Belief of Akhenaten

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The introduction of a New Note into the Religious Thought of the World

He has been called the first Individual in human history, the young man who succeeded his father on the throne of Egypt in about 1375 B.C. as the fourth of the Amenhoteps, and in the course of a reign of something less than twenty years became greatly renowned, deeply revered, and finally intensely reviled. Beyond any question, he was the strangest, the most remarkable, of the long line of Pharaohs, but he has something more than individuality to commend him to the remembrance of posterity. He was a man out of his time, and as such he paid the price of his originality. His career has a significance that may well preserve his name as long as honesty of purpose and wholehearted devotion to Truth is held in honor.

When he became Pharaoh, Egyptian civilization was already immensely old. Some two thousand years separated Amenhotep IV, as was his style when he ascended the throne, from Menes, the traditional founder of the 1st Dynasty, and there had been kings in Upper and Lower Egypt for long before Menes. The Pyramids, those most vainglorious monuments to human pride, were more than a thousand years old when the young king drove past them in his chariot. The Old Kingdom, as it is called, had given place to the Middle Kingdom, which in turn had handed on the torch to the New Kingdom. Now was the time of the 18th Dynasty, and Egypt flourished as never before and seldom if ever since. The Amenhoteps and Thothmes who followed one another in alternate succession were all men of capacity and some of them outstandingly so.

Thothmes III, for instance, has been called the Napoleon of Egypt on account of the thirty or so campaigns in which the Egyptian arms were carried in triumph to Nubia in the far south and to the borders of Armenia in the yet more distant north-east. Then there was Amenhotep III, who well deserved his style of Amenhotep the Magnificent. He was a big man, in physique and personality and achievement, the most splendid of all the Pharaohs. He was the father of the young man whose career we are about to follow, and it may well be that the fame of the parent cast a depressing shadow on the life of the son.

There are tantalizing gaps in the story, the dates (like all, or nearly all, Egyptian dates) are uncertain, and the accounts are sometimes difficult to reconcile. Surely Amenhotep must have been more than eleven when he ascended the throne, which is what one of the sources alleges? There is no doubt that he was young, however, too young for the duties and responsibilities that now fell on his shoulders.

As fate would have it, a period of instability had set in on the Egyptian frontiers in Asia. Resentment at the Pharaoh’s rule had been steadily growing, and now it had reached boiling-point. There were plots and insurrections, and the Egyptian governors were hard put to it to hold their own. By a fortunate chance we know a great deal about this particular period, for in 1888 there happened to be discovered at Tell el-Amarna, on the site of the Royal Record Office, some three hundred tablets which turned out to be letters addressed to the Pharaoh Amenhotep III and to his son by their vassal kings in Syria and Palestine, and the kings of Babylonia, Nineveh, Mitanni, and other states in friendly relationship with Egypt. In large measure they are appeals for help. The old Amenhotep had turned a deaf ear to the appeals and complaints: no doubt he was getting tired and had lost the energy that had characterized his prime. But now he had been succeeded by a young man of promise: surely, he would act differently? Surely, they might expect him to take the field at the head of his troops and restore his empire’s old-time power?

But it soon transpired that the new Pharaoh had other interests and ideas. He seems to have discarded his father’s trusted counsellors and was very much under the influence of two women, his mother Queen Tiy and his wife Nefertiti, about whom little is known but who may have been of Asiatic birth. These two, with a priest who was the husband of his old nurse, formed his immediate circle; and though they may have been highly gifted, they were not the kind of advisers that the Pharaoh was most in need of, when the storm clouds were gathering on distant horizons and the soldiers and men of affairs were clamouring for action.

Amenhotep refused to listen. Theology was what interested him, rather than politics; and now he embarked on a course of action that brought him into direct conflict with that most powerful of Egyptian institutions, the State Church, or rather the priesthood who were its ministers. The Egyptians had always been a most religious people. They were polytheists, and the gods and goddesses of their pantheon were legion.

There were gods of the earth and gods of the sky, and there were gods who were a mixture of the human and the animal. As the centuries rolled on, new divinities were discovered or invented, and the number grew to such an unmanageable extent that from time to time attempts were made to bring some order out of the theological chaos.

