©1998 Vincent Bridges
“One Law for the Ox and Lion is Oppression.”
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Imagine a hawk circling high above the edge of the desert, a dark speck against the faint blue of the pre-dawn sky. The hawk soars higher, striking the first rays of the rising sun, and its feathers flame suddenly — glint and flash, harbingers of the sun’s arrival — transforming the bird of prey into an omen or a message from Re-Harrakte, phoenix soul of the sun itself. Dawn becomes myth; and morning in Heliopolis, as the Greeks called it a thousand years into its decline, was the time of worship. The sun, in all its forms and effects, had always been the “one” god of the ancient Egyptian city of Anu, “The Place of the Pillar of the Sun.”
Nothing remains of Heliopolis save a single obelisk from the Middle Kingdom to remind us of its importance. And yet, its solar theology echoed down the ages long after the rest of Egyptian civilization had been lost. The sages of Heliopolis, anonymous authors of the VIth Dynasty Pyramid Texts, were the inheritors of a unified field of knowledge that included what we now think of as biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, astronomy, astrology, astro-physics, cosmogony and so on. They coded this wisdom into archetypes, such as Re and Osiris, which could be used, by describing their relationships, as a unifying formula to understand the nature of reality. These mythic concepts were actually forms of mathematical/symbolical transformative functions.
The political success of the sages of Heliopolis in the Vth and VIth Dynasty grew out of a political and spiritual consolidation. By comparing the Builder Texts of Edfu with the Pyramid texts and other sources, such as the IVth Dynasty story of the Djedi and Khufu, we catch a glimpse of what was perhaps the crowning moment of Egyptian religion. With the aid of a group of Ahku, or spirit beings, called the hemmemet, or Shining Ones at Heliopolis and the Hru Shemsu, or the Company of Horus at Edfu, the sages of Heliopolis pulled all the ancient traditions together into a theology which described reality as the measurable result of incommensurable causes.
This unified theology of the ancient Egyptians seems to be missing as we look back through time with our modern archeological eyes. To us, Egyptian theology seems crude and fragmented into an impossible number of deities and aspects. It seems unfocused, and essentially, un-spiritual. Even the afterlife seems bland and un-imaginative. We are missing the world view that would make it all comprehensible. To us, the ancient Egyptian mind is as strange as the mind of an inhabitant of a distant planet. And yet the echoes and the fascination remain.
Indeed, our western culture is influenced in many ways by perspectives that originated in the theology of Heliopolis, such as the concept of “monotheism.” Without an understanding of how the Egyptians viewed the idea of “one” god, the unity principle, it will be difficult to see how this concept became corrupted through misapplication over time. And of course, how and why “monotheism” became what it did has its source in Egypt as well.
Let us enter the mind of ancient Egypt by imagining, as the Heliopolitan sages did, that reality has a series of four stages, each with its reflection for a total of eight. Unity, the unity principle or the neter neteru — literally “force of all force” — is defined by the interaction of the eight. The confusion begins when we fail to realize that each level was meant to be holographic, or holonic, not hierarchical. In other words, Re is the supreme god of the first level, but that does not make him more important than the epitome of the fourth level, Osiris.
The levels themselves unite space, time, life and sentience into a comprehensive framework. The unity principle, the neter neteru, the “one” god of the Egyptians, is the star soul formed from the inter-weaving of the holonic levels. In that sense, monotheism, one-god-ism, had no meaning outside of the divine archetypes of the interdependent levels. God, as a singularity, was impossible in the Egyptian system. God, singular, was always a unity; as sunlight is always an implicate rainbow. Therefore the Egyptians felt comfortable expanding the images of divinity, knowing that the essence of the neter neteru will always be beyond definition.
Mythology became for the ancient Egyptian sages a form of symbolic calculus by which the evolution of spiritual states and psychic landscapes could be described. Using this cohesive religious tool, Egyptian civilization remained coherent for over three millennia, despite periodic upheavals. From the history of these periodic upheavals, the myth of monotheism, in its modern sense, emerges. At least from the Old Kingdom’s Heliopolitan consolidation, Egyptian religion had at its core a type of unity principle “monotheism.” This principle held the theology together but was never defined beyond the simplistic neter neteru, or force of all forces.
