Great Hymn to the Aten

the Aten of Pharaoh Akhenaten :
a monotheism of light without darkness

by Wim van den Dungen

colos of Amenhotep IV

Gem-pa-Aten temple at East Karnak
"the Aten is found" - Cairo Museum

O sole god without equal !
You are alone, shining in your form of the living Aten.
  Risen, radiant, distant and near.
Great Hymn, 47 & 73-74.

The translation of The Great Hymn to the Aten is part of my Ancient Egyptian Readings (2016), a POD publication in paperback format of all translations available at These readings span a period of thirteen centuries, covering all important stages of Ancient Egyptian literature. Translated from Egyptian originals, they are ordered chronologically and were considered by the Egyptians as part of the core of their vast literature.

The study of the sources, hieroglyphs, commentaries and pictures situating the text itself remain on the website at no cost.


1 The New Kingdom and the colossal Amenhotep III

  • 1.1 A few political features of the New Kingdom : the age of empire.

  • 1.2 The great builder, dated Sed-festivals & traditional piety.

2 Prelude to Amarna religion : the "New Solar Theology"

  • 2.1 The antiquity of the title "Son of Re" in Pharaoh's titulary.

  • 2.2 The theology of the Sun, of light and movement.

  • 2.3 The naturalization of the divine in religious experience.

3 The Rise of Akhenaten

  • 3.1 Again Pharaoh's titulary or definition of rule.

  • 3.2 The grotesque Pharaoh, permanent dynamism & intimacy.

  • 3.3 The singularity of divine mediation : Aten - King - Queen.

4 The Aten-project :

CULTIC : dictatorial eradications & an imposed religion

  • 4.1 Brutal end of previous worship, especially of Amun.

  • 4.2 New open temples with no statues, roofs or holy of holies.

  • 4.3 Flowers as perferred offering.

  • 4.4 New dynamical representations : globe, Ankh, chariot.

NOMIC : radical naturalization of the "old" religion

  • 4.5 Only Aten is divine and there is no god but Aten.

  • 4.6 Life-giving light is the only divine presence.

  • 4.7 Pharaoh is the only one with the Aten in his heart.

COSMIC : only light, presence and movement

  • 4.8 Light without darkness.

  • 4.9 Presence without absence.

  • 4.10 Unity without multiplicity. 

MYSTIC : exclusive & highly subjectified

  • 4.11 Without Pharaoh no salvation.

  • 4.12 Eradication of Amun's interventions on behalf of the common people.

  • 4.13 The mystical experience of Nature ?

5 Why was Akhenaten's monotheism sterile ?

6 Ancient Egyptian religion after Amarna

  • 6.1 Restoration & the breakthrough of the Ramesside renewal of the old.

  • 6.2 The integral, antithetic synthesis : Amun-Re who becomes millions.

  • 6.3 The Mosaic revelation, YHVH Elohîm and the elimination of the figural & the inert.


Remark :

The use of capitals in words as "Absolute", "God" or "Divine", points to a rational context (i.e. how these appear in a theology conducted in the rational mode of thought - cf. cognition, neurophilosophy & theonomy). Hence, when these words are used in the context of Ancient Egyptian ante-rational thought (which, as a cultural form, was mythical, pre-rational & proto-rational), this restriction is lifted. Hence, words such as "god", "the god", "gods", "goddesses", "pantheon" or "divine" are not capitalized.


Personal piety and the horizon of contact with the Divine

In The Seach for God in Ancient Egypt (2001), the egyptologist Jan Assmann proposed to measure Ancient Egyptian religion (its activities and experiences) using three "dimensions". These represent their conceptual horizon of contact with the divine, namely :

  1. the cultic : the local, political residence of the deities, either as belonging to a particular place and/or as state deities functioning as symbols of the collective, political identity ;

  2. the cosmic : the emergence, structure & dynamics of the sphere of their action ;

  3. the mythic : the sacred tradition, or "what is said about the gods", their cultural memory as set down in myths, names, genealogies etc1

" ... there was no explicit and coherent explanation of Egyptian theology on the metalevel of theoretical discourse in Ancient Egypt any more than there were theoretical explanations in other areas, such as grammar, rhetoric or historiography. As is well known, the development of theoretical discourse, at least in the Mediterranean world, was an accomplishment of Greek culture." - Assman, 2001, p.9.

For Assmann,  there are multiple dimensions, some of which "are realized in dominant form in any given historical religion".2 The ones mentioned above were treated in a dominant fashion in Ancient Egyptian religion. In Assmann's reading, the Amarna religion assisted in the breakthrough of a fourth dimension in the era that followed it, called by Breasted "the age of personal piety" (1912). By closing the temples and banishing the deities of the old religion, Akhenaten had forced the worshippers to resort to internal gods & goddesses "placed in the heart" (mind).

Because, according to Assmann, the mystic "absolutizes the inner presence of the divine and takes satisfaction in it"3 , he is reluctant to name this fourth dimension of "personal piety" truly "mystical". However, this holds only true if his definition of mysticism is accepted, which is not the case here.

Mysticism is the direct experience of the Divine. On the basis of the provisional comparative form of the phenomenology of Hinduism (Classical Yoga), Judaism (Qabalah), Christianity (the Jesus-people) and Islam (Sufism of Al Junayd and Ibn'Arabî), arrived at by means of a comprehensive hermeneutical and participant observational approach, the more mature and unfolding architecture (form) of this radical experience is conceived as implying a bi-polar one-fold. The universal & fundamental structure of this experience, always reflects both the inner as well as the outer aspect of the Divine (cf. Divine bi-polarity). 

Negative theology puts the mysticism of un-saying in perspective : the essence of the Divine is unknown, ineffable, incomprehensible and absolutely absolute. Positive theology affirms the Presence of the Divine in the created order. Like Bergson, I would like to suggest that the mystics are the true founders of the religions. Also that mystical experience is a universal human factor able to manifest in formidable everyday experiences (orgasm, strong emotions, aha, serendipity, cognitive paradox, synchronicity, inventivity, true love, creativity through service). See on these differences : Introduction to a Colorful Recital.

The mature mystic finds the Divine "in the heart" (inner, the seer) but he or she also unveils that everything what can be experienced (outer, the seen) is the Self-manifestation of the Divine. This may explain their strength facing evil (cf. theodicy).

However, to consider the mystic as exclusively focused on the inner side of the equation (as does Assmann) is limiting mysticism by a theistic approach of the Divine, which stresses the absent, transcendent and remote characteristics. All major traditions interested in the experience of the mystics themselves (exploring mysticism in an experiential way) are confronted with the "agonizing polarization"4 between manifest and hidden. All major mystic traditions have identified these two poles and were aware of the tension. It is typical for the mystics that although they identify the two seas (salty & sweet) they never eclipse the fact that the water of life is one living water of Divine Presence (as Marguerite Porete so admirably synthesized in the character of "Loinprés", Farnear - a theme explicit in Amarna theology & later in Theban theology). The bi-polarity is a phenomenon taking place within a fundamental, implicit, unbreakable, eternal but unfolding unity (cf. "pan-en-theos" : all-in-God - cf. henotheism).

As Staal demonstrated5 , mysticism implies a structure of direct experience (between the mystic and the Divine, both inner as outer) and a superstructure which is a verbal thematization of the experience (as a solitary and/or as a group) which may lead to textualization and canonization. To limit the structure of mystical experience to being satisfied with a fusion with the inner, hidden & remote aspect of the Divine, is considered by mystics (in the East, Middle East and West) as a limitation and an incomplete experience of the Divine (cf. Ibn'Arabî on the paradoxical, wonderous perplexity of the "station of no station", and Sufi criticism on stressing Divine remoteness). It may even lead to insanity and heresy. The mature mystic has inner trance and outer sobriety (cf. Al-Junayd). Trance without sobriety is insanity. Sobriety without trance is utter darkness. Outer sobriety is also regulated by the idea of moral harmony (cf. Maat), i.e. symmetrical communication with other human beings aiming at establishing, sustaining & differentiating the common good (of nature, family, society, the planet, etc.).

In this paper, I will consider the "breakthrough" of "personal piety", contrary to Assmann, indeed as "mystical". Moreover, the fact this "personal piety" became so important after Amarna is not denied, but its traces in the earlier stages of Ancient Egyptian religion are considered differently. True, only after the fall of the Old Kingdom is the conception of the soul ("bA") generalized and popularized (everybody had a "ba"). In the Middle Kingdom, as testified in the Coffin Texts, officials and their subordinates could also attain the enjoyment of the afterlife (continued existence and no "second death"), and eventually every deceased person was an "Osiris NN". 

But, in the Old Kingdom (and also thereafter) Pharoah was a paradoxical figure, for he was a "god on Earth" while the other gods & goddesses abided in the other world, present in their temples and images in a symbolical and subtle fashion only (they sent their doubles -"kAw"- and souls -bAw- while their spirits -"AXw"- remained in the sky). Because religious activity happened between the deities6 (the temples do not mediate but were loci of the indwelling7 of the divine), the figure of Pharaoh, the "Great House" and divine king was extraordinary. Hence, in the Old Kingdom, the overt manifestation of the mystical approach of the divine was an exclusive royal prerogative, or as the Pyramid Texts claim :

"Men hide, the gods fly away."
Pyramid Texts, utterance 302 (§ 459). 

Does this royal prerogative of the mystical in the written record imply the common Egyptians had no direct religious experience ? Did they, in their private domain, in the temple of their nome and in the regular festive processions outside the sacred precinct, never experienced the "radical other" (totaliter aliter) ? In the official point of view, only Pharaoh had a direct experience of the divine (being a god himself) and thus rose vertically to the stars, while all others Egyptians were barred from contact with the divine, except within the confines of their own inner subjectivity.

"Although in all periods relatively few people were directly involved in the cult, the temples and the cult performed in them would have existed in a partial vacuum if they had corresponded with little in the lives of the other people. Apart from this general point, several literary texts become more meaningful if it is assumed that contact with the deity, or experience of the deity, was considered possible."
Baines, J. : "Society, Morality and Religious Practice", in Shafer, 1991, p.173.

In the private tombs of Sheshi (VIth Dynasty - Saqqara) & Harkhuf (VIth Dynasty - Assuan), a stylized catalog of virtues occurs. These virtues are not told in the prose of the narrative autobiography but were recited in an orational style.8 They suggest great intellectual and literary capabilities.9 Together with the Maxims of Ptahhotep (Vth Dynasty under Izezi or Djedkare) they evidence interior reflection, wisdom and a search for true peace. Why would these individuals not have attained mystical states of consciousness ? Moreover, Ptahhotep is eager to relate how wisdom (with which no one is born) and the good (like wealth & peace) come by virtue of the deities. Apparently, they are not restricted to Pharaoh.

(139)     If You are a weakling, serve a man of quality, worthy of trust,
     (so) that all your conduct may be well with god.
(141)     Do not recall if once he was of humble condition,
(142)     do not let your heart become big toward him,
(143)     for knowing his former state.
     Respect him for what has accrued to him,
(145)     for surely goods do not come by themselves.
(146)     They are their laws for him whom they love.
(147)     His gain, he gathered it himself,
     (but) it is god who makes him worthy,
(149)     and protects him while he sleeps.

Ptahhotep : Maxims of Ptahhotep, maxim 10, D175 - "they" and "theirs" refer to the deities

Hence, regarding the horizon of contact with the divine, at least four elements seem valid :

  1. cultic : the actual religious actions, expressions and manifestations of religiosity (in the temples of the nomes, in private homes and in state cults), intimately connected with the economical, social & political conditions at hand ;

  2. nomic : what is said & written down about the divine, for example in the "House of Life" of the various temples ;

  3. cosmic/social : the field of action of the divine ;

  4. mystic/personal : the direct experience of the divine in personal piety. 

The Great Hymn to the Aten of Akhenaten

In the history of Egypt of Manetho (third century BCE), which became authoritative from Antiquity down to modern times (although full of inconsistencies), Pharaoh Akhenaten (ca. 1353 - 1336 BCE), is not mentioned as such. Instead, the names "Acencheres" (in Josephus), "Acherres" (in Africanus) and "Cherres" (in Eusebius) prevail.

"The Eighteenth Dynasty consisted of 14 kings at Thebes. (...) Achencheres ruled for 16 years. In his time Moses became leader of the Jews in their exodus from Egypt."
Manetho, 3th century BCE.

The Ramessides were deemed the immediate successors of Amenhotep III. Instead, Manetho handed down a story which was recorded by Josephus, according to which lepers ruled over Egypt during the reign of "Amenophis". They were in league with the Hyksos for 13 years and burned the cities, destroyed the temples and the statues of the gods. The period before Tutankhamun came to the throne is also described by Manetho as a period wherein "The land experienced an illness, and the deities did not look after this land." 10 Other classical writers like Herodotus, Diodorus and Strabo manifest no knowledge of this "heretic king". His memory had been suppressed. He had been forgotten ...

"The simplest and commonest technique of forgetting is the destruction of memory in its cultural objectifications such as inscriptions and iconic representations. This is what happened to the monotheistic revolution of Akhenaten, and the destruction was thorough enough to keep this event completely unretrievable until its archaeological rediscovery in the course of the nineteenth century. (...) Another technique of forgetting is silence. This technique was practiced by the Amarna texts, which never speak of what they implicitly reject." -
Assmann, 1997, p.216, my italics.

After the death of Tutankhamun (ca. 1323 BCE), the vandalism and destruction of the monuments erected by Akhenaten at Akhetaten was on its way. Under Pharaoh Ramesses II (ca. 1279 - 1213 BCE), dismantlement and reuse were stepped up. A century after his death, Akhenaten is no longer named by his name, but as "the rebel" ("sebiu") or "the criminal" ("kheru") of Akhetaten.

"It seems likely that chronicles or annals in temple archives preserved some record of him and his reign. These chronicles were perhaps still extant in the third century BCE when they were consulted by historians writing in Greek, and a rather garbled version of Akhenaten's story was transmitted into the classical tradition." -
Montserrat, 2001, p.29.

Although in November 1714, the Jesuit father Claude Sicard had made copies of one of Akhenaten's boundary stelæ11 and J.Gardner Wilkinson had discovered the tombs of his officials in 1824 and had made copies, both of these finds did not appear in print until years after Champollion's death.12 In his summary of Egyptian history (in the Appendix of his Letters from Egypt)13, the latter proceeded immediately from Amenophis III to his son "Horus", who continued the work of his father and had two weak successors, after which Seti I led Egypt to new heights ...

