Although the ancient Egyptians never dealt with ethics within a theoretical framework, their concept of correct moral conduct can be deduced from various written sources, particularly autobiographies and texts belonging to the wisdom tradition (Lichtheim, 1996). One of the difficulties in interpreting Egyptian sources, especially those intended for posterity, is that they do not always present us with what we would regard as objective truth. Statements such as “In very truth do I say all this and not as an ‘office of the necropolis’” (from the autobiography of Ankhtifi), and assurances in inscriptions of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III that their claims are not exaggeration (e.g., Lichtheim 1976, p. 28), may not inspire confidence; nevertheless, they show that the Egyptians were aware of objective truth, and that they did not always expect to find it in an inscription. The texts tell us, however, what the ideal was perceived to be, even if this ideal was not always achieved, and the picture provided can be balanced to some extent by documents from the realm of everyday life.

Early Sources.

Our earliest source for ethical values is autobiographies, attested from the fifth dynasty (c.2510–2374 BCE) onward, and usually addressed to succeeding generations. The official Nefer-seshem-re (c.2350 BCE) says:

  • I have left my city, I have come down from my province, having done what is right (maat) for its lord, having satisfied him with that which he loves,
  • I spoke maat and I did maat, I spoke well and I reported well…
  • I rescued the weak from the hand of one stronger than he when I was able;
  • I gave bread to the hungry; clothing [to the naked], a landing for the boatless.
  • I buried him who had no son,
  • I made a boat for him who had no boat,
  • I respected my father, I pleased my mother,
  • I nurtured their children. (Lichtheim 1973, p. 17)

Other contemporary texts include denials of misconduct: “Never did I take the property of any person”; “Never did I say a bad thing about anyone to the king (or) to a potentate because I desired that I might be honoured before the god”; “Never did I do anything evil against any person.” The speakers identify with the generally recognized ethical values of the society of their time, hoping to obtain the approbation of the reader, but the ideals expressed in these biographies—justice, honesty, fairness, mercy, kindness, generosity—also reflect the central concept of maat (mʒʿt), the god-given cosmic and social order of the universe as established by the creator at creation.

Pivotal Role of the King in the Old Kingdom.

Jan Assmann (1990, pp. 51ff.) has argued that with the unification of the country, this concept of maat was the governing and unifying ideology of the state, determined by the king, the focus of political unity and the god on earth. When at the start of his autobiography Nefer-seshem-re says that he left this world “having done maat for its lord, having satisfied him with that which he desires,” he refers to the king who determines and upholds maat: “Heaven is at peace, the earth rejoices, for they have heard that he (the king) has put maat [in the place of wrong]” (Faulkner, 1969, Spells 1775–1776).

Autobiographical texts appear in Old Kingdom tombs because maat and the king were also central to funerary beliefs. One's fate after death depended on how one measured up to maat, the standard set by the king. He was the ultimate source of all funerary requirements; the traditional funerary prayer begins, “An offering which the king grants” (Assmann 1990, p. 244). Although in the course of time the king's role and the significance of maat in this system were to undergo some modification, the same ethical values expressed in Old Kingdom texts appear in later autobiographies. A good example from the reign of Merenptah (1237–1226 BCE) is that of An-hur-mose, high priest of the god Onuris at Thinis (Ockinga and al-Masri, 1988, pp. 37–40).

Middle Kingdom Developments.

In the wisdom tradition of the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom we find the first indications of a weakening of the dominant position of the king in statements that link maat more directly with the creator god. In the Story of the Eloquent Peasant, set in the reign of King Nebkaure of the ninth or tenth dynasty (c.2165–2040 BCE), we find the injunction “Do maat for the lord of maat”; but here the god rather than the king is meant (B1 334; Lichtheim, 1973, p. 181). In the same text, the peasant claims that his words expounding on maat “have issued from the mouth of Re himself” (B1 349f; Lichtheim, 1973, p. 181). A passage from the Prophecy of Neferti (P 51; Lichtheim, 1973, pp. 142f.) implies that it is the sun god Re who upholds maat, and that if disorder prevails, it is because he does not make his presence felt; this theme is also found in the Admonitions of Ipuwer, where one asks of the god: “Where is he today? Is he asleep?” (Lichtheim 1973, p. 160). This shift in emphasis from the king to the god is also evident in the hymn to the creator in the Instructions for Merikare, of whom it is said “for them (humankind) he predestined rulers, leaders to lift up the back of the weak” (P 135–136; Lichtheim, 1973, p. 106).

The new emphasis on the god can be linked with the failure of kingship at the end of the Old Kingdom. Although the king continued to have a central role in maintaining maat until the end of pharaonic history, he now did so as the god's representative on earth.