When an XVIIIth Dynasty Pharaoh enunciated the idea that the divine was literally singular and exclusive, Egyptian culture underwent an upheaval from which it never fully recovered. To comprehend what this meant, we must look briefly at the long pattern of Egyptian history.
In the Pre-Dynastic Era, different cultures developed in the southern up river Nile valley and in the northern delta. These cultures were conquered by a southern strong man known as Hru-Aha, Menes, or perhaps Narmer, sometimes around 3100 BC. The founder of the first Dynasty built his capital at Memphis and his tomb at Abydos, where over the millennia it became known as the tomb of Osiris.
By the IInd Dynasty, political dissent had focused around the northern delta deity known as Set. The IInd Dynasty King Peribsen ruled the Two Lands in the name of Set, creating the first of many periods of internal unrest. His successor, Khasekhemwy, ruled in the names of both Horus and Set, indicating some kind of political solution to the discord. It is tempting to see this as simply a delta versus river valley cultural clash, but the role of Set in Egyptian religion indicates that larger issues were at stake in the struggle. The eleventh nome of the northern delta, on the edge of the Reed Sea and the eastern desert, may have been the actual center from which the worship of Set spread. By the late Pre-Dynastic Era, the nomadic warriors of the desert marshes held the agricultural population of the delta in thrall. Their totem animal was the so-called Set animal, a creature with red hair, long square-cropped ears and an arrow-like tail.
When the Two Lands were unified, both symbols of Kingship, Horus and Set, became part of the attributes of the King. Set then became the strength or power of the King, as Horus became the vision or sight of the King. However, Set always represented one half of the Egyptians’ dualistic world view. He was the lord of the desert nomads, as opposed to the Osirian agriculturists. This perceived threat of nomadic destruction became an intrinsic component in the divinity of Set. He was always seen as the god of power corrupted to its own ends, given to random, chaotic eruptions of pure violence, with no purpose save its own glorification.
Hence, in the Heliopolitan consolidation, Set is seen as the murderer and usurper of Osiris, Re’s regent on earth, and must be defeated by Horus, the reincarnated Osiris. In the struggle, Set loses a testicle, part of his power, and Horus loses an eye, part of his vision. The conflict weakens both sides, and the dispute is judged by a Council of Gods, who rules in favor of Horus as Re’s regent, while demoting Set to the Lord of Storms. Seen against this broad mythological background, the political disturbance in the IInd Dynasty takes on an ominous tone of power for its own sake. Although the problem was solved at that point without an overt political breakdown, the ominous undercurrent would remain just beneath the surface of Egyptian society.
The First Intermediate Period, which followed the collapse of the VIth Dynasty, was a confused period of warring noble families grouped in various religious alignments. The Middle Kingdom developed with the XIth Dynasty Horus Kings of Thebes in southern Egypt. The Middle Kingdom fell apart in the Second Intermediate Period under pressure from foreign invaders who adopted Set as their primary deity. These Hyksos, or foreign princes, were nomads from the eastern deserts, Palestine and Sinai, who settled in the eleventh and twelfth nomes of the eastern delta and became Set worshippers. They controlled the fragmented kingdoms of Memphis and the western delta and opposed the Horus Kings of the Theban Confederation.
Adding to the political confusion was a concurrent Nubian/Egyptian Dynasty ruling from Kerma in the Sudan. The Theban Horus Kings of the XVIIth Dynasty managed to re-unify the Two Lands by defeating both the Nubians and the Hyksos. Ahmose I drove the Hyksos all the way back to Palestine and founded the New Kingdom.
The early XVIIIth Dynasty was a period of rapid expansion as Egypt recovered its Middle Kingdom borders and kept right on going. Tutmose III conquered a realm that stretched from the eastern bank of the Euphrates to the fourth cataract of the Nile. Imperial Egypt had been created. The New Kingdom of Imperial Egypt reached its zenith in the reign of Amenhotep III, Ahkenaton’s father. The internal political intrigues of the royal family had not disturbed the outward thrust of imperial expansion. Tutmose III may have tried to erase all mention of Hatshepsut, but he was wise enough to build upon the power base she had created. Even the true political shift, from Thebes toward a more universalistic Heliopolitan orientation, represented by the ascension to the throne of the younger son of Amenhotep II, Tutmose IV, did not effect Egypt’s imperial stature.
