Maat wearing feather of truthMa'at as a principle was formed to meet the complex needs of the emergent Egyptian state that embraceddiverse peoples with conflicting interests. The development of such rules sought to avertchaosand itbecame the basis of Egyptian law. From an early period the King would describe himself as the "Lord of Maat" who decreed with his mouth the Maat he conceived in his heart. The significance of Maat developed to the point that it embraced all aspects of existence, including thebasic equilibrium of the universe, the relationship between constituent parts, the cycle of the seasons,heavenly movements, religious observations and fair dealings, honesty and truthfulness in socialinteractions.
The Ancient Egyptians had a deep conviction of an underlying holiness and unity within the universe.Cosmic harmony was achieved by correct public and ritual life. Any disturbance in cosmic harmony couldhave consequences for the individual as well as the state. An impious King could bring about famine orblasphemy blindness to an individual.
The opposite of the right order expressed in the principle of Maat is
: chaos, lies and violence.
In addition to the importance of the Ma'at, several other principles within Ancient Egyptian law wereessential, including an adherence to tradition as opposed to change, the importance of rhetorical skill, andthe significance of achieving impartiality, and social justice. In oneMiddle Kingdom(2062 to c. 1664 BCE)text the Creator declares "
I made every man like his fellow
". Maat called the rich to help the less fortunaterather than exploit them, echoed in tomb declarations: "
I have given bread to the hungry and clothed thenaked
" and "
I was a husband to the widow and father to the orphan
To the Egyptian mind, Ma'at bound all things together in an indestructible unity: the universe, the naturalworld, the state, and the individual were all seen as parts of the wider order generated by Ma'at. The underlying concepts of TaoismandConfucianismresemble Ma'at at times.
Many of these conceptswere codified into laws, and many of the concepts often were discussed by ancient Egyptian philosophersand officials who referred to the spiritual text known as theBook of the Dead.
Maat and the law
There is little surviving literature that describes the practice of Ancient Egyptian law. Maat was the spirit inwhich justice was applied rather than a detailed legalistic exposition of rules as in Jewish law. Maat was thenorm and basic values that formed the backdrop for the application of justice that had to be carried out inthe spirit of truth and fairness. From the 5th dynasty (c. 2510-2370 BCE) onwards theVizierresponsible for justice was called the "
Priest of Maat
" and in later periods judges wore images of Maat.