Maat is an ancient Egyptian spiritual and ethical concept with multiple meanings. Its etymology suggests its evolution from the physical concept of straightness, correctness, levelness, and rightness. In its most basic conception, Maat is “the right” or “rightness,” but Maat also connotes the expansive range of meaning indicated in its various forms: rights, rightful, rightfulness, upright, uprightness, righteous, righteousness. The ancient Egyptians saw Maat as a divine power called into being at the beginning of creation by the creator, Ra. Maat, then, is a principle and power constitutive of creation itself. This is expressed as a divine order of rightness that permeates existence and gives life to all living things. Maat requires and demonstrates this order of rightness in the divine, natural, and social realms. Thus in the practice of Maat, practioners seek to have and maintain right relations with the divine, nature, and other humans.
An Ethical System
Maat is also a way of rightness, a moral and spiritual ideal by which people organize and live their lives. The ancient Egyptian phrase for this is w3t n M3át or Wat en Maat, meaning “the Way of Maat.” In the Sebait (“instructions”) of Ptahhotep in the sacred text called the Husia, Maat is described thus: “Maat is great, enduring, effective. And it has not been displaced since the time of its Creator. It is a way even for the unlearned, and those who violate its laws are punished though the covetous person overlooks this. Although baseness may seize wealth, wrongdoing never lands is wares [at a safe port]. In the end it is Maat that endures and enables one to say it is the ground of my father [and mother].” In the Husia, many speak of Maat. Dua-Khety says of Maat, “Behold I have placed you on the way of God.” King Horemheb says, “I have directed them to the way of life. I have led them to Maat.” Lady Tahabet says, “Come, I will guide you on the way of Maat, the good route of one who follows God.” And the Seba Akhtoy says, “I spread out my instructions before you. I bear witness to you concerning the way of life [Maat]. I set before you a path that is painless. A palisade which protects against the crocodile. A good and pleasant life, a shade without heat.”
Maat, as an ethics and way of life, is the practice of rightness in thought, emotion, speech, and conduct. The Way of Maat is defined especially by the Seven Cardinal Virtues of Maat: truth, justice, propriety, harmony, balance, reciprocity, and order. In this context, the individual develops into the geru maa, the truly self-mastered person who speaks truth, does justice, acts appropriately, and is in harmony, balanced, and reciprocal and whose life is in order (i.e., disciplined and thus characterized by a rightfully expected regularity of doing good).
A Revived Tradition
Since the 1980s, Maat has become a revived ethical and spiritual tradition for many Africans in the diasporia and on the continent. Acting on Cheikh Anta Diop's call to recover and reconstruct ancient Egyptian culture and use it to enrich and expand African life, many have embraced Maat as principle and practice for achieving this. In his major work on the subject, Maat, the Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics (2004), Maulana Karenga discusses the evolution and essential tenets of this ancient and renewed tradition. Furthermore, he has translated and edited ancient Egyptian sacred texts and compiled them in a sacred text called The Husia: Sacred Wisdom of Ancient Egypt. The text takes its name from the ancient Egyptian for the two divine powers by which the creator conceived and called the world into being. They are Hu—“authoritative utterance” and Sia—“exceptional insight.” Thus, the name Husia means “authoritative utterance of exceptional insight.” For in the creation process, Ra conceives the world in his heart-mind and calls it into being with the word. In the renewed Maatian tradition, the name reaffirms the authoritative, deeply insightful, and sacred character of the text.
Some of the basic concepts in the Maatian tradition are addresssed in the Husia, such as the human as the image of God; the dignity of the human; the requirement of standing worthy before God, nature, and others; the necessity of moral and social excellence, especially as expressed in the Seven Cardinal Virtues, the Declarations of Virtue, and the Declarations of Innocence; the essentiality of service; the cultivation of the sedjemic person; and the concepts of judgment, justification, and immortality.
The renewed Maatian tradition takes as its fundamental point of departure the concept that humans are bearers of divinity and dignity. These two terms are interlocked as they evolve from the oldest recorded evidence of moral and spiritual teachings that humans are in the image of God. This concept was first advanced in 2140 B. C. E. in the Book of Kheti in the Husia, which says “humans are the images of God” (snn ntr, senen netcher) and came from his very person. From this evolved the concept of the inherent worthiness or dignity (Špsw, shepesu) of human beings. It is a transcendental and equal worthiness that cannot be denied or diminished by social status or any other external condition or attribute. This concept of human dignity is clearly stressed in the Husitic text, in the Narrative of Djedi, in which the sage Djedi tells the king he can neither experiment on nor kill a nameless prisoner. For the prisoner, in spite of his dishonored status, is still a noble (shepes) image of God.
Worthiness (im3h, imakh) before God, nature, and others is essential to the Maatian moral project. It represents a concept of the interrelatedness of moral worthiness in every area of life. Thus, to stand worthy before God means and requires a worthiness in relation to and before nature and other humans. This is based again on the concept of Maat as an interrelated order of rightness. In King Unas's text in the Husia, Unas says that he comes before God, standing worthy, bearing Maat, free of accusation by any divine being, bird, beast, or human—living or dead. Thus, he seeks to justify his quest for immortality by worthiness before God, nature, and humans.