If anything, the cosmopolitan influences of Heliopolis helped solidify the Empire and give it a spiritual focus. The state god, Amon-Re, representing the unification of Thebes and Heliopolis, had attempted to become that spiritual focus. Temples to Amon-Re appeared across the Empire. The need was felt for a single exportable religion which could unite the different cultures of the Empire into a new Egyptian world view. The process began with Tutmose IV’s deal with Heliopolis and built upon the synthesis of Amon and Re, but Tutmose IV also seems to have been involved with a new solar cult which placed great importance on the word “aton,” heat or power, as in the heat of the sun. Tutmose IV’s son, Amenhotep III, would develop the concept of the “aton” further, and his son, Amenhotep IV or Ahkenaton, (”(He who serves) the Spirit of the Aton”) would rock Egyptian civilization to its core by announcing that the Aton was the one and only, single and exclusive, divinity. And of course, that Ahkenaton was his regent on earth, in the exact same way as Osiris was Re’s regent on earth.
Ahkenaton, with his version of the Aton, had bootstrapped himself into godhood while still living. He had, in the sense that the Egyptians understood best, usurped the throne of Osiris. No human had ever dared such blasphemy. How this came to happen is perhaps the most fascinating, and misunderstood, story in Egyptian history.
“Cruelty has a Human Heart,And Jealousy a Human Face; Terror the Human Form Divine, And Secrecy the Human Dress.”
William Blake, A Divine Image
A red granite stele placed between the front paws of the Sphinx tells the story.
A young prince, out hunting lions in the western desert, camps for the night on the edge of the Gizah plateau. While he sleeps, he is visited by a four-faced vision of Re-Harrakte, who tells the young prince that if only he will clear the sand from the Sphinx, an image of Re-Harrakte, the prince will become Pharaoh. The prince does so and later becomes Tutmose IV, who placed the stele in commemoration of the event.
This simple story both reveals and conceals a myriad of complexities. The stele itself attests to the story’s reality, but the meaning of this mystical encounter on Gizah remains elusive unless it is seen as the opening movement of what would become Ahkenaton’s cultural and religious revolution. From that perspective, Tutmose IV’s encounter with the divine on the Gizah plateau becomes one of the turning points in human history.
The New Kingdom at that moment was in a period of consolidation under Tutmose’s father Amenhotep II. The long and aggressive reign of Tutmose III had carved out a vast empire and his son, Amenhotep II, was determined to hold onto every last hectare of it. His sons were warrior princes who ruled like regents over portions of the Two Lands. Except Tutmose, who stayed in Memphis and seems to have lived the life of a New Kingdom aristocrat to the fullest. Details are vague, but eventually, Tutmose did become Pharaoh and displayed his gratitude to the sages of Heliopolis by cleaning the sand away from the Sphinx.
This gesture suggests not only a debt to the political forces of Heliopolis, but a debt to the old god, Re-Harrakte. Translated as “Re -Horus of the Two Horizons,” Re-Harrakte was an ancient formulation of the transformative aspects of Egyptian sacred science. As such, it encompassed the secret core of the ancient unified field of knowledge, the fusion of time and transmutation. The full official title of Re-Harrakte contains the original use of the word “aton” in its sense of the sun’s disk as the dwelling place of the god. All solar gods were said to reside in the sun’s disk, but Re-Harrakte retained the older meanings.Hru, Horus, was the ancient word for face or height of the sky, and in this older sense, “aton” was the power of divinity undifferentiated. Re-Harrakte then contained the secret of the”heat” which animated the gods, and therefore the universe as a whole.
Tutmose IV was initiated into the secrets of Re-Harrakte and this knowledge and power became the leverage that made him Pharaoh over his elder brothers. But even with the support of the sages of Heliopolis, Tutmose’s position was precarious. His grandfather, Tutmose III, had established the composite Amon-Re as the universal deity of the Empire, and the wealth of his vast conquests had flowed through the coffers of the priests at Karnak. This newly enriched priestly class was seriously disturbed by the royal attachment to an ancient Heliopolitan theology. Re-Harrakte had never been completely assimilated into the Precinct of Amon.
