Aten, the god of Akhenaten

GOD ATEN

Do you want to know who was Aten (or Aton), the god representing the Sun in the ancient Egyptian civilization? Do you want to know how Aten almost became the sole god of Egypt during the reign of a "heretic pharaoh"?

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Fascinated by ancient Egypt, our team has prepared an article that answers these questions.

Aten is the "Sun disk god" of ancient Egypt: he is the incarnation of the Sun. The god Aten appears during the 25th century BC as a minor god of Egypt. However, it was in 1353 BC that Aten really entered the posterity by becoming the single god of Egypt throughout the reign of Akhenaten, the so-called "heretic pharaoh."

In this article, you will discover:

  • The place of the solar god Aten in Egyptian mythology
  • The history of the "Cult of Aten" advocated by the pharaoh Akhenaten (who will progressively establish the replacement of all the gods by the unique and almighty Aten)
  • The great problem that Aten posed when he became the sole god of Egypt: the end of the myth of the "Weighing of the Heart"

At the end of this article, you will know everything about the god Aten and the Cult of Aten of Akhenaten.

Let's start right away by presenting who Aten is according to Egyptian mythology.

1) Who was Aten?

Aten, the Sun disk god, is the personification of the Sun. Aten takes his name from the Egyptian word "yati" meaning "to be far away" (which obviously refers to the Sun high in the sky).

Clearly aware that the Sun is vital for life, the ancient Egyptians praised the multi-armed Sun disk called Aten very early in their history (from the year 2500 BC according to the Egyptian collection of texts called "Pyramid Texts").

Aten is represented as a radiant sphere with long hands with which he bathes the world with his light, a necessary condition for plant, animal, and human life. In some representations, the Sun disk god has hands holding the Egyptian cross "ankh" (the Egyptian symbol of life) which seems to be stretched out to the earth to bring it food and fertility (thus representing the beneficial effects of the rays of the Sun).

Aton the sun disk godAten is progressively associated with the pharaohs of Egypt. Indeed, as supreme ruling beings, the pharaohs are considered to be the beings closest to the gods.

Subsequently, in the course of the history of Egypt, more and more links appear between Aten and the kings of Egypt. According to ancient Egyptian legends, it is the pharaoh who controls the Sun: it is the pharaoh who orders the Sun to rise and set at the same times as he does.

Yet, if Aten is so famous in our modern society, it is because Aten became the one and only god of ancient Egypt during a small period of history: that of the "heresy of Akhenaten."

2) The Cult of Aten

You now have a glimpse of the divinity embodying the Sun. Now let us discover the history of the establishment of the cult that placed him in the position of single god of Egypt.

A) The god Amun

In order to understand how Aten became the unique god of Egypt, one must understand the story of the almost "almighty" god he replaced: the god Amun.

Amun was initially the god of the creation of life. According to Egyptian mythology, there was only the original Darkness and the original Ocean at the beginning of our world. Then, through the repeated contacts between the Darkness and the Ocean was born the god Atum, the god representing the breath of life. Immediately after this event, responding to the call of Atum (i.e. the call of life),  the two gods Ra and Amun were born by their own will:

The falcon-headed Sun god Ra creates the Earth, the stars, and the Universe by harmoniously mixing the original Darkness and the original Ocean. It is thus he who creates the Sun Aten which he then places like a crown on his head to illuminate the Universe, having known until then only the night.

The god Amun creates life by changing himself into a goose to lay an egg. Then, Amun changes himself into a snake to hatch and fertilize this egg. He thus creates the first animal, vegetable, and human life forms.

During the New Kingdom of Egypt's period (the period of Egypt from 1550 to 1069 BC), the god Amun will become more and more important in Egyptian beliefs. Amun will gradually become known in his form of Amun-Ra, i.e. a form in which he becomes one with the hawk Sun god Ra. Under this form, Amun is therefore responsible for the creation of the "Universe" in addition to the creation of "life."

Sekhmet, Râ et HathorRespectively, in these three representations of Sekhmet, Ra, and Hathor, you can observe Aten on their heads. You will notice that here Aten no longer has his hands to carry his light to the Earth. Indeed, instead of his arms, the female cobra Wadjet (the guardian of the main Egyptian deities) is wrapped around Aten.

