Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Akhenaten's Hymn To The Aten

Akhenaten and members of his family worshipping & making offerings to the Aten

Pharaoh Akhenaten, who is also, at times, known as Amenhotep IV, is often referred to as the "heretical king" of the Eighteenth Dynasty - that chaotic period in Egyptian history which his reign encompassed, is popularly believed to have been caused by his insistence and dedication to the worship of a singular god, the Aten. But as with anything in history, it is difficult to ascertain the truth and to separate fact from conjecture. Over the last century, as excavations and studies at modern-day Tell el Amarna (Akhetaten, the ancient and true name of Akhenaten's city dedicated to the Aten, which is interpreted as 'the Horizon of the Aten') have revealed more clues about the reign of this controversial Pharaoh, so unlike any other before or after him, copious amounts of ink have been shed in innumerable books - each expounding its own theories on who this man was, what caused him to bring Egypt to the brink  of ruin, to abandon his kingly duties for the sake of his devotion to the service of  a god, and the significance his governance - or lack thereof -  had on Egypt's monumental history.    

Akhenaten sacrificing a duck to the Aten
This talatat block depicts Akhenaten's hands grasping the neck of a struggling duck - with one hand, he holds the fowl by its wings while with the other, he wrings its neck before offering it to his god
Image courtesy of: http://www.metmuseum.org/

In a hot, dry and sun-imbued region such as Egypt, solar worship is a matter of course and not an anomaly; in fact, the ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun throughout their recorded history. A variety of deities, including Ra, or Re, Amun, and the syncretisation of the two gods, Amun-Re, manifested different aspects of the solar-disk as it progressed through the sky. But what is different or novel about the new religion of Akhenaten (whose self-appointed name translates into 'Glory of the Aten'), who ruled Egypt for seventeen years from around 1353 B.C. E. to 1336 B.C. E., is that it focused on one, specific aspect of the sun's (Re's) manifestations: as he emerged on the horizon at dawn, Re was Khepri; as the sun climbed higher in the course of the morning, he was Re-Horakhte, or Re who was Horus of the two horizons (in the same manner in which the lanner falcon, being the embodiment of Horus, Re swept across the sky); at midday or at his fiercest, Re was known as Aten; finally, in late afternoon when the heat subsided and the sun began to set, Re was known as Atum. The Egyptians saw all these as aspects or phases of Re. (For countless generations, but especially from the Fifth Dynasty onwards, the cult of Re was centered in Heliopolis - 'City of the Sun' - located in what is today's a northern suburb of Cairo.) (Source: El Mahdy, C., Tutankhamun: The Life And Death Of The Boy-King, 1999)

It was this representation of the Aten, this embodiment of the sun's furious midday heat (generally felt between 11:00 AM till 3:00 PM) when the solar rays are at their most intense, that Akhenaten elevated to a nearly exclusive position. Abandoning - some claim that he outlawed -  the temples and cultic rituals associated with Egypt's other, multitudinous gods (along with the traditional festivals held in their honour such as that of Amun and his consort Mut's annual Luxorian Opet festival), Akhenaten raised new temples to Aten, leaving them open to the sky to allow worshippers to feel the life-giving, life-nourishing rays of the god. (Source: National Geographic Magazine, April 2001)

Around year four of his reign, Akhenaten set out two hundred miles north of Luxor in search of a new site - a virginal, unpolluted plain on the eastern bank of the Nile that belonged neither to man nor to any other god - and and founded a new city in middle Egypt, halfway between Egypt's ancient centres of power, Memphis, to the north (Lower Egypt), and Luxor, to the south (Upper Egypt), dedicated to his god. It was here, at what would become known as Akhetaten, that Akhenaten defined the new city's boundaries - the limits of which were clearly set by fourteen boundary stelae - and, once he chose the site, ordered work to begin immediately. As the inscriptions on the city's stelae show, exactly one year later, in year five of Akhenaten's reign, the royal family and its court occupied the newly-founded city and, for the next fifteen years, it functioned viably; it is generally believed that, once Akhenaten relocated to his new city, he never left Akhetaten again. (It was at the time of his move to Akhetaten, the new capital of Egypt, that the Pharaoh re-named himself as 'Akhenaten' and his wife, Nefertiti, as 'Nefernefruaten Mery Waenre,' which translates into 'the beloved of Waenre' - 'Waenre' being one of Akhenaten's names.)
(Source: El Mahdy, C., Tutankhamun: The Life And Death Of The Boy-King, 1999)