A small crack opened between the royal family and the priests of the state religion. This gap was accentuated by the marriage policies of the post-Tutmose III Pharaohs. Imperial Egypt broke with tradition, which held that maintaining the purity of the bloodline by marriage within the family was the most important component of kingship, and began to use royal marriage as apolitical tool to cement the Empire together into a larger royal family. Tutmose III’s problems with Hatshepsut helped this tendency to become policy, but it rendered his successors open to the accusation that the Pharaoh was no longer a descendent of Amon or Re.
Part of the deal the young prince Tutmose worked out with the sages of Heliopolis was a solution to this problem. His son, Amenhotep III,(literally “Amon is satisfied) would be proclaimed as the direct divine descendent of the elder sun-god, Re-Harrakte, and therefore a descendent of both Amon and Re.
And so it was that Amenhotep III came to be worshipped as divine. The Pharaohs had always been thought of as having divine blood, as a descendent of Re or Amon, and of attaining divine status among the stars of Orion after death, but never, before the time of Amenhotep III, had they been worshipped as a god in their own right, while still living. This was indeed a significant departure from tradition.
Amenhotep III however was the first born son of Re-Harrakte and Queen Muttamuua and outranked all other Egyptian Pharaohs, including his own father. His bloodline was based on the most ancient divinity. However, his mother was a foreigner, a princess of Mittani, an Indo-Aryan people on the borders of Palestine. To legitimize his new divinely-sired dynasty,Amenhotep III would have to marry into the most ancient Egyptian bloodline he could find. Hence his marriage to the “commoner,” Queen Tiy. This has been seen as everything from a great love story to a subtle piece of political theater, but the true motive stemmed from a sense of reuniting with an ancient bloodline.
The status commoner should not be taken too literally; Queen Tiy’s family were Theban nobles, non-royal but of ancient lineage in service to the southern Egyptian version of Re-Harrakte, Horus the Elder. This marriage cemented both the Egyptian followers of the ancient sun-god and their Asian and Indo-Aryan counterparts into a familial relationship with a direct descendent of the deity. And so the Divine King and his beloved wife ruled over a world empire in peace and plenty. For thirty years or so, it seemed as if the New Kingdom was really the golden age regained.
But the currents of change were churning just beneath the surface. During Amenhotep III’s long reign, the family cult of the Aton as the synthesis of all the sun-gods continued to grow. Queen Tiy of course was an adherent, naming her royal barge “Aton Sparkles.” During his lifetime, Amenhotep III maintained good relations with the Precinct of Amon and showed no particular favoritism to the family cult of the Aton. In this, the art and pleasure-loving Amenhotep III can be seen as a realist. His son however would show no such retraint.
Amenhotep IV was the long awaited male heir of the new divinely-fathered dynasty. Queen Tiy had four daughters before she finally produced the line’s son and heir. Given the long build up to his birth, it is surprising that are no commemorative scarabs describing his infancy and childhood. His father, Amenhotep III, seems to have used commemorative scarabs as an early form of family newsletter, releasing them for the most trivial of occasions. That there are almost none relating to Amenhotep IV highlights the confusion the family felt over its young heir. I once came face to face with Ahkenaton in the Egyptian Museum. While rearranging the exhibit, a slightly more than life size statute of Ahkenaton was placed in the middle of the aisle. I turned the corner and found myself staring eye-to-eye with the Great Pharaoh. A sense of his presence, his individuality, was almost tangible, but I was struck by something else. If Ahknaton had been born in our modern era, he would in all likelihood have spent his life in a home for the severely disabled, or as a freak in a circus sideshow.
(Without digressing too far into the subject of congenital disorders, let me just suggest that Amenhotep IV, Ahkenaton, suffered from extra chromosome syndrome, that he was in fact a 47XXY. Normally, humans have 46 chromosomes and gender is determined by the sex chromosomes, X and Y. Females have two X chromosomes and males have an X and a Y. In a small percentage of conceptions, an extra Y chromosome fertilizes an X bearing egg. This produces a male 47XYY. In an even smaller percentage of conceptions, an extra Y chromosome fertilizes an XX, or female gendered,egg. The extra Y chromosome, an indicator of maleness, disturbs the XX egg and produces a wide range of hermaphroditic-like genetic abnormalities. While Ahkenaton was not a hermaphrodite, his overall body type suggests a hormonal dysfunction of the sort produced by a 47XXY problem. The psychological effect of this disorder can range from clinical retardation to severe emotional instability with psychotic obsessions and manias.)
