|AKHENATEN AND THE RELIGION OF THE ATEN
|Last updated: July 6, 2009
The Amarna period is one of the most exciting
in the history of Ancient Egypt. It is also the one which
has given rise to the most work and controversy.
Our aim here is not to be exhaustive on the subject but to
offer the reader a vision which attempts to be objective as
a function of the historical data which seem to be confirmed.
Nevertheless, there remain several points subject to discussion
With the reign of Akhenaten, the ancient land of Egypt will
come to know an exceptional period of agitation and one of
the most fascinating religious and spiritual experiments in
the history of humanity.
..."The Amarna Heresy" ...or
"the Amarna Experiment" will attempt to
overthrow the traditional beliefs of a multi-millenarian
Under the impetus of the pharaoh Amenophis (Amenhotep) IV-
Akhenaten, and his beautiful and famous spouse Nefertiti (Fig
26), that which we are used to calling
"The Amarna Heresy" (from the
name of its capital Amarna) or "the Amarna Experiment"
will attempt to overthrow the traditional beliefs of a multi-millenarian
This is a subject which is very much "à la mode"
and several works appear regularly on Akhenaten and Nefertiti,
of variable quality and which, unfortunately, often reflect
the dreams of their authors rather than the reality of the
documentation, and that when they are not completely desecrated
by soap or other advertisements.
But even among professional Egyptologists, the mere mention
of this period often brings passionate reactions and taking
of sides, so important being the subtended questions for religious
history and the history of ideas in general.
It must be said that the personality of Akhenaten and the
significance and extent of his action and his idea have been
judged in various ways. At the end of the 19th century, the
great English Egyptologist, Sir Flinders Petrie, the first
to understand Akhenaten’s historical importance, described
him both as the first monotheist and the first individual
in history and wrote "a man who was indisputably a genius
and who managed to crush the thousand-year-old shell of habits,
superstitions and conventions of society and courageously
resisted the power of the clergy and other dignitaries".
Freud in "L’homme Moïse et la religion monothéiste (The man Moses and monotheistic religion)" saw a filiation between the prophet and the king (see HERE - sorry, it's only available in French).
Nowadays, many historians have overturned this judgement and
many of them consider Akhenaten as a tyrant, a fanatical despot
or even a madman and an atheist!
Well, let’s try to see things a bit more clearly using
the authenticated facts available to us while proposing plausible,
if not certain, hypotheses.
To do this, we must go back in time to around 1350 BCE in
the imperial Egypt of the New Kingdom at the time of the father
of Akhenaten, the pharaoh Amenophis (Amenhotep) III.
| THE EGYPTIAN SOCIETY AT THE END OF THE REIGN OF AMENHOTEP III
is already a very ancient civilisation, as the pyramids have
already been standing for more than 1000 years on the Giza
plateau. The country possesses a very ancient tradition which
has endured and asserted itself in spite of the vicissitudes
The pharaohs of the glorious XVIIIth. Dynasty have governed
the two lands of Egypt for a century after having driven out
foreign Hyksos invaders. This occupation has left a deep impression
on the collective imagination. To protect itself against further
invasions, Egypt has built an immense empire
stretching from the 4th. cataract of the Nile, in modern-day
Sudan, to the Euphrates and the borders of Anatolia (fig.
35) [see appendix 1].
Under the reign of Amenophis (Amenhotep) III,
the empire is at its zenith. Immense riches from tributes
paid by the dominated nations flow into the Nile valley and
contribute to a general prosperity and are
conspicuous notably for the rich donations to the traditional
temples and by an abundance of architectural and artistic
output whose refinement will never be exceeded.
enrichment of the country and external contacts favourised
the transformation of the Egyptian society.
From now on, it is a more open society, a society which has
become, above all, a cosmopolitan one with
an ever greater presence and influence by the foreigners living
Thus, little by little, mentalities changed…
the consequences are many, both in regard to ideas about the
nature of the monarchy and of spirituality, with a development
of the imperial concept, superimposed upon the development
of the solar cult. The universality of royal power
on earth, in a similar way to that of the sun, Ra, in the
heavens, is proclaimed.
