The Egyptian philosophical view of existence was based on the idea that all existence was either orderly or chaotic. Order was called maat while chaos was called isfet. Maat encompassed the physical world, political conditions, and ethical conduct. In the physical world maat meant that the sun rose and set in a regular pattern. Maat also meant that the Nile flooded Egypt on a regular schedule and provided fertility to agricultural fields. In politics, maat meant that the true king sat on the throne and ensured order within Egypt. In Egyptian thought, maat depended on correct personal conduct. In fact correct personal conduct ensured loyalty to the king, which, in turn, supported an orderly physical world. For individuals, maat also meant telling the truth, and dealing fairly with others in addition to obedience to authority. Ultimately an individual who supported maat through his actions could enter the afterlife as a reward.
The king's primary duty was to maintain maat in the world. If the king behaved correctly, the physical world behaved in a predictable way. This was important due to the Egyptians' dependence on crops and the food and clothing they provided. The king's conduct could affect the regular rising and setting of the sun, necessary for crop growth. The fertility of the soil was the result of the annual Nile flood that deposited rich new silt on Egypt's fields annually. The Egyptians believed that the height of the flood and the subsequent success of the crops depended on the king performing maat. The individual's primary duty was to obey the king. In fact obeying the king allowed him to perform maat, and thus maintain order in the physical world. This world view led to an extremely stable political structure.
In the New Kingdom (1539–1075 b.c.e.) kings performed the ritual of presenting maat to other gods as a means of stressing that they had maintained maat in their actions. Maat was personified as a seated goddess who wore a feather in her hair. A depiction of a feather was one way of writing the word "maat" in hieroglyphs. Hatshepsut (1478–1458 b.c.e.) was most likely the first ruler to depict herself presenting a statuette of maat to the gods. Large numbers of representations of the presentation of maat to the gods date to the reign of Akhenaten (1352–1336 b.c.e.) when it appeared to be the major ritual act that the king and the queen performed. During the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties (1292–1075 b.c.e.), temples often displayed relief scenes showing the king offering maat to the gods. The priestess called the God's Wife of Amun performed this function in the Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Dynasties (760–525 b.c.e.). The ritual served to legitimize kings in the eyes of the ruled. It was a physical expression of the king's obligation to uphold maat in the world.
Many kings took throne names that included maat or epithets, self-descriptions included with a name, that claimed they were possessors of maat. The earliest use of the epithet "possessor of maat" was most likely Sneferu of the Fourth Dynasty (r. 2625–2585 b.c.e.). In the New Kingdom Hatshepsut (1478–1458 b.c.e.) took the throne name Maat-ka-re, "the soul of Re is maat." Amenhotep III (1390–1352 b.c.e.) called himself Neb-maat-re, "Possessor of the maat of Re." Sety I (1290–1279 b.c.e.) took the throne name Men-maat-re, "the maat of Re is firm." All of these names are attempts to associate the king with maat. These kings also presented their own names to the gods as way of cementing the association between the king and maat.
As a deity, Maat was the daughter of the sun god Re. She also constituted Re's eye, making her integral to the god's body. The other gods claimed to "live on Maat," meaning that they ate Maat to sustain themselves. Maat was thus a food offering for all of the gods. The scribal god Thoth was often paired with Maat, showing their close connection. Before the New Kingdom, there was no temple dedicated to the goddess Maat. The first known temple was in Karnak and was in use in Hatshepsut's time. In texts there are references to a temple of Maat in Memphis, Egypt's political capital, and in Deir el-Medina, the workman's village across the river from modern Luxor. Hatshepsut's coronation took place in the temple dedicated to Maat. In the late Twentieth Dynasty there is some evidence that criminal investigations took place at the temple of Maat. There is also some evidence that there were priests of Maat and an overseer of the domain of Maat. The existence of these officials suggests that the temple held land and other resources. There are few examples in art of Maat accepting offerings. This would be the usual Egyptian way of indicating that Maat's cult possessed resources on earth as did other gods.
Justice, a tenet of any philosophical system, was also part of the right order that maat guaranteed. The prime minister, whose job included dispensing justice, was a priest of Maat. The law code of King Horemheb (1319–1292 b.c.e.), inscribed on a stele standing in front of the tenth pylon at the Karnak Temple, ordained punishments in the name of Maat. Court decisions also found one party to be "the one who is performing maat," and therefore the innocent party. Maat also meant protecting the weak. Tomb autobiographies that describe the deceased's life as the pursuit of maat usually claim that he performed acts of charity for the impoverished, including distribution of food, drink, and clothing. Any official was expected to do justice by conforming to maat.
A written definition of maat in Egyptian texts has not survived. Yet surviving texts do describe the ideal life of living through maat in a series of texts scholars call instructions. Instructions exist from the Middle Kingdom (2008–1540 b.c.e.) through the Roman Period (332 b.c.e.–395 c.e.). The earlier texts stress guidelines for correct behavior in specific situations. They could include the proper way to behave on the street, in a public dispute, when appearing before a magistrate, as a houseguest, or as the head of a household. Maat also dictated proper relations with a wife, superiors, friends, and servants. In instructions formulated for princes, political advice also took the form of how to conform to maat. The Egyptians typically concentrated on specific situations rather than formulating broader guidelines.
Though obeying authority was integral to maat, not all forms of maat were passive. The instructions recognize that individuals must pursue maat actively. Otherwise the forces of chaos could overwhelm the world. Chaos, according to the pessimistic literature written following the First Intermediate Period (2130–2008 b.c.e.), had temporarily triumphed between the Old and Middle Kingdoms when there was no strong central government. Only with active effort can chaos be contained according to these texts.
In the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties (1292–1075 b.c.e.) some writers doubted whether humans had any control over maat. In the Instruction ofAny, the author linked maat with the god's capricious will. The Teachings of Amenemope calls maat the god's burden. Amenemope suggests that the gods give maat without any clear explanation of why some receive it and others do not. Yet even these two authors stress that humans must try to follow maat.
Maat and Afterlife.
If an individual lived according to maat, access to the afterlife was assured. In Coffin Texts Spell 816, a ritual for ensuring entry to the next life utilizes the power of maat. Maat also is integral to Book of the Dead Chapter 125. In this chapter the deceased describes in detail the actions he took and avoided in order to comply with maat. The illustrations for this chapter include weighing the deceased's heart against the symbol of maat. If the two are in balance, the deceased is able to enter the afterlife. Maat also played a role in uniting the deceased with the sun god Re, another goal for all Egyptians. Many hymns recorded in New Kingdom tombs stress the association of maat and Re. The Egyptians ultimately associated maat with the cemetery itself. It came to be called the "Place of Maat."
Erik Hornung, Idea Into Image (New York: Timkin, 1992): 131–146.
Emily Teeter, The Presentation of Maat: Ritual and Legitimacy in Ancient Egypt (Chicago, Ill.: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1997).