Kemetism is Orthopraxic: Live in Ma’at.

I noticed, a while back, that each of us who work with gods tend to become a quasi-expert in that particular deity. Now, I’m thinking specifically in a Kemetic framework here, but I suppose it could be true across the polytheistic board. I know I tend to recommend various friends of mine for different deities: Bezen for jackals; Devo for Sutekh, Wesir, and occasionally Aset; Helms for specific items and lesser know deities; Sard for Sutekh, Khnum, Montu, and netjeri. I suppose I am considered the go-to girl for Sekhmet and occasionally Het-heru. I have networked a bit on Tumblr, so I can direct people to others who work with Djehuti, Seshat, and that ilk. We’re all experts… on the gods.

The thing is that while we are learning all we can, how many of us are forgetting what Kemetism is all about?

I know I am. I forget all the time.

I also know that I am not alone in this. Sometimes, it is difficult to keep in your mind that the religion you are carving out isn’t just about the gods, what to offer, and how to continue to earn their favor. It isn’t just about forging relationships on a level that is inherently personal to each of us. I have a hard time, especially lately, in remembering that my path has concepts that are integral to its very formation all of those millennia ago. I know that I’m not the only person around in the Kemetic hemisphere to have these issues, though. I know that I cannot possibly be the only person in the entire Kemetic arena of the polytheistic stage that has to stop and remind myself, on occasion, that the foremost of concepts in all of this are two-fold: live in ma’at and community.

Now, I will admit that this is my own view on the subject matter. Anyone else who reads this entry, of which I’m hoping there are a few, can speak up and tell me what you-all believe the inherent concepts of the religion are. And I will accept those concepts as much as I can. But to me, the two major and foremost things that we need to keep in mind is to live in ma’at first, followed by community. To me, you cannot have one without the other; you must live in ma’at to formulate a coherent and viable community. The thing is that this post really isn’t about community. I’m sure I’ll be jumping back into that topic at a later date in time. Right now, let’s talk about how we live in ma’at, how we offer ma’at, and what the fuck we’re doing here.

As a Kemetic, when you start to think about living in ma’at, it can get kind of insane for a while. It’s a concept that really has absolutely no place in the English language. I really cannot convey how difficult this concept can be just in the premise of a language barrier. Whenever you read a book and that concept comes up, each definition or translation is different from each other. I have seen it translated as “truth,” “harmony,” “justice,” “cosmic harmony,” and a thousand other things. This is something I’ve discussed before – taking words from other languages and trying to fit them into a square hole, but the peg is a circle. You can’t cram it in there because it just won’t fit properly. But these are words that existed in these languages, both ancient and newer, for a reason. These concepts are things that we used to hold very dear to ourselves – ma’at in ancient Egypt, mir in Russian, ilunga in southwest Congo, schadenfreude in German, and kalpa in Sanskrit. We have close approximations to words like these, but more often than not there is no clear-cut translation that can make these words and concepts connect easily in our English minds.

I think this may be a major barrier to actually beginning to live a Kemetic lifestyle, to actually become a part of the whole experience and use your religion.

One of the arguments you see in some forums is the difference between orthopraxic and orthodoxic. The latter is the use of correct belief and rituals in a religious sense, while the former is correct action or activity, specifically in conduct. Kemetism is an orthopraxy just by its very foundation. This is made abundantly clear when you begin to start working on living in ma’at. It isn’t what you believe that makes the path here. It isn’t whether you have faith or whether you don’t. It is a matter of what you do in that faith that matters. And that is never more clear than when you begin to study and begin to try to live in ma’at in Kemetism.

Each person has a different take on what exactly living in ma’at can convey, which can also cause issues for those of us who want to live in ma’at. In some circles, this means taking the Papyrus of Ani and molding the 42 Negative Confessions there into a type of law system. While law happened in ancient Egypt, it didn’t matter what you wrote in your negative confessions. These were items that you were confessing to the gods that you very assuredly did not do, which would prove that your heart didn’t weigh more than the feather it was being weighed against. However, the 42 Confessions are horrifically out of date, if you ask me. How often do we have to admit that we never stole offerings from the temples or killed the cows of the gods’ temples? So, by turning these into laws of a sort, we’re missing the point.

The first point being is that, while some of these are universal, not all of them are.

And the second point being is that living in ma’at is as mercurial as human nature.

