Aten – the ancient Egyptian god who was fanatically revered by Pharaoh Akhenaten
It is often the case that when ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten’s name is mentioned, the word that quickly pops up in one’s mind is the ancient Egyptian god Aten. Such was Akhenaten’s obsession with the Aten that he and his royal family members even changed their names to honor this deity. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.
As we shall see below, the reigns of Akhenaten and his wife Queen Nefertiti were infamous for their radical religious revolution, in which the worship of the god Aten was given a fanatical and an unusual support. It could be said that the pharaoh and his chief consort were courting trouble with their suppression of old gods and traditional religious belief that were several centuries old. Historians and scholars like to hypothesize that had Akhenaten’s reign gone on longer than it did, the political turmoil could have tipped the land of Egypt over the edge.
It would also interest our readers to know that Aten was not an invention by Akhenaten; instead the worship of Aten was pronounced before Akhenaten’s reign.
So who was the ancient Egyptian god Aten? And why and how did Pharaoh Akhenaten develop such an unhealthy obsession with Aten’s worship?
Who is Aten?
Aten was believed by the ancient Egyptians as the disc of the sun. Furthermore, he was seen as an aspect of the sun god Ra. Aten had no anthropomorphic image or form. He was simply depicted with just a sun disc with many light rays shooting from the disk.
Meaning of Aten
Based on archaeological findings, scholars can confidently say that the word Aten translates as “disc”. The word goes as far back as to the Old Kingdom era, appearing on an artwork.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the sun was the “disc of the day”. And in that disc was where the mighty Egyptian sun god Ra lived. Every day, Ra would pull his sun barge across the world, bringing sunshine to the people of Egypt. At dusk, Ra would descend into the underworld with his sun barge only for him to make his way back up into the sky the following day.
Aten was a word the Egyptians used to describe something that was shaped like a disc. The Egyptians also referred to the moon as “silver aten”. However, there have been some authors that state that a sphere or globe is a much more accurate translation of the Egyptian word “Aten”.
Aten – the sun-disk deity
As stated in the introduction, the sun-disk deity Aten was worshiped long before the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten. There were a number of stories from the Middle Kingdom era that feature the god Aten. In one such story, the god Aten receives a deceased Egyptian king and then unites with the king. In that story – the Story of Sinuhe – the deceased king is depicted as a god who then goes on to merge with the creator, Aten.
In the story, Sinuhe flees Egypt when he hears the death of Pharaoh Amenemhat I. It is unclear as to why Sinuhe left Egypt. In any case, he settles in a foreign land, where he marries the daughter of a powerful chief. He goes on to make a good life for himself and his family; however, he constantly has the burning desire to be reunited with his homeland Egypt. In his old age, he pleads with the Egyptian pharaoh at the time to take him back. The pharaoh accepts, and Sinuhe returns to Egypt to be reunited with his roots, i.e. his makers.
Aten’s worship during the reign of Amenhotep III
The worship of Aten began to reach great importance starting around the reign of Amenhotep III, father of Akhenaten. High priests during Amenhotep III’s reign portrayed Aten in almost the same manner as the sun god Ra. Aten was shown as a falcon-headed deity.
Known today as Amenhotep the Great, Pharaoh Amenhotep III was the 9th king of the Eighteenth Dynasty. With a reign that spanned from around 1391 to 1353, Amenhotep III ruled over a very prosperous Egypt that absolutely dominated the region, militarily, economically and politically.
Aten’s meteoric rise during the reign of Amenhotep IV
The worship of Aten reached an all-time high beginning around the tenth year of Amenhotep IV’s reign. The young pharaoh, who by the way would not have become pharaoh had it not been for the untimely death of his older brother Prince Thutmose, inherited a very prosperous and powerful Egypt.
Akhenaten, his chief consort Nefertiti and all his children changed their names to honor the god Aten. This was one of his first actions in his efforts to change the religious structure and system of his kingdom. For example, Akhenaten’s name translates as “Effective spirit of the Aten”. His oldest daughter Meritaten’s name translates as “She who is beloved of the Aten”.