On the 26th of June 1851, Karl Richard Lepsius (who had arrived at Tell el-Amarna -the modern place name of Akhetaten-on the 19th of September 1843) communicated his conclusions that a "highly noteworthy episode in the history of Egyptian mythology" had taken place. Amenophis IV (identified with Akhenaten) opposed the prior worship of Amun with a "pure cult of the Sun : only the disk itself was tolerated as its unique image". He also mentions Akhenaten had commanded "the names of all the deities be hacked away from all public monuments, and even from the accessible private tombs, and that their image be destroyed to the extent possible".14 Slowly the learned world realized the existence of Akhenaten. The first monograph entirely devoted to the "heretic king" was written by Arthur Weigall in 1910.15

The empty tomb of Akhenaten had been discovered by locals in 1881 - 1882. In 1887, locals again discovered the famed archive of clay tablets (380 of them) containing the cuneiform correspondence of Akhenaten and his father with the princes of Western Asia. The authoritative edition was made by J.A.Knudtzon in 1915.16

Between 1883 and 1884
, Urbain Bouriant, thank goodness, made a copy of the Great Hymn in the tomb of Aya (a brother of Teye, the mother of Akhenaten and tutor, even father-in-law of the reformer) of which a third was maliciously destroyed in 1890 (during a quarrel among local inhabitants).17 On the basis of this copy, the famed Great Hymn to the Aten could be studied for the first time by James Henry Breasted in 1895 in his Berlin dissertation : De Hymnis in Solem sub Rege Amenophide IV conceptis ("On the Hymns to the Sun composed under Amenophis IV").18

Contrary to the Memphis Theology, the Great Hymn to the Aten is not a composite work, neither does it have more than one temporal layer (the original of the former work may be written in the XVIIIth Dynasty, more likely in the XXth Dynasty, but older layers from the Vth Dynasty can not be ruled out). The Great Hymn gives, ex hypothesis, a clear and comprehensive picture of the ideals of Akhenaten himself, and was most likely composed by the king himself. The core of this ideal being a return to the exclusive, pivotal and mediating role of divine kingship, in casu Akhenaten's, coupled with a naturalistic reduction to visible light (represented by the Solar disk, the Aten). The Shorter Hymn to the Aten, which occurs in five Amarna tombs, has beauty but lacks structural unity and can therefore not make the same cosmopolitan and humanist leap as reflected in the Great Hymn to the Aten.

What is the philosophical interest of this text ? Following topics emerge :

  1. history of philosophy : the claim philosophy started in Greece is traditional but questionable. True, in the Classical Age, Greek philosophy discovered the rational mode of cognition, but philosophy is not limited to this mode. In Greek philosophy, this is attested by the importance of the Ionic, Eleatic and Sophist schools of thought, evidencing the mythical (pre-logical), pre-rational and proto-rational modes. The later are always included in any systematic history of philosophy.

    Let us eliminate his Hellenization of philosophy, rooted in Europacentrist opinions (Indian & Chinese philosophy for example are usually also excluded, although exceptions do occur - cf. the history of philosophy of Störig).19 The Memphis Theology, the Maxims of Ptahhotep, the Great Hymn to the Aten and many Ramesside Hymns to Amun-Re show a philosophical insight (albeit mostly proto-rational) far beyond the limitations of Ionic thought, which seems very rudimentary compared to the magnificent synthesis brought about in the late New Kingdom and the depth of the sapiental instructions found in the Old Kingdom (centered around the concept of justice or "Maat").

    The fact of the influence of Ancient Egypt on Greek authors like Pythagoras (of whom it is said that he was the first to use the Greek word "philosophos"), Thales (the arche as "water"), Anaximander ("apeiron"), Plato (who praises the wisdom of the Egyptians and at the end of book VI of the Republic compares the idea of the good with the Sun), Plotinos (who was a Hellenized Egyptian) and many others (did Greek thinkers not travel to Egypt to study in "the land of the gods" ?), coupled with Egypt's relative vincinity to Greece, makes the study of the philosophy of Ancient Egypt more than necessary. It is a lacuna in the history of philosophy that such a fundamental study is lacking. Apparently egyptologist are not qualified to do this job and Western philosophers do not take the time to study (Middle) Egyptian, read most of the available egyptological studies or make hasty remarks (like Hegel on Egypt, Jaspers on Akhenaten & Sartre on Seth).

  2. metaphysics : is an untestable but arguable set of speculative propositions aiming at a totalized explanation of being and its processes. It appeared as a separate discipline only after the works of Aristotle were put together by Andronicos of Rhodos (ca. 40 BCE), who placed these books "next to" (meta) Aristotle's work on physics (proving the relationship between both). In Ancient Egypt, especially in the Old & Middle Kingdoms, metaphysics is mostly shrouded in mythology and the specifics of Egyptian religion. Nevertheless, in the Maxims of Ptahhotep (the emerging idea of an overall ethical order), in the Pyramid Texts (hymns & ascension-texts), in the Memphis Theology (the logos-section), and other sapiental works, loci of metaphysical thought may be discerned.

    Two Amarna themes have metaphysical interest, namely the disenchantment brought about by the New Solar Theology (objectification) and the inflation of divine kingship by Akhenaten, explaining why his revolution failed.

  3. theology : Assmann argues polytheism was explicit and the problem of the divine (the search for the One) implicit.20 The common folk were polytheists and at a certain point in their religious history, the high priests and temple officers tried to solve the fundamental problem of every theology, namely theonomy (the name(s) of the Divine) and the solution of the tensions between the hidden and manifest poles of Divine bi-polarity. At the end of the Old Kingdom & in the Middle Kingdom, the realization the divine order could be broken up, triggered theodicy (which vanished from the literature of the New Kingdom).

    My reading of Ancient Egyptian literature 21 suggests both polytheism, monolatery and henotheism were "originally" present. In the Old Kingdom, the Great One stays foremost in the background (cf. Atum in the dominant Heliopolitan cosmology, the unity of the Two Lands, the exclusive status of Pharaoh and the role of Maat, the universal order). In the Middle Kingdom, the first henotheistic attempts occur (cf. Amun as "king of the gods", the synergy of Re and Osiris). In the New Solar Theology of the Early New Kingdom, the Great One comes to the fore as Re, mingles with the pantheon and assimilates the deities in a theophanic (henotheism) way.

    But Akhenaten was the first to consequently destroy the multiplicity of the old religion. His Aten stood above and was against all deities. The Aten was the "sole god", i.e. quantitatively singular (monotheism). A step too far ?

    In Ramesside theology, henotheism and bi-polarity were again fully put to the fore and the conflict between the One and "the millions" was solved by the "coincidentio oppositorum" realized by Amun, "the hidden" (and also by Ptah). In this theology, the Great One did not oppose the existence of other deities and a restoration of the old pantheon followed (a maturation of the proto-rational henotheism which had started in the Middle Kingdom). But besides being before everything (as in the Old Kingdom - cf. Nun & the "zep tepi"), the Great One was now also witnessed in everything. With the exception of Atenism, deemed criminal, a mature monotheistic theology & cult of the Great One cannot be identified in Ancient Egypt religion.

  4. African philosophy : the fact Africa developed a philosophy of its own has only be recently advanced.22 In which way can Ancient Egyptian spirituality, without turning the argument Afrocentric, be seen as a historical culmination of the potential of traditional African philosophy ?

  5. the presence/absence-discourse : in postmodernism, deconstruction has been associated with the unmasking of the tirany of presence (the notion reality can be fixed in words), and is suggestive of the overall activity of absence (the notion truth is partly veiled - cf. Heidegger on "aletheia"). Is Akhenaten a good example of how an overall focus on solitary presence (of the Aten and Pharaoh) leads to disaster ? Does what happened to Akhenaten's Aten religion tell us something about the fanatism, violence, exclusivism and dogmatism of any monotheist logic, as evidenced by the bloody history of the three major monotheisms "of the book" ? Is this one of the reasons for the irrational fascination and abuse of history people accommodate regarding Akhenaten and Nefertiti, as Montserrat (2001) elucidates ?

1 The New Kingdom and the colossal Amenhotep III

1.1 A few political features of the New Kingdom : the age of empire.

Amenhotep III

quarzite statue of the "dazzling Sun" - almost 2.5m tall

Politically, the New Kingdom brought internationalization, which defied the particularism of the Old and Middle Kingdoms. From Myceanae, Knossos, Mitanni, Babylon, and from the Hittites, Assyrians, Libyans & Nubians, gifts & trade goods were flowing in. The XVIIIthe & XIXth Dynasties produced great monuments of theocratic statesmanship.

The reign of Amenhotep III (ca. 1390 - 1353 BCE) was a period of stabilty and peace, the foundations of which had been laid by Akhenaten's grandfather, Tuthmosis IV (ca. 1400 - 1930 BCE), who had brought to end decades of military conflict between the two great powers of the area, Egypt and the kingdom of Mitanni, fighting over the control over northern Syria. The court of Amenhotep III became an international center visited by ambassadors of many nations. Even Asiatic deities such as Reshef, Astarte, Baal and Qudshu were worshipped. 

In the Book of Gates (Vth Hour), the "wretched" Aziatics, Nubians & Libyans were placed under the protection of Egyptian deities ...  Luxurious living in a setting of peace reached its climax under Amenhotep III. He never set foot in his Asiatic empire but acquired princesses for his harem and lavished gold on his allies.

The age of empire did not focus on power, wealth and luxury only. The intellectual horizon had also broadened. Curiosity and tolerance for foreigners rose. Scribes had to be bilingual and foreign languages were fashionable. Especially religious thinking had been affected by this internationalism.

The gods were not only there for Egypt, but for the whole world.

1.2 The great builder, dated Sed-festivals & his traditional piety.

The temple of Luxor, the double temple of Soleb and Sedeinga (Nubia) and the mortuary temple at the West bank of Thebes (destroyed by an Earthquake, leaving the 720 tons Colossi of Memnon, suggesting the original size of the building and Pharaoh's megalomania), identified Amenhotep III as one of the greatest builders Egypt had known. He strove to surpass his predecessors in number, size and spendor of his buildings. He also used unusual building materials like gold, silver, lapis lazuli, jasper, turquoise, bronze and copper and noted the exact weights of each, in order to capture "the weight of this monument".23

As long as there have been Pharaohs, there have been Sed-festivals.24 Already in the first Dynasties (ca. 3000 BCE), Pharaoh ran the course of the festival or sat enthroned in his chapel. The goals of the ritual celebration was the renewal of the power of Pharaoh, thought to have depleted over time, endangering the state (compare this with the prehistorical notion of the sacrificial king found around the globe but also on the African continent). Instead of killing the ruler, it was considered sufficient to effect the symbolical burial of a statue of the "old" king and allow him to repeat his coronation. The ritual course was run before all the deities of the land, showing the renewal of rulership. 

In the Middle and New Kingdoms, Pharaoh celebrated this Jubilee before the end of his thirtieth year of rule, and then it was repeated at shorter intervals of three to four years. The connection with his coronation was important. Pharaoh was enthroned in Memphis, and so he wore a special vestment during most of the ceremonies, a mantle-like garment like Ptah (distinguishing statues specially prepared for the festival). So between coronation and ascension, there was this Sed-festival which only Pharaoh could celebrate, nobody else.

"By the thirteenth year of the reign, with Nubia stabilized and the vast empire at peace, Egypt was at the height of its wealth and power. The rule of Amenhotep III saw four decades of prosperity uninterrupted by war ; for the people of Egypt it was a time of unparalleled security and optimism - a golden age presided over by a golden king. To Amenhotep's grateful subjects it must have seemed that this succes proved that he was at one with the gods themselves." -
Fletcher, 2000, p.76.

a Libyan, a Canaanite, a Syian and a Nubian bow
XVIIIth Dynasty - Cairo Museum

Amenhotep III celebrated his Sed-festival in his thirtieth regnal year. Many dated inscriptions are preserved on vessels from his palace at el-Malqata, on the West bank of Thebes. He celebrated two repetitions of this festival before his death. Japanese excavations uncovered a podium for a throne. It has thirty steps, which stand for the thirty years that had gone by. The festival was clearly a repetition of the coronation. In it, he called himself "the Dazzling Sun" and at his side his chief wife, Teye, played the role of Hathor, who stood for all aspects of rejuvenation & regeneration. During the festival, Amenhotep III endeavored to gather all the deities of the Two Lands to perform its ceremonies in front of the shrines containing their various divine images ... He is also seen worshipping and offering to himself as a god !

"The importance of the Aten grew throughout Amenhotep III's long reign. In the last decade of his rule the king even officially identified himself as the sun god the Aten." -
Fletcher, 2000, p.61.

What we know of Amenhotep III proves he was not an "enlightened" ruler, but instead stayed deeply rooted in traditional piety.
25 Although the New Solar Theology was active around him, he prevented this single god (Re) from gaining the upper hand. Large scarabs connect him with numerous deities. The aged & sick Pharaoh (who had received from the king of Mitanni a healing statue of Ishtar) commissioned (instead of asking Ishtar) a total of 730 (2 x 365) statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, the consort of Ptah who dispensed illness and its cure. He set this litany in stone up in various temples at Thebes to protect him day and night. Clearly Amenhotep III did not want to promote Re and his disk, the Aten at the expense of any other known divine power. 

"There were definitely tendencies -and not only at the royal court- that ran counter to the New Solar Theology and its elevation of a single god over the entire pantheon in a manner that was altogether too one-sided and, in that respect, un-Egyptian." -
Hornung, 1999, p.20.

2 Prelude to Amarna religion : the "New Solar Theology"

2.1 The antiquity of the title "Son of Re" in Pharaoh's titulary.

Under the IVth Dynasty (of the Old Kingdom), the priests of Re of Heliopolis consolidated a form of the Sun-god of obscure origin.26 Their influence was strong enough to make the first Pharaoh of the Vth Dynasty (Userkaf - ca. 2487 - 2480 BCE) highpriest of Re and begotten by Re himself. Re had visited the wife of Userra, a highpriest of Re. This could be called the moment when monolatry became an affair of state.

"From the 3th Dynasty we have the evidence for a new emphasis on a single creator, eclipsing the balance between the good Horus and the anarchic Seth. The battles of Horus and Seth do no disappear in the new, classical Egyptian arrangement of divine powers, but they become a smaller part within the general scheme of a single all-powerful creator." -
Quirke, 2001, p.83.

Hence, Pharaoh added a fifth name to his four other titulary names, thereby expressing the idea Pharaoh is the human form of Re, i.e. Re begot Pharaoh, who ruled over the whole land of Egypt. These five names of the titulary
27 were :

  1. the Horus name : designating Pharaoh as the manifestation of Horus the elder sky god (Horus in the palace, not yet Horus, son of Osiris). The earliest Pharoahs were only named with this Horus name. In the New Kingdom, "Mighty Bull" was added at the beginning, but it was usually quite variable ;

  2. the Nebty name : Nekhbet and Wadjet were the protective goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt respectively (a vulture & a serpent, each atop a basket : "Lady"). These two refer to the duality of Pharaoh's realm, as does "Lord of the Two Lands". These "Two Ladies" correspond to the "Two Lords", the royal gods Horus and Seth ;

  3. the Gold name or Golden Horus name : a falcon atop a beaded collar (gold), but the interpretation of the falcon as Horus is uncertain. The name might refer to the wealth and splendour of Pharaoh (gold was considered to be the "flesh" of the deities) ;

  4. the Throne (prenomen) name : is preceded by the title "King of Upper and Lower Egypt" and is enclosed by a cartouche (a long oval surrounding the throne name protectively - cf. the amulet). More recent scholarship conjectures it contains a statement regarding Pharaoh and his policies (instead of a theological statement concerning the god). It was compounded with the name of the Sun god Re (including the hieroglyph of the disk of the Sun) ;

  5. the personal (nomen) name : is always accompanied by the epithet : "son of Re". It is the name given to the prince at birth. After coronation is was also enclosed in a cartouche. With it, is affirmed Pharaoh is by birthright a god.  

