Most people would be surprised to discover that ancient Egyptian religion is strikingly similar to Judeo-Christian values. Despite this, during Roman times when Christianity was becoming the dominant religion, polytheistic societies such as Greece and ancient Egypt were labeled “pagans” so that the Judeo-Christian sect could distinguish themselves as a civilized religion as compared to the “barbaric” polytheism that was predominant in most of the ancient world.
In ancient Egyptian religion, people relied on a pantheon of Egyptian gods and goddesses. One goddess, Ma’at, was not just a divinity but a concept. Ma’at itself means “truth”. And not only did the goddess embody her namesake in her duties, she set the standard for all citizens to behave. Many people believe that civilized life was not possible before the Ten Commandments—as if a world without our modern religion was anarchy. However, the concept of ma’at in ancient Egypt proves that notion wrong. Every Egyptian wanted to aspire to a life of “truth”. They wanted to live a “good life” so that at the end of their mortality, they could stand before their gods and goddesses, in particular Ma’at, and complete the weighing of the heart ceremony to determine their role in the afterlife.
Although, I’m not going to go into the details of Ma’at as the Egyptian goddess, I will speak
more to the concept of the divine order in ancient Egyptian religion. The idea of divine harmony, of ma’at, was used in everyday life to establish a moral and ethical code of behavior so that people aspired to lead good lives in order to achieve an everlasting afterlife. The idea of good behavior in mortal life as a prerequisite to an immortal afterlife is also a main tenet of the Judeo-Christian religions. For Egyptians, daily worship to the gods, daily rituals, cleanliness, and hygiene were all important aspects of the divine order for a “good” life. Often, priests would bathe up to four times a day so that they were clean before entering the temples and sanctuaries.
However, one of the simplest ways to describe the concept of ma’at in ancient Egyptian religion is that ancient Egyptians believed that nothing was coincidence. Everything had a purpose and life had a rhythm of coming and going. The turning of the seasons, the rising and lowering of the Nile River and the floods it brought to the croplands, lunar cycles, even birth and death all signified a balance in the cosmos. Ancient Egyptian religion believed that the cohesion of the universe, the tides of time, all boiled down to balance. This could not be more perfectly summarized by the opening lines of the Emerald Tablet, written by the Egyptian god of magic and wisdom, Thoth. “That which is above is equal to that which is below. That which is below is equal to that which is above.”
If this seems familiar to you, you might be surprised that the Asian concept of yin and yang is strikingly similar to the ancient Egyptian notion of ma’at. In ancient Egyptian religion, ma’at was harmony in the universe. It was a divine order established by the gods that functioned to produce a moral and ethical society based on the concepts of truth and justice.