Atenism, or the "Amarna heresy", refers to the religious changes associated with the eighteenth dynasty Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, better known under his adopted name, Akhenaten. In the 14th century BC, Atenism was Egypt's state religion for around 20 years, before subsequent rulers returned to the traditional gods and the Pharaohs associated with Atenism were erased from Egyptian records.
History of Aten before Akhenaten
Aten, the god of Atenism, first appears in texts dating to the 12th dynasty, in the Story of Sinuhe. During the Middle Kingdom, Aten "as the sun disk...was merely one aspect of the sun god Re." It was a relatively obscure sun god; without the Atenist period, it would barely have figured in Egyptian history. Although there are indications that it was becoming slightly more important during the eighteenth dynasty, notably Amenhotep III's naming of his royal barge as Spirit of the Aten, it was Amenhotep IV who introduced the Atenist revolution in a series of steps culminating in the official installment of the Aten as Egypt's sole god. Although each line of kings prior to the reign of Akhenaten had previously adopted one deity as the royal patron and supreme state god, there had never been an attempt to exclude other deities, and the multitude of gods had always been tolerated and worshipped. During the reign of Thutmosis IV, it was identified as a distinct solar god, and his son Amenhotep III established and promoted a separate cult for the Aten. There is no evidence that Amenhotep III neglected the other gods or attempted to promote the Aten as an exclusive deity.
Amenhotep initially introduced Atenism in the fifth year of his reign (1348/1346 BC), raising Aten to the status of supreme god, after having initially permitted continued worship of the traditional gods. To emphasise the change, Aten's name was written in the cartouche form normally reserved for Pharaohs, an innovation of Atenism. The religious reformation appears to coincide with the proclamation of a Sed festival, a sort of royal jubilee intended to reinforce the Pharaoh's divine powers of kingship. Traditionally held in the thirtieth year of the Pharaoh's reign, it possibly was a festival in honour of Amenhotep III. Some Egyptologists think that he had a coregency with Amenhotep IV of 2-12 years.
The fifth year is believed to mark the beginning of Amenhotep IV's construction of a new capital, Akhetaten (Horizon of the Aten), at the site known today as Amarna. Evidence appears on three of the boundary stelae used to mark the boundaries of this new capital. Then, Amenhotep IV officially changed his name to Akhenaten (Spirit of the Aten) as evidence of his new worship. The date given for the event has been estimated to fall around January 2 of that year. In the seventh year of his reign (1346/1344 BC), the capital was moved from Thebes to Akhetaten, but construction of the city seems to have continued for two more years. In shifting his court from the traditional ceremonial centres, he was signalling a dramatic transformation in the focus of religious and political power.
The move separated the Pharaoh and his court from the influence of the priesthood and from the traditional centres of worship, but his decree had deeper religious significance too. Taken in conjunction with his name change, it is possible that the move to Amarna was also meant as a signal of Akhenaten's symbolic death and rebirth. It may also have coincided with the death of his father and the end of the coregency. In addition to constructing a new capital in honor of Aten, Akhenaten also oversaw the construction of some of the most massive temple complexes in ancient Egypt, including one at Karnak and one at Thebes, close to the old temple of Amun.
In the ninth year of his reign (1344/1342 BCE), Akhenaten declared a more radical version of his new religion, declaring Aten not merely the supreme god of the Egyptian pantheon but the only God of Egypt, with himself as the sole intermediary between the Aten and the Egyptian people. Key features of Atenism included a ban on idols and other images of the Aten, with the exception of a rayed solar disc in which the rays (commonly depicted ending in hands) appear to represent the unseen spirit of Aten. Aten was addressed by Akhenaten in prayers, such as the Great Hymn to the Aten: "O Sole God beside whom there is none". Aten's name is also written differently after the ninth year of the Pharaoh's rule to emphasise the radicalism of the new regime. Aten, instead of being written with the symbol of a rayed solar disc, now became spelled phonetically.
The details of Atenist theology are still unclear. The exclusion of all but one god and the prohibition of idols was a radical departure from Egyptian tradition, but most scholars see Akhenaten as a practitioner of monolatry rather than monotheism, as he did not actively deny the existence of other gods. He simply refrained from worshiping any but Aten.
It is known that Atenism did not attribute divinity only to Aten. Akhenaten continued the cult of the Pharaoh, proclaiming himself the son of Aten and encouraging the Egyptian people to worship him. The Egyptian people were to worship Akhenaten, and only Akhenaten and Nefertiti could worship Aten directly.
Contrast with traditional Egyptian religion
Akhenaten carried out a radical program of religious reform. For about twenty years, he largely supplanted the age-old beliefs and practices of the Egyptian state religion, and deposed its religious hierarchy, headed by the powerful priesthood of Amun at Thebes. For fifteen centuries, the Egyptians had worshiped an extended family of gods and goddesses, each of which had its own elaborate system of priests, temples, shrines and rituals. A key feature of the cults was the veneration of images and statues of the gods, which were worshipped in the dark confines of the temples.
The pinnacle of the religious hierarchy was the Pharaoh, both king and living god. Administration of the Egyptian kingdom was thus inextricably bound up with and largely controlled by the power and influence of the priests and scribes. Akhenaten's reforms cut away both the philosophical and economic bases of priestly power, abolishing the cults of all other deities and, with them, the large and lucrative industry of sacrifices and tributes that the priests controlled.
