Violence, Sekhmet, and Ma’at (PBP).

I realized something the other day when I was thinking about ma’at and Sekhmet and Sutekh’s relation to the belief. I realized that, myself included, a lot of people seem to think that ma’at is intrinsically associated with rainbows, happiness, and unicorn farts. There are roses and oases everywhere filled with lotus blossoms. The scents of beauty enchant and entrap you with their perfection. In the distance, a gentle breeze blows the heat from your brow or a warming stone keeps the chill from your fingers. Everything works out okay: the money comes in when it’s supposed to, you’re eternally employed at the best job ever, you have a good family, there is healthy communication, and just happiness abounds out of your pores like the sweet scents of incense. So, in essence, I realized that there are probably a lot of people who think that ma’at is equated with perfection and happiness. It is a concept, I believe, that is horrifically wrong.

What brought this up was the other night when I found an image someone did of Sekhmet in human form, as can be found here. I like the image without looking further into it; the face of it is lovely. I think the artist is incredibly talented. However, the actual symbolism behind the image, I’m not a large fan of. The dark, almost evil, thoughtful look on Sekhmet’s face, the mountain of skulls the throne is upon… these don’t sit right with me. I have never once, in all my years, had a feeling of Sekhmet as this inherently, well, evil kind of lady. She’s a lot of things and she’s lot of facets but this image kind of makes me feel like she is EVIL INCARNATE – DESTROY, KILL, DESTROY and nothing else. I went on to comment on this and had a little side conversation with a Canaanite polytheist over at Tumblr about it. Later, the person who initially posted this image commented back and one of the things ze said was, “Though Sekhmet can stand for order… she’s unapologetically violent as hell.” And I started thinking.

What is it about ma’at that makes us believe that it’s some lovely, peace-filled harmony that we should all strive for?

I think the basic issue stems from the inability to properly equate it in American-English, UK-English, and various other languages. I’ve mentioned this in other places before but sometimes, there are just some foreign words that have no comparison in other foreign languages. I’ll break this down using an example that I think relates to the concept of ma’at and is dear to my heart. So, let’s discuss the Russian word, Правда, or “pravda.” In English, we associate this term as meaning “truth,” but it’s actually a good deal more than that. As found on page 17 of Russia and the Russians by Geoffrey Hosking, “in fact everything the community regarded as ‘right’: justice, morality, God’s law, behaving according to conscience. The criterion for any decision taken by the village assembly that it must accord with pravda.” In effect, the concept of Правда is similar (UPG here) to what I equate ma’at as being. What I’m saying is that it isn’t just about what we ascribe as perfection or as truth, but as a moral compass as well as harmony. It’s a word that needs numerous other words to be properly ascribed in English, which is something we often find when trying to explain ma’at to outsiders. (I know I tend to go, “it’s uh…” a lot when talking with non-Kemetics.)

And while morality figures highly into the concept behind ma’at, we can’t just assume that violence doesn’t figure into this.

As found on Wiki, we watch as a god slays Apep. Similar imagery can be found in later times of Sutekh and Sekhmet slaying the serpent of chaos.

As shown in the image above, we see a goddess (claimed to be Bastet by Wiki) slaying the serpent of chaos, Apep. There is nothing light and fluffy about this act. Warboar drew an image of Set slaying Apep (original entry linked below). In later myths, I have found the chore of slaying Apep given to Sekhmet, my main lady. As evidenced by the picture above, it is also a chore ascribed to Bastet. In all of these instances, in the mythologies, we find that the gods are slaying a creature to uphold all things that are ma’at. This is a necessary evil, in effect. In order to keep isfet from overtaking the world and creation, these gods must stand up against it and battle it. In the battles, blood will be shed; violence will be used. But these are considered good, charitable, and life-saving acts. Sometimes, light and fluffy is fine and dandy, but offering Apep tea and crumpets isn’t going to necessary stop it from overtaking all things ma’at.

But let’s go back to Правда for a minute. In Russian linguistics, they actually have words that we can equate with the antithesis of Правда. Depending on the words used, they could equate to “crookedness,” “untidiness,” and various other things. But, as I mentioned in what I quote above, “The criterion for any decision taken by the village assembly that it must accord with pravda.” In effect, whenever we discuss Правда, it was the social conscience for what was correct and morally upheld by the entire assembly, the entire community or Мир (or “mir” in English.) So, in while we would view Правда as discussing unicorn farts and rainbows with pots of gold at the end of them, in times where life was anything but certain, Правда could also equate with burning the fields and starting all over again, fighting against the Khans that were subjecting their authority over Russian land, and fighting against other Мир that were trying to overtake their land and resources. While Правда was about good things and conscientious thought, amongst other things, that could also mean utilizing violence to make it happen.

