by Daniel M. Kolos, M.A. (Ancient Egyptian Language
An essay delivered at the joint Symposium of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities and The Royal Ontario Museum, in memory of Dr. Nicholas Millet, Sunday, October 23, 2005
When Akhenaten took the throne of
There is no question that Akhenaten himself evolved in
his thinking. He came to the throne as Amenhotep IV worshipping Amun-Re as King
of All the Gods. Then he changed his
name to Akhenaten and first worshipped Aten in the anthropomorphic form of
Hor-Aten, a human body with a falcon head. He moved from
Such rapid and major ideological changes happened within a 17 year reign in a land whose self-image promoted an unchanging world! Immutability turns out to be a self-delusion that, as we will see, Akhenaten helped to shatter.
Nicholas Reeves introduces a political context for the 18th dynasty in his popular book, Akhenaten, Egypt’s False Prophet. He builds a case for a political controversy that began with Hatshepsut. There are several notable steps in his case. First, that while Hatshepsut was regent for the young Thutmose III, the Amun-Re priesthood helped her attain full kingship – at a price. That price was exerting direct influence over the royal family.
Secondly, Thutmose III enclosed Hatshepsut’s obelisk
Thirdly, Thutmose IV, whose Dream Stela stands between
the paws of the Great Sphinx at
The fourth step of an impending controversy between
the royal family and the Amun-Re priesthood appears when both Thutmose IV and
his son and heir, Amenhotep III surround themselves with military advisors from
The importance of the fourth step comes to light with the fifth, the marriage of Amenhotep III to Tiy, daughter of a military leader from Akhmim, Yuya. The fact that Tiy was a commoner did not seem to bother the new king whose widely distributed marriage scarabs openly proclaimed her non-royal origin. Obviously, some status quo had changed.
The sixth step consists of Amenhotep III’s actions
during the second half of his reign. He
set up a statue of himself at Soleb, declaring himself a deity. He called himself Ra-Harakhty and named his
In spite of these and other flags that go up during his reign, the priests of Amun-Re could not fault him because Amenhotep III built them more temples than anyone else before him, and continued his generosity to that priesthood.
The seventh and final evidence in this argument is Akhenaten’s closing down the temples of Amun-Re. These seven points constitute a body of evidence for politically expediency.
There is a body of evidence that Jan Assmann has
collected in his book, Egyptian Solar Religion in the
I will start with the concept of the divinity of the
Sun. We find Amun-Re, the relatively
new solar deity from
Jan Assmann provides texts where the writer of a sun hymn directed at Amun-Ra declares “your sun disk is alone.” (p. 69)
Amun-Re was different from Re. Re may have been the King of the Gods, but his eye was another god, he was suckled at night by his mother, and he was basically dependent on other gods to cooperate with him. In contrast, Amun-Re became a deity who acted alone and dominated all other deities.
Amun-Re, of course, is uniquely qualified to become separated in his alone-ness and hidden-ness because even his name means the ‘hidden one’ or ‘concealment’. The conceptual change to note is that hiddenness enters theology. While Re was king of the gods, the fact that his journey was hidden from human eyes was not a problem. Human perception must have changed!
Hiddenness, although an abstract concept, may still be linked to concrete reality as long as what is hidden is a ‘thing’. By the early 18th dynasty the meaning of ‘hiddenness’ became synonymous with what was hidden: Amun-Re. But the moment Amun-Re became removed from concrete reality he, himself, became an abstract concept. Assmann mused that people began to know the limitations of the human mind. Pre-Amarna solar hymns tell Amun-Re, “We cannot know you!”
In contrast, Akhenaten came by his divinity by claiming to be the only one capable of knowing the Aten. That would make him the first Gnostic. Theologically we have a non-bridgeable abstract duality in these conflicting claims.
We tend to think of ancient
Assmann waxes rather mystical when he writes that the king “is… the divine energy responsible for human beings. Not the king himself, of course, but the royal ka, i.e., the divine institutional principle of kingship…. Kingship is cosmic energy, like light and air: in it is manifested the power of god that animates, takes care of and orders the human world.” (p. 147)
This theology is post-Amarna. In order for such an abstraction to form in the human mind, it had to have a concrete, reality-based antecedent. And that antecedent was Akhenaten himself who had royal and divine ancestry as son of both Amenhotep III and the Aten.
Just as Re had his five royal names among the ten
names he revealed to
Assmann notes that for Amun-Re, manifestation is done through the Ba. For Aten, manifestation is the very act of becoming: kheperu. (p. 144-45) Assmann sites the development of the Ba in its own nine forms up to and including the reign of Tutankhamun, as recorded in the Book of the Celestial Cow. Within a short generation or two into Ramesside times, the nine forms of the Ba change radically, likely as a direct response to Akhenaten’s conceptual changes.
