state and kingship were totally interrelated. A hymn called the ‘king as a solar priest’, explicitly says how the king was put on earth to rule people forever, bring justice, uphold Maat, destroy Isfet and satisfy the gods. Considering how tiny the ruling éélite was in Egypt, a cynic could argue that Maat was therefore a convenient backbone to legitimate this powerful minority and create a passive population. The fusion of ideas of evil and disorder served the éélite’s interests by linking morality and subservience with the maintenance of the cosmic order. Maat meant that if the king and hierarchy were not maintained as they were, if they were threatened, the rest of the population, and the whole of the universe was in jeopardy. On the other hand, Maat could also have meant that the state had a responsibility to meet the country’s
needs. One opinion is that, even if the king and the éélite benefited by consolidating their position through Maat, they still could not ‘ignore’ morality. Breasted saw Maat and Egyptian moral literature as proof of the aristocracy’s concern for the welfare of their people, and Assmann argues that Maat brought the human and divine world into harmony, and brought important social cohesion (‘Mitmenschlichkeit’) through its shared principles. Even under Akhenaten, the Eighteenth Dynasty ‘revolutionary, heretic’ king, Maat still existed. He retained it and even emphasised it, demonstrating how absolutely central it was to the Egyptian mind. He often used the epithet ‘Living in Truth’ or ‘Living on Maat’, and Petrie, in 1894, saw him as ‘one of the great idealists of the world’. He saw this striving for ‘truth’ as being the reason why he did not hide his domestic, family life in public scenes. More recent work, however, re-evaluates the meaning of Maat in the Amarna Period and many authors now see it as being more about aesthetics and the attainment of beauty rather than morals, although it must be said that Akhenaten’s ideas of ‘beauty’ were obviously unique! Maat offering scenes, like the one of Sety I (see left), were more common under Akhenaten than in any other period of the Eighteenth Dynasty and Nefertiti presenting her is the first example of a non-kingly, non-male person to do this. This presentation of Maat meant legitimation, which is probably why at least the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (who took the throne name of Maat Ka Ra) was crowned in the Maat temple in Karnak; her joint ruler and sole successor, Thutmose III, often used the motif as well. This could mean that Akhenaten was following his predecessors, using it to emphasise that despite his revolution, he still had a good grounding in what was right and true, proper and stable, and was a legitimate continuation of earlier tradition. Perhaps he used it to reassure people? Many different sources can be useful in picking apart what Maat was supposed to mean in practice in order to live up to it and have a chance of getting into the Afterlife. The New Kingdom Book of the Dead is the most famous. A common claim is that Egyptians ‘gave food to the hungry, clothes to the naked’, but they were also encouraged not to steal or murder, to tell the truth, look after their parents, widows and orphans, respect their superiors, be friendly and helpful, give advice, support
Above left: ascene from the Temple of Sety I at Abydos, showing the king presenting an image of Maat to the gods. Left: in a relief from her Red Chapel at Karnak, Hatshepsut/Maatkara is shown burning incense before a statue of the god Amun. The image of Maat can be seen in Hatshepsut’s cartouche on the right of the photo. Photos: RP.
ANCIENTEGYPTDecember 2007/January 2008