Isfet (Egyptian mythology)

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Isfet in hieroglyphs

Isfet or Asfet (meaning "injustice", "chaos", or "violence"; as a verb, “to do evil”[1]) is an ancient Egyptian term from Egyptian mythology used in philosophy, which was built on a religious, social and politically affected dualism.[2] Isfet was the counter to Maat, which was order. Isfet did not have a physical form. Rather, it was believed that Isfet was personified in the form of Apep. Isfet was important in Egyptian culture as Isfet showed that there is balance in the world.

Principles and ideology[edit]

Isfet was thought to be the counterpart of the term Ma'at (meaning "order" or "harmony"). According to ancient Egyptian beliefs, Isfet and Ma'at built a complementary and also paradoxical dualism: one could not exist without its counterpart.[3] Isfet and Ma'at balanced each other. Ma'at was to overcome isfet, 'that which is difficult', 'evil', 'disharmonious', and 'troublesome'. Isfet was to be overcome by good, which would replace disunity with unity and disorder with order.[4] An Egyptian king (pharaoh) was appointed to "achieve" Ma'at, which means that he had to keep and protect justice and harmony by destroying Isfet. A responsible kingship meant that Egypt would remain in prosperity and at peace in Ma'at. However, if Isfet were to rise, humanity would decay and return to a primordial state. Decay was unacceptable as a natural course of events, which meant that the world was separated from the cosmos and away from order.[5] The universe was cyclical, meaning it had repeated sequences: the daily sunset and its rising, annual seasons and flooding of the Nile. On the other hand, when Ma'at was absent, and Isfet unleashed, then the Nile-flood failed and the country fell into famine. Therefore, ancient Egyptians believed through their rituals of the cosmic order it would bring forth prosperity to the gods and goddesses who controlled the cosmos.[6] The principles of the contrariness between Isfet and Ma'at are exemplified in a popular tale from the Middle Kingdom, called The Moaning of the Bedouin:

Those who destroy the lie promote Ma'at;
those who promote the good will erase the evil.
As fulness casts out appetite,
as clothes cover the nude and
as heaven clears up after a storm.[7]

In the eyes of the Egyptians, the world was always ambiguous; the actions and judgments of a king were thought to simplify these principles in order to keep Ma'at by separating Order from Chaos or Good from Evil.[8][9][2][10] Coffin Text 335a asserts the necessity of the dead being cleansed of isfet in order to be reborn in the Duat.[11]

Isfet is thought to be the product of an individual's free will rather than a primordial state of chaos. In mythology, this is represented by Apep being born from Ra's umbilical cord relatively late.[12]


In Egyptian culture duality was important. In order for duality to exist there had to be two opposing forces. The counter to Isfet was Ma'at. Ma'at was said to bring order whereas Isfet brought chaos. This created the concept of duality. Creating two opposing forces that existed simultaneously. The Egyptians believed that the world could not be balanced without this duality; which is why they believed in both Isfet and Ma'at. [13]

Role of the king[edit]

When the king made public appearances he was surrounded by images of foreigners which emphasized his role as protector of Ma'at and the enemy of Isfet which were foreign enemies of ancient Egypt. As such, the king is mainly shown 'smiting' foreigners to maintain Ma'at.[14]

The king also maintained the temple-Cult to prevent Isfet from spreading, by ensuring the rituals were performed at defined intervals, which were necessary in preserving the balance of Ma'at against the threatening forces of Isfet.[14]


  1. ^ a b Erman, Adolf, and Hermann Grapow, eds. 1926–1953. Wörterbuch der aegyptischen Sprache im Auftrage der deutschen Akademien. 6 vols. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs'schen Buchhandlungen. (Reprinted Berlin: Akademie-Verlag GmbH, 1971).
  2. ^ a b Donald B. Redford. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, volume 1: A-F. Oxford University Press, 2001, ISBN 019513821X, p. 485.
  3. ^ Maulana Karenga, Maat, The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics. (New York: Routeledge, 2003). ISBN 9781135937669
  4. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete. "Maat and Human Communication: Supporting Identity, Culture, and History Without Global Domination". Journal of Intercultural Communication Studies 20 (2011): 22.
  5. ^ Goelet, Ogden. "Memphis and Thebes: Disaster and Renewal in Ancient Egyptian Consciousness". Journal of The Classical World 97 (2003): 24.
  6. ^ Silverman, David P. Ancient Egypt (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). ISBN 978-0-19-521952-4
  7. ^ Jan Assmann: Ma'at. Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit im Alten Ägypten (= Beck'sche Reihe. Bd. 1403). 1. Auflage, Beck, München 1990, ISBN 3-406-45943-9. page 58.
  8. ^ Jan Assmann. Ma'at. Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit um Alten Ägypten. Beck'sche Reihe, vol. 1403. 1st edition, Beck, Munich 1990, ISBN 3-406-45943-9. pp. 58, 59, 213–216.
  9. ^ Anja Berendine Kootz: Der altägyptische Staat: Untersuchung aus politikwissenschaftlicher Sicht. Menes, vol. 4. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 2006, ISBN 3447053194. pp. 71–73.
  10. ^ Karenga, Maulana. Maat, The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics. Routledge, London 2003, ISBN 0415947537, p. 363.
  11. ^ Rabinovich, Yakov. Isle of Fire: A Tour of the Egyptian Further World. Invisible Books, 2007.
  12. ^ Kemboly, Mpay (2010). The Question of Evil in Ancient Egypt. London: Golden House Publications.
  13. ^ Braun, Eric (2012). Egyptian myths. Capstone Press.
  14. ^ a b Wilkinson, Toby. The Egyptian World (New York: Routledge Worlds, 2013). ISBN 9781136753763