Akhenaten and the Birth of Monotheism
An Essay by John David Ebert
The religious pattern of Western monotheism that becomes evident when the lives of Moses, Christ and Mohammad are drawn out on the blackboard is already clearly sketched out in the life of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, the West’s prototypal monotheist. There is no way to describe the founders of the three great monotheisms of the West without first glancing back at the pattern laid down by Akhenaten, whose great experiment already forecasts their advent.
It is no accident that the West’s first monotheist is also its first religious fanatic, for Akhenaten was the first to begin perseucting the beliefs of others. His religion of the sun god did not just amount to all the Egyptian religions plus the religion of the Aten: though it may have started this way, it gradually became more and more severely restrictive and intolerant until, with the construction of the world’s first utopian city, Akhenaten sent armies of men out across the Two Lands of Egypt to erase not only the name of the hated god Amun from all of the monuments, but also any occurrence whatsoever of the plural word “gods.” Temples were shut down, their priesthoods exiled; monuments were defaced; the practice of festivals forbidden; the worship of any other gods than the Aten proscribed; the Osiris cults and indeed, the entire cartography of the underworld, done away with.
Akhenaten was not only the first founder of a religion that we have on record as being founded by a single individual, but unlike Christ, Moses and others such as the Buddha, he was the first such religious founder to have the power of an entire state apparatus at his disposal. Akhenaten was no democrat, but an autocratic tyrant — nothing unusual for civilization at this time — with the power to effectuate any transformation of the state he wanted. His religion, like that of Christ’s, may have been a religion of love but, also like Christianity, it was not a religion of tolerance.
Indeed, Akhenaten establishes the prototype for the religious zealot with which the West, unfortunately, has become familiar over the millenia. His acts already look forward to those of the Emperor Theodosius the Great who, at the conclusion of the fourth century AD, would proscribe paganism and have all of its cults and practices shut down, including the writing of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Akhenaten was the first man in history to go to war against polytheism.
Now we must try to understand why.
II. Egyptian Theology: A Primer
Prior to the time of Akhenaten, Egypt’s mythical cosmology had been three-dimensional and thanatocentric, that is to say, centered around the idea of the survival of the dead in the underworld. Spatially configured, we could imagine the Egyptian picture of the cosmos during the time of the New Kingdom in terms of the four aspects of the sun god Re: in his mode as the god Khepri, he was the sun at dawn; at noon, he was known simply as Re; at sunset, he was referred to as the god Atum, an ancient creator deity first referred to in the Pyramid Texts. In his mode at the sixth hour of the night, midnight, he became Osiris, the god of the dead in the underworld. Referred to as Re-Harakhty (“Horus of the horizon”), then, he was the god of both sunrise and sunset.
During the New Kingdom, the Egyptians had evolved a complex cosmology written out in what are called “The Books of the Netherworld,” a series of vignettes that were painted upon the walls of the tombs of the pharaohs who were buried in the Valley of the Kings, beginning with Tuthmosis I (c. 1494 – 1482 BC). The first of these books, which originated with this pharaoh’s tomb, was called the Amduat, or “The Book of What is in the Netherworld,” which described the journey of the sun god Re in his solar barque through the twelve hours of the night. Along the way, he encounters various helping deities and demons who try to stop him, such as the Apopis serpent. At the sixth hour of the night, Re is united with the corpse of Osiris from whence he is regenerated and prepared for rebirth. The deities known as Seth and Selket slay the Apopis serpent for him (pictured below), and his solar barge travels through the body of a huge serpent until he is reborn in the form of the scarab beetle known as the god Khepri on the eastern horizon at dawn. This netherworld cartography was painted on the walls of the tombs of the pharaohs clear down to the time of Akhenaten, who was the first pharaoh to eschew the rites and myths of the Egyptian netherworld, known as the Duat.
In his youth, Akhenaten may have served as the High Priest of the god Ptah in Memphis, although he also resided for a time in a palace at the city of Heliopolis, whose official god was Re-Harakhty, a god which Akhenaten adopted as his own. The god which Akhenaten later referred to as the Aten was actually the visible form of Re-Harakhty as the disc of the sun (Aten means simply ‘disc’).
The cult of the sun god Re at Heliopolis was extremely ancient, for Re had been the primary deity of the Old Kingdom since the time of the great pyramids of Gizeh, at which time we start finding his name turning up as part of the name of its reigning pharaohs (“Khaf-re” and “Menkau-re“). By the Fifth Dynasty, great sun temples are being built to glorify him, with huge obelisks erected as frozen sunbeams petrified in stone. The cult of the Heliopolitan priesthood was, then, as far as the young Akhenaten was concerned, the great, authentic religion of the founders of Egypt’s past.
