Ma’at: The word that escapes us

My heart is with me
and it shall never come to pass
that it shall be taken away.

I am the Lord Of Hearts.
I am the Slayer Of The Heart.

I live on Ma’at,
and I have my being in Truth.
I am Horus, who dwells in the heart,
who dwells in the center of the body.

I live by saying what is in my heart,
and it shall not be taken away from me. 
My heart is mine, and it shall not be wounded.
No terror shall subdue me…  (From the Book of the Dead, Chapter 29)

The other day, I happened upon many previously unseen Kemetic blogs online.

One of the blogs I happened up on was Mystical Bewilderment (satsekhmet.wordpress.com). There I found the following post on Ma’at:http://satsekhem.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/kemetism-is-orthopraxic-live-in-maat/

This post lead me to reflect on Ma’at. The author makes the point that faith isn’t solely about a relationship with the divine; this is something I tend to forget. For a long, long time, that’s what my faith was about: building and maintaining a relationship with the divine. In this respect, my spiritual path has allowed me to meet this goal. However,  I have come to rediscover the purpose of my path. I want my path to give me a sense of peace. I want my path to give me that little quiet spot so that when my head is spinning, I still have a quiet spot within me to direct me wisely and remind me of what really matters.

On a Kemetic path, a relationship with the gods is sure to follow, but the primary goal for EVERYONE, it seems, is to uphold Ma’at. We as well as the gods can be a part of Ma’at’s ushering into our communities. At least, this is the vibe I’m getting. The gods are here to help us live within Ma’at. But what is that? The aforementioned author admitted that she didn’t know. And honestly, I’ll admit that I don’t really know either. What does it mean to live Ma’at?

The language barrier is enough to confound the question. Lots of people give plenty of approximations of its definition, but the exact meaning is difficult to grasp. Before setting out on an academic search, I meditated on an adapted snippet from the Book of the Dead, which I found in Naydler’s Temple of the Cosmos while looking up information on the heart and Ma’at:

My heart is mine,
It shall not be taken from me
No terror shall subdue me…

In the same chapter, Naydler makes the following points:

-The heart was thought of as pure
-the heart could “speak against you”; it remembered what you did in life and sort of took tabs on your actions. Since it was always in tune with Ma’at, it knew whether or not your actions were of Ma’at. It could be “heavy or light” with the knowledge of your actions.
-It was the “seat of the spiritual self”

(pages 185-187)

So, somewhere in my soul, there is a knowledge of Ma’at. With a good deal of thought and a little luck, I can come to understand Ma’at… I hope!

I think (and this is UPG) that within each of us there is a small smudge of the Divine. We are “made from the limbs of God” (BoD, plate XXVI). We are made of “the tears of Ra”. Certainly, if we are of Netjer’s light, tears, or from Khnum’s wheel, there is a remnant of Their Ka in us, left over from the birth of creation, however diluted by our humanity?

Following this personal belief is the belief that this same piece which houses our ancestral divinity is also that piece which houses our link to Ma’at–our ib (heart). The Netjeru know Ma’at; if we are linked to them, then we can know Ma’at, too (Assman, 1999).

This heart, this life line to Ma’at and link to the Netjeru can not be taken away–it is mine as long as I remember it (and even when I forget it). This is inspiring! Truly, no terror can subdue me when I have my heart! But alas! All of this is just my own imaginings. So, I went in search of other information. What is the nature of Ma’at?

**Before we begin, a note on cultural relativism: I abhor ethnocentrism. However, I am (1) only vaguely aware of Ancient Egyptian world views and (2) I am trying to put Ma’at in terms of modern applicability to my modern practice. So, I must admit that I’m sure some where, I am bound to misunderstand something I have read (especially since even scholars/translators/interpretors are ethnocentric, unknowingly, at times). In these cases, I beg of you to correct me if you see an error, and in any case forgive me!**

Major findings:

(a)       Ma’at is the order in the universe: Cosmic, social, state, and personal (Karenga, 2004 citing Obenga 1990; Van Blerk, 2009, Naydler 96). Above all, Ma’at is a cosmic order which should be reflected in the social, state and personal orders (Van Blerk, 2009 citing Bleeker, 67). Van Blerk also points out that the Pharoh created laws which were meant to bring Ma’at into the state. Laws could be created or reformed  by a Pharoh. The fact that laws could be reformed points to the practicality and relativism (to a degree) of Ma’at: If a law proves to cause disorder, it must be reformed. It may cause order at one time but disorder at another. Ma’at was about what worked: what REALLY makes life fair and equal for all people or as many people as possible?

