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Akhenaten: The First Stirrings of Monotheism

Updated on July 11, 2014
Bust of Pharaoh Akhenaten
Bust of Pharaoh Akhenaten | Source

Ancient Egypt was not the first civilization, yet so many religions seem to find a calling back to it. Several religions and magical orders or esoteric societies can find at least some roots in common with ancient Egyptian practices. Mystery traditions and ceremonial magic organizations often notice similarities between their beliefs and practices and those of any number of ancient dynasties of Egypt. Whether or not such practices and beliefs have a direct link to, were merely influenced by, or are reconstructions of Egypt's ancient beliefs does not change the influence ancient Egypt had on the world. However, the one modern religious belief we can most certainly tie back to ancient Egypt is the concept of a single deity. This ties back to the rebel pharaoh, Akhenaten, who was a unique pharaoh with unique religious ideas and paved the way for new religious thinking.

Akhenaten was born Amenhotep IV during a time of plenty and great wealth and happiness in Egypt. His father, Amenhotep III, inherited the role of pharaoh as the going was getting good and continued that path to make Egypt the ideal civilization. When Amenhotep III grew old, his son ruled by his side. He learned firsthand how to handle all the affairs as Egypt's pharaoh. Go to neighboring countries, win wars against them, set them up to pay taxes to Egypt as revenue, return to Egypt, and fulfill all the duties to ensure the gods remained pleased with Egypt. Of course, there was always far more to being Pharaoh, but as we will soon see, these were central components of the role.

The Aten (sun disc) pouring rays on Pharaoh and family.
The Aten (sun disc) pouring rays on Pharaoh and family.

After his father's death, Amenhotep IV became Pharaoh. Amenhotep IV denounced the gods of Egypt. He recognized only one god: Re-Horakty, the sun god. He changed his name to Akhenaten in honor of the god of his faith. A few short years later, the one god became simply the Aten, or the sun disc. Akhenaten changed the capital of the nation from the religious and flourishing Thebes to a new city, Amarna, where he could create the new religion for Egypt. This marked not only the first religious revolution in recorded history but also the first instance of monotheism.

In Amarna, Akhenaten created beautiful prose to share the new theology he was creating. His poetry was of astounding quality, demonstrating great intellectual ability in the ancient world. Egypt was no longer the central focus; only the sun was important. Humanism and the family were top priorities.The new religion, unlike the old, recognized the Aten as having created all people of all nations. Those who have studied the words of Akhenaten cannot help but to notice the similarities with the Old Testament that was written centuries later. Akhenaten has been described as sentimental, inspiring, and a mystic and visionary. He was devoted to three major areas of his life: the Aten, his wife Nefertiti, and his daughters.

Despite all these wonderful attributes, Akhenaten and his new religion had a downside. His theology showed that the Aten favored Pharaoh and his family only and that the Egyptians would have to see the Aten through Pharaoh. Akhenaten's words of praise to the Aten included that he was the one son of Aten having come forth from the body of the Aten. (These and other words from Akhenaten would come again well over a millennium later from Jesus Christ.) This theology prevented personal relationships with deity and required Akhenaten to acquire any understanding of the Aten.

Worse, for all the glorious and intellectual poetry, new theology, beautiful new city, and change of pace, Akhenaten demonstrated a lack of concern for his nation. After moving to and building Amarna, Akhenaten and the royal family never left. The military did nothing and the responsibilities of the pharaoh were completely neglected. Egypt began to lose its revenue without enforcement of payments through battle and the temples no longer received gifts. The only cities to maintain their status were the ones with temples that had done very well in receiving monetary gifts from the pharaoh in past generations. The Egyptian lifestyle was plummeting.

Tutankhamen and Ankhesenamen
Tutankhamen and Ankhesenamen

Fortunately, Akhenaten died only 17 years into his reign to allow the changes he had made to be corrected. Unfortunately, this left a ten year old son, Tutankhaten to rule with his half-sister of the same age. The new pharaoh abandoned Amarna, changed his name to Tutankhamen, returned the old gods to their rightful place, and restored order in Egypt. We can safely assume the child pharaoh was highly influenced and guided by his closest advisers.

What can be seen here is simply that the ancient world was not ready for monotheism. With it, all other gods were dishonored. To believe in any god but one makes you wrong. To believe in any god other than the one god in question makes you double wrong. The modern world has the benefit of looking back into the history of clashing between monotheism and polytheism and especially between the various monotheistic religions to develop alternative approaches, but that was not the case in the ancient world. Add the harm in such single-perspective thinking to Akhenaten's disregard for Egypt's affairs and we see how it could bring ancient Egyptians to have such a negative attitude toward individuals who preached of a single deity.

Abraham and Sarah
Abraham and Sarah

Pure Speculation to Fill the Gaps

Was Akhenaten the first voice of the Judeo-Christian faith? Quite possibly. What we have of the recorded history of the beginnings of these faiths is limited. Yes, we have a full account of how they came to be, but we have no evidence beyond the stories to support them. This does not mean they are inaccurate, simply that terms used may not be the exact story. We are left only with speculation. Could Abraham be Akhenaten? If we accept the details of the story of Abraham as fact, then no. However, if we accept that some details may have been lost or changed over the centuries, this is not impossible (in fact, different speculation likens Akhenaten to other biblical figures). Some argue that Akhenaten was influenced by the Jews. However, the only evidence we have of the beginnings of Judaism is hundreds of years older than the evidence of Akhenaten. The supposed exodus, then, may well have been the followers of Aten leaving after Akhenaten's death.