Seldom do all five names appear together on a single royal monument. When only one name was used, the Throne name was the most common.

"From this time onward every king of Egypt, whether of Egyptian origin or not, called himself the 'son of Râ'. In later days, when Amen, or Amen-Râ, became the King of the Gods, it was asserted by his priesthood that the god assumed the human form of a man and begot the king of Egypt." -
Budge, 1989, p.33, my italics.

2.2 The theology of the Sun, of light and movement.

In the course of the XVIIIth Dynasty (ca. 1539 - 1292 BCE), the Sun god Re was turned into an all-embracing creator-god, manifesting himself under various names & forms. The Books of What is in the Duat (the netherworld, "Unterwelt", "monde inférieur" or Rilke's "Weltinnenraum") were the new guides to the hereafter (cf. Amduat). Contrary to the Book of the Dead which was a development of the Coffin Texts, it was a new, foremost royal literary genre (even absent from the tombs of the queens). The Book of the Dead continued to be an ever-changing collections of spells, but these religious books had a permanent content. The nocturnal, otherworldly forms of the Sun god, and their effect in the netherworld, was the focus of these books. They furnished "the ordering and creative principles for the spaces in the hereafter"28 and hence deal with the nocturnal regeneration of the Sun, implying that on the far side of death renewal is at work and that the netherworld is the "interior of the sky". The early books arrange the nightly course of the Sun in twelve hours, with the Solar Bark in the center of each hour. Later, this Bark disappears, and Re is indicated by a red Sun disk, which remains absent from the damned.

In his Egyptian Solar Religion in the New Kingdom (1995) and The Search for God in Ancient Egypt (2001) Assmann defines the "New Solar Theology" as :

"... the explication and representation of the course of the sun in the non-constellative categories of explicit theology. (...) The New Solar Theology arose as a cognitive iconoclasm that rejected the entire mythic, pictoral world of polytheistic thought. All its basic principles can be understood as theological explications of cosmic phenomena, specifically the sun, its light, and its movement." -
Assmann, 2001, p.201.

The Theban god Amun and the pure Re aspect of the Sun god were akin, for both were understood to be the supreme being, the primeval god, the creator god and the god of life. The Theban theology of the early New Kingdom tried to formulate a theology of Amun-Re which would be comprehensive enough to include the traditions of both Amun and Re. By accumulation and juxtaposition their various features were combined. So the Theban theology of the XVIIIth Dynasty is a continuation of the search for a henotheist articulation of the divine, which had been initiated in the Middle Kingdom. It is also the starting point of the quest for a new concept of the divine (not only "before" everything, but also "in" every thing).29

Different texts evidence this search. For example, consider the Hymns to Amun-Re and the tomb stela of the architects Suti and Hor from the reign of Amenhotep III.30 In these two Hymns to the Sun god, these twin brothers gave a prominent place to the Aten, the physical disk of the Sun. The major themes of Amarna religion are to be found : the Sun, its light and its movement.

"Self-made you fashioned your body,
Creator uncreated.
Sole one, unique one, who traverses eternity.
Remote one, with millions under his care ;
your splendor is like heaven's splendor,
your color brighter than its hues.
When you cross the sky all faces see you,
When you set you are hidden from their sight ;
Daily you give yourself at dawn,
Safe is your sailing under your majesty.
In a brief day you race a course,
Hundred thousands, millions of miles ;
A moment is each day to you,
It has passed when you go down. (...)
When you set in the western mountain,
They sleep as in the state of death."

Suti & Hor : Hymn to the Sun god, Stela British Museum 826, translated by : Lichtheim, 1976, p.87.

In this hymn, most of the elements which became prominent in Amarna religion are present before Akhenaten implemented the final consequences of his reflections on the divine. This New Solar Theology is not an early form of Amarna religion, for these texts "pick up after the Amarna Period at exactely the point at which this new development had been interrupted by Akhenaten's upheaval and continued down until nearly the end of the history of Egyptian religion, side by side with texts expressing the rehabilitated constellative theology of the course of the sun."

That besides the Sun god no other divinities could be tolerated is the original step taken by Akhenaten. Hence, not so much the contents of his message was original and heretic, but rather the politico-religious form in which he poured it (a royal monotheism based on the exclusive nature of the king) as well as the radical way he implemented it (cf. the brutal destruction of the cults and the eradication of the name of Amun).

"The New Solar Theology stood, and understood itself, in the context of the other deities. By way of an example, the frame of the stela of the two architects contains offering prayers to, among others, Hathor, Khons, Mut, Amun-Re, Anubis and the God's Wife Ahmes-Nefertari. Though other deities no longer participated in the course of the sun, they were nevertheless there, and their mere existence stood in the way of a total demythologizing and disenchantment of the world." -
Assmann, 2001, p.208.

2.3 the naturalization of the divine in religious experience

The core of this New Solar Theology has been identified by Assmann as a cognitive iconoclasm which replaced the mythicizing world view with the visible course of the Sun, its light and movement (heliomorphism). 

This demythologizing and subsequent disenchantment comes about by eliminating these elements of religious experience which can not be brought back to the natural course of events. In fact, as there is no divine presence other than the light of the Aten, "we stand here at the treshold less of the monotheistic universal religions than of natural philosophy, and had this religion won out, we might have expected a Thales rather than a Moses."

colos of Amenhotep IV

Gem-pa-Aten temple at East Karnak
"the Aten is found" - Cairo Museum

3 The Rise of Akhenaten

3.1 Again Pharaoh's titulary.

Did Amenhotep III reign with his son ? A long coregency of the two Pharaohs is excluded.33 In fact, for a long time, the prince could have entertained little hope that he would ever mount the throne of his ancestors, for his brother prince Tuthmosis had been recognized as the heir of Amenhotep III and as such filled the office of Governor of Memphis and High Priest of its god Ptah. But he died young for unknown reasons (in year 27, ca. 1365 BCE).

The royal titulary may be seen as the program of a reign.

At his ascent (ca. 1353 BCE), the Throne name adopted by Amenhotep IV was : "Nefer-kheperu-Re Waenre" (or : "perfect are the manifestations of Re, sole one of Re"). He never changed this.

His first sanctuary (a temple-complex) rose at Karnak. Extensive work has revealed tens of thousands of building blocks from a variety of structural elements, as whole temple walls. At the outset of his reign, large blocks were used, whereas later the new sanctuaries of Aten were built from small, easily carried sandstone blocks which were one handbreadth in height and two in width ("talatat" or "three"-blocks). One of the sanctuaries seems to have been reserved for Pharaoh's wife Nefertiti ("the beautiful one has come") depicted as carrying out cultic activities which are normally performed by Pharaoh. Five years later, he would stop adorn Thebes with temples for the Aten.

Amenhotep IV did not dedicate this complex at Karnak to Amun-Re, the "king of the gods" and cultic lord of the temple, but to the Sun god as viewed by the priests of Heliopolis, namely Re-Herakhty ("Re-Horus of the Two Horizons") also called "Aten" and understood as the dwelling-place of Shu (Aten had been used to indicate the physical Sun and now received worship as a deity). This "new god" which Akhenaten's teaching initiated, was given a formal (dogmatic, didactical) name : "Re-Herakhty, who rejoices in the horizon in his name Shu, who is Aten". 

Re-Herakhty was worshipped in his traditional form of the heroic god. In the Old Kingdom, Herakhty had been venerated in On (Iunu, Heliopolis) as "Horus of the Two Horizons". He was represented as a falcon bearing the Uraeus-encircled solar disk on his vertex. He is the Sun god emerging at dawn, sovereign of the sky and knower of the holy places where the blessed souls abide.

"The reed-floats of the sky are set in place for Re.
That he may cross on them to the horizon.
The reed-floats of the sky are set in place for Herakhti.
That Herakhti may cross on them to Re."

Pyramid Texts, utterance 263 (§ 337).

Horus of the Two Horizons, combined Re and Horus, and as Re-Herakhty, the translation "king of the sky" is also applicable. This god is a solarized Horus, symbolizing the emergent, dawning power of the fully rejuvenated & regenerated Solar deity, an eternal, beautiful youth. Herakhty was associated with the East, Re with the West. Together, they were "Horus of the two Horizons", as Akhenaten would insist. 

In early inscriptions, Akhenaten still appeared before Amun-Re in the traditional manner. On a scarab in the British Museum, he is designated as the one "whom Amun-Re chose from among millions" !

The reference to Shu can be understood as follows :

  • in the cosmogonies of the Old Kingdom, Shu & Tefnut are the first two deities to belong to the created order (Atum emerges and simultaneously creates Shu & Tefnut) and without this division between heaven and Earth (by the air between them) nothing would have come forth ;

  • in the Coffin Texts, Shu (the word "shu" means "light-filled air"), the god of air, "makes it light after the darkness" ;

  • the Aten or Sun disk is the dwelling-place of Shu (with the rays of its disk, the Sun clarifies the division made by Shu, division which is the necessary condition for anything to exist).

In the third year of his reign, Akhenaten also enclosed the didactical name of the Aten in a cartouche, as if it were part of the royal titulary. From the third to the fifth regnal year, he carried out a vast "Aten-project" or a formidable and thorough reorganization in religion, art, language, cult administration, economy etc. (in year 4, the high priest of Amun was literally sent "into the desert" and priest were reindoctrinated).

In the fifth year, the new Residence, Akhetaten ("Horizon of the Aten") is a gigantic construction site. The project was never really finished (Pharaoh was unusually depicted with a hammer in his hand), but in the fifth or sixth year, Amenhotep IV changed his royal titulary.

  1. Horus name : changed from "Strong Bull of the Double Plumes" to "Strong Bull, Beloved (or lover) of Aten" ;

  2. Nebty name : changed from "Great of Kingship in Karnak" to "Great of Kingship in Khut-Aten" (his newly founded residence of Akhetaten) ;  

  3. Gold name : from "Crowned in Heliopolis of the South" (Thebes) to "Exalter of the Name of Aten" ;

  4. Throne name : the core of the name : "Nefer-kheperu-re Waenre" or : "perfect are the manifestations of Re, the sole one of Re" remained unaltered but he added "Living by Maat" ;

  5. personal (nomen) name : from "Amenhotep god-ruler of Thebes" to "He who is useful to Aten, Radiance of Aten or Glory of Aten". In Egyptian, "Akhenaten" sounded something like "Akhanyati" 35

These changes were recorded on a boundary stelæ of year 6 (fourth month of winter, day 13) :

"The living Horus : Strong Bull beloved of Aten ; Two Ladies : Great of Kingship in Aten ; Gold-Horus : Who exalts the name of Aten ; the King of Upper and Lower Egypt who lives by Maat, the Lord of the Two Lands : Nefer-kheperu-Re, Sole-one-of-Re ; the Son of Re who lives by Maat, the Lord of crowns : Akhenaten, great in his lifetime, given life forever."
Akehenaten : Later Boudary Stelæ, at El-Amarna, translated by : Lichtheim, 1976, p.49, italics are cartouched.

Akhenaten made fourteen stelæ to record his founding of the new City of Light, Akhet-Aten ('the horizon of the Aten"). First three boundary stelæ were carved into the limestone cliffs on the East bank, at the northern & southern ends of the town. Later eleven more were cut into the cliffs, eight on the East and three on the West bank. The actual city lay only on the East bank, where the cemeteries are also to be found. He never did anything on the West bank, so the traditional "beautiful West" (the realm of the dead) played no role. The eleven stelæ bear one basic text with some additions and variations.

His traditional titles remained, but he used to style himself "the beautiful child of the living Aten". About four years later, the Aten too received a new royal titulary. The names Horus and Shu were removed from the new double cartouche, leaving only Aten and Re. The new "didactic" name or credo became : "Re-ruler-of-the-twin-horizons, who rejoices in the horizon in his name as Re-the-father-who-returns-as-Aten." 36 

These changes point to one direction only : the variety of appellations are avoided to the advantage of a single, unique deity : Re as the Aten. All associations with Amun (theological as wel as political) are eliminated. Also Atum is avoided, for this would associate creation too much with the first time ("zep tepi") and the chaotic realm before creation (Nun). Of this, no mention is made for there is no divine presence other than light.

There are reasons to believe Akhenaten inaugurated the royal status of the Aten with the celebration of a Sed-festival (however not in Akhetaten). A representation is not enough proof, for even Akhenaten is represented felling enemies without having undertaken a single military campaign. However, although his father Amenhotep III had invited all the deities in the land to celebrate with him, Akhenaten is represented as striding from shrine to shrine, each containing only the Aten, depicted as the Sun disk with its life-giving rays. All plurality is reduced to the singular.37 

The following choices point in the same direction :

  1. in Thebes, beginning as "Amenhotep", he erects a temple for Re-Herakhty, favouring light (Re) and the mystical place of its emerging (the horizon or "akhet") ;

  2. the new nomen name "Akhenaten" combines the notion of "efficiency" and "spirituality" (both "akh") with that of divine physical light (Aten). Pharaoh is a divine spirit who is effective for the Aten ;

  3. his great monument, and proof of power, is a new capital, a new city of Akhetaten, where all aspects of the new creation may be combined as in the horizon or "akhet" of the Aten ;

  4. the linguistic nearness between "akh" and "akhet" is used to convey the effectiveness of the power of the Eastern horizon, the mystical locus of the dawn of a new creation.

3.2 The grotesque Pharaoh,  permanent dynamism & intimacy.

The colossal statues in the Gem-pa-Aten temple are the earliest evidence of a change of artistic style. Egyptologists described them often in pejorative terms : Champollion employed the term "morbidezza" or softness, Wiedemann found the representations "in a frightfully ugly form, caricature", Wolf said the style invoked a "sick ugliness and nervous decadence", whereas Schäfter thought that he wanted to shock with his repulsive ugliness.

"Everything that had been static, fixed in place for eternity, is now set in motion. Vertical axes become diagonal, stressed by receding foreheads and elongated crowns. (...) movement characterized the playful, caressing intimacy of the royal family, which is depicted in lively group scenes, and the fluttering bands of cloth that dangle from clothes, crowns, and articles of furniture." -
Hornung, 1999, p.44, my italics.

As soon as Pharaoh Akhenaten had changed his religion and his name, he also changed his own form and figure. In the earlier monuments, he still had retained some of the typical features of his father and his ancestors, but in Akhetaten (Tell el-'Amarna) his physical appearence totally changed too. His head was portrayed with a very high, narrow and receding forehead, with a large, sharp, aquiline nose, a weak, thin mouth and a large chin. This head was set upon a long, slender neck. Round chest, inflated stomack, large & broad thighs ... in many ways resembling a woman. 

"Their common denominator is a symbolic gathering of all attributes of the creator-god into the physical body of the king himself. The Aten subsumes into itself all the different gods who create and maintain the universe, and the king is the living image of the Aten on earth. He can therefore display on earth the Aten's multiple life-giving functions. These are represented through a set of signifiers that seem mutually contradictory to modern viewers, such as the appearance of female and male physical characteristics on the same statue, but made sense to the intended Egyptian audience. These attributes render the king literally superhuman, a divine body which goes beyond human experience." -
Montserrat, 2001, p.48.

