An ostrich feather, the symbol for Ma’at
Ma’at is an ancient Egyptian word that has no precise translation into English, but which generally corresponds to our concepts of “truth,” “order,” “justice,” “balance” and “what is right.” It’s both a principle created by Ra at the dawn of time and a Goddess with a distinct will and personality of Her own. But when I use the term, I’m usually referring to Ma’at as a principle.
Ma’at is a social, political, spiritual and environmental bond that exists between all people, animals, Gods and spirits (especially ancestors), and it’s all about reciprocation. Neighbors must treat each other with respect and help each other in times of need. Citizens must support their leaders, and leaders must do what’s best for their citizens. Animals must be treated well and protected from extinction in return for when we use them as food. Forests must be replenished when trees are cut down for wood. Our ancestors must be honored in exchange for raising us, and we must make offerings to the Gods in return for Their blessings. In other words, Ma’at is the act of treating all beings – from the highest Deity to the littlest woodland critter – with dignity. It’s the act of giving as much as we receive in this life, and it’s the basic building block of reality itself. Without Ma’at, everything that’s real would become unreal and revert back to chaos.
Unfortunately, Ma’at is not guaranteed. We each have a part to play in its maintenance, and even the smallest moral decisions can have massive ripple effects on the rest of the world. Just smiling at a complete stranger and wishing them a nice day could be all it takes to prevent the world from falling apart. On the other hand, just saying something nasty to that same stranger could give
Apophis the one entrance it needs to slither into our reality. We have no way of knowing just what kind of chain reaction an act of blatant disregard for Ma’at can have, and history is full of horrific examples. So it pays for us to treat every moral decision that comes our way as the one decision that could potentially cause or prevent the apocalypse. We must all weigh the consequences of our actions very carefully and try to do what’s best for everyone, not just for ourselves. More than anything, this is the single most important principle that I try to follow in my life.
The opposite of Ma’at is called isfet, which translates to mean “disorder,” “falsehood,” “imbalance,” “iniquity,” “injustice” or “that which is not right.” In my opinion, isfet corresponds to what the Hopi call koyaanisqatsi, or “life out of balance.” If the whole of Ma’at is like a glorious mansion built by the Gods, isfet is like water seeping into the basement of that house, threatening to erode its foundation back into nothingness. Furthermore, isfet is neither normal nor natural; it’s completely alien to our cosmos, and its presence in our world is always an intrusion, a violation, a rape. It’s brought into this world through the efforts of
Apophis, the Backward Face and the Enemy of all Gods and creatures, which I’ve already discussed at length here.
The dichotomy of Ma’at and isfet isn’t quite as simple as one might think, for things aren’t always categorically good or bad. For example, Seth-Typhon and
Apophis are both forces of chaos, but Seth’s chaos is good for the universe while that of Apophis isn’t. Seth might have killed Osiris – which certainly seems like a terrible and evil thing to do – but if Osiris never died, He’d never have risen from the dead, Horus would never have been conceived, and we’d all go to the same dark and scary place when we die (regardless of how good or deserving of a happy afterlife we might be). Seth’s chaos is an essential part of Ma’at, causing productive change and moving things forward. But the chaos of Apophis isn’t necessary at all in the grand scheme of things; if it ever succeeded in devouring Ra, everything – including the Gods – would simply cease to exist for all time. Apophis wants to move things backwards or stop them from moving altogether.
Another way to think of it is to think of birth and death. We normally think of birth as a “good” thing, but what happens when too many creatures in the same species are born and not enough of them die out? That species throws their entire ecosystem right out of whack, and every other species will suffer for it. Yes, even death is a part of Ma’at, no matter how terrifying or hateful it might seem. Everything in nature has its rightful place in Ma’at, and anything can become evil when it’s brought out of that rightful place (including reproduction).
I guess if there’s anything we need to remember about upholding Ma’at, it’s that this requires both justice and piety. For me, justice means treating others as we wish to be treated – and I don’t just mean other people, but plants, animals and the Earth itself as well. Everything we do to make the world a better place for all living things is an implementation of Ma’at. As for piety, this for me is the act of being respectful to all Gods and ancestors. Please note that I’m not saying you have to believe in Gods like I do to be pious. You can be respectful to a Deity’s worshipers and refrain from smashing their sacred images or stealing their offerings without actually believing in their Deity; you can also show respect to someone’s ancestors without actually believing in ghosts. From a polytheistic perspective, Gods and ghosts are far less concerned with whether we believe in Them than whether Their symbols, images and offerings are shown respect. An atheist who refrains from stepping on someone’s headstone or smashing someone’s crucifix is far more pious than a Muslim who uses statues of the Buddha for target practice.