Ma'at the Merciful




 One thing that kept Thoth happy was that he was the lucky consort to the one often considered -- though such judgments are invariably delicate and perilous -- the purest and most radiantly beautiful Neter of them all: Ma'at, the Lady of Truth.

  Thoth's devotion to her is evident here: in one of the few images we have of one of the Neters of Egypt engaged in the act of creating a picture, it is fitting that the one who invented all the arts of making letters and images with ink should be drawing the symbol of his beloved. This feather of truth was crucially important in the most awe-inspiring, fearsome moment that the Egyptians anticipated in each soul's journey.


  The feather of Ma'at is the physical expression of the Lightness of Truth, the idea behind the scene of the Moment of Truth, when the heart of the dead soul is weighed for sincerity in the presence of Thoth and Anubis. In many scenes of the Moment of Truth, like this one from the

famous funeral papyrus of Ani, Maat's presence is implied -- as her head and shoulders can be seen atop the center pole of the balance -- but she bears no active role in the rite of judgment.

   As shown here, the soul's journey toward eternal life in the kingdom of Osiris takes the soul first through a series of portals, where he must answer complex ritual questions posed by the fourteen Guardians of the Way, seated above. Then the soul is led by Anubis to the scales, where his heart is weighed in the balance against the feather of Truth. If the heart is heavy with guile and deceit, and the pan that holds the feather rises, Anubis tosses the heart to the monster Am-mit, who devours it. But if the heart is as simple and light as Truth itself, the soul's life is assured. After Thoth, at center, records the outcome, Horus leads the soul into the presence of Osiris, seated with Isis and Nephthys behind him, and the four sons of Horus emerging from the lotus at the front of the King's throne.

   The positions of the Neters have shifted, and Ma'at's role as the Goddess of Mercy is clear, in the second Weighing of the Heart scene that we see here.

   This time the central figure is not Thoth but Horus, who has replaced Anubis in guiding the soul to the Moment of Truth, and is now crowned with the pharoah's pschent crown as though to emphasize his royal status as the lord of justice. Thoth's position remains important, as he stands at lower left and his image in baboon form sits atop the balance pole. But Ma'at's role is the mightiest of all. Her image is in the left pan of the balance, and she stands above all the other Neters because she holds the power of Mercy. She may override the strict measure of justice by intervening to save the soul from oblivion. And when the verdict of salvation comes, the soul's already departed sister, at right, rejoices. She wears no fewer than six feathers, two each on her head and each wrist, as though to show that in the realm of the Neters she has become Truth, and welcomes the truth of her sister's purity. The implication of this -- that through spiritual practice a human being may be refined into the holiness of Truth itself, was as evident to the Egyptians as it is to many Buddhists, and others who accept the soul's perfectibility, and consciously build the body of light. 

   We see the same premise in one more Moment of Truth, shown here:

   Thoth is back in the center. Horus in his falcon-headed form is under the balance, next to Anubis, but also sits in his boy form behind Am-mit, holding his flail above the monster's head, as though to emphasize the power of his innocence and youthful simplicity. Thoth has his back to the scales, and almost every figure in the tableau faces to the right, toward Osiris. Of the three Heart Weighing scenes shown here, this is the one that is without any fear or drama, and the reason why can be seen at left. The soul has been brought by Ma'at, now in Anubis's role as the conductor of souls, and she has apparently already given him the feather of Truth, which he holds in his left hand as he meets Ma'at in her role as gatekeeper and guardian, who holds the anhk of life and a flowering papyrus stalk, emblematic of the renewing power of Truth. She is the only figure in the scene who faces away from Osiris, and the obvious parallel and balance in their positions is significant. It could not be more evident that once the soul is accepted and admitted by Ma'at, the rest of the ritual is an elegantly-staged formality. Ma'at makes the decision. She is Justice, Mercy and Truth, all in one.


Copyright 2002 Dan Furst



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