From this perspective, it is not hard to see why the royal family kept quiet about the new heir. Perhaps they thought that if he lived to puberty, then the family would acknowledge him and call his deformities a sign that he was divinely inspired. In the thirtieth year of Amenhotep III’s reign, that is just what happened. Amenhotep IV, soon to be Ahkenaton, was acknowledged and made co-ruler and therefore semi-divine. He was about sixteen years old and would rule, all together, for seventeen years. His genetic abnormalities did not prevent him from becoming Pharaoh, but they seem, at best, a terrible obstacle to overcome.
Ahkenaton, as we will now call him, had no doubt that his very being was divinely inspired, deformities and all. His sense of his own uniqueness had been supported by his mother and grandmother and all the women of the court since his birth. His father and the priests and officials of the state paid him just as much reverence. The young prince developed a personal connection to the family tradition of Aton worship. Within this tradition, he was the most important person of all, the direct link to the god “Relives, Harrakte, rejoicing on the Horizon in his name ‘Heat which is in Aton.’”
Events are confused at the end of Amenhotep III’s reign. He either died or abdicated in the sixth year of Ahkenaton’s co-regency. We are unsure because he and Queen Tiy appear on a commemorative stele dated the ninth year of Ahkenaton’s reign. While this is not proof that he survived into the Amarna era, we can be sure that Amenhotep was buried in the ancient necropolis on the western bank of Thebes, not in the tomb created for him in the new city of Ahkhetaton. This does suggests that he was no special adherent to the cult of the Aton.
Queen Tiy survived and, along with her niece, Ahkenaton’s wife Nefertiti, encouraged the growth of the cult. When Ahkenaton assumed the throne in own right, in the sixth year of his co-regency, he changed his own name, and the name of the divinity by whose authority he ruled. To symbolize this, Ahkenaton built a new temple to the Aton midway between his father’s temple at Luxor and the establishment temple of Amon at Karnak.
This Theban temple gives us a glimpse of the early mythology and esotericism of the Aton cult. The flavor is strongly Heliopolitan, even down to the Benben, or sacred stone on which the phoenix alights. Horus and Set are honored in wall inscriptions. From this, it seems that the”monotheistic” Aton cult was composed of a modified triad — Aton, Re-Harrakte and Set — combining to give the Pharaoh Ahkenaton their seal of approval.
And then, in the seventh year of his reign, Ahkenaton shifted gears again. As the new temple of the Aton neared completion, Ahkenaton announced that Amon-Re was no longer the official state deity. That unique relationship was now held by the Aton. And, perhaps feeling oppressed by the magnificence of the Temples of Karnak and Luxor, Ahkenaton decided to move the capital from Thebes.
As Pharaoh commands, so it happens. An army of architects, builders,scribes and workmen descended on a broad stretch of the Nile Valley just south of the ancient city of Hermopolis. In a little more than a year, anew city, Akhetaton, “Horizon of the Aton,” was created. This was the world’s first venture in conscious city planning and its broad avenues and well-laid out plazas and temples gave it an open, almost modern feeling. Akhetaton would not seem out of place in southern California.
In the eighth year of his reign, Ahkenaton left Thebes forever. A glittering flotilla of barges, with perhaps “Aton Sparkles” in the lead, sailed down the Nile carrying the young Pharaoh, his family and all the apparatus of government. To the simple peasant watching from the riverbank, it must have seemed as if the very foundations of the world were shifting. As indeed they were.
The new city acted as a tonic on Ahkenaton. He threw himself into reorganizing the state and for awhile even paid attention to the diplomatic needs of his vast Empire. He also spent time organizing the priesthood of the Aton, and undoubtedly spent long hours in direct communication with his divine father, the power of the Aton itself. Barely a year after his departure from the old city of Thebes, Ahkenaton was ready for the next phase in his religious revolution.
He declared war on the gods of Egypt. Amon-Re had long since been demoted to just another creator god among many such formulations. Now Ahkenaton went even further and declared the temples closed and prohibited the worship of Amon. But he didn’t stop there, the ancient popular festivals of Osiris were banned, as were the worship of Isis, Ptah, Horus, or Mut and Khonsu. All the elaborate interwoven descriptions of divine processes, gathered over the millennia of Egyptian civilization, all were declared to be “unreal” and therefore banned.
