The Kemetic Round Table (KRT) is a blogging project aimed at providing practical, useful information for modern Kemetic religious practitioners. For all the entries relating to this particular topic, take a peek!
When it comes to certain concepts within the ancient Egyptian religious tradition, some of the most popular words bandied about are ma’at and isfet. For many modern Kemetics, these words have quickly entered our daily lexicons in our various and personalized attempts to both find an understanding for words that are difficult to translate in to modern dang lingo as well as provide that knowledge to newbie Kemetics.
As a newbie Kemetic, I wanted the easy way out: I wanted someone else to tell me what the hell these types of concept things were about and I would just go with the flow. While this worked out for a while, after a time, it dawned on me that I could go with someone else’s flow but it didn’t really satisfy me anymore. I often thought that it kind of equates to the quote from Liz in the movie Dogma: “He said that faith is like a glass of water. When you’re young, the glass is small, and it’s easy to fill up. But the older you get, the bigger the glass gets, and the same amount of liquid doesn’t fill it anymore. Periodically, the glass has to be refilled.”
After a few years of listening to what other people were saying, I realized that I actually needed to get up and fill the glass with water from my own damn tap.
While I’ve detailed my repeated attempts on what to quantify ma’at (linked below) as, it was through conversation and positive reinforcement from my Kemetic friends that the basis for my definition of ma’at came about: it is balance. There are a ton of different ways various Egyptologists have defined the concept over the years. But in my opinion the simplest way to look at it would be to simply think of it as shades of gray and balance.
When it comes to determining what ma’at means, those of us who have been around the proverbial block a few times can, of course, tell you what it means. But if you look to the historical record and see what qualified as living in ma’at, then that is when you’ll see what I mean by shades of gray. Some things that were considered living in ma’at were,
- Being good to the gods (like giving them offerings and not stealing said offerings)
- Warfare (with other countries)*
- Not being an intentional jackass to others
- Execrations (aka cursing)
* Please note that there was a very big difference between war amidst nome leaders, which was considered isfet, and war with an enemy of the state, such as foreigners.
But how is that even a thing, right? If living in ma’at entailed things like being a pretty stellar human being, but also allowed the whole cursing thing – what the fuck? How is it possible to have a concept that both includes things like blood-letting on a massive scale and possibly blood-letting on a personal scale?
That’s the thing about ma’at – it’s not all roses and sunshine. If things like bloodshed and curses can be considered a part of ma’at, then clearly the phrase “shades of gray” is highly appropriate when defining it. I think another way to describe it as a mix between “be excellent to each other,” (a quote from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) coupled with “but take no fucking shit lying down.” The best thing, in my opinion, about what ma’at is would be that it doesn’t demand that you lie down and take whatever guff you think or know that people are going to throw your way; it demands that you stand up for yourself in any way available, only demanding that your desire to be an intentional ass face be checked at the door.
The thing is that most people have no idea how to integrate this concept into their daily lives. Living in ma’at was the foundation of the ancient Egyptian state and religion (which, technically, went hand in hand). It was this difficulty that brought us those two important rules of Kemeticism that Tumblr Kemetics spout a lot:
- Give stuff to the gods.
- Don’t be a dick.
Since the belief in the gods was immaterial what with the ancient Egyptian religion being an orthopraxy (correct action; not correct dogma), rule number one could be thrown out the window so long as rule number two is followed.
The thing about “don’t be a dick” is that people tend to think of it as allowing people to walk all over you; they conflate it with some deep-held belief that it means you should be nice all the time. The thing that’s implied, but not emphatically stated with that rule, is that it’s “don’t be an intentional dick” as I stated above. However, as we know, it also means that when it comes to protecting yourself and others, you must do whatever you must do in order to guarantee that protection.
When it comes to living in ma’at, which is of course probably the most important religious thing ever, I have to admit that I still get stuck. I give stuff to the gods; I try not to be an intentional dick to anyone. (Let’s face it – I’ve been a dick for more years than I’ve not been a dick, so I’m going to backslide occasionally.) But is that the be-all, end-all to how this particular concept can infiltrate one’s life? Or is it possible to have it fully incorporated on a grand scale?
