Akhenaten-Akhenaton and the Myth of Monotheism
By Vincent Bridges, 1998
Imagine a hawk circling high above the edge of the desert, a dark speck against the faint blue of the pre-dawn sky. The hawk soars higher, striking the first rays of the rising sun, and its feathers flame suddenly, glint and flash, harbingers of the sun’s arrival, transforming the bird of prey into an omen or a message from Re-Harrakte, phoenix soul of the sun itself. Dawn becomes myth; and morning in Heliopolis, as the Greeks called it a thousand years into its decline, was the time of worship. The sun, in all its forms and effects, had always been the “one” god of the ancient Egyptian city of Anu, “The Place of the Pillar of the Sun.” Nothing remains of Heliopolis save a single obelisk from the Middle Kingdom to remind us of its importance. And yet, its solar theology echoed down the ages long after the rest of Egyptian civilization had been lost.
The sages of Heliopolis, anonymous authors of the VIth Dynasty Pyramid Texts, were the inheritors of a unified field of knowledge that included what we now think of as biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, astronomy, astrology, astro-physics, cosmogony and so on. They coded this wisdom into archetypes, such as Re and Osiris, which could be used, by describing their relationships, as a unifying formula to understand the nature of reality. These mythic concepts were actually forms of mathematical/symbolical transformative functions.
The political success of the sages of Heliopolis in the Vth and VIth Dynasty grew out of the results of a spiritual consolidation. By comparing the Builder Texts of Edfu with the Pyramid texts and other sources, such as the IVth Dynasty story of the Djedi and Khufu, we catch a glimpse of what was perhaps the crowning moment of Egyptian religion.
With the aid of a group of Ahku, or spirit beings, called the hemmemet, or Shining Ones at Heliopolis and the Hru Shemsu, or the Company of Horus at Edfu, the sages of Heliopolis pulled all the ancient traditions together into a theology which described reality as the measurable result of incommensurable causes. This unified theology of the ancient Egyptians seems to be missing as we look back through time with our modern archeological eyes. […]
Let us enter the mind of ancient Egypt by imagining, as the Heliopolitan sages did, that reality has a series of four stages, each with its reflection for a total of eight. Unity, the unity principle or the neter neteru—literally “force of all force”—is defined by the interaction of the eight. The confusion begins when we fail to realize that each level was meant to be holographic, or holonic, not hierarchical.
In other words, Re is the supreme god of the first level, but that does not make him more important than the epitome of the fourth level, Osiris. The levels themselves unite space, time, life and sentience into a comprehensive framework. The unity principle, the neter neteru, the “one” god of the Egyptians, is the star soul formed from the inter-weaving of the holonic levels.
In that sense, monotheism, one-god-ism, had no meaning outside of the divine archetypes of the interdependent levels. God, as a singularity, was impossible in the Egyptian system. God, singular, was always a unity; as sunlight is always an implicate rainbow.
Therefore the Egyptians felt comfortable expanding the images of divinity, knowing that the essence of the neter neteru will always be beyond definition. Mythology became for the ancient Egyptian sages a form of symbolic calculus by which the evolution of spiritual states and psychic landscapes could be described. Using this cohesive religious tool, Egyptian civilization remained coherent for over three millennia, despite periodic upheavals.
From the history of these periodic upheavals, the myth of monotheism, in its modern sense, emerges. At least from the Old Kingdom’s Heliopolitan consolidation, Egyptian religion had at its core a type of unity principle “monotheism.” This principle held the theology together but was never defined beyond the simplistic neter neteru, or force of all forces. When an XVIIIth Dynasty Pharaoh enunciated the idea that the divine was literally singular and exclusive, Egyptian culture underwent an upheaval from which it never fully recovered.
To comprehend what this meant, we must look briefly at the long pattern of Egyptian history. In the Pre-Dynastic Era, different cultures developed in the southern up-river Nile valley and in the northern delta. These cultures were conquered by a southern strongman known as Hru-Aha, Menes, or perhaps Narmer, sometimes around 3100 BC. The founder of the first Dynasty built his capital at Memphis and his tomb at Abydos, where over the millennia it became known as the tomb of Osiris.
By the IInd Dynasty, political dissent had focused around the northern delta deity known as Set. The IInd Dynasty King Peribsen ruled the Two Lands in the name of Set, creating the first of many periods of internal unrest. His successor, Khasekhemwy, ruled in the names of both Horus and Set, indicating some kind of political solution to the discord. It is tempting to see this as simply a delta versus river valley cultural clash, but the role of Set in Egyptian religion indicates that larger issues were at stake in the struggle.
The eleventh nome of the northern delta, on the edge of the Reed Sea and the eastern desert, may have been the actual center from which the worship of Set spread. By the late Pre-Dynastic Era, the nomadic warriors of the desert marshes held the agricultural population of the delta in thrall. Their totem animal was the so-called Set animal, a creature with red hair, long square-cropped ears and an arrow-like tail. When the Two Lands were unified, both symbols of Kingship, Horus and Set, became part of the attributes of the King. Set then became the strength or power of the King, as Horus became the vision or sight of the King.
