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The Ancient Egyptian civilization is known for its complicated mythology and an array of odd gods and goddesses with strange appearances. Under these circumstances, perhaps the strangest of them all was the humble solar disk which stretched its life-giving rays towards the pharaoh and his wife. Aten was so unique within the Egyptian pantheon that its reign only lasted for a few years, but its legacy has endured to this day. Here’s a closer look at what Aten really was.
Who or What was Aten?
The word Aten was used since at least the Middle Kingdom to describe the solar disk. In the Story of Sinuhe, the most important literary work in ancient Egypt, the word Aten is followed by the determinative for ‘god’, and by the time of the New Kingdom Aten seems to be the name of a god which was depicted as a falcon-headed anthropomorphic figure, closely resembling Re.
Amenophis (or Amenhotep) IV became king of Egypt around 1353 BCE. Sometime during the fifth year of his reign, he took a series of measures that became known as the Amarna Revolution. In short, he completely changed the religious and political tradition of the previous 1,500 years and started worshipping the sun as his only god.
Amenophis IV decided to change his name to Akhen-Aten. After changing his name, he began building a new capital city which he named Akhetaten (Horizon of the Aten), at a site that today is called Tell el-Amarna. This is why the period in which he ruled is called the Amarna period, and his actions are known as the Amarna Revolution. Akhenaten lived in Akhetaten together with his Queen Nefertiti and their six daughters.
Together with his wife, the king transformed the entire Egyptian religion. During his reign as Akhenaten, he would not be called a god on earth as the previous pharaohs were. Rather, he would be considered the only existing god. No depictions of Aten in human form would be made, but he would be depicted only in the form of a shiny disk with long-reaching rays ending in hands, sometimes holding the ‘ankh’ signs which symbolized life and a vital force.
A main aspect of the Amarna Revolution consisted in honoring the sun god Aten as the sole god worshipped in Egypt. The temples were closed to all other gods and their names were erased from records and monuments. In this way, Aten was the only god to be acknowledged by the state during the reign of Akhenaten. It was the universal god of creation and of life, and the one who gave the pharaoh and his family the power to rule the land of Egypt. Some sources, including the Great Hymn to the Aten, describe Aten as being both male and female, and a force that created itself in the beginning of times.
There has been much debate on whether the effects of the revolution reached the ordinary people, but today it is generally accepted that it indeed had a long-lasting impact on the Egyptian people. Akhenaten claimed that Aten was the only god and sole creator of the entire world. The Egyptians depicted Aten as a loving, caring deity, who gave life and sustained the living with his light.
Aten in Royal Art from The Amarna Period
From an anthropomorphic figure to a solar disk with the uraeus at its base and streaming light rays that terminated in hands, the Aten is depicted sometimes with open hands and other times holding ankh signs.
In most of the depictions from the Amarna period, the royal family of Akhenaten is shown adoring the sun disk and receiving its rays and the life it gave. Although this form of depicting the Aten predated Akhenaten, during his reign it became the only possible form of depicting the god.
Monotheism or Henotheism?
This separation from a polytheistic religious belief system was another thing that made Atenism so different from old religious beliefs. Atenism posed a direct threat to Egypt’s priests and clergy, who had to close their temples. Since only the pharaoh could have direct contact with Aten, the people of Egypt had to worship the pharaoh.
Akhenaten’s aim may have been to reduce the power of the priesthood so the pharaoh could hold more power. Now there was no need for temples or priests. By introducing Atenism, Akhenaten centralized and consolidated all the power away from the competing priesthoods and into his hands. If Atenism worked the way he hoped, the pharaoh would once again carry absolute power.
In the 18th century, Friedrich Schelling coined the word Henotheism (from the Greek henos theou, meaning ‘of the one god’) to describe the worship of a single supreme god, while at the same time accepting other minor gods. It was a term coined to describe Eastern religions such as Hinduism, where Brahma is the One god but not the only god, as all other gods were emanations of Brahma.
During the 20th century, it became apparent that the same principle was applicable to the Amarna period, where Aten was the sole god but the king and his family, and even Re, were also godly.
The Great Hymn to the Aten
Several hymns and poems were composed to the sun disk Aten during the Amarna period. The Great Hymn to the Aten is the longest of them and dates from the middle of the 14th century BCE. It was said to be written by king Akhenaten himself, but the most probable author was a scribe in his court. A few different versions of this Hymn are known, although the variations are minimal. In general, this hymn provides an important insight into the religious system of the Amarna period, and it is highly regarded by scholars.
One short excerpt from the middle of the Hymn states the main lines of its content:
How manifold it is, what thou hast made!
They are hidden from the face (of man).
O sole god, like whom there is no other!
Thou didst create the world according to thy desire,
Whilst thou wert alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts,
Whatever is on Earth, going upon (its) feet,
And what is on high, flying with its wings.
In the excerpt, one can see that Aten is considered the sole god of Egypt, furnished with infinite power, and is responsible for the creation of All. The rest of the Hymn shows how different the worship of Aten was from the common worship of pre-Amarna gods.
Contrary to traditional Egyptian teachings, The Great Hymn states that Aten had created the land of Egypt as well as lands outside of Egypt and was a god to all the foreigners who lived in them. This is one important departure from traditional religion in Egypt, which avoided the acknowledgment of foreigners.
The Hymn to the Aten was the main piece of evidence used by scholars as proof of the monotheistic nature of the Amarna Revolution. However, newer studies, especially following the extensive excavation of Tell el-Amarna, the city of Akhenaten, suggest that it was a misconception and that the Amarna religion was very different from monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.
The Demise of a God
Akhenaten was described in religious texts as the only prophet or ‘high priest’ of Aten, and as such was responsible for being the main propagator of the religion in Egypt during his reign. After the death of Akhenaten, there was a short interim after which his son, Tutankhaten, rose to power.
The young king changed his name to Tutankhamun, reinstated the cult of Amun, and lifted the ban on religions other than Atenism. As the cult of Aten had mainly been sustained by the state and the king, its worship quickly dwindled and eventually vanished from history.
Although the different priesthoods were powerless to stop the theological changes during the Amarna Revolution, the religious and political realities that came after the end of the reign of Akhenaten made the return to orthodoxy inevitable. His successors returned to Thebes and the cults of Amun, and all the other gods were again supported by the state.
The Aten’s temples were quickly abandoned, and within a few years they were torn down, often for the debris to be used in the expansion and renewal of temples for the very gods Aten had sought to displace.
Next to the fierce appearance of the lioness goddess Sekhmet, or Osiris, the god who died and still ruled the earth from the Underworld, the solar disk may appear as a minor deity. However, when Aten was the sole god of Egypt, it ruled as the most powerful of them all. The short-lived reign of Aten in the sky marked one of the most interesting periods in Egyptian history.