About Ma’at

This is my first post for this year’s Pagan Blog Project. I’m not sure if I’ll stick with the alphabet theme or if these posts will be particularly long or coherent, but I want to get back into writing (don’t I say that every year?) and I might as well start now.

Several days ago I wrote in my spiritual journal about ma’at, my conceptions of the concept/force thus far, what it meant to me, and how very far I had to go. Between a conversation with other Kemetics that left me more confused than before — a good kind of confused though, the kind that makes you grow up big and strong! — and a death in the family, I’m not sure if the original words mean the same to me now as they did even a week ago. Funny how fast life changes.

But it’s a new year, a new lunar cycle, a new semester, a new life, and Zep Tepi starts us anew every second of our lives. So I thought, why not write a bit more about ma’at now, off the cuff and (one hopes) from the heart and see where that takes me?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about gods and ancestors and spiritual praxis and such and it occurs to me that the many starts and restarts of my religious lives have been spent on… well, perhaps not the most important elements. Not that the gods are not important, or that ritual can’t play a central role in one’s religious life, but when it comes right down to it those aren’t the core of what I need. I keep thinking about this in terms of disease (which probably says more about my current mental and emotional state than anything) and assuming that the cause of a “good religious life” for myself would be relationship with deities, some regular ritual practice, philosophizing and theologizing, when really… those should be the “symptoms” of a good religious life. Having my core… thing set up for my religious life should, according to the theory that’s cooking in my head, facilitate a religious life that has gods and ritual and ancestors and such as part of the tapestry.

I know I’m mixing like twenty metaphors together; thank you for bearing with me. One of the limitations of language is I can’t directly transfer emotions to someone else’s brain, which would make this communication thing much easier. 🙂

Anyway, the point is: I already have a sort of “core religious thing” I’ve carried around for quite awhile that transcends whatever religious affiliation is happening to me on a given day. More than once I’ve described social justice as being my religion and I have certain values that cause me to act and believe in certain ways. I won’t go into my personal social justice philosophy right now, but suffice to say this world is a mess and I just need to rule it and someone really should do something about that, yeah? And that someone can be me. I can’t save the whole world but I can do things to make it suck less. I can care about people more than some fluffy, universal love that starts and stops with prayer.* My actions and words mean things and I can act in ways that make the world a little better and safer for folks who have the odds stacked against them. I might not be able to move mountains but I can change my tiny bit of the world.

(*My intention here wasn’t to disparage prayer or universal love at all; to the contrary I think they’re very powerful forces! I meant more that in my church growing up, there were a lot of words tossed around about caring for people, but that care didn’t go much further than praying (quite publicly, in front of other people to show off one’s own piety) to God for Him to help whomever.)

So it occurs to me that I really, really need to sit down and figure out ethics, if that’s even the word for this. (I made a post recently on the Cauldron trying to find definitions for “ethics” and “morality,” which has some pretty interesting replies on it. I should really respond to my own threads at some point!) I’m a Unitarian Universalist and social justice is a huge part of what makes UUism UU. I’m a somewhat lapsed follower of Brighid, Who in more than a few manifestations is a champion of the outcasts and rejects of society. And I’m a not-so-new-anymore Kemetic, which means… ma’at.

Ma’at is something I can understand if I don’t think about it too much and it makes sense on a gut level, but that sense doesn’t always translate to higher level thinking. Which is not to say I want to turn off my logical/rational brain when approaching ma’at, but I recognize that it is a concept from a different time and different place than early 21st century America and understanding ma’at is going to take a significantly different tool set than what I was given by my surrounding culture.

To call ma’at simply “ethics” is missing the point. Ma’at is That Which Is and The Way Things Are. Cause and effect are part of ma’at, but not in the sense of Hindu and Buddhist karma. But at the same time, one “example” of ma’at that works for me is for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If I do something, other things happen that I need to take responsibility for. Everything is connected, everything has the potential to work with ma’at. (Which is different from working within ma’at, but I’m not sure I have the ability to parse that right now.) From how I’ve understood it thus far, ma’at is the force that that brings swinging pendulum back into balance, except that example gives too much credit to balance-as-stasis over balance-as-dynamism. Again, words aren’t helping and I think I’m grokking something on a gut deep level and my brain is frantically trying to catch up.

Speaking of grokking things and weird science metaphors, the law of conservation of energy somehow “explains” ma’at and isfet to me. Ma’at is the conservation of energy, the transformation of everything. Death, disease, and destruction are or can be part of ma’at, or under ma’at’s purview, or as full of ma’at-ness as birth, health, and creation. Isfet, on the other hand… it’s that impossible screwing with the system we can’t even properly understand. It’s something that’s not just wrong in a moral sense, but in the sense it just shouldn’t be. (That’s partially why I’ve been having problems with ma’at as an inherently moral concept as opposed to a concept from which morals may be derived… but again, I’m not sure I have the ability to do that subject justice right now, and this post is getting long enough as it is.) If ma’at is what brings us back to Zep Tepi, the first moment of creation where truth and justice and balance were the order of the day, then isfet is what pulls us farther away from that time, or is what is created when we move out of tandem with ma’at, but that metaphor is flawed too. And speaks way too closely to the myth of the Fall from Eden.

See what I mean about needing a different worldview than the one my culture gave me?