Some people think that living in ma’at means that we should put the shopping carts away. This isn’t so bad of a concept either. It means everything is orderly. It means that everyone does their part to make everything work out in that orderly concept. The problem is that not everyone puts their carts away, do they? They leave them in the middle of parking spaces, which then aggravates anyone trying to get a light grocery shopping done with no parking spaces left. People leave their carts up on the islands separating sections of the parking lot. Some people bring them back to the store front doors, crowding up space but making it easier to grab one when you go in.

I used to think about this particular theology and put it into practice. I do, in fact, put the grocery cart away when I am done using it. It is because of this theological essay that I started doing this with more intent, with more awareness, than I normally would. I’ve been bad – I’ve left the cart beside the parking space or I’ve failed to return it into its little slot. Sometimes, I’ve ever just left it in the middle of another parking place. But for the most part, I do still put the shopping carts away. The thing is that I tend to view this theology on its face as “orderly.” And I don’t necessarily equate ma’at with “orderly.” It reminds me, in a manner of speaking, of those movies where humans line up like the mindless little automatons we can be and do as we are bid.

I don’t feel that ma’at wants us to be little mindless automatons.

As I said above, living in ma’at is as mercurial as human nature.

So, what exactly is living in ma’at? How are people supposed to do this thing that we don’t even really fully comprehend because translations are incomplete or impossible? How are Kemetics supposed to put this orthopraxy into practice and you know, do instead of think and believe?

I get stuck at this part every time.

I think sometimes people tend to view me in this way that I’m not really. They tend to see my blog and see how vocal I am about it all. I think, sometimes, people equate this in a way with someone who has “got their shit together.” I can be completely honest here since it is my blog and no one is probably going to read this: I do not have my shit together. I don’t know what I’m doing more often than not. I have motions that I go through – I give the offerings, I do the execrations, I say the words. But there are days where I break down in front of my shrine because I am feeling so horrific about everything. There are days where the motions are as bare-boned as that word makes it sound. I putter around with my cool water and don’t bother with the bread or the incense or the candles. I am not together. More often than not, I don’t know what the hell I am doing.

I think a part of that is because I am constantly questioning this main, huge, big, important concept to my religion: What is living in ma’at and how can I do that?

I forget about this concept all the time. I said it above; I’ll say it again. I forget about living in ma’at all the fucking time. There are days when I’m not nice. There are days when I’m too involved in my own shit to stop what I’m doing and help others out. There are days where I’m so busy running from the second I’m up that I forget about this whole integral part of my religious practice.

I don’t know what this thing is, honestly. I don’t really know.

But I know that my gods need it.

They need it and I need it.

I just have to figure out what “it” is.

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37 thoughts on “Kemetism is Orthopraxic: Live in Ma’at.

  1. I forget about this a lot too, even though I wear a feather pendant around my neck nearly every day.

    When I first started this path, I did read the shopping cart essay, and I think that instead of reminding us to be orderly, it reminds us to act so that we make the world more harmonious for others. I don’t think it’s necessary to put the cart in the cart slot every time; if leaving it at the front helps others easily grab one as they walk in, I think that works, too. Similarly, if you see a lost child, help them. If you see litter on the ground, pick it up and throw it out–or recycle it. But also: tell no lies, seek to resolve conflicts harmoniously, make just and fair decisions, etc. That’s how I go about trying to live within ma’at, anyway.

    Honestly, I think it’s essentially about being an ethically good human being who contributes positively to society.

    • My problem with this is that ma’at, outside of our human sphere, isn’t always good stuff. There is blood and guts and gore, too. So… does that mean that I should emulate that part, too?

      • If it contributes positively to society–or, shall we say, community in both the small and large senses of the word–then I think so.

        Example: A few years back, a friend at the time had become mentally unstable to the point of suicide, and our friends and I tried our best to help her. We talked to her, sent her notes of encouragement, pointed her to suicide hotlines, etc. Nothing worked; in fact, as time went on, her attitude toward us became nastier and uglier. She lashed out at us emotionally, making us feel guilty, belittling us. It wore me down to the point where I realized I had to cut her out from my life. Sure, it hurt both me and her, but it had to be done, or else something worse might have happened.

        Ma’at is not about supporting others no matter what, or being kind to others no matter what. Ma’at is more about balance, knowing when to give (when giving upholds ma’at) and when to refrain from giving or to take away (when giving only ends up working against ma’at).

        Again, this is all just how I see it.

  2. I’ve had the “Ma’at hammer” out in the last couple days, as you’ve probably noticed. I wear the little Ma’at amulet I made every time I leave the house, as a reminder…
    To me, living in Ma’at requires a lot more thought than getting a list of “thou-shalt-not’s” because you have consider what effect your actions might have. The “words have power” thing is another part of it.

