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maat life accordance individual

For the ancient Egyptians the matter of ethics was firmly grounded in their religious world view, so much so that one scholar has written that “in the Egyptian’s terms, morality and religion can hardly be separated.” At the basis of all moral and ethical behavior in ancient Egypt was the concept of maat, which was also an essential element of kingship. It was every Egyptian’s duty to conduct his or her life in accordance with maat (truth), and to avoid committing deeds considered isfet (“wrongdoing”) or gereget (“falsehood”), the opposite of maat. In this way, the continued existence and prosperity of Egypt was assured. Our main source of knowledge concerning what behavior was in accordance with maat is the instruction literature from ancient Egypt. These texts, similar to the biblical book of Proverbs, date from the Old Kingdom to the Roman Period (2675 B.C.E. –395 C.E. ), and were used as exercises for student scribes. They are portrayed as books of practical wisdom written by famous sages in which they distilled their lifetime of experience concerning which actions were and were not in accordance with maat. Living a life in accordance with the principles of maat was not only good for Egypt, but also good for the individual, and the instruction texts assured the individual that living a life based on maat was the path to success.


Maat was not only good for the living, but was also beneficial to a person after death. In The Eloquent Peasant , the peasant exhorts his audience (and the reader) to “speak maat, do maat, for it is great; it is important; it is everlasting; its usefulness will be discovered; it will lead (a person) to a blessed state (after death).” The ancient Egyptians believed in a post-mortem judgment of the individual, symbolized as the weighing of his or her heart against the feather, a writing of the word maat. The earliest hints of such a judgment appear in the Pyramid Texts (2371–2194 B.C.E. ), but the first certain reference of a post-mortem ethical judgment is found in the First Intermediate Period (2130–2008 B.C.E. ) text known as the Teachings for Merykare , where reads “a man survives after death, and his deeds are laid before him in a heap.” In the Coffin Texts , it is the balance of Re which weighs the individual against maat. The idea of post-mortal judgment reaches its peak during the New Kingdom (1539–1075 B.C.E. ) in the Book of the Dead , Spell 125. This spell is accompanied by an elaborate scene, showing Osiris presiding over the weighing of the heart of the deceased against the feather of maat, while the 42 judges watch. The god Thoth is present to assure the accuracy of the balance, and to record the results. Standing nearby is the demon Amemet, who swallows the dead. He gobbles up the heart which fails to measure up to maat, assuring the eternal destruction of the sinner.


In order to prevent the deceased from suffering this fate, the scene was accompanied by a text that scholars call the Negative Confession . This spell consists of two long lists of denials of wrong-doing by the deceased. One list is spoken before Osiris, the other before the 42 assessor demons/judges. A study of the lists reveals the types of activities the Egyptians believed were contrary to maat. Deeds found in the lists include blasphemy, thievery, murder, damaging offerings to the temples, being dishonest in weights and measures, and stealing cattle from the temple herds. Sexual sins such as adultery, pederasty, ejaculation, and copulation (when in violation of purity regulations) also turn up. Less physical offenses include coveting, lying, sulking, “prattling,” and boasting.


The negative confession placed a heavy burden on an Egyptian wishing to live a life in accordance with maat. The question has been raised as to what extent the list of offenses in the confession served as a guide to daily life. The purpose of the Book of the Dead was to provide the deceased with safe passage to the afterlife, and by including spell 125 the deceased purchased for himself absolution of his sins. In view of the fact that living a life in accordance with maat was thought to lead to success, and that the declarations of innocence were not made only after death, but by the king during the New Year’s ceremony and by priests entering temples to perform their duties, it is probable that the lists did serve as a general code of conduct for at least some Egyptians.


But what happened when someone committed an offense against maat and against the gods? The gods showed their displeasure with an individual by means of a bau (“curse”). A person under the curse of a god could be described as being, as in this Rames-side inscription, “… the abomination of men. The sun does not rise in his presence, while the inundation does not flow for him. He is a mouse surprised by the inundation; he cannot find a place to rest himself. He is a bird caught by the wings by the hand of man; he finds no means of flying away.” One sinner, Neferabu, admits in his stele that he swore falsely by Ptah, and as a result he was made to see darkness by day. He described his condition as that of “the dogs of the street.” The occasion for dedicating the stele was apparently Neferabu’s release from Ptah’s “dog-house.” Other deeds which are recorded as bringing about a manifestation of the gods’ displeasure are stealing, lying, and the most common offense, committed by the hapless Neferabu, swearing a false oath in a god’s name.


Once under a manifestation of a god, a person had to appease the offended deity to have the manifestation removed. This involved confession, as on Neferabu’s stele, making offerings of incense, and perhaps dedicating a votive stele to the god recording praise to the god and promising that the infraction will not occur again. There were occasions, however, when a person fell under the manifestation of a god without knowing what the offense was. In that case, the Egyptian could consult a “wise woman” in his village. One New Kingdom ostracon (inscribed potsherd) from Deir el-Medina records the visit of an unnamed individual to the wise woman who told him “the manifestation of Ptah is with you” because of an oath sworn by his wife. How exactly a wise woman arrived at her information is not recorded. Demotic texts from the Ptolemaic and Roman period record various methods of divination, but whether they were practiced as early as the New Kingdom is unknown.


The ancient Egyptians had several inducements to live a life in accordance with maat. Those who attended school were taught that the path to success lay in keeping maat. The reward for living a life according to the principles of maat was a pleasant existence in the next life. Finally, those who chose to violate the norms of maat stood in danger of incurring the wrath of an offended god, which could result in blindness or any number of other misfortunes.


Joris F. Borghouts, “Divine Intervention in Ancient Egypt and its Manifestation (baw),” in Gleanings from Deir el-Medîna . Eds. R. J. Demarée and J. Janssen (Leiden, Netherlands: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, 1982): 1–70.

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