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Akhenaten and Monotheism

Did the pharaoh Akhenaten deny he was a god?

Limestone stela of Akhenaten

Q. Egyptian pharaohs believed they were god in human form, so did the pharaoh Akhenaten deny he was a god too because of his monotheistic beliefs?

A. That’s a good question. The short answer is no. In both his self-presentation and in tomb inscriptions of his officials and others, one finds titles and phrases indicative of Akhenaten’s divine birth and status, but only in relation to his one god, the Aten, his divine father.

The long answer, which concerns the second part or your question—his monotheistic beliefs—requires wading into the murky waters of scholarly debates on how to characterize Akhenaten’s religious revolution, if religious at all.

Not all scholars are convinced that monotheism is the most appropriate term for Akhenaten’s reforms, and some have argued, on good grounds, that his iconoclastic agenda did not negate the existence of all other gods, only particular ones in targeted locations (especially Amun in Thebes). For example, excavations of his capital city Amarna reveal that its inhabitants (including elite officials who worked for the pharaoh) continued to venerate other gods.

Akhenaten’s god, the sun-disc with its life-sustaining light, was not represented in human or animal form and had no cult image (statue) or priest in any temple. Whereas formerly the king and gods were represented equally in Egyptian art, the absence of a god/gods in human form shifts the focus to Akhenaten, who now dominates. More importantly, the Aten never speaks. Rather, the king alone is his high priest who possesses knowledge of his god, conveyed to his loyal followers via his (Akhenaten’s) teaching.

Akhenaten and his Aten, in fact, are inseparable. As one reads the tomb inscriptions, it is at times difficult to tell which figure the text is addressing. Akhenaten himself is the sole “image of the Aten” (replacing the cult image in temples), the one “born from the limbs of the Aten,” whose “nature” is identical to that of his god. The Aten gives birth daily to Akhenaten, who is rejuvenated as he “shines with the brilliance of the living Aten.” Moreover, according to the texts, the sun-disc Aten rises every day to placate the heart of his king: “you (the Aten) listen to that which is in his (the king’s) heart and do it.”

Clearly the Aten is not a god in any traditional sense of the word in Egyptian religion, but rather one that exists at the pleasure of his king—the sole, unique god accessed via his sole, unique king. This type of monotheism, if we choose to use that term, might be revolutionary, but it doesn’t seem particularly religious. In fact, some view it more as political in nature and intent, or as a type of natural philosophy, with life-giving and sustaining light as the basic principle of all existence. Others maintain that the only way to make sense of all the elements of Akhenaten’s revolution is to argue that the pharaoh explicitly viewed both himself and his wife, Nefertiti, as primeval creator gods—the first couple—whose emergence from the sole creating monad (the Aten), preceded all other gods.

So you see what seemed to be a simple question turns out to be rather complex, which is frequently the case with scholarship relating to Akhenaten.

  • John Huddlestun

    John Huddlestun is an associate professor of religious studies at the College of Charleston (South Carolina), where he teaches classes in biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies. His publications deal with issues relating to ancient Egypt, Israel, and the Hebrew Bible.