It was during the reign of Akhenaten's grandfather and father (respectively Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III) that Amun became a god truly more important than all the others.

However, Egypt did not fall into a form of monotheistic religion since, despite his importance, Amun did not replace the other gods and goddesses (the jackal Anubis remained the god of death, the ibis Thoth remained the god of knowledge, the cat Bastet remained the goddess of women and joy, Bes remained the dwarf god of the home . . .).

B) The pharaoh Akhenaten

From the beginning of his reign, in 1353 BC, the son of Amenhotep IIIAkhenaten,  was soon to be "touched" by the divine figure of Aten. He wanted to make him a "god above other gods."

Today, we still do not know the exact reasons that led Akhenaten to choose the Sun disk god as the future only existing god. The most probable theory is that he would have had visions of Aten during some travels in the Egyptian desert which he would have wanted to share with all his people.

Buste Akhenaton

Bust of the "heretic pharaoh" Akhenaten, Egyptian Museum of Cairo.

I) The context of the promulgation of the "Cult of Aten"

At the beginning of Akhenaten's reign, Egypt became a great empire that extended beyond its borders: a large part of Turkey to the south and a large part of Sudan to the north were annexed. In addition, numerous protective alliances concluded with neighboring countries enabled Egypt to collect many tributes. Because of this, Akhenaten will have many financial and human resources at the beginning of his reign.

sphinx AkhenatonAkhenaten represented as a "sphinx" (i.e. an Egyptian creature half lion, half pharaoh) making an offering to Aten (whose hands can be seen at the end of his solar rays).

II) The Egyptian "single god"

When he ascended the throne after the death of his father Amenhotep III, Akhenaten (still known as "Amenhotep IV") began several reforms to give Aten a prominent place in the Egyptian pantheon:

- Akhenaten begins by attributing to Aten all the religious roles played by Amun in his form Amun-Ra. Aten thus becomes the god having created the Universe (thus appropriating the characteristics of Ra) and all life (thus appropriating the characteristics of Amun). The other Egyptian gods are nevertheless tolerated at the beginning of his reign (they will be considered as servants of Aten but will however be more and more banned and forbidden as the years of Akhenaten's reign go by).

- Akhenaten dissolved the clergy of Amun, a very powerful organization at the time. This dissolution will allow him at the same time to recover the many riches held by this very popular clergy from the people.

- Akhenaten, until then called Amenhotep IV, chose a new name in reference to Aten. He chose the name "Akhenaten" meaning "the one who is pleasant to Aten" in ancient Egyptian.

- Akhenaten tries to erase all traces of the links that existed between the pharaohs and the god Amun. To do this, Akhenaten will have the names of the pharaohs that contain a reference to Amun destroyed and hammered out of all the memorials and tombs in Egypt. Akhenaten did not hesitate to hammer the names of his own father Amenhotep III whose base "Amun-hotep III" is derived from the ancient central god of the Egyptian pantheon.

- Akhenaten will build in honor of the solar Egyptian deity the city of Amarna in the desert during the fourth year of his reign. This vast city will concentrate all the resources of Upper and Lower Egypt for 3 years. It will be completed in 1362 BC (its construction having lasted 3 years and having started in 1359 BC). The final result will be impressive: the great city of Amarna, very rich in palaces and temples, will be built from scratch in the middle of the Western Egyptian desert, twelve kilometers long and three kilometers wide.

Following these measures, the close circle of the pharaoh will be entirely willing to convert to the beliefs advocated by Akhenaten but the Egyptian people much less.

Indeed, Aten will not be fully accepted by the people because of the brutality of the change implied by the establishment of a single god. In spite of the similarity of the two Egyptian pantheons having "Amun in its center" or "Aten in its center", the Egyptian pantheon of Amun leaves room for the other traditional animal-headed gods of Egypt where that of Aten leaves none.

It is probably this over-rapid sidelining of gods that was popular among the ancient Egyptians that provoked a strong rejection of what could have become the first monotheistic religion in history.

Néfertiti et AkhenatonAkhenaten, his wife (the famous Nefertiti), and their children paying homage to Aten.