During the Middle Kingdom, however, the cult of Re had fallen out of favor due to the rise of a hitherto obscure god from the city of Thebes known as Amun. After the civil wars associated with the time of the First Intermediate Period (c. 2150 BC), the center of Egyptian culture shifted from Memphis in the north — capital of the Old Kingdom — to Thebes in the far south, which would from henceforth until the 19th Dynasty, become the new cultural capital of Egypt (Memphis would always remain the administrative capital). Amun happened to be its local deity, and since the rulers of the Twelfth Dynasty hailed from Thebes, the god Amun began to come into prominence as Egypt’s new patron deity. Correspondingly, we start finding pharaohs with the name of the god as part of their throne name: Amenemhet I, Amenemhet III, and so on.
In the 17th century BC, Egypt was conquered and ruled by a series of Semitic rulers from Palestine known as the Hyksos, or Shepherd Kings. They ruled Egypt from the city of Avaris in the Delta for nearly a century and a half until they were expelled by Theban rulers. The pharaoh Ahmose was the first to completely expunge their presence from Egypt, and so, once again, a new dynasty, the 18th, ruled Egypt from the city of Thebes as its capital and with the god Amun as its patron. To Amun was given the credit for helping the Egyptians to expel the Hyksos, and consequently, we have more rulers who have taken his name: Amenhotep I, Amenhotep II, Amenhotep III, and Akhenaten himself, whose original throne name was Amenhotep IV.
Amun was known as “the Hidden One,” and he was a god of war and also, under his aspect of Amun-Min, a god of fertility. An attempt was made on the part of the Theban priesthood to compete with the old priesthood of Heliopolis by syncretizing their god with Re in the form of Amun-Re.
But the young pharaoh, Amenhotep IV (i.e. Akhenaten), having spent his apprenticeship years in the north of Egypt at the cities of Memphis and Heliopolis, regarded Amun as a mere usurper. It was Re-Harakhty, not Amun, who had been the god of his ancestors of the Old Kingdom, and so it was the god Re-Harakhty, under his aspect as the Aten or visible sun disc, that Amenhotep IV worshipped and eventually made the great, one and only god of Egypt.
In doing so, however, Akhenaten eventually banished the deities of the underworld — perhaps even more ancient than Re, ironically — Osiris, Sokar, Anubis, Thoth, etc., together with the entire Egyptian New Kingdom cosmology of the journey of the sun god Re to his union with Osiris in the depths of the Duat. Despite the fact that the older cults of Osiris had been synthesized with those of Re in the period of the building of the pyramids and in the writing of the Pyramid Texts, Akhenaten wanted only Re, and so he cut, as it were, the three dimensional Egyptian cosmos in half, retaining only the upper half, the realm of the sungod’s journey from one horizon to the other, and discarded his journey through the underworld altogether.
For Akhenaten, then, Egyptian cosmology would be only a world of Light; a two dimensional world of light without shadows, of the sun without its nocturnal journey through the underworld, of the living without the dead, of Re without Osiris. In his religion of the Aten, all other gods would be banished, and a strangely flat, two dimensional world of light, and light only, would be put in their place as the religion of the one true god, Aten, with Akhenaten as his son and human avatar upon earth.
If Amun was the “Hidden One,” Akhenaten’s task, as he saw it, would be to shine light upon all the dark, murky chthonic depths of Egyptian religion and society, to pull the roofs off all the temples, to open and expose them to the bright, turquoise expanse of the Egyptian daytime sky. Thus, the expulsion of all the Dionysian dimensions of Egyptian culture in favor only of its Apollonian beauties; a world of surfaces without depths, of light without shadows, of Good without Evil; this was the Vision of Akhenaten’s new religion.
To flatten Egyptian culture out by forcing it into the mold of a god who was ubiquitous, just as light is ubiquitous; a god who sees all things everywhere, and from whom no one could hide, since there are no dark corners left for anyone to retreat to: the world’s first divinely inspired Panopticon, in other words.
III. The Truth Event
The peculiar geometry of the flattening out of the Egyptian mentality which Akhenaten imposed upon his culture also extends to its famous art style, in which the figures of Akhenaten and his family appear as strangely elongated forms, with extended skulls, long arms and torsos and legs, as though they had been compressed with enormous force and then squeezed until they had flattened out and lengthened, like Giacometti sculptures.