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their daughters under the life-giving rays of the Aten
(In total, the Pahraoh & his queen had six daughters, all of whom were lovingly depicted with their royal parents)
Image courtesy of: http://www.westcler.org/

Moreover, Akhenaten proclaimed himself to be Aten's sole incarnation or representative on Earth - not dissimilar to the way the Pope is regarded by his (Roman Catholic) flock to be Christ's Vicar on Earth. Being the 'son of the Aten' or, to put it another way, the 'son of god,' Akhenaten saw himself as the sole person who possessed exclusive access to the god, worshipping and communicating directly with the Aten: ordinary people could adore the Aten  through  the god's intermediary, the Pharaoh, and gain the beneficence of the god through his intercession on their behalf. Akhenaten ordered his artists to portray the Pharaoh and is family worshipping and making offerings to the Aten, always depicted as the solar orb in the sky with a uraeus - the rearing hooded cobra traditionally seen on the brow of royal crowns and headdresses - at its centre, whose rays reached down to Earth, terminating in small human hands holding the hieroglyphic symbol of life, the ankh,  to the faces of members of the royal family, blessing them with life.
(Source: National Geographic Magazine, April 2001)

This uncompleted yet beautiful bust from the workshop of Thutmoses, is believed to be that of Queen Nefertiti
(Bodemuseum, Ägyptische Sammlung, Berlin)
Photograph courtesy of Margarete Busing ~ 2000
Image courtesy of: http://www.sajalieubah.com/

Even the construction and function of the Aten's temples diverged from traditional temples in Egypt. The Great Temple, which was situated in the middle of Akhetaten and off of the city's main road, the Royal Road, which ran parallel to the Nile, differed from other Egyptian temples dedicated to the gods because as one progressed through its courts, they became more open to the air and light, as opposed to such temples as those of Amun - whose very name means the 'Hidden' or 'Secret One' - where the halls would get darker and increasingly forbidden.

Amun-Re's temple at Karnak perfectly illustrates the difference between Akhenaten's temple to Aten and more traditional temples, not only architecturally, but ideologically as well. For instance, at the heart of the temple at Karnak - as it is in most Egyptian temples - was the shrine of the god. Housed inside of this inner sanctum of the temple, the shrine was the darkest, quietest and most secretive part of the temple, in the midst of which stood the golden cult statue of the god for whom the temple had been built and the axis around which all the activity of the temple revolved. Forbidden to every person except for the Pharaoh and only a handful of select priests who ministered to the god's person (in the form of a statue) by offering it libations and incensed prayers, Amun-Ra would be dressed each day in fresh, white linens. By its very nature then, the hierarchy of Egyptian religion was exclusive - it granted those who served the gods in their temples an immense measure of wealth; and along with wealth, prestige and power naturally and consequently followed. And the more access an individual - a priest or 'prophet', for instance - had to the presence of the god, the more power that individual wielded and the grander his honorary titles were. Therefore, the cults of the gods were shrouded in mystery and jealously guarded in secrecy, precisely in order to preserve the insularity of a god's cult - and priestly power which, at certain times in Egyptian history, rivalled even that of the Pharaohs. 

Conversely,  the main distinctive aspect of the Temple of the Aten was that there was no cult statue of the god. Instead, as it has already been mentioned, the Temple was open-aired and roofless, so that as the sun-disk traversed the sky from east to west directly overhead, the Pharaoh, his family, his courtiers, and fellow Atenists worshipped the god daily, in his magnificent guise or manifestation of the sun. But there was yet another essential difference: whereas in the other temples of Egypt the Pharaoh conducted secret, unseen rituals to the cult statue of a god, here, in  the Great temple of Aten, the Pharaoh worshipped semi-publicly, making offerings and sacrifices to his god in the presence of others.
(Sources: El Mahdy, C., Tutankhamun: The Life And Death Of The Boy-King, 1999; Bard, K., & Shubert, S., Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, 1999)

Image courtesy of: http://www.muzcentrum.ru/

In adoration of the Aten, Akhenaten wrote 'hymns' or rather, descriptive poems to the god, and these were carved - in either long or short versions - on the walls of several tombs that were cut into the cliffs at the rear of Akhetaten. And, in the tomb of Ay, the chief minister and maternal uncle of Akhenaten — (Ay was one of Queen Tiye's two brothers; the other brother being Anen, a priest of Amun in Karnak. As the Great Royal Wife of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten's father, Tiye was Akhenaten's mother) — who was later to seize the throne after the death of Tutankhamun, occurs the longest and best rendition of a composition known as the 'Hymn to the Aten', said to have been written by Akhenaten himself.