Now, let’s talk about Sekhmet for a minute here.

Sekhmet had seven arrows that tended to bring bad luck and misfortune, usually in the form if disease. As taken from page 37 of Magic in Ancient Egypt by Geraldine Pinch: “the Seven Arrows of Sekhmet, always brought evil fortune, often in the form of infectious disease.” However, there doesn’t seem to be any concrete evidence as to who may or may not be hit with these seven arrows. Considering her actions in regarding and upholding ma’at and her heavy influence over maintaining justice, wouldn’t it be possible that the people who were afflicted with the Seven Arrows could in fact be those who were living lives filled with isfet? Obviously, we have no evidence in support or to the contrary of these thoughts, but I feel that it makes more sense in what I’ve learned and what I’ve done in working with her that while, she was fearful since she did try to annihilate humanity once, it is just as likely that those struck by her arrows were not living in accordance with ma’at. This, I feel, is another example where, maybe not specifically violence per se, but a more negative aspect can be utilized in an effort to correct slights against ma’at.

What it comes down to, in regards to all of this is, how does violence suddenly no longer equate with ma’at? When did that happen? And how does the act of using violence to maintain ma’at suddenly equate Sekhmet as being “unapologetically violent as hell”?

Let’s discuss the elephant in the room here: the basis for most people’s thoughts on Sekhmet being “unapologetically violent as hell” isn’t just the Arrows that are considered “evil” and the diseases that could arise from them. Almost entirely, we have the basis for belief in her violent savvy ways is the Destruction of Mankind myth. A quick summary is that Re got really old and kind of enfeebled. Some of his human creations didn’t understand this and began talking smack about it behind his back. When he learned of this treachery, he got really angry and decided to teach his treasonous creations a lesson by destroying all of them. Enter Sekhmet: the Eye of Re. While initially, Sekhmet was only supposed to kill the people who were plotting against Re, she was intent on her blood lust and wanted her fill, so she began killing the humans that hadn’t plotted against her father. In the end, he tricked her with some red-colored beer, she got so very drunk, and passed out. However, the whole point behind the myth is that treachery and espionage are probably not a good idea because only bad things happen. Due to this, illness came to the world and Re relinquished his ruler ship over humanity.

However, in all of this, we are forgetting that while Sekhmet did get out of control, she was initially upholding ma’at by destroying those who had plotted against her father, Re. In order to teach a lesson, sometimes we have to smack our children’s hands out of the fire or punish them by sending them to their room without dinner. While times were more violent back then, it was with violence that the lesson was taught. Do not go against the gods. But more simplistically, do not fuck with ma’at because it will not end well.

Now, in regards to violence, it was common and often necessary in the ancient world. Since quite often, outside cultures would be considered part and parcel with isfet, subjugation via war would be considered upholding ma’at in ancient Egypt belief systems. They would see the act of war as necessary to tame the chaos all around them. These beliefs never brought about their destruction or seemed to annoy the gods since the ancient Egyptian culture lasted for thousands of years. And it wasn’t always just “unapologetic violence” being utilized here. It was an act of entering a country, subjugating its people in totality, and with the end result of having upheld ma’at from the agents of isfet. Just as Sekhmet and Sutekh and Bastet were busy slaying Apep to allow the sun god to rise yet another day, so too were the pharaoh and his armies doing likewise by conquering their neighbors.

While I will admit that we no longer live in a time frame where violence is to be utilized so readily and quickly as it was in ancient times, I do think it’s a mistake to forget that, in upholding ma’at, the ancients and the gods utilized it easily, readily, and to quick effect. So, really, the lesson here isn’t just that ma’at is a good deal more than a lot of people make of it, but that it’s as “dirty” and “violent” as it is “harmony” and “light.”

Relevant Posts

  1. Why Do You Worship Sutekh? by Warboar.
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21 thoughts on “Violence, Sekhmet, and Ma’at (PBP).

  1. Not that I know much about kemetic stuff, but I’m reminded of some other myths where a deity starts acting extreme because something goes wrong, f.ex. Demeter letting everything rot because her daughter is missing – so one could paint a gothic-style image of Demeter with skulls too… The gods are obviously not made of sugar, neither white nor black sugar. ;)

    • They are definitely not! I think that’s why I’m always ranting about “pigeonholing the gods” and “multifaceted gods.” I always forget, though, that it works in the opposite way. I’m so used to the “bad gods” getting the shit end of the stick, but you know, Aphrodite gets the “she’s just a whore” thing all the time…

  2. While I will agree that ma’at is more than peace and love, I think some of the points listed are less than sturdy, either.

