be promoted, behaviour which didn’t was isfet (and thus should be forbidden). It was also not egalitarian in any fashion – all men were not supposed to be equal, but instead were to behave appropriately for their place in society. Jan Assmann quotes Rousseau as saying “Between the weak and the strong freedom is the oppressive and law the liberating principle”* – i.e. the law is what stops the strong from trampling the weak, and this is what maat was in this aspect of Egyptian society.
*that is presumably an English translation of a German translation of the original French
The king also needs to present the maat he has upheld within and without Egypt to the gods. This is frequently depicted on temple walls, with the king shown kneeling and offering up a small figure of the goddess Maat to another god. There is a sense in which this is equated with all the other offerings that are given to the gods in their temples. The food that is offered is maat, the clothing that is offered is maat, the incense that is burnt is maat – all that a god eats, wears, breathes etc is maat. So the king’s upholding of, and offering of, maat maintains the existence of the gods (and their associated concepts and roles) and thus the universe remains as it should be.
And maat is also something that an individual should adhere to in his or her life. There’s a whole genre of Egyptian literature (the wisdom texts) which discusses how to live one’s life in accordance with maat – once again in terms of practical measures rather than as a theoretical concept. Over the course of Egyptian history ideas about how transgressing maat would affect you changed. In the Old Kingdom it was assumed that a failure to act in accordance with maat would lead to failure in this life. From the Middle Kingdom onward the Egyptians expected to be judged in the afterlife, and only those who had done maat in this life would be permitted to become an akh and to reach the Field of Reeds. And later, from the Ramesside Period on, people had more direct relationships with any given god – offending a deity would lead to divine punishment in this world – but that doesn’t mean maat was no longer important, it did still affect one’s afterlife.
There are at least a couple of different antonyms for maat. One of these is fairly narrow – the word gereg means falsehood and is the opposite of maat in its sense of speaking truth. The more commonly found one is isfet and its meaning is much broader in scope. As with maat it’s translated in a variety of ways by the different authors I read, but they generally seem to regard the concept as more straightforward – isfet is chaos, disorder, wrongness. It can also be translated as “sin”, which Boyo G. Ockinga does (writing in “The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson), but he cautions that one needs to be wary when reading that translation. The concept of isfet is of actions that are chaotic or wrong, there is not the concept of humanity as being essentially sinful in the way that there is in Christian thought. Theoretically one can maintain maat in all one does, failure is not inevitable.
This is not the only way that the Egyptian duality of maat vs isfet is different to our own cultural duality of right vs wrong or good vs sinful. Another fundamental difference is that “good” is not the same as “ordered”, and this has ramifications that shape the rest of society (and that we should carefully keep in mind when thinking about Ancient Egypt). In our culture it is easy to see that “doing the right thing” can in some cases mean going against the law or transgressing the norms of society – it’s possible for the individual to be good whilst not conforming, and it is possible to see society as needing to be changed in order to become a better society. But in the Ancient Egyptian culture maat has much heavier overtones of keeping in one’s place and this leads to a much more conservative outlook on life. Obviously Egyptian culture did change over time, but it had to be carefully justified as “returning to what had been done before”. Change itself was seen as undermining maat and the proper order of things. Things should be done the way they have always been done, and then the pattern of the universe is maintained in the way that it should be and all will be well in the world.
“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen
“Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt” Jan Assmann (trans. David Lorton)
“The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs” Jan Assmann (trans. Andrew Jenkins)
“Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt” Erik Hornung (trans. John Baines)
“Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation” Barry J. Kemp
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“The Pharaoh: Life at Court and On Campaign” Garry J. Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson