Akhenaten and Monotheism in the Ancient World

The pharaoh Akhenaten and his queen Nefertiti circa 1355 BC.

The many cities, deserts and oasises of ancient Egypt were ruled by a pantheon of beast-headed deities who directly empowered kings and priest to do their work on earth. The ancient chimera-gods represented the many facets of life in the diverse Kingdom in a multitude of man made deities.

When a bold and rebellious pharaoh came to power in 1355 BC it would change the face of worship in ancient Egypt forever. One man's short-lived reforms to religious and social institutions would deeply influence Judeo-Christian culture over whom the ancient Egyptians ruled.

Noted art historian, Ken Davis [0] has referred to the depiction of Egyptian deities of crocodile, crane, dog or hawk-headed gods as some of the first evidence of the "animal principle". This animal principle was, for many centuries, primitive man's method of connecting and imbuing himself with the savage power of the world around him - as well as becoming more of an animal himself. By carrying on this tradition rulers used that original primal fear of wild predators to rule over civilized populations.

For the ancient Egyptians, and the thousands of priests who observed and enforced the worship the elder gods, the "animal principle" and pantheism was a method to control the varied populace while maintaining power over the many pharaohs and dynasties that dominated ancient Egypt.

Of the many hundreds of kings and pharaohs that governed ancient Egypt there was a single controversial ruler who refused to worship the traditional pantheon of toothy beast deities in favor of one god, the sun god, Aten (pronounced AH-ten).

In 1355 BC, Akhenaten (pronounced AK'hen'NOT'un) and his queen the beautiful Nefertiti came to power. The two established the worship of the Aten, the one and only god of the universe. Akhenaten's reign would infuse ancient sculpture and literature with a radical realism and a unmistakable personal warmth as the result of his rejection of the corrupt politics that ruled his day. This outraged the powerful cleric class in Egypt and upset the balance of power in the Kingdom for decades.

Five years into his rule, Akhenaten, or Amenophis IV as he was first known, moved the centuries old capitol and seat of the empire in Thebes to the middle of the harsh desert where he built a new capitol. The site was located 365 miles south of Cairo and called Akhetaten (AK'hit'AH'ten) or "horizon of Aten". The contruction site of the city is known today as Tell el-Amarna and located on the east side of the life giving Nile River. The site of the Akhenaten's city would not be discovered for nearly 4,000 years in 1824 by adventurers John Gardner Wilkinson and James Burton over the course of many expeditions.

The difficulty unearthing the site began with the location. The word "tell", in Tell el-Amarna, is Egyptian for "mound". Through many generations of visitors and villagers, not a single mound remained in the small village that now occupied the lost city of Aten.

When excavation began, it was discovered that the ancient Egyptians, aided afterward by early Christians, destroyed the mysterious city so thoroughly that it was not easy to find an intact cartouche bearing the name of the king or queen for whom the desert city was built. The desert swallowed the remains of the city over many millenia.

After excavating the site at Tell el-Amarna another challenge presented itself. Although the ability to read hieroglyphics was beginning to spread among the early Egyptologists with the translation of the Rosetta Stone, discovering the nature of Tell el-Amarna site still remained elusive.

Akhenaten as a Sphinx circa 1355 from Kestner Museum Collection Hanover, Germany.

Akhenaten's religious reforms are the earliest known example of monotheistic thought and a indication that this particular period of Egyptian history was a contributing factor in Judeo-Christian philosophy.

There are strong similarities between Akhenaten's Great Hymn to the Aten and the biblical Psalms 104 and 19. Great Hymn to the Aten portrays the sun as the giver of all life, plunging the land into darkness and danger during the night, to reawaken to life, daily work and praise with the dawn.

The opening verses of the Great Hyn to Aten read: "Thou appearest beautifully on the horizon of heaven, Thou living Aten, the beginning of life! When thou art risen on the eastern horizon, Thou hast filled every land with thy beauty. Thou art gracious, great, glistening, and high over every land."

Psalm 104 reads: "Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God. thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty: Who coverst thyself with light as with a garment who stretches out the heavens like a curtain...who makes the clouds his chariot..."

More to the point, and drawing many more comparisons is Psalm 19, which reads like an astonomer's love affair with the stars: "The Heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork."

Clearly there are many thematic and structural similarities to Atenism and later monotheistic religions in the worship of a single all seeing, life-giving god. Further, Akhenaten called himself the only son of the sun god as: “Thine only son that came forth from thy body.”[1] The comparison to Jesus Christ, messianic culture and the Abrahamic tradition is undeniable. As his divine father’s image on earth Akhenaton, the true son of the one true god, was simultaneously high priest, prophet and king.

Upon Akhenaten's demise, circa 1334 BC, the powerful Priesthood of Amun reversed the pharaoh's radical changes. The priests re-established pantheism as the official state religion by installing the boy king Tutankahmen, who was possibly a son of Akhenaten by a minor wife. The priests returned the Egyptian capitol to Thebes and the city of the Aten was deserted.

The statuary at Akhetaten and in greater Egypt depicting Akhenaton and his family was defaced, destroyed and buried for centuries. This act of damnatio memoriae was an effort to curse and erase the memory of the Akhenaten. The story of Akhenaten, even his his name itself, was officially and efficiently erased from Egyptian history. For the next 4,000 years Akhetaten was referred to as 'the heretic'.

The monotheistic religion that Akhenaten established was overthrown after just twenty years but the comparisons to Judeo-Christian Messianic beliefs and the practical divine right of kings is undeniable. By taking the previous belief structure of the Egpytians and adding to it the Messianic tradition of direct divine intervention Akhenaten defined Monothesism.

Strangely, some of the true-to-life style of sculpture (referred to as the Amarna style), also seen in Greece's Helenistic style and Italy's Mannerism style, remained in the depictions of his successor the young puppet pharaoh, King Tut. More to the point, Akhenaton created and instituted the first recorded instance of monotheism while encompassing, and perhaps defining, the early central tenents of Judeo-Christian culture for millenia to come.

[0] = Kenneth Davis PHD, MFA is a recently retired art history professor who spent 40 years teaching classes on the art of the ancient world beginning in 1968.
[1] = From The Monotheism of the Heretic Pharaoh: Precursor of Mosiac monotheism or Egyptian anomaly?", Donald B. Redford, Biblical Archaeology Review, May-June edition 1987.

Wikipedia, Akhenaten
Wikipedia, Atenism
Aldokkan, Akhenaten
Tour Egypt.com, The Aten
Tour Egypt.com, Akhetaten
Library Thang, Moses and Monotheism Sigmund Freud, Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, London, 1939.

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