So-called "Amarna Art" has been compared with schools of Modern Art using a free form. Schäfter saw "expressionism" at work, as did Scharff. Montserrat (2001) doubts whether it is possible to compare Amarna with European currents and styles. Perhaps it is better to mark how it differs from the Egyptian canon ? For Hornung, this new style was a rebellion against the classical ideal of the XVIIIth dynasty.38

hand of Akhenaten
limestone example of the innovative style of Amarna

Driven by his interest in dynamic process, Akhenaten as it were returned to the perennial idea behind the representation of the sign of "god" ("nTr" or "neter" pronounced "netjer") as a flagpole with two to four ribbons attached to the top and hence able to float in the air (representations show how, at the entrance of Akhenaten's Great Temple of the Aten at Amarna -760m long by 290m wide-, there were ten flagpoles instead of the eight of Karnak). This crucial sign acquired its definitive form as early as the Old Kingdom, starting with the IIIth Dynasty (ca. 2670 - 2600 BCE), with strips around the complete pole (like a mummy) attached by a cord with its extremity projecting outwards like a ribbon.39 The association with movement is evident and consistent with the Heliopolitan cosmogony, focusing on the emergence of Atum out of Nun as Shu, the god of air who separated Earth and sky, and the return to the "first occurrence" ("neheh"-time or eternal recurrence). Early in his reign, Akhenaten identified with Atum and Re-Horakethy (cf. Gem-pa-Aten temple in East Karnak), but soon he avoided all associations invoking the teachings of the netherworld of Osiris and the "first time" of the autogenous Atum and Nun. Indeed, Amarna theology intends no hiddenness, darkness or inertia (cf. infra).

Earlier scenes of deities and their mythological contexts were replaced by family scenes, in which all six daughters of Akhenaten & Nefertiti appeared. Because of the life-giving force of the Aten, the love existing in this "holy family" is portrayed intimately & emphatically. The children caress one another and are tended with affection by their parents, sitting on their lap ...This intimacy is exceptional and clearly innovative.

hands of statue of Akhenaten & Nefertiti
red quartzite - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Along with movement, we also see scenes of kissing, embracing, caressing, mourning & nursing among the royal family. They represented, with previously unthinkable freedom, the love emanating from the Aten who strove for the togetherness of his creatures. This does not mean his artists were free to do what they wanted, for more than likely Pharaoh himself established the new artistic canon. Even the size of the represented individuals did not depend any longer on their relative importance within the scene (sometimes Pharaoh is depicted as smaller than his workers !).

We may speak of "Amarna culture", for Akhenaten also elevated the spoken language of the New Kingdom into a new written language (Late Egyptian). In Late Egyptian, the verbal system (coordinating the expression of movement) changed. It replaced Middle Egyptian developed at the end of the Old Kingdom. Although Middle Egyptian remained the religious & royal language, Late Egyptian literature arose soon after Akhenaten's reign. 

3.3 The singularity of divine mediation : Aten - King - Queen.

The Aten as the light of the Sun keeps the world alive. He creates the world again and again and this continually. The original creation of the world was not discussed, for Nun had to be avoided. Everlastingness (Nun, Osiris) was not the focus, but eternal recurrence (Atum, Re). The underworld, the nocturnal stride of Re, the defeat of Apopis, the bark of Re and the kingdom of Osiris were all ousted. The royal status of the Aten was promulgated with rigor, for the Aten had a royal titulary, wore an uræus and celebrated Sed-festivals ! 

So Akhenaten viewed the Aten, his father, as his Pharaoh. This Aten was more than just one of the deities. Never did the new god take the place of individual deities like Amun. Rather, the Aten took the place of the divine realm as a whole, with light as his "immanence", however with the exclusion of the hidden, the netherworld and the "zep tepi", the first time emerging in the Nun with the self-creation of Atum.

On the other hand, Pharaoh was co-substantially one with his father, the Aten. Previously, the title "son of Re" had been stressing the divine & filial origin of Pharaoh, but Akhenaten went further. This can be read in the Book of Gates, which may have been written during the Amarna Period.

In the 8th Hour, we read the following remarkable articulation of the co-substantial unity between Atum and Re : "I am the son who emerged from his father, I am the father who emerged from his son."40 Both are of the "same substance" (cf. the problem of the "homo(i)ousia" of Christ and the Heavenly Father in Christian theology more than fifteen centuries later !). Between the Aten and Akhenaten, the same co-substantiality existed as between the Christian God and His unique Son Christ.

This co-substantiality implied the Aten (as father) was not accessible to anyone but to Akhenaten (as his unique son). And so, Akhenaten (as father) was the personal god of the individual (as adoptive son Akhenaten). Hence, in Amarna religion, piety was a relationship between the Aten and Pharaoh (father versus son) on the one hand, and between Pharaoh and the people on the other hand. Pharaoh set out on processions, performed signs and wonders, and intervened in the destiny of the individual. He was the Great Father of the World. A clear return to the "cannibalistic" powers Pharaoh had in the Old Kingdom.

Hence, the mystical aspect of the religious continuum, part of a proto-rational mode of thought prone to naturalization and universalization, was projected (as it was in the Old Kingdom in a mythical, pre-rational and polytheistic context) on the person of Pharaoh. Total dependence implied personal piety consisted exclusively in absolute loyalty to Pharaoh, to Akhenaten as a divine person, an ego as sole god. In the Amarna Letters, his servants were often compared with the dirt under the feet of Pharaoh, and to fall at his feet was common practice.41

"Say to the king, my lord, my Sun, my god :
'Message of Zitriyara, your servant, 
the dirt under your feet, and the mire you tread on. 
It fall at the feet of the king, my lord, my Sun, my god.'
7 times and 7 times, both on the stomack and on the back."

Moran, 1992, p.283.

n the hymn of the architects Suti and Hor, the Sun god is called "mother of humans and deities". Akhenaten himself was often named "Nile of Egypt", embodying the annual inundation and the goods of nature. He is also called "mother who bears all". This role of the female element does not belong to the periphery, neither is it of a purely political importance. Although she was never officially co-regent, Akhenaten saw in his wife Nefertiti a goddess. 

As Assmann has rightly pointed out, the Old Kingdom triad : Atum - Shu - Tefnut shines through.42 Early in his reign Pharaoh Akhenaten wore the four-feathered crown of Shu (cf. the colossal statues at Karnak). The triad : Aten - Akhenaten - Nefertiti was represented on the stelæ of household altars and object of household cults & private devotions. In no other way was the Aten accessible to the individual. Pharaoh and his queen prayed to the Aten and the people prayed to the triad. Piety as placing a deity "in one's heart" was reserved for Akhenaten and Nefertiti.

What a reduction of the possible spiritual mediators ! Officially, all other deities were rejected. The Aten of Akhenaten was not only above them (with what is unknown revealed to his son, who had the Aten in his heart), but also and foremost against them. Furthermore, no sacred priesthood was put in place which could serve as valid replacement of the holy trinity. Only the latter could guarantee the commoners anything. And ... Akhenaten probably had no sons.

It was this singularity of divine mediation which lies at the root of Akhenaten's failure to establish a religion which would last longer than his reign. Is it probable he thought the Aten would provide for a son to continue his work ? His wives only gave birth to six daughters. As a result, when Akhenaten died, there was no direct line assuring the continuity of what had been realized. The fact of the exclusivity of the Aten (returning much later as the exclusive light, path and truth of the Messiah Jesus Christ) being the theo-ontological complement of this.

photo after Hari, 1985, plate XXVI.

Great Hymn
to the Aten

 by Akhenaten 
ca. 1353 - 1336 BCE

In the Tomb of Ay
West Wall

the long 13 text columns begin at the top of the wall and below it are kneeling figures of Ay and his wife

 the present text made use of the hieroglyphic text (751KB)  and recent translations
because of its special nature, "akhet" (horizon) is translated as "lightland"
my translation was mostly inspired by the one done by Lichtheim

The translation of The Great Hymn to the Aten is part of my Ancient Egyptian Readings (2016), a POD publication in paperback format of all translations available at These readings span a period of thirteen centuries, covering all important stages of Ancient Egyptian literature. Translated from Egyptian originals, they are ordered chronologically and were considered by the Egyptians as part of the core of their vast literature.

The study of the sources, hieroglyphs, commentaries and pictures situating the text itself remain on the website at no cost.

In what follows the "Aten-project" is analyzed from four perspectives : the cultic, the nomic, the cosmic & the mystic.

4 The Aten-project

CULTIC : dictatorial eradications & an imposed religion

4.1 The brutal end of previous worship, especially of Amun.

"... Egyptian cult is not to be understood as communication between the human and divine realms, but as an act of communication that took place purely in the divine realm, with priests playing the roles of deities in the framework of set constellations." - Assmann, 2001, p.156.

At the time (or just a little later) when Akhenaten changed the didactical name of the Aten, he took the most radical step an Egyptian Pharaoh would ever make. The removal of Horus and Shu preluded, in principle, the end of all worship in the land not dedicated to the Aten ! Akhenaten was the first "founder" of a religion who had all the power of the state at his disposal to implement his revolution. Although he did not succeed, he went about in unseen ways.

His efforts implied the physical obliteration of the old deities by the erasure of their names and sometimes of their pictoral representation as well. An unseen iconoclasm ! Especially Amun and his consort Mut were targeted, but it sporadically affected other deities as well. The plural writing of the word "god" was rejected too. Thoth (the god of magic) was not touched and the persecution was not consistent. 

"We must imagine that the suppression of the old cults was not altogether consistent in the distant provinces, and that Thebes surely was a special case. (...) The discovery of figurines of traditional deities in the houses at Amarna is significant. They must stem from a time when these deities were officially persecuted, thus testifying to their continuing, albeit secret, worship ; at the same time, they touch on the area of magic, which was totally excluded from official religion in the Amarna Period." -
Hornung, 1999, pp.86 and 111.

But the name of Amun was erased from the lettes of the diplomatic archive, scarabs, tips of obelisks & pyramids and even his own former name "Amenhotep" was mutilated. Akhenaten wanted to destroy Amun's role as "refuge of the poor", for only the holy triad could guarantee the individual anything.

"The founding of the religion must have been all the more shocking in that Akhenaten proceeded with unprecedented brutality. The new religion was not promoted, it was imposed. Tradition was not questioned, it was persecuted and forbidden. (...) To appreciate the tremendous and consciousness altering significance of these steps, we must bear in mind that this new religion did not make its appearance in a situation of competing doctrines of religious salvation or general lack of orientation, but rather set itself against plain reality and reduced it to an excluded alternative." -
Assmann, 2001, pp.199-200.

4.2 New open temples with no statues, roofs or holy of holies.

The new temples erected by the king were totally different than what places of worship had been before. The Amarga religion had no cult statues, for the only form of the Sun god was the Aten, the physical disk of the Sun. Indwelling was done away with. Representations were in sunk relief and depicted the royal couple. The Aten is a disk with a bulge, suggestive of a sphere or globe. Rays emanate downward, ending in hands from which an Ankh-sign hangs, i.e. "giving life". They extend to Pharaoh and his queen, for they were no mere mortals, and were considered to receive the blessings from the Aten directly and then pass them on to their followers, who worshipped them.

the Royal Family adoring the Aten
panel in painted limestone - Tell el-Amarna, royal tombs

Before Amarna, temples were a shrine for the hidden cult image of a deity. Aside from the radiant Sun, the Aten had no image, and so the whole world was his shrine. As the only way to reach the Aten was through prayers and offerings to the holy family (who's central figures were part of the holy triad), no purification, anointment and clothing of the divine image were longer necessary (the daily service stopped). The new artistic style (movement & intimacy) was coupled with a new kind of architecture : the temple at Amarna remained sheltered by high walls from the outside but was open from above to the light of the Sun. The doorways had broken lintels and the processional way through the middle of the columned halls was unroofed. To reduce shadows doorways had raised thresholds. Every cultic act took place under the radiant Sun. That this caused some Assyrian messengers to die in the Sun was only acceptible for the Assyrian king if it profited Akhenaten. 

"Why should messengers be made to stay constantly out in the sun and so die in the sun ? If staying out in the sun means profit for the king, then let the messenger stay out and let him die right there in the sun, but for the king himself there must be a profit. Or otherwise, why should they die in the sun ? As to the messengers we have exchanged (...) do they keep my messengers alive ? They are made to die in the sun !"
Moran, 1992, p.39.

Aerial view of the Central City
the darker are at the bottom is the western edge

Because of this abundance of light, sunk reliefs were used even in the interior of the buildings. There was no need for a remote & dark holy of holies for the cult image of the deity made of costly materials. At dawn, the Aten filled the temple completely and that was his exclusive presence, except for his son Akhenaten, who was the only one to know his father and secure a place for him in his heart.

4.3 Flowers as the perferred offering.

The life-giving and life-sustaining hands of the Aten were everywhere. They could take hold of offerings everywhere they touched. The altars were overfilled with food and although there were still sacrificial offerings of cattle & geeze (the Aten temple had its own slaughterhouse), the offerings were decked with flowers, the preferred offering, still accompanied by the singing of hymns and by incense and music.

4.4 New dynamical representations : globe, Ankh, chariot.

The abolition of all cult statues was radical. The only representation made of the Aten was the shining, radiant globe with its hands extending downwards, giving life to everything touched.

The Ankh became the sign which represented the life-force of the Aten. The holy family riding on a chariot (introduced by the Hyksos, the "foreign kings") on which the Aten poured its rays being the crucial synthetical image of Amarna religion and its accent on movement and change, so typical for the Sun in its daily course (it replaced the barque processions on festival days).

the Royal Family in a Chariot and blessed by the Aten
after Davies, 1905, plate 32A

NOMIC : radical naturalization of the "old" religion

4.5 Only Aten is divine and there is no god but Aten.

Akhenaten "found" the Aten by discovering the world's dependence on light, to be understood as the foundational principle of his Amarna religion. All could be derived from it and it embraced everything. In the early years, this was put down in the formula "me qedef" or "there is none like him". In the rock tombs of El Amarna we find "wepu heref" or "there is no other but him". Likewise, Pharaoh was "unique like Aten, there being no other great one but him" (cf. tomb of Aya). In the Great Hymn we read that : "O sole god without equal !" (notice the absolutely singular use of "netjer"). The Aten had no enemies, no rivals and no spouse. He had only one son (who had none !).

With his insistence on one god, by affirming that there is no other god than the Aten and that Akhenaten is his messenger, Akhenaten came formally very close to the core of radical monotheism, as we find it rationally expressed in the Koran (cf. "tawhîd"). However, by stressing the physical light of the Sun, he content-wise limited the scope of his metaphysical outlook on the divine. For in the Koran, Allah is both King of the seen and the unseen (cf. Sufism). In the Recital, the idea of Pharaoh's divinity is also radically rejected (this being the main reason why in the Koran the wickedness of the king of Egypt is stressed so much as well as the insistence that Jesus Christ was not the son of God, Allah being without a second).  

