The Ancient Egyptians

Adam Terry Ashcroft

By the 18th Dynasty of ancient Egypt's history, the ancient Egyptians had developed a very complex polytheistic 'religion' which had incorporated the worship of many gods and goddesses as well as having various, numerous and sometimes contradictory ideals and concepts of death and the afterlife. Then along came Amenhotep IV, who decided to abolish the worship of many gods, in favour of the monotheistic adoration of the 'Aten'. He also moved the capital of Egypt to a virgin site and named it Akhetaten [Horizon of the Aten]. His name was changed to that of Akhenaten ['One Who is Useful to Aten' or '[He Who Serves] The Spirit of Aten'] - a few of the many translations of this name. The art of ancient Egypt was also radically changed from the perfect and formal representations of the gods, people and life of the Egyptians, to an art form that was more relaxed and showed many scenes of Akhenaten, his wife, Nefertiti and their daughters in loving, family embraces.

The Aten

The Aten or 'Sun-Disc' rose from near obscurity to the state god of Egypt in a very short time. The artistic representation of the Aten is that of a sun disc emanating rays of light with hands on the ends of the rays holding the signs of life. The origin of the Aten is obscure but during the Middle Kingdom he was a small provincial form of the Sun-god which was worshipped in a small town in the neighbourhood of Heliopolis. It is also possible that a small temple was built in the Aten's honour, within Heliopolis itself.

The Aten was seen as the material embodiment of the Sun - the sun-disc and rays which could be seen from Earth were the visible element of the Sun-god. The great Sun-god Re' was thought to dwell in the Aten - Re' was the invisible element of the Sun-god.

Early mentions of Aten can be found in 'The Story Of Sinuhe', who was a harem official during the reign of Amenemhet I. When the king is assassinated [c.1962 bc], he is described as 'soaring into the sky and uniting with Aten his creator'. In the early 16th century bc, Ahmose, the liberator of Egypt from the Hyksos monarchs, was said to be 'likened to Aten when he shines'. His successor, Amenhotep I was upon death, said to become 'united with Aten coalescing with the one from whom he had come'. Another reference to the Aten is from the Heliopolitan Theban Recession of the 'Book of the Dead' and reads as follows;

"Thou, O Ra, shinest from the horizon of heaven, and Aten is adored when he resteth {or setteth} upon this mountain to give life to the two lands. Hunefer says Ra, Hail, Aten, thou the lord of beams of light, {when} thou shinest all faces {i.e., everybody} lives. Nekht says Ra, O thou beautiful being, thou doest renew thyself and make thyself young again under the form of Aten; Ani says Ra, Thou turnest thy face towards the Underworld, and thou makest the earth to shine like fine copper. The dead rise up to thee, they breath the air and they look upon thy face when Aten shineth in the horizon;------I have come before thee that I may be with thee to behold thy Aten daily: O thou who art in thine Egg, who shinest from thy Aten".

The beginnings of the rise of Aten to that of state god, can be traced back to Tuthmosis IV and his 'Dream Stela', which was erected between the paws of the Sphinx at Giza. Up until then, Amun was regarded as the premier deity and the priests of Amun were rich, powerful and very influential. However, Tuthmosis IV fails to mention Amun in the text of the stela and for his divine father and future sponsors, chooses Harmarchis-Khepri-Re-Atum. Harmachis, who was fast being assimilated with Horakhty, was fast becoming a major solar divinity in his own right We can now see that Tuthmosis IV rejected the Amun priesthood and chose the solar, Heliopolitan priesthood as his helping hand. On a large scarab of Tuthmosis IV now in the British Museum, London, are eight columns of hieroglyphs celebrating the reception of a Mitannian tribute or prince. It reads as;

'The princes of Naharin [Mitanni], bearing their gifts, behold Menkhperure [Tuthmosis IV] as he comes forth from his palace. They hear his voice like that of the son of Nut, his bow in his hand like the son of the successor of Shu. If he arouses himself to fight, with Aten before him, he destroys the mountain countries, trampling the desert countries, treading as far as Naharin and Karoy, in order to make the inhabitants of foreign lands like subject to the rule of Aten forever.'

Here we see Aten being invoked and used in context with a foreign country for the first time. The mention of Aten becomes used more and more during Tuthmosis IV reign and even mentioned as a fully fledged deity in the tombs of architects Suty and Hor. Also during this time, Aten had become a manifestation of the living king.

Tuthmosis IV's successor was Amenhotep III who was a son of a minor wife of Tuthmosis IV, Mutemwiya. Although the solar, Heliopolitan influence was still gaining strength, Amenhotep used Amun-Re as his divine father in his theological text upon the walls of the Luxor Temple - possibly to combine the strengths, wealth and support of the solar cult of Heliopolis and the Theban cult of Amun to reinforce his kingship. During Amenhotep's reign, Aten was featuring more and more as a prominent deity with the king even calling himself a fully fledged god 'The dazzling sun disc [Aten]. Temples were built to Aten at Heliopolis and Memphis as well as naming the king's palace at Malqata 'The Splendour of Aten'. His wife, Queen Tiy even named her royal barge 'Aten Sparkles'. Amenhotep III still kept a good relationship with the Theban cult of Amun, showing no favouritism to Aten.

During the first of Amenhotep's three Sed Festivals [years 30, 34, and 37], written upon the mud wine-jar sealings found at the king's palace in Malqata, the king is seen in the disc of the sun for the first time. The significance is, either he has become the sun disc - he is Aten himself, or he has been assimilated with the Aten, becoming part of the sun disc. Either way, he is showing that he has become a living solar god. Maybe that is why Akhenaten did not have a problem with desecrating his father's name during the destruction of the name of Amun - he possibly thought that his father was the Aten.

