MA'AT
Goddess of Truth;
Truth and Order


   Egyptian religion is difficult to understand, for there are dozens of gods whose functions often overlap. Egyptians would worship one god, the god of their village or city, but recognized a pantheon of gods that had a hierarchy. The highest god in the hierarchy was the sun-god: either Horus, Re, or Amun-Re. In later Egyptian history, this sun-god was collapsed with local gods, which can really confuse the picture.

   But this hierarchy of gods with the sun-god at the top doesn't quite match the picture exactly. For at the top of the universal order stood a goddess, a teenage girl goddess who was often represented as a pair of twins, Ma'at. This unprepossessing goddess literally ruled everything. She was not the sun and she was not power and strength; she represented, rather, an abstraction. She was "Truth" or "Order." For the Egyptian believed that the universe was above everything else an ordered and rational place. It functioned with predictability and regularity; the cycles of the universe always remained constant; in the moral sphere, purity was rewarded and sin was punished. Both morally and physically, the universe was in perfect balance.

   The Egyptian word for this balance was the Egyptian word for "truth," ma'at; this is perhaps the single most important aspect of Egyptian culture that you can learn. For once you really understand this concept, the whole of Egyptian culture begins to make sense. The order of the universe (ma'at ) functioned with unswerving accuracy; it was maintained by the goddess Ma'at. This meant that the concept of "truth" meant for the Egyptian the the rational and orderly working of the universe rather than its diverse phenomena. The Egyptian, then, believed that he or she understood how the universe operated; all phenomena could be explained by an appeal to this understanding of the rationality of the universe.

   I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important this concept of ma'at is to subsequent history. This idea that the universe is rational and that the "truth" of the universe is the underlying rationality and order of the universe rather than its diverse phenomena, passed from the Egyptians to the Greeks. The Greeks called the underlying order of the universe, logos, or "meaning," "order," "pattern." The early Christians adopted the logos in order to explain the moral order of the universe; the first line of the Gospel of John is, "In the beginning was the logos , and the logos was with God, etc." But the concept for the Greeks and the Christians was more or less the same as ma'at . The Egyptians believed that the ma'at of the universe was a god that benevolently ruled all aspects—human, material, and divine—of the universe; the Christians would likewise make the underlying rationality of the universe into God: "And the logos was God."

World Cultures
World Cultures Home Page


1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-6-96