The ethical conceptions of “truth,” “order,” and “cosmic balance” are encompassed in the Egyptian term maat, and the personification of those principles is the goddess Maat (Mʒʿt). The goddess represented the divine harmony and balance of the universe, including the unending cycles of the rising and setting of the sun, the inundation of the Nile River, the resulting fertility of the land, and the enduring office of kingship; she was considered to be the force that kept chaos (ἰsft), the antithesis of order, from overwhelming the world. Hence maat was a complex, intertwined, and interdependent sense of ethics that tied personal behavior—such as speaking truthfully, dealing fairly in the market place, and especially sustaining obedience to parents, the king, and his agents—to the maintenance of universal order. To transgress one aspect of maat threatened to encourage chaos and overwhelm order. To live according to maat was also fundamental to personal existence. The Instruction of Ptahhotep (sixth dynasty) vowed: “There is punishment for him who passes over its [maat's] laws.” The Instructions for Merikare (ninth dynasty) said: “Do maat so that you may endure upon Earth.”
Maat and the King.
One of the primary duties of the king was to maintain the order of the cosmos, effected by upholding the principle of maat through correct and just rule and through service to the gods. In turn, the people of Egypt had an obligation to uphold maat, through obedience to the king, who served as the intermediary between the divine and profane spheres. The Instructions of Kagemni record “do maat for the king, for maat is what the king loves”; the negative confession that was recited by the deceased, as his or her soul was judged against maat, included the profession “I have not disputed the king.” The sense of fealty to the king and its association with personal responsibility for the balance of the universe may help explain why there are so few periods of social unrest in Egypt—for to act against the king was to risk the stability of the cosmos. The association of government and maat reached even the lower levels of government. Viziers who dispensed justice in the name of the king wore a pendant in the form of the goddess Maat, which both alluded to their association with the goddess and their inspiration to act justly.
One of the clearest indications of the association of the king and the goddess Maat was the ritual of her presentation to the other gods. This ritual, which symbolized the dedication of the king to uphold the principles inherent in maat is first attested in the New Kingdom reign of Thutmose III (r. 1504–1452 BCE), although textual references suggest that it may be traced to Hatshepsut. The greatest number of examples from the eighteenth dynasty come from the early reign of Amenhotpe IV (r. 1372–1355 BCE), who assumed the poorly understood epithet ʿnḫ m mʒʿt “Living as truth.” The presentation of Maat was commonly depicted on the walls of Ramessid-era temples, especially in areas that were accessible to the public, which suggests that the ritual served as a symbol of royal legitimacy. This sense of the ritual being a royal prerogative has been verified in that only kings, one queen (Nefertiti), and a few others of quasi-royal status (Prince Osorkon and the “Gods' Wives of Amun” of the twenty-fifth dynasty and the twenty-sixth) have been depicted presenting Maat to a god in nonfunerary contexts (a few tomb scenes, however, show nonroyal individuals presenting the image of the goddess).
Kings were considered to be imbued with maat. From the Old Kingdom reign of Sneferu (fourth dynasty) onward, the concept of maat was a common part of the royal titulary; many kings claimed the epithets nb mʒ ʿt, “Possessor of maat,” and ḫ m Mʒʿt, “who arises in maat.” Most of the Ramessid kings compounded their prenomen or nomen with maat. From the time of Sety I onward, many kings were depicted presenting a rebus of their prenomen to the gods thereby directly equating themselves with maat.
The deity Maat pervaded the world of the gods. She was considered to be the daughter of the sun god Re and she was the Eye of Re, so parts of her body were equated with Re's body. She was also the “food of the gods,” and the gods claimed to have “gulped down Maat.” Maat served as the archtypical food offering for the gods, as suggested by offering scenes in the tombs of Merenptah, Sety II, Twosret, Sethnakhte, and Ramesses III, as well as at the Small Temple at Medinet Habu where nw vessels (normally associated with wine or other liquid offerings) are shown presented to the god—yet the offering scene is labeled as presenting Maat. Thoth had an especially close association with Maat, and the two deities are often shown paired.