Monotheism and Akhenaten

When Akhenaten came to the throne - either as a co-regent with his father or independently, he made it obvious from the start, his intense dislike of the cult of Amun and the imminent rise of the Aten, his father, as the premier deity of Egypt. One of his first actions as an independent ruler, was to build a Heliopolitan flavoured temple to Aten, halfway between his father's temple at Luxor and the temple of Amun at Karnak.

Around the seventh year of Akhenaten's reign, he denounced Amun as the state deity and announced Aten as the supreme god. He also decided to move the state capital from Thebes to a virgin site and called it 'Akhetaten' [Horizon of the Aten], due to the fact of the Sun rising from a dip in the mountain tops. Akhenaten commemorated the founding of his new capital by erecting boundary stelae. After about a year of leaving Thebes, Akhenaten prohibited the worship of Amun completely and ordered the closure of all the temples of Amun. He also stopped all the festivals and worship of Osiris, Isis, Ptah, Mut and all the other major and minor deities, claiming there to be just one god - Aten. In this sense, Akhenaten became a ruler with a monotheistic religion. The complete desecration of the name of Amun from all statues, scarabs, papyrus and walls of temples, meant that his father's name had to be desecrated as well. To wipe out someone's ren [name], meant wiping out a part of that persons being. He could not therefore, be introduced to the gods and resurrected - one of the ancient Egyptians worst nightmares. This did not seem to bother Akhenaten - he may of thought that his father was Aten himself. In his boundary stelae, Akhenaten frequently mentions the Aten, as his father; '

…….Now it is the Aten, my father, who advised me concerning it - namely Akhetaten. No official had ever advised me concerning it, nor had any people in the entire land ever advised me concerning it, to tell me to make Akhetaten in this distant place. It was the Aten, my father, who advised me concerning it, so that it could be made for him as Akhetaten…..'

The ordinary people however, would not have been able to comprehend this and many hundreds of years of a belief system that had developed around a polytheistic religion was wiped out in an instant. It is very hard to imagine that the main populace outside Akhetaten, endorsed Akhenaten's new monotheistic religion. There is also recent evidence in the discovery of small statues inside the walls of the new city, that the population kept private, for fear of retribution, their continuing worship of other gods. In this, we can see that Akhenaten wanted a monotheistic religion and to himself, had succeeded in doing so, but the majority of the population of Akhetaten and the probably the entire population of Egypt, carried on with their polytheistic worship of the ancient gods of Egypt.

Artistic Reforms

Immediately upon his accession as the sole king of Egypt, Akhenaten changed the style of the representation of himself and his family. This can be seen rather dramatically in the Theban tomb of Ramose, who was Amenhotep III's southern vizier. In one relief, Akhenaten is shown in the formal style of his father, Amenhotep III. Perfect in style and representation, conforming to the art of the period. However, in another relief in the same tomb, a revolutionary new style had suddenly appeared. It is as though Akhenaten was being kept in check by his father and upon his death, released all his ideals and ambitions. Akhenaten is shown with his consort, Nefertiti, at a 'Window of Appearance', being showered with the rays of the Aten, touching them with his hands and giving them dominion and life. Akhenaten's facial features are exaggerated and the pair are shown in a relaxed and more naturalistic style. The king's master sculpture, Bek, claimed that Akhenaten had told him what he wanted the art to look like. The king called himself 'Wa-En-Re', the Unique One of Re, maybe emphasising what he actually looked like. Akhenaten was depicted with an elongated neck and head, large lips and large, droopy eyes. The artists even 'cloned' the members of Akhenaten's family to look similar to him - even the beautiful Nefertiti. The result of this change is a caricature of the families faces - not realistic or indeed, natural. As the reign progressed the faces became softer and less exaggerated and maybe the real face of Akhenaten emerges. Whether the change occurred because of a different artist or the mood of the times, the art certainly became more loose, relaxed and natural. Indeed, after Bek, the new sculptor, Tuthmose, had a more natural and realistic style. It had also developed a sense of movement which had never been captured before in the art of ancient Egypt.

One of the main motifs in the reliefs of the Amarna Period, is the family portrait of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their children. They are often shown sitting upon each other, kissing, hugging and generally being involved in an ideal family setting. In all these reliefs, the Aten is showering down its rays of life and dominion upon the couple and their offspring.

When Akhenaten died, so did the religious upheaval and the dramatic change of artistic representation. Smenkhare [Nefertiti?], Tutankhaten [Tutankhamun] and Ay, the inheritors of Akhenaten's reformations, tried to keep the small flame of change alight, but not for long. Amun was reinstalled as the main deity of Egypt and with the accession of Horemheb to the throne of Egypt, came the death knell of Akhenaten's dream. The polytheistic religion of ancient Egypt probably remained unchanged for the majority of the population of Egypt during the Amarna Period - only the people within the immediate vicinity of Akhetaten and the cult temples of the major gods, felt the full effects of the king's monotheistic attempts. Some of the relaxed style of art carried over into the next generation of reliefs and statues and the reintroduction of the old style of religion was easily done.

Akhenaten was a tremendous visionary. He knew that without the sun, everything on this earth would cease to exist. Were his motives political? Maybe they were. He did not see the sense in cult centres raking in the wealth because of their beliefs in imaginary gods that did not exist. So he took away their rights of belief, the power and wealth that it gave them and redirected it to the Pharaoh and the belief of only one god - the god that gives life to everything living - his father, Aten.

Adam Ashcroft



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The reforms of Akhenaten