Akhenaten: Prophet of Monotheism?

Aten:  The Original Creator God

The mythology of the Aten, the radiant disk of the sun, is not only unique in Egyptian history, but is also one of the most complex and controversial aspects of Ancient Egypt. This term initially could be applied to any disk, including even the surface of a mirror or the moon. The term was used in the Coffin Texts to denote the sun disk, but in the ‘Story of Sinuhe‘ dating from the Middle Kingdom, the word is used with the determinative for god. In that story, Amenemhat I is described as soaring into the sky and uniting with Aten his creator.  In the New Kingdom, Amenhotep I, becomes in death “united with Aten, coalescing with the one from whom he had come”.

Aten Absorbed into Egyptian Pantheon

Text written during the New Kingdom‘s 18th Dynasty frequently use the term to mean “throne” or “place” of the sun god. The word Aten was written using the hieroglyphic sign for “god” because the Egyptians tended to personify certain expressions. Eventually, the Aten was conceived as a direct manifestation of the sun god.

Amāna- ātpa (Amenhotep III, Amenophis III; “Amun is Satisfied”)- Father of Akhenaten

Prior to Amenhotep IV, the sun disk could be a symbol in which major gods appear and so we find such phrases as “Atum who is in his disk (‘aten’). However, from there it is only a small leap for the disk itself to become a god.

Sole Worship of Creator Aten Revived

A Statue of Akhenaten now in the Egyptian Museum

It was Amenhotep IV who first initiated the appearance of the true god, Aten, by formulating a didactic name for him. Hence, in the early years of Amenhotep IV’s reign, the sun god Re-Horakhty, traditionally depicted with a hawk’s head, became identical to Aten, who was again worshipped as a god, rather than as an object associated with the sun god.

To honor his new god, Amenhotep IV constructed an enormous temple east of the Great Temple of Amun at Karnak during the third year of his reign. The temple included pillared courts with striking colossal statues of the king and at least three sanctuaries, one of which was called the Hwt-benben (‘mansion of the Benben’). This emphasized the relationship between Aten and the sun cult of Heliopolis. The Benben symbolized the primeval mound on which the sun god emerged from Nun to create the universe.

Nefertiti offers the early form of the Aten's cartouches to the divine sun disk

Banning Anthropomorphism & Polytheism

Amenhotep IV, who would change his name to Akhenaten to reflect Aten’s importance, first replaced the state god Amun with his newly interpreted god. The hawk-headed figure of Re-Horakhty-Aten was then abandoned in favor of the iconography of the solar disk, which was now depicted as an orb with a uraeus at its base emitting rays that ended in human hands either left open or holding ankh signs that gave “life” to the nose of both the king and the Great Royal Wife, Nefertiti.

Nefertiti Bust, a 3300-year-old painted limestone bust of the Great Royal Wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, believed to have been crafted in 1345 BC by the sculptor Thutmose.

Around the ninth year of of Akhenaten‘s reign, the name of the god Aten was once more changed. Now, all mention of Horakhty and Shu disappeared. Horakhty was replaced by the phrase, “Ruler of the Horizon”. No longer was the hawk form of the god acceptable and this image was definitively replaced with new iconography and a purer form of monotheism was introduced. Now, Aten became “the Living One, Sun, Ruler of the Horizon, who rejoices on the horizon in his name, which is Sunlight, which comes from the disk”.

Akhenaten in an exaggerated formNefertiti in a form less attractive then her Berlin Bust

Left: Akhenaten in an exaggerated form; Right: Nefertiti in a form less attractive then her Berlin Bust.  Both are receiving “life” from the Aten

Aten was now considered the sole, ruling deity and celebrated its own royal jubilees (Sed-festivals).

The concept of the new god was not so much the sun disk, but rather the life giving illumination of the sun. To make this distinction, his name would be more correctly pronounced, “Yati(n)”.

Aten was now the king of kings, needing no goddess as a companion and having no enemies who could threaten him. In effect, this worship of Aten was not a sudden innovation on the part of one king, but the climax of a religious quest among Egyptians for a benign god limitless in power and manifest in all countries and natural phenomena.

After Aten ascended to the top of the pantheon, most of the old gods retained their positions at first, though that would soon change as well. Gods of the dead such as Osiris and Soker were several of the first to vanish from the Egyptian religious front.

Left: The early form of the Aten's cartouches incorporating other forms of the sun god; Right: The later, more restricted form of the Aten's twin royal cartouches

Left: The early form of the Aten’s cartouches incorporating other forms of the sun god.  Right: The later, more restricted form of the Aten’s twin royal cartouches 

Akhenaten‘s new religion, which inaugurated theocracy and systematic monotheism, manifest itself with two central themes surrounding light and the king. It was probably after the god’s final name change that Akhenaten ordered the closure of the temples dedicated to all other gods in Egypt. Not only were these temples closed, but in order to extinguish the memory of these gods as much as possible, a veritable persecution took place. Literal armies of stonemasons were sent out all over the land and even into Nubia, above all else, to hack away the image and name of the god Amun.

However, even the plural form of the word god was avoided, and so other gods were persecuted as well. Yet by this time, the Amarna period had already reached the beginning of its end.