Thus the laudatory epithets flourish, the king being called
"king of kings, prince of princes" and, already,
"the Aten for all countries". The theologians
begin to associate more and more the sun god par excellence,
with all the other gods of the pantheon, starting with Amun.
the start, the XVIIIth. Dynasty placed itself under the protection
or patronage of the god Amun of Karnak, promoted to dynastic
god, god of the empire (
"King of gods and god of kings", Amun saw his
role as principal divinity of the land reinforced little
by little and now he is amalgamated with the great god
Ra, in the form of Amun-Ra. This solarisation
of Amun makes the sun the principal form of divinity, whereas
the other gods will represent special manifestations at
a given time and at a precise place (fig.31).
Amun, whose name means "the hidden one", he
who has not yet shown himself. He now represents the creator
god par excellence; a god who created and re-creates, each
day, the world. He is considered more and more as he in
whom all things reside [appendix 2].
This interpretation, which consists of deriving the many
from the one, imposes itself progressively on the dominant
classes and the literate- who are growing in numbers. It
is typical of the Egyptian tradition and mentality though,
at this time, it would nevertheless not enter anybody’s
mind to wish to obliterate or deny any of the other divine
Amun is also the supreme guarantor of rights and morals,
whose wish manifests itself in the oracles,
especially those given to the faithful who consult him during
his processional outings on great feast days.
It goes without saying that these speculations were mainly
above the heads of the basic faithful and anyway, no attempt
at vulgarisation had ever been made to try and explain these
concepts to an unfortunate population who had a great many
more concrete worries and who confided mainly in the small
gods and spirits which watched over their daily life.
Nevertheless, in spite of this, Amun is not just an official,
distant god. He was able to gain the trust of many Egyptians
who made him their personal god, their divine, privileged
interlocutor. For at this time, a form of personal
piety progressively developed, which Assmann calls the "new theology of divine will", a direct relationship between the man and his god, which had not existed in previous periods. Amun thus becomes he who listens to the one who
implores, who can pardon, who can comfort. He is described
as "he who gives succour to the humble", "he who gives strength to the unfortunate". One can
pray to him, persuade him, he forgives mistakes if one can
prove an irreproachable behaviour, if one has, as the texts
say, "followed the way of Maat".
word is now necessary concerning the little goddess Maat
Maat is the basis for understanding the Egyptian religious
system and society. Maat is the organised world, stability,
justice that reigns. Maat is the balance between the antagonistic
forces that govern the world.
The role of the king is to cause Maat to reign over
the world. The supreme offering that the king makes
to the gods is that of a figurine of this goddess. By this
offering, the king indicates that, thanks to his personal
action, aided by those of men, the terrestrial world conforms
to that which they, the gods, demand. It is now their turn
to act for men in exchange.
It is this reciprocity that is fundamental
in all of the Egyptian religion and upon which rests the continuity
of the world.
Note here something very important for what follows: In the
traditional concept, the king causes Maat to reign over the
world but he is not Maat.
to the rise of the god Amun, the temporal power of
his clergy was considerably heightened, together
with their political power. For evidence, we only need to
look at the magnificence of the great temple of Karnak where
each sovereign’s desire was to leave his mark in architectural
In addition, the will of Amun, as we said, was expressed by
means of oracles. Oracles conveyed by the priests, of course!
These oracles even permitted, on occasion, certain sovereigns
whose legitimacy was uncertain to accede to the throne (for
example, Queen Hatshepsut).
Indeed, this power of the god and his clergy manifested itself
very clearly in the appearance of the notion of theogamy.
The pharaoh no longer appears as the son of his father and
mother but as the son of his mother and of Amun, incarnated
as his father. By this process of theogamy he thus reinforces
his divine filiation and his traditional rôle as the
guarantor of Maat.
By the subterfuge of the oracles, the god or his clergy could
approve or censure the behaviour of individuals but there
existed the danger that he might do the same concerning royal
behaviour. This menace seems to have been unacceptable to
Akhenaton, as we shall see.