III) Akhenaten "heresy"

In the middle of his reign, Akhenaten will have much less room for manoeuvre than at the beginning. For good reason, Akhenaten refused to send the Egyptian army to defend the states formerly annexed by Egypt that were attacked by the Asian Hittite invaders. Thus, as Egypt's protection was no longer granted, tributes were no longer paid: the royal coffers soon found themselves empty.

On top of these instabilities caused by a bankrupt estate, another problem would quickly erupt: the fallen priests of Amun would plot throughout Egypt to slow down the advance of the cult of Aten.

In this way, Akhenaten would not have time to establish a lasting belief in the solar deity. In the end, after the death of Akhenaten, who had reigned over Egypt for 18 years, Aten would soon become a god among others again. This was the end of the first monotheistic religion in history.

Later, Akhenaten's son, the pharaoh Tutankhamun, put an end to this period of so-called "heresy" by renewing his relationship with Amun in order to reconcile himself with the influential clergy of the god.

Born under the name of "Tutankhaten", the latter took the opposite path to Akhenaten: he changed his name to show his preference for the cult of Amun over the cult of Aten.

Even later, Seti I and Ramesses II will destroy the city of Amarna and erase all traces of Aten as the only god of Egypt to strengthen their power and show the superiority of Amun over Aten. These two pharaohs will dismantle stone by stone the city of Akhenaten. They will also erase everywhere the history of Aten as the only god of Egypt and of the one who had considered himself as his emissary on Earth.

La ville d'AmarnaOne and a half columns and some remains of walls: this is all that remains of Amarna after the successive dismantling organized by Seti I and his son Ramesses II. Unfortunate fate for the city of Amarna, the vast and luxurious city that Akhenaten wanted to erect as the new capital of Egypt.

3) The problem of "life after death" with the god Aten

Part of the rejection and non-acceptance of Aten by all Egyptians comes from the uncertainty about the life after death in a religion where Aten is all-powerful.

Indeed, death and its rituals being very codified among the ancient Egyptians:

- After the death of an Egyptian, his soul is separated from his body and begins a travel to the Afterlife.

- The soul must then travel through the desert of the world of the dead (the Duat) to reach Anubis (the god of death), Osiris (the judge of the dead), and Thoth (the god of knowledge).

- On arrival at Anubis and Osiris, the soul is judged during the judgement of "the Weighing of the Heart". Weighed down by every crime committed and lightened by every good deed, the soul is placed on a scale, counterbalanced by a feather of the goddess of justice Maat (a feather weighing almost nothing).

- It is then that, according to the inclination of the balance, the soul can then experience two perfectly opposed fates. If the soul is "innocent", the scales will be balanced. In this case, the soul will be able to go to the Egyptian paradise (the Afterlife).

Yet, if the soul is "guilty", the soul will be heavier than the feather. In this case, the soul will be mercilessly devoured by the soul devouring goddess Ammit, condemning it to eternal torment in the Egyptian Underworld.

La pesée du coeurTo sum up, during the Weighing of the Heart, Anubis (the jackal-headed god) weighs the soul, Thoth (the ibis-headed god) takes notes of the weighing and Osiris watches over Anubis and Thoth so that no mistakes are made. As for Ammit, she prepares to eat any soul sinful enough to tip the scales to her side.

Thus, it is easy to understand that ancient Egyptian society is structured by the promise of a happy future after death for the righteous (and the promise of eternal damnation for the bandits!).

However, under the reign of Akhenaten imposing the beliefs of Aten, there is only nothingness after death, souls disappear simply by being called back to the supreme god to merge with him for eternity.

Bandits and men who have worked in accordance with the laws are therefore placed in the same position when they die. This incoherence will pose a great problem of equity to the people that the newly formed priests of Aten will never be able to justify or make them accept.

The Sun disk god

You now know everything you need to know about the Sun disk god.

You will probably have noticed that a good part of this article was devoted to the history of Akhenaten and his cult of Aten. But "it was for the right cause," because only by fully understanding this period can you know why the place occupied by Aten is so unusual in the Egypt of the pharaohs (where a great polytheistic religion has always endured in normal circumstances).

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