Hijrah / Exodus / Migration

In year six of his reign, Amenhotep IV became weary of Thebes and the old powerful Amun priesthood, and thus founded a new capital city in the desert valley area we now call el-Amarna (ancient Akhetaten) somewhat north of the old capital in Middle Egypt. Amenhotep IV mentions on two stelae that the priests were saying more evil things about him than they did about his father and grandfather, so from this we learn that there must have been a conflict that dated back at least to the reign of Tuthmosis IV. Luckily for the king, however, the priesthood was apparently not strong enough to curb a pharaoh’s inclinations at this point in time.

There, in his new capital of Akhetaten (‘horizon of Aten’), Aten could be worshipped without any consideration of other deities. Thus he built both a Great Aten temple in the city. Outside of Akhetaten, there appears to have also been temples dedicated to Aten at Memphis, at Sesebi in Nubia, and perhaps elsewhere during at least part of Akhenaten‘s reign.

Around the time Akhetaten was founded, Amenhotep IV changed his own birth name from Amenhotep, which may be translated as “Amun is content”, to Akhenaten, meaning “he who is beneficial to the Aten” or “illuminated manifestation of Aten”. Afterwards, the king proceeded to emphasize Aten’s singular nature above all other gods through excessively preferential treatment. Ultimately, he suppressed all other deities.

Tutankhamun was also depicted in the rays of the Aten, with somewhat similar artistic style to his probably father, Akhenaten

Monotheistic Hymn- Revealed Scripture?

But indeed, Akhenaten‘s new creed could be summed up by the formula, “There is no god but Aten, and Akhenaten is his prophet”. The hymn known as the “Sun Hymn of Akhetaten” offers some theological insight into this newly evolved god.  Scholars have noted a similarity between the hymn and Biblical Psalm 104, although the distinct parallels between the two are usually interpreted simply as indications of the common literary heritage of Egypt and Israel.

Head of colossal statue of Akhenaten; Karnak; Aten Temple;

Inscribed in thirteen long lines, the essential part of the poem is a hymn of praise for Aten as the creator and preserver of the world. Within it, there are no allusions to traditional mythical concepts, since the names of other gods are absent. Hence, it should be noted that, unlike other supreme gods of Egypt, Aten did not always absorb the attributes of other gods. His nature was entirely different.

The hymn abounds with descriptions of nature and with the position of the king in the new religion. Irregardless of the existence of a priesthood devoted to Aten, only to Akhenaten had the god revealed itself, and only the king could know the demands and commandments of Aten,

Ahl al-Bayt:  The people of the prophet’s family

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and several children enjoying the glory of Aten

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and several children enjoying the glory of Aten

Mektaten was the second daughter of six born to the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten and his Wife Nefertiti.

However, while the hymn seems to provide exclusive rights to the Aten only to the king, his family appears to have been included within this inner circle. The new myths of the religion were filled with the ruler’s family history and it is not surprising that the faithful of the Amarna period prayed in front of private cult stelae that depicted the royal “holy” family.

Resistance to Monotheism

Aten had to be forced on the Egyptian people, and outside of Akhetaten (and really even there) and the official state religion, Aten never replaced all the traditional Egyptian gods. In effect, among the common Egyptians, if anything, the situation created a religious vacuum which was unstable from the beginning. And while it is clear that the elite of Akhetaten certainly paid respect to Aten, there is no real evidence for personal individual worship of the god on the part of the ordinary Egyptians whose only access to the god was through the medium of the king. On the contrary, at even the workers village in eastern Amarna, there has been unearthed numerous amulets of traditional gods, as well as some small private chapels probably dedicated to ancestor worship but showing no traces of the official religion.

Legacy

A painted ivory relief of a royal child picking grapes. Amarna period, New Kingdom, Egypt

Soon after the death of Akhenaten, his capital was dismantled, as was his religion. Aten was removed from the Egyptian pantheon, and Akhenaten as well as his family and religion, were now the focus of prosecution. Their monuments were destroyed, together with related inscriptions and images. While the Aten did continue to be worshipped for some period after Akhenaten’s death, the god soon fell into obscurity.

References

  • Akhenaten: King of Egypt, Aldred, Cyril, 1988, Thames and Hudson Ltd, ISBN 0-500-27621-8
  • Amarna Letters, Forbes, Dennis C., 1991, KMT Communications, ISBN 1-879388-03-0
  • Ancient Gods Speak, The: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, Redford, Donald B., 2002, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-515401-0
  • Art and History of Egypt, Carpiceci, Alberto Carlo, 2001, Bonechi, ISBN 88-8029-086-x
  • Chronicle of the Pharaohs (The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt), Clayton, Peter A., 1994, Thames and Hudson Ltd, ISBN 0-500-05074-0
  • Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, The, Wilkinson, Richard H., 2003, Thames & Hudson, LTD, ISBN 0-500-05120-8
  • Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, Hornung, Erik, 1971, Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-8384-0
  • Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The, Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul, 1995, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
  • Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, A, Hart, George, 1986, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-05909-7
  • Egyptian Religion, Morenz, Siegfried, 1973, Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-8029-9
  • Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Tiradritti, Francesco, Editor, 1999, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., ISBN 0-8109-3276-8
  • Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The, Shaw, Ian, 2000, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-815034-2
  • Thebes in Egypt: A Guide to the Tombs and Temples of Ancient Luxor, Strudwick, Nigel & Helen, 1999, Cornell University Press, ISBN 0 8014 8616 5
  • Tutankhamun (His Tomb and Its Treasures), Edwards, I. E. S., 1977, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN 0-394-41170-6

Read more: http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/aten.htm#ixzz3mbDyOfw5

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4 comments on “Akhenaten: Prophet of Monotheism?

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