When these images of Akhenaten were first unearthed by archaeologists in the 19th century, it was thought that they were naturalistic representations of a sickly ruler whose body had obviously been deformed by some sort of illness, Frohlic’s Syndrome, perhaps. But in fact, as early representations of the young Amenhotep IV show, he was not at all deformed, as the yellow limestone statuette of him in the Louvre shows us (pictured below), and as he is depicted on reliefs such as those from the tomb of his father’s vizier Ramose indicate. Physiologically, he was perfectly normal, as recent genetic studies performed under the supervision of Zahi Hawass have shown.
The so-called Amarna style, then, is not naturalistic at all, but rather very highly stylized as part of the transformation of his own image avatar in Akhenaten’s mind’s eye with the birth of his new religion. And although the Amarna style radically departs from the canon of traditional Egyptian art, it is not true to say that it is a complete innovation, either.
Rather, as Arthur Weigall who, in the 1920s, wrote the very first biography of Akhenaten, was the first to point out — and which seems to have been forgotten since — the Amarna style was actually a retrieval of an extremely archaic canon of Egyptian proportions, one dating back, it seems, to the art of the predynastic period before the Old Kingdom. On several of these Egyptian Neolithic ivory statues of rulers, and also on relief work (see image below), we find forms represented with the same exaggerated proportions, with long, narrow faces, elongated torsos, rubbery arms and thick, bulky thighs. It is very likely, as Weigall pointed out, that Akhenaten, during the days of his apprenticeship in Lower Egypt, had encountered some of these ivory figurines and assumed that they represented the original canon of Egyptian art.
Akhenaten, then, saw himself as a conservator of archaic Egyptian culture forms, not an innovator. He was attempting an act of restoration, not some bizarre new stylistic eccentricity, and trying to go back in terms of both its religion and its art style to the early days of the founding fathers of ancient Egypt which he felt that the priesthood of Amun had unlawfully usurped.
The Truth Event of the birth of Akhenaten’s religion, then — which he unveiled for all of Egypt to see at the Sed Festival of his third year of rulership at Karnak in Thebes with the building of the so-called Gempaaten Temple — was actually an act not all that dissimilar from Heidegger’s description of the truth event as aletheia or unconcealment: truth, for Heidegger, is not a matter of simple matching, or correspondence of the agreement of knowledge with its object; rather, it is an act of unconcealment, in which a dialogue with entities actually creates a clearing (Lichtung) or “open region” in which certain aspects of the entity in question are brought forth out of concealment and into the light of unconcealment.
Such a truth event, for Heidegger, necessitated an abbau or “destruction,” in which certain concealments — i.e. worn out ideas and cliches such as the subject-object dichotomy — are weeded out, as it were, in order that previously buried or repressed entities may be seen in the light of the open region in their true nature. As he puts it:
“…a phenomenon can be buried. This means that it was discovered before but once again got covered up. This not a total concealment. What was discovered before is still visible, though only as a semblance. But so much semblance — so much being; this concealment understood as disguise is the most frequent and most dangerous kind, for here the possibilities of deceiving and misleading are especially great. The originally seen phenomena are uprooted, torn from their ground, and are no longer understood in their origins, in their ‘extraction’ from their roots in a particular subject matter.”
Such, for Heidegger, was the fate of the West’s understanding of Being since Plato: for the Pre-Socratic philosophers, Being had been immanent in the marvel of phenomena, in the physis of things flashing forth and then vanishing again and the attendant wonder that this process inspired in these philosophers. Beginning with Plato, however, this understanding of Being was covered up, for with him, Being became transcendent, above and apart from phenomena, and accessible only to the mind as the Platonic categories. Truth, ever since, had been covered up and forgotten by Plato’s concealments until Heidegger’s act of abbau or “destruction” created a fresh clearing by weeding out the cliches of philosophy and its then worn-out understanding of Truth as correspondence in order to bring forth out of centuries of concealment this understanding of Being as immanent within phenomena.
So, too, Akhenaten’s Truth Event: the ancient religion of the Old Kingdom, the cult of the god Re-Harakhty, along with the art style of the ancient tribal founders of Egypt, had been forgotten, repressed and covered over by centuries of inauthentic religious history, in which the god Amun, and his Theban priesthood had slowly usurped and covered over this original religion. Akhenaten, in unveiling his new art style at Karnak in Thebes during the first few years of his reign, was performing an act of restoration, an abbau or deconstruction of Egyptian religion in order to recover its lost and authentic culture forms.
Now this Event, as I have said, was made actual at the time time of his Sed Festival, celebrated to mark the third anniversary of his accession to the throne. He had not yet built, or perhaps even imagined, his new city of Akhetaten. That would not come until Year Five of his reign.
