Casandra Birrell

the abstract goddess of harmony, justice, truth and order

Maat is the governing principle of the creation motif.  It is Maat who brings order and system to the universe.

The Goddess Maat is central to every aspect of Egyptian life.  Not only is she pivotal in the ideology of kingship, her influence filters down to the ordinary people, seen particularly at the end of the 6th Dynasty and the First Intermediate Period.  It was at this time that kings were as servants and servants were as kings.  Maat had withdrawn her support.   Pharaoh had not protected the people against famine and suffering;  kingship had not ruled wisely.

As the abstract, empirical and intuitive goddess, the presence of Maat maintains order in the land and yet she is also the principle of ethical and moral order.  It can, therefore, be understood why the pharaoh offers a small image of Maat to the gods in daily sacrifice.  This was worth more than material offerings.

Images of Maat always show her with a feather on her head and sometimes with outstretched wings or a feather in her hand.

Mythology tells us that Maat is the wife of the god Thoth, the wise, multi-talented god of writing, who was also the judge of the dead.  But it was the feather of Maat that was weighed against the truthfulness of the heart of the deceased in the Book of the Dead.  She was often depicted in the Weighing of the Heart ceremony, perched on top of the scales, checking the balance.   It was Maat who heard the Negative Confession directed to the 42 gods of the sacred tribunal and each of these gods held the symbolic feather of Maat.  Even officials of the earthly ancient courts wore an image of Maat when judgements were passed out.

She is described as the daughter of the sun God Re and was also associated with Ptah, the creator god of Memphis.  His iconography shows him standing on the hieroglyph for Maat – Truth.

Maat has at her core the indefinable right order.  This is a human concept rather than supernatural and yet it centres on the ideal.  Maat is a concept recognised throughout the ages, even up to the present time. (Ref 1). 

One of the most important roles of the kings of Egypt was the preservation of Maat.  Pharaoh must rule and maintain order in accordance with her principles.  The king’s rule must be wise, just and balanced because he was the intermediary between the gods and the people.  The myth of Osiris affirms that the wisdom of kings is central to a just rule.  The same concept is seen in the wisdom of Solomon in the Old Testament, but Maat must not be confused with the Christian idea of righteousness.

Thus the pharaohs of Egypt must maintain order over chaos.  The visual image of the warrior king was potent to the ancient Egyptians where literacy was a mere 1% of the population.  The smiting motif is seen on smaller items such as the Narmer Palette as well as on monumental structures.  The king’s arm is raised to strike down the enemy. 

And finally Maat is an abstract goddess.  Yet the 42 principles of Maat in the Book of the Dead reveal that the ancient Egyptians had an awareness of human nature. There is a small Ptolemaic temple to Maat the Hathor at the Deir el Medina.

The Iconography of Maat –

  • she is depicted either standing or sitting on her heels
  • on her head is the ostrich feather – the hieroglyph of her name; truth and justice
  • sometimes the feather alone symbolises Maat
  • the plinth on which Ptah stands if the hieroglyph of truth – Maat
  • she is occasionally shown as holding the feather in her hand.

Ref  1

Gertie Englund in The Religion of the Ancient Egyptians – Human experience tells us, however, that states of order, harmony and balance are fragile and impermanent.  This is the way it has always been. Life is composed of constructive and destructive forces. Life must be carefully looked after in order to subsist.  To Englund, Maat, as the daughter of the creator god Re, is the generative principle of the universe (1989: 23).

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