How people decide to work on incorporating ma’at into their daily lives is going to vary from person to person. Some people put shopping carts away. Some people are nice to everybody and try not to judge. Some people take those 42 pesky little principles of ma’at and attempt to live by them. Some people don’t change how they behave at all.
Personally, I know that I was successful in having at least achieved living in ma’at when I come home from work. After a long day of being everybody else’s chew toy or reciprocating said chew toy status upon unsuspecting unhelpful carrier representatives, when I step into my house and I can clear my head enough, spend quality time with my family, go online without taking out the day’s frustrations, and settle down to sleep without harping on my perceived mistakes… that’s when I truly feel as if I’ve managed to achieve some semblance of establishing, maintaining, and living in ma’at. I don’t always succeed and I honestly don’t think that it’s possible to succeed every day in living in ma’at especially since I wasn’t raised with the notion.
But on the days where I don’t feel like I’ve been pummeled nearly to death with stress and worry, those are the days where I feel like I’ve been successful.
The opposite of ma’at is known as isfet. Just as with ma’at, defining the term can be a little difficult. Since there are so many different words which are oft-equated with ma’at, so too the opposite of those words can be defined as meaning isfet: harmony, balance, order for ma’at while on the opposite end of the spectrum, disharmony, imbalance, chaos for isfet.
The thing is that, just like with ma’at, isfet can be best determined to be shades of gray as well. The thing about ancient Egyptian trains of thought on religious items like these is that there is nothing pre-defined and easily checked off into a neat little box. Ma’at can incorporate isfet and isfet can incorporate ma’at.
So, for example, living in ma’at, as I stated above, could mean that chaos may be required in order to set that balance into motion. Take the god Set for example: he is a deity of chaos and yet, he is also shown as maintaining and establishing ma’at as well. My day may be shitty and nutty and I may come home feeling like the shit end of the stick, but the next day means that projects are set in motion, my task list is a little lighter, and I can actually feel like I’ve adequately achieved something because I suffered through the chaos or isfet of the day before. Without that day of isfet, hour of isfet, second of isfet then the next day may have been just as shitty but because I did have that crazy day, I was able to establish myself for the rest of the week.
It is through isfet that the entirety of creation was made manifest. The waters of the Nun are equated with that primordial, frightening chaos that is most often seen in a negative light when you start reading really boring Egyptological papers and books on the topic. However, if not for those chaotic waters, we wouldn’t have the world that we live in today. Isfet, however, was also seen as the evil within someone’s heart. (I couldn’t say what sort of evils that were or if it means all evils. Or even how people knew that their hearts were evil before the whole reconfigured for being all dead and whatnot thing, but you know, it was apparently a thing.)
As far as how much or how little isfet has anything to do with my practice, I would like to say that it has very little to do with me. Clearly, that’s not the case. I’ve had days where I’ve come away and said: “Why yes, today was the embodiment of isfet,” as I’ve said above. But I don’t think those types of isfet really are a part of the primordial, terrifying chaos that was the very thing the ancient Egyptians were trying to prevent from gaining territory and from destroying the world at large by the ritual acts of the pharaoh, the correct living of the people, and the ritual acts of the priesthood [in the stead of the pharaoh].
Some days are so hectic and crazed that I need to do a ritual execration (or curse) in order to feel myself being freed from the aftereffects of having been within the hold of isfet all day. Some days, I can shrug it off and know that just spending time with my family will be enough to make me feel better. And other days, I have to wonder – because of how bad shit is – how it’s possible that the sun can rise the next day, thereby alerting me to the fact that ma’at still reigns supreme, when everything sucks so fucking badly. But the sun continues to rise and that renews me as well as the world around me to fight it off in any way both myself and the world are capable of doing.
These concepts are not easy and, frankly, I long for the days where I used to have someone else tell me how to think about this stuff. But to be honest, there’s only so long one can take being spoon fed what other people think. We all need to come to decisions about these things on our own. And there’s no telling how simple or how difficult it will be to come to terms with both what these concepts mean and what, if anything, they mean for each of us. I can assure anyone reading this that even close friends who have had discussions about these concepts, meanings, and share similar thought processes can and will differ on the fine points. And that’s okay. Don’t stress it if what you think ma’at and isfet happen to be don’t exactly correlate with everyone else. We’re all individuals, graced with individual experiences, and those individual experiences will color those definitions and interpretations.