Religion and Magic in Amarna: A World of Confusion in Akhetaten—Part II
The population that inhabited Akhenaten’s brand new city, Akhetaten, in Middle Egypt was ill at ease with the massive religious uncertainty their monarch had unleashed. A question mark hung over not just their very way of life, but also the age-old magical practices that they resorted to in order to combat challenges throughout their lives. However, backed by new finds, in their effort to brush aside common misconceptions, Egyptologists are now beginning to piece together a surprising story; one that reveals even members of the Sun family were not averse to worshipping – or acknowledging – Egypt’s most ancient deities in Amarna.
The hybrid hippopotamus goddess Taweret functions here as a magical jar made of glazed steatite. As usual she stands upright and is shown as a fusion of a hippopotamus, lion, crocodile, and human. She protected women in childbirth and it is possible that a small magic papyrus, maybe a spell for mother and child, was stored in this jar. Second Intermediate Period–early Dynasty 18. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)
Amuletic Objects and Potent Spells
The Egyptian cosmos was divided into three disparate worlds that included the land of the living, the Netherworld, and the divine world. The threat lay in the fact that an enemy could emerge out of any of these places; and worse, could assume any form if he came from a realm not of this earth. In such instances, the magician was tasked with trapping the tormenter in a tangible form to inflict damage on the being; hence, the birth of amulets and talismans. In religion, we implore the gods to aid us — we are at their mercy; but in magic, we reverse that relationship and attempt to control supernatural forces to do our bidding.
Egypt’s geography and weather made it an appealing place for venomous reptiles and insects such as snakes and scorpions. Since Heka encompassed magic, healing and the practice of medicine; magicians called “Sau” supplied charms to ward off the ill effects of bites and protect the wearer from harm. Among the many types of depictions, the god Horus is also shown as a nude boy trampling on one or more crocodiles and gripping snakes, scorpions, and sometimes desert animals such as lions and oryxes. In such representations, a head of Bes is shown above the Horus figure.
This statue has the visual form known for the god Bes, but the form was actually adopted for depictions of numerous other gods, usually ones related to Horus. Bronze; gold, electrum, auriferous-silver, copper and copper-alloy inlays. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)
Called ‘Horus cippi’ or ‘Horus on the crocodiles’ stelae, these objects were produced from about the thirteenth century B.C. to the second century A.D. with some images being installed in sanctuaries within temples. The rest of the sculptures were found in houses and tombs. Even water poured over the ‘Horus cippi’ whilst prayers were recited was considered “holy” and was said to have medicinal and healing properties. “Magic was not just a defence against the forces of chaos and evil. It might also be used to evade the deities who inflicted suffering on people as part of the divine plan. Personal manifestations or emissaries of these deities were greatly feared,” reveals Geraldine Pinch.
The central scene of the Metternich Stela (Horus-stele or ‘cippus’ stone slabs) shows the figure of the child Horus, or Harpocrates, associated with the newborn sun, with the head of the god Bes above him. He stands on two crocodiles and holds dangerous animals (snakes, scorpion, lion, and antelopes). The inscriptions are a set of thirteen spells against poison and illness. Reign of Nectanebo II. 30th dynasty. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
One class of object that survives in vast quantities is the amulet. Amulets were extensively used in everyday magic to protect both the magician and his client. Perhaps the most important occurrence of portrayals of Bes were on the ubiquitous magic (apotropaic) wands and amulets which were commonly employed by Egyptian priests and magicians as a part of their rituals in casting spells to combat or discourage forces of evil. One text advises the magician to invoke a series of gods by name: ‘Come to me, ascend to me, unite yourselves for me after [you] have brought up for me anything bad, any bad revolting matter [?], any bad sickness that is in this body [of mine] … It is to make an end of the sickness that is cleaving to you, oh gods there that I have fetched a herb … Make an end to any bad sickness that is cleaving itself to me!’
Amulets of the goddesses Sekhmet, Bastet and Taweret were popular among women in ancient Egypt as they represented magical protection and well-being—especially during childbirth. Many such objects were recovered from Amarna too. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Role and Scope of Magic in Amarna
We are aware that during the Amarna interlude when Pharaoh Akhenaten constructed Akhetaten in Middle Egypt and declared the Aten as the supreme deity, it was only the state god Amun and later Osiris who were proscribed. Adoration of other gods and goddesses in the pantheon though not banned outright was not encouraged either — maybe there was an uneasy accommodation. For instance, Akhenaten, who was formally the high-priest of temples across Egypt, preserved the concept of Ma’at (the harmony, balance, and equilibrium of the entire cosmos) which was traditionally embodied within the Goddess Ma’at including Truth, Justice and Morality.
Dr William Murnane observes that the Pharaoh was careful to stress that he was living within the principles of Ma’at, commonly using an epithet Ankh-em-Ma’at – Living in Truth. Perhaps this flexibility explains why modern archeological expeditions right from the end of the nineteenth century found evidence of clandestine worship at Amarna — hidden shrines and small images of the popular deities in the form of amulets and also scarabs.