Worthiness before humans and nature is achieved by practice of the Seven Cardinal Virtues and other virtues in the Declaration of Virtues and the Declarations of Innocence in the Husia, which leads to the development of character. In addition, worthiness before nature requires practice based on the concept of srwd t3, serudj ta—the moral obligation to constantly repair, heal, and restore the world— making it more beautiful and beneficial than it was when it was inherited. More expansively, it means to raise up that which is in ruins, to repair that which is damaged, to rejoin that which is severed, to replenish that which is lacking, to set right that which is wrong, to strengthen that which is weakened, and to make flourish that which is fragile and undeveloped. Thus, Rediu Khnum in the Husia says, “I restored what I found ruined. I rejoined what I found severed and I replenished what I found depleted (or lacking).” Likewise, Petosiris says, “I made magnificent what I found ruined in its place. I restored what was damaged.” And Ramses III asserts, “I restored the whole land.”
Service, especially to the most vulnerable in the community and society, is a central tenet of Maatian ethics. Here, other directedness is seen as central to our moral and spiritual grounding as humans and to creating and sustaining the good society and world. It is this ancient tradition which argued that one can measure the moral quality of a society by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Therefore, the Husia says we should give “bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked and a boat to crossover for the boatless; be a father to the orphan, a mother to the timid, a help to the widow, a shelter for the battered, a staff of support for those of old age, a refuge for the wretched, a raft for the drowning and a ladder for those in the pit [of despair].” Moreover, in the Husia, Seba Ankhsheshonqi says: “Serve God that he may protect you. Serve your brothers and sisters that you may enjoy a good reputation. Serve a wise person that s/he may serve you. Serve anyone who serves you. Serve any person that you may benefit from it and serve your mother and father that you may go forward and prosper.”
A Cultivation of the Sedjemic Personality
The Maatian moral tradition also seeks to cultivate the sedjemic or hearing person, as opposed to the sekhetic or nonhearing person. The expansive meaning of the word sdm, sedjem—“to hear, listen”—is to be responsive and responsible. Thus, a sedjemic person is responsive to and responsible toward the divine, nature, and others, in contrast to the sekhetic person, who is unresponsive and irresponsible. Seba Ptahhotep teaches that “hearing is better than everything,” for “it creates good will.” Moreover, in the Declarations of Innocence, one asserts as part of her or his justification, “I have not been deaf to truth [Maat],” which is a parallel claim to the declaration “I have not been blind to injustice.” This deafness to truth is another way of saying being unresponsive to the demands and requirements of Maat. And the responsiveness called for are deeds that respond to human need, sensitivity to the needs of the environment, and deference to the will of the divine.
Both deafness to Maat and what the Book of Khunanpu calls “blind[ness] to what one should see” (i.e., isfet, meaning “wrongness, injustice”) are metaphors for moral insensitivity and ethical unresponsiveness and irresponsibility to others. Thus Maatian ethics argues that persons with such blindness are disabled in their humanity and vitiate moral community. This ethics of responsiveness is rooted in a deep appreciation for the virtue of reciprocity. A locus classicus of this stress on the reciprocal nature of good is found in the text of Lady Ta-Aset, who says, “doing good is not difficult. In fact, just speaking good is a monument for those who do it. [Indeed] those who do good for others are actually doing it for themselves.” They are in fact building the moral community and good world they and all others want and deserve to live in.
Finally, the renewed Maatian ethical tradition embraces the ancient concept of judgment that carries with it two other interrelated concepts, justification and immortality. These three concepts, along with the idea of humans as bearers of divinity and dignity, represent some of ancient Egypt's and thus Africa's most significant and enduring ethical and spiritual legacies to humanity. The concept of judgment after death, as moral theorists have argued, represented a major development in the moral thought of humanity and acted as a counterweight and check on the excesses of holders of absolute power on earth. As early as the Book of Unas in the Husia, the pharaoh recognizes that he is subject to the demands of Maat and says he comes before the creator after death, wishing to be judged by what he has done and given eternal life in reward for his righteousness.
A Process of Judgment
The definitive text for the judgment, justification, and granting of eternal life is The Book of Coming Forth By Day, especially Chapter 125. In it, the day of judgment is called the “Day of Assessing Characters” and the “Day of Great Reckoning.” This again reveals a stress on virtue and character as expressed in the Declarations of Virtue and the Declarations of Innocence. In the process of judgment, the resurrected person must declare himself or herself innocent of offenses against God, nature, and others. These declarations are known as the Declarations of Innocence and are mainly declarations of innocence of offenses against other humans. In fact, the first declaration is “I have not done evil to humans.” But, as noted above, these offenses, like the realms of existence and obligation—the divine, nature, and society, are interrelated and thus offenses in any realm have implications in the others.
In conclusion, the quest for immortality is a desire not only to live in the afterlife of the spirit world but also to continue as a powerful presence on earth through a legacy of work and service, and thus to endure in the minds of the people. This is succinctly stated in the Husia in the text of Satephu, which says, “A glorious spirit in heaven, a continuing power on earth, justification in God's domain, resurrection after death. These are the rewards of the righteous person and a righteous person is one who receives them. He will be counted among the ancestors. His name will endure as a monument. And what he has done on earth shall never perish or pass away.” It is within this framework that practitioners who follow the Way of Maat cultivate character, serve the people, and leave a legacy worthy of an enduring presence and praise both in heaven and on earth.
- sacred text
- ancient Egypt
- Assman, Jan. (2002). The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs. New York: Metropolitan Books. This is one of the best works on the nature of Egyptian civilization in the time of the pharaohs.
- Karenga, Maulana. (1987). The Husia: Sacred Wisdom of Ancient Egypt. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press. This is the first English translation and interpretation of the fundamental ethical principles in the ancient Egyptian text.
- Karenga, Maulana. (2004). Maat, the Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics. New York: Routledge. This book seeks to establish the intellectual basis for the rediscovery of African moral ideals.