Maat represents and refers to the ancient Egyptian concepts of truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice. Ma'at was also the goddess who personified these concepts, and regulated the stars, seasons, and the actions of mortals and the deities who had brought order from chaos at the moment of creation. Her ideological opposite was Isfet (Egyptian jzft), meaning injustice, chaos, violence or to do evil. When we look at the negative confessions, we see that one of the confessions is that 'I have not been violent.' from (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maat?wprov=sfla1)

However, when we look at the actual history of Ancient Egypt, we see a hierarchical society punctuated by many actions and forms of violence. The unification of Egypt, as represented and depicted on Narmer's Palette shows us Narmer smiting his enemies, an act of utter violence. from (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narmer_Palette?wprov=sfla1)

Moreover, we know that there were many human sacrifices taking place in the first dynasty of Ancient Egypt: Human sacrifice was practiced as part of the funerary rituals associated with all of the pharaohs of the first dynasty. It is clearly demonstrated as existing during this dynasty by retainers being buried near each pharaoh's tomb as well as animals sacrificed for the burial. The tomb of Djer is associated with the burials of 338 individuals. The people and animals sacrificed, such as donkeys, were expected to assist the pharaoh in the afterlife. For unknown reasons, this practice ended with the conclusion of the dynasty. from (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Dynasty_of_Egypt?wprov=sfla1)

From these examples we see that violence has always been a part of Ancient Egyptian society, in particular perhaps because of its hierarchical nature, and the pharaohs seen as the incarnations of deities on earth, with the power to do however they wish. Thus, those in power decide what happens to whom, human and animal alike; because they claim to be representing divinity on earth, and upholding Maat.

My question: ●How do we reconcile these inherently hierachical and therefore violent aspects of the Ancient Egyptian society with the nonviolent principle of Maat as exemplified, for instance, in the negative confessions?

  • 1
    Smiting the (external) enemies of the state could be seen as ensuring peace, justice, and stability, as opposed to the chaos and violence of invasion and occupation. Cf modern Ukraine /Russia.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 22:20
  • You are actually missing a very important thing that allows every social organization and order to exist: Good and Bad Each society defines its good and bad: in ancient Egypt, some figures were validated by Gods (e.g. Phararoh) while others were not validated (not sure but I guess thiefs or murderers are good guess). A bad thing (death) was bad for good people (pharaoh) but not bad when applied on bad people (death penalty for murderers) Please note that I put capital letters to Good and Bad because they are here concepts, not because I think that a universal Good and Bad system exists Commented May 11 at 8:38

2 Answers 2


I think you're overthinking this. Ma'at doesn't mean non-violence. The list of negative confessions can vary, and there's no reason that particular one must be here. From here:

There is no standard Negative Confession. The confession from The Papyrus of Ani is the best known only because that text is so famous and so often reproduced. As noted, scribes would tailor a text to the individual, and so while there was a standard number of 42 confessions, the sins which are listed varied from text to text. For example, in The Papyrus of Ani confession number 15 is "I am not a man of deceit," while elsewhere it is "I have not commanded to kill," and in another, "I have not been contentious in affairs." An officer in the military would not be able to honestly claim "I have not commanded to kill" nor would a judge or a king, and so that 'sin' would be left off their confession.

Simply put, the Pharaoh wouldn't list that one. Following ma'at doesn't mean that one must be pacifist.

  • So, Maat is just a general principle, and what is maat changes from person to person; and who is holding the power, the pharaoh or religious figures or scribes, are free to make up whatever definition they see fit? So, is Maat a subjective or intersubjective or relativist term rather than an objective one?
    – november
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 9:38
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    @november The first part is right, but not the second one. Ma'at doesn't change, but whether an action is good or bad does change from person to person. This is true even today. It's against the law to forcibly imprison a person against the will, but the state does it all the time to criminals.
    – cmw
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 14:26

Ancient Egypt wasn't really more violent than other states in antiquity. Violence is inevitable with statecraft, as the defining feature separating governments from other types of organizations is a monopoly on the legal use of force over the denizens of a particular geographical area. What does this mean? It means that in a given piece of land, the state is the only organization allowed to aggress against the people. This aggression is usually touted as being for the "common good", part of a "Social Contract", the supposed "price" of civilization, etc,and using euphemisms like "taxation", "arrest", "justice", etc when the state does things like stealing, kidnapping, etc.

Now whether such a monopoly on legal violence is necessary for societies or countries to be civilized is up for debate, with some coming in the same camp as Sargon of Akkad (the Sumerian emperor, not Carl Benjamin) who is rumored to have said something along the lines of " Without coercion, there can be no civilization ", and others saying it's not necessary for civilization.

  • 1
    Sources would improve your answer. Commented May 9 at 0:44

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