Maat: An Ancient Morality Check
Maat was central to the ancient Egyptians’ ideological and theological world-view. As Beth Asbury relates, not only was it the fundamental force that held the universe together, but it reflected their collective sense of right and wrong.
Morality and ethics are a really important aspect of any society, so much so that society is sometimes described as being a ‘moral construct’ by philosophers. It is in a society’s interest to furnish itself with a morally good population because it cannot operate without some basic set of rules to live by. If people do not trust each other, they cannot live together in communities at all. Some philosophers believe in ‘natural morality’, that it is an instinctive, in-built characteristic humans have developed, but others see it as something that needs to be taught to people. In this way, religion, sets of taboos (bwt to the Egyptians) and the law are a good way of educating people into behaving this way, and then keeping them on the straight and narrow. In practice, what makes a moral person is their ability to choose to do right, even under pressure, and to behave in a way that benefits others and not just themselves.
was central to the
Egyptians’ ideological and theological world-view. Not only was it the fundamental force that held the universe together, but it reflected their collective sense of right and wrong. Breasted believed that Maat was the world’s earliest abstract term and that, therefore, morality existed in Egypt far earlier than anywhere else. In his well-known Egyptian Grammar, Gardiner’s translations of Maat are ‘truth’, ‘right’, ‘justice’, ‘righteousness’ and even ‘orderly management’, but others, like Lichtheim, use ten or more different adjectives. Lichtheim believes its essential features were ‘truthfulness and fairness in dealing with other people’. It has also been compared to a Canaanite word zedek, to the ancient Greek term Diké é (justice), the Semitic emet, ancient Iranian asha(the way the world was ‘meant to be’), the Chinese tao (‘the way’), and the Hindu karma (duty). Much has been made of the first hieroglyph used in writing ‘Maat’ (see above) to understand its source and
meaning. Gardiner has it as an unclassified sign, but perhaps a pedestal determinative in the word for ‘raised platform’. It could have meant levelness, evenness, straightness, correctness, and developed into in a sense of regularity or order, then uprightness, righteousness, truth and justice. It could be the throne-base the gods stood on, or the primeval mound, showing it to be conceived as the base for the foundation of the universe. The Pyramid Texts suggest Maat came into existence at the same time as the gods, and Old Kingdom spellings show the concept with the goddess determinative, showing that it came to be considered a being in its own right around 2350 BC. Being the earliest example of the deification of an abstract concept shows that she was more than a simple principle of order to the Egyptian mind. Despite this, she never appeared in any cosmogonies or creation myths, and had no temples built for her like a ‘typical’ goddess until one in Karnak and possibly Memphis in the New Kingdom.
ANCIENTEGYPTDecember 2007/January 2008