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Akhenaten beneath the Rays of the 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.
Great Hymn to the Aten

The Horus, Beloved of Aten; the one protected by the Two Ladies, the great of kingship in the Horizon of Aten; the Golden Horus, the exalter of the name of Aten; the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferkheperure Waenre; the Son of Re Akhenaten.note 

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. (For the record, modern reconstructions of the Late Egyptian he would have spoken suggest the man himself would’ve pronounced it more like "Akhenyaty".) His reign lasted for 17 years (current estimate: 1353–1336 BC or 1351–1334 BC).

Amenhotep IV was born to King Amenhotep III and his Great Royal Wife Tiye in around the 1370s or 1360s BCE, sometime in the late second or early third decade of Amenhotep III's reign. Young Amenhotep was the fifth or sixth (confirmed) child and second son of his father, having an older brother, the Crown Prince Thutmose, and at least four sisters.note  As the Spare to the Throne, he was not originally expected to rule; his big brother Thutmose, raised from birth (as his parents' firstborn) to be the heir had that covered.

But Thutmose died young, a few years after the younger Amenhotep was born.note  Amenhotep was thus given the education for the throne, which given the king's role in the priesthood included a lot of religious education, up to and including a posting as an actual high-ranking priest. This priestly education may have given the boy some ideas.

Sometime in his 38th or 39th regnal year, Amenhotep III died, leaving young Amenhotep, his only surviving son by Tiye, to take the throne as Amenhotep IV. A young man in his prime—somewhere in his late teens or early 20s—Amenhotep IV at first seemed to be a continuation of his father's reign. But it turned out fairly quickly that he had his own ideas.

From practically the beginning, he showed particular devotion to the solar deity Ra/Re, especially Ra's form known as the Aten—the literal disc of the Sun as it appeared in the daytime. This was not wholly unexpected, as Ra worship in general and Aten worship in particular had been on the rise for a while at this point (to the mild consternation of the priests of the official Theban state god Amun).note  Of particular note is that the king's mother, Queen Tiye (a remarkable woman and a force to be reckoned with in her own right and one of her son's chief advisors) had long been a believer in Aten. This faith may have come from her own father Yuya, a high-ranking but non-royal official. Tiye in turn may have encouraged this belief in her husband, Nebmaatre Amenhotep III, who made several references to Aten in naming items close to him; in particular, Amunhotep III named his royal yacht Aten-Tjehen (The Shining Aten) and his grand palace at Malqata (west of Thebes) Nebmaatre Aten-Tjehen ("Nebmaatre Is the Shining Aten").

But young Amenhotep seems to have spent a lot more time thinking about the implications of the cult of Aten. It appears he realized that because the Aten was the literal disc of the Sun, it did not need any cult images hidden in shrines in temples—it was there for all to see. He therefore began a program of building new shrines to this god, and they were unlike anything Egypt had ever seen. Rather than being dark, enclosed spaces to house the statue of a god, the Aten chapels at Karnak built in the first five years of his reign were open courtyards, to let the light of the god shine down on the worshipers.

However, for all that it was visible to all, the Aten was also still remote and mysterious in its own way. Here the young king added another innovation: The Aten had spoken to him, and revealed its mysteries of creation and life-giving to him. But it spoke only to him, and he alone (or perhaps he and his family alone) could speak to the Aten; all others needs must direct their worship to the monarch, as he was the only earthly conduit to this supreme god. (Pretty convenient for the monarch, eh?)

Now, since own name was derived from the god Amun ("Amenhotep" literally meaning "Amun is Satisfied"), the Pharaoh promptly changed his name to reflect his new beliefs. Thus in the fifth year of his reign, he shed the name with which he was born and became known as Akhenaten. This seems to have profoundly displeased le Tout-Thèbes, particularly the priesthood of Amun (the tutelary deity of the Southern City since time immemorial). Finding himself the target of unprecedented criticism, he decided to leave Thebes and found a new city, called Akhetaten (with a T), The Horizon of Aten (present-day Amarna), a site untainted by any previous association with any god, as a new capital and center for the worship of his god.

Akhenaten is the earliest known individual in recorded history to profess a monotheistic—or at least henotheistic or monolatric—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 cult of Amun and not all polytheism. Certainly, Tiye doesn't seem to have gone as far as her son in devotion to Aten, even during his reign; she seems to have maintained devotion to the cults of other gods, particularly Hathor, in whose regalia she was often depicted.

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 (or perhaps grandson or great-nephew) 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 (yes, this is that Tutankamun). 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.

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, which would've qualified him as an Adipose Rex by the standards of the time and place. 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 admitted 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 (although we might have those aforementioned Orwellian editors to thank for that). 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. One could alternately interpret this as simply the behavior of a power-hungry despot, although he would hardly be the first of those, that honor probably being held by someone lost to history, who would be ancient even to Akhenaten himself. 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:

  • Michelle Moran's debut novel, Nefertiti, follows Queen Nefertiti from her marriage to Akhenaten until her death, as seen through the eyes of her sister, Mutnodjmet.
  • 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 Aten 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
  • Akhnaten, an 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 from history, which both Morrison and Drury portray her as having planned in order to save herself.
  • Pillar of Fire by Judith Tarr. Drawing upon a theory that Akhenaten and Moses were the same individual, the novel covers Akhenaten's reign and him later leading the exodus of the Israelites.
  • Jim Starlin's comic book 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" mentions him; the protagonist Bayek meets a cult of his, and doesn't look favourably on its 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.
  • French rapper Philippe Fragione aka Akhenaton from the band IAM chose that stage name because he was fond of ancient Egypt and of Akhenaten in particular, having particular interest in the monotheistic revolution the Pharaoh attempted.
  • He appears in "Son of the Sun" by Therion, which portrays his attempt at establishing monotheism as offending the gods, leading to his madness and an eternal curse.
  • Akhenaten is the Titan of Light in Scion. Its sole avatar is Aten. The pharaoh Akhenaten was secretly encouraged by Aten to worship him in order to advance the Titan's plans. After his death, the pharaoh's ghost was brought into the Titan's service.
  • Puzzle game Luxor: Quest for the Afterlife uses Akhenaten's history as a back story, as the goal is to retrieve and assemble artifacts of Queen Nefertiti, including her canopic jars, so she can rejoin Akhenaten in the afterlife.
  • Doctor Who, "Dinosaurs On a Spaceship" features Nefertiti (whom Amy fangirls over). Nefertiti namedrops her husband as Amenhotep instead of Akhenaten, and later describes him as "the male equivalent of a sleeping potion".