Quite moving in itself as a piece of poetry, many scholars agree that it is uncannily similar to Psalm 104 (reputedly composed by Moses. This has led many to suppose that either Moses and the Hebrews were residing in Egypt at that time of Akhenaten's reign and, therefore, influenced or 'converted' the Pharaoh to the concept of monotheism, or, as some have proposed, that Akhenaten and Moses were one and the same person). Atenism's whole ideology is summed up in the Hymn, embedded in which is the concept that only Akhenaten had access to the god: '... there is none who knows thee save thy son Akhenaten. Thou hast made him wise in thy plans and thy power.' As the father of the Pharaoh and of all creation, the Aten is acknowledged as the begetter of all life: all plant and animal life; all races and nationalities, immediate and distant, including  Egypt's allies and her enemies - everything under the sun. So the essence of the worship of the Aten is not the solar-disk itself but rather, the power of the god behind it: the metaphor being that, just as the sun's rays  are far-reaching and omnipresent, so is the power of the Aten; at once visible to and felt by all and yet, simultaneously, invisible and omnipotent. 
(Quote & sources: ancient-egypt-history.com, 2010; El Mahdy, C., Tutankhamun: The Life And Death Of The Boy-King, 1999)

The Great Hymn To The Aten
(Translation by John A. Wilson)

Thou appearest beautifully on the horizon of heaven,
Thou living Aten, the beginning of life!
When thou art risen on the eastern horizon,
Thou hast filled every land with thy beauty.
Thou art gracious, great, glistening, and high over every land;
Thy rays encompass the lands to the limit of all that thou hast made:
As thou art Re, thou reachest to the end of them;
(Thou) subduest them (for) thy beloved son.
Though thou art far away, thy rays are on earth;
Though thou art in their faces, no one knows thy going.

When thou settest in the western horizon,
The land is in darkness, in the manner of death.
They sleep in a room, with heads wrapped up,
Nor sees one eye the other.
All their goods which are under their heads might be stolen,
(But) they would not perceive (it).
Every lion is come forth from his den;
All creeping things, they sting.
Darkness is a shroud, and the earth is in stillness,
For he who made them rests in his horizon.

At daybreak, when thou arisest on the horizon,
When thou shinest as the Aton by day,
Thou drivest away the darkness and givest thy rays.
The Two Lands are in festivity every day,
Awake and standing upon (their) feet,
For thou hast raised them up.
Washing their bodies, taking (their) clothing,
Their arms are (raised) in praise at thy appearance.
All the world, they do their work.

All beasts are content with their pasturage;
Trees and plants are flourishing.
The birds which fly from their nests,
Their wings are (stretched out) in praise to thy ka.
All beasts spring upon (their) feet.
Whatever flies and alights,
They live when thou hast risen (for) them.
The ships are sailing north and south as well,
For every way is open at thy appearance.
The fish in the river dart before thy face;
Thy rays are in the midst of the great green sea.

Creator of seed in women,
Thou who makest fluid into man,
Who maintainest the son in the womb of his mother,
Who soothest him with that which stills his weeping,
Thou nurse (even) in the womb,
Who givest breath to sustain all that he has made!
When he descends from the womb to breathe
On the day when he is born,
Thou openest his mouth completely,
Thou suppliest his necessities.
When the chick in the egg speaks within the shell,
Thou givest him breath within it to maintain him.
When thou hast made him his fulfillment within the egg, to break it,
He comes forth from the egg to speak at his completed (time);
He walks upon his legs when he comes forth from it.

How manifold it is, what thou hast made!
They are hidden from the face (of man).
O sole god, like whom there is no other!
Thou didst create the world according to thy desire,
Whilst thou wert alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts,
Whatever is on earth, going upon (its) feet,
And what is on high, flying with its wings.

The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt,
Thou settest every man in his place,
Thou suppliest their necessities:
Everyone has his food, and his time of life is reckoned.
Their tongues are separate in speech,
And their natures as well;
Their skins are distinguished,
As thou distinguishest the foreign peoples.
Thou makest a Nile in the underworld,
Thou bringest forth as thou desirest
To maintain the people (of Egypt)
According as thou madest them for thyself,
The lord of all of them, wearying (himself) with them,
The lord of every land, rising for them,
The Aten of the day, great of majesty.

