The beautiful Neteret, the one with the epithet "She Who Guides Us." Who is She? And exactly where is She guiding us?
Her name is Ma'at, depicted as an outstandingly beautiful woman wearing an ostrich feather on Her head and long luxurious wings parallel to her arms. Ma'at's image invokes the totality of her personifications. She alone is the Neteret of Cosmic Order, Truth, Justice, and Rightness.
However, Ma'at is much more then a Neteret, She is Cosmic Order, Truth, Justice, and Rightness. Egyptologist Erik Hornug describes Ma'at as "The order, the just measure of things that underline the world, it is the perfect state of things toward which one should strive and which is in harmony with the creator Gods intentions." Kerry Wisner explains further: "Thus Ma'at is the state of purity and balance that existed at Tep Zepi ("The first time," or the beginning of creation.) and is sought to be maintained through ritual observation and proper living."
To the Ancient Egyptians, acts of offering are basic and fundamental to every rite. Daily in the temple, periodically in the tomb, cyclically in the sacred astronomy that determines Solar, Lunar, and Stellar events, offerings are made on behalf of the living, the dead, and especially to the Neteru. This sharing of goods is a vital component of social and religious observance. The interdependence, the sacred order of Life, and Ma'at is acknowledged through this act, as well as the metaphysical transference of power from material to spiritual form and its reversion to the mundane world once more. Formal offerings nurture the bonds between the visible and the invisible worlds by acknowledging power, and sharing the fruits of labor.
The offering of consumable goods is most often described in temple and tombs, which as we know can be found pretty much anywhere in Egypt today.
The most important aspect of the offering gesture is the expectation that it will be returned in another form there the necessity is operative -- the material that is offered becomes transformed by its contact with the Neteru. The ancient Egyptians believed that making use of this converted substance completes the circle and serves Ma'at.
However, the conception of Ma'at does not only hold metaphysical implications, She holds ethical ones as well.
The laws of nature, the laws of society, and the Divine commands all belong to the one category of what is "right." The creator put Ma'at (truth) in place of isfet (disorder).
The ancient Egyptians believed even the Neteru are to live by Ma'at, which means the powers immanent in nature function in accordance with the order of creation. The universe is changeless and all apparent opposites must, therefore, hold each other in equilibrium. As we see in the mythology of Heru and Set.
This puts a premium on whatever exists with a semblance of permanence. It excludes ideals of Utopias, revolutions, or any radical changes in existing conditions. (Hence why the Ancient Egyptians held onto their traditions so strongly and for so long, and why we're able to currently try and resurrect their religion.) It allows a man to strive after every excellence "until there be no fault in his nature."
The Egyptians did not believe the good life to be easily attainable. It is true that it could - and should - be taught from childhood, for, as Ptahhotep has it: "There is no child that of itself has understanding." And King Merikare was given the following instruction by his father: "Copy thy fathers who have gone before thee...Behold their words are recorded in writing. Open and read and copy him who knows. Thus he who is skilled becomes one who is instructed." Thus, true wisdom is true power, but above all one must be master of oneself under all circumstances, and then you shall live in accordance with Ma'at.
This brings us to the consequences that come with living in accordance with Ma'at. Yes, there are consequences! ::Grins:: If success is proof of harmony with the Neteru, it also imposes upon the man who is "right" the obligation of increasing the well-being of society by assisting those who are less fortunate!
"A man whom his God built up, should foster many" Also from Amenemope: "If thou finds a large debt against a poor man, make it into three parts; forgive two, let one remain; thou wilt find it a path of life; thou wilt lie down at night and sleep soundly. On the morrow thou wilt find it like good news." This profound experience of lasting satisfaction after a generous act was not caused by awareness of having obeyed a Divine commandment; it was a direct consequence of being in harmony with Ma'at. Righteousness produces joy, evil brings misfortune.
So what happens if we live by isfet (disorder)? Well, besides having our hearts heavier then the plume of Ma'at at death, and it getting eaten by The Devourer, we just live a seriously unhappy life, presumably, with no one surrounding us in love. For he who errs is not a sinner, as in our modern sense, but a fool, and his conversion to a better way of life does not require repentance but a better understanding.
When Amenemope states: "God is in His perfection, man is in his inadequacy" It merely expresses an existing situation and warns man against overconfidence. In the Egyptians universe man had his place, and that admittedly below Ma'at and the Neteru.
So as a last thought, think about how imperfectly individualized the Kemetic Neteru are and how they are immanent in nature. They're different in their spheres of action, but hardly in Their characters. And thus men stand in the same relation to all of Them. All of us, as all the Neteru function within the established order; the Neteru all live by Ma'at and consequently thy all hate untruth. We may say that in Egyptian thought Ma'at, the divine order, meditates between man and the Neteru. On the whole, when men err, they do not commit, in the first place, a crime against a Neter; he moves against the established order, and one Neter or Another, sees to it that the order is vindicated.
Untruth, falsehood, disorder, the opposite of Ma'at, is that of which one dies. It makes life impossible.
Now that I've rambled long enough, don't make your life impossible. Strive ever toward Ma'at and you'll do fine!
- "Ancient Egyptian Religion" by Henri Frankfort
- "Eye of the Sun" by Kerry Wisner
- "Sacred Magic of Ancient Egypt" by Rosemary Clark
- Ancient Egyptian Literature" by Miriam Lichtheim