Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
The goddess Maāt closely resembles Thoth, and has indeed been regarded as the female counterpart of that god. She was one of the original goddesses, for when the boat of Ra rose above the waters of the primeval abyss of Nu for the first time she had her place in it beside Thoth. She is symbolized by the ostrich feather, which she either holds or which decorates her headdress. Dr. Budge states that the reason for the[Pg 109] association of the ostrich feather with Maāt is unknown, as is the primitive conception which underlies her name. But it is likely that the equal-sidedness of the feather, its division into halves, rendered it a fitting symbol of balance or equilibrium. Among the Maya of Central America the feather denoted the plural number. The word, we are told, indicates "that which is straight." The name Maāt with the ancient Egyptians came to imply anything which was true, genuine, or real. Thus the goddess was the personification of law, order, and truth. She indicated the regularity with which Ra rose and set in the sky, and, assisted by Thoth, wrote down his daily course for him every day. In this capacity she is called the 'daughter of Ra' and the 'eye of Ra.' As the personification of justice her moral power was immense and inexorable. In fact, she came to be regarded as that fate from whom every man receives his deserts. She sat in a hall in the underworld to hear the confessions of the dead, the door of which was guarded by Anubis. The deceased had to satisfy forty-two assessors or judges in this hall, after which he proceeded to the presence of Osiris, whom he assured that he had 'done Maāt,' and had been purified by her.
The Book of the Dead, the Egyptian title of which, Pert em hru, has been variously translated 'coming forth by day' and the 'manifestation day,' is a great body of religious compositions compiled for the use of the dead in the otherworld. It is probable that the name had a significance for the Egyptians which is incapable of being rendered in any modern language, and this is borne out by another of its titles—'The chapter of making perfect the Khu' (or spirit).[Pg 110] Texts dealing with the welfare of the dead and their life in the world beyond the grave are known to have been in use among the Egyptians as early as 4000 B.C. The oldest form of the Book of the Dead known to us is represented in the Pyramid Texts. With the invention of mummification a more complete funerary ritual arose, based on the hope that such ceremonies as it imposed would ensure the corpse against corruption, preserve it for ever, and introduce it to a beatified existence among the gods. Almost immediately prior to the dynastic era a great stimulus appears to have been given to the cult of Osiris throughout Egypt. He had now become the god of the dead par excellence, and his dogma taught that from the preserved corpse would spring a beautified astral body, the future home of the spirit of the deceased. It therefore became necessary to adopt measures of the greatest precaution for the preservation of human remains.
The generality of the texts comprised in the Book of the Dead are in one form or another of much greater antiquity than the period of Mena, the first historical king of Egypt. Indeed, from internal evidence it is possible to show that many of these were revised or edited long before the copies known to us were made. Even at as early a date as 3300 B.C. the professional writers who transcribed the ancient texts appear to have been so puzzled by their contents that they hardly understood their purport. Dr. Budge states: "We are in any case justified in estimating the earliest form of the work to be contemporaneous with the foundation of the civilization which we call 'Egyptian' in the valley of the Nile."
A hieratic inscription upon the sarcophagus of Queen Khnem-nefert, wife of Mentu-hetep, a king of the Eleventh Dynasty (c. 2500 B.C.), states that a certain chapter of the Book of the Dead was discovered in the reign of Hesep-ti, the fifth king of the First Dynasty, who flourished about 4266 B.C. This sarcophagus affords us two copies of the said chapter, one immediately following the other. That as early as 2500 B.C. a chapter of the Book of the Dead should be referred to a date almost 2000 years before that time is astounding, and the mind reels before the idea of a tradition which, during comparatively unlettered centuries, could have conserved a religious formula almost unimpaired. Thus thirty-four centuries ago a portion of the Book of the Dead was regarded as extremely ancient, mysterious, and difficult of comprehension. It will be noted also that the inscription on the tomb of Queen Khnem-nefert bears out that the chapter in question was 'discovered' about 4266 B.C. If it was merely discovered at that early era, what periods of remoteness lie between that epoch and the time when it was first reduced to writing? The description of the chapter on the sarcophagus of the royal lady states that "this chapter was found in the foundations beneath the Dweller in the Hennu Boat by the foreman of the builders in the time of the king of the South and North, Hesep-ti, whose word is truth"; and the Nebseni Papyrus says that the chapter was found in the city of Khemennu or Hermopolis, on a block of alabaster, written in letters of lapis-lazuli, under the feet of the god. It also appears from the Turin Papyrus, which dates from the period of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, that the name of the finder[Pg 112] was Heru-ta-ta-f, the son of Cheops, who was at the time engaged in a tour of inspection of the temples. Sir Gaston Maspero is doubtful concerning the importance which should be attached to the statement regarding the chapter on the tomb of Queen Khnem-nefert, but M. Naville considers the chapter in question one of the oldest in the Book of the Dead.