There was only One God, and that god was the Aton. Not even Re-Harrakte was spared. Ahkenaton’s vision of the Aton had no place for a falcon-headed phoenix-soul. His god was the literal disk of the sun itself, and the power it represented over life. Only the presence of the King was required to transmit this power directly to humanity.
This insistence on literalism produced the distinctive artistic”naturalism” of the period. We can better understand this not as a movement toward nature in art, but as a religious gesture that deified the literal image of the new God-King Ahkenaton. It was as mannered in its own way as the classical style it replaced.
As might be expected, resistance to changes on this level was intense. The priests of Amon-Re, who had the most to lose, became Ahkenaton’s chief focus. He declared that all reference to the god Amon, and even the plural of god, be erased from all structures in the Two Lands. We can only imagine crews of workmen on scaffolds scouring the vast monuments of Karnak for the offending phrases. Not even the common word for hidden, “amon,” was allowed to remain.
In this Ahkenaton made a major mistake. It meant that his father’s name, Amenhotep, must be obliterated. The King’s name, or ren, was a component of his being. It was thought that a nameless being could not be introduced to the gods and therefore could not be resurrected. The Good King, son of the divine, was in this way turned into a hungry ghost for all of eternity.
The Egyptian people might have stood for the demotion of Amon-Re, they might even have come to terms with the loss of the ancient Osirian faith; they could and would have nothing but contempt for a King who destroyed his own father’s immortal soul.
And so, Ahkenaton withdrew, isolating himself with his family and his court in the new, open spaciousness of Akhetaton. While Egypt underwent a cultural revolution far more extreme than Mao’s Great Leap Forward in China, Ahkenaton played with his baby daughters, lovingly embraced his wife and sang hymns to the Aton.
From Syria to the Sudan, the workmen plied their chisels; temples, palaces. private homes and even tombs were invaded so that all mention of the old gods could be banished. Egypt rocked from this unprecedented upheaval. Insulated and isolated in his new city, Ahkenaton recognized no hint of dissension.
For three years, it must have seemed to the group around the young King that the Aton did indeed dwell in the City of His Horizon. The state ran smoothly, the decrees of the King were being carried out, and the plans of the priests of Amon seemed to have been permanently thwarted. Temples to the Aton were built in the remote portions of the Empire and the nobles began to plan elaborate tombs on the outskirts of Akhetaton. Ahkenaton enjoyed his bliss, enjoyed being God, singular.
It is from this period that we find reliefs, such as the one in the tomb of Merye, High Priest of the Aton, which depict relaxed open air ceremonies in which the “Heat which is in the Aton” is transferred to the person of the King. From the hymns on these reliefs, we can see that very little was actually new in the worship of the Aton. They read much like any hymn to any sun-god, with the added twist of Ahkenaton as the sun-god’s authority on earth. Their sole point of uniqueness is their insistence that no other god exists but the Aton. In this way, the hymns of Ahkenaton are the first text in Egyptian or any other history to assert a negative, singular form of monotheism.
But, Ahkenaton’s religion of an exclusive divinity was not completely unknown to the New Kingdom Egyptians; they understood that the only parallel to Ahkenaton’s revolution was Set’s usurpation of Osiris and his attempt to become the “only god.” It is impossible to say how a very Setian idea, such as divine exclusivity, became the focus of a unitary Heliopolitian theology. We can only say that by the ninth year of his reign, Ahkenaton had completed on earth the mythical usurpation of divine power traditionally assigned to Set.
“Thou art The Aton, living forever…,” declares the shorter hymn found in Merye’s tomb. Undoubtedly Ahkenaton believed this to be literally true. It is not hard to imagine how a mentally unstable young man, burdened with the unimaginable pressures of running a vast Empire and raised to believe that he was a divine individual, might pass into a realm of delusion where he becomes in his own mind the very source of the divine presence. However, inflicting this delusion on his people demonstrates an even more extreme pathology. From the ninth year of Ahkenaton’s reign onward, it is safe to say that Egypt was ruled by a madman.
“The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods and Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations and whatever their enlarged and numerous senses could perceive.
“And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity;
“Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of, & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deity from its object; Thus began priesthood;
“Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
“And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had ordered such things.
“Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human heart.”
