Thoughts on Ma’at

We’ll now take a break from the regularly scheduled programming (My Being Pagan series that none of you were aware is going to be a proper series) for a few musings on Kemeticism. Specifically, on Ma’at.

I’ve been making an effort lately at finally getting a bit more involved in online Kemetic circles (spoiler alert: it’s a long dark alley lit only by dumpster fires and all sense of time is lost as their smoke blots Sirius from the sky) and have noticed a trend. Namely, a lot of these groups, particularly on Facebook, tend to have an anti-reconstructionist bend to them and moreover tend to not really be all that removed from the kind of New Age thinking I’ve spoken against on this blog and on reddit (and anywhere else I can find a soapbox).

There’s a distinct “anything goes” atmosphere, even from names I recognize as being established and respected in the wider Kemetic community. If a group construes itself as being anything shy of rigidly reconstructive in nature, even worshiping Heru by invoking the Lord’s Prayer (and equating Heru and Ra with Yahweh) is permissible; criticism thereof is entirely verboten. This is a worrying trend, in my book.

I realize that I’m basically a nobody in terms of Kemeticism. I’ve only been doing this for a few years, and I’m not really trying to discount the contributions of people who’ve been at it longer. My concern is more of a question; it baffles me how anyone who claims to have experienced the reality of the divine can be so passive and in many cases, so flippant about the value of correct methodology when worshiping them. I do not believe that practitioners need recreate lengthy, hours-long liturgies from ancient temple priests, but I strongly believe that there is some point at which forms of practice can become emphatically wrong.

Aside from the fact that these issues tend to stem from an absolutely relentless barrage of the old “orthopraxy vs. orthodoxy” litany*, these debates also regularly involve the invocation of Ma’at as a defense for dubious practice and more worryingly as a repudiation of any voicing of criticism.

Ma’at, for those who aren’t aware, is a difficult-to-nail-down term that effectively comprises the backbone of Kemetic ethics. It encompasses essentially everything that is ‘good,’ whether that is harmony and balance (by far the most oft-emphasized aspects highlighted in the groups I’ve been in, to the detriment of all nuance), order, justice, and notably, an opposition to evil. It stands in defiance of Isfet, which is often summarized as “chaos” or “discord” or other bad words, but I believe that it may be more accurate to characterize it after the nature of Apep, whom is its purest incarnation: Isfet is that which subverts or attempts to destroy Ma’at.

It may seem a simple thing to define Evil as being opposite of Good, but it is more than that; evil is active by its nature, it is subversive and destructive. It cannot simply be ignored or tolerated because it will continue to erode that which is good; this is why Ma’at cannot be passive. This popular interpretation of Ma’at as a passive tolerance and simply “not being a dick” is grossly oversimplified and in fact, lends itself to a very black and white view of morality that in itself permits isfet to flourish.

Liken it to teaching children. When children are young, we teach them right and wrong in simple terms, and typically in absolutes. Lying is bad. Hurting other people is wrong. As they grow, they have to learn– and ideally be taught– that the world is more nuanced than that. That “white lies” can sometimes be good, and that sometimes one person has to be hurt to prevent greater harm coming to another. We see this in the role that Set often plays in Egyptian mythology; he is even associated in some ways with chaos and violence, and yet (excepting the periods in which he became vilified), we understand that he still works in service to Ma’at.

I believe that this is an important stage of development that falls by the wayside for many people; the pagan community overall draws much from the New Age movement and its rather simplistic moral systems, likewise many pagans still draw on Wicca with its rudimentary concepts of “Harm none.” I see this mantra repeated fairly often in Kemetic groups as well and I believe it is ultimately to the detriment of the growth and development of Kemetics themselves, something I’ve touched on in the last few posts in other ways.

I think that in some ways, this stems from many prominent Kemetics bewilderingly trying to strip away any characterization of piety as being a virtue worth cultivating. Nary a Kemetic blog that I’ve seen fails to emphasize that belief is not important, that (poorly defined) orthopraxy and “living in Ma’at” is the key, moreso than believing in and honoring the gods directly. But this flies in the face of what we actually see in Egyptian society, which had an immense preoccupation with the matter of honoring the gods and seeing that they were properly worshiped. I would go so far as to suggest that dispensing with piety is in itself an act of isfet that is antithetical to Kemetic ethics.

Moreover, I would argue that encouraging or excusing a lack of belief by handwaving the necessity of honoring the gods in a respectful manner by emphasizing orthopraxy over pious and honest observance is itself a subversion of Ma’at, because it strips out many of the traditions and concepts that actually define Kemetic orthopraxy. We often see remarks about the fact that religion was not historically a separate “compartment” in ancient life, and this is true. As such, we can’t really strip away large chunks of it and simply replace them with being nice or promoting “harmony” uncritically.

There comes a point at which tolerance at any cost becomes a matter of tolerating that which is wrong. If we are going to live in Ma’at, we must be willing to act. It cannot simply be an act of accepting anything and everything. It must be an act of standing in defense of what is proper and in defense of what we believe. If our beliefs and our convictions do not warrant standing to defend, and if they do not compel us to speak out when someone is doing wrong– intentionally or not– then we can scarcely claim that we value them at all.

*Spoiler: I’m tackling the “Orthopraxy/orthodoxy dichotomy” pretty soon and why I think it’s completely spurious bullshit, so stay tuned.

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