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Akhenaten beneath the Rays of Aten

The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt,
Thou settest every man in his place,
Thou suppliest their necessities:
Everyone has his food, and his time of life is reckoned.''
Hymn to Aten
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Easily the most controversial of all the known Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt.

The man we call variously Echnaton, Akhenaton, Ikhnaton, Khuenaten, and more commonly in English, as Akhenaten was originally the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV of the famous 18th Dynasty. His reign lasted for 17 years (current estimate: 1353–1336 BC or 1351–1334 BC).

In the fifth year of his reign, Amenhotep IV changed his name, abandoned the patron god Amun and his Temple, and worshiped the god known as Aten, represented as the face of the Sun, but unlike other Sun gods, Aten was a singular monotheistic deity. His own name being derived from the god Amun, the Pharaoh promptly changed his name to reflect his new beliefs, and became known as Akhenaten. He would go on to found a new city called Akhetaten (with a T), The Horizon of Aten, present-day Amarna.

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Akhenaten is the earliest known individual in recorded history to profess a monotheistic belief system. He abjured the polytheism of Egyptian Mythology and initiated a new state Cult. He went to the extent of defacing old temples, and scratching relics depicting him as Amenhotep and likewise persecuted the priests of Amun. Though there is some evidence in the relics of Amarna and other places that part of his court did include polytheists suggesting only a persecution of the religion of his father and not all polytheism. His mother, Queen Tiye, was a remarkable woman and a force to be reckoned with in her own right, one of her son's chief advisors and also a believer in Aten. This faith may have come from her own father Yuya, a high-ranking but non-royal official.

Upon his death, all his policies and practices were totally reversed and he was blotted out of history. A good example is how his son Tutankhaten was brought back into the fold of Amun with his name changed, in obvious allusion to dear old dad as Tutankhamun, Living Image of Amun. The succeeding 19th dynasty would brand Akhenaten as a heretic and refer to him as "that criminal". A lot of his buildings and works were smashed and by all rights he should have been lost forever and become The Greatest Story Never Told, and so he was, until 2500 years later, when archaeologists in Egypt discovered the ruins of Amarna, the modern day site of his city and court, and found a bunch of carvings, letters, and other artworks. Succeeding excavations and the discovery of his son's tomb further revived history and interest in him.

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Political historians tend to be iffy about Akhenaten as a ruler since he clearly put forth policies that were unpopular among the nobility and the clergy, and his faith obviously did not take or last long, and was in any case passed from the top-down. Theologians, psychologists, and artists though can't stop talking about him. The art patronized by Akhenaten is cited as being the most unique and revolutionary of Ancient Egypt, with more naturalistic scenes, more colour and style. Most notable is the relics in Amarna which show Akhenaten in domestic settings with his family, displaying affection and presented in a very accessible manner. Likewise the depictions of Akhenaten are themselves remarkable, as noted by art historian E. H. Gombrich, since they proved that the Pharaoh wished himself to be presented Warts and All and not as an inhuman deity. He notably appears as a slightly pudgy short guy with a somewhat unattractive face and a visible paunch. How the art-style of his reign, and the other sculptures (including the famous bust of Nefertiti by Thutmose) relates to his beliefs is subject to debate, with Gombrich suggesting that having admitting the existence of only God above him (represented in art works in the symbol of an oval disk with rays protruding in lines all around him), Akhenaten could not well allow himself to be represented as a God-Emperor in the manner of the old traditions, and in the style of representation and willingness to represent himself in such a drastic new fashion, is an indication of his genuine sincere belief. The phrase "Living in Truth", used frequently in his writings about himself & family, may reflect this philosophy.

In the realm of theology and psychology, Akhenaten's monotheism is often hypothesized as an inspiration for Judaism and even Christianity. This is based on perceived similarities between the Hymn to Aten and Biblical Psalms (Psalm 104), with even C. S. Lewis admitting that the verses are highly similar. As it stands there's no documentary evidence suggesting any real influence and continuity, with some arguing that Judaism in its early years was polytheistic and became monotheistic much later in time separately. Likewise, others also note that Akhenaten's monotheism might not be the one familiar in the Abrahamic religions, since it's not quite clear how Akhenaten defined it theologically. We do know that he banned all idols and only allowed Aten to be represented diagrammatically, while others argue that Akhenaten's idea was closer to Deism with the Sun being a representative of the natural world, and being represented symbolically as itself, and not as an anthropomorphic figure, and Akhenaten as per the letters placed himself below the Sun, and sometimes above it, and all indications suggest that he used it as a weapon to clamp down on the authority of the priests and their theological claims and views. For these reasons, Akhenaten is sometimes described not only as the first monotheist, but the first scientist and the first individual. The Amarna Letters likewise provide an incredible glimpse into the workings of Ancient Egypt, its foreign policy and the sophistication of the Ancient World. They are among the oldest "diplomatic correspondence" we know of, but their tone and subject matter suggest this diplomacy having gone on for years at the time the earliest of those letters we have were written.

As Kemetic Orthodox people worship the ancient gods of Egypt, reviving the traditions as closely as possible, modern Atenists worship the Aten and the precepts of Akhenaten, which they view as "to do no harm" and to show kindness, love and moderation in everyday life.

List of works discussing and featuring Akhenaten:

  • The Egyptian by M. Waltari.
  • Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud, a famous speculative work that hypothesizes that Moses was not only an Egyptian but a priest of Akhenaten and the Biblical account of Exodus is a garbled take on history.
  • Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann.
  • Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth by Naguib Mahfouz
  • Akhenaten opera by Philip Glass.
  • A God Against The Gods and its sequels by Allen Drury.
  • Lucille Morrison's The Lost Queen of Egypt portrays Akhenaten's court and family in rich language and focuses on third princess Ankhsenpaaten (She Lives by Aten), Tutankhaten's Great Royal Wife, from her early childhood to her vanishing into history, which both Morrison and Drury portray her as having planned in order to save herself.
  • Jim Starlin's limited series Marvel: The End has Akhenaten as the villain who brings about the Apocalypse and kills the Marvel Universe with Thanos and Adam Warlock to the rescue.
  • Nile wrote the song "Cast Down The Heretic" about Akhenaten, specifically postulating on the nature of his execution. A likeness of him also appears on their album Those Whom The Gods Detest, and the track "Kafir" is partly inspired by his stand against the Amen-Ra priesthood.
  • The Secret World features Akenhaten as the main villain of the Egypt arc - as well as the Pharaoh of Exodus, incidentally. Having been entombed inside a black pyramid since his death, the cult Akhenaten created has been trying to resurrect him ever since then so he can finally summon the Aten - who is actually one of the Dreamers.
  • Assassin's Creed Origins: The DLC "Curse of the Pharaohs" has some mentions of him, with protagonist Bayek meeting a cult of his, not looking favourably on it's founder. It's possible to find his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Later on in the DLC, Bayek meets, fights and kills Akhenaten in the afterlife.
  • The modern Rosicrucian Order (AMORC) has published several books about Akhenaten. They place great emphasis on both Akhenaten and Nefertiti, believing that they were part of the original Rosicrucian movement which seeks to preserve ancient wisdom and prove the existence of God through scientific discovery.
  • His spirit and that of Nefertiti appear in an album of Papyrus with the mission of lead characters Papyrus and Theti-Cheri being to find their sarcophagi so they might pass on to the next life.

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