Akhenaten, The First Individual in History

Akhenaten: His Reign, New Religion and Amarna Art Style


Akhenaten meaning “living spirit of Aten”) was known before the fifth year of his reign as Amenhotep IV (sometimes given its Greek form, Amenophis IV, and meaning Amun is Satisfied), a king of the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, ruled for 17 years and died perhaps in 1336 BC or 1334 BC. He is especially noted for abandoning traditional Egyptian polytheism and introducing worship centered on the Aten, which is sometimes described as monotheistic or henotheistic. An early inscription likens him to the sun as compared to stars, and later official language avoids calling the Aten a god, giving the solar deity a status above mere gods.

Akhenaten tried to bring about a departure from traditional religion, yet in the end it would not be accepted. After his death, traditional religious practice was gradually restored, and when some dozen years later rulers without clear rights of succession from the Eighteenth Dynasty founded a new dynasty, they discredited Akhenaten and his immediate successors, referring to Akhenaten himself as “the enemy” in archival records.

He was all but lost from history until the discovery, in the 19th century, of Amarna, the site of Akhetaten, the city he built for the Aten. Early excavations at Amarna by Flinders Petrie sparked interest in the enigmatic pharaoh, whose tomb was unearthed in 1907 in a dig led by Edward R. Ayrton. Interest in Akhenaten increased with the discovery in the Valley of the Kings, at Luxor, of the tomb of King Tutankhamun, who has been proved to be Akhenaten’s son according to DNA testing in 2010 by Zahi Hawass of Cairo. Akhenaten remains an interesting figure, as does his Queen, Nefertiti. Their modern interest comes partly from his connection with Tutankhamun, partly from the unique style and high quality of the pictorial arts he patronized, and partly from ongoing interest in the religion he attempted to establish.

Akhenaten and Judeo-Christian monotheism

Akhenaten and Nefertiti praying to Aten,the solar disk God.

The idea of Akhenaten as the pioneer of a monotheistic religion that later became Judaism has been considered by various scholars. One of the first to mention this was Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, in his book Moses and Monotheism. Freud argued that Moses had been an Atenist priest forced to leave Egypt with his followers after Akhenaten’s death. Freud argued that Akhenaten was striving to promote monotheism, something that the biblical Moses was able to achieve.Following his book, the concept entered popular consciousness and serious research.

Other scholars and mainstream Egyptologists point out that there are direct connections between early Judaism and other Semitic religious traditions. They also state that two of the three principal Judaic terms for God, Yahweh, Elohim (morphologically plural), and Adonai (meaning “our lord”, also morphologically plural) have no connection to Aten. Freud commented on the connection between Adonai, the Egyptian Aten and the Syrian divine name of Adonis as a primeval unity of language between the factions; in this he was following the argument of Egyptologist Arthur Weigall, but the argument was groundless as ‘Aten’ and ‘Adonai’ are not, in fact, linguistically related.

Akhenaten appears in history almost two-centuries prior to the first archaeological and written evidence for Judaism and Israelite culture is found in the Levant. Abundant visual imagery of the Aten disk was central to Atenism, which celebrated the natural world, while such imagery is not a feature of early Israelite culture. However, pottery found throughout Judea dated to the end of the 8th century BC has seals resembling a winged sun disk burned on their handles. These are argued to be the royal seal of the Judean Kingdom.[63]

Uffington supports the view of the origin of Judaism, but also points out a Celtic link through the symbols. The Aten sun disc is frequently represented with its long rays ending in human hands. This symbol was also a representation of the Celtic Sun God Lugh.

Ahmed Osman has claimed that Akhenaten’s maternal grandfather Yuya was the same person as the Biblical Joseph. Yuya held the title “Overseer of the Cattle of Min at Akhmin” during his life.

He likely belonged to the local nobility of Akhmim. Egyptologists hold this view because Yuya had strong connections to the city of Akhmim in Upper Egypt. This makes it unlikely that he was a foreigner since most Asiatic settlers tended to cloister around the Nile Delta region of Lower Egypt. Some Egyptologists,  however, give him a Mitannian origin. It is widely accepted that there are strong similarities between Akhenaten’s Great Hymn to the Aten and the Biblical Psalm 104, though this form is found widespread in ancient Near Eastern hymnology both before and after the period[citation needed] and whether this implies a direct influence or a common literary convention remains in dispute.

Others have likened some aspects of Akhenaten’s relationship with the Aten to the relationship, in Christian tradition, of Jesus Christ with God – particularly in interpretations that emphasise a more monotheistic interpretation of Atenism than henotheistic. Donald B. Redford has noted that some have viewed Akhenaten as a harbinger of Jesus. “After all, Akhenaten did call himself the son of the sole god: ‘Thine only son that came forth from thy body’.”[69] James Henry Breasted likened him to Jesus,  Arthur Weigall saw him as a failed precursor of Christ and Thomas Mann saw him “as right on the way and yet not the right one for the way”.

Redford argued that while Akhenaten called himself the son of the Sun-Disc and acted as the chief mediator between god and creation, kings for thousands of years before Akhenaten’s time had claimed the same relationship and priestly role. However Akhenaton’s case may be different through the emphasis placed on the heavenly father and son relationship. Akhenaten described himself as “thy son who came forth from thy limbs”, “thy child”, “the eternal son that came forth from the Sun-Disc”, and “thine only son that came forth from thy body”. The close relationship between father and son is such that only the king truly knows the heart of “his father”, and in return his father listens to his son’s prayers. He is his father’s image on earth and as Akhenaten is king on earth his father is king in heaven. As high priest, prophet, king and divine he claimed the central position in the new religious system. Since only he knew his father’s mind and will, Akhenaten alone could interpret that will for all mankind with true teaching coming only from him.

First “individual”

Akhenaten has been called by historian James Henry Breasted “the first individual in history”, as well as the first monotheist, first scientist, and first romantic. As early as 1899 Flinders Petrie declared that,

If this were a new religion, invented to satisfy our modern scientific conceptions, we could not find a flaw in the correctness of this view of the energy of the solar system. How much Akhenaten understood, we cannot say, but he certainly bounded forward in his views and symbolism to a position which we cannot logically improve upon at the present day. Not a rag of superstition or of falsity can be found clinging to this new worship evolved out of the old Aton of Heliopolis, the sole Lord of the universe.

Whatever theses we will encounter in our interpretation of his era, new religion and personality, one thing remains true, Akhenaten will always be the first individual in history.

21 thoughts on “Akhenaten, The First Individual in History

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