    Saying that the arrows only hits people who aren’t within ma’at is just “no” to me. That reeks of karma. You screwed up, and you will pay the price. I just don’t agree with that. “It rains on the wicked and just alike”. Sometimes bad things just happen. The gods aren’t all powerful. Ra said himself he didn’t create us with evil- we more or less came upon that by ourselves. So isfet lives within all of us, too. And we have to fight that within ourselves. When it comes to arrows, I think that’s just part and parcel with living. It is part of the balance, part of the structure (imperfect as it is) that we live in.

    I also think it’s important to note that Kings could manipulate ma’at to go after other countries. Much like JP in WW2- they could easily go and antagonize other countries or peoples in the name of ma’at. Rather unjustly at that. It hardly seems “fair” to go take a bunch of POWs from another country who was minding its own business, and killing a bunch of them to make a point. I’m not saying that it was normal for Egyptians to kill bunches of POWs at random- but it’s pretty obvious that a certain number of conquered peoples were taken in and killed.

    Ma’at changes for each person, each side- and even within a community, you’ll have differing views on what the correct course of action is. I think that *this* is what really makes ma’at so damned slippery to define.

    Food for thought, at least. I do agree, though, that violence is part of ma’at. To live is to kill, and so to maintain balance, death must be a factor- shitty as it is.

    • The thing with the arrows is that I haven’t been able to come across much information except people mentioning them in passing. The passage I quoted from Pinch is one of the longest running commentaries I’ve seen. And she kind of paints the portrait that the arrows are a sort of counter balance to the Seven Hathors, which she describes as kind of happy and fluffy and life-giving. And since I don’t really have a shit-ton of information about Sekhmet’s Seven Arrows, I have to go with UPG on that. And my UPG (until I figure it out or read about it or am gleefully pointed in a direction for more arrows info) is going to be like, “Well, maybe it’s a matter of justice right now.” And you know me, though. I’m willingly change my thoughts when something gets pointed out at me…

      I think with the kings the manipulation, or the level of it, would probably have to be in direct relation with which dynasty. As I’ve mentioned, ma’at in Tenth Dynasty was a vastly different concept than it was in the Eighteenth Dynasty. The earlier Pharaoh could be all like, “WE MUST CONQUER THE ISFET THAT SURROUNDS OUR LANDS” which is manipulation of course. But the Eighteenth Dynasty dude would probably be more like, “Isfet is happening because of X, Y, and Z.” And that’s a different kind of manipulation. I think the level of manipulation really had to do with the time period and where their levels of belief regarding ma’at were hanging out as well as, you know, their personal level of selfish twathood.

      FLUID MORALITY, MAN.

      • Oh I’m not saying it’s not relative to the dynasty- I’m just saying that, if you want to present a balanced view on it- you gotta mention that it could be manipulated to serve the king’s needs (as seen by Ramesses’ portrayal of Kadesh).

        If you want something that is similar to the arrows, you should look up the 7 scorpions of Serqet/Aset. I believe it’s a similar concept. I think Wilkinson might address it in his AE art book. I’ll have to take a look. I know I’ve read about them somewhere, but hell if I remember which book. ~~;;;

          • I’ll see what I can dig up >.>

            My Wilkinson book gives this for bows:
            “As an especially potent weapon the bow could, in fact, symbolize the might of whole nations, and the enemies of Egypt were traditionally referred to as the “Nine Bows”, which are frequently depicted as literal bows or personified as ethnically differentiated captives beneath the feet of the king on footstools, statue and throne bases and eve on the soles of sandals.”
            I always confuse the 9 and the 7 because arrows, bows and scorpions all seem to sorta… go along the same paths and seem to show a lot of the same concepts, even if the motif is different.

  3. Whenever I have seen that cat image before, I’ve seen the cat listed as Ra.

    And with the hurricane today. I’ve been thinking about Set and how bad weather is still within Ma’at. Quite big thoughts.

  4. I don’t know much about Sekhmet’s arrows, but they reminds me slightly of Artemis’ arrows, which are also known to bring death and desease to people who don’t behave properly.
    And it reminds me how arrows or spears are often attribute to deities associated with light or the sun (Apollo, Lugh etc.) because light rays might seem like shooting arrows or spears to ancient people and the sun can definitly bring deseases, sunstroke, make food go bad or simply blind people…
    Not sure if that’s really new information to anybody or significant for Sekhmet…

    • My problem is that since there isn’t much info on her arrows, I can only conjecture about whether or not they were used like Artemis’s arrows. I feel like that is a distinct possibility, but of course, none of the leading Egyptologists think to write in-depth narratives about Sekhmet. XD

  5. Pingback: Goddess Pages: Sekhmet | The Balanced Soul

  6. Pingback: Kemetic Round Table: Ma’at & Isfet. | Mystical Bewilderment

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