    • I think we all need more of your “Ma’at hammer,” honestly. I stopped thinking about it until you posted that comment on the Anpu entry from that new blog going around on Tumblr. I probably would have continued to be blissfully ignorant about big, heavy thoughts if not for you. And honestly? I’d be bored out of my damn mind, so keep up the hammer.

      I never really liked the Ten Commandments. It seemed so boring and restrictive. And why were there only ten? Shouldn’t there be more? I mean, really. We have more than ten laws governing the country; why are there only ten for Christianity?

      I honestly don’t know how to integrate heka & ma’at. I tried and didn’t do it properly or I was doing it wrong. So, I wonder if my problem is that because I don’t quite know what ma’at IS, then I’ll fail with the heka portion (outside of magix) as well.

  3. As far as the language barrier goes, I think it will take a few generations’ worth of consistent living Kemetic practice before any semblance of understanding of the concept of “ma’at” and “isfet” and such like may be achieved. Granted that we don’t ingrain in ourselves “wrong learning.” Aye, there’s the rub. And it would help if we all knew Middle Egyptian, but even knowing the language, it’s hard to understand anything without immersion in a living culture. Dead languages are called “dead” for that reason. They’re still spoken, at least in academic spheres, but the cultures that produced them no longer survive. We’ve lost a substantial amount of understanding with the death of those cultures, not the least of which being appropriate pronunciation.

    As far as I personally understand ma’at, it is the ideal state of Creation, and all things and actions beneficial to it. What the ideal state of Creation is, and what is beneficial to it, are not always clear to we who are confined to the spatial-temporal and limited in sight, and It has a certain “morality” and Order of its own, but not one we can always, or even often, perceive and understand as mortal beings with strong biases and screams of “it’s not fair!” Ma’at isn’t what someone thinks is “good” and pleasant, any more than isfet is everything an individual doesn’t like (i.e., broccoli, or one’s next door neighbor). I don’t see ma’at as “justice,” which can be very arbitrarily interpreted from culture to culture, from individual to individual. As you say, most Egyptian laws and mores are not relevant to us Modern Westerners — though, I see the 42 Negative Confessions as artful, magical lies (which are not “sinful”); not actual professions of innocence, nor the bases of the Ancient Egyptian civil legal system. Such texts were featured in funerary religion, and Books of the Dead were pricey commodities — very few people had access to them.

    But, getting back on track: as you say, the concept of ma’at comes from an orthopraxic center. It concerns itself with “right action.”

    I think it’s easier to say what ma’at and isfet ***are not,*** and attempt to identify them that way, than by what they *are.*

    Finally: I don’t think anyone has their shit together completely. We’re all mortal and human. We all fear, we all cry, we all run around like chickens with our heads cut off from time to time. We’re flawed, and I think the Gods are, too. And Creation, for that matter. But most of us like to put on airs of total competency despite our apparent flaws and lack of knowledge. I sincerely appreciate that you have the cojones to be honest about that, with yourself and others, so long as you don’t get down on yourself for it. ‘Cause you’re awesome, and you shouldn’t get down on yourself for being human. :3

    • I think one of the reasons I’m having ma’at-issues is that I often try to keep myself out of the stereotype of ma’at = good and isfet = bad. We’ve had these discussions before and I heartily endorse them: this is a severe misnomer. Sutekh’s destruction of A/pep is, technically, not a really awesome thing. The end result is totally fucking bitchin’, but the blood and the guts part… it could be construed as not quite “hip.” And there’s the rub. I think that’s the problem.

      I think I’ve stopped seeing it as black-and-white and seeing more in shades of gray. And my problem is that we’ve read from magical papyri that they had no problem threatening the gods, they had no problem cursing their enemies… are these aspects within ma’at as well? Or are they outside of this ideal state? Or am I just reading too much into this?

      I think another issue I have is that I’m not really… theologically minded a lot of the time so I confuse myself. :)

      And thanks. I really needed to hear that I’m awesome.

      • Ma’at is very grey. Very. Historical Egyptian religion
        was very, very fluid, amorphous, ambiguous, and for a reason. A number of reasons, not all of which I could possibly explain to a sufficient extent here and now. Many of them have to do with the cyclical nature of existence, with the fluid, multiversal nature of the Gods, with the nature of speech. They saw nature, existence, Deity, as being very vast, multifaceted, multiversal, and thus exceptionally difficult to comprehend. Another reason: “that is just the way the Egyptian mind worked, as we understand it.” A fondness for puns, multiple meanings for similar-sounding words, being one small example of the Egyptian love for ambiguity (i.e., Banebdjedet is sometimes considered the ba of the Sun God. “Ba” means both “soul component” (which is also obscenely difficult to define in English) and “sheep, ram.” Banebdjedet is a Ram God).