But it was in Year Three when, at the ancient religous capital of Thebes, in the temple precinct at Karnak, Akhenaten unveiled the so-called Gempaaten Temple which he had spent the previous year or so having constructed to the east of the gigantic temple of Amun. It was in the great relief work and colossal statuary of this temple that the new art style was revealed for the first time: in the facade of the south colonnade, for instance, we see a row of sandstone statues of Akhenaten (see image below) with his arms crossed over his chest in the traditional gesture of rulership with flail and crook, but his body is distorted, with a potbelly, short legs, long torso and spindly arms. His skull, furthermore, is shockingly narrow, as though it had been pinched by a giant.
In the representations of himself along this row, his headgear alternates the feathered crown of the air god Shu with the Double Crown of the god Atum (see image at top of article), Shu’s father. Another statue found at this site, which was originally thought to represent Akhenaten as a woman, since it is naked and has no genitals (below), may actually be a representation of his wife, Queen Nefertiti, in the role of the goddess Tefnut, Shu’s sister and consort. Elsewhere, such as in the case of the famous sculptured head of Nefertiti in the Berlin Museum, she wears the flattened crown which is identified with the headgear of Tefnut in her mode as the Sphinx.
Now, what is interesting about this cosmology is that it is not yet fully monotheistic: other gods are admitted into the pantheon, gods associated with the Heliopolitan Ennead. According to this ancient cosmogony, in the beginning, a primeval mound had emerged out of the watery abyss of Nun, upon which sat the god Atum, who then masturbated and from his semen sprang forth Shu and Tefnut, the gods, respectively, of the atmosphere and earthly moisture. From their union sprang the primordial pair Geb, the earth god, and Nut, the sky goddess, whose act of copulation Shu, as the personification of the rising air, then proceeded to separate, raising Nut with his arms up to become the Milky Way, the heavenly Nile. Geb, lying upon the ground, had one of his knees raised, and that raised knee symbolizes the pyramid, or the primordial mound upon which Atum had arisen in the beginning.
Now Atum, as we have noted, was also associated with Re-Harakhty in his mode as the setting sun. Akhenaten had earlier depicted his god Re-Harakhty at Karnak on relief work from one of the pylons there which show this god still in human form as a hawk-headed man carrying a disc of the sun on his head. In a slightly later relief from Karnak, Re-Harakhty is no longer depicted anthropomorphically, but for the first time, as a sun disc with rays extended, each ray ending in a human hand, while Akhenaten is shown making offerings to his god, his physical form still represented in accordance with the traditional stylistic canon. This new vision of the sun disc with extended hands is a total innovation, as far as we know.
Egyptian deities often occur as triads; hence, Amun, together with his wife Mut and their child Khonsu, were the Theban triad; Osiris, Isis and Horus constitute another such triad; while Ptah, his consort Sekhmet, and their child Nefertum represent yet another. It would seem then that, based on the observable iconography at Karnak, Akhenaten and his god Aten, together with his wife Nefertiti were analogizing themselves to the triad of Atum and his two children Shu and Tefnut. But these are all varying modes and hypostases of the one god Re-Harakhty, for Atum, as we have seen, was a manifestation of this god at sunset, while Aten represened his visible form as the disc of the sun.
So, at this point, the religion of Akhenaten was not yet a full monotheism: the worship of other gods was still allowed, and Akhenaten’s own religion still drew from the iconography and names of other gods.
But not for long.
By the Fifth Year of his reign, Akhenaten would have his name changed form Amenhotep IV (“Amun is satisfied”) to Akhenaten (“he who serves the will of the Aten”). And in that same year, he would begin work on building a city for his new god, which he called Akhetaten (“the horizon of the Aten”). Shortly thereafter, the name of the god Amun would be stricken from monuments throughout Egypt, and the worship of all other gods condemned.
IV. The City of the Sun God
We’re not entirely sure what event finally so exasperated Akhenaten that he decided it was necessary to abandon the city of Thebes altogether and go further downriver to found a new city on virgin soil; perhaps there was an assassination attempt, as Nicholas Reeves suggests; but whatever the event was, it so offended him that he decided it was necessary to withdraw from the city altogether and build his own city from scratch, right in the middle of the Egyptian desert at a site roughly 250 miles from Thebes to the south and 200 miles from Memphis in the north. What is important about this site, known locally as Tell el-Amarna, is that it was on virgin soil: nothing, save maybe a small ramshackle village or two had ever occupied this spot on the eastern bank of the Nile a few miles upriver from the city of Hermopolis (sacred to the god Thoth) on the western bank.
