Early Egyptian Religious Beliefs And Akhenaten?s Reforms Essay, Research Paper
During the New Kingdom of Egypt (from
1552 through 1069 B.C.), there came a sweeping change in the religious
structure of the ancient Egyptian civilization. “The Hymn to the Aten”
was created by Amenhotep IV, who ruled from 1369 to 1353 B.C., and began
a move toward a monotheist culture instead of the polytheist religion which
Egypt had experienced for the many hundreds of years prior to the introduction
of this new idea. There was much that was different from the old
views in “The Hymn to the Aten”, and it offered a new outlook on the Egyptian
ways of life by providing a complete break with the traditions which Egypt
held to with great respect. Yet at the same time, there were many commonalties
between these new ideas and the old views of the Egyptian world. Although
through the duration of his reign, Amenhotep IV introduced a great many
changes to the Egyptian religion along with “The Hymn”, none of these reforms
outlived their creator, mostly due to the massive forces placed on his
successor, Tutankhamen, to renounce these new reforms. However, the significance
of Amenhotep IV, or Akhenaten as he later changed his name to, is found
in “The Hymn”. “The Hymn” itself can be looked at as a contradiction of
ideas; it must be looked at in relation to both the Old Kingdom’s belief
of steadfast and static values, as well as in regards to the changes of
the Middle Kingdom, which saw unprecedented expansionistic and individualistic
oriented reforms. In this paper I plan to discuss the evolvement of Egyptian
Religious Beliefs throughout the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms and analyze
why Amenhotep IV may have brought about such religious reforms.
The Old Kingdom of Egypt (from 2700 to
2200 B.C.), saw the commencement of many of the rigid, formal beliefs of
the Egyptian civilization, both in regards to their religious and political
beliefs, as they were very closely intertwined. “… There was a
determined attempt to impose order on the multitude of gods and religious
beliefs that had existed since predynastic times… and the sun-god Re
became the supreme royal god, with the king taking the title of Son of
Re” (David 155). The Egyptians overall believed that nature was an incorruptible
entity and that to reach a state of human perfection in the afterlife,
they too would have to change from their corruptible human shells to mimic
the incorruptibility of nature. Upper and Lower Egypt were united for the
first time under one ruler, however, this would come to an end around 2200
B.C.. In much of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Pharaoh was often depicted
as almost larger than life, with great power and much of Egyptian art is
a celebration of his accomplishments. The formation of a royal absolutism
occurred during this period, with the Pharaoh and a small-centralized administration,
composed mainly of royal kin and relatives, overseeing all aspects of Egyptian
life. The Pharaoh was looked at as a living god among the Egyptian
people, who assured the success of Egypt as well as its peace. “The Pharaoh
belonged both to the world of the gods and the world of men, and he was
seen as a bridge between them. Some of the local deities represented various
aspects of nature, such as the earth and the sky, or the Nile and it’s
gifts of fertility. So the king, living in their midst, could bring the
Egyptians into a harmonious relationship with their divinities and with
the forces of nature upon which their whole existence depended” (Hawkes
In regard to the religious structure of
the Old Kingdom, there was a polytheistic view of the world, as in Mesopotamia.
However, unlike the Mesopotamian religion, the Egyptians worked for their
kings as opposed to working for their gods. The complex concept of the
afterlife was also developed during this period. The Great Pharaohs of
the Old Kingdom built great pyramids to forever protect their remains after
death. It was believed that the king (solely) could “spend eternity traveling
with the gods… However, in order to obtain eternal sustenance, it was
also essential that the king could return to earth at will; here, through
his preserved body, his spirit imbibes the essence of food and drink offerings,
which were continually brought to his burial complex” (David 126). These
political and religious views were believed to be sacred and intended to
be adhered to without change, following the Egyptian’s view of nature as
an unchanging constant, and a static phenomenon.
After the collapse of the Old Kingdom,
there came the First Intermediate Period during which the United Egypt
separated. It became a time of turmoil and disaster. The Pharoah
was over thrown and society simply collapsed resulting in anarchy throughout
Egypt. Famine and disease were widespread and the rich were equal to the
poor. ?Since the Kingship was discredited, individuals now demanded their
own eternity. Tombs were equipped in provincial districts for the local
rulers, but gradually, democratization of beliefs came to affect all levels
of society, and even the poorest classes hoped to achieve individual immortality?
(David 132). Order was eventually restored and Egypt entered into a great
period of prosperity. This was the Middle Kingdom. Though Egypt was separated,
both Upper and Lower Egypt still had a shared religion, just different
views as to whom the heroes and villains were in their mythology.