However, in the explicit theological ideas which emerged after Amarna (during the Ramesside Period), a more all-comprehensive outlook came to the fore, which coupled the irreversible cognitive decentration & re-equilibration posed by Amarna culture (denaturalization and focus on the oneness of the Aten) with the mythical, pre-rational contexts of the old religion, for Amarna religion had literary denuded the mythologies of the old religion, i.e. the indwelling pantheon of the Old & Middle Kingdoms (nomes + state gods & their spouses, eventually assimilated by Osiris -the king of the dead- & Amun-Re -the king of the gods-). 

By strictly focusing on the visible and by removing his seal of royal approval from the old religion, Akhenaten had generated a massive trauma which explains why eighty years after his reign he was totally forgotten till the start of modern egyptology (cf. repression in the psychoanalytical views of Freud). This focus on the visible is also the main reason why this extremely remarkable Aten-project failed.

"The Amarna episode came to be completely forgotten within about eighty years, but the experience was traumatic enough to produce legendary traditions which -because of their unlocatability in the official cultural memory- became free-floating and thus susceptible to being associated with a variety of semantically related experience. They formed a 'crypt' in the cultural memory of Egypt." -
Assmann, 1997, p.216.

4.6 Life-giving light is the only divine Presence.

The indwelling of the gods & goddesses was done with. Instead, an incarnational view was promoted. It was coupled with presence, the natural order of light and the unique divine son of the Aten. The Aten first and foremost manifested as the life-giving light. Because Akhenaten was the masculine pole of the Amarna Trinity, he alone was the son of the Aten, and his queen was his first beloved.

In this sense, the Amarna religion offers a very good example of the exclusivity of presence. Distinctions appear when light dawns, otherwise all is opaque as death. If we look for a definite trace of mythological thought in the naturalized Amarna Solar theology, we may find it in the eternalization of the mystery of the moment of dawn (& dusk), rejoiced by all creatures. However, by identifying the diurnal phase of the daily cycle of the Sun (actually the rotation of the Earth around its pole) with the universal deity, Amarna theology was incapable of dealing with the major concern of the Ancient Egyptians : a good afterlife. The nocturnal phase was not thematized. The netherworld and Osiris were left out of the picture, although the Duat was mentioned. The Aten "rested" in the West and as it were immediately "dawned" in the East, from "horizon" to "horizon".

4.7 Pharaoh is the only one with the Aten in his heart.

Akhenaten is the son of the Aten, his father. He alone knows him. Nobody else does. This exclusivity of the mediation is the second reason why the Aten-project failed. What would happen after Akhenaten left this world ? He would continue to exist in the City of Light for the realm of the dead lay in Akhetaten. So living in the City of Light or being dead were conceived as being identical. What came after death would be an exact copy of the conditions in which one already was. Hence death played no role whatsoever. The afterlife was here already. These teachings must have caused anxiety in the hearts of many Egyptians, used to associate the nocturnal phase with the netherworld and the regeneration of the Solar power (invoking the first time). Scepticism regarding the afterlife became a new literary genre.

"Where are their places ? Their walls have collapsed,
their places do not exist, as though they had never been made.
No one comes from there to describe their condition
and give tidings of their needs
and calm our hearts 
until we, too, arrive where they have gone."

Inyotef : Song, Papyrus Harris 500 (BM 10060), 19th dynasty, cited by Hornung, 1999, p.103.  

COSMIC : only light, presence and movement

4.8 Light without darkness.

Akhenaten removed all associations with pre-creation and the "zep tepi" :

  1. "Re-Herakhty, who rejoices in the horizon in his name Shu, who is Aten". 
    At his ascension he identified his god as Re-Herakhty, associated with the East and the rising Sun (cf. Karnak complex). Akhenaten poses as Atum and gives his god the name "Shu", the god who separates Earth & sky and who maintains their division. The root of his name probably means "the void", "to raise oneself" or "to raise something". With this dogmatic statement, he was initiating a new era, raising his new god to the throne of unique, universal deity. But not without making a statement connecting the whole enterprise with the old pantheon and the grand ideals projected on the Old Kingdom and its theology, especially Heliopolitan theology ;

  2. "Re, the ruler of the twin horizons, who rejoices in the horizon in his name Re as the father who returns as Aten."
    When the City of Light was under construction and major reforms were underway, Amenhotep IV changed his name and later the didactic name of the Aten. The titulary had only Re and Aten, the latter being the physical manifestation of the former. All bonds with the old pantheon had been broken. The new dawn had been heralded by Amenhotep IV, and now even that name itself could be mutilated in order to harm Amun. For only the Aten and his son reigned for all of eternity in the City of Light. 

4.9 Presence without absence.

What happened with the Sun after it had set was not discussed. When the Aten "has gone away" the world is left in the sleep of death, only remaining in the heart of the king which was the enduring place of the Aten.

"Another technique of forgetting is silence. This technique was practiced by the Amarna texts, which never speak of what they implicitly reject." -
Assmann, 1997, p.216. 

4.10 Unity without multiplicity. 

The multiple expressions of the divine are reduced to just one : light.

a balustrade section from Akhetaten
early representation - offering to Akhenaten
Tell el-'Amarna - Cairo Museum

As the afterlife was here already, one only needed to secure one's alliance with Akhenaten and his City of Light to be saved. 

Akhenaten placed the queen at all four courners of his sarcophagus, showing that she was his goddess protecting him when he had died (the precedent was imitated by those close around him). The traditional four goddesses were removed.

The notion of a general judgment of the dead, with reward and punishment, were no longer suited. Only the grace & mercy of Pharaoh, himself the plummet of the scale of justice, could assure life to be given to those who had died.

The unloyal did not receive life after death. It was Akhenaten who decided. In the afterlife he cared for his people and the Aten cared for him.

Things were exactely the same as during one's lifetime. To his unloyal servants irreversible oblivion was the punishment given by Akhenaten, who clearly behaved as if he was the one omnipotent god (in the singular).

In the old pantheon, all kinds of deities had been worshipped claiming to be "great" and "the one" (i.e. unique) together with the other nationwide state-gods, who were all "greater" and also "the one" (or monolatry).

That there was an absolutely first and primordial deity was acknowledged by the learned, but Nun and Atum (the main players in the early three cosmogonies) became fairly inactive deities at the increase of Re and his political role in the welfare of his son, the king of Egypt.

Nevertheless, in matters touching regeneration, the afterlife and the creation of the world, the commoners continued to rely on the netherworld and its regenerative link with the primordial waters of Nun. The cults went underground. 

MYSTIC : exclusive & highly subjectified

4.11 Without Pharaoh no salvation.

Without Akhenaten, there was nobody to mediate on behalf of the people. For Pharaoh's relationship with the Aten was emulated by the common people in their interaction with Akhenaten. Take Pharaoh out of the Aten-project and the Aten has no son or representative to be worshipped. Nobody understood the Aten, except Akhenaten. Hence, the matter of "salvation" (in the Ancient Egyptian religion this implied a secure place in the presence of the god) was totally placed in the hands of Pharaoh. Never would the Aten directly intervene for commoners. His life-giving force (although touching and blessing everything it touched) could only be summoned for particularities by Akhenaten. 

This exclusivity points to the deep impact left by some of the mystical experiences of Akhenaten. They had given him the strength to put aside beliefs cherished for thousands of years. That these experiences were not mature can be derived from the fact that he placed himself in the center. That his god Aten was unable to help people without his son did not impress the king as a limitation of his concept of the divine. His understanding of his mystical experiences was rooted in his personality, not in any abstract self-knowledge or in the divine itself. His mysticism was childish.

4.12 Eradication of Amun's interventions on behalf of the common people.

The fact Amun-Re, the king of the gods, who lived in grand temples, also listened to the prayers of common people in their homes (and evolution which started with the rise of individualism in the late Old Kingdom and blossomed in the Middle Kingdom) limited the spiritual status of Pharaoh as the sole mediator, and caused Amun to be abolished. Only Akhenaten listened to prayers and forwarded them to the Aten. No direct contact between the realm of the divine and the commoners was possible. As in the Old Kingdom, only Akhenaten had the exclusivity of mediation. Hence, not only the primordial world, the first time and the variety of deities were rejected, but also the slowly emerging notion that the divine also exists for common people. This must have been very difficult to accept. This is testified by the fact that immediately after the death of Akhenaten, the exclusive worship of the Aten was abolished, as well as the ban on the remainded of the pantheon and the denial of the afterlife in the netherworld (without Akhenaten no salvation).

"Jan Assmann has pointed to the impoverishment of social and religious life which this discontinuance of festivals entailed. Previously, festivals continually afforded fresh opportunities to approach the divine and beseech care and salvation from all sorts of afflictions." -
Hornung, 1999, p.110.

Hence, the Amarna project was characterized by a radical elitism, for the heliomorphism of the divine realms could only be of any value in this world through the anthropomorphism of the Sun god in the unique person of Akhenaten. In Christianity, an analogous process took place, for he who sees Christ the Son -who is both perfectly human and Divine- sees the Father -absolutely Divine- and only the Son is the light, the truth and the way (the role of Nefertiti in the Amarna Trinity was played in the Christ-drama by Jesus' mother Mary and later the "Holy Roman Church", both representatives of the "Holy Spirit").

Akhenaten's exclusivity abrogated the notion of having one's deity in the heart (cf. personal piety). People were radically cut off from the divine and only Akhenaten (interpreting his own mystical experiences with an uni-polar megalomanic superstructure) knew the divine.

"It is clear that even public confession of one's personal god had been forbidden to the individual during the Amarna Period when Aya, the successor of Tutankhamun, boasts, 'I have removed the wretchedness, each person can now pray to his god.' The only resort was the internal. The gods and goddesses hibernated 'in the hearts' of their adorants as objects of longing, mourning, and the injunction that circulated clandestinely : 'Beware of him ! Proclaim him to great and small.'" -
Assmann, 2001, p.229.

4.13 The mystical experience of Nature ?

Some see Amarna religion as a good example of a mysticism of nature, i.e. the direct experience of the divine in and through stations, states & processes of nature. However, this kind of mystical experience was part of the Ancient Egyptian heritage long before Akhenaten. New Kingdom demystification and naturalization brought about by the New Solar Theology made all kinds of contextual & polytheist associations vanish. This made the worship of nature (albeit the Sun) stand erect and naked without overgrowth

The New Solar Theology and its radicalization in Amarna religion points to a kind of "philosophy of nature" avant la lettre. Although these elements are present, one should never forget Amarna religion would not have existed if Akhenaten's mystical experiences would not have taught him he alone had access to the divine. This alone points away from the tenets of a mysticism of nature to the superstructures of a mysticism of God-as-Person.

5 Why was Akhenaten's monotheism sterile ?

"Monotheism is but imperialism in religion." - Breasted, 1972, p. 315.

Let us introduce the following simple definitions :

  1. polytheism : there are an finite number of Gods and Goddesses ; 

  2. monolatry : there is One Great God but reversibly so ; 

  3. henotheism : there is One God who manifests as many Gods and Goddesses ; 

  4. monotheism : there is numerically only 1 God and no Gods and Goddesses.

To speak of a "mature" monotheism, at least the following components should prevail :

  1. radical Aloneness : the essence of the Divine remains ineffable (radical un-saying) ; 

  2. unity of being : the essence of the Divine is Unity ; 

  3. singularity : there is numerically only 1 God.

Egyptologists of the first hour believed polytheism appeared historically after monotheism. In the Adamic story they adhered to (cf. Torah), the former was the result of disobediance to the One God, invoked by the "people of the book" (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). The discovery & study of the Pyramid Texts (from 1881 on) scattered that view, for a variety of deities were active (a lot of divine names and forms). Not one of them was worshipped as "the only Great One" and nobody ruled over the others in any exclusive way (in fact, monolatry reigned : more than one god could be called "Great One").

Gaston Maspero was the first to read an original polytheism in Ancient Egypt. He disregarded the confusing fact the word "netjer" (god) was also used in an absolute, singular sense in personal names, wisdom literature and generalizing propositions. Did this not point to the presence of a "Great One" ? Indeed, others conjectured the existence of a "dieu des sages", a monolatery "for the initiated", co-habitating with popular polytheist figurations of the divine. So original monism was considered possible again ! Hermann Junker conjectured the existence of an anonymous "Great One" in the Old Kingdom.

Hornung made the first step to reconcile the positions by allowing for a fugal original monotheism in the early cosmogonies associated with Atum, while stressing the polytheistic, dynamical and elusive (quantum) nature of the creative order, to which the deities belonged. In doing so, he moved too much to a position in which the unicity of the divine was lost. Assmann suggested the idea of the bi-polar nature of the experience of the divine in Ancient Egypt, although not in these terms. He prefers "explicit" (the search for the Great One) and "implicit" (the figurations of the one in the millions) theology. 

The present work characterizes the spirituality of Ancient Egypt as an unending quest for a balanced religion (Maat), in which both the "Great One" and the "millions" appear : henotheism. Egypt accepted multiple deities, but acknowledged the greatness of some (monolatry) before it realized the hidden Great One is before (and later "in") all deities, or henotheism (only when Atum creates himself is a form of monotheism at work, but only fugally for Atum immediately splits). "One" and "many" were always part of the spiritual continuum and this refutes the notion of a clear-cut identification of the "original" religion as either "unified" (monistic) or "differentiated" (pluralistic). In the Old Kingdom, fugal monism was taken for granted, for the divine was originally One but had immediately differentiated. However, no deity was addressed & worshipped as the "Great One" over and against the many. Was the "Great One" present in every differentiation (aspect), but clearly not in the same way ? This henotheist view became fashionable in the Middle Kingdom, and would culminate in the mature henotheism of Late Ramesside theology.

The confusion regarding the singular noun "god" and the all-comprehensive and universal role played by Nun, Atum & Ptah in the cosmogonies hand in hand with the pantheon, can be taken away by the observation that mature mystical experiences of the Divine (in states, stations & spiritual orders) always call for a superstructure involving a "coincidentio oppositorum" with two complementary sides or polarities :

(a) beyond affirmation & negation versus affirmation or negation in the order of logic : the Divine is being, non-being, beyond being and beyond not-being ; the essence of this "fifth" remains veiled but its attributes & modes are confirmed in all possible states ;
(b) un-saying (ineffable) versus named (knowable) in the order of thought : the essence of the Divine can not be known or experienced but the Presence of the Divine realized ;
(c) uncreated versus created in the order of being : the essence and names of the Divine are uncreated (but the names create) whereas the first cause of creation is not the ultimate cause, although everything is created by It.

"The arcanum of alchemy* is one of these archetypal ideas that fills a gap in the Christian view of the world, namely, the unbridged gulf between the opposites, in particular between good and evil. Only logic knows a tertium non datur ; nature consists entirely of such 'thirds', since she is represented by effects which resolve an opposition - just as a waterfall mediates between 'above' and 'below'. The alchemists sought for that effect which would heal not only the disharmonies of the physical world but the inner psychic conflict as well, the 'affliction of the soul', and they called this effect the lapis Philosophorum. (...) Hence they sought to find ways and means to produce that substance in which all opposites were united. It had to be material as well as spiritual, living as well as inert, masculine as well as feminine, old as well as young, and -presumably- morally neutral. It had to be created by man, and at the same time, since it was an 'increatum', by God himself, the Deus terrestris."
Jung, C.G. : Mysterium Coniunctionis, in : The Collected Works, Routledge & Kegan - London, 1978, volume 14, p.473 & 475 (*) al-chemy : or the art of "Chem", "Egypt".

