The concept of Ma’at was developed in response to the needs of the Egyptian State. The moment the nation state came into being, it became clear that a complex political unit such as Egypt required a framework: a body of rules. It was the framework–the body of rules–which was systematically thought out and authoritatively imposed; that could avert chaos.
The word ma’at itself meant ‘base’ and referred specifically to the base of a throne. Ma’at was the base on which the legal system of Egypt rested. Early kings were referred to as Lord of Ma’at and claimed to have conceived ma’at in their hearts. Ma’at was then decreed through the mouth via voice and speech.
With time, the concept of ma’at acquired a broader significance. The word was used to embody a principle of order that was so all-embracing that it governed every aspect of creation. From the equilibrium of the universe to the rotation of the seasons; from the movements of the heavenly bodies to the diurnal trajectory of the sun. On the human level, ma’at required proper observation of religious obligations and rituals by priests as well as fair dealing, honesty and truthfulness in personal relationships.
To Ancient Egyptians, Nature and society were viewed as two sides of one and the same reality. That which was harmonious and regular was an expression of ma’at. The hieroglyph of ma’at itself was the symbol for the primordial mound. Ma’at was seen as the base on which the ordered world rested. The concept harked back to The First Time: the pristine state of the world that the demiurge established when he climbed to the top of the primordial mound.
In Memphis, the earth deity Ptah was called the ‘Lord of Ma’at’. In Heliopolis, it was the Solar God Ra. Eventually, there came to be a goddess called Ma’at. She was related to the Sun God and was sometimes even referred to as his daughter. It is Ma’at who accompanied Ra as he sailed across the sky in his boat. Sometimes, she was even portrayed as the captain of the boat that stood at the prow. With Ma’at’s guidance, Ra could pursue a course whose straightness affirmed perfect and indestructible order.
Those who found themselves wronged could lay their complaints before Ra or Ptah with the faith that he would see that justice was done; for he was deemed to be a fair and incorruptible judge. The least privileged and most defenceless, in particular, could rely on his support. He supported orphans, the downtrodden and the poor against tyranny. Even a government official that had been unjustly dismissed could appeal to the Sun God to reinstate him and punish those who persecuted him.
The ideology held that by living in accordance with ma’at–and detesting everything that ran counter to it–one ensured that the strong did not oppress the weak.
Ra also relied on his secretary and deputy: the Moon God Thoth–who was referred to as his son. Like his daughter Ma’at, Thoth, too; was depicted at the prow of the boat. It was Thoth’s task to crush the opposition that Ra encountered during the voyage. Thoth was a deity who was endowed with the wisdom and insight that he needed in order to impose and maintain ma’at among the gods and humans. He was viewed as a powerful legislator, both in heaven and on earth.
It was Thoth who ensured that the various gods stuck to their proper spheres of activity. In human society, it was Thoth who saw to it that various professional bodies fulfilled their proper functions; that nations respected each other’s frontiers and that fields were kept within their proper boundaries.
Thanks to Thoth’s watchful eye, a human who transgressed against ma’at could expect to be punished–either in one’s lifetime or the afterlife. As an enemy of every form of disorder, Thoth was always on the watch to ensure that ma’at was respected throughout the universe.