A Cultural Revolution in Ancient Egypt

Thursday, 10 May 2018

The social function of myth is to bind a society together, to act as a charter for its laws and customs, and to embed a culture in its environment. The advantage of myth in performing this role lies in its innate flexibility. Societies and cultures develop and change, sometimes slowly, sometimes in precipitous leaps. Myth is supple enough to accommodate even calamitous change and gloss it over with the appearance of continuity.

Egypt during the New Kingdom provides a vivid example of this strength of myth to recover from a point of disaster. The story starts in 1352 BCE with the accession to the throne of Amenhotep IV. The name Amenhotep means literally, “Amun is content”, Amun being the “hidden god” worshipped at the great temple of Karnak, and therefore—because pharaohs ruled from Thebes—the pre-eminent god of the sprawling Egyptian pantheon. Called “the great god who listens to prayers, who comes at the voice of the poor and distressed, who gives breath to the wretched”, Amun was worshipped as the creator of all things, the source and sustainer of all existence, who brought himself into being by saying, “I am!” He was often fused with the sun god Ra, as Amun-Ra.

Soon, however, Amun was far from content. For Amenhotep IV changed his name, to Akhenaten, “servant of the Aten”. The word Aten means the disc of the sun—a physical manifestation of the sun god, but not the god himself. During the New Kingdom, however, the Aten had come to be worshipped as a god. Akhenaten’s father, Amenhotep III, called his barge “Aten Gleams”, and built a shine to the Aten at the temple of Amun in Karnak.

Akhenaten took this much further, sponsoring a cultural revolution as sweeping and disturbing as that of Mao in twentieth-century China. Amun and all the other gods were downgraded, and the Aten was declared the only true god.

A “Hymn to the Aten” exists that is supposed to have been written by Akhenaten himself. It has a number of close parallels with the Biblical Psalm 104, though scholars are divided as to whether this shows direct influence or merely a common literary heritage. What it certainly proves is how close Akhenaten’s thinking had come to monotheism. It addresses the Aten as “sole god”, saying, “You alone made the earth, according to your will.”

The Aten was not just another god, who could be incorporated into the crowded ranks of the Egyptian divinities. He was not simply supreme, he was alone. The reality of the other gods was denied, and their names hacked from temple walls in an attempt to literally rub them out and destroy them in the netherworld.

This religious revolution had a political element to it, for it gravely diminished the power of the priests of Amun, and re-established the king as the only mediator between the human and the divine. But there is no doubt that Akhenaten was passionately committed to his new religion.

 Akhenaten was not just a radical thinker—he was a fanatic. His fierce intelligence was offended by the overlapping muddle of Egyptian religion. In its place he set up a more narrowly focussed and logical system of belief, in which all worship and praise was directed, through the king, to the Aten. He swept away the contradictions and nonsenses of the old religion, and with them its humanity, its humour, and its flexibility.

The focus of Akhenaten’s worship was a devoted reverence for maat, which in this context is probably best translated as “truth”. Both Akhenaten and the Aten, it was claimed, “lived on maat”.

In order not to sully his new religion with the taint of the old, Akhenaten abandoned the old capital of Thebes and built a new city at el-Amarna in honour of the Aten. Here, Akhenaten tried to re-invent Egyptian culture. Not just in religion, but also in behaviour, in art, in language and in literature, he sponsored the new and discouraged the old. The art of his time—the Amarna period—is much more naturalistic, more concerned with literal truth, than that of earlier times. It celebrates the everyday, not the eternal.

While Akhenation brooded on the truth, under the glare of the Aten, the empire he had inherited began to fall apart. The Hittites took over Syria and Mitanni; Phoenicia and Palestine fell; the Egyptian garrisons were called home from Asia; the supply of gold from the mines of Nubia and Sudan dried up. At home the old nobility were outraged by the way their positions of power and authority had been usurped by the jumped-up nobodies who filled Akhenaten’s court; the priest were dismayed at the religious revolution and the overthrow of their estates; and the common people were left bemused and uncertain, with no Amun to “give breath to the wretched”.

For the last two years of his reign, Akhenaten was persuaded by his mother, Queen Tiy, to appoint his younger brother Smenkhkara as co-regent, and allow him to rule from Memphis and re-establish the worship of Amun, the god whom Akhenaten had yearned so ferociously to wipe out of existence. But when Akhenaten and Smenkhkara died within months of each other in 1336 BCE, things were still in turmoil, and the name of the new king gave cause for fresh concern. It was Tutankhaten, “Living image of the Aten”.

In the second year of his reign, the nine-year-old Tutankhaten’s name was changed. No longer the living image of the Aten, he became Tutankhamun, “Living image of Amun.”

The worship of Amun was restored, and his temples reopened. An inscription in Tutankhamun’s name describes how, as a result of Akhenaten’s heresy, “The temples of the gods and goddesses fell to pieces. . . . The land was turned topsy-turvy, and the gods turned their backs on it. . . . If anyone prayed to a god or goddess for help, they would not come. Their hearts were broken.”

The Egyptians thought that the king must display three essential qualities: hu, sia, and maat—authority, perception, and justice. Akhenaten had concentrated narrowly on just one of these, maat. In doing so he fell into a trap. By earnestly worshipping truth as the be-all and end-all of moral and religious life, he failed to see that maat was not just about truth, but also about balance and order. In doing so, he literally upset the balance of Egyptian culture and society.

But while it took more than a simple name change of the boy pharaoh to set things right again, the fluid mythological structure that had served the Egyptians since around 3000 BCE proved resilient enough to re-establish the old order. After Tutankhamun, and the separate reigns of Ay and Horemheb, Tutankhamun’s advisors and putative murderers, a new dynasty, the 19th, took power. The first of these kings, Rameses I, reigned for only two years, but his son, Sety I, set Egypt on the road to recovery, with energetic military campaigns in Syria and Palestine, and a general renewal of Egyptian culture. 

In the great temple that Sety I built to the ancient gods at Abydos, the list of kings from earliest times to the present simply ignores the Amarna kings, jumping silently from Amenhotep III to Horemheb. It was as if Akhenaten’s revolution had never been, or was a bad dream best forgotten.

Akhenaten had simply not understood the strong and subtle ways in which mythology and society were intermeshed. When he abandoned the gods, and the broken-hearted gods abandoned the people, the confidence of the Egyptians in Egypt itself was shaken to the core.

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