What was the Egyptian Religion of Atenism?

Amenhotep IV, who later renamed himself Akhenaten (“Effective for Aten”) after his conversion, was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh (r. fourteenth century BCE) remembered for establishing a cult dedicated to the god Aten. In later writings, he is despised as the “heretic king” for the reforms he put into place across ancient Egyptian religion. 

Religious Reform

One learns of Akhenaten’s reform religion through the iconography on temple reliefs and stelae depicting him with his god, and from religious texts and hymns preserved in private tombs. In Akhenaten’s fifth year as ruler, he outlawed old Egyptian religion (the Egyptians traditionally worshipped many gods represented in human or animal form or as animal-headed humans) and proclaimed himself as the living incarnation of the god Aten. 

Famously, Akhenaten established a state religion that some have cited as the earliest form of monotheistic religious belief in the world. A few years after outlawing the old religion, Akhenaten forced the priests of Amun to conform to his new religion, closed all others temples, outlawed old religious practices, and attempted to erase the names of other gods from temples, tombs, and monuments throughout Egypt. Akhenaten also attacked the notion of multiple gods. In fact, the hieroglyph for the plural word “gods” is never again attested after the fifth year of Akhenaten’s rule. But some gods were left untouched such as Re (the primeval sun god), Atum (the creator god), and Thoth (the scribe of the gods).

Akhenaten also moved Egypt’s capital from Thebes to a new, unoccupied location he named Akhetaten (“the horizon of the Aten”). Akhenaten claimed Aten had manifested on this site and selected it for Akhenaten himself. Taking just several years, the new capital had been completed through using unskilled labor and the Egyptian army. Some materials used in the construction, such as the talatat blocks, were another of Akhenaten’s innovations. They had not been used in Egyptian construction projects before Akhenaten’s reign.

Hymns to the Aten

Much is learned about Atenism from the Great Hymn to the Aten that was discovered in the tomb of Ay. This hymn speaks of Aten as follows: “Though you are far, your rays are on earth. Though one sees you, your strides are unseen.” Aten enforced justice and stability by bending all life to the submission of the pharaoh. 

The hymn also speaks about the night when the sun is down and there is only darkness. The darkness is associated with death. It is the absence of the Aten that means the absence of life on earth. But when the sun rises again the Aten bathes the Earth with its rays and all the creatures are awakened and filled with joy upon seeing their creator. Being alive was seen as a form of adoration for and worship of the Aten. Worship of the Aten is not simply for human beings but for all living things including trees, herbs, beasts, birds, and fish depicted as flourishing under the care of the Aten.

Great mystery surrounds the Aten from the perspective of the hymn’s author. We read: “How many are your deeds, though hidden from sight.” The Aten has been deeply involved in process of creating and sustaining life on Earth but how the Aten does this is completely concealed from people. Nonetheless, the people and beasts of the Earth have been brought to life by the Aten.

Another hymn of praise to the Aten appears in a number of tombs. It addresses similar themes to the Great Hymn and was recited by Akhenaten himself. The Short Hymn touches on creation and how the Aten cares for what it has created. The Aten is said to be the “mother and father of all that you made.” 

Like in the Great Hymn, the absence of the Aten is equated with the absence of life such as when people go to sleep and the darkness of night takes over. There is evidence from the Short Hymn regarding how the Aten was worshipped and praised. Worship is depicted as a joyful occasion. There are singers and musicians who shout with joy which commences while the pharaoh performs the offering ceremony to the Aten in the sun temple. The Short Hymn suggests that the Aten was hidden to the common people of Egypt and that only the pharaoh could make offerings in its temple. This belief and ritual invested the pharaoh with great authority as he was the intermediary between the people and God.

Akhenaten’s Influence on Egyptian Art

Akhenaten’s reform religion influenced other areas of Egyptian culture. It influenced art

The first works Akhenaten commissioned were in the traditional Theban style used by pharaohs preceding him. But in the wake of religious reform, royal art evolved to reflect Atenism. The depictions of the royal family changed: they took on a more androgynous appearance, their heads became larger, they had larger jaws, their necks were elongated, they had large lips, long noses, and thin arms. They are depicted with swelling thighs and buttocks that accompanied a bulging belly. These changes in aesthetics likely left an impression on the Egyptian people.

Akhenaten’s Religion Dies Out

Shortly after Akhenaten’s death most of his achievements and reforms had been forgotten. Traditional beliefs were once again re-established as the old gods were restored. Akhenaten’s reforms were completely undone and his efforts made him later be called the “heretic king”. 

After Akhenaten died, Tutankhaten, his presumed son, restored traditional Egyptian religion and moved the capital back to Thebes. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun to reflect a return to orthodoxy and rejection of Atenism. Several of Tutankhamun’s successors tore down temples and monuments Akhenaten had constructed in honor of the Aten. Likely counting against Akhenaten’s reforms was that his rejection of the familiar gods, an act that to the Egyptians was probably too radical. It also did not help that Akhenaten made his religion and God so closely linked to himself so that it would inevitably struggle to survive his own death.  

It has been claimed that Akhenaten’s reforms were the first case of monotheism and monotheistic belief in religious history. Others have referred to Akhenaten’s monotheism rather as monolatry, namely a form of polytheism in which only one god is seen as worthy of worship.

References

Hornung, Erik. 1992. “The Rediscovery of Akhenaten and His Place in Religion.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 29:43-49. 

Mark, Joshua. 2014. Akhenaten. Available.

Lichtheim, Miriam. 2006. Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume II. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 96, 100.

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