Aten, the god of Akhenaten


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

Fascinated by ancient Egypt, our team has prepared an article that answers these questions in a clear, exhaustive and precise manner while remaining focused on the essential!

Aten is the sun disk god of ancient Egypt: he is the incarnation of the Sun. Aten appears as early as the 25th century BC as the major god of Egypt. However, it was in the 15th century BC that Aten really entered posteriority by becoming the sole 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 poses when he becomes 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 especially about one of the most exciting eras of Egypt: the time of the cult of Aten.

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

1) The sun disk god in Egyptian mythology

Aton, 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 means the Sun!).

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 "Text of the Pyramids").

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 "ânkh" (the Egyptian symbol of life) which seems to be stretched out to the earth to bring it food and fertility.

Aton the sun disk god

Aten 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.

But 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.

Pharaoh ring

2) The Cult of Aton

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 it in the position of a unique god.

A) The gods Aten and 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. Through the repeated contacts between the Darkness and the Ocean, Atoum was born, the god representing the breath of life. Immediately, responding to the call of life, the call of Atoum, the two gods Ra and Amun were born by their own will:

The sun god Ra, the falcon hawk, 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 Darkness.

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

During the new Egyptian empire (period from 1500 to 1000 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 sun-god hawk Ra (and under which he is therefore responsible for the creation of the universe in addition to the creation of life).

Sekhmet, Râ et Hathor

In these three representations of, respectively, 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: in the square Aten is surrounded by the female cobra Uraeus, the guardian of the main Egyptian gods.

It was during the reign of Akhenaten's grandfather and father (respectively Thutmes 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 (Anubis remained the god of death, Thoth remained the god of knowledge, Bastet remained the goddess of women and joy, Bes remained the dwarf god of the home... ).

B) The creation of the cult of Aten by Akhenaten

From the beginning of his reign, in 1355 BC, Akhenaten, son of Amenhotep III, 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 only existing god. The most probable theory is that he would have had visions of Aten in the desert which he would have wanted to share with all his people.

Buste Akhenaton

Bust of the "heretic pharaoh" Akhenaten, Egyptian Museum in 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 neighbouring countries enabled Egypt to collect many tributes. In fact, Akhenaten will have many financial and human resources at the beginning of his reign.

sphinx Akhenaton

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

II) The establishment of the cult of Aton

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 pre-eminent 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 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 organisation 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 his new name in reference to Aten. He chose the name "Akhenaten" meaning "the glory of 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 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 honour 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, rich in palaces and temples, will be spread out in the middle of the desert, twelve kilometres long and three kilometres wide.

Following these measures, the close circle of the pharaoh will be entirely willing to convert to the beliefs advocated by Akhenaten but the 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 their centre" or "Aten in their centre", the Egyptian pantheon of Amun leaves room for the other gods 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 Akhenaton

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

III) The end of Akhenaten's "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 state, 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, 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 "Tutankhaton", 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, Sethi I and Ramses II will destroy the city of Amarna and erase all traces of Aten as the only god to strengthen their power and show the superiority of Amun over Aten. They will dismantle stone by stone the city of Akhenaten and will erase everywhere the history of Aten as unique god and of the one who considered himself as his emissary on Earth.

La ville d'Amarna

One and a half columns and some remains of walls: this is all that remains of Amarna after the successive dismantling organised by Sety I and his son Ramses II. Funeste comes out for the city of Amarna, the vast and luxurious city that Akhenaten wanted to erect as the new capital of Egypt.

Tableaux de l'Égypte antique

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 as to what it is of 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 goes to the afterlife.

- The soul must then travel through the desert of the world of the dead (the Douat) 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 at 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 spells. If the soul is "innocent", the scales will be balanced and it will then be able to go to the Egyptian paradise (the Beyond). But if the soul is "guilty", the soul will be heavier than the feather, it will then be mercilessly devoured by the soul devouring goddess Âmmout, condemning it to eternal torment in the Egyptian Underworld.

La pesée du coeur

To sum up, during The Weighing of the Heart, Anubis weighs the soul, Thot (the god-ibis) takes notes of the weighing and Osiris watches over Anubis and Thot so that no mistakes are made. As for Thoth, 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 mobsters!).

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.

Awaken the memory of Aten (and Akhenaten)!

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).

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