Thus we witness in this period a consecration of the god Amun-Ra
and, in parallel, a revival of the solar cults and devotion,
especially within the royal family. It is in this context
of a triumphant god Amun that the god Aten will make his appearance.
is this god, the Aten, who will be at the centre of the religion
that Akhenaten will try to impose?
In fact, it is not really a new god because we find mention
of his name in the pyramid texts of 1000 years earlier.
Originally, the Aten represents one of the common
names designating the sun derived from a verbal root
meaning "to be distant". It was probably pronounced
something like "yati(n)". Over time, the final
"n" has been lost.
It is not really considered especially as a divinity but simply
the disc in motion.
We saw that under the reign of Akhenaten’s father, Amenophis
(Amenhotep)III, the god Amun was considered more and more
as a manifestation of the sun in the form of Amun-Ra. Well,
now it is considered that, as the Aten, the sun disc visible
everywhere and by everyone, he fulfils his celestial circumnavigation
and by this fact, encompasses the whole universe with his
Throughout the 18th Dynasty, this universal power of the sun is placed in parallel with royal power, which is considered more and more as universal. There is a kind of return to the Old Kingdom, a kind of religious neo-heliopolitanism and from the reign of Thutmosis IV (a reign pivital for numerous things) a political will to return to the total monarchical power of more ancient times.
We see the relationship between the Aten and the king become progressively stronger and stronger.
Thus, when Amenophis (Amenhotep) III leaves his palace, it
is the Aten which rises on the horizon, when he marches into
foreign lands, it is the Aten who traverses the sky and a
vizier described himself as "he who contemplates the
disc in his horizon" i.e. the king in his palace.
This ascent of the Aten under Amenophis (Amenhotep) III is
also evident from the name "the Aten is resplendent",
given to one of the palaces and to the royal parade boat.
An Egyptian army corps took the name of the Aten.
We also witness a multiplication of the colossal statues in
the effigy of the king. These colossi represent a materialisation
of the divine body of the king. and are the subject of a cult.
They also multiply under Akhenaten, in conformity with his
perception of his function.
We can see, therefore, that the Aten had a strong
presence at the end of the reign of Amenophis (Amenhotep)
III. It is important to note that the solar devotion
of this sovereign is very different to that which will be
Akhenaten’s. The king continues to partake in the great
diurnal and nocturnal voyage of the sun and aids him in his
matinal rebirth after having vanquished his enemies in the
underworld, notably the serpent Apophis.
| AMENOPHIS IV - AKHENATEN ASCENDS TO THE THRONE
here we are when, in about 1358 BCE a great calamity strikes
the two lands of Egypt: the pharaoh Amenophis (Amenhotep)
the third has died.
After the 70 days of ritual, he is interred with great pomp
in his hypogeum in the valley of the kings and his son ascends
to the throne (fig.28).
His legitimacy is incontestable and uncontested. This ascension
to the throne may have been preceded by a period of co-regency
with his father which may have lasted as much as ten years
but this is much discussed [appendix 4]. It is an ever passionate debate which gave rise to
the excellent thesis by Leslie
Bailey who concluded that….we can conclude nothing!
1) - The new sovereign.
He must have been about 25 years old and is called
Amenophis (Amenhotep), like his father, a name that comes
from a Greek deformation of the Egyptian name Imn htp, "Amun
is satisfied", a denomination which makes a direct reference
to Amun. (note: according to Jan Qaguebeur, Amenophis would
be a mistake since it derives from Imn-m-Ipt and not from
2) - The infancy of the king.
We know virtually nothing about the youth of he who has become
the Pharaoh Amenophis (Amenhotep) IV.
Of one thing we can be sure, that this took place at a period of real crisis of polytheism, as if the Egyptians suddenly didn't know how to manage their immense divine world and had felt the necessity to insist on the unity of the divine more than on the diversity of the gods, notably in allowing the choice for worship of the very old solar cults.
Certain minor literates went very far in rejecting as superstitions the complex mysteries of the religion, to the benefit of a rationalist spiritual interpretation, which granted only visible reality.