Some gods were identified with others, and the greater gods were formed into triads, of father-god, mother-god, and child-god. If there was a chief among the crowd of divinities, was the Sun-god Ra, the centre of whose worship was at Heliopolis, in the Delta; Ra was visualized as king in heaven, the regulator the seasons, the bringer of light and dark, and one of the titles riven to the Pharaoh was “Son of Ra”.

Out of consideration for local susceptibilities, it became customary to associate another god with Ra, and of these the most important was Amen (or Amon), who had been originally the city god of Thebes, in the days of the Old Kingdom. As Thebes grew in importance and at length became the imperial capital, Amen-Ra was acknowledged as the bringer of victory to the armies of Pharaoh. As such, he received as a matter of course a large share of the spoils of victory, and his priests in consequence became immensely rich and influential.

An indication of the god’s importance is afforded by the name Amenhotep, meaning “Amen is content”. But Amenhotep IV was far from content. He deplored the intimate association of Ra with a local god. To him it had been revealed, he declared, by the god himself that Ra was the Supreme Deity, with no equal or associate, and it was therefore blasphemous to join his name with any other of the supposed manifestations of the Divine. To emphasize his unique glory, Ra was now given the new name of Aton, “the disc of the sun”, and he was represented in symbolic form as the sun disc beneath the vault of the sky, with broad rays like arms ending in human hands reaching down from the lower edge of the disc to embrace his worshippers. At the same time the Pharaoh changed in name from Amenhotep to that under which he has become immortal, Akhenaten (or Ikhnaton), meaning “The Spirit of Aton”.

He proceeded to build temples in which Aton should be worshipped, and. whether for the temple services or for his personal devotions, he composed hymns which are perhaps the most remarkable of the surviving monuments of this revolution in ideas. These hymns are entitled “Praise of Aton by King Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti”, and one in particular is deservedly renowned.

“Thou fillets the two lands [Egypt] with thy love,” runs one passage; “thou good ruler who didst make every land and everything that is in it, mankind, herds and flocks, and all kinds of trees that grow on the soil. These live when thou risest in the heavens. Thou art father and mother to all that thou hast made… When thou settest in the western horizon of heaven, the earth becomes dark with the darkness of the dead. Men fall asleep in their houses, their heads are covered up, their nostrils stopped, and no man can see his neighbour; everything that they possess could be stolen from them without their knowing anything about it. Then it is that the lions come forth from their lairs, every creeping thing that biteth, the smithy is in darkness, and all the earth is silent because he who made all creatures resteth in his horizon.

“But when the dawn breaks, when thou awakest and goest up on the horizon, thou drivest away the darkness with thy rays. Then the people of the Two Lands rise up and stand upon their feet. They wash their bodies and take their clothes, and stretch out their hands to thee in thanksgiving for thy rising …”

“How manifold are all thy works!” runs another verse, “they are hidden from us, O thou sole God, beside whom there is no other… Thou makest the seasons, the cool of winter and the heat of summer. Thou art he who Greatest the man-child in woman, the seed in man, who giveth life to the son in the body of his mother. To the chick within the egg thou givest breath, and when thou hast perfected him he breaks the shell and comes forth chirping with all his might and runs on his feet… It was thou who set the Nile in the Underworld and another Nile in the sky to water the earth with rain. The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt, thou madest them all; thou hast appointed each man to his place and provided him with everything that he needs …”

Here indeed is a new note in the religious thought of the world. A new spirit of universalism has been born; out of the dry bones of most ancient Egypt has sprung vigorous young life. It is no mere State god that Akhenaten is hymning, no god of Egypt alone, but one who has made all the earth and all the people in it, “Aton, the father and mother of all that he hath made”. This sublime conception is familiar to us from the Old Testament prophets, but Akhenaten preceded them in time by seven or eight centuries. The wonder of it, the inexplicable originality, the extraordinary depth and sweep of the royal singer’s vision…

One of the names which the Pharaoh had assumed when, as a youth, he had ascended the throne was “He that lives in truth”, and this might well be taken as the motto of his life. Surrounded by the vast wealth and luxury of an imperial court, he displayed 2 charming simplicity, an unconventional directness and openness. He often appeared in public with his wife and little daughters, he had no son. On the monuments he is sometimes shown with I Nefertiti sitting in his lap, or the king and queen are seated on chairs facing one another. The princesses are shown climbing on his knee, or, dressed in little but their necklaces, they are sitting on cushions at their parents’ feet.