(b)       Ma’at is an ideal theme (as opposed to a ideal norm, which sets standards for behavior). This means that instead of a list of what to do and what not to do, Ma’at is more of an idea what we should work towards as well as something which one can gain or lose in various degrees (Karenga, 2004).  You may live within Ma’at a great deal, a little bit, not at all, most of the time, etc. It begs the question whether actions, not just people, can fall somewhere on the “scale of Ma’at”. Can one action be more just than another, but still not the most just action? If we are just but not perfectly just, will it be held against us? (In my opinion (which is not based on academia but compassion), if we truly did try to make the fairest decision possible when objectively assessing our actions, I don’t think so…but remember how hard it is to be unbiased in our opinion of ourselves).

Karenga also takes a note from Mubabinge Bilolo and states that Ma’at has three ideals:

>a desire for knowledge
>”a moral ideal of justice”
>”ideal of love and knowledge of Being…” (2004)

To me, this seems to say that we must strive to be as educated/wise as possible, to try our best to improve ourselves and the world, and to know ourselves (as human personalities and beyond) and how to love.

These ideals make sense to me: the more educated you are, the more background knowledge you have to act on. If we have an ideal of justice, we have a standard to compare our actions against. If we know ourselves, we can better improve and mediate our actions. If we have an ideal of love, we can remember mercy and root our sense of justice in a genuine concern for others and ourselves and not simply a cold desire for what is correct.

We can judge how well we are living Ma’at by reflecting on how well we are able to function/help the order of society. One’s reputation as well as their own personal conscious can allow him to evaluate whether or not he is behaving well (Karenga, 2004, citing Anthes 1954).

(c)      Ma’at, as a term and concept, has no equivalent in Western culture. In literature, it has a diverse use and definition. For as general as Ma’at seems to be, there are also various Wisdom Texts which offer advice on how to live Ma’at. These texts mainly emphasize self control, equality in society, avoiding the abuse of political power, generosity/avoiding avarice, hearing the pleas of the poor/citizens with less power/the people you lead, honesty, kindness, humility, tolerance, open mindedness, and listening, to name but a few (Maxims of Good Discourse, Instruction of Hordedef, Instruction of Kagemni). Most if not all virtues are altruistic in nature and call for discipline. For example, in the Maxims of Good Discourse, one is instructed not to argue with superiors, to discuss things among equals, and to be patient with those who are below you in rank which argue with you (Dungen, 2002).  

(d)       People are responsible for upholding Ma’at in the world (as are the gods). The Pharoh was responsible for upholding Ma’at in the Two Lands (Van Blerk, 2009). He made the laws and enforced them in order to create Ma’at in the state. If he created just laws, he created Ma’at. However, if people choose not to follow laws or to otherwise act in ways which are against Ma’at, then they abolish the potential for Ma’at the laws created. In other words, homicide is illegal. This law is based in Ma’at, so this law can usher Ma’at into the state. However, if a citizen chooses to break this law, then their actions go against Ma’at and tip the scales ever so slightly in the direction of isfet/chaos/uncreation. When we choose not to kill, we uphold the law and also Ma’at. Law makers are responsible for making just laws, but it is up to us to follow them. We can usher Ma’at into the world with actions not limited to affairs of law. Acting with compassion or generosity can also uphold Ma’at.

Now that I’ve gone through a few of the things I found, how do we know how to do Ma’at? How to we uphold Ma’at in a way that is relevant to our own times and culture? We have guidelines and general understanding, but no rules (as countless other before me have lamented).

To me, this vague generality is the beauty of Ma’at. The fact that Ma’at is a guiding principal allows for the fact that in different situations, Ma’at can be different actions-but those actions are always “just”, “right”, “order”, “balance”, etc. It is up to us to decide what Ma’at is in each situation, time, and place. Medicine that helps one condition may exacerbate the other.

But what gives us the authority to decide whether an action is just or not? How can we know with certainty if our decision is truly within Ma’at?

Mancini states that the heart takes in and releases Ma’at (2004). Naydler says that “it was in the heart that a person opened him or herself up to Ma’at…The true wishes of the heart are mediated by reflection and attuned to Ma’at… For, as the organ in the body most associated with the spiritual self, the heart was essentially pure.” Naydler continues, “The heart, then, was a part of oneself that ultimately could not be identified with any of the desires, decisions, or actions that were out of tune with Ma’at” (1996). If  our heart is pure, as Naydler offers, we are inherently good. If we listen to our heart-as many wisdom texts well us-we can live Ma’at. Further, if there truly were no rules for following Ma’at (none has survived, but that does mean they didn’t exist), that lends itself to the fact that we can be trusted to discover and live Ma’at with out them. We have an intellect, a heart, and the  Gods. Someone trusts us to figure it out eventually.

That being said, not all of us are the best listeners. And even when we are, though we may be inherently good, nurture can have a large influence on and in many cases out weigh nature. If you are coming from a place that has sullied your self-confidence, ability to judge or feel compassion, or otherwise impairs you ability to hear the Ma’at your heart is whispering, what are we to do?

My suggestions are:

Consult the gods. They know Ma’at; they uphold it on a universal order everyday. In my experience, They wish me to fulfill my potential.
I feel They wish that for everyone.