In this new religious belief that Akhenaten set up, he did not explicitly state that he was the embodiment of Aten; rather he depicted himself as a son of Aten so to speak.
Was the promotion of Atenism a political move?
As Pharaoh Akhenaten’s reverence for Aten increased, the cult of Aten began to dwarf the cults of other gods in ancient Egypt. Akhenaten also took bold measures to curtail the worship of other Egyptian gods, particularly Amun, the patron god of Thebes.
Some scholars maintain that this radical shift by Akhenaten was nothing but a political move to diminish the power and influence of Theban priests. By replacing Amun, the state of the Egyptians, with Aten, Akhenaten likely sought to deprive the political and religious elite of the immense power they held in Egypt.
The king channeled resources from the cult of Amun in Thebes to the cult of Aten in Amarna. In an even more drastic maneuver, he is said to have closed down a number of temples of Amun at Thebes and other places across the kingdom. He also either demoted or had high priests of Theban gods like Khonsu, Mut, and Amun banished or killed.
Read More: List of Ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses
Characteristics of Aten
Pharaoh Akhenaten also came out with a set of principles to underpin the slightly new kind of religion that he was trying to set up. In one of those principles, it was believed that work during the day was the best way to honor Aten as the god operated in the day. It was believed that Aten was responsible for the creation of the Nile. Akhenaten also believed that all people on earth were the creations of Aten. The deity is praised for his deep love and care for humanity. He constantly watches over his creation and shines brightly in the sky to guide the paths of his creations. Worshipers of Aten believed that Aten did all of that guided by the principle/goddess Ma’at.
Akhenaten then placed himself and his royal family as the only conduits to Aten, stating that Aten’s light could only be received from the king and queen. One increases his/her chances of receiving this light by being loyal to the royal couple.
A life-giving force, Aten permeated everything in the cosmos. In other words, he was omnipresent and omnipotent. As a result, his worshipers did not see the need to have physical depictions of him. Representing in Aten physically did not do justice to how powerful he was. In this vein, Akhenaten steadily began banning images of the god in human form. It got to a point where even depicting Aten with the sun disc was frowned upon by the king.
Temples of Aten in Amarna
Aten worshipers purposely kept the roofs of those temples open in order to let the rays of Aten (the sun) shine on them. And most importantly, Aten worshipers used no form of statues in worshiping the god. This was in sharp contrast to the prevailing religious system of the time. Pharaoh Akhenaten is believed to have considered idolatry worship as incompatible with the nature and power of Aten. In place of those statues, Akhenaten erected statues of himself and his family members receiving the life-giving rays of Aten. Thus the king was portraying himself as the conduit through which Aten’s life-giving force flows to the people of Egypt. in other words, he likely considered himself as a prophet of Aten.
Aten worshipers also sang hymns and played harp in the background. Compared to the previous religious system and traditions, Aten worship was relatively less ritualistic. Akhenaten had introduced a kind of religion that downplayed the importance of temple priests in religious ceremonies.
There isn’t much evidence to determine whether Akhenaten’s Atenism portrayed the king as the embodiment of Aten or made Aten a supreme ruler who ranked above the king.
Change in religious capital from Thebes to Akhetaten
Such was his devotion to monotheism and the worship of the god Aten that Akhenaten invested a lot of resources and time into building a brand new capital city and several temples in honor of Aten. The new capital, Akhetaten, was situated about 200 miles to the north of Thebes. Known as the“Horizon of the Aten”, Akhetaten was an avenue for Akhenaten and his family to escape from the intense political climate that was developing in Thebes.
During the establishment of Akhetaten, Pharaoh Akhenaten is believed to have relocated up to 25,000 people to the new city. He then proceeded to build numerous temples in his new capital in honor of the god Aten.
It’s safe to say that Akhenaten’s religious and political reforms were very unpopular with not just the Theban priests but also the people of Egypt. But who could defy the king?
Reinstating the worship and cult of Amun and other Egyptian deities
For his heretic acts, Akhenaten’s successors tagged him as a betrayer to the old gods. And just as he tried to erase the worship of traditional ancient Egyptian gods, so did his successors work very hard to remove his name from the annals of history by chiseling out his names and images from monuments.