The Goddess Maat.
Representations of the goddess Maat are attested as early as the middle of the Old Kingdom, initially in theophoric names. She is shown in the form of an idealized female, wearing a sheath dress and her characteristic emblem—an ostrich plume (phonogram mʒʿ)—on her head. The symbolism of the emblem is uncertain, although the same emblem is shared by the god Shu, who in some cosmologies is her brother.
Temples and Cult of Maat.
Despite the great importance placed on Maat, there is no evidence for a temple dedicated to her that predates the New Kingdom construction of the temple to Maat at Karnak North by Amenhotpe III. Textual references suggest that other temples of Maat were located at Memphis and at Deir el-Medina. The Karnak structure was used for the coronation of Queen Hatshepsut and, perhaps, for the investiture of some kings. The Tomb Robbery Papyri indicate that the court that met to investigate the robberies of the royal tombs during the reign of Ramesses IX convened at the Maat temple. Although texts refer to priests of Maat in the ranks wʿb, ẖry-ḥbt, and ḥm-nṯr, nothing is known about a cult specific to the goddess. The title ἰ, “overseer of the domain of Maat,” suggests that lands and resources were held by the Maat temple, but nothing more is known of their extent or administration. In temple cult-offering scenes, Maat usually stands behind the king or behind the recipient. She rarely acts as the recipient of offerings.
Maat and Funerary Beliefs.
Both the goddess Maat and the conception of ethics inherent in maat are most closely associated in the funerary realm—for correct behavior during life was a requisite for eternal life after death. Spell 816 of the Coffin Texts relates that Maat was associated with the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. By the New Kingdom, Maat was credited with being able to grant a good burial, and she is invoked in ḥtp di nsw offering formulas. Her association with rebirth is most clearly illustrated by Chapter 125 of the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), first attested in the reign of Amenhotpe II, which shows the weighing of the heart against a small figure of Maat (or the feather emblem) to evaluate the worthiness of the deceased. In the New Kingdom and onward, Maat was increasingly associated with sun hymns and solar imagery, in reference to the deceased's union with the cycle of the sun and, hence, eternal rebirth. Maat, or a dual form (Maaty), was pictured in the solar bark with her father Re. Sun hymns on the portals of private Theban tombs, such as that of Neferhotep (tomb 49), refer to the deceased presenting Maat to the sun god. By the twentieth dynasty, Maat acquired distinctively funerary associations, particularly in Thebes, through her fusion with Imntt, the goddess of the west. The Theban necropolis was referred to as st Mʒʿt, “the place of Truth,” and “the place for those who have done Maat.” The peak over the Theban necropolis was referred to as “the great peak of the West in this its name of Maat.” Ramessid epithets of Maat included “Mistress of the necropolis”; “Mistress of the West”; and “Mistress of the West who resides in the necropolis.” By the Ramessid period, the association of the deceased with Maat was so strong that the transfigured akhs (souls) were, like the god themselves, considered to consume and live upon maat.
- Assmann, Jan. Maat: Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit im alten Ägypten. Munich, 1990. A broad-ranging study of maat and its implications for ancient Egyptian society.
- Assmann, Jan. Egyptian Solar Religion in the New Kingdom: Re, Amun and the Crisis of Polytheism. Translated from the German by Anthony Alcock. London and New York, 1995. A further expostulation of Assmann's controversial theory that from the mid-eighteenth dynasty, maat as an ethical concept leading to salvation was eroded, as people sought automatic atonement directly from the gods.
- Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated from the German by John Baines. Ithaca, 1982. The standard work on the theory of Egyptian religion.
- Lichtheim, Miriam. Maat in Egyptian Autobiographies and Related Studies. Orbis biblicus et orientalis, 120. Freiburg, 1992. Handy source for the way maat is reflected in professions of personal worth.
- Teeter, Emily. The Presentation of Maat: Ritual and Legitimacy in Ancient Egypt. Studies in Ancient Orient Civilization, 57. Chicago, 1997. A study of the role of maat in the offering cult and her relationship to the king.