I have been pondering over this post for a few days. I am in the middle of reading Arthur Versluis’ Egyptian Mysteries. I thoroughly enjoyed his book The Philosophy of Magic and so was very hopeful when I started reading the Egyptian Mysteries. However, I have continually come up against his very strong Gnostic twist on everything Egyptian which I find inappropriate and misleading. My notes on his book have turned into a private rant and have taken my thoughts off in philosophical directions far from the original text (in that sense, a good book because it has got me thinking). My greatest bugbear so far with the book is his interpretation of Ma’at as Order and Harmony. This is a common interpretation and I am sticking my neck on the line by disagreeing with it.
[Briefly: Gnostics believe that we are emanations from a divine source, that the further away from the divine we are, the more lost and in darkness we are. The aim is to journey back to the source, to achieve that original unity with the divine which is a remote and distant figure. Dualist Gnostics believe that the material world is the furthest emanation away from the divine and is therefore innately bad. They strive away from the material (e.g. through sexual abstinence, fasting and denial of the ‘worldly’) in an attempt to bring themselves back to the divine, which is innately good. For more information, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnosticism%5D
I agree that the main focus of Egyptian belief centres around Ma’at. Ma’at is Order in the face of the chaos demons Apophis and Typhon (for example) – although not forgetting that the chaos demons are also integral to the Order of the worlds. She restrains the unrestrained and focuses energy and power that would otherwise wreak pure destruction. She is the outcome and the tool for harnessing our inner anger and self-destructiveness, for controlling (though not taming) the inner demons to become a driving force behind our own creative and destructive powers. In this sense you could perhaps view Ma’at as harmony: a balance between two extremes to enable us to control both the left-hand and right-hand energies to move powerfully forwards (although I would say that at times we need to lean more in one direction or another to progress; after all, pure balance of two points can also describe stagnation).
From an academic point of view, I find Versluis’ interpretation of Egyptian culture suspect to say the least. He posits that Egyptian culture derived from an earlier, ‘purer’ [sic] culture out of which both Oriental and Occidental traditions arose. Consequently, due to the lack of empirical evidence in respect of an Egyptian understanding of the world, he continually draws on the Vedanta in the Upanishads and the Tao Te Ching. He will start with an Egyptian concept and without any reference to Egyptian sources, interpret it based solely on a comment in the Tao Te Ching (for example). And naturally all interpretations are heavily slanted in support of a dualistic Gnostic perspective. I understand the principle of drawing parallels between religious traditions to understand archetypal concepts, but Ma’at (in my mind) is peculiarly Egyptian. His book would more accurately be described as a Gnostic perspective of Egyptian mysteries, rather than a book elucidating Egyptian mysteries per se.
I see his emphasis of the harmonisation aspect of Ma’at as a direct moral bias betraying his own starting point. BUT, in putting forth my own interpretation below, I am fully aware that I am doing exactly the same thing, and betraying my own left-hand leaning. So be it.
Firstly let me say what I do agree with, namely that to truly understand the origins of the Western spiritual tradition, we need to understand the Egyptian mysteries and tradition. I also agree that there are numerous parallels and influences between traditions old and new.
Secondly, there are some points made by Versluis that I like the sound of, although I have no credible proof or experience to back up his ideas. These are thoughts I would like to ponder further: He says that Egyptian religion and culture were marked by the personal responsibility of each person to unite any breach of Heaven and Earth. In this respect he implies that it is not just about maintaining the status quo and adhering to the laws of society, although by definition, the laws of Ancient Egyptian society would have been (even if only nominally) focused entirely on sustaining and restoring Ma’at. As many of you will know from my blog, I very much support the concept of personal responsibility; and in fact I see established religions, groups, covens and temples as being a sore testing ground for personal responsibility as in such contexts it is far easier for the spiritually lazy to be carried along by the majority (before anyone gets their knickers in a serious twist, I know that this is not always the case, but it is a relevant point).
Versluis also speaks of “…the strength of a traditional culture [lying] in its irradiative power, involving and unifying all people towards the realisation of their true nature [Will?] of the Divine.” I think this is a nice, if slightly naïve idea, although I think it is also a rather hagiographic portrayal of Egyptian society – again, on what basis (apart from wishful thinking) does he make such a statement?
Versluis’ writing is here very much coloured by the belief in that primeval Golden Age where Heaven and Earth were united. Through ritual and the enforcement of Ma’at the bridge between celestial and terrestrial is maintained. According to Versluis, “Only when this power is thwarted, when disorder and the anti-traditional behaviours begin to gain sway, ignoring and defiling the teachings of antiquity, does such a culture break down, fragment and disappear…” He goes on to cite the rise of Judaism and Christianity as pivotal factors in exacerbating this decline… I am highly suspicious of any attempt to raise any one culture or religion above others, and to claim that salvation of the world (no less) can be found in one direction alone.
However, the idea of bridging the gap between celestial and terrestrial struck me as a more meaningful interpretation of Ma’at, and something that tallies with my own experience of the Egyptian religion.
The concept of harmony carries with it a moral interpretation that I do not share. Ma’at as Order – yes. But what if perfect Order between the earthly and celestial realms does not necessarily involve harmony (in terms of balancing opposing forces). Indeed Versluis’ seems to contradict himself by citing the example of the myth of Typhon scattering pieces of Osiris’ body; at each place a temple was raised, a holy site where a Divine ladder extended upward between heaven and earth. These places (says Versluis) retained some of the primordial spiritual unity of the temporal and divine (the essence of that Golden Era of perfect unity with the divine that Gnostics are so fond of). To quote: “And in this vein, there can be little doubt that to this day certain areas resonate with primordial power – sometimes for good and sometimes not.” Ignoring his almost coy avoidance of the word ‘bad’ or ‘evil’, the question arises of how an area that retains the primordial unity can be ‘not good’ and yet harmonious and an expression of Ma’at by his own definition. I would say that ‘good’ and ‘not good’ (!) are just extreme aspects on a graded (possibly circular) scale from good to evil. There is no black and white dualism in my opinion (such desperation to split the world neatly into two categories of right and wrong, to me is a cry of fear from someone overwhelmed by the chaos and general muckiness that is life). It is not always so easy to assign a shade to an action or manifestation. Sometimes a thing just ‘is’: perhaps the essence of existing is in being connected both with the celestial and the earthly planes, that this is the actual manifestation of Maat. Hence, Ma’at would be not the balance of two realms, but the connection. Ma’at is (for me) the expression of True Existence when we are not just surviving in the world, but living and manifesting our true Will by the connection of both the celestial and the terrestrial within and without ourselves. What else is the magician but the creator and manifestor of such connections? The magician in her work with the nominally good and evil is the ultimate sustainer and embodiment of Ma’at; who else connects the celestial and terrestrial realms better than a magician who invokes and evokes the Other, the celestial, and manifests it on the terrestrial plane?
So, in my own biased and left-hand shaded interpretation, Ma’at is Order and Connection, and has little to do with the morally biased term of Harmony.
In this sense, may Ma’at be on your tongues, in your heart and manifest in your lives.
© starofseshat 2008