All this profoundly affected the young prince, as also did,
probably, the influence of his mother, the Great Royal Wife
of Amenophis (Amenhotep) III, Queen Tiy whose
powerful personality certainly played a role (fig
The young Amenophis (Amenhotep) has already married she who
is – perhaps- his cousin, the beautiful Nefertiti
(whose name means "The beautiful one has come")
4) who thus becomes the Great Royal Wife and who is required
to give birth to the male successor to the throne.
During the first two years of his reign, nothing seems
to change. The king is crowned at Thebes, the city
of Amun, like his forefathers before him. He adopts a very
traditional titulary, which makes clear reference to Amun,
and keeps his birth name Imen htp.
3) - The first years as king.
During the first two years of the reign, nothing seems to change.
The king crowned himself in Thebes, the city of Amon, as his predecessors before him. He adopted a very traditional titulature, which clearly makes reference to Amon, and kept his birth name of Imen-htp. His very rare representations, those which have not been destroyed, adopt the traditional cannon. This is how on the lintel of entry of the tomb of Kheruef TT192, which exercised his functions during the reigns of Amenhotep III and IV, one sees the king (whose cartouches are hammered) making a classic offering to Amon (view 81).
However since this time (therefore between 11 and 12 years) he introduces a new solar divine entity based on Horus of the horizon (Horakhty) which he/it names "Ra-Horakhty in his nature of solar light which emanates from the Aten disk", thus making of Ra a "sovereign of the horizon", thus establishing his proximity to the terrestrial royalty.
During year 2, things start to move.
The king orders the construction, in the middle of
the domain of Amun at Karnak, of several edifices
dedicated to the god Aten. From this moment on, we note innovations
which profoundly shake and shock the mentalities of this so
traditionalist and conservative society. First of all, in
order to go faster, construction is no longer done with big
blocks but with the help of sandstone bricks, the talatats,
which could be carried by one man (fig.38).The
construction is considerably accelerated but so is the dismantling
which follows the Amarna period, of course.
all, the figurative representations undergo
important changes. Certainly, the basic canons, notably the
reclining perspective are respected and we have no hesitation
in recognising the works as Egyptian but the characters become
very strange even to us as "modern people". So
imagine the effect on the Egyptians of the time!
Osiriac colossus of the
This innovation in the decoration clearly appears as a deliberate
royal wish. Certain sculptors, like Bak (fig
2) expressly say too that they received their teaching
from the king himself.
It is this which is striking, before the official rupture
with Amun, which will come later: this sort of naturalist,
realist style, sometimes pushed to caricature and
which characterises the Amarna period.
The king (and, indeed, other individuals of the royal family)
is shown with a stretched-out skull, a long thin neck, a thrown-back
head, and big lips (fig
fig 15 ). He is almost always wearing the "blue
crown (khepresh) or the nemes, and the latter adopts a rounded
form which reminds us of the solar disc.
Wide, feminine hips (fig
27) sometimes give him an androgynous appearance,
which has caused much ink to flow, since certain persons have
concluded that he was a degenerate suffering from an endocrine
illness (Fröhlich’s syndrome). This is wrong!
We can be certain today that Akhenaten was not suffering
from any form of eunuchism and the 8 daughters, at
least, that he engendered are the clear proof. On the other
hand, it is possible that he suffered from Marfan’s
syndrome and the ocular problems which resulted from it could
explain part of his theology (see this subject HERE
and for a deeper discussion
In Amarna art, all that was static, fixed for eternity, is
now in motion. Vertical axes now become diagonals,
resulting in the stretched heads and crowns. This idea of
movement recurs, as we shall see, in the relationship of the
king with his god and, notably, in the high presentation of
27).We also see it in scenes of the royal family’s
private life and, for example, in the ribbons fluttering in
the wind to represent the divine breath.
is probable that the king gave orders to hide nothing of the
characteristics of the royal family (and the skulls of the
family which have been discovered are indeed stretched) (fig
40), and even to accentuate them, both to care for the
naturalism which will characterise the new
religion and to create a spiritual shock
in regard to the tradition. Amarna art thus appears as a mannerist
distortion of reality, expressionism in breach of the classic
Remember that, in Ancient Egypt, representations are never
neutral. On the contrary, they are the very essence
of royal ideology.