Here the cliffs curved away from the land, leaving a lowland area about eight miles long and three miles wide, thus creating a natural bay in the desert area east of the cultivation along the riverbank. There was, however, an important and interesting cleft in the rocks along the cliffs bordering this site, a cleft that mimicked the architectural arrangment of the two pylons of the temples at Thebes which are meant to represent twin mountains from between which the sun emerges out of the netherworld each day. It was in the area of this cleft that Akhenaten had his own Royal Tomb built, with a cemetery for the nobles of his court located a couple of miles to the north and one a couple of miles to the south.
Though Akhenaten’s religion was an act of conservation, its exigencies were making it necessary for him to innovate after all, for his relocation of the cemeteries to the east of the city was contrary to the tradition of locating the Egyptian necropolises on the west bank of the Nile, where the dead followed the setting sun down on his nighttime journey into the realm of Amenti. In Akhenaten’s new cosmology, as we have seen, the underworld was not even recognized, except to say that each morning, when the sun rose, the dead emerged from it into the daylight along with everyone else and mingled about in the temples, where they received offerings. People were still mummified, it is true, and buried in tombs burrowed into the rocks; they were still equipped with grave gear like shabtis and canopic chests, but the inscriptions on these objects were carefully modified to give all praise to the Aten as the source of the power of resurrection. Osiris was not spoken of, and neither were any of other of the mortuary divinities of Egypt.
The Great Aten Temple was aligned with this cleft, and was open to the east so as to receive the radiant powers of the Aten disc when it arose each morning. Indeed, the entire city was conceived in such a way as to imagine that all of its power radiated from the Aten, and from the cleft in the rocks where the Royal Tomb of Akhenaten was laid out, again contrary to tradition so that it emanated, rather than received, the sun’s power, as though the tomb were somehow the causal source for the energies of the entire city.
Indeed, Akhetaten was a dream city of two dimensionality, laid out in such a way as to eliminate shadows, depths and dark corners wherever possible. There are no tall buildings here, the tallest structures are the twin pylons of the Great Aten Temple; there are only flat, bone-white buildings of one, occasionally, two storeys, spread out across a vast, flat white plain of desert landscape, the lime-green fronds of palm trees stirring with the occasional faint desert breeze. Sunlight soaks the city, banishing the shadows. The buildings compose a vast field of squares and rectangles; curves are as anathema here as are shadows. The structures are built of mudbrick cased with limestone, upon which bright, gaily painted reliefs of the sun and the Royal Family are depicted. Some of the buildings are equipped with balustrades of alabaster, granite and hard limestone. There is a lot of open space with large roofless corridors and long, expansive courtyards, for there are no dark shadows within which to hide from the searing gaze of the reddish copper disc of the burning Aten. The nearby suburbs are composed of fields of box-like houses stretching as far to the horizon as the eye can see. They are one or two storeys high, brown and tan and umber boxes of mudbrick with very few trees about.
This was Akhenaten’s dream city, the translation into physical structures of the religious vision beheld by his middle eye, a world in which all depths have been bansiehd, a world in which darkness no longer exists, a world in which even the realm of the dead has been peeled away like the skin of an orange from the world’s underside. Here there is no longer any need for a Judgment of the Dead, for you are always on trial here, since you are always watched over by the luminous crimson gaze of the Aten disc, which sees all.
It is a shallow, two dimensional world, as close as it is possible for a city to approximate pure surfaces shorn of depth. There is no blood here (Akhenaten banished the custom of sacrificing war prisoners); war does not exist; violence is a thing of the past; the Empire crumbling away in Palestine as the kings of its cities send clay letters of distress to Akhenaten, letters telling of their kings’ towns being sacked and raided by bands of Habiru and Amorites go largely unanswered by Akhenaten. Violence, war and empire belong to the world of three dimensions, the world of depths as well as surfaces, but this was not a world that Akhenaten’s religion was willing to admit existed. In the religion of the Aten, shadows were banished, and nothing existed but the blistering sunlight that casts no shadows, for at Amarna, it is always noon.
Consistent with this vision, there were no underclasses or poor people at Amarna: this was a city of villas and palaces only; slaves and servants had no houses of their own but lived within their masters’ households. All inhabitants were assigned their set functions, so there was no opportunity for an urban proletariat to take root. To the north and south, sections filled with villas surrounded an official center containing a palace, temples, barracks, government bureaus, storehouses and archives. There was no set quarter for workshops. A street life could not have developed at Amarna.