However, Set always represented one half of the Egyptians’ dualistic world view. He was the lord of the desert nomads, as opposed to the Osirian agriculturists. This perceived threat of nomadic destruction became an intrinsic component in the divinity of Set. He was always seen as the god of power corrupted to its own ends, given to random, chaotic eruptions of pure violence, with no purpose save its own glorification. Hence, in the Heliopolitan consolidation, Set is seen as the murderer and usurper of Osiris, Re’s regent on earth, and must be defeated by Horus, the reincarnated Osiris. In the struggle, Set loses a testicle, part of his power, and Horus loses an eye, part of his vision. The conflict weakens both sides, and the dispute is judged by a Council of Gods, who rules in favor of Horus as Re’s regent, while demoting Set to the Lord of Storms.
Seen against this broad mythological background, the political disturbance in the IInd Dynasty takes on an ominous tone of power for its own sake. Although the problem was solved at that point without an overt political breakdown, the ominous undercurrent would remain just beneath the surface of Egyptian society.
The First Intermediate Period, which followed the collapse of the VIth Dynasty, was a confused period of warring noble families grouped in various religious alignments. The Middle Kingdom developed with the XIth Dynasty Horus Kings of Thebes in southern Egypt. The Middle Kingdom fell apart in the Second Intermediate Period under pressure from foreign invaders who adopted Set as their primary deity.
These Hyksos, or foreign princes, were nomads from the eastern deserts, Palestine and Sinai, who settled in the eleventh and twelfth nomes of the eastern delta and became Set worshippers. They controlled the fragmented kingdoms of Memphis and the western delta and opposed the Horus Kings of the Theban Confederation. Adding to the political confusion was a concurrent Nubian/Egyptian Dynasty ruling from Kerma in the Sudan. The Theban Horus Kings of the XVIIth Dynasty managed to re-unify the Two Lands by defeating both the Nubians and the Hyksos. Ahmose I drove the Hyksos all the way back to Palestine and founded the New Kingdom. The early XVIIIth Dynasty was a period of rapid expansion as Egypt recovered its Middle Kingdom borders and kept right on going. Tutmose III conquered a realm that stretched from the eastern bank of the Euphrates to the fourth cataract of the Nile. Imperial Egypt had been created.
The New Kingdom of Imperial Egypt reached its zenith in the reign of Amenhotep III, Ahkenaton’s father. The internal political intrigues of the royal family had not disturbed the outward thrust of imperial expansion. Tutmose III may have tried to erase all mention of Hatshepsut, but he was wise enough to build upon the power base she had created. Even the true political shift, from Thebes toward a more universalistic Heliopolitan orientation, represented by the ascension to the throne of the younger son of Amenhotep II, Tutmose IV, did not effect Egypt’s imperial stature. If anything, the cosmopolitan influences of Heliopolis helped solidify the Empire and give it a spiritual focus.
The state god, Amon-Re, representing the unification of Thebes and Heliopolis, had attempted to become that spiritual focus. Temples to Amon-Re appeared across the Empire. The need was felt for a single exportable religion which could unite the different cultures of the Empire into a new Egyptian world view. The process began with Tutmose IV’s deal with Heliopolis and built upon the synthesis of Amon and Re, but Tutmose IV also seems to have been involved with a new solar cult which placed great importance on the word “aton,” heat or power, as in the heat of the sun.
Tutmose IV’s son, Amenhotep III, would develop the concept of the “aton” further, and his son, Amenhotep IV or Ahkenaton, (“(He who serves) the Spirit of the Aton”) would rock Egyptian civilization to its core by announcing that the Aton was the one and only, single and exclusive, divinity. And of course, that Ahkenaton was his regent on earth, in the exact same way as Osiris was Re’s regent on earth. Ahkenaton, with his version of the Aton, had bootstrapped himself into godhood while still living. He had, in the sense that the Egyptians understood best, usurped the throne of Osiris. No human had ever dared such blasphemy. How this came to happen is perhaps the most fascinating, and misunderstood, story in Egyptian history.
A red granite stele placed between the front paws of the Sphinx tells the story. A young prince, out hunting lions in the western desert, camps for the night on the edge of the Gizah plateau. While he sleeps, he is visited by a four-faced vision of Re-Harrakte, who tells the young prince that if only he will clear the sand from the Sphinx, an image of Re-Harrakte, the prince will become Pharaoh. The prince does so and later becomes Tutmose IV, who placed the stele in commemoration of the event.
This simple story both reveals and conceals a myriad of complexities. The stele itself attests to the story’s reality, but the meaning of this mystical encounter on Gizah remains elusive unless it is seen as the opening movement of what would become Ahkenaton’s cultural and religious revolution. From that perspective, Tutmose IV’s encounter with the divine on the Gizah plateau becomes one of the turning points in human history. The New Kingdom at that moment was in a period of consolidation under Tutmose’s father Amenhotep II. The long and aggressive reign of Tutmose III had carved out a vast empire and his son, Amenhotep II, was determined to hold onto every last hectare of it. His sons were warrior princes who ruled like regents over portions of the Two Lands. Except Tutmose, who stayed in Memphis and seems to have lived the life of a New Kingdom aristocrat to the fullest.