William Blake,The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
It is sunset in Akhetaton, barely a decade after its founding. The broad streets are empty, the palaces and temples deserted; wild animals graze in its plazas and only the ghosts remain to worship the Aton in its open and spacious ceremonial arenas. The shadows lengthen across the Horizon of the Aton and even its tombs have been abandoned by the nobles and courtiers of the dead Pharaoh’s court. Soon, all memory of this place and its people would fade, until, two millennia and more later, it became a rock quarry for the Arab city of Kus, a few miles to the south. Another millennium and more would pass before its history was recovered.
The story of Ahkenaton’s fall reads like a Greek tragedy. Indeed, no lesser mind than that of Immanuel Velikovsky found the roots of the Oedipus story in the tangled tale of Akhenanton’s demise. Even Sigmund Freud found Ahkenaton fascinating. He considered the Great Pharaoh to be a forerunner of Moses, and thought that the monotheism of both the Jews and the Christians owed something to the Atonist doctrine of Ahkenaton.
But for over three thousand years, all anyone knew of the period was a distorted reference in Mantheo, whose works have survived only as quotes in the works of others. In about 80 AD, the Roman/Hebrew author Josephus quoted a long passage of Mantheo in his “Contra Apion”. The details of this passage, without directly naming Ahkenaton, are recognizable as the events of the Amarna/Akhetaton period. In fact, they provide an invaluable insight into how Ahkenaton’s revolution appeared to the long memory of the Egyptian people.
Mantheo, through Josephus, tells us that how a certain Pharaoh Amenophis, Greek for Amenhotep, wished to have a closer communion with the gods. He consulted a wise man who told him to gather 80,000 unclean persons together and send them to certain rock quarries on the east bank of the Nile where they might live apart from other Egyptians. However, the wise old man foresaw that these people would rise up and control all Egypt. This so distressed the wise man that he died, after sending a note warning the King. Soon, a group of these people settled in Avaris, the old capital of the Set worshipping Hyksos, and, led by a priest of Heliopolis named Ahmose, Moses, declared war on Egypt and its gods. Allied with the kingdoms of Palestine, these unclean people conquered and ruled Egypt for 13 years. They destroyed the images of the old gods and forbade all forms of traditional worship. At the end of 13 years, the old King Amenophis returned from exile and drove them from Egypt back into Palestine.
Parts of this story are surprisingly accurate. Akhetaton held about 80,000 inhabitants at its peak and was built in an old rock quarry on the east bank of the Nile. It was indeed 13 years from Ahkenaton’s decision to make the Aton the state religion to his death. And Ahkenaton did persecute the followers of the old gods. The return of Amenophis is a reflection of Horemheb’s damage control in the generation after Ahkenaton’s death, but apart from this, the story is basically accurate.
Then what are we to make of the clear association of Ahkenaton’s revolution and the Set worshippers of Avaris? For one thing, it strongly suggests that Ahkenaton’s revolution survived in folk memory as a Setian event.
Only someone like the Set worshipping Hyksos could have conspired to forbid the worship of the old gods. Only Set could conceive of something so monstrous and so disrespectful. In many ways, Egyptian folk wisdom saw the Ahkenaton period more clearly than most modern Egyptologists.
While upheaval swept Egypt and its Empire, Ahkenaton, insulated in his new city of Akhetaton, paid no attention, preferring, instead of warriors and diplomats, the company of his family and his followers. No word of dissent was permitted to reach the Pharaoh’s ears. And no one seemed to be in charge. Revolts flared up and spread in Palestine and the Sudan.
No one at Akhetaton paid the slightest attention. There the Aton still seemed to smile as the Pharaoh gracefully received its power; the incense flared and flamed as the court followers quietly chanted a hymn of praise to the God-King in the clear, bright sunlight.
But not for long.
In the twelfth year of Ahkenaton’s reign, clouds gathered to obscure the smiling face of the Aton. As things went wrong, the Great Pharaoh retreated ever deeper into his religious wonderland. The first shadow came with the death of Ahkenaton’s daughter. The Aton did not respond to Ahkenaton’s entreaties; his daughter was truly dead. To Ahkenaton, this can only have appeared as a rebuke from God. To be “Thou art Aton, living forever. . .” and yet not to be able to save that which he loved most, his own daughter, must have been a terrible shock.