A still greater break with traditional conventions is the way in which the king is portrayed. Here is no stylized representation such as his predecessors had insisted upon, but an uninhibited, even a rasher cruel, naturalness. The high, narrow, somewhat receding forehead large aquiline nose, the thin mouth and projecting chine, the almost feminine roundness of his figure: these are the components of a portrait that he must have commissioned and approved. As the years passed, his looks degenerated, and some have seen in the representations the indications of a pathological subject. As for Queen Nefertiti, we know what she looked like from the painted limestone head that was discovered in the Sculptor’s Workshop at the city that her husband built, not beautiful perhaps, but strikingly handsome and full of queenly dignity and grace. She, likewise, was very decidedly a character, an individual, a fit sharer of her husband’s dreams and schemes.

How good it is to know that Akhenaten was so happy in his home life, since there was so much to trouble him in the world outside. His innovations were bitterly resisted, naturally enough, by all those with a vested interest in the old order, and they were many. At length the idealist became the persecutor. The official temple-worship of the various gods throughout the land was brought to a close the priesthoods were deprived of their great possessions. And so intense was Akhenaten’s jealous hatred of Aton’s possible rivals that he gave orders that their names should be erased from the inscriptions and monuments and wherever else they might be found, even the statue of his father in the great temple at Karnak was exempt.

Still Akhenaten had not completed his revolution. Since Thebes was so indissolubly connected with the old religion, the Pharaoh decided to abandon it and to create a new capital in its place. The site chosen was nearly three hundred miles down the Nile, and there, in a green pocket left by the receding cliffs, the city was built, complete with palaces and temples, government offices and workshops, villas for the officials and little cottages for the workers. To the city he gave the name of Akhetaton, which means “The Horizon of Aton”, and to it was transferred the seat of the imperial government. Here Akhenaten held court, and to his palace came the worried ambassadors and the despairing messages from his officers in the distant parts of the Empire who were beset by foreign foes.

The Pharaoh seemed to be far too busy with his building plans and religious schemes to pay them much attention. Among the collection of Amarna Letters, one may find such as this: “For twenty years we have been sending to our lord the King of Egypt, but there has not come to us a word, not one.” And this: “There remains not one prince to my lord the King, everyone is ruined. Let the King take care of his land and send troops, for if no troops come this year, the whole territory of my lord the King will perish.”

The appeals went unheeded; no troops were sent, and everywhere the enemies of Pharaoh made headway. Akhenaten, though still young in years, was ageing fast, and, if his portraits are anything to go by, some sort of physical and perhaps mental deterioration had set in. Still he clung to his monotheistic beliefs, however, and it was as a devout servant of the one true god Aton that he died. This was in 1358 B.C.

Hardly had his embalmed body been laid in the tomb that had been made ready for it, when the counter-revolution started. Since he had no son, he was succeeded by Sakere, who had married one of his daughters, and he, after the briefest of reigns, was followed by Tutankhaten, the husband of another of the princesses.

His reign, too, was short, but it saw the return of Egypt to the worship of Amen-Ra and the other ancient gods, and we can hardly overestimate the significance of the King’s change of name to Tutankhamen… The city of Akhetaton was allowed to go into ruin, as the Pharaoh moved his court and capital back to Thebes. To-day the town of Tell el-Amarna occupies the place where it stood.

Tutankhamen took Akhenaten’s gold-wrapped mummy back with him to Thebes and placed it in the tomb of Queen Tiy (where it lay undisturbed until 1907, when it was discovered by a band of archaeologists working on behalf of the Egyptian Government, fifteen years before Howard Carter broke through the defences of Tutankhamen’s superlatively magnificent tomb). This was an act of filial piety, but by this time men might say what they liked about the dead Pharaoh. His memory was execrated. He was the “heretic Pharaoh”, he was the “Criminal of Akhetaton”. He was the man who had let an empire slip through his fingers, and by his fanatical zeal had disrupted the social order and wrought havoc among the gods.

Posterity has taken a kinder view of the young Pharaoh. It sees in him a brave soul; a spirit such as the world had not seen up to his time and has seen but seldom since. An idealist who lived in and for Truth, the man who emerges from the crowd of Pharaohs as the first great individual and even more important, the man who first proclaimed before all the world the sublime conception of the Oneness of the Godhead.