Amarna and Aten Lecture Report

Because I’m a serial procrastinator it has taken me this long to get around to typing up my notes. Finally, however, I’m trying to break the pattern.

Lecture Report – Amarna: A New Mythology? By Dr Garry J. Shaw
AEMES, Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, UK. Saturday 14th March 2015
A new solar mythology started appearing in the Books of Am Duat, and in hymns and rituals in the 18th Dynasty. The sun’s power guaranteed the balance of the cosmos and, though distant, you could feel the sun god’s presence in his rays. Much became subsumed by the sun god, including Osiris, Ra and Amun, and the other gods lessened in importance.
During the late 18th Dynasty Amenhotep III passed on the throne to his son Amenhotep IV, who later changed his name to Akhenaten. However, the throne should have gone to an older son, one who died. Amenhotep IV showed a particular interest in a deity called Aten – ‘the disc’. Aten is referred to in the Middle Kingdom as the physical manifestation of Ra, and is closely affiliated with the king. Aten is the faceless sun disc with long rays ending in hands. It is asexual and androgynous, with no spouse. It is anthropomorphic and has no body, so there are no traditional offering scenes.

To start with Aten was a falcon-headed man, rather like Ra-Horakhty. Amenhotep IV’s first major construction project at Karnak temple was dedicated to Ra-Horakhty-Aten. Soon after, Aten was given a new name – “Ra-Horakhty who rejoices in the horizon in his name Shu, who is Aten”. The name was enclosed in a cartouche. Later, references to Shu were removed from Aten’s official name.
During Akhenaten’s Sed-Festival at the beginning of his reign the old gods were still shown in the temples, but the shrines only had depictions of Aten. More temples to the Aten were built in Egypt, and in Nubia. In the Aten sanctuary at Karnak, Nefertiti and her daughters by Amenhotep IV were depicted. This is unusual, as it is often only the king who is shown. The sphinxes at Karnak also once had alternating heads of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Tutankhamun changed them to ram heads during his reign.
During years 3-5 of Akhenaten’s reign everything started to change. The priests were either dismissed or ‘re-indoctrinated’. In year 5 Aten was the dominant state god, and Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten. The persecution of Amun and Mut, in particular, was prevalent at this time. The household gods were affected to a lesser extent, and Thoth, Bes and Taweret were mostly unaffected. The name and goose of Amun, and the vulture of Mut were removed from stele and temple walls. Often they were destroyed completely.
The Mnevis bull was moved to Akhenaten’s new city, Akhetaten/Amarna. Its importance lay in it representing a form of the sun. It was deemed sacred and by taking it to the new city it was hoped Amarna would receive the energies from Heliopolis.
In year 6 the Aten disc with rays became the only acceptable icon of the god, and only Akhenaten and Nefertiti were shown worshipping Aten. Worship was done in sunlight, not the darkness of the traditional sanctuaries, with the Aten temples open to the sky, and thus to the sun. There was a complete suppression of the old deities – demythologisation.
The old myths explained the world around us, but Amarna mythology didn’t concern itself with the processes of the universe. It was primarily concerned with Aten, Akhenaten, and Nefertiti to a lesser extent. Shaw believes that the mythology was re-focused mainly around Akhenaten, since Aten was a “bland” god compared to the king. There are no explanations for Aten’s creation. It appears to be self-generated, with no elaborate mythology.
The anthropomorphic tones of Aten were lessened further, with no reference to arms, legs, etc. Aten is described as ‘father and mother’, but this is the closest allusion to anthropomorphism. The symbols of creation were also limited at this time to include only the Aten’s rays, creation by the spoken word, and the imagery of Aten as ‘parent’. Aten’s rays became a part of the daily creation of the world, and the sustenance of life. It became the symbol of this unseen but vital function, and even the illiterate could understand what it represented. There was a deep contemplation of nature in Amarna; the Great Hymn of Aten is a prime example of how prominent this was.
The name of Aten was still a shortened version of Ra-Horakhty and Ra’s official name. Shaw muses if Akhenaten was still worshipping Ra. As a symbol and hieroglyph, the Aten’s disc is highly visual, and expresses, “the deity’s transcendence and immanence.” The disc equals transcendence, and thus to see. The rays represent immanence, and thus to feel. This is a restructuring of the old symbol of the sun disc in a new way. “The rays prevent the god from being totally removed from this world,” making the Aten less, “impersonal and inaccessible.”
Akhenaten was the only one deemed to have a ‘true’ connection to Aten and he, and his wife to a lesser extent, were the Aten’s only representatives. Aten’s rays always fell on Akhenaten. Akhenaten is “born of” Aten. Aten “loves” and “favours” Akhenaten. Akhenaten is subordinate to Aten, but is still depicted as some form of god. Akhenaten was the one generally venerated by the population, being the voice of Aten, the voice of god. It is Akhenaten who teaches the new religion. Nefertiti had a lesser role compared to her husband, but was a key element in the rituals, and she even had her own temple.
Family scenes show Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Aten as the source of all things, even the Afterlife. The nocturnal phase was no longer deemed important; it merely represented the absence of Aten. The mythology does not explain where Aten goes during this time, simply that it is absent. Tombs were placed in the east, rather than the west, as this was where Aten emerged. There are few references to the Duat, the realm of the dead, during this time, and the deceased was not referred to as Osiris anymore. The Ba (spirit/soul) of the dead went to the Aten temple during the day to eat food laid out by Akhenaten. There was no need for false doors or tomb offerings because of this belief. Aten was believed to animate the dead, and Amarna became the home of the dead as well as that of the living. It became the Afterlife. There was no judgement as in the old texts, since this also came under Akhenaten’s supervision. All offerings were made to him.
Shaw posits that perhaps Aten, Akhenaten and Nefertiti were a divine triad. He also suggested that the Aten represented Amenhotep III, which would explain why, during the first year of Akhenaten’s reign, even then he referred to “the Aten, my father”. At this time he was also shown with Shu’s headdress, representing the creator’s first-born son, although this imagery lessened over the course of his reign. In the tomb of Ipy, Akhenaten and Nefertiti are depicted next to statues of Shu and Tefnut.
Shaw feels that perhaps things didn’t have the time to progress fully in Amarna, but everything was focused on Aten, Akhenaten and Nefertiti, with the re-focusing of mythology around Akhenaten. He doesn’t believe the power of the priests was a major factor in Akhenaten’s conversion, believing the controversial king to be more power-hungry than a philosopher.
I found this a fascinating lecture, and Shaw provided a lively narrative and had an engaging manner. Although I personally feel Akhenaten had more of a poetic soul than in Shaw’s interpretation, this did not detract from my enjoyment of the talk.


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