Maat in the Wisdom Tradition of the Middle Kingdom.

In the Middle Kingdom wisdom tradition we can see an attempt to reestablish the rule of maat after the preceding period of disorder (Assmann 1990, p. 217). It includes the genre known as “Complaints,” which reflect the point of view of the scribal elite to which their authors belonged. They lament a state of affairs in which the social hierarchy has been reversed: “Behold, he who had nothing is now a possessor of riches”; “Behold, noble ladies [now travel] on rafts” (Admonitions of Ipuwer 7,10; 8,1; Lichtheim, 1973, p. 156). But this reversal of fortunes is a symptom of an underlying, more serious general breakdown in the order of society—in maat, without which society cannot function: “Behold, offices are broken into, their records stolen …; behold, the laws of the chamber are cast out, men walk on them in the streets, beggars tear them up in the lanes; … behold, the great council chamber is invaded” (Admonitions of Ipuwer 6,7 ff.; Lichtheim, 1973, p. 155). By lamenting the present disastrous state of affairs, these texts also give insight into expected social standards. The Story of the Eloquent Peasant also reaffirms the old view that proper behavior will ensure a happy afterlife: “Indeed, maat is for eternity, even to the necropolis it goes down, together with him who does it. He is buried and united with the earth, but his name is not obliterated from the earth. He is remembered because of goodness. It is the standard of god's word” (B1 334–342; Lichtheim, 1973, p. 181).

Isfet: The Opposite of Maat.

Of the several terms that designate a concept diametrically opposed to maat, by far the most central is isfet, usually translated “sin” or “wrong.” It appears as the antonym of maat as early as the Pyramid Texts (Faulkner, 1969, section 265); Khakheper-re-soneb laments, “Maat has been cast out while isfet is in the counsel chamber” (Lichtheim, 1973, p. 147); Tutankhamun “drove out isfet throughout the two lands, ma'at being established in her place” (Pritchard, 1969, p. 251). Isfet can be both spoken and done: “There was no isfet which came from my mouth, no evil thing which my arms did” (Lichtheim, 1988, p. 72); in chapter 125 of the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), the declaration of innocence begins, “Oh wide of movements, who comes from Heliopolis, I have not done isfet” (Lichtheim, 1976, p. 126).

Since maat also means “truth,” another common antonym is grg, meaning “lie.” In the Book of Going Forth by Day, chapter 126, the apes who sit at the prow of Re's bark are “ones who live from maat, who ingest maat, whose hearts are free of lies (grg), whose abomination is isfet; [the deceased asks] drive out my evil (ḏwt), remove my wrong (isfet).” Although isfet is used as an all-embracing term for “wrong,” in ancient Egypt there was no concept of “general sin,” a barrier between humankind and the gods which is the result of the general human condition.

Judgment of the Dead.

Without the concept of general sin, it was theoretically possible to lead a life free of isfet. By teaching what behavior was compatible with maat and what was isfet, the instructions in wisdom were designed to assist one to achieve this. According to the traditional view, if people lived their lives according to the precepts of maat they would prosper, and society would function smoothly; transgressors were doomed to automatic failure. The king determined maat, and it was his task to ensure that it was upheld and isfet subdued. Yet even when the system functioned smoothly, there would doubtless have been cases that went against the rule, in which the unjust prospered. This will have been most obvious when the administration failed at the end of the Old Kingdom and in the First Intermediate Period; it is not surprising, therefore, that it is in a text composed after these events, the Instructions for Merikare (Lichtheim, 1973, pp. 97f.), that we first have evidence of the concept of a general judgment of the dead. Here the ultimate evaluation of a person takes place not in this life but in the next; consequently, although the wicked may at times prosper in this world, they will answer for their deeds in the next.

This development was to culminate in chapter 125 of the New Kingdom Book of Going Forth by Day (Lichtheim, 1976, pp. 124–132), which deals with the judgment before the god of the netherworld, Osiris. It includes two declarations of innocence in which the deceased denies having committed various crimes. Although the text is not a systematic treatise, it does give further insight into the ancient Egyptians' ethical values. Apart from such general statements as “I have done no injustice to people, nor have I maltreated an animal” or “I have done no wrong (isfet),” more specific faults are mentioned:

  • Crimes of a cultic nature: blasphemy, stealing from temple offerings or offerings to the dead, defiling the purity of a sacred place
  • Crimes of an economic nature: tampering with the grain measure, the boundaries of fields, or the plummet of the balance
  • Criminal acts: theft and murder
  • Exploitation of the weak and causing injury: depriving orphans of their property, causing pain or grief, doing injury, causing hunger
  • Moral and social failings: lying, committing adultery, ignoring the truth, slandering servants before their master, being aggressive, eavesdropping, losing one's temper, speaking without thinking