        Getting back on track, the equilibrium of Creation is maintained by an “any means necessary” set of ethics, which are often circumstantial and hard to define. Unlike Abrahamic religions, there is no table of “thou shalt nots” hanging around. Killing was perfectly justifiable in many cases; lying was not a sin (being a bad liar was), if the 42 Negative Confessions and other funerary spells are anything to go by; and using magical threats and coercion to get what one needed or desired was, and is, part of the mechanics of heka.

        As any Set Kid ought to understand, as I’ve said previously in conversations you were part of, ma’at is not about “being nice.” It helps to not be a pointlessly destructive, self-righteous asshole toward others in one’s daily interactions with peaceful people, but that’s not the be-all and end-all of ma’at; that does not impress upon the Cosmic. It is only a very small fraction of what ma’at can be. The maintenance of ma’at can be a very dirty, violent, bloody job. Case in point: Set’s perpetual slaughter of A/pep, as you mentioned. And this coming from the most peaceful religion of its relative time (if you want to see horrendously gory and brutal, check out Akkadian religion). Historically, the crushing of enemies, particularly enemies of the Pharaoh and State, were seen as part and parcel of ma’at. Ra sending forth Sekhmet to slaughter all the humans who rebelled against Him could also be seen as ma’at. Subduing rebellions of all kinds was seen as an act of ma’at, regardless of the reason for rebelling against authority. Something to chew on, though I don’t think that’s relevant anymore, however. Times and religion do change.

        Heka is just as, if not more so, grey, being an amoral tool. Sticking pins into a wax effigy of a woman was seen as a legitimate way of acquiring that woman’s love. Force and coercion, often in a violent capacity, are big parts of both heka and ma’at. There would be no place for “The Lord of Slaughter” (Ma’ahes), “The Lord of the Blood” (Herishef), or the “One Who Lives on Hearts” (Khonsu, and Montu has a similar epithet) if force and coercion were not a part of Cosmic Equilibrium and heka. It was likewise not considered hubristic (INVENTING WORDS, YEEEAAAAH) to use the secret names and identities of the Gods in order to access Their power, and/or prevent the destruction of one’s soul in the Duat, as per funerary religion and heka (you just had to be part of a Mystery Cult to gain access to those special secret names and spells).

        “Black”/”white” and “good”/”evil” paradigms are not native to the concept of ma’at. Modern Western , Abrahamic, and Dualistic paradigms may seem to translate well to the Kemetic concepts of ma’at and isfet, but don’t in all truth. Those worldviews are entirely alien to Egyptian Theology and its system of ethics. I think the reason for so much black and white thinking has to do with the majority of Modern Kemetics’ former Monotheistic (or Dualistic, as the case may rarely be) background. The same goes for most Polytheist religions: they haven’t let go if the worldview they’ve grown up with — which is no easy task, granted — and so slap an Egyptian, or Heathen, or Hellenic, etc., sticker on it to make it fit. Like I said earlier, I think it’ll be a few generations of consistent practice and theological study before we begin to truly understand Kemetic concepts like ma’at — Polytheist concepts in general, more appropriately.

  4. My compliments. This is probably one of the best blog entries you have penned in a very long time. No woo, no pretense, just your gut. That, IMSHO, is where ma’at in large part resides. Brava.

  5. Thanks for this great entry! (Y’know it’s kind of “my thing” haha…)

    The thing is Maat does not go with a “success oriented” thinking (see J. Assmann). That is something that is very hard to understand from our modern point of view, because we have learned so much to end a working process with “success”.

    Maat, as part of a self-unfolding and forever ongoing creations process which is taking place in interlocking cycles (= “cosmogony” see Wiki), which needs to be kept up by a community of gods AND humans is much more about “functioning” and not so much about succeeding.

    So do to Maat is basically to realize that the effort has to be put into the PROCESS itself which is of course directed towards perfection, but knowing at the same time that it cannot be reached, and yet keeping up the process to maintain the creation process (=Neheh).

    Perfection (=Djet) lies beyond the veil of the secret(=death). So this perfection is, as Assmann calls it a “vanishing point of human acting” and by directing your deeds towards this point you become more and more aware of Ma’at and act accordingly.