At any rate, wrestling with the concept of ma’at and what it means in living my life is something that feels grounding, feels needed in my life. I’m not always sure if I believe in the gods and ritual can be an emotional disappointment and I don’t even know if I LIKE most of my ancestors enough to talk with them, but how I should live and act in this world? That’s something I’m always going to care about no matter what shape my religion takes.

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8 thoughts on “About Ma’at

  1. >>I already have a sort of “core religious thing” I’ve carried around for quite awhile that transcends whatever religious affiliation is happening to me on a given day. More than once I’ve described social justice as being my religion and I have certain values that cause me to act and believe in certain ways. <<

    This, along with a few of the other "assesment"-type posts some of the gang at TC has really gotten me thinking lately. Mostly, I get no farther than, "Oh! Yes, of course that is *their* core thing and that makes perfect sense. Wonder what mine is?"

    Which is to say, I have nothing really relevant to add to all your musings, but I wanted you to know I'm listening and reading and thinking! 🙂

  2. Monstrous comment of opinions and thoughts ahoy! You aren’t the only one who’s been thinking about this stuff. :p Kind of nice to know, isn’t it?

    Maat is a tricky subject and how you interpret it depends on how you want to approach it. I personally feel like multiple approaches are the most “correct” (so far as one can be correct on this topic).

    Maat is, in part, a morality system. It is not comprised of absolutes like some systems are, though if you read ancient Egyptian literature you will see plenty of “dos” and “do nots”. (For example, do not egg on someone who’s already angry.) If we see maat as a morality system, then maat becomes a way of establishing right relationship with your family, friends, strangers, spirits, Netjeru, etc. Because maat contains no absolutes, how a person goes about establishing these right relationships will vary based on numerous factors.

    Maat is also the ancient Egyptian equivalent of reciprocity. Do for one person so that he may do for you. In this sense, maat becomes an action-response loop that is only broken when someone fails to do for someone else when someone has done for them. (Holy crap, did that last sentence make sense?) Those who do not do for someone else have no sense of history or gratitude, which excludes them from reciprocity. Reciprocity requires action.

    Maat is also a social system that helps define how we should treat each other to ensure a smoothly functioning society. This ties in with morality and reciprocity, but is so important it deserves to be mentioned separately. Maat establishes the best way to carry yourself so you don’t drive your fellow human beings crazy (gods and spirits don’t factor in at this level). Ancient Egyptian literature is chockfull of rules and guidelines for how to act around each other. For example, in one text, debtors are told to divide a debt into thirds and only pursue one third of that debt. Those with boats are asked to ferry across the river those who can pay and those who can’t alike.

    Maat has parallels with Hindu dharma. Dharma is religious, moral, and ethical duty. Maat has a sense of religious, moral, and ethical duty in it, too, though obviously not in the same way as dharma. Interestingly enough, there are different levels of dharma, which I have been trying to line up with maat (without straying too far from the ancient Egyptian sense of the word): individual, family, society, national, mankind. Yay for syncretism.

    Maat seems to hint that the world is dual. There is order/chaos; health/illness; destruction/protection (or preservation); life/death; etc. The world is dual and it goes through these dualities in a cycle. Leaving the cycle is a disruption of maat, returning to it is a restoration. At a mythic or esoteric level, this indicates that, no matter how chaotic or off-balance things are at the moment, they can return if we know how to restore balance. You see this in the myth cycles, most notably in the Ausirian cycle of myths, but also with the Eye of Ra myths.

    Isfet is roughly translated as “wrong” or “wrongdoing”. Whatever disturbs maat is, at least temporarily, isfet. So Set’s actions in the Ausirian cycle are, until order is restored, of the isfet nature. Some forms of isfet are more or less permanent, like that fallen one and his never-ending attempt to swallow the sun. What maat binds, isfet unravels. What maat creates, isfet destroys.

    The only isfet that is truly evil seems to be the one that can’t be rehabilitated, like that fallen one who came from Atum (or Nit, depending on your theology). That something so awful may have come from the creator does indicate that perhaps even the Netjeru shining bright have some foulness in them. As do we mortals. Unfortunate thought!

    You might be interested to hear that Jan Assman defines maat as “connective justice” (Mind of Egypt, can’t cite, sorry).

    If you’re interested in getting a better feel for what maat might have meant to the ancient Egyptians, I recommend reading Lichtheim’s three-volume literature set. This book is really good, too: http://www.amazon.com/The-Literature-Ancient-Egypt-Autobiographies/dp/0300099207/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1389145046&sr=8-4&keywords=ancient+egyptian+literature. It gives a wide sample of literature from different time periods. The translations are very good and very readable. The notes on difficult parts of various texts are sometimes better than the notes in Lichtheim’s work.

    Do note that some translations are a little more fanciful than others. Lichtheim is more faithful to the originals, I think. Avoid John L Foster’s anthology. His goal was to render ancient Egyptian texts into poetry. This he does admirably, but his translations are the most fanciful out of all the authors I’ve recommended and he gives the Wisdom Texts short shrift.

    Jan Assman’s Mind of Egypt gives a sense of how maat developed over Egypt’s history. You may need to read the book more than once to get the entire sense, though, so don’t bother if that sounds tedious to you.

    • Ahhh thank you so much for your thorough comment! I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate your response and I’ll give a proper reply when I’ve got more time and spoons. So many things to think about!

  3. I’ve been doing the same pondering about what the core of my religion is. For me, I think it’s the Xartus. Which is not TOO far removed from Ma’at as a concept, once you take the metaphors out.

  4. Pingback: Balance | Sage and Starshine

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