Ma'at: Definition & Principles in Ancient Egypt

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Ma'at was not just an Egyptian goddess, but an embodiment of the standards of order, morality, and balance, which were of utmost importance to the structure and functioning of Egyptian society. Learn more about her in this lesson.

Ma'at as Egyptian Goddess

You've probably heard about or seen statues of Egyptian deities like Anubis, the god with a jackal head, or Ra, the sun god, but did you know that the Egyptians had a goddess who was an embodiment of morality and justice, ideas that governed their whole society? This goddess was named Ma'at, and she was the daughter of Ra and married to the moon god, Thoth. Ma'at was the deity who guided ethics, morals, and justice, so she naturally helped determine who would make it to the afterlife and who would not. In Egyptian depictions of Ma'at, she usually has wings and a lone feather that represents truth. According to the Egyptians, she would weigh the hearts of the dead in a scale against her feather to determine whether they passed into the afterlife or simply ceased to exist.

Drawing of Maat in front of the tomb of Ramses III
Drawing of Maat in front of the tomb of Ramses III

Ma'at as Moral Standard

While Ma'at was a goddess, she was also the embodiment of the larger idea of order or balance, which was highly valued in a chaotic world. Ma'at was particularly important to the social structure of ancient Egypt because the people were focused on maintaining order in all things. The priests had the job of maintaining this order and were spokespeople for Ma'at, serving as judges on a variety of issues from murder to laziness. The priests would symbolize the truth and rightness of their sentences on crimes by drawing Ma'at's feather on their tongues.

Consequences of Chaos

Since Ma'at acted as the foundation of Egyptian law, it is not surprising that most individual Egyptians were careful to follow the laws of Ma'at and maintain order in their lives. Just as there were a variety of crimes punishable by the priests, there were a variety of punishments that fit the severity of the crimes. If a person was caught being lazy, they might be charged a monetary fine. If a person was caught stealing, they might have their hand cut off. If a person committed murder, they might be executed.

While these punishments were frightening enough to maintain order in Egyptian society, it was even more important to follow the laws to avoid negative consequences in the afterlife. After death, Ma'at would weigh the dead person's heart - symbolizing their thoughts, actions, and intentions - against her feather of truth on a scale. Anyone whose heart was at least equal to the feather could go with Osiris, the god of the underworld, to paradise. However, anyone whose heart was heavier, showing they had contaminated it with chaos, had their heart eaten by Ammut, a demon god with the head of a crocodile, and that person would no longer exist.

Egyptian scene of the heart of the dead being weighed against the feather of Maat by Anubis while Ammut waits to possibly devour the heart
Egyptian scene of the heart of the dead being weighed against the feather of Maat by Anubis while Ammut waits

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