The Middle Kingdom, which occurred between
2040 and 1674 B.C., saw the re-emergence of a united Egypt. The Pharaohs
of this period were once again the center of the kingdom, and the military
might of Egypt was far greater than it been in previous centuries.
However, the Pharaoh was not as great a political power as he had been
in the Old Kingdom, as the nobles had begun to gain a sense of greater
independence from the Pharaoh, in respect to the idea that they needed
him to assure themselves a place in the afterlife. They believed that they
could obtain eternity themselves by using symbols of the monarchy from
the Old Kingdom as well as magical spells, which they collected from the
Pyramid Texts. The nobles had their own large tombs, but they “were
no longer constructed near the King’s pyramid but were scattered more independently
across the necropolis, and the high quality of the wall-decoration in these
tombs indicated their owner’s importance” (David 129). The political structure
of the Middle Kingdom was also changing from that of the Old Kingdom. In
the past, the government was run by only the immediate family of the Pharaoh,
in the Middle Kingdom however, “?he began to marry into the wealthy but
non-royal nobility, destroying the fictional divinity of the royal line”
Around 1674 B.C., the two kingdoms of
Upper and Lower Egypt separated once again. This Second Intermediate Period
saw the Hyksos, Semitic invaders from Palestine, come and overtake the
Egyptian ruling class. These peoples were expelled from Egypt around 1553
B.C., which gave rise to the New Kingdom of Egypt. The capital was moved
to Thebes and “these rulers attributed their ascendancy over the Hyksos
to the powerful support of their local god; Amun. …The kings eventually
associated him with the old northern sun-god Re, creating the all new powerful
deity Amen-Re” (David 147). Also at this time, there began a new imperialistic
movement within the Egyptian culture, and we see several crusades into
Asia and the Mid-East during this time frame. Egypt ruled in Asia for about
a century or so, but lost it due to the lack of interest on the part of
the royal court in the contents of its Asian subjects. Though for the most
part, the Egyptian religion remained as it had in the previous kingdoms
during the first part of the New Kingdom. Amenhotep IV, or Akhenaten as
he later changed his name to, brought about many religious reforms.
Amenhotep IV began a series of reforms
to ensure the Pharaoh’s status as a living god among the people, as opposed
to a simple agent of the sun-god Amen-Re, as the priests of the royal court
were beginning to assert a more powerful and independent role. Assisted
by the royal family, Amenhotep IV commenced on a series of religious reforms,
which would help him regain the power lost to the priests. He worshiped
Aten, the radiant god of the sun disk. Why this particular god Aten was
chosen may never be known, But Amenhotep IV apparently so inspired by his
faith that he wrote ?The Hymn to the Aten? in his praise. At first he tolerated
worship of other gods along with Aten, but eventually he chiseled out the
name of Amen-Re from anything which beared the name, and closed the temples
of the other gods. The Pharaoh and his family were to worship Aten, while
the remainder of the populace was to worship the Pharaoh. Amenhotep
then moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes, which was primarily centered
on Amen-Re, to a new location called Akhenaten, now modern day Armana,
to further separate from previous beliefs. Amenhotep IV also changed his
name to Akhenaten, which translates to “It pleases Aten”. Akhenaten also
replaced his advisors with new men, instead of the Amen serving priests.
These changes showed a move toward a more monotheist view of the Egyptian
world, a view that had never been observed before. “Although each period
and line of kings favored a supreme state-god, there had always been toleration
of the multitude of deities in Egypt’s pantheon” (David 155). This new
religion saw the worship of Aten as the principal hero in Egyptian religion,
with gods like Amon as enemies. These reforms however, would be short-lived,
and the only enduring sign of this Pharaoh’s significance is in the Hymns,
which were written to the “new” god Aten.
In ?The Hymn?, Aten is proclaimed to be
the sole god, and responsible for all of creation. ?O unique god, who has
no second to him! You have created the earth according to your desire,
while you were alone, With men, cattle, and wild beasts, all that is upon
earth and goes upon feet, and all that soars above and flies with its wings?
(Akhenaten lines 60-65). ?The Hymn? also proclaims the pharaoh as the god?s
sole representative on earth, and virtually interchangeable with one another.
?When you rise you make all to flourish for the King, you who made up the
foundations of the earth. You who rise them up for your son, he who came
forth from your body, …? (Akhenaten lines 122-125). The writing is very
beautiful and was inscribed on walls in various tombs.
Though much of what Akhenaten was proposing
was a drastic change from the traditional beliefs of Egyptian religion,
there were some aspects of these reforms shown in “The Hymn to the Aten”
that were not that far a cry from much of what was taught and believed
in the past. As with the gods of the past, Aten was visible, as in that
he could be presented in a painting to the people who worshipped him.