Chapter 125 is intended to equip the deceased to face the final judgment and, as in much of Egyptian funerary literature, appeal is made to the power of magic. Yet even if in their hour of greatest need the Egyptians were not averse to drawing on the magical power of the spoken and written word, this in no way diminishes the value of this text as a witness to their understanding of what constitutes proper moral behavior. Indeed, it is precisely because they took these moral standards seriously that they went to such lengths to avoid the consequences of not living up to them. Nor should one automatically draw the conclusion that because they appealed to magic, the Egyptians were ready to use unethical means to reach their desired goal. Chapter 30 of the Book of Going Forth by Day, which seeks to restrain the heart of the deceased from acting against him at the judgment (Lichtheim, 1976, p. 131) may seem to suggest this: the heart is abjured, “Do not stand up against me as a witness before the Lords of Possessions (the divine judges); do not say, regarding me ‘He really did do that’ concerning that which I have done.” But the principle appealed to here—that accused persons cannot be forced to give evidence against themselves—is one also enshrined in present-day legal systems.

Reality and Maat in the New Kingdom.

Not surprisingly, the ancient Egyptians did not always live up to the ethical standards they espoused. In the Instructions for Merikare there is indirect evidence for abuse of office among the royal officials who should uphold maat: “Make great your officials, that they keep your laws; he whose house is rich is not partial and a propertied man is one who does not lack. A poor man does not speak justly, one who says ‘Would that I had!’ is not upright. He is partial towards him whom he likes, favouring him who rewards (bribes) him” (P 7–9; Lichtheim, 1973, p. 100). The Instruction to the Vizier, recorded in the tomb of the eighteenth dynasty vizier Rekhmire, recognizes the problem of partiality on the part of officials; the king urges, “Regard one whom you know like one whom you do not know, one close to yourself like one far from your house” (Lichtheim, 1976, p. 23). But the vizier is also warned against the opposite extreme—he should not behave like an earlier vizier: “The saying is, that he impoverished his kindred in favour of strangers out of fear of that which might be said about him, (namely) that he was [partial]” (Lichtheim, 1976, pp. 22f.).

Surviving letters (Wente, 1990) and documents from the village of workers at Deir el-Medina (McDowell, 1990) also illustrate the foibles and weaknesses of the ancient Egyptians. From the end of the eighteenth dynasty (1315 BCE), evidence grows for a breakdown in standards and the spread of corruption. We find references to dishonest judges; in one prayer, Amun is “the vizier of the poor; he does not accept bribes from the guilty, he does not speak to the one who witnesses, he does not look to (favor) the one who makes promises” (Lichtheim, 1976, p. 111). We also have actual examples of corruption. A late nineteenth dynasty papyrus contains a long list of criminal charges against a chief of workmen at Deir el-Medina; among other things, he is accused of having obtained his position by bribing the vizier, and a later vizier who punished him for other misdemeanors was himself dismissed by the king (Černý, 1929, p. 256). Another mid-twentieth dynasty papyrus records charges of large-scale embezzlement and misconduct against personnel of the temple of Khnum at Elephantine, including an unnamed priest (Peet, 1924).

Is this impression of a breakdown in moral and ethical standards a result of the destruction of the old concept of maat? As Brunner (1963) demonstrated, the most dramatic change in regard to maat was the loss of its traditional role as the mediating principle between god and humankind. Instead of a direct correlation existing between success or failure and adherence to or transgression against maat, in the later New Kingdom we find that success or failure depends solely upon the will of the god, whose plans are inscrutable, as we read in the Instructions of Amenompe (Lichtheim, 1976, pp. 146–163), which is steeped in the spirit of personal piety: “Indeed you do not know the plans of god” (22,5; 23,8). According to Amenompe, “Man is clay and straw, the god is his builder. He tears down, he builds up daily; he makes a thousand poor by his will, he makes a thousand men into chiefs” (24,13–17). It is arguable, however, whether one can go so far as to say that maat no longer has a place in this world (Assmann, 1990, p. 254), and that the growth in self-centered personal piety came at the expense of social coherence, leading to a growth in corruption and insecurity (Assmann, 1989, p. 80; 1990, pp. 265f.). For Amenompe, “Maat is a great gift of god, he gives it to whom he pleases” (22,5); maat is still there, but it does not operate automatically—rather, it too is subject to the will of the god. We have here a logical progression of the development, first noted in the wisdom tradition of the Middle Kingdom, whereby the god assumes an ever more direct role in human affairs; this tendency can also be traced in the institution of kingship and eventually led to the theocracy of Amun in the twenty-first dynasty.

