Pharaoh Akhenaten (C. 1353-1335 BCE)
Monotheistic Mystic, or a Megalomaniac?
by Marcus Braybrooke
Should the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten be seen as an ancient forbearer of the interfaith movement? In one of his prayers he said of God, “You are the Lord of all, who takes care of all,” and he said “God created every person equal to each other.” He is, however, still today as in his own time, a controversial figure.
Akhenaten, (Pharaoh c. 1353 to 1335 BCE), father of Tutankhamen, was a religious reformer who abandoned the gods of Ancient Egypt and proclaimed that there is only one absolute God, named Aten. Akhenaten, (or Ikhnaton), was originally known as Amenhotep IV. Part of his appeal is his great love for his wife Nefertiti – made famous by a beautifully molded and painted bust. Contemporary artists depict them in tender domestic scenes enjoying dinner, paying homage to the Aten and relaxing with their daughters. Akhenaten spoke of her as “The heiress, great in favor, lady of grace, sweet love.”
The way in which Akhenaten and his wife were depicted was also unusual. They have long narrow faces, elongated skulls, sagging bellies, narrow shoulders and in the case of the king pronounced breasts. Was this a way of emphasizing the supernatural otherness of the royal family or was it caused by some genetic disorder?
After Akhenaten had been on the throne for about six years major changes took place. He left Thebes and built a new capital known as Akhenaten – now Amarna – in Middle Egypt. Excavations suggest that it would have been an attractive place to live. Officials lived in spacious villas, with trees, pools and gardens. The walls were painted with scenes from nature and daily life. There is a gradual variation in the size of houses but the difference between rich and poor is not excessive. The difference, however, between the royal family and the rest of the population is emphasized. The discovery of the Amarna letters, a cache of diplomatic correspondence, gives us a vivid account of relations with foreign rulers and subject princes.
Creating a New Religion
The major change that Akhenaten introduced was changing the religion of Egypt. As the Pyramids and their excavations suggest, much attention was paid to the Next Life, but religion permeated everyday life and the pharaohs claimed to be the embodiment of the deities.
According to tradition, before creation the Absolute Spirit Ra was diffused in primordial Chaos. At the beginning of time Ra became aware of himself, “seeing” his own image (Amon). Then in the Great Silence, he called his double, “Come to me.” This was the beginning of the creative process, carried forward by the fertilizing force of Osiris, the water of life, and the generating force of Isis. Over time, the god Amon-Ra, like Pharaoh, acquired a court of gods and as Egypt’s empire extended, local gods were incorporated into the pantheon.
All this was swept away by Akhenaten, although his new religion is not completely understood. Aten was for him the sole God. To avoid reference to the god Amon, he altered his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten, which means “transfigured spirit of Aten.” Amon’s name was hacked out of inscriptions across Egypt. The funerary religion dropped Osiris, and Akhenaten became the source of blessings for people after death. People were required to be grateful to the Sun for life and warmth. Presumably the existing moral code of Egypt’s Wisdom literature was upheld, but the threatening warnings of the old gods disappeared.
Akhenaten’s religion is best summed up in this excerpt from the “Great Hymn to the Aten,” attributed to the Pharoah:
When Thou set the western horizon of heaven
The world is in darkness like the dead…
Every lion comes for from his den,
The serpents they sting. Darkness reigns…
Bright is the Earth when You rise in the horizon…
The Two Lands are in daily festival,
Awake and standing upon their feet...
Then in all the world they do their work.
How manifold are Your works!
They are hidden from before us.
O Thou sole God, whose power no other possesses.
You did create the earth according to your desire, being alone:
Man, all cattle, large and small;
All that are upon the Earth.
Akhenaten’s Hymn is often compared to the biblical Psalm 104:
Thou makest darkness and it is night,
Wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth;
The young lions roar after their prey;
They seek their meat from God...
The sun ariseth, they get them away
And lay them down in their dens.
Man goeth forth unto his work
And to his labor until the evening...
O Lord, how manifold are thy works!