This new god, Aten, was allowed to be pictured in the elaborate murals
on tomb walls and so on, much the same as the old gods of the prior religion
were. Aten was also the embodiment of the sun, as Amon-Re was in the old
religion, and was worshipped much the same as Amon-Re was prior to Akhenaten’s
condemnation of him. Aten was also seen as ?The Creator of all that was
Existing?, which also held to the traditional belief that the sun god was
the chief creator of the universe. It was also believed in this new religion
as in the old one, that the Pharaoh was the next of kin to the sun god,
even though the sun god had changed from Re to Aten. It was also
believed that the sun god was raised above the other gods, while being
able to have his presence encompass everything. None of these ideas
were new to the Egyptian people, as they were exhibited in the old religion;
however there was much in this new theology that was extremely different
from the traditions of the old.
“The Hymn to the Aten” introduced a great
many new concepts to the religion of the Egyptian people. The nature of
Aten as the creator is different from previous religious beliefs. Aten
was said to have created the world out of his own will to do so, not out
of necessity. Also, we see Aten being distinguished from nature, as well
as seeing that nature is not a separate being in the theological order
of things. Nature is now believed to be ordered under Aten, with
no separate, sovereign being of its own. The Nile is no longer believed
to be the embodiment of a god, but a creation of the god, Aten. These two
views are the result of the shift toward the monotheist belief that Aten
is the sole god in the cosmos, worshipped by the Pharaoh and his family,
who are in turn worshipped by the Egyptian people. Aten is now seen as
a universal god, who is worshipped by everyone on earth, just in forms
and fashions differing from those of the Egyptians; not as a god who was
specific to the Egyptian people.
Though this hymn offers much that is vastly
different from the old beliefs in Egyptian culture, it is also an effort
to revitalize the old beliefs. “The Hymn” is intending to bring the Pharaoh
back into the center of Egyptian religion, politics and culture. It is
an attempt to revive and reestablish the unquestionable divinity of the
Pharaoh. However, it is going about it by completely severing ties
with the old traditions of Egyptian religion. “The Aten had no moral philosophy
or attractive mythology which could inspire the general worshipper” (David
157). “The Hymn” also creates a paradoxical relationship between the two
theological views as expressed in Egyptian culture. On one hand,
there is the new tendency toward a monotheistic religion, with Aten as
the sole god, and no other gods governing nature, etc. On the other hand,
there are the old views on religion being expressed; the Pharaoh was worshipped
by the people of Egypt as a god, and he in turn is worshipping the god
Aten; thus, there is more than one god.
These new religious views also appeared
to help influence a major break in the traditional art of the time. Rather
than producing idealized portraits as had been done for hundreds of years
prior, Akhenaten encouraged artists to represent him in informal situations
- basking in Aten?s benevolent rays. With his blessing, the artists portrayed
Akhenaten not as a conqueror, riding in a war chariot and trampling his
enemies, but as a family man, relaxing with Nefertiti, his queen, and his
“The Hymn to the Aten”, though it offered
new ideas on Egyptian religion, was an attempt by a ruler who enjoyed the
idea of a divine title to regain what his predecessors had. The religious
reforms brought about by Akhenaten were intended to restore the position
of the Pharaoh to the level of absolute rule which had once been held due
to belief that the Pharaoh was the personification of the gods. This however
was not to be, as the priests which Akhenaten had fought against in his
attempt to redefine the Pharaoh’s divinity would take advantage of the
weakness of Akhenaten’s successor, Tutankhamen.
“Tutankhamen’s immaturity enabled the courtiers
and officials to direct political and religious events… The court moved
back to Thebes, and the royal couple changed their names to Tutankhamen,
demonstrating their renewed allegiance to Amen-Re. The king restored the
old temples of the many gods, and reinstated the priesthoods” (David
158). The reforms, which Akhenaten brought to return the power once held
by the Pharaoh in the Old Kingdom, were unable to be understood. The people
who Akhenaten had to ensure comprehension of his reasoning did not, for
they no longer were connected to the old order which he was trying to reestablish.
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Casson, Lionel. Ancient Egypt. New
York: Time Inc, 1965.
David, Rosalie. Discovering Ancient
Egypt. New York: Facts on File, 1993.
Hawkes, Jacquetta. Pharaohs of Egypt.
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Matthews, Roy T., and F. Dewitt
Platt. Readings in the Western Humanities. Third Edition.
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Montet, Pierre. Lives of the Pharaohs.
Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1968.
Redford, Donald. Akhenaten – The
Heretic King. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Strouhal, Eugen. Life of the Ancient
Egyptians. London: Opus Publishing, 1992.
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