For example, his immediate successor Smenkhkare (possibly in the person of Queen Nefertiti) worked very hard to revive cults of other Egyptian deities, including Amun, Ptah, Khonsu, and Mut. By the reigns of pharaohs Ay and Horemheb, Egypt’s polytheistic culture had been fully restored.
In the case of Tutankhaten, who later changed his name to Tutankhamun, his name translates as “Living image of the Aten”. Tutankhamun was Akhenaten’s son by a minor wife.
Does Aten have a creation myth and origin story?
Common with many Egyptian major deities, an origin story was very much a given. However in the case of Aten, there appears to be no origin story or how Aten went about creating the world.
Akhenaten’s “Great Hymn to the Aten”
Pharaoh Akhenaten describes Aten as the deity who created the cosmos and gave life to all living things. The pharaoh furthers states in the “Great Hymn to the Aten” that Aten was the vital force that nurtured the world. The Great Hymn to the Aten is a hymn/poem written either by Akhenaten himself or his courtiers.
Did the religious tenets in Atenism have an influence on Moses?
The religious similarities between the monotheistic views of Akhenaten and the Biblical prophet Moses has led some scholars to propose that Moses was an Egyptian, perhaps Akhenaten himself. Austrian neurologist Sigmund was arguably the first scholar to draw connections between Moses and Akhenaten. In his 1939 book Moses and Akhenaten, the Sigmund Freud, who was also the father of psychoanalysis, suggested that Moses was an official in Pharaoh Akhenaten’s court. Sigmund further states that after the death of Akhenaten, Moses gathered a tribe of Israelites to the east of the Nile delta and took them out of Egypt. Moses then went on to impart the monotheistic religious belief that he learnt from Akhenaten to the Israelite, according to Freud.
Atenism – Summary
Atenism – the ancient Egyptian religious system with Aten as the supreme god – was established by 18th dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten. Prior to the reign of Akhenaten, Aten was worshiped, perhaps as a minor Egyptian deity. It was during Akhenaten’s reign that the worship of Aten was prioritized over other Egyptian deities, making Aten a kind of monotheistic deity in a religious system that still had other deities.
Nefertiti and her husband were known for a religious revolution, in which they worshiped one god only, Aten, or the sun disc. With her husband, she reigned at what was arguably the wealthiest period of Ancient Egyptian history.
Akhenaten encouraged the destruction of temples belonging to the likes of Amun and other Egyptian gods. Images of those gods were also banned as the king tried to eradicate idolatry in the land.
And by making himself and his wife Nefertiti the only messengers of Aten, he in a way supplanted Theban priests and other religious leaders. Since it was heresy to go against the pharaoh, the old religious leaders responded by hiding texts and artefacts of Amun.
Read More: Top 10 Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs
- The religious reforms undertaken by Akhenaten could be compared to the Protestant Reforms instituted by England’s King Henry VIII. Perhaps the only difference is that Henry VIII’s reforms perpetuated into the future; while Akhenaten’s died with him.
- Egyptian rulers did not attempt to ban the worship of Aten, believing that keeping Aten’s cult was in line with their polytheistic religious traditions.
- As Egyptians became free to worship as many gods as they wished, the cult and worship of Aten simply faded on its own.
- Temples of other gods – including Amun – that were destroyed or vandalized during Akhenaten’s reign were rebuilt to their former glories by Tutankhamun and his successors. Akhenaten’s reign and great religious belief was hacked off from the books of history.
It is unclear whether Akhenaten’s religious revolution was driven by greed (i.e. for power), necessity or a spiritual encounter with the divine. The verdict usually sways in favor of the former. It is very likely that the reason why Akhenaten made Aten the one and only god was because he wanted more power. By making himself the single connection to the Aten, Akhenaten hoped to retain that power. Italian political thinker Niccolò Machiavelli would certainly have approved such a move by Akhenaten.
Unfortunately for Akhenaten, his reforms were too drastic and too fast for his people, a society that considered it heretical to have just one single god Aten. It is safe to say that Pharaoh soared too close to the sun, and as a result, his wings got melted by the sun rays. His dream therefore died with him.