The big question here will be why anyone would change the story. If they are going to pass on the history of their faith, why would they not do so accurately? Chances are good the reason is a combination of two factors. One factor, of course, is simply a matter of oral transmission of the story initially before being recorded. Over the generations, details are forgotten and changed or altered to fit societal trends. The other, if we assume that the origins are rooted in Amarna and the teachings of Akhenaten, is a matter of distancing their faith from the man well-known as a heretic.

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After Tutankhamen left Amarna, the city was abandoned, looted, and left to ruins. We only assume that the people of Amarna all traveled back to Thebes or other Egptian cities. We only assume that all the people of Amarna renounced the teachings of Akhenaten and returned to the old ways. What if these assumptions are incorrect? Of all the people who threw their old lives away to join Akhenaten, who lived and breathed the new religion, who believed in what they were doing, not a single one of them stuck to their convictions? Not one of them actually believed in the Aten as sole creator?

Chances are good that at least a few stragglers maintained their belief in the Aten. If any remained in Egypt, they would not have been well accepted given the state of the nation under Akhenaten's rule. The safest bet would have been to leave. Of course, keeping names and places intact in recounting the story of how their faith started would likely be a bad idea, not just in Egypt but in all surrounding areas who would have known of Akhenaten as well. If this speculative account hints at the truth at all, then we can accept that at least the beginning of the story of Abraham could be the story of Akhenaten with details changed to protect the followers of this new religion.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and children under the Aten
Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and children under the Aten | Source

We cannot know for sure exactly how all these events played out. For all we know, those few stragglers who were inspired and changed for life by Akhenaten's teachings may well have perished in the desert trying to find a safe haven from the Egyptians who were so rightfully angered by a pharaoh who treated them as unimportant. What we do know is that Akhenaten brought a new religious way of thinking into the world and a new concept of deity.

Even if Judaism or any other monotheistic faith was not the result of carrying on Akhenaten's beliefs, later religions were certainly influenced by Akhenaten. Although Egyptians always returned to Egypt when conquering other lands, the affairs of Egypt were no secret to the world. Information spreads like wildfire and a nation whose leader proclaims that all gods are wrong save for one is not something that would have remained in Egypt's walls alone. The religion of the Aten may not have spread outside of Amarna, but word of it surely did. At the very least, Akhenaten set the human mind of the ancient world in motion for considering an alternative to all previous understandings of deity.

© 2011 Evylyn Rose

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    • stephaniedas profile image

      Stephanie Das 5 years ago from Miami, US

      Hey there--this is a good hub. I remember learning about this guy in my art history class. Mostly, I remember the theories about him being transgender, based on his feminine body shape in the carvings of him. It's funny how its that kind of thing that ends up sticking :)

    • Evylyn Rose profile image
      Author

      Evylyn Rose 5 years ago from Colorado, USA

      Thanks for the comment! Akhenaten as transgendered is definitely one possibility. Unfortunately, his remains were torn to shreds in the ancient world, so we have no way of ever knowing for sure. Another theory was that he had Marfan's syndrome that would explain both his and Tutankhamen's appearances. DNA testing on Tutankhamen last year disproved that he had it so chances of Akhenaten having it aren't likely. The other possibility is that he was not transgendered, but made to appear so as he was "the son of Aten" who is both male and female. Personally, I think it's a mix of the latter with physical ailments. Tutankhamen certainly had skeletal deformities so it's not impossible that his father did too.

      One other possibility lies in Nefertiti. One theory suggests that she did not die before Akhenaten but several years after. She reigned as Pharaoh for a short time. Personally, I do not believe this to be the case, but there is evidence that she did rule as co-regent with Akhenaten for a time. As the pharaoh's family is often depicted in Egyptian art as looking like the pharaoh, a male and female co-ruling as Pharaoh could result in a transgendered appearance.

    • stephaniedas profile image

      Stephanie Das 5 years ago from Miami, US

      That is so interesting. I agree with you- I think he chose to have himself represented like that because of Aten.

    • profile image

      Tariq 5 years ago

      Is it possible that Akhenaten didn't really "throw away" the other gods as usually put forth? i saw a fascinating video on youtube (which has forced me to investigate the mythology) which actually looks at the King's reforms as more of a synthesis of the pantheon, and a rather brilliant one at that, which weaves together every major god and throws some nice psychology on top of it also..

    • Evylyn Rose profile image
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      Evylyn Rose 5 years ago from Colorado, USA

      When you look at what Akhenaten did, he began with focusing on the sun god, Ra as the most important. "Aten" means sun disk and as his faith focused more and more on the sun as primary, this changed to Aten-Rahe. In time, it was left to just the Aten. Akhenaten did not recognize any of the other gods and left them behind. He didn't necessarily "throw away" the other gods as he simply focused all worship on the Aten and did not provide any support to the different temples throughout Egypt that recognized other gods. (Without the support of the Pharaoh, it was believed the that favor of the gods would be lost to Egypt.)

      Akhenaten's ideas were certainly brilliant in that the concept of a single deity was completely unknown to man up until that point. However, the idea that he simply synthesized the pantheon is completely bogus. Had that been the case, he would have had considerably more support and his, his wife's, and his children's lives and achievements would not have been wiped from history so thoroughly. It took a considerable amount of searching (and an extra large dose of luck) to uncover their existence. Don't give too much credit to every YouTupe video you watch. ;)

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK

      Hi Evylyn.

      This is a good informative article about one of the most extraordinary and possibly one of the most influential men in history - not for how he changed Egypt (which in the long term was minimally, as his reforms were undone after his death) but for how he may have changed thinking on concepts such as theology. I guess we may never know for sure what he was really like, but he was perhaps the most individually minded and uniquely different of all the pharaohs.

      I can well believe that his monotheism may have contributed directly or indirectly to the birth of other monotheistic religions. I just hope that further excavations at Amarna and elsewhere one day reveal significant new information about this figure from history.

      Voted up. Alun.

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