Human being cannot undo brain development. The Ramesside Amun-Re, in fact, went another conceptual step forward and incorporated all creation into himself! We see that the Amarna influence had become a permanent feature of Egyptian kingship and religion even as Akhenaten and his deity were denied, repressed and in every way eliminated from sight.
Assmann notes that the Amarna religion was introduced by force, either by a ‘revolution from above’ or by ‘actively excluding other religious forms.’ (p. 133) I don’t see it that way. I see a competition, or rivalry among priesthoods to elevate their deity to dominance. Competition is for royal favor, and, therefore, is entirely political. And the priests of Amun-Re obviously had to compete for royal favor since there was a formula for the distribution of booty and that formula changed from time to time. Whatever influence the Amun-Re priests had over Hatshepsut did not continue over the other kings of the 18th dynasty.
The Amun-Re priesthood raised the level of competition
to theological heights. Assmann sees a
genuine religious fervor growing at the grassroots level. The early 18th dynasty explosion
of Amun-Re hymns seems to have been a result of a conscious, well-thought out
campaign to win over the hearts and minds of the people, to use a current
phrase. In the beginning of this
dynasty, the process of elevating the status of Amun-Re must have been
genuine. He was the god of the Egyptian
king. Both the king and his deity were
Theban and both were relatively new in the constellation of Egyptian noble
houses and deities. As a result,
The so-called propaganda for Amun-Re was so effective that individual responded to it with personal piety hymns. For the first time we have an evangelical response to what may have started as official propaganda, because no less than five examples occur, including Theban Tomb 11, where the individual is fired up and promises to ‘disseminate’ the name of Amun-Re throughout the land.
Theologically, these hymns are fully developed. Assmann writes, “The emergence of such discourse and the extent to which it is spread to the funerary cult are quite in keeping with the policy of religious restoration associated with the name of Hatshepsut… (and) was followed by Thutmosis III.” (p. 128) Such prolific praises of Amun-Re fit into a literary phenomenon that has its precedent in the Middle Kingdom and followed at Amarna shortly after! He continues, “this publicity of the god of Thebes raised to the status of a ‘national god’… undoubtedly has a political aspect,” and reluctantly calls the literary genre of these early eulogistic solar hymns ‘propaganda’ that emphasizes “the goodness of god as ‘benefactor’, ‘shepherd’ and ‘ethical authority’, which is based on the royal image of the Middle Kingdom.” (p. 128) These abstractions, which were delivered by real, concrete Middle Kingdom kings are now delivered by an abstract deity.
When Akhenaten instituted his co-called revolution, he or his advisors were already aware of this precedent, this political need to win the hearts and minds of the people. Assmann lays out Akhenaten’s strategy: a theology that “could be sharply distinguished from the old and as such would be easily recognizable.” (p. 130) It is therefore possible that the artistic changes Akhenaten brought were made for their impact value!
I disagree with Assmann that Akhenaten introduced his theology by force. The thesis is that during his first five years at Karnak Akhenaten hoped to emulate the Amun-Re priests’ effectiveness in disseminating the name of their god. that is how he planned to be similarly effective for the Aten.
The evidence of his first five years at Karnak clearly shows that, by going into the very heart, or headquarters, of Amun-Re to introduce Aten as the next state-god, or new manifestation of Re-Harakhty, he had to fully believe that his sharply different theology and easily recognizable icon would have to radiate from Thebes into all the nomes, exactly as the personal worship of Amun-Re had done previously. The process of both of these Theban theological introductions is purely propaganda. It would not be going to far to suggest that Akhenaten meant to employ the same propaganda technique that benefited Amun-Re.
Akhenaten failed. Very likely it was his own
acknowledgement of this failure to successfully popularize the Aten throughout
While individuals are able to make quantum leaps of logic and/or faith several times in their lifetime, a civilization as a whole cannot.
(P. 158) Amarna religion does not concern itself with primeval origins. Creation for Akhenaten is continuous in the here and now and is part and parcel of a natural philosophy that encompasses cosmology, biology and anthropology. (p. 156) It is dualistic in nature, in that a removed god, Aten, is intricately involved in the smallest matters relating to human life and nature.
Assmann calls out attention to the concepts of phylogeny
and ontogeny. Simply put, these are
summed up by the Hermetic law of “As above, so below.” Assmann is thoroughly familiar with the
Hermetic philosophy and readily recognized it in the
Yet, Assmann complains (p. 159) that the Hermopolitan theology is missing after Amarna. He pleads that “it can scarcely have been regarded in the Ramesside period as an ‘import’ from Middle Egypt.” Whatever Hermopolis had to offer, Assmann reasons, must have been adapted as a “specifically Theban contribution into a comprehensive creation theology.”