The city was laid out along the Nile on a roughly north-south axis, with a large central road going down its middle. This road was approximately 30 feet wide, and it was apparently used as the main axis by means of which Akhenaten traveled in his horse-drawn two-wheeled chariot. Akhenaten never seems to have gone anywhere in the city except via chariot, and he is in fact the first pharaoh in Egyptian history to be depicted in artwork using it for other than military purposes. An ecstacy of speed, as Erik Hornung puts it, pervades these chariot scenes.
Thus, in the case of Akhenaten, we have a classic example of how the founding of a religion makes possible the creation of an entire world. The religious vision precedes the construction of civilization, without which civilization cannot exist and would never have come into being in the first place. Akhenaten’s example provides us with an illustration in miniature of the fact that the Visions that come to the founders of religions are what bring civilization into being in the first place. The Visions provide culture with its blueprint.
V. What Was Missing
Now, what was missing from Akhenaten’s religion should by now be evident: it was only half of a cosmology. It is like Zoroastrianism without its god of darkness; it is only a religion of Light; Darkness has no ontological reality in this world whatsoever.
And consequently, there is a failure in Akhenaten’s religion to address the question of Evil: human suffering is not admitted to exist at all, for the Aten is a beneficent god who sees to the welfare of all his worshippers. Akhenaten himself is to be imagined in a way similar to how Rudolf Steiner pictured Jesus Christ, as a human avatar of the sun god, come down to earth on its behalf, in order to address, not human suffering, in this case, but only to provide for human well-being. To admit of suffering in this cosmos would be to admit to a failing in the Aten, and Akhenaten simply was not prepared to do any such thing. His god was a perfect god: simple, serene, luminous, beatific. Evil was not a problem because it did not exist.
It is, therefore, not a surprise that he never bothered to go to war in Palestine to prevent the disintegration of the Egyptian Empire, which tumbled into virtual non-existence on his watch. He sent a half-hearted campain on one occasion to Nubia, but that is about it as far as bellicose activities were concerned. The Aten was not a god who promoted warfare.
However, when the city was completed around Year 9 of Akhenaten’s reign, he made a change in the so-called didactic name of the god, in which he dropped the names for Shu and Harakhty from the Re-form of the Aten’s name. The new name of the god was: “Live Re, Ruler of the Horizon, Rejoicing in the Horizon in His Name ‘Re, the Father, who has come as the Sun-disc.’” The plural word ‘gods’ at this time was now stricken from all the monuments, and Akhenaten himself launched a campaign of terror and persecution against, not just the priesthood of Amun, but against all the gods of Egypt. As Nicholas Reeves describes the situation, around the Year 10 of Akhenaten’s reign:
“An order went out from the palace to smash up the divine statues and hack out the names and images of these gods wherever they occurred — on temple walls, on obelisks, on shrines, on the accessible portions of tombs. This was accompanied by a focused attack on the divine birth scenes both of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri and, to a lesser though still discernible extent, on the similar reliefs of his father Amenophis III also, at Luxor; mythological fantasies of this sort were no longer to be tolerated. But it was not only the Theban gods Akhenaten had in his sights: since there was only one true deity, the Aten, the plural hieroglyphic group for ‘gods’ was similarly excised wherever it was found. Henceforth there would be recognized but a single power, and that was Akhenaten himself.
This campaign was no academic exercise, but a true persecution which generated a real and tangible fear among the Egyptian people: for it was not only from Egypt’s large, public monuments that the offending hieroglyphs were excised. As the archaeological record shows, small, personal items such as pots for eye make-up and commemorative scarabs were dealt with in the same relentless fashion. Fearful of being found in possession of such seditious items, the owners themselves gouged or ground out the three offending signs which articulated the god Amun’s name, even in tiny cartouches containing the old king’s birth name. Such displays of frightened self-censorship and toadying loyalty are ominous indicators of the paranoia which was beginning to grip the country. Not only were the streets filled with pharaoh’s soldiers (predominantly Nubian and Asiatic); it seems the population now had to contend with the danger of malicious informers.” (Reeves, 154-55)
Akhenaten’s Egypt, it seems, was a police state.