In the Old Kingdom these polarities came down to :

(hidden) Nun, Atum, "the Great One" , primordial time, first time ... and
(manifest) Shu, Tefnut, Re and the "millions"

In the more individualistic Middle Kingdom, Osiris (NN) ruled the affairs of the afterlife as "king of the dead" and Amun-Re was both "hidden", "king of the gods" and "judge". The old pantheon allowed for the existence of both polarities, but often swayed to the polytheistic extreme of mythical variety hand in hand with mythical and pre-rational thought, i.e. with no stable concepts. The Middle Kingdom saw the advent of a more conscious form of henotheism. The New Kingdom theologies (New Solar, Amarna & Ramesside) demystified divine variety by stressing Re had many manifestations. But besides Re, other deities continued to operate. Nevertheless, the reduction was taken a step further by Akhenaten : monotheism.

Only in Amarna religion were all other deities removed. This major step was unfortunately coupled with an exclusion of darkness and an inflation of the cult of personality, rendering the blend sterile and doomed for perdition.

In the post-Amarna Period of the New Kingdom, the polarity had changed into :

(hidden) Nun, Atum, "the Great One", primordial time, first time ... and
(manifest) Amun-Re who becomes the millions
(in the Memphis Theology the same is said of Ptah)

Amarna radicalized the position and might have worked were it not in the first place for Akhenaten himself. He was unable to truly depersonalize his own mystical experiences and institutionalize his teachings, for example in a sacred priesthood instead of in his beloved Nefertiti. They forgot to be mortals and to understand the consequences of death. Both suggest that Akhenaten had lost the ability to tax the real (psychosis ?).

Moreover, by trying to negate the netherworld and death (also his own), Akhenaten failed to truly universalize the Aten and produce a workable bridge from the old conception of the afterlife to one which did more than just remove the issue and for the rest remain silent. The destruction of the name of Amun shows that Amarna religion provided for an enemy on which to project the cause of all evil (the scape-goat method, so prominent in the history of monotheism). Instead of accepting that their denial of darkness did away with regeneration, they dealt with it as if it was the cause of their weakness and downfall.

Besides these major handicaps, his shaky & naive enterprise was formidable. But how long could it have continued to work after Akhenaten's sonless dusk ? With no mediator left, the Aten had become unreachable, except in death (for then the faithful would join Akhenaten in his City of Light). Was Akhenaten a mystic gone insane ?

Akhenaten's Aten-project did not fail because he was a monist. But is being a monist not the same as being a fundamentalist or in some way intolerant as Hornung claims ? 43 Indeed, true monotheism invokes a solitary God, a "Great One" who is in principle unreachable, and thus in no way salvic. Without a Divine Company, such a solitary God is bound to create a world uncapable to reflect It, Him or Her. This explains the importance of exclusivist prophesy in dogmatic monotheism : by sanctifying a set of texts, a medium can be invoked. Hence, true revelation is a direct infusion from heaven.

The Aten-project failed because Akhenaten's monism was restricted to the diurnal aspect of the course of the Aten only, namely the presence of light at the exclusion of darkness. This kind of one-sidedness, were a part of an obvious totality or whole is repressed, overtook the Aten-project. Fundamentalists do not tolerate the original teaching to be sullied, i.e. stained with foreign elements. In this case, Akhenaten was the creator of the original teaching, so he could hardly have been the first fundamentalist in history. 

On the negative, Akhenaten champions the naive childishness of Pharaonic power and its traumatic effect on a whole nation. Instead of being a fundamentalist, he appeared as a peace-loving dictator with an inflated, megalomanic sense of himself (typical for unbalanced & incomplete higher states of consciousness). Did his mediations & interventions "work" for the people ? His Aten is not the "Great One", precisely because the nocturnal was eliminated (namely the hidden, the dark, the unknown).

On the positive, his religion initiated the emergence of a radical monotheistic view on the divine. By stressing the mathematical unicity of the divine, Akhenaten caused a major cognitive disequilibrium, forcing people to abolish the temples and interiorize their spiritual horizon, i.e. seek the "god in the heart". Paradoxically, the rejected part of reality in Amarna religion (the hidden) became the religious conscience of every individual.  

Despite his teaching only Pharaoh could mediate, temple cults continued to exist and personal piety indeed developed. After Amarna, during the Ramesside period, a tremendous explosion of cultural activity took place. Without Amarna, the picture would have been quite different. After Amarna no violent reactions followed. What had been achieved on the positive side had to be consolidated together with the best of the old (as was usual in Ancient Egypt). Egypt returned to the pantheon, but renewed its theology. A consequent and mature henotheism saw the light.

6 Ancient Egyptian religion after Amarna

6.1 Restoration & the breakthrough of the Ramesside renewal of the old.

In the mortuary temple at Thebes of Smenkhkare, there was an Amun cult. For Hornung (1999, p.109) Smerkhkare was Akhenaten's son-in-law. For Reeves (2001, p.173), Nefernefruaten-Nefertiti (the great queen of Akhenaten) and Smerkhkare were one and the same person, suggesting a co-regency after the 12th regnal year. At the death of Akhenaten (close to the end of the 17th regnal year, following the wine vintage at the end of September or beginning of October), she became Pharaoh, just like Queen Hatshepsut had done before her. Parts of the burial equipment prepared for the use of Akhenaten's queen and (later) co-regent, was found in Tutankhamun's tomb and carry the portrait of their original owner. Smenkhkare (alias Nefertiti) had been impressive and Osirian !

Queen Nefertiti
by Thutmose - still in Germany ...

In two late tomb chapels at Tell el-Amarna, Amun is mentioned next to the Aten. Egyptologists discovered a partially mitigated reform while Akhenaten was still alive ! Tomb 55 contained the mummy of a person of fragile constitution, related to Tutankhamun, in his mid-thirties in excess of 35 years. Weigall argued that the occupant of the coffin was the owner of the four magical bricks found in it. These were inscribed with "the Osiris". This tomb was not the original burial place of the body & its equipment. The latter had probably been transferred from el-Amarna during the reign of Tutankhamun. For Reeves (2001, p.83), tomb 55 was "in fact a hasty reburial of mother and son, accompanied by a random selection of funerary items originally prepared for other and very different owners".

"... it was emphasized that not a scrap of evidence may be cited from the tomb to link any one of any thing in it with Akhenaten's successor ; on the contrary, the inscriptions and their context offer as good a proof as may reasonably be hoped for that the burial was Akhenaten himself - and this is a conclusion with which the most recent anatomical and dental estimated of the occupant's age of death now concur." -
Reeves, 2001, p.173, my italics.

Akhenaten died in the prime of life, probably in the summer of 1336 BCE.

the skull of the body from tomb 55
presumably Akhenaten

The Atenite Triad had no son who could reiterate the role of the father, but only six daughters. Hence, the Atenite Ennead had only two males : the Aten and Akhenaten (merging into one and the same, namely Akhenaten). There was no unequivocal male heir. Loving Smenkhkare (alias Nefertiti) was crowned Pharaoh. Her temple heralds the return to Amun. But this reign was brief. 

Tutankhaten (the living image of the Aten), of uncertain origin, called : "the king's bodily son" (as mentioned in a stray text found at Hermopolis with others depicting Kiya), succeeded Smenkhare (Nefertiti) in ca. 1333 BCE. He was probably the son of Akhenaten and Kiya, the "greatly beloved wife of the king", a lady of lesser rank who had given Akhenaten a son (albeit outside the divine triad). He had no direct part in the Atenite myth, which could only become fruitful through "the king's wife" Nefertiti, which never happened. So in accord with the patrilineal principle, Tutankhaten was direct in line for the throne.

On the back of his golden throne, the royal couple, Tutankhaten and Ankhesenpaaten, are represented beneath the radiant Aten. An attempt to compromize with Amun is prefigurated. Three years later, Tutankhaten changed his name in Tutankhamun ("the living image of Amun") and abandoned Akhetaten. The court was moved to Memphis, whence the text of the "Reformation Stela", proclaiming the end of the reform and the renewal of the old cults. Pharaoh is again designated as the beloved of Amun-Re, Atum, Re-Herakhty, Ptah and Thoth. This variety was necessary to put his royal seal of approval again on the important cults of the land, the temples of which had become a public footpath.

Tutankhamun died (was murdered ?) ca. 1323 BCE. His principal advisor Ay, who buried the young king in style (but in a tomb cut for someone else), became king. When the latter was still a boy, he had first acted as regent for the new king. He also was the father-in-law to Akhenaten (the father of Nefertiti ?). His four-year reign ends in total haze. Ay's tomb is a combination of the models of the radical innovations brought by Amarna (it also contains the Great Hymn to the Aten), with a return to mythological contextualization and derivations from the traditions of the old pantheon. Both tombs contain excepts from the Book of the Netherworld and the Book of the Dead. Ay died in 1319 BCE. General Horemheb seized the throne for himself.

This last member of the 18th Dynasty, used hymns in which the Sun god was again embedded in his traditional mythological niche, making Nut and Hathor mother of the Aten ! The return to the old pantheon was total. But, the tomb of high priest Parennefer of Amun at Karnak was modelled on Amarna tombs. The scenes of Sun worship, with rejoicing on the part of everything touched by its life-force, were not eliminated, neither were the chariots.

Pharaoh Horemheb (ca. 1319 - 1292 BCE) returned unambigeously to pre-Amarna days (33 years earlier). The administration was renewed, and the army reformed. The primacy of the Aten was brought to a formal end, with the dismantlement of Akhenaten's monuments. A series of kings were consigned to oblivion, namely Akhenaten, Smenkhkare (Nefertiti), Tutankhamun and Ay were struck from the records and their monuments usurped. This period had to be forgotten, and history rewritten. Akhenaten became the bogeyman of oral tradition.

In the opinion of the historians of the Ramesside Period that was to follow, general Horemheb was the first legitimate king since Amenhotep III. The Amarna kings fell victim to proscription. Horemheb returned to the traditional rock-cut tomb, but he replaced the Amduat with the new Book of the Netherworld. He died in 1292 BCE and had appointed a front-line officer called Paramessu to be his successor. The latter ascended the throne as Ramesses I, and founded the XIXth Dynasty. He died in 1290 BCE and (for the first time in sixty years) the crown passed to his son who ascended the throne as Sethos I. He reigned till 1279 BCE and in this period he tried to obliterate the traces of Amarna. The memory of Akhenaten was persecuted.

For Assmann, Ramesside theology was preluded by Amarna religion.44 For Hornung the theology of the post-Amarna period was a continuation of the New Solar Theology.45 However, it is clear the radicality of Amarna religion influenced the climate from which the old pantheon could emerge into something new. Especially the emergence of an integral & antinomic formulation of the divine may be grasped as a reaction against the one-sided approach of the Sun god in Amarna religion (light, life and day-time at the exclusion of darkness, death and night-time). The trauma caused by Amarna had triggered a more comprehensive re-articulation of the Ancient Egyptian cognitive horizon of the experience of the divine (mysticism, religious experience, personal piety) and of its theology, without the return of Akhenaten's radical monotheism of light. The repression of the old pantheon and the demise of the temples had interiorized the spiritual inclinations to the point of transformation. Intellectually, the Theban & Memphite theologians would made great leaps forward by developing mature henotheism (of Amun or Ptah). More than ever before, the common people could communitate with their gods, and although remote, Amun listened to the poor and was a compassionate great one god, hidden & alone.

The political system of the late New Kingdom collapsed under the Rameses of the late Ramesside period or XXth Dynasty (ca. 1188 - 1075 BCE). For after Rameses III, the last great Pharaoh able to repell the new invasions by the sea people (Philistines, Libyans), a rapid decay of internal order prevailed, leading to famine, strike, maladministration & the pilage of royal sepultures. The XXth Dynasty ends (ca.1075 BCE) with civil strife and the split of Egypt. With it the New Kingdom is over and the Third Intermediate Period started (ca. 1075 - 664 BCE). The chief priests of Thebes (in charge of the rocking barks & statues of the divine oracles of Amun-Re and hence omnipotent) became the hereditary monarchs (of Southern Upper Egypt) while the kings of Tanis wield power in Northern Lower Egypt (the Delta).

6.2 The integral, antithetic synthesis : Amun-Re who becomes millions.

Hornung is right to claim that in the minds of the Ancient Egyptians, the absolute unity of the "greatest" transcends the order of actual existence with its gods, goddesses, natural kingdoms and humans. The primordial waters & Atum had been in existence before anything else had come into existence. Atum was also associated with the setting Sun, returning to the netherworld (so to speak "in touch" with the primordial waters of the world before creation).

The Great One was not active before creation. Nun was inert. Atum self-engenders in the transition between pre-creation & creation : the first occurrence ("zep tepi"). His unity is co-terminal with Shu & Tefnut and when the rising of the primordial hill starts, the first time is over. This mythical time was the continuous & endless emergence of millions of beings out of chaos through the auto-erotical orgasm of Atum. Participating in this process of emergence and actualization was by itself life-giving.

"Words spoken by him whose names are secret, the Lord of All, who said to the Silent Ones who raged when the Entourage sailed : Go in peace ! I will relate to you the two deeds which my own heart did for me within the Coiled One in order that falsehood might be silenced. I have done four good deeds within the portal of the horizon. I made the four winds so that everyone might breathe in his time. One of my actions. I made the great inundation so that the poor as well as the rich might be strong. One of my actions. I made very man equal to his fellow, and I forbade them to do wrong, but their hearts disobeyed what I had said. One of my actions. I made their hearts not to forget the West, in order to make god's-offerings to the gods of the nomes. One of my actions."
Coffin Texts, spell 1130, VII 462-464.

The New Solar Theology had demystified the old pantheon by stressing light & movement, i.e. creation as theophany of Re. Amarna theology had been the radical consequence and brought forth :

  • the concept of a Great One against and above all other gods & goddesses and 

  • the awareness of the importance of a complete picture of this One, which in the New Kingdom implied both the diurnal and nocturnal phases of the daily course of Re, and not, as in Amarna, only daytime. 

After Amarna, it became clear to the Ancient Egyptian theologians of Amun-Re that their "Great One" was both unified & multiple, unknown & knowable, transcendent & immanent, hidden & manifest, absolute & relative, eternal & temporal, alone & together, distant & far, etc. Individual spirituality (the "god in the heart") became common. 

Moreover, in Ramesside theology, this antithetic & antinomic bi-polarity of the divine is attributed to One Great Amun-Re who tolerated the existence of gods & goddesses next to him. The latter represent the principles of change which govern the realm of actual existence.46 All these deities ultimately derive from the Great One 47 and find there alone ways to become greater (through his beauty). This suggests that the gods & goddesses were but attributes, aspects, Self-manifestations of the hidden One. They represented his togetherness and nearness and compensated for his essence, which is absolutely self-sufficient in aloneness. However, these divinities existed next to the Great One, who did not abrogate them. The Ramesside Period

"... developed an entirely new terminology that made it possible to conceive of the diversity of deities as the colorful reflection of a hidden unity. It worshipped the unity as the hidden god, the deus absconditus et ineffabilis, the 'sacred ba of gods and men' whose names, symbols, emanations, manifestations, shadows and images were the various deities." -
Assmann, 2001, p.241.