Considering that the boundary stelae of Akhetaten roughly encompassed the same area the precinct of Thoth did, I don’t see a problem with either the Ramesside theologians repressing the memory of this Thoth-Aten association, or with the later Hermetic Corpus maintaining that memory and linking the phylogeny/ontogeny association to Thoth, or Hermes. I see the Ramesside response to turn a blind eye to anything that may have been associated with Akhenaten and the Aten, as politically motivated. In terms of today’s Psychoanalytical methods, the Ramesside response would be called repression.
The wordless merging of these two deities had a world shattering conceptual effect on Akhenaten. Thoth, the god of abstract concepts meets the abstract god, Aten. Akhenaten may have been the first individual in history to glimpse pure abstraction!
The Amarna melding also shook the Ramesside theologians to the core. It was the Ramesside response that prompted Assmann to subtitle his book, Re, Amun and the crisis of polytheism.
Assmann noted that “in the transition from the 18th to 19th dynasty, the idea of creation through the word was extended from the creation of the divine world, to which it had up to that point been limited, to the creation of the whole cosmos, ‘everything that exists.’ The ideas of a verbal creation, according to a plan conceived in the heart emphasized the organizational aspect of the created world, its rational character.” (p. 171) Assmann does not concern himself with the question of how the people who formed this theology arrived at such dominance of rationality in a world where the chaotic, irrational nature of so many deities did not matter before.
But he lists a set of identifiable theological steps for us. First, the attempt to establish the supremacy of Amun-Re over all other gods,
Secondly, the political rivalry of Aten over Amun-Re as the only dominant god. And finally a concerted Ramesside effort to bring together all aspects of all gods and concentrate them onto and into Amun-Re so as to prevent even the possibility of another deity rising to dominance. This succession of rivalries is clearly political.
What concerns me is the sheer mental effort required to focus the human mind on a single brain function: the abstract logical function. In that process we witness the rise of abstract logic to dominance for the first time in history.
Jan Assmann actually covers this process in a section called ‘Hieroglyphs as a genre of art.’ Having analyzed the Shabaka Stone, he exclaims “It is the epitome of the creation process… that divinity is summed up as ‘things’ and ‘hieroglyphs’.” Assmann classifies these as types and tokens, but in terms of how the human body and mind relate to ‘things and hieroglyphs’, these are clearly ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ logical symbols. The bicameral mind had, at this point in history, matured. The logical left brain had, for the first time, become able to distinguish between concrete and abstract logic, a natural, biological duality that is hard wired into our brains.
Assmann writes, “Thoth, the god of writing, did not invent, but merely found the script. …Writing only carries out what is already implicit in the structure of reality.” (p. 174) Assmann, of course, does not go into the structure of reality. It is a minefield that even neurobiologists handle with extreme caution. Suffice it to say that original finite set of types or models have come to dominance among the human brain functions. The conceptual world had become reduced to duality and entered human consciousness as a new power with which to manipulate reality.
Assmann writes, “In Amarna cosmology the underworld was unimportant. Amarna divided the world very clearly and traditionally into heaven and earth, above and below, as the spheres of god and creation. God created heaven for himself as the place from which he was able to contemplate creation and, by means of the live-giving rays of his eyes, summon it into life every morning. The cosmology of traditional sun religion was much more complex. By including the underworld in the sphere of the sun-god and adopting the concept of his nocturnal journey, which would bring him into contact with the dead, the subterranean gods and ultimately his own dead body, the world was divided into a terrestrial Here and Now and a celestial/subterranean Beyond.” (174)
If we follow the role of ma’at, we can again trace this abstract concept’s evolution. In the Coffin Texts, Shu is life while Tefnut is ma’at. Individuals can follow an unchangeable order. By the time of Akhenaten, Aten is life and the King personifies Ma’at, because he lives from Ma’at, (ankh-em-ma’at). Individuals under Akhenaten had to follow the instructions and will of the King, according to Assmann. (p. 196) After Akhenaten, Amun-Re returned with a vengeance and made Ma’at a gift only to those who did his divine will. People’s individual will had been taken away and returned selectively. Everyone became totally depended on God. Welcome to the early edition to the Age of Reason.
Jan Assmann misses a developmental aspect of human evolution that plays a crucial role in understanding the so-called Amarna Revolution. Whenever an evolutionary phase of brain development happens, and I don’t pretend to know how such development happens, there is a phase of cultural anxiety (http://cogprints.org/3714/05/INDEX.HTM), and the process is called Phylogeny.
A short look at the neurobiological model of the thinking process will help at this point. On the ontological level, our brains process two forms of logic: concrete and abstract. Children are more likely to develop their concrete logic before they develop their abstract rational abilities because they need to navigate in a three-dimensional world. Even if there is simultaneity in the development of both, the concrete takes precedence or dominance until puberty. By the age of 14 most adolescents will have switched to a dominant abstract thinking ruled by language, reading and writing: the dominant form of abstract logical thinking is linear and sequential.
