Atenism: History, Revolution & Decline

Instructor: Kathleen Halecki

Kathleen Halecki possesses a B.A. and M.A. in history, and a doctoral degree in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on early modern Scotland. She has been teaching for over a decade in subjects such as history, philosophy and anthropology.

This lesson will explore the change from the traditional polytheistic beliefs of ancient Egyptians to monotheism during the reign of the pharaoh, Akhenaten. This lesson will highlight the god, Aten, the transition to monotheism under the pharaoh, and the eventual decline of Atenism.

A Monotheistic Religion

In the ancient world, there were many gods representing different aspects of the natural world such as the sun or moon. The Hebrew people were seen as being rather unique because they worshiped one god compared to other cultures around them who had many gods. Likewise, one Egyptian pharaoh in a bold move decided that he was going to change everything about religion by focusing on one god even if it upset everyone. That one god would be the Aten.

The Aten

Religion was so important to the Egyptians that scholars have estimated there may have been over one thousand gods in their pantheon. The main god was Re (or Ra), who sometimes took a combination of names such as Re-Atum-Khepri, or Amun-Re. According to Egyptian beliefs, Re created everything including all of the other gods. Re was often depicted in art and on tombs as a sun disk, scarab beetle, or a man with a falcon's head. The Aten was believed to derive from the image of the sun disk of Re. Since the sun crosses the sky every day, the Aten was related to the idea of creation and continued existence providing life and energy.

Re with sun disk

Pharaoh Akhenaten

Let us examine how the worship of the Aten took on significance under Pharaoh Akhenaten. Akhenaten lived during the time of the 18th dynasty of the New Kingdom and his reign falls in around 1353 - 1336 BCE. His father was Amenophis III and his mother was Queen Tiye.

Akhenaten was originally known as Amenophis IV. Amenophis is translated as 'the god Amun is content.' After becoming Pharaoh upon his father's death, Amenophis IV changed his name to Akhenaten which means, 'he who is effective on the Aten's behalf,' highlighting the importance of his belief in the Aten. It is not clear as to why he decided to focus on the worship of the Aten rather than the traditional gods of Egypt. It is possible he did so to curb the power of the priests of Amun.

Revolution

After changing his name, Akhenaten embarked on a series of changes in his kingdom which scholars describe as a 'revolution.'

First, he decided to vacate the two main cities that had been used by previous pharaohs to rule. These two cities were Memphis and Thebes. Memphis had been an administrative center and Thebes was a religious center with a major temple to Amun-Re built there. He decided to build a new city that he would name Akhetaten or 'Horizon of the Aten.' This city was marked out by stelae, or stone columns with declarations carved into them declaring the pharaoh's intention for building the city. Since everyone wanted to be part of this new city and have work, many moved to help build it quickly. Today, archaeologists refer to this site as 'el-Amarna.'

Next, he embarked on changing the religion by declaring that the old ways were wrong. Prior to this, many Egyptians wanted to build tombs for themselves to reach the afterlife ruled over by the god of the underworld, Osiris. Instead, Akhenaten wanted everyone to forget about the afterlife and live in the here and now. The pharaoh saw no reason to bring goods into a tomb because they were not necessary in the afterlife. To reinforce his ideas, he ordered that the images of the old gods be destroyed and their names obliterated. He also no longer supported the celebrations of these traditional gods. The people of Egypt became afraid to be seen with anything that might have images of the old gods on them as it would be disrespectful to the pharaoh to have items pertaining to the old gods like statues or scarab jewelry.

Where once anyone could pray to the gods, Akhenaten declared that he was the only one to speak directly to the Aten. The artwork produced during this period shows the royal family receiving 'life' (or in Egyptian, the ankh) via little hands radiating from the solar disk. By showing the pharaoh this way, it elevated the king to divinity as he would merge with the Aten after death.

Akhenaten receiving life from the Aten

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