Chapter 18 - The Trial
Maat was a very important idea to the Egyptians. Maat means truth, or justice, or simply the order of the universe - how things ought to be. Perhaps the best way to translate maat is 'right'.
Maat was also a goddess, who personified all these ideas. She was usually shown with wings, and with an ostrich feather on her head. Maat was also represented just by the feather itself, as we see in the famous scene from the Book of the Dead, the weighing of the heart. The name of the room where the weighing takes place is 'The Hall of Two Maats'.
My copy of a scene from the tomb of Queen Nefertari, showing the goddess Maat.
The Egyptians believed their pharaohs ruled by the authority of Maat, and so they had to obey its rules of fairness. They also believed that the power of Maat regulated the seasons, the movement of the stars, and the relations between men and gods.
An oracle was a way of asking a god important questions of the simple yes/no variety. Ordinary Egyptians would never get a glimpse of the cult statue of a god, as it was hidden away in the sanctuary of its temple. But on a festival day the god would be carried in a shrine through the streets (as we see in chapter 9), and this was a chance for them to ask questions - such as 'will my wife bear a son?' or 'does the house belong to me or to my brother?' - for anything, really.
The boat shrine would then tilt one way or another to indicate yes or no. Of course the boat was carried by priests, so it was they who were moving the boat. They may have felt the spirit of the god making them do this - who knows? It was usually Amun in the barque in the New Kingdom (see picture right).
Kings could also use the oracle, in case they wanted a god to back up a decision they had made. If a pharaoh had decided to go to war, for example, he could ask the god if this was a good idea, and generally the god would say yes. This would make him feel more certain about it - and also no one would dare to question his decision if Amun had supported it! A clever move.