To answer the question posed above, one needs to consider whether that which replaced the old view of maat was capable of doing so. The first point to note is that even if they do not often mention maat, the later teachings (e.g., Amenompe) and autobiographies (e.g., An-hurmose) still espouse the same ethical standards as the earlier sources and are just as interested in social cohesion. What changes is the argument in favor of these standards: in the traditional concept it is that they comply with maat and lead to success in this life and the next; now, it is that they are the will of the god. Success in this life is subordinated to one's relationship with the god, but the latter also determines one's fate after death. Thus at the end of Chapter 24, 13–17, Amenompe says, “Happy is he who reaches the hereafter when he is safe in the hand of god.” There, at the final judgment in the “hall of double (complete) maat” where the eternal fate of a person is decided, maat still has a central role. There it is imperative that one be “safe in the hand of god,” for, as Amenompe knows, “man is ever in his failure” and “there is no perfection before the god” (19, 15 and 22; Lichtheim, 1976, pp. 157, 158).

Rather than conclude that this understanding of maat and the will of the god was less capable of encouraging ethical behavior than the old concept that it replaced, one should look to other explanations for the apparently increased evidence for corruption in the later New Kingdom, such as a possible imbalance in our sources, or a deficiency in the administration. Rather than contributing to the breakdown of the old concept of maat, whereby the just prospered, the growth of personal piety simply filled the vacuum left by the failure of the old concept, which no longer tallied with everyday experience.



  • Assmann, Jan. Ägypten. Theologie und Frömmigkeit einer frühen Hochkultur, Stuttgart 1984. A stimulating interpretation of ancient Egyptian religion.
  • Assmann, Jan. “State and Religion in the New Kingdom.” In Religion and Philosophy in Ancient Egypt, edited by James P. Allen et al., pp. 55–88. New Haven, 1989. An important study on developments in Egyptian religion in the New Kingdom.
  • Assmann, Jan. Ma'at, Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit im Alten Ägypten, Munich, 1990. An exhaustive study of the concept of maat.
  • Baines, John. “Restricted Knowledge, Hierarchy and Decorum.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 27 (1990), 1–23.
  • Brunner, Hellmut. “Der freie Wille Gottes in der ägyptischen Weisheit.” In his Les sagesses du Proche Orient ancien, pp. 103–117. Strasbourg, 1963. Reprinted in Das hörende Herz: Kleine Schriften zur Religions- und Geistesgeschichte Agyptens, edited by W. Röllig, pp. 85–102. Freiburg and Göttingen, 1988. A seminal study on the change in the concept of maat in the New Kingdom.
  • Černý, Jaroslav. “Papyrus Salt 124.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 15 (1929):243–58. Publication of a papyrus that provides evidence for corruption.
  • Edel, Elmar. “Untersuchungen zur Phraseologie der ägyptischen Inschriften des Alten Reichs.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Instituts für Ägyptische Altertumskunde in Kairo 13 (1929):1–90. Study of biographical texts of the Old Kingdom.
  • Faulkner, R. O. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Oxford, 1969. Translation of the oldest body of religious literature from Egypt.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. 1, The Old and Middle Kingdoms. Berkeley, 1973. Very good selection of sources in translation, as is the second volume.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. 2, The New Kingdom. Berkeley, 1976.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Autobiographies Chiefly of the Middle Kingdom. Freiburg and Göttingen, 1988. A comprehensive collection of translations of biographies.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Maat in Egyptian Autobiographies and Related Studies. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis, 120. Freiburg, 1992.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. “Didactic Literature.” In Ancient Egyptian Literature: History and Forms, edited by Antonio Loprieno, pp. 243–262. Leiden, 1996. The most recent study on didactic literature in ancient Egypt.
  • McDowell, A. G. Jurisdiction in the Workmen's Community of Deir El-Medina. Leiden, 1990. A detailed study of the administration of justice in the New Kingdom.
  • Ockinga, Boyo G., and Yahya al-Masri. Two Ramesside Tombs at El Mashayikh. Part 1. Sydney, 1988. Publication of an important biographical text of the late nineteenth dynasty.
  • Peet, T. Eric. “A Historical Document of Ramesside Age.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 10 (1924), 116–127. Publication of a papyrus that provides evidence for corruption.
  • Pritchard, James B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. 3d ed. Princeton, 1969. Provides annotated translations of source material.
  • Wente, Edward. Letters from Ancient Egypt. Atlanta, 1990. Presents annotated translations of actual correspondence.

Boyo Ockinga