In wisdom hast thou made them all.
Akhenaten saw the universe as a single act of love uniting the Creator and the Creature. In his words, again from the Hymn:
… You are the flow of life itself and no one can live without you…
You nourish the child from when he is in his mother’s womb,
You calm him so that he will not cry, you open his mouth and you bring him what he needs…
You are the lord of all, who takes care of all.
You create the life of all people, you have placed the Nile in the Heavens
so that it may descend over us and bathe our fields with its floods and fertilize the fields of our countryside.
The reforms were not popular. As time passed, the Egyptians showed signs of discontent with their pharaoh of love. Foreign tribute fell off as the empire diminished in size. There was a serious epidemic, perhaps the first recorded outbreak of influenza. The priesthood grew weary of its narrow role in the new theology and the people longed to return to the traditional gods. His religion survived until his death in 1362 BCE, but was quickly reversed by his son Tutankhamen (c. 1358- 1340 BCE).
The mystery of Akhenaten remains. He has fascinated many speculative scholars and writers of fiction - if one can make that distinction. Was he the first monotheist who preached a religion of love or a megalomaniac who thought of himself and his wife as the only gods? Did his reforms vanish, like his capital, without trace or leave a lasting legacy? Freud in his book Moses and Monotheism suggested that Moses had been a priest of Aten, who was forced to leave Egypt with other believers, after the death of Akhenaten.
The journalist Ahmed Osman claimed that Akhenaten’s maternal grandfather Yuya was the same person as the Biblical Joseph, although there has been little support for this theory. Through analysis of anomalous features of the mummy of Yuya, as well as linguistic and chronological data, Osman pointed out that Yuya is the only Egyptian mummy to have his hands placed under his chin rather than across his chest, and that he had a beard style similar to that of the ancient Hebrews, whereas Egyptian officials were known to shave their facial hair. Others have likened some aspects of Akhenaten’s relationship with the Aten to the relationship, in Christian tradition, of Jesus Christ with God – because Akhenaten did call himself the son of the sole god: “Thine only son that came forth from thy body.” James Henry Breasted, founder of Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, likened him to Jesus. Most scholars today question whether there was a link with Moses and the beginnings of Biblical monotheism.
Akhenaten also appears in works of fiction and in films, paintings, and music. The novelist Thomas Mann in his fictional Joseph and his Brothers (1933-43) made Akhenaten the “dreaming Pharaoh” of Joseph’s story – on the grounds that Akhenaten was impressed by Joseph’s Abrahamic monotheism. Akhnaton (sic) was also the title of a play by Agatha Christie, which recounts the growing opposition to the Pharaoh and ends with Nefertiti’s suicide. But in the epilogue, a captain reads out a proclamation to a group of stonemasons. The religion of Amon is to be restored.
The same ambiguity is to be found in the novel Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth by the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz in 1985. In the story, Meriamun is travelling from Thebes with his father, the scribe Amunhoben, after the death of the religious revolutionary. His father points out the ruins of Akhetaten, the city that the “heretic pharaoh,” which Akhenaten built for his One and Only God.
Seeking a balanced perspective of events which had split Egypt politically and religiously, Meriamun gets a letter of introduction from his father to members of Akhenaten’s court, among them the High Priest of Amun, his chief of security Haremhab, and Queen Nefertiti. Each tale adds a new dimension to the enigma that is Akhenaten and the thoughts of those that were close to him, allowing Meriamun – and the reader – to judge for themselves whether Akhenaten was a power politician or a true believer. To this one might add the question, “Is the story of Akhenaten an early example of organized religions’ distrust of the mystic who dreams of the oneness of God and of humanity?”
Alberto Carlo Carpiceci, author of The Art and History of Egypt, says that Akhenaten’s reign the god Amon-Ra returned, but was now conceived of as one who “cannot be represented because He is pure Spirit.” He adds, “Akhenaten’s religious experiences and his pantheism, throbbing with love, penetrated everywhere, even in such completely different systems of thought as the Greek and the Hebrew.”