The multiple figurations of the gods & goddesses were mysteriously united by this Great One, so to speak ruling over the "Two Lands" of the seen & the unseen. The Great One is above all gods & goddesses and encompasses both the unseen and the seen. But the One is not against them !

Assmann points out that in Ramesside theology, the concept of the "hiddenness" and "primordial oneness" changed. The temporal sequence of pre-existence, first time and actual existence was ontologized in the sense that the hidden unity was found in and no longer before the multiple figurations ! 48 The same can be found in the Memphis Theology, were Ptah encompasses the whole temporal sequence, making things with his words. 

The Great One Amun-Re is present in the divinity of the gods & goddesses (selective nearness, day) as a hidden, transcendent power (remoteness, night) hic et nunc. The Great One is not against the multiple figurations of deities next to Amun-Re. This was the tribute payed to the old religion, the theology of "constellations". The formal conditions of a complete outlook on the bi-polarity of the Divine is realized, however without generalizing the immanence beyond the figurations of gods & goddesses (as Akhenaten had done by identifying the divine realm as a whole with the light of the Aten, however at the exclusion of darkness but against the plurality of deities). Because of this renewal of the pantheon, the traditional deities could exist next to the Great One. This shows the exclusivity of the Aten (Akhenaten's monotheism) had been the breaking-point for Ramesside theologians, who preferred henotheism. 

Furthermore, to conceive the hidden Great One as "the sacred ba of gods and men"49  opened the possibility to transcend the overt cultic forms (the deities) by immanence "in the heart". This unwill to actually abolish the "gods & goddesses" and replace them by names, symbols, emanations, manifestations & images of the hidden Great One against the other deities, may reveal a weak point in this proto-rational discourse. These deities were standard mythological solutions to all kinds of nomic, regional and nation-wide problems. Pre-logical (mythical), pre-rational and proto-rational thoughts were woven together to shape these archetypal forms. They were the concrete concepts and ideas which -in proto-rational thought & language- could not be decontextualized

The ultimate validation of these concrete concepts could not be realized at the proto-rational cognitive level of thought. Ramesside theology arrived at a bi-polar concept of the divine, but was unable to relinquish its images. It arrived at a "hidden" henotheism of mystery & secrecy. This "hiddenness" of the Great One is in itself a decontextualization of the various deities and hence the first step towards a rational discourse. However, the fact that this unity was ineffable and that it was left open how this "hidden" power is able to differentiate is such a variety shows that this first step did not go beyond the threshold between the perfected proto-rationality of Ramesside theology and the beginning of monotheist reasoning, which calls to eliminate the divine status of the deities to the advantage of the Great One Alone above and against all gods & goddesses. Only then is the formal condition of monotheism, the theology of formal reason, fulfilled.

In that sense, the Great Hymn to the Aten contains the first radical, demystified departure from polytheism and henotheism. The reason why it failed in Ancient Egypt, was because the Aten is against all other deities (the dogmatic definition of the Aten is also incomplete because of the negation of the nocturnal). Amarna theology blossomed around a radically exclusive Solar religion limiting mediation to a sheer mortal and not to something more lasting after him. But the teachings themselves evidence traces of a decontextualized use of its concrete concepts (exclusivity of the Aten, story of the two Niles), indicating a level of thought leaping here and there beyond the proto-rational. Had Akhenaten assimilated the noctural phase in his teaching and provided for a more universal principle of mediation (like a sacred Aten priesthood), then Amarna religion would have had the features of a spirituality based on a natural philosophy. However, Amarna shows that for the Ancient Egyptians, the variety of deities was the foundation of their spirituality. They only touched monotheism but failed to understand its consequences fully. Akhenaten's "heresy" is precisely his radical rejection of multiplicity "in principle".

The Ancient Egyptians were unable to arrive at a rational monotheistic discourse and remained ante-rational henotheists. The best they could do was a splendid proto-rational synthesis of the bi-polar architecture of the spiritual experience of humanity, to which they gave form in an outspoken original, lasting and bewildering figural, pictoral & imaginal henotheist language. But in this language, the Great One is the hidden binding-stuff between the deities. How this Great One could remain unified facing the millions (who retained their own divinity) remained the mystery of his "ba".

Let us read this Hymn to Amun of the Ramesside period :

1      200th Chapter.
        Secret of manifestations and sparkling of shape.
        Marvellous God, rich in forms.
        All gods boast of Him,
5      to magnify
themselves in His beauty,
        to the extent of His Divinity.
        Re himself is united with His body.
        He is the great one in Heliopolis.
        He is called Tatenen.
        Amun, who comes out of the Nun,
        to guide the peoples.

10    Another of His forms are the Eight,
        primeval one of the primeval ones, begetter of Re.
        He completed himself as Atum, 
        being of one body with him.
        He is the Universal Lord, 
        who initiated that which exists.

        His Soul, they say, is the one who is in the sky.
15    He is the one who is in the netherworld, 
        foremost of the East.
        His Soul is in the sky, His body in the West.
        His statue is in southern Heliopolis,
      elevating His body.

        One is Amun,
        who keeps Himself concealed from them,
        who hides Himself from the gods,
        no one knowing His nature.
20    He is more remote than the sky,
        He is deeper than the netherworld.

        None of the gods knows His true form.
        His image is not unfolded in the papyrus rolls.
        Nothing certain is testified about Him.

25    He is too secretive for His Majesty to be revealed,
        He is too great to be enquired after,
        too powerful to be known.

        People immediately fall face to face into death
        when His Name is uttered knowingly or unknowingly.
        There is no god able to invoke Him by it.

 He is Soul-like, hidden of name, like His Secrecy.

As Assmann pointed out, this hymn has a bipartite division : the first half deals with "affirmative" (positive) theology, the second with "negating" (negative) theology. The Great One is rich in forms but his name is unknown even to the deities. The "one who makes himself into millions".

This ineffable nature and greatness of Amun did not entail the next step, namely to posit the Great One against the deities, and to understand existence as a whole (the world) as a Self-manifestation of the Great One alone (in an endless number of attributes, and not only as "light" as had been the case for Akhenaten). This radical, rational step (although contents-wise the Great One now also manifested in the nocturnal phase) was not taken. Instead, the world by itself remained a differentiated divine existence worshipped in the various cults (old religion).

Observe these three different types of theism in the spirituality of Ancient Egypt :

  1. fugal monotheism in the Old Kingdom : the primordial Atum, Lord of All, is the Great One who creates the gods & goddesses, but he exists only perpetually in the "first time" which re-occurs and hence represents a mythical eternity - although Self-generated, Atum's coming into existence entails a divine company, for Atum splits into Shu and Tefnut ;

  2. Solar monotheism of light in Amarna culture : the Aten is the Great One who is and creates all with light and who is above and against all other deities ;

  3. henotheism of hiddenness in the Ramesside Period : Amun-Re is the Great One who is the hidden "soul" of everything tolerating other divinities, who are the One's many faces. Like Ptah in the Memphis Theology, Amun-Re encompasses the all (pan-en-theism). The formula "one who is all" is bi-polar : a hidden, ineffable One essence and a hidden oneness behind the multiple ("omnia unum esse et unum omnia") was realized by Ramesside theology hand in hand with a variety of deities and cults. Moreover, the "unity" of the manifold was internalized as the implicit soul of the world ("anima mundi") living in the heart of every individual (cf. Vedantic philosophy with its "atman = brahman", the Qabalah of Adam Kadmon and the Hermetical correspondences between macro- and microcosmos).

Which monotheist conclusions did Ramesside theologians refused to draw from the experience of Akhenaten ? There is no Great One, if there are other divinities worshipped next to Him. He is One without a Second, let be Millions. The Aten-project in itself was monotheistic and radical (the Sole Aten was against other cults). Restricted by a theology which was exclusively Solar and by Akhenaten's exclusion of the Sun's nocturnal phase, Amarna religion had been unable to take root.

Major drawbacks inherent in the ante-rational cultural form of Ancient Egyptian civilization were :

  1. the undying alliance with the old pantheon ;

  2. the figural, pictoral (iconic) symbolizations of their concrete concepts which did not help the process of formal decontextualization ;

  3. the deep-rooted cultural habit of the "multiplicity of approaches" (religious & artistic coherence and compromize instead of relative consistency -as in the Amarna teachings-) ; 

  4. continuous renewal of the old (conservationism which was deeply against ideological revolutions).

6.3 the Mosaic revelation, "YHVH Elohîm" and the elimination of the figural & the inert.

Exodus 2,5-9 : "And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river ; and her maidens walked along by the river's side ; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it. And when she had opened it, she saw the child : and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him and said, This is one of the Hebrews' children. (...) And she called his name Moses : and she said, Because I drew him out of the water."
Acts 7,22 : "And Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds."

As Assmann rightly pointed out, Moses is of memory, while Akhenaten is of history.50  Nevertheless, on the "Israel Stela" of Merneptah (the Pharaoh who succeeded Rameses II) a people "Israel" appears for the first time in a list of the places and peoples ruled by Egypt (including Canaan). Biblical tradition affirms the children of Israel helped Ramesses II to expand Piramses (Pi-Riamsese) in the eastern Delta. This would make the "daughter of Pharaoh" the daughter of Seti I and situate one of the Exodus-stories (cf. Luban, 2003) during the reign of Ramesses II, raised to believe Moses was his brother. Moses, as a prince of Egypt, must have been aware of the problems in New Kingdom theology. And in view of his prophetic abilities later, he no doubt was interested in it too. What could he have learned from the Jews about Abraham and the foundation of their traditions ? 

"I assert that the Book of Exodus is a story, containing elements of both truth and fiction. It is a composition that incorporates bits of reality from perhaps four separate exodoi of the Children of Israel ... " -
Luban, 2003, p.9, my italics.

The Divine given to Abraham was "Elohîms" ("ALHYM"), a plurality of Divine faces, pronounced as "Eloha" in the singular. To Abraham, the "Elohîm" are living, creative forces, able to love and to change the world as they will (the "Sephiroth" of the Qabalah).

"And YHVH appeared to Abraham in the plains of Mamrê as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day ; And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him ..."
Genesis, 18:1-2, my italics.

These Divine energies are not a pantheon of "higher beings". They are the manifold expression of the One who's essence remained unnamed : YHVH. But the manifold of Divine expressions and presences are recognized (known) as a hierarchy of operational energies rooted in a transcendent Divine ineffable essence. "Eloha", the first of the "Elohîm", is the Creator of All, Creator of heaven & Earth, the first cause. The Elohîm" appears as an organized plurality under the unity of Adonai, or the "Lord", the vocal singular form of the absolutely transcendent ineffable "YHVH", as such unknown to Abraham, to whom only "ALHYM" was revealed. 

After realizing he was Hebrew, after killing an Egyptian and being expelled, so the good book goes, Moses finally climbed the sacred mountain, the Horeb. While he had his eye wide open, "YHVH" (the) "Elohîm" revealed to him the core of Divine exteriority ("AHYH"), the Heart of the Lord, and hence His Ineffable Name.

"And Moses said to Elohîm, 
Behold, when I come to the children of Israel, and shall say to them,
the Elohîm of your fathers hath sent me to You ; 
and they shall say to me, What is His Name ? what shall I say to them ?
And Elohîm said to Moses : "AHYH" (I AM AND WILL BECOME) (...)
And Elohîm said moreover to Moses, Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel,
YHVH the Elohîm of your fathers, the Elohîm of Abraham, the Elohîm of Isaac, and the Elohîm of Jacob, hath sent me to You (...)"

Exodus, 3:13-15, my bold.

The Names revealed to Moses were "YHVH" and "AHYH". "YHVH" implies the transcendent "Ain Soph (Aur)", the ineffable essence of the Divine, described in terms of a reality beyond being & absence of being and veiled by negatives ("Deus absconditus"). 

"The Tree of Life. Line of Light and the Contraction. Bear in mind that before the emanations were emanated and the creatures were created, the upper simple light had filled entire existence and there was no empty space whatsoever. Namely no empty atmosphere, hollow, or pit, for everything was filled with that simple, boundless light, and there was no such part as head, and no such part as tail ; that is, there was neither beginning nor end, for everything was simple or smoothly balanced, evenly and equally in one likeness or affinity, and that is called the endless light."
Luria, I. : The Ten Luminous Emanations, in : Ashlag, Y.L. : Kabbalah, volume 1, Research Centre of Kabbalah Press - Jeruzalem, 1969, pp.55 & 59.

"AHYH" or the created order is ruled by "YHVH" ({0}) as the monarch (1) of a Creative Divine hierarchy (a supreme being and its order).

"YHVH" being ineffable, is pronounced as "Adonai", "Lord" (written : YHAdonaiVH). "ALHYM" (or "Elohîms), a masculine plural ("Eloah" is the singular form) of a feminine noun, indicating neutral plurality & receptivity to the creative impulse, is the "Divine Presence" within the created order (cf. the "Shekinah" of Qabalah and "Sophia" in Gnosticism). 

"Elohîm" is creational and related to the majestic revelatoric plurality of the singular hidden "YHVH". It expresses the totality of Divine attributes (or exterior) and underlines the variety with which the Divine manifests in creation (Lord-in-Nature). The "Elohîm" are not personalities for no "Eloah" (singular) can constitute Divine existence without reference to "YHVH", the uncreated silence. There are no isolated, "secundary" deities, only YHVH ALHYM.

"YHAdonaiVH est l'Être unique, la matrice de toute vie, Celui qui a été, qui est et qui sera. Les Elohîms en expriment les puissances créatrices infinies. (...) N'oublions pas que si YHAdonaiVH est Unique, Elohîms est pluriel. Les prophètes n'ont jamais aspiré à voir surgir un univers monolithique : l'Unité qu'ils annoncent n'est pas faite d'uniformité, mais, nous y reviendrons, d'une universelle et vivante diversité, dans l'unité de l'Être qui la fonde, YHVH. Mieux que monothéistes, ils sont théomonistes."
Chouraqui, A. : Moise, du Rocher - Paris, 1995, p.181-182, my italics.

The Divine is conceived as onefold but bi-polar. Unity is called "YHVH", variety or actual existence is called "Elohîm". The Divine Name "YHadonaiVY" indicating a unity whereas the Name is a duality. So bi-polarity is expressed in the Name itself.

Closed, Absent, 
Remote, Potential
Divine bi-polarity Disclosed, Present
Near, Actual
"YHVH" One God "ALHYM"
absolute, eternal, infinite singularity the Divine one-fold relative, temporal, finite living plurality

YHVH is singular, ineffable, uncreated & infinite
the ALHYM are plural, knowable, created & eternal
AHYH is one, godhead, first cause & alternation-point

The "Elohîm" are Divine creative energies, plural & rooted in the infinite but created (although creating). The Name "YHVH Elohîm" indicates both these singular & plural aspects of the Divine and so stands for the totality of all that is Divine. The Name "YHVH" can not be vocalized. It indicates a "negative", pre-creationa, Divine Absolute Infinity.