And so, the only Evil in Akhenaten’s religion came, apparently, from its founder himself in the form of a zealous, monotheistic persecution of the cults of all the other gods. Akhenaten is the first man in Western history to go to war against polytheism: his actions are a preview of the coming attractions fulfilled by the religious reforms that took place in the seventh century BC under King Josiah in Judah and under Ezra after the return of the Jews from their Babylonian exile, and then later, with the Emperor Theodosius. As Arthur Weigall, in his proto-biography of Akhenaten wrote:
“The erasing of the name of Amon had been, after all, a direct war upon a certain priesthood, and did not very materially affect any other localities than that of Thebes. But the suppression of the numerous priesthoods of the many deities who held sway throughout Egypt threw into disorder the whole country, and struck at the heart not of one but of a hundred cities. Was the kindly old artificer Ptah, with his hammer and his chisel, to be tumbled into empty space? Was the beautiful, gracious Hathor — the Venus of the Nile — to be thrown down from her celestial seat? Was it possible to banish Khnum, the goat headed potter who lived in the caves of the Cataract, from the life of the city of Elephantine; the mysterious jackal Wepwat from the hearts of the men of Abydos; or the ancient crocodile Sebek from the ships and fields of Ombos? Every town had its local god and every god its priesthood; and surely the Pharaoh was mad who attempted to make war upon these legions of heaven.” (Weigall, 220)
Indeed, whenever it was necessary to refer to the names of specific gods, such as Mut or Ptah, Akhenaten banned the use of their hieroglyphs, insisting that the words be spelled out phonetically instead. This aniconism is already looking ahead to Moses’ descent from Sinai when he sees that the Hebrews have reverted to the religion of the golden bull and smashes the tablets of the laws against the rocks in a furious outburst of pious, aniconic rage. He has just spent forty days and forty nights at the top of the mountain communing with Yahweh and inventing a new script, the phonetic alphabet, in which graven images of any kind need no longer be used in order to communicate, and when he descends to the base of the mountain and sees that the Hebrews have reverted back to a religion of iconic gods worshipped in graven images, it is not surprising that his response would be so vitriolic. It is, however, the archetypal response of Western monotheism — beginning with Akhenaten — to polytheistic ways of worship.
VI. The End of the Beginning of Monotheism
And then, from about Year 12, disaster began, slowly but surely, to creep its way in.
The religion that was incomplete because it had been built on a cosmology emphasizing only one side of the world, namely, the bright half, the realm, that is, of Apollo or Vishnu or Re (while the necessary supplement provided by Dionysus, Shiva and Osiris was carefully edited out) began to chip, then crack, and then the cracks to ramify, as Akhenaten’s brittle Symbolic edifice, not sufficiently rooted to withstand impacts from the realm of the Real, began to collapse.
If religion is an extension of the human immune system which provides a protective macrosphere around the psyche sheltering it from the impacts of the Real, then we may say that with its collapse, the body will become very quickly prey to disease, and indeed, at this time, a plague was apparently running rampant throughout both Egypt and Palestine.
In Year 12, Akhenaten’s second beloved wife, Kiya died. In Year 14, his mother Queen Tiye died. In the same year, his second daughter, 11 year old Meketaten, died. It is possible, though we have no substantive proof, that this cluster of deaths was the result of the plague, as Donald Redford remarks: “The sudden deaths attested from about the year 11 on might find an explanation in the effects of a plague which, as Professor Helck has pointed out, was ravaging the Levant at the time.” (Redford, 187)
Nefertiti disappears from the inscriptions at about this time as well, and it used to be thought that her death was followed by the accesssion of a co-regent to the throne named Smenkhare, the evidence for whose actual existence has always been a bit scanty. Smenkhare’s name starts turning up in the inscriptions in about the Year 15, but as Nicholas Reeves has shown, it is more likely that Smenkhare was actually Nefertiti herself, for both personages bore the same nickname of Nefernefruaten. Not only that, but a stela from Berlin which shows the royal couple, Nefertiti and Akhenaten, but which has four cartouches inscribed above them, apparently indicates her co-rulership, since only the pharaoh was allowed two cartouches, while his consort only had one.
Amarna, at this time, was also running out of money. The shutting down of the Amun priesthood had also cut off the state’s primary source of revenue, and the collapse of the Egyptian Empire in Palestine also meant that no more tribute would be coming in from subject peoples.
Akhenaten died in Year 17 of his reign; we don’t have any idea how. Perhaps it was the plague, or perhaps the stress of the realization that his utopia was collapsing inward on him was too much for him to bear. In any case,his reign was survived by Nefertiti-Smenkhare, who ruled for about another year before she, too, disappeared from the records.
But before she died, the desperate straits that she had found herself in is indicated by a letter written by one of the priests associated with Year 3 of her reign — in which she is referred to by one of her throne names as Ankhkheprure-Nefernefruaten — by a man named Pawah who, it appears, was a priest of Amun in the mortuary temple of Nefertiti. The letter is actually a prayer to the god Amun:
“Come back to us, O lord of continuity! You were here before anything had come into being, and you will be here when they are gone. As you have caused me to see the darkness that is yours to give, make light for me so that I can see you. As your ka endures and as your handsome, beloved face endures, may you come from afar and allow this servant, the scribe Pawah, to see you! Grant him the condition of ‘Re awaits him!’ for indeed the following of you is good.” (Reeves, 164)
Thus, no sooner is Akhenaten dead than the priests of Amun associated with the reign of Nefertiti are already begging him to return and lift them out of penury.