    Just my 2 cent…

    Cheers,
    Sati

    • So, if I’m reading this correctly, the act of living in ma’at is twofold. It’s the cogs (humans) doing and living in ma’at as well as the gears (gods) doing their part as well?

      • Yes. :)

        And it goes vice versa. Ma’at is “order” (given from the gods to humans) and Ma’at is also “sacrifice” (given from humans to the gods). It’s an interaction between the human and the gods.

        The point is that regarding the “cyclical quality” of the creation process from a mortal point of view, the human connection to the gods had to be kept up by cycles, too, which appears in the shape of rituals (=repeated actions with a sacred meaning). So this is why it is considered Ma’at-conform to maintain a tradition (= repeat the rites constantly) in order to keep up life/creation/order itself. And simultaneously constant ethical acting without regard to succeeding. You basically try as best as you can. This is why your ib (=your honest intentions) is being weighed later. To stop repeating the cycles is synonymous with losing the connection to the gods which again is synonymous with death.

        AFTER death however, when a mortal has passed the court and becomes netjer, too, the connection to the gods is viewed as constant without needing repetition, he will “walk as a god among gods”.

        Yet to make sure this really works out, the wombs have been covered with texts which were considered to kind of “repeat themselves” constantly, which would again be an allegory to the mortal men’s rituals and the cyclical understanding of life.

        Oooops, I’m a bit “out there”. Does this answer the question? Hope so…

  6. I have two thoughts, neither of which are from a Kemetic perspective. First, without schadenfreude I’d have lost my mind at work a very long time ago. It’s not a pretty concept sometimes but it gets me through. Second, I wonder at the order of your two pillars of living well. I notice something whenever I interact with other pagans face to face: we put community first. Community (even though we know it tends to breed drama, and that small communities tend to fall apart, and that it’s a terrible bit of trouble to keep people happy, and that everyone seems to have different ideas of what community should be…. etc….) is the one thing we all seem to agree we want in some way shape or form. I for one am glad to see your community having this conversation. It may change the population a bit if anyone gets too seriously upset but in the end the community will have learned something. I too put a great deal of stock in my community- more than I ever thought I would. I and my friends try to live as much as possible in accordance with the guidance we feel. I try to live in a way that would be acceptable to Themis. Some live according to the inspiration they derive from Awen. But we converse together to try and sort out what it all means. I hope to see more of these conversations on ever-larger scales.

    • Part of the reason I listed it that way was because I think, in a current Kemetic context, it’s necessary to be seen as living in ma’at before a community will become cohesive enough to stick. Back then, it was always just… there. They lived it, breathed it, were born with it, died with it. Now, however, since we don’t really live it as clearly as they did – if our trials at living in ma’at are akin to their way at all, I don’t know – it comes down to requiring a certain sense of self-ma’at before a sense of community-ma’at can work.

      Or, I’m just rambling on here.

  7. This is where working with Shinto shines through for me. Because its’ a lot like Kemeticism- it’s got a “ma’at” – Kannagara. It’s also still alive, doesn’t translate into English well, and some of their acts in the past we consider less than ideal- but they managed to fit it into the Kannagara aspect of things and pass it off as being honorable.

    It really is a matter of how you look at it. Ma’at is balance. That’s the easiest way to say it. Because it’s different for each of us- we can’t get too definite in our answers. We can’t pin down our definition to something that is too narrow- or we lose the point, the beauty that is ma’at- that its diverse.

    I would also say that ma’at is big picture. We forget that sometimes. The big picture. We’re so caught up in the OMG RIGHT NOW SUCKS that we ignore what great things can come in the future from acts that are being done right now. As I’ve said a lot recently- sometimes NTR throw you under a bus. Usually, its because it supports a bigger picture. It sucks, but it’s part of ma’at. It’s part of maintaining the whole.

    And tha’ts where the community comes in. It’s about the whole, not just you, not just me. But all of us. No point in only smiling on a few people if it takes the whole ship down with them, you know? This is another popular aspect of Shinto. IT’s where the vertical meets the horizontal. It’s where us and divine intersect. That’s where the sweet spot is- when you can stand in the crosshairs and live in both at once.

    Like Sati, I think that ma’at is twofold- we help the gods help us. But I also think its a case of we help us help eachother- which we all know America isn’t into.

    • I rambled on in someone’s comment on the KIN blog (maybe Helms?) about how I wonder if I’m having issues because I don’t really have a community outside of my online one. So, when I feel like I’m trying to do “the small things” in the whole ma’at context, I’m getting wrung out because I don’t have an IRL community to… leach more ma’at from.

      If that makes sense?

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