This model house-altar or shrine in the form of a temple façade was discovered at Tell el-Amarna. The walls of the two wings of the pylon are symmetrically decorated with scenes of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their eldest daughter, Meritaten, worshiping the sun disc, the Aten. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
Even during the heretic’s reign, magical practices continued unabated, albeit on a lesser and more secretive scale, as Prof Joann Fletcher explained to the present writer, “Although so much evidence was destroyed after Akhenaten's death, it’s clear that some aspects of Egypt’s traditional belief system continued during his reign, with evidence at Amarna for the household deities Bes and Taweret for example, both of whom are usually associated with the world of magic, together with objects categorised as (apotropaic) ‘wands’.” Apotropaic means something that wards off evil, particularly evil spirits. So it isn’t surprising that headrests decorated with images of demons to ensure a good night’s sleep were discovered in Amarna.
Funerary figurine of Isis, ‘Singer of the Aten’. During Akhenaten’s reign, the traditional gods were forsaken, and so, this shabti is not inscribed with Spell Six from the Book of the Dead and makes no mention of the funerary god Osiris, as was the norm. Instead, prayers to the king and the Aten were used. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)
Coexisting with the Aten?
Observing that the worship of deities who straddled the worlds of temple and personal cult, such as the goddesses Hathor and Isis, were intricately connected with personal fertility and magic, Dr Anna Stevens makes a startling observation based on studies conducted by Prof Geoffrey Martin, “…whilst the names of traditional gods were sometimes excised from objects or personal names, jewellery with images of the domestic deity Bes appears to have been interred in the Royal Tomb, suggesting that some royal individuals may have continued to engage with personal gods.”
Dr Stevens is, of course, referring to the serendipitous find made in the early 1880s by W. J. Loftie, a Northern Irish clergyman, traveler, and writer who purchased a gold signet ring of Nefertiti (now in the Royal Scottish Museum) as part of a hoard which he was told had been found by locals digging illicitly at Amarna. He later gave the “Ankh-Bes-Bes-Ankh” ring to Rider Haggard and the “Dancing Bes’" ring from this cache to Andrew Lang — both of which are now in the Liverpool Museum. Images of Bes and Taweret apart, a deeper inspection of finds from the site of ancient Akhetaten as a whole reveals the worship of even more deities including Wepwawet, Seth and Hathor.
Double-headed amulets of the domestic goddess Taweret are rare forms and date to the 18th dynasty. Amarna is among the known find-spots for these, although this blue faience example is without provenance. New Kingdom. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)
Also, the production of large-scale wall paintings extended to houses within the workmen’s village in Amarna, where excavators in the 1920s encountered two well-executed scenes showing household gods, another showing women and girls probably in a ritual dance with Bes leading the way. “Making cult images visible was itself an important ritual action in ancient Egypt. And visibility is a pertinent filter for Amarna, where it has been proposed that continued worship of traditional divinities was ‘clandestine’, or that those who outwardly displayed their allegiance to the official cult were simply paying it ‘lip service’. The study of domestic religion proper in ancient Egypt is hampered by the collapse of the upper storeys and rooftops of houses, areas where we might expect to find traces of religion at its most private. Amarna is no exception. What Amarna contributes, through the large-scale exposures of houses in the riverside city, is a glimpse instead of the more public, visible aspect of domestic religion,” notes Dr Stevens.
To add to the difficulty in gaining a comprehensive insight into the religion practiced in Amarna, examples of household shrines with the image of the Aten sun disc sans the royal family have been discovered, as have private stelae minus depictions of the Aten. Among the wealth of statuary and stelae discovered in domestic settings in Amarna, all one sees in a majority of the cases are depictions of the royal family adoring the Aten. Does this in any way serve to suggest that the inhabitants had fallen in line and had adopted the worship of the solar god as decreed by Pharaoh; or are these remnants of unwanted cultic objects that had no purpose once Akhenaten’s religious experiment had ended?
Could this also be the reason for missing or non-existent artifacts of traditional deities in Amarna—because the population quickly went back to worshipping the familiar pantheon elsewhere, especially in Thebes? It must also be borne in mind that Akhetaten was not abandoned overnight, and had functioned as the administrative capital for at least four or five more years following the demise of Akhenaten, making it a possibility that the corpus of images of traditional gods and goddesses recovered date to this time.
The author expresses his gratitude to Prof Joann Fletcher for her invaluable inputs in this series.
Top Image: Detail of the Berlin bust of Nefertiti; and the latest 3D sculpture of the queen based on the mummy of the Younger Lady; design by Anand Balaji (Photo credit: John Bosch and Travel Channel); Deriv.
By Anand Balaji
Independent researcher and playwright Anand Balaji, is an Ancient Origins guest writer and author of Sands of Amarna: End of Akhenaten.
Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt, 1994
Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, 2003
Anna Stevens, Private Religion at Amarna: The material evidence, 2006
Margaret Bunson, The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, 1991
E. A. Wallis Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani in the British Museum, 1967
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: A book of readings, Vol 2, 1976
Geraldine Pinch, Handbook of Egyptian Mythology, 2002
Emily Teeter, Ancient Egypt, 2003
Joann Fletcher, (Documentary), Ancient Egypt Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings 1, 2013
John Romer, (Documentary), Ancient Lives, 1984