At the same time, he strengthened the role of the Pharaoh. Dominic Montserrat, analysing the various versions of the hymns to the Aten, argues that all versions of the hymns focus on the king; he suggests that the real innovation is to redefine the relationship of god and king in a way that benefited Akhenaten, quoting a statement of Egyptologist John Baines: "Amarna religion was a religion of god and king, or even of king first and then god".
Initially, Akhenaten presented Aten to the Egyptian people as a variant of the familiar supreme deity Amun-Ra (itself the result of an earlier rise to prominence of the cult of Amun, resulting in Amun becoming merged with the sun god Ra), in an attempt to put his ideas in a familiar religious context. Aten is the name given to the solar disc, and the full title of Akhenaten's god was Ra-Horus, who rejoices in the horizon in his name of the light which is in the sun disc. (That is the title of the god as it appears on numerous stelae, placed to mark the boundaries of Akhenaten's new capital at Akhetaten.)
However, in the ninth year of his reign Akhenaten declared a more radical version of his new religion by declaring Aten not merely the supreme god but the only god, and Akhenaten was the son of Aten was the only intermediary between the Aten and his people. He even staged the ritual regicide of Amun, and ordered the defacing of Amun's temples throughout Egypt. Key features of Atenism included a ban on idols and other images of the Aten, with the exception of a rayed solar disc in which the rays, commonly depicted as ending in hands, appear to represent the unseen spirit of Aten. New temples were constructed in which the Aten was worshipped in the open sunlight rather than in dark temple enclosures, as the old gods had been.
Although idols were banned, even in people's homes, they were typically replaced by functionally equivalent representations of Akhenaten and his family venerating the Aten and receiving the ankh (breath of life) from him. The radicalisation of the ninth year, including spelling Aten phonetically instead of using the rayed solar disc, may be a determination on the part of Akhenaten to dispel a probable misconception among the common people that Aten was really a type of sun god like Ra. Instead, the idea was reinforced that such representations were representations above all of concepts, of Aten's universal presence, not of physical beings or things.
Styles of art that flourished during the brief period are markedly different from other Egyptian art. They bear a variety of affectations, from elongated heads to protruding stomachs, exaggerated ugliness and the beauty of Nefertiti. Significantly, for the only time in the history of Egyptian royal art, Akhenaten's family was depicted in a decidedly naturalistic manner,. It is clearly shown displaying affection.
Images of Akhenaten and Nefertiti usually depict the Aten prominently above that pair, with the hands of the Aten closest to each offering Ankhs. Unusually for New Kingdom art, the Pharaoh and his wife are depicted as approximately equal in size, with Nefertiti's image used to decorate the lesser Aten temple at Amarna. That may suggest that she also had a prominent official role in Aten worship.
Artistic representations of Akhenaten usually give him an unusual appearance, with slender limbs, a protruding belly and wide hips. Other leading figures of the Amarna period, both royal and otherwise, are also shown with some of these features, suggesting a possible religious connotation, especially as some sources suggest that private representations of Akhenaten, as opposed to official art, show him as quite normal. It is also suggested by Bob Brier, in his book "The Murder of Tutankhamen", that the family suffered from Marfan's syndrome, which is known to cause elongated features, which may explain Akhenaten's appearance.
Crucial evidence about the latter stages of Akhenaten's reign was furnished by discovery of the so-called Amarna Letters. Believed to have been thrown away by scribes after being transferred to papyrus, the letters comprise a priceless cache of incoming clay message tablets sent from imperial outposts and foreign allies. The letters suggest that Akhenaten was obsessed with his new religion, and his neglect of matters of state was causing disorder across the massive Egyptian empire. The governors and kings of subject domains wrote to beg for gold and complained of being snubbed and cheated. Also discovered were reports that a major plague pandemic was spreading across the ancient Near East. This pandemic appears to have claimed the life of Akhenaten's main wife (Nefertiti) and several of his six daughters, which may have contributed to a declining interest on the part of Akhenaten in governing effectively.
With Akhenaten's death, the Aten cult he had founded almost immediately fell out of favor due to pressures from the Priesthood of Amun. Tutankhaten, who succeeded him at 8 (with Akhenaten's old vizier, Ay, as regent) changed his name to Tutankhamun in the third year 3 of his reign (1330 BC) and abandoned Akhetaten, the city falling into ruin. The temples that Akhenaten had built from talaat blocks, including the temple at Thebes, were disassembled by later pharaohs, reused as a source of building materials and decorations for their own temples, and inscriptions to Aten were defaced. Finally, Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun, and Ay were removed from the official lists of Pharaohs, which instead reported that Amenhotep III was immediately succeeded by Horemheb.
Link to Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism
Because of the monolatristic or monotheistic character of Atenism, a link to Judaism (and subsequently the monotheistic religions springing from it) has been suggested by various writers. For example, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud assumed Akhenaten to be the pioneer of monotheistic religion and Moses as Akhenaten's follower in his book Moses and Monotheism (see also Osarseph). The Egyptian author Ahmed Osman went as far as to claim that Moses and Akhenaten were the same person.