All distant foreign countries, thou makest their life (also),
For thou hast set a Nile in heaven,
That it may descend for them and make waves upon the mountains,
Like the great green sea,
To water their fields in their towns.
How effective they are, thy plans, O lord of eternity!
The Nile in heaven, it is for the foreign peoples
And for the beasts of every desert that go upon (their) feet;
(While the true) Nile comes from the underworld for Egypt.

Thy rays suckle every meadow.
When thou risest, they live, they grow for thee.
Thou makest the seasons in order to rear all that thou hast made,
The winter to cool them,
And the heat that they may taste thee.
Thou hast made the distant sky in order to rise therein,
In order to see all that thou dost make.
Whilst thou wert alone,
Rising in thy form as the living Aten,
Appearing, shining, withdrawing or aproaching,
Thou madest millions of forms of thyself alone.
Cities, towns, fields, road, and river
Every eye beholds thee over against them,
For thou art the Aten of the day over the earth.

Thou are in my heart,
And there is no other that knows thee
Save thy son Nefer-kheperu-Re Wa-en-Re
For thou hast made him well-versed in thy plans and in thy strength.

The world came into being by thy hand,
According as thou hast made them.
When thou hast risen they live,
When thou settest they die.
Thou art lifetime thy own self,
For one lives (only) through thee.
Eyes are (fixed) on beauty until thou settest.
All work is laid aside when thou settest in the west.
(But) when (thou) risest (again),
[Everything is] made to flourish for the king,
Since thou didst found the earth
And raise them up for thy son,
Who came forth from thy body: the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Akh-en-Aten, and the Chief Wife of the King, Nefer-titi, living and youthful forever and ever.

(Source: katestange.net, March 1st, 2000)

Stela showing Akhenaten, Nefertiti and two of their daughters making offerings to the Aten
(Cairo Museum, Egypt)
Image courtesy of: http://www.ancient-egypt.co.uk

Suggested readings:

Tell El Amarna (1973), by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie: Aris & Phillips

Akhenaten: The Heretic King (1984), by Donald B. Reford: Princeton University Press

Akhenaten's Egypt (1988), by Angela P. Thomas: Shire

Akhenaten: King of Egypt (1988), by Cyril Aldred: Thames & Hudson

Akhenaten's Year Twelve Reconsidered (1988), by F.J.E. Boddens Hosang: D.E. Publications

Akhenaten's Sed-festival at Karnak (1992), by Jocelyn Gohary: Kegan Paul International

The Boundary Stelae Of Akhenaten (1993), by William J. Murnane & Charles Cornell Van Siclen: Kegan Paul International

Visual Manifestations Of Kingship During The Reign Of Akhenaten (1997), by Susan Gayle Stelford: Northern Illinois University

Nefertiti: Egypt's Sun Queen (1998), by Joyce A. Tyldesley: Viking

Tutankhamen: The Life And Death of The Boy-King (1999), by Christine El Mahdy: St. Martin's Griffin

Pharaohs Of The Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen (1999), by Rita E. Freed, Sue D'Auria, Yvonne J. Markowitz & The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in association with Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown

Akhenaten: The Heretic And His World (2000), by Leatha A. Ruppert: California State University, Dominguez Hills

Akhenaten and the Religion of Light (2001), by Erik Hornung & David Lorton: Cornell University Press

Amarna: Ancient Egypt's Age Of Revolution (2002), by Barbara Watterson: Tempus

Akhenaten: History, Fantasy And Ancient Egypt (2003), by Dominic Montserrat: Routledge

Images of Akhenaten's Daughters (2003), by Katie Frances Daniel: University of Auckland

The Golden Age of Tutankhamun: Divine Might And Splendor In The New Kingdom (2004), by Zahi A. Hawass: American University in Cairo Press

Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet (2005), by Nicholas Reeves: Thames & Hudson

Akhenaten & Tutankhamun: Revolution And Restoration (2006), by David P. Silverman, Josef William Wegner & Jennifer Houser Wegner: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Akhenaten (2008), by Dorothy Porter: Pan Macmillan

The Akhenaten Colossi of Karnak (2010), by Lisa Manniche: American University in Cairo Press

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