Close behind came another shock. Queen Tiy, staunch supporter of the Aton since before Ahkenaton’s birth, also died. This seems to have sent Ahkenaton into a deep decline. Queen Nefertiti also died or perhaps divorced Ahkenaton and faded from the scene around this time. The God-King was left alone on the center stage of his own tragedy.
As Ahkenaton retreated deeper into his religious mania, some of the court, heeding the chorus of voices murmuring of revolt, war and famine, began to move back to Thebes. A compromise was in the winds. It came in the fifteenth year of Ahkenaton’s reign. A coalition of nobles and the remaining priests of Amon forced the god-king to accept his half-brother and son-in-law Smenkhare as co-regent. They also forced him to officially halt the desecration of monuments and to reinstate the worship of the old gods, Amon included.
At this, Ahkenaton seems to have balked. Two tense years passed before the priests of Amon decided to settle things by assassination. Both Ahkenaton and Smenkhare were killed and another half-brother/son-in-law, Tutanhkaton, was placed on the throne.
Tutanhkaton ruled for nine years and, at least at first, was not antagonistic to Ahkenaton’s memory or the worship of the Aton. But he was firmly under the control of the priests of Amon. The capital was restored to Thebes and Akhetaton was abandoned. The worship of the old gods was restored, Amon in particular, although Amon-Re did not immediately return to the status of official state deity. A few years before his fatal hunting accident, Tutanhkaton changed his name to Tutanhkamun. When he died, he was buried in the Valley of the Kings, on the west bank of Thebes. With him died the last remnant of Ahkenaton’s revolution.
Tutanhkamun’s successor was another member of the court party, Nefertiti’s father Aye. The political implications of his assumption of the throne is unknown. Perhaps he represented the coalition of Amun and the military that came to power after his death, or perhaps he was the tool of the new civil service that had grown up around the worship of the Aton, and who desperately needed a way to hold onto control of the government. At any rate, Aye was violently anti-Ahkenaton. Aye ordered that the same thing be done to Ahkenaton as was done to his father Amenhotep III — the complete removal of his name and image.
As Aye’s instructions were carried out, Ahkenaton and his era faded into the shadows of historical limbo. The next Pharaoh, General Horemheb, backdated the beginning of his reign to the end of Amenhotep III’s, effectively rendering nonexistent four Pharaohs and thirty years of history.
And so it remained, except for Mantheo’s folk tale, for almost 3,500 years. To the Victorian Egyptologists who uncovered the story, such as James Henry Brestead, Ahkenaton appeared as the first individual in history.
They saw in him an early version of Christ, and his monotheism seemed modern and admirable. There was a romance to the forgotten period that was heightened by the discovery and unveiling of Tutanhkamun’s tomb in the 1920’s. In our time, the New Age purveyors of blissful refried nostrums have stumbled upon the Great Heretic Pharaoh and embraced him as one of their own. His genetic abnormalities have been taken as proof of his extraterrestrial origin and his decade of religious genocide has been pictured as some kind of science fiction golden age.
As we have seen in this essay, the real Ahkenaton was a complex creation of his age and his obsessions. Just as in all dictatorship and tyrannies, the personality of the leader became the reality of the people. This reality, and its Setian nature, was remembered long after Ahkenaton’s name was forgotten.
It is not surprising that a madman should become ruler of the first great world empire. Given the long reach of Egyptian history, we are surprised to find so few. What is surprising is that the philosophy of that tormented religious fanatic influenced the three great monotheistic religions of our modern world.
There can be no doubt that the early Hebrews came in contact with Atonist ideas. A simple comparison of Psalm 104 and the Aton Hymn of Ahkenaton demonstrates the closeness of the connection. We do not have to believe, with Freud, that Ahkenaton and Moses are directly related (although there is that Heliopolitan priest named Ahmose, Moses, in the quote from Mantheo?) to understand that the singular and exclusive form of monotheism enunciated by Ahkenaton is identical to the jealous God of the Old Testament prophets.
From this we learn that an idea, such as monotheism, can be powerful enough to survive the loss of its historical context. The power of an exclusive one-god-ism lies in its ability to restrict and control the natural spirituality of the human being. The story of Ahkenaton is a cautionary tale for all fundamental monotheists. As William Blake said: One Law, or One Way, is Oppression.