Was the Heretic Pharaoh Akhenaton in Fact the Father of Modern Monotheism?
This passage may read like a passage from the Old Testament of the Bible; but, this is a quote from the Hymn of Aten , a work by Pharaoh Amenhotep IV better known as Akhenaton. This so-called heretic king was the only known Pharaoh in Egyptian history who believed in a monotheistic doctrine when most of the ancient world adhered to polytheism.
Just how did this Pharaoh start to form the practice of worshiping a single god?
Religion in Egypt Before the Sun God Aten
Religion seemed to dominate every aspect of ancient Egyptian culture. Before pharaonic times, there were a variety of deities worshiped in various districts throughout Egypt. It wasn’t until the First Dynastic Period under King Narmer that the country was unified. Religion too was unified, but there wasn’t an official canonization of gods that minimized or eliminated the importance of lesser gods. Instead, deities were cosmopolitan – all of the gods of Egypt were recognized as an important part of the pantheon. This created some confusion and some overlap in beliefs but still no hegemony of deities seemed to exist in ancient Egypt.
Representations of six gods from the Ancient Egyptian Pantheon ( Public Domain )
This codification of religion brought a substantial change in kingship. The birth of the concept of a Pharaoh emerged in which the king was no longer just a civil ruler but a part of the divinity – the godhead to be precise. The new god-king ruled in conjunction with Ra, or Amen-Ra, and he was often depicted as a powerful man with a falcon head nested upon his head with cobra surrounding the sun.
With this uncontested rule of the god-king came another important change. The role of the priests became much stronger and more dominant. Unlike today’s priests, they weren’t charged with guiding the masses. Instead, they were the keepers of tradition and played an integral part in appeasing the gods and goddesses through rituals and sacrifice. During the 18 th dynasty, there was a temple created in Amen-Ra’s honor and Thebes became the city representing a unified Egypt, after a brief takeover by the Hyksos. The Pharaohs of this era paid homage to this god by incorporating the name Amen in their names, hence Amenhotep.
The Sun-Disk Pharaoh Emerges
By the time Amenhotep IV took the throne, pharaonic Egypt was in full swing. Rituals and traditions of the priests had been set in stone for many generations. Pharaohs simply assumed authority and let the priests do all the work while they enjoyed the finer things. This didn’t sit well with Amenhotep IV, however. Unlike his predecessors or even his successors, he was unhappy with tradition and was especially disgusted with the power of the priesthood. Whether Amenhotep IV unhappiness was due to him being fed up with Egyptian decadence or him being tired of the priests control over the Pharaohs is uncertain. But one thing for sure is that after five years of his reign he set out to turn Egyptian religious practices upside down and because of his divine authority, no one could stop him.
Statue of Akhenaten - Father of Tutankhamun ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
One of the first things he did was abandon the name Amen-, a name associated with a god he now despised – and changed his name to Akhenaten. Aten was the name of the sun disk god he now embraced as the only god. He then moved the capital from Thebes to Amarna. Most likely this move represented a break from the old and freedom from the authority of the priesthood. He then employed agents who outlawed the worship of other deities and forced the people to recognize only one god. To ensure that the people would follow his orders, he closed the Temple of Amun and defaced all of the deities in the temple.
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Statue of Amun ( Public Domain )