Consult literature. The Wisdom texts, secular literature, and funerary
texts are prime sources, but why stop there? Don’t be afraid to
gain information from other pieces of work, modern or ancient.
Good discourse is more hidden than green stone, but it can be found
among the maids at the grindstone. (
Dungen, 2002). I’m going to
take some liberties with this and say that good discourse can be found
among people of any class and any nationality. Still, you are the one
who must decide the value of any and all discourse.

Look to nature. Ma’at is behind everything: animal instincts, plant
cycles, celestial rhythms, etc. Reflect on the workings of the natural
world. What purpose do those rhythms serve, and is their wisdom
applicable to anything in your life?

Reflect on all of the above and relate it to your life, values, and the context of your own culture. Think about all the things Ma’at encompasses: do you feel your conclusions are congruent with all that Ma’at is (orderly, just, fair, etc.)

Lastly, you may not always be faced with a specific dilemma. Sometimes, you just want to do Ma’at in general, because there isn’t always this big problem. In that case, I would say that to do Ma’at would be to live the values you have learned from your heart. Live the values you have learned from the Netjeru. And always reference the values you receive from your culture and community against the whispers of your heart and the objective values you have formed. Some of my own values are:

-Respect/Equal Rights for all persons
-Understanding/Compassion for others
-Doing your best/living up to your potential/being ambitious
-Giving back to your community via your relationships, career, or
hobbies
-Honoring and listening to my Netjeru
-Remembering/honoring my ancestors and the lessons they have
taught me

When I act, I consult my value system and think about the repercussions of my actions before doing anything (or at least I try to; sometimes I fail to do so, and make the wrong decisions).

In sum, I think Ma’at is about making a community a better place via your own actions and decisions within that community. These communities can be your family, your city, an organization, a university. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be Mother Theresa. But it does mean you have to think about your actions and consider others in those reflections. It doesn’t mean being a super nice person. A good friend tells you what you need to hear (in their opinion), not what you want to hear. At the same time, you don’t have to be rude about it.

I think Ma’at is also about making yourself a better person. Remembering that you are important, too! Yes, you should be kind to others–but we should also set limits and rules for ourselves. We should always be looking for ways to open our minds, become more learned, and strengthen our spirits. We should love ourselves, but we need to push ourselves. We are the ones who must decide for ourselves what our hearts whisper and how best to enact those whispers. We must discover our own actual limits. We must objectively come to see our own potential, and push ourselves to become ever better. Don’t give yourself excuses. When you know what you value and what you desire, achieve. Do not berate yourself because of or be embarrassed by failure. But don’t forget to reflect on your failure and improve your methodology. Learn to love yourself while also maintaining a sense of humility and ambition to improve yourself and the world. Whether that means fighting for the rights of a people or simply putting the shopping carts where they belong (http://peacefulawakenings.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/shopping-cart-theology/)

Follow your heart as long as you live.
Do no more than is required. (
Maxims of Good Discourse, Dungen)

I feel that I have not covered anything anyone else hasn’t already said, when I look at the general theme of this post. While I feel I have pinned this concept down for myself, I feel like it is still ethereal and hard to grasp for myself and our community. I shall leave you with this prayer that I composed while doing my research. My research is far from over. I’m quite excited about a book I have ordered: Ma’at: The Moral Ideal of Ancient Egypt. But then again, this is the sort of thing we never really reach an understanding about. We simply do our best to continually refine our thinking and actions.

“Lord of Ma’at
teach me Ma’at

Place Her in my heart
and give my heart voice

When my heart speaks,
bid me to listen

So that Her ways are mine
and Her road is revealed.”

Works Cited:

Assman, J. (1997). Moses the Egyptian.  London: Harvard University
Press.

Dungen, van den, W. (2002). The maxims of good discourse or the
wisdom of Ptahhotep ca 2200 BCE: The art of hearing, listening, and
excellent discourse
. Retrieved from:
http://www.maat.sofiatopia.org/ptahhotep.htm

Karenga, M. (2004). Ma’at, the moral ideal in Ancient Egypt: A study in
classical African ethics
. New York: Routlege. pp 3-25

Mancini, A. 2004. Ma’at revealed: Philosophy of justice in Ancient
Egypt
. USA: Buenos Books.

Naydler, J. (1996). Temple of the cosmos. Rochester, VT: Inner
Traditions International. pp94, 185-186.

Van Blerk, Nicolaas Johannes. (2009). The concept of law and justice in
Ancient Egypt with specific reference to The Tale of the Eloquent
Peasant
. (Doctoral Dissertation) Retrieved from: uir.unisa.ac.za/
bitstream/handle/10500/2447/dissertation.pdf

Egyptian Book of the Dead (Budge Translation)

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: KRT: To live Ma’at | Cards and Feather
  2. Trackback: Leibster Award! Thank you, Mark Green! | Cards and Feather

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