There is also another sign of Nefertiti’s desperation in the form of a letter that was written to the Hittite king Suppiliumas, from an unnamed pharaoh’s widow, asking the king if he will send her a son to marry, since the previous pharaoh had died without a son to follow him. “My husband died,” the letter reads. “A son I have not. But to you, they say, the sons are many. If you were to give me a son of yours, he would become my husband. Never shall I pick out a servant of mine and make him my husband!…I am afraid.” (Reeves, 175)
It was originally thought that this letter was written by Ankhesenamun, the wife of Tutankhamun, after his death. But since it has been pointed out that the time frame between the death of Tutankhamun (in December, with his burial 70 days later in early March) and the writing of the letter (which Hittite archives indicate was received in the autumn) would have to have been about nine months, it seems unlikely to have been penned by her. Nine months is too long a time to go by for such a crisis situation and as Reeves points out, the author of the letter is more likely to have been Nefertiti, who is referred to in the letter only by the mysterious name of ‘Dahamanzu.’ The Hittite king, though suspicious, did indeed send a son by the name of Zanzana, but he was assassinated en route, “presumably by forces inimical to the king’s plans.” (Reeves, 176)
In any event, Nefertiti-Smenkhare’s reign was followed by that of the famous boy king Tutankhamun, who ascended the throne at about the age of nine years old and ruled it — undoubtedly under the advice of Ay, the brother of Queen Tiye and also master of Akhenaten’s chariotry and one of his most trusted advisors — for about nine years. Ay seems to have advised him to change his name from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun and to have convinced him to abandon the city of Akhetaten and return to Thebes. Indeed, the city was evacuated with some haste, for animals were found left behind to starve to death. Very soon, it had become a ghost town, with the desert sands proceeding to efface it from memory.
Recent genetic studies have shown that Tutankhamun had a club foot and was definitely the son of Akhenaten by one of his sisters, which one we don’t know. He contracted malaria several times in his life and may possibly have died of the disease. The old theory that he was killed by a blow to the head, and hence, possibly murdered has been disproven by this study, which showed that he hole was made during the mummification process and not by an aggressor.
Ay ruled immediately after Tutankhamun, for a brief period of about three years. He died without offspring and after him, whether on Ay’s nomination or perhaps by military coup, we do not know, the war general Horemheb stepped forward to replace him. Horemheb had been busy in Palestine attempting to restore the empire and he was only too happy to take control of Egypt and steer her back toward the course of empire once more.
But Horemheb, who had been one of Amenhotep III’s primary generals, was a practical man, and he realized — probably due to pressures put on him by the Theban priesthood — that all traces of Akhenaten’s religion would have to be eradicated if the country was ever to be restored to a state of peace. Ay and Tutankhamun had tried to fly a middle ground by keeping the Aten religion in the picture — the rayed sun disc is depicted on the back of Tutankhamun’s throne chair — but Horemheb proceeded to wipe it out completely. As Donald Redford remarks:
“Not one block was left upon another at Akhetaten. Walls were torn down to their foundations, mud-bricks pillaged, and steles and statuary hopelessly smashed. Thereafter the ruins provided a quarry for over a century, most of the known blocks gravitating across the river to Hermopolis, where the Ramessides used them extensively; but some ended up as far away as Abydos, over 100 miles to the south. The fate of the sun temples at Memphis and Heliopolis can only be imagined; the one at Memphis was undoubtedly torn down.” (Redford, 227)
The four temples which Akhenaten had built in Thebes were dismantled and their blocks were used by Horemheb as masonry fill for new pylons at Thebes and Luxor. Thus, swallowing up the blocks of Akhenaten’s temples inside the new pylons, Horemheb actually reversed Akhenaten’s Truth Event, placing back into concealment that which Akhenaten had brought forth into the unconcealment of the open region of Egyptian waking consciousness. And in doing so, he inadvertently preserved the remains of Akhenaten’s temples for archaeologists to later piece back together.
But the precedent had been set: Western monotheism had come into being, perhaps a few centuries too early, but the Event had taken place, and the new symbol system that had come forth from out of the collective unconscious was merely anticipating, by centuries, what would eventually become the religious norm of Western civilization.