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Ma’at: The Concept of Balance & Harmony

Ma’at: The Concept of Balance & Harmony

Ma’at or Maat is a concept that symbolises the ancient Egyptian ideas about balance, harmony, morality, law, order, truth and justice. Ma’at also took the form of a goddess who personified these essential concepts. The goddess also governed the seasons and the stars. Ancient Egyptians also believed the goddess exerted an influence over those deities who collaborated to impose order on chaos at the precise moment of primal creation. Ma’at’s divine opposite was Isfet, the goddess of chaos, violence, evil-doing and injustice.

Ma’at initially appeared during Egypt’s Old Kingdom (c. 2613 – 2181 BCE) period. However, she is believed to have been worshipped bell before this in an earlier form. Ma’at is shown in her anthropomorphic form of a winged woman, wearing an ostrich feather on her head. Alternatively, a simple white ostrich feather symbolises her. Ma’at’s feather played a central role in the Egyptian concept of the afterlife. The ceremony of the Weighing of the Heart of the Soul when the deceased’s heart of the soul was weighed against the feather of truth on the scales of justice determined a soul’s fate.

Facts About Ma’at

  • Ma’at lies at the heart of ancient Egypt’s social and religious ideals
  • It symbolised harmony and balance, truth and justice, law and order
  • Ma’at was also the name given to the ancient Egyptian goddess who personified these concepts and oversaw the stars as well as the season
  • The Ancient Egyptians believed the goddess Ma’at influenced the primal deities who joined forces to impose order on the tumultuous chaos at the instant of creation
  • Ma’at’ was opposed in her work by Isfet the goddess governing violence, chaos, injustice and evil
  • Eventually, the Ra the king of the gods absorbed Ma’at role at the heart of all creation
  • Egypt’s pharaohs styled themselves as the “Lords of Ma’at”

Origin And Significance

Ra or Atum the sun god was believed to have created Ma’at at the moment of creation when Nun’s primordial waters parted and the ben-ben or first dry mound of land rose with Ra astride it, thanks to Heka’s invisible magical power. In the instant Ra spoke the world into being Ma’at was birthed. Ma’at’s name is translated as “that which is straight.” This connotes harmony, order and justice.

Ma’at’s principals of balance and harmony suffused this act of creation causing the world to function rationally and with purpose. The concept of ma’at underpinned the functioning of life, while heka or magic was the source of its power.  This is why Ma’at is seen as more conceptual than a conventional goddess complete with a clearly defined personality and back-story such as Hathor or Isis. Ma’at’s divine spirit underpinned all creation. If an ancient Egyptian lived in keeping with her principals, one would enjoy a full life and could hope to enjoy eternal peace after journeying through the afterlife. Conversely, if one refused to conform to Ma’at’s principles one would be condemned to suffer the ramifications of that decision.

Her significance is shown by how the ancient Egyptians inscribed her name. While Ma’at was frequently identified by her feather motif, she was frequently associated with a plinth. A plinth was often set under the throne of a divine being but was not inscribed with the deity’s name. Ma’at’s association with a plinth suggested she was thought of as the foundation of Egyptian society. Her importance is clearly shown in iconography positioning her at Ra’s side on his heavenly barge as she voyaged with him during daytime across the sky while assisting him to defend their boat against attacks by the serpent god Apophis at night.

Ma’at And The White Feather Of Truth

Ancient Egyptians fervently believed each person was ultimately responsible for their own lives and that their lives should be lived in balance and harmony with the earth and other people. Just as the gods looked after humanity, so humans needed to adopt the same caring attitude for one other and the world the gods had provided.

This concept of harmony and balance is found in all aspects of ancient Egyptian society and culture, from how they laid out their cities and homes, to the symmetry and balance found in the design of their sprawling temples and immense monuments. Living harmoniously in accordance with the will of the gods, equated to living according to the dictate of the goddess personifying the concept ma’at. Eventually, everyone faced judgment in the afterlife’s Hall of Truth.

Ancient Egyptians, thought of the human soul as comprising nine parts: the physical body was the Khat; the Ka was a person’s double-form, their Ba was a human-headed bird aspect capable of speeding between the heavens and earth; the shadow self was the Shuyet, while the Akh formed the deceased’s immortal self, transformed by death, Sechem and Sahu were both Akh, forms, the heart was Ab, the wellspring of good and evil and Ren was an individual’s secret name. All nine aspects were part of an Egyptian’s earthly existence.

After death, the Akh together with the Sechem and Sahu appeared before Osiris, Thoth the god of wisdom and the Forty-Two Judges in the Hall of Truth to have the deceased’s heart or Ab weighed on a golden scale against Ma’at’s white feather of truth.

If the deceased’s heart proved lighter than Ma’at’s feather, the deceased remained as Osiris consulted Thoth and the Forty-Two Judges. If the deceased was adjudged to be worthy, the soul was granted the freedom to move on through the hall to continue its existence in paradise at The Field of Reeds. No one could escape this eternal judgment.

In the Egyptian idea of the afterlife, Ma’at was believed to assist those who adhered to her principles during their life.

Worshipping Ma’at As A Divine Goddess

While Ma’at was respected as an important goddess, the ancient Egyptians dedicated no temples to Ma’at. Nor did she have any official priests. Instead, a modest shrine was consecrated to her in other gods’ temples honoured Ma’at. The single temple recognized as having been built in her honour by Queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE) was erected within the god Montu’s temple grounds.

Egyptians venerated their goddess by simply living their lives in observance to her tenets. Devotional gifts and offerings to her were placed on her shrines set in many temples.

According to surviving records, the sole “official” veneration of Ma’at occurred when a newly crowned Egyptian king offered sacrifices to her. After being crowned, the new king would offer a representation of her to the gods. This act represented the king’s request for her assistance in preserving the divine harmony and balance during his reign. Should a king fail to maintain the balance and harmony, it was a clear portent he was unfit to reign. Ma’at thus was crucial a king’s successful rule.

In the Egyptian pantheon of gods, Ma’at was a significant and universal presence, despite having no priestly cult or dedicated temple. The Egyptian gods were thought to live off Ma’at and the majority of images showing the king offering Ma’at to Egypt’s pantheon of gods upon his coronation were mirror images of those depicting the king presenting wine, food, and other sacrifices to the gods. The gods were thought to live off Ma’at as they were obliged by divine law to maintain balance and harmony and to encourage those specific values amongst their human worshippers.

Ma’at’s temples were set amidst other gods’ temples due to Ma’at’s role as a universal cosmic essence, which enabled the lives of both humans and their gods. Egyptians venerated the goddess Ma’at by living their lives in keeping with her principles of harmony, balance, order and justice and being considerate to their neighbours and the earth the gods gifted them to nurture. While goddesses such as Isis and Hathor proved more widely worshipped, and eventually absorbed several Ma’at’s attributes, the goddess retained her significance as a deity right through Egypt’s lengthy culture and defined much the country’s core cultural values for centuries.

Reflecting On The Past

Anyone looking to understand ancient Egyptian culture must first understand ma’at and the role its core concept of balance and harmony played in shaping Egypt’s belief system.

Header image courtesy: British Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons