One of the most important attributes of the ancient Egyptians was their pragmatism and practicality. This may seem unusual, since hardly any other culture so has such rich ritual and mythological aspects.
Nevertheless, they were above all: an agricultural people who lived closely connected to the cycles of nature. It is therefore not surprising that Ma’at is a principle that derives from the intense observation and the experience of the natural rhythms of which there were many in Kemet. The yearly returning Nile flood, which brought the fertile black mud over the fields, the path of the sun that rose on the eastern side of the Nile and went set again in the West and the paths of various stars and star constellations, the times of sowing, growth and harvest …
Deities within the creation
To understand Ma’at as a principle of creation, it is first important to understand that the gods of Ancient Egypt did exist not in a sphere far away from the human world, but within nature – not to say, the gods were nature itself. The kemetic religion is not a religion in the strict sense, because a “religio” – a return link to the Divine – was not necessary, since the gods were present and contactable. Therefore the question of existence or non-existence of gods was also not of any interest. The Nile as the Ka of Osiris in his role as a god of fertility, the wind as the Ka of the air god Shu, the Milky Way as the shape of the sky goddess Nut where a living evidence to the omnipresent divinity. So it is obvious that Ma’at is not only a cosmic principle but also a deity. This double meaning – person and principle – can be found in each of the Egyptian deities. One is not sharply demarcated from another and overlaps. Ma’at is often depicted as a kneeling woman with outstretched wings and a feather on her head. The outstretched wings and feather symbolize her “airy”, the transcendent aspect and her ability to inspirit all forms of being.
Creation as a process
The idea of people in ancient Egypt of the surrounding creation was that it functions in infinitely many interlocking cycles and that an initial act as “the first time” went ahead of these innumerable cycles. The cosmogony is therefore not an act of an imminent Creator (which would be a “cosmology”), but a process of self-unfolding. Therefore creation is a process that begins continually anew, has to function and as such is also constantly threatened by failure. This then leads to the antagonistic principle of Ma’at, namely Isfet, which is often translated as “chaos”, but is much more dramatic and destructive than this term would implicate. The divine creative force must therefore flow into a shape, an order so that the creativity can come into tangible expression. This order is called Ma’at. It is helpful to understand the creation process much like a domino effect.
Excerpt from a coffin text for cosmogony of Heliopolis:
I am swimming and very tired and my limbs are exhausted.
My son “life”, it is who raises my heart.
He will revive my spirit, after he has
gathered together my limbs which are very tired.
Now Nun said to Atum:
“Kiss your daughter Ma’at, let her enter your nose!
Your heart lives, if they are not removed from you.
Ma’at is your daughter,
together with your son Shu,
whose name is “life”.
This coffin text describes the image of a creator God (Atum) unconsciously (“tired”) swimming in the primordial ocean (Nun). He embodies the “not-yet-being”, the pre-existence. The world in the kemetic view does not come from a “nothing,” but from a “disorderly something”. Another name of Atum is also “he, who has created himself.” Through the procreation of his two children Ma’at (order) and Schu (undirected pure life force), Atum becomes alive. This procreation is accompanied by the awaking consciousness of Atum which represents the transition from pre-existent to the existence. The cosmic parthenogenesis of Atum is described with pretty rough allegories in the myths like “spitting”, “coughing out” or masturbation. So as the undirected force in its incarnation as Shu is flowing into an orderly form – which is Ma’at – in order to take shape, the essent creates itself out of itself.
For the sake of completeness it should be mentioned that Ma’at in this view is synonymously represented by Tefnut, which is rather unusual, since the explanation of the cosmogony of Heliopolis mainly mentioned Shu and Tefnut as the first pair of gods. Tefnut can be interpreted as “Ma’at of the first time”, while Ma’at herself represents the order of the continuous cycles of creation.
Kissing here means “breathing” and symbolizes the incorporation of Ma’at. Ma’at also appeared in the myths as a snake in the forhead of the sun god Ra. Atum and Ra have the solar aspect in common, since the sun was regarded as the embodiment of the power of creation. This so-called Uraeus snake can be found on all royal crowns and again in many different representations of deities to remind on the necessity of a constant repetition of the act of creation. Because each god or godess also needs to fulfill the cosmic order of Ma’at – just like the humans – and by this ensure the ongoing process of the creation. Ma’at is “the navigator” of Re, who travels with his solar boat across the sky and whose path is dictated by Ma’at.
Ma’at – a term with many meanings
Many translations have been used to describe Ma’at such as “balance”, “harmony”, “world order”, “justice” or “law.” But they all do not encompass this complex principle completely. Ma’at is rather the root all those mentioned terms derive from, the invisible net that summarizes all of them and turns them into real qualities. Words like “justice” or “harmony” do not include the dynamic nature of Ma’at. Ma’at is the “right thing” that alters constantly depending on the current situation in order to keep the creation process going.
Jan Assmann, Ma’at – Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit im Alten Ägypten
Jan Assmann, Schöpfungsmythen und Kreativitätskonzepte im Alten Ägypten
Hans Bonnet, Lexikon der ägyptischen Religionsgeschichte