In having himself shown in an ambiguous form, both masculine
and feminine, or even an asexual form, the king has at least
Firstly, he shows himself as the fusion of the father and
mother of the country, like the primordial human being, the
asexual emanation of the god Aten, for whom he is the sole
representative on earth.
On the other hand, in harmonising his iconography with that
of the queen Nefertiti, he erases more and more the differences
that could exist between them. And this is a necessity, a
sort of dance: because he, the king, will go up a step in
assimilating himself with the Aten and it is necessary that
the empty place which he will leave be occupied: occupied
by the queen Nefertiti.
Nefertiti will now play a major role in Amarna religion.
Previously, in earlier periods, the Great Royal Wife took
a greater and greater place in the theology and the organisation
of the cult but now she holds a place almost as important
as that of the king. Thus, on the stelae and statues, each
time where the physical space exists to allow it, it is the
royal couple who are represented and not just the king.
We shall also see the queen appropriate the symbols
of power that were formerly strictly reserved for
the king alone. For example, she is shown (fictively) massacring
the enemies of Egypt or accomplishing specifically royal rites
of the divine cult, which would have been unthinkable before
Remains of "Osirian" colossi, which alternated
with pillars of the façade of the temple court, show
this extraordinary aspect adopted by the king (fig
32 and fig
39). We also find traces of representations of a Sed festival
46). Since the king had, of course, by far not
attained the usual given time for this kind of jubilee festival,
we must find another significance, which, though plausible,
is hypothetical: the wish to mark the beginning of a new era.
Up to the 4th. Year of his reign, he who is still Amenophis
(Amenhotep) IV divides his residence between Memphis (near
Cairo), which has always remained the administrative capital
of Egypt, and Thebes, which is more the religious capital.
...from the start, he conceives the Egyptian state
as a theocracy of which the Aten is the sovereign,
and himself the sole earthly representative
Plainly, from the start, he conceives the Egyptian state as
a theocracy of which the Aten is the sovereign, and himself
the sole earthly representative.
During this period, he busies himself with the development
of the cult of his god, the Aten and, at the same time, in
taking back, to his advantage, the administration of the domain
of Amun, in order to break the religious dynamism of the great
god, to try to reduce the temporal power of his clergy and
to recuperate the immense riches of Amun which he needs for
his programme of great works.
In fact, from year 4 on, the king decides to break
completely with Thebes. This is a simple observation,
since no document exists which tells us of the religious crisis
with the clergy of Amun. He will choose to erect a new capital
in middle Egypt, half way between Thebes and Memphis on the
site currently known as Tel-el-Amarna, or,
more simply, Amarna (fig
41). This place is also close to Akhmim, from where the
parents of the queen are thought to originate
The king explains to us how he is supposed to have chosen
this place. He was guided by the Aten himself who, while he
(Akhenaten) was navigating the river, rose precisely in the
notch formed in the rocky cliff by the opening of the bed
of a dried-up wadi thus forming the hieroglyph Akhet which
represents the horizon in Egyptian (fig
And the new capital was baptised Akhet-Aten, i.e. the horizon
of the disc.
All around the immense rocky circle which surrounds the location
of the city (fig
22),the king has engraved in the rock 14 stelae (fig
10) on which he explains his reasons for the choice of
the site: apart from being the place of the "revelation
"of the Aten, it is also a virgin land belonging to
no temple, no funerary estate. Which is not quite exact, as,
on the other side of the Nile, close by, is the city of Hermopolis,
ancient city of the god Thoth (fig 47).
The construction of the city continues from year 5 to year
8, which is, of course, very fast, and will mobilise a large
part of the economic and human resources of the kingdom.
It is on this site, chosen by himself, that the king will
be able to develop fully his conception of the Aten and his
new vision of the world.
(An excellent reconstruction, with numerous 3d photos, may
be seen under the title Model
of the city)