What do we learn by confronting late New Kingdom theology with this "Hebrew" approach, for both were probably known to Moses the Egyptian, who lives in the memory of Israel as their liberator and initiator ? The first major theological words spoken by Elohîm to Moses were : 

"I am YHVY thy Elohîm, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the Earth beneath, or that is in the water under the Earth : Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them : for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God ..." 
Exodus, 20,2-4. 

The first thing decreed is precisely what had been refused in the New Kingdom, as Amarna evidences, namely radical monotheism : no other deities next to the Great One. The revelation of Moses (the Torah) takes the next step, for the exclusive worship of natural phenomena (as the Aten) is also rejected. This YHVH can not be represented. This suggests the Elohîm make up the underlying Divine order of the created order, out of which the various expressions and modes of being emanate (top-down). By reaching out (bottom-up) the pure servant exist in the point of beauty in the heart (Tiphareth), maintaining the proper balance between the Mercy (Gedulah) & the Severity (Geburah) of the Divine Elohîm.

Some drastic changes in the concept of pre-creation should also be noticed. In Ancient Egyptian theology (a period spanning 15 centuries, from the IIIth to the XXth Dynasty), pre-creation had always been structured as an Ennead headed by the Great One (as Atum-Re, Thoth, Ptah or Amun). The Great One created himself (causa sui).

For Moses and the mystical tradition after him, pre-creation exclusively belonged to YHVH. Although qabalists like Luria saw pre-creation as "Ain Sof Aur" or "endless light", it was reckoned to be a "negative existence" which always remained hidden. Before creation, only YHVH existed. What is said about the "hidden" pole of Ramesside bi-polarity, compares with this ineffable essence called "YHVH". Hence Amun, the Aten, Adonai and Allah have been compared.

Mosaic revelation brings to the fore the Great God Alone. YHVH is decontextualized. The Great One of Ancient Egypt remained rooted in mythical, pre-rational & proto-rational contextualizations. But the formula "the One who becomes millions" and "YHVH Elohîm" do have in common the One encompassing pre-creation, creation and post-creation (cf. Atum-Re, Ptah & Amun-Re).

Ramesside Theology Qabalah
the Great One + 8 gods, HIDDEN "YHVH" ALONE, ONE, VEILED
the first time, HIDDEN tzim-tzum or contraction in negative existence
Atum / Amun the Creator 1. Kether, the first Elohîm
Shu, Tefnut ... the Ennead 2. Chockmah, 3. Binah ... 10. Malkuth
and the Divine world of Atziluth
the created order the worlds of Briah, Yetzirah & Assiah

Ancient Egyptian proto-rationality was pictoral and the figurations were icons, "loci" were the Divine could abide in images. The Elohîm were also plural, but the 10 "Sephiroth" of the Tree of Life (the fundamental scheme of Qabalah) represented a well-formed "unum omnia", a unified whole (like the 10 times "Elohîm said" occurs in the first chapter of Genesis or the 10 descriptive orders on the tables of the law in Exodus). 

the Tree of Life

That this model is a linearization of the Egyptian temple (court, hypostyle hall, sanctuary, holy of holies) may be appreciated when the drawing is completed (in most representations the lower Abyss is not shown).

Moreover, the superstructures of its mystical experience had given Israel a geometrical hierarchy (impossible without decontextualizations - cf. Greek "theoria"), for these 10 Numerations are part of the architecture of their beautiful interactions (22 in number, i.e. as many as there are letters in the Hebrew alephbet).

This "ladder of light" is nothing less than the existence of YHVH, for the Elohîm are nothing but the Self-manifestation of the essence of being only for YHVH to experience.

The Elohîm, translated as "gods and goddesses", does not represent a pantheon, but the totality of Divine emanations. These lights are "uncreated".

This tool of Jewish Gnosticism came into being as the result of a strange mixture of, on the one hand, Greek (cf. Pythagoras on the decad), philosophy and mystery traditions, and, on the other hand, the Judaic traditions persisting despite very strong Hellenistic influence.

the "Divine" : Details
 4 gods and 4 goddesses
the Great One
 the One emerges out of inert, dark & chaotic primordial pre-creation, to simultaneously split, creating a diversity of deities 
 the creator
 the Great One, who creates himself & the deities, exists fugally in the first time, submerged in the chaotic inertness of the primordial sea
the one god
the Great One as One god of light, above all other deities, of an ineffable essence and omnipresent as life-giving light
the deities divinities created by the Great One, existing next to him as his theophanies and in the heavens of the afterlife, dwelling in temples and statues
YHVH the Great God Alone above and against all deities, saying "I AM" and thereby creating the ennead of creators, His living Divine Presences
ELOHIM the living Divine Presences of the Great God Alone as nine Divine emanations from YHVH's crowning creative command "I AM"
god, goddess the Greek "theos" (Latin "Deus") was used to translate "Elohîm" instead of "YHVH". A god is a being that is worshipped.
The God (Allah) the ineffable & veiled Great One Alone who Self-manifests through an infinite number of attributes, endless worlds and actual existences

So for Moses and his Abrahamic descendants, Divine plurality is maintained but the deities themselves are eliminated. There are no divinities next to YHVH Elohîm. No other being than The God is to be worshipped. Divine unity is ineffable, hidden and for ever above the world (transcendence), whereas Divine existence is guaranteed by the ten Elohîm who will, create, shape & manifest Divine energies animating all of actual existence (immanence). These Elohîm are not independent or quasi-independent deities with their own contextual (constellational) limitations. They are the totality of Divine existence, but each time viewed from one out of nine other possible modes of Divine Self-manifestation. In each mode all other modes are present.


For two major reasons, the reforms of
Akhenaten did not work : on the one hand, monotheism (One God Alone before and against all other Deities) does not mix with the polytheism, monolatry and henotheism of the Egyptian mentality, and, on the other hand, the return to a monarchic monotheism (but this time devoid of filial lineage) was an anachronism. Although some must have thought the Sun god in person was at work in Akhetaten, the reforms (by radicalizing the Solar Theology) went too far, for how to believe Osiris had become irrelevant and to pray to Akhenaten and Nefertiti was sufficient ?

The Amarna episode elucidates one of the dangerous characteristics of monotheism, namely the "scape-goat"-effect, dogmatism and fanaticism. In the case of Akhenaten, Amun and Osiris were the scape-goats, his exclusive Aten worship with adjacent Pharaonic exclusivity the dogma, and the more or less systematic destruction and termination of cults & festivals the effects of fanaticism and a lack of tolerance towards existing traditions. These themes are recurrent in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, each claiming an exclusive relationship with God.

Perhaps the wisdom of Egypt is precisely this Oriental refusal to reduce and simplify creation ?


For a general bibliography on Amarna see : 
Martin, G.T. : A Bibliography of the Amarna Period in Its Aftermath, London, 1991.

For the hieroglyphic text (751KB) of the Great Hymn to the Aten the copy of Davies was used :
Davies, N. de G. : The Rock Tombs of El Amarna, part VI, The Egypt Exploration Fund - London, 1908.

My translation of the Great Hymn to the Aten was especially inspired by :
Lichtheim, M. : Ancient Egyptian Literature, University of California Press - California, 1976, vol.II, pp.96-100.

Also :

Breasted, J.H. : Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt, Pennsylvania Press - Pennsylvania, 1972, pp.324-328.
Le Grand Hymne à Aton en 4 langues : Hiéroglyphes, Français, Anglais, Arabe
, Samir - Paris, 1991. G.Davies : Rock Tombs of El Amarna, Archaeological Survey of Egypt - London, 1908.
Assmann, J. : Moses the Egyptian, Harvard University Press - London, 1997, pp.172-177.
Hornung, E. : Akhenaten and the Religion of Light, Cornell University Press - Ithaca, 1999, pp.79-83.

(1) Assmann, J. : The Seach for God in Ancient Egypt, Cornell University Press - Ithaca, 2001, p.8.
(2) Assmann, J. : Ibidem, p.153.
(3) Assmann, J. : Ibidem, p.224.
(4) Assmann, J. : Ibidem, p.224. 
(5) Staal, F. : Exploring Mysticism, Penguin - New York, 1975. For a more elaborated bibliography on mysticism consult my Dungen, van den, W. : Kennis en Minne-Mystiek, 1994, preludium, note 6.
(6) Assmann, J. : Op.cit., p.156.
(7) Assmann, J. : Ibidem, p.18-19.
(8) Lichtheim, M. : Ancient Egyptian Literature, California University Press - California, volume 1, 1975, p.17.
(9) Lichtheim, M. : Ibidem, pp.8-9.
(10) Hornung, E. : Akhenaten and the Religion of Light, Cornell University Press - New York, 1999, p.5.
(11) Walle, van de, B. discusses the copies by Sicard in Revue d'Égyptologie, 1976, n°28, pp.12-24.
(12) Wilkinson, J.G. : Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, London, 1837.
(13) Champollion, F. : Lettres écrites d'Égypte et de Nubie en 1828 et 1829, Paris, 1833.
(14) Lepsius, K.R. : "Ueber den ersten ägyptischen Götterkreis und seine geschichtlich-mythologische Entstehung", in : Abhandlungen der Königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, Jahrgang 1851, pp.157-214, quoted text translated by Hornung, E. : Op.cit., p.3.
(15) Weigall, A. : The Life and Times of Akhenaten, Pharaoh of Egypt, Edinburgh, 1910.
(16) A more recent publication is : Moran, W.L. : The Amarna Letters, Johns Hopkins University Press - Baltimore, 1992.
(17) Bouriant, U. : "Deux Jours de fouilles à Tell al-Amarna", in : Mémoires publiés par les membres de la Mission archéologique française au Caire, Paris, 1884.
Hornung, E. : Op.cit., p.10.
(18) Breasted, J.H. : De Hymnis in Solem sub Rege Amenophide IV conceptis ("On the Hymns to the Sun composed under Amenophis IV"), Berlin University - dissertation, 1895. 
(19) Störig, H.J. : Kleine Weltgeschichte der Philosophie, Kohlhammer - Stuttgart, volume1, 1959. 
(20) Assman, J. : Op.cit., pp.10-13.
(21) Lichtheim, M. : Op.cit., 3 volumes, 1975.
Breasted, J.H. : Ancient Records of Egypt, University of Illinois Press - Illinois, 2001 (4 volumes).
Parkinson, R.B. : The Tale of Sinuhe and other Ancient Egyptien Poems, Oxford University Press - Oxford, 1997.
Lalouette, Cl. : Textes Sacrés et Textes Profanes de l'Ancienne Égypte, Gallimard - Paris, 1984.
Roccati, A. : La Littérature Historique sous l'Ancient Empire Égyptien, Du Cerf - Paris, 1982.
Barucq, A. & Daumas, F. : Hymnes et Prières de l'Égypte Ancienne, Du Cerf - Paris, 1980.
Pound, E. & Stock, N. : Love Poems of Ancient Egypt, New Directions - New York, 1962.
(22) Tempels, P. : Bantu Philosophy, Présence Africaine - Paris, 1959.
Apostel, L. : African Philosophy : Myth or Reality ?, Scientia - Gent, 1981.
Eze, E.Ch. (edit) : African Philosophy, Blackwell - Malden, 1998.
(23) Hornung, E. : Op.cit., p.22 : on the Third Pylon of the Montu temple at Karnak.
(24) Hornung, E. & Staehelin, E. : "Studien zum Sedfest", in : Aegyptiaca Helvetica I, Geneva, 1974.
Aldred, C. : "The Second Jubelee of Amenophis II", in : Zeitschrift fur Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, n°94, 1967, pp.1-6.
Assmann, J. : "Das ägyptische Prozessionsfest.", in : Assmann, J. & Sundermeier, T. (editors) : Das Fest und das Heilige : Religiöse Kontrapunte zur Alltagswelt, SVR 1- Gütersloh, 1991, pp.105-122.
(25) Hornung, E. : Op.cit., p.26.
Kozloff, A.P. & Bryan, B.M. : Egypt's Dazzling Sun : Amenhotep III and His World, Cleveland, 1992.
Kàkosy, L. : "The weltanschauliche Krise des Neuen Reiches.", in : Zeitschrift fur ägyptologische Sprache und ALtertumskunde, n°100, 1973, pp.35-41.
(26) Budge, E.A.W. : The Mummy, Dover - New York, 1989, p.33.
(27) Hornung, E. : Op.cit., pp.32-33.
Beckerath, J. : "Handbuch der ägyptischen Köningsnamen", in : Münchner ägyptologische Studien, n°20, 1984.
(28) Hornung, E. : The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife, Cornell University Press - Ithaca, 1999, p.27.
(29) Assmann, J. : Op.cit., pp.201-208.
(30) Lichtheim, M. : Op.cit., vol.II, p.87.
(31) Assmann, J. : Op.cit., p.201.
(32) Assmann, J. : Ibidem, p.213.
(33) Hornung, E. : Op.cit., p.30.
Murane, W.J. : "On the Accession date of Akhenaten.", in : Studies in Honor of George R.Hughes, The Oriental Institute - Chicago, 1977, pp.163-167.
Murane, W.J. : "Ancient Egyptian Coregencies.", in : Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, Chicago, n°40, 1977, pp.123-169. 
Hornung, E. : Untersuchungen zur Chronologie und Geschichte ders Neuen Reiches, Wiesbaden, 1964, pp.71-78.
(34) Hart, G. : A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods & Goddesses, Routledge & Kegan - London, 1986, pp.41-42.
(35) Hornung, E. : Op.cit., p.50.
(36) Hornung, E. : Ibidem, p.76.
(37) Hornung, E. : Ibidem, p.39.
(38) Champollion, F. : Notices descriptives, vol.2, p.320, mentioned by Hornung, E. : Ibidem, p.130. For the other others : Hornung, E. : Ibidem, pp.43-44.
(39) Budge, E.A.W. : The Gods of the Egyptian, Dover - New York, 1969, vol.1, pp.63-74.
Hornung, E. : Les Dieux de L'Egypte : le Un et le Multiple, du Rocher - Paris, 1986, pp.24-27.
Aldred, C. : Akhenaten, King of Egypt, Thames and Hudson - London, 1988, p.273.
(40) Hornung, E. : Op.cit., p.56.
Hornung, E. : The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife, Cornell University Press - Ithaca, 1999, pp.55-77.
(41) Moran, W.L. : The Amarna Letters, Johns Hopkins University Press - Baltimore, 1992. 
(42) Assmann, J. : Op.cit., p.216.
(43) Hornung, E. : Op.cit., pp.125-126.
(44) Assmann, J. : Op.cit., p.222.
(45) Hornung, E. : Op.cit., p.125.
(46) Hornung, E. : Les Dieux ..., p.235.
(47) Assmann, J. : Op.cit., p.241.
(48) Assmann, J. : Moses..., pp.263-264.
(49) Papyrus Berlin 3030, 8-9, Papyrus Louvre 3336, 1, 1-16, Papyrus Brussels by Speelers, L. in :  Receuil des Travaux, n°39, 1917, 28ff.
Assmann, J. : Op.cit., p.241.
(50) Assmann, J. : Moses ..., p.21.

initiated : 05 VI 2001 - last update : 06 I 2016 - version n°8

© Wim van den Dungen
Antwerp, 2005 - 2016.