Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The Aten – Unravelling the Mystery of the Ancient Egyptian God

In the Aten Sequence Books, our not-so-noble hero Aten has persuaded the gullible Prince Amenophis that there is a new god in Egypt called Aten, who can only be worshipped through him.  The foolish prince is then persuaded to embark on a mission to clear all obstacles, including his own elder brother, out of his way of his becoming the next Pharaoh so he can impose his new religion on the Egyptians and thus allowing Aten access to the gold he needs stored in the vaults under the Temple of Karnak. But in Ancient Egypt who or what was the Aten and how was it worshipped?

The Aten shining on Akhenaten
Akhenaten worshipping the sun disc

The Aten was the god the ‘heretic’ Pharaoh Akhenaten singled out from the vast pantheon of Egyptian gods and goddesses to worship.  For the first time in Egypt’s long history, there was only one official deity; only one god who could be worshipped, a god who could only be approached through the Pharaoh himself. In the ‘Great Hymn to the Aten’, which many scholars believe Akhenaten wrote himself, the king extols his god as the creator of life, the source of all nourishment and abundance for every person, animal, and plant on the planet.

So why did he choose this particular god? The Aten came to prominence during the long reign of his father, the Pharaoh Amenophis III, so it was a religious concept which was already developing not something the young prince snatched out of thin air.  The Aten would have been discussed and worshipped as he was growing up and his father’s royal palace at Malkata was referred to in ancient times as ‘the Palace of the Dazzling Aten’.

During this reign the deity is often show with the body of a man with a falcon’s head. However, references to the Aten or sun disk did start appearing much earlier in Egyptian history than the 18th dynasty.  As far back as the Middle Kingdom, there is a reference to this radiant deity in the famous ‘Story of Sinuhe’.  The Aten was depicted as a yellow or golden sun disk and sometimes the full moon was referred to as the ‘silver Aten’. The deity’s full name was ‘Ra-Horakhty who rejoices in the horizon, in his Name as the Light which is in the sun disc’.

When he first ascended the throne Akhenaten was known by his given name Pharaoh Amenophis IV, but as he gradually embraced his new beliefs he changed his names, shut down the temples of the old priests and started building a new capital city entirely dedicated to his new religion on the Nile at what is now known as Amarna. He declared he would move to his new city, named Akhetaten, or ‘Horizon of the Aten’, with his wife and daughters and once there would never leave his city again.  To mark the boundaries of this new capital he had huge boundary stelae carved into the cliffs.

As Akhenaten was building his new capital Akhetaten, he had the name of his god carved onto these boundary stelae marking the city limits.  Sometimes it was shortened to Ra-Horus-Aten or just the Aten. From this time forward, the deity was no longer depicted in human form, but always as the sun disc emanating rays of light culminating in little hands that offered life, health and prosperity to Akhenaten and his family.  This was not a god for the people, but a deity which showered its abundance and light on Pharaoh, who then became a conduit of this divine energy to his country and people.  So in a way, it was Akhenaten himself who was now to be worshipped and seen as a god.

This was nothing particularly new in Egyptian thinking, as the Pharaoh had always been regarded as a physical manifestation of the divine, the direct link between the people and their gods.  But before there were many, many gods and goddesses in Egypt that an ordinary person could choose to honour and most houses had their own little shrines and statues of their favourite deity.  With the arrival of the Aten all this was stripped away and carvings, statues and references to the traditional gods were torn down or erased.

This new era also completely changed worship in the temples.  Not only were the old gods gone, but the temples themselves were very different.  In a traditional Egyptian temple, there would have been outer courtyards open to the sun thronging with people, but as you moved closer and closer into the heart of the complex it would get darker and darker with fewer people having access.  Finally the shrine of the god would be reached.  A dark chamber of secrets, magic and ceremonies probably only visited by the High Priest, a few of his senior clergy and the Pharaoh and his queen.

The new Aten temples were vast courts totally open to the life-giving rays of the sun.  There were rows and rows of offering tables heaped with all kinds of costly foods, drink and cups filled with smoking incense.  In the so-called Long Temple at Amarna the Egyptologists found the remains of 920 mudbrick offerings tables in a grid to the south of the temple wall and have estimated there was as many as another 150 in the central stone-built sanctuary that was, in the new way, left open to the skies.  It would be nice to think that all this abundance of food, a sure sign of Pharaoh’s wealth and power, would have been distributed among the people after the religious ceremonies were over, but there is no evidence for this.  It is not even known if the offering food was cooked on site or taken away to be prepared for feasting at the palace or a more humble family’s dinner.  Or was it just left for the god, rotting away under the merciless heat of the Egyptian sun?

Another unusual feature of these new temples was that there was no cult statue of the deity, which had to be washed and dressed in fresh clothes every day.  Because the interlinking courtyards and the inner sanctuary were all open to the sky, the sun disc was worshiped directly, by tracking its daily progress from where it rose in the east and set in the west.  There were priests in the Aten temples, but Akhenaten himself presided over some of the worship; acting as a High Priest and leading the other worshippers in reciting or singing ‘The Great Hymn to Aten’ and other prayers. 

The royal ladies of Amarna played an unusually prominent part in this worship, and Akhenaten’s queen Nefertiti was usually shown the same size as her husband, accompanying him with their six daughters in all his activities.  One of the great honours that could be bestowed on these royal women was having a small, open cult shrine, known as a ‘sunshade’ or ‘kiosk’ dedicated to them.  One of the features of the Amarna period was a turning away from the stylised art and formal depictions of gods and people towards a more natural style of art showing beautiful scenes of trees, pools, animals and all the bounty nature had to offer.  These ‘sunshades’ were often set in beautiful, sunlit surroundings where there was pools containing fish and colourful plants and flowers.  They created an oasis of tranquillity, somewhere for the women to come where it was quiet and peaceful, a place for contemplation and prayer.  

But even here human conflict crept in.  In one of the larger known sites for the ‘sunshades’ called the Maru-Aten, the names and titles of one Amarna royal lady was erased and recarved with the names and titles of Akhenaten’s oldest daughter Princess Meritaten.  It used to be thought that it had been her mother Nefertiti’s name which had been removed, but now many Egyptologists believe that it was the name of one of Akhenaten’s other queens, Kiya, which had been struck from history.

For all its glittering brilliance, the cult of the sun disc and Akhenaten’s new capital city were to last for less than twenty years.  This self-imposed exile and concentration on religion rather than affairs of state had weakened the Egyptian empire. There is also some evidence that a plague which was sweeping through the Middle East at that time, reached the Egyptian court killing some of the female members of the royal family.  When Akhenaten died there were a few shadowy years were who his successor was is disputed, some scholars thinking it was a young king called Smenkhare and others that Queen Nefertiti seized the throne and ruled on her own. 

But a few years later, when the young boy king Tutankhamen came to the throne, the capital was moved back to Thebes, the temples and old gods were reinstated and the names of Akhenaten and his god were erased.  Unfortunately Tutankhamen was destined to die young and the glittering 18th dynasty came to an end with the reign of Horemheb, who saw to it that any last traces of this religious experiment were destroyed forever.  Akhetaten had been hastily constructed of mudbrick and any stone which had been used was stripped and used elsewhere, so it swiftly fell into disrepair and crumbled.  The tombs which had been carved in the hillsides were left empty and no more offerings were made in the temples.

Akhenaten image David Holt , Jean-Pierre Dalbera Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5 Generic


The Aten - Wikipedia

Ancient Egypt Online -

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