Details are vague, but eventually, Tutmose did become Pharaoh and displayed his gratitude to the sages of Heliopolis by cleaning the sand away from the Sphinx. This gesture suggests not only a debt to the political forces of Heliopolis, but a debt to the old god, Re-Harrakte. Translated as “Re – Horus of the Two Horizons,” Re-Harrakte was an ancient formulation of the transformative aspects of Egyptian sacred science. As such, it encompassed the secret core of the ancient unified field of knowledge, the fusion of time and transmutation.
The full official title of Re-Harrakte contains the original use of the word “aton” in its sense of the sun’s disk as the dwelling place of the god. All solar gods were said to reside in the sun’s disk, but Re-Harrakte retained the older meanings. Hru, Horus, was the ancient word for face or height of the sky, and in this older sense, “aton” was the power of divinity undifferentiated. Re-Harrakte then contained the secret of the “heat” which animated the gods, and therefore the universe as a whole. Tutmose IV was initiated into the secrets of Re-Harrakte and this knowledge and power became the leverage that made him Pharaoh over his elder brothers. But even with the support of the sages of Heliopolis, Tutmose’s position was precarious.
His grandfather, Tutmose III, had established the composite Amon-Re as the universal deity of the Empire, and the wealth of his vast conquests had flowed through the coffers of the priests at Karnak. This newly enriched priestly class was seriously disturbed by the royal attachment to an ancient Heliopolitan theology. Re-Harrakte had never been completely assimilated into the Precinct of Amon. A small crack opened between the royal family and the priests of the state religion.This gap was accentuated by the marriage policies of the post-Tutmose III Pharaohs. Imperial Egypt broke with tradition, which held that maintaining the purity of the bloodline by marriage within the family was the most important component of kingship, and began to use royal marriage as a political tool to cement the Empire together into a larger royal family.
Tutmose III’s problems with Hatshepsut helped this tendency to become policy, but it rendered his successors open to the accusation that the Pharaoh was no longer a descendent of Amon or Re.
Part of the deal the young prince Tutmose worked out with the sages of Heliopolis was a solution to this problem. His son, Amenhotep III, (literally “Amon is satisfied) would be proclaimed as the direct divine descendent of the elder sun-god, Re-Harrakte, and therefore a descendent of both Amon and Re. And so it was that Amenhotep III came to be worshipped as divine.
The Pharaohs had always been thought of as having divine blood, as a descendent of Re or Amon, and of attaining divine status among the stars of Orion after death, but never, before the time of Amenhotep III, had they been worshipped as a god in their own right, while still living. This was indeed a significant departure from tradition.
Amenhotep III however was the first born son of Re-Harrakte and Queen Muttamuua and outranked all other Egyptian Pharaohs, including his own father. His bloodline was based on the most ancient divinity. However, his mother was a foreigner, a princess of Mittani, an Indo-Aryan people on the borders of Palestine. To legitimize his new divinely-sired dynasty, Amenhotep III would have to marry into the most ancient Egyptian bloodline he could find. Hence his marriage to the “commoner,” Queen Tiy. This has been seen as everything from a great love story to a subtle piece of political theater, but the true motive stemmed from a sense of reuniting with an ancient bloodline. The status commoner should not be taken too literally; Queen Tiy’s family were Theban nobles, non-royal but of ancient lineage in service to the southern Egyptian version of Re-Harrakte, Horus the Elder. This marriage cemented both the Egyptian followers of the ancient sun-god and their Asian and Indo-Aryan counter-parts into a familial relationship with a direct descendent of the deity.
And so the Divine King and his beloved wife ruled over a world empire in peace and plenty. For thirty years or so, it seemed as if the New Kingdom was really the golden age regained. But the currents of change were churning just beneath the surface.
During Amenhotep III’s long reign, the family cult of the Aton as the synthesis of all the sun-gods continued to grow. Queen Tiy of course was an adherent, naming her royal barge “Aton Sparkles.” During his lifetime, Amenhotep III maintained good relations with the Precinct of Amon and showed no particular favoritism to the family cult of the Aton. In this, the art and pleasure-loving Amenhotep III can be seen as a realist. His son however would show no such retraint.
Amenhotep IV was the long awaited male heir of the new divinely-fathered dynasty. Queen Tiy had four daughters before she finally produced the line’s son and heir. Given the long build up to his birth, it is surprising that are no commemorative scarabs describing his infancy and childhood. His father, Amenhotep III, seems to have used commemorative scarabs as an early form of family newsletter, releasing them for the most trivial of occasions. That there are almost none relating to Amenhotep IV highlights the confusion the family felt over its young heir.