Other brain functions, such as imagination and intuition, however, these are downplayed by the dominant abstract rational thinking process we are each taught to embrace. Yet, these were part and parcel of ancient life, unquestioned and undifferentiated.
Our culture-wide dominant rational thinking is a relatively recent phenomenon, perhaps since the Age of Reason in the 18th century AD, since Descartes, Diderot, Voltaire and Helvetius. Before the dominance of rationalism, everyone was still able to use their abstract rational brain functions, but it did not stand in their way. Only the theologians of monotheism found the other brain function troublesome, because these took human being beyond being predictable and controllable.
Looking back at ancient
There is evidence that Akhenaten was a thinking man. I already noted some of his theological changes over a relatively short period of time.
Most likely his sole purpose was to look different from his predecessors. Such an act of self-conscious change is consistent with a 17 to 19 year old male mind. So is the self-delusion if invulnerability that allows our 18 year old sons to volunteer for the Army, or that led Akhenaten to introduce the Aten into Amun’s headquarters!
Hornung and Assmann had documented the evolution of uniqueness, aloneness and hiddenness of one god among a constellation of other gods. Akhenaten’s deity has no traces of jealousy such as Moses’ god. Rather, if I had to use a term to describe the relationship between Aten and Amun-Re through their respective handlers, I would use the term ‘political rivalry’ or competition. Competitiveness is also consistent with the state of mind of an 18 year old monarch.
The development of our thinking capability evolves from the concrete to the abstract both ontogenetically and phylogenetically. However, there are several levels of abstraction. Symbolic logic is still linked to concrete reality. A picture of a chair refers back to the concrete form of a chair. The word chair is the second step, particularly in alphabetical writing, where it can conjure up in the mind the image of a chair, but the word itself still refers to a concrete object. Then begin an entire series of abstractions that the ancient Egyptians marked with a sealed papyrus scroll, such as the concept of sitting, knowing, satisfying, being beneficial, and so on. These are still linked to activities with a concrete source or a concrete result.
Finally, we can trace several concepts from before
Akhenaten to after his reign to see a real process of development or evolution
from concrete links to pure abstraction.
Let’s look at the concept of what Assmann calls the Life-god. In the
In the Coffin Texts, there is a difference between
Atum, the creator god and the father of Shu, the life-god, but by the time of
the early 18th dynasty, Amun-Re was had appropriated the breath of
life. From the Middle Kingdom text of
Sinuhe, it is the King, perhaps in the role of Shu, who provides the breath of
life, or in Sinuhe’s words, “air in the heaven is breathed only when it pleases
you.” (lines 232-234). Among the Amarna texts, Panhesy’s tomb
contains the following lines: “God, who
creates great things and forms small ones, air for the noose, which makes
breathing possible.” But the king, as
well as Aten, had a string attached to this favor of providing the breath of
Life we all take for granted.
Because many of these texts appear in loyalist
instructions, both in the Middle Kingdom and at Amarna, the breath of life is
only available to those who are loyal.
In the history and development of ideas and concepts, few scholars
differentiate between concrete dualism and abstract dualism. Concrete dualism consists of the opposites in
the natural, physical visible world: night and day, hot and cold, soft and hard,
dull and shiny and so on. Most people
have not thought of differentiating between concrete and abstract dualism,
therefore we don’t actually know when concepts like right and wrong, good and
evil and similar abstract opposites first surfaced in the literature of ancient
In chapter 7 of his book, “Egyptian Solar Religion…,” Assmann notes that “this duality, which encompasses all divine forces active in the world in the two foci of the cosmic and the personal god, … is the heir of Amarna religion. …Amarna, …instead of developing a ‘dual unity’ distributed the divine powers between the king and the god.”
Assmann acknowledges that it is only in the
This growing belief in divine intervention and divine
revelation to individuals comes at the same time, Assmann notes, when “various
Palestinian tribes five themselves an even more radically theocratic
constitution which leaves initiative and decision to the will of god.” There is a fundamental historical
transformation and there, as its probable cause, not the development but the
coming into dominance of a brain function we know as abstract rational
thought. It is also time of dualism, and
Assmann recognizes that this dualism was still based in concrete reality in the
mind of Akhenaten, manifesting as the kind and god.
By Ramesside times the dualism has fully moved into the abstract realm so that it is god alone who has two functions that affect physical reality, through his will, even as that god is fully removed from that physical reality. Assmann calls Akhenaten’s incipient dualism a ‘dual unity” in the sense that “I and my father are one.” This concept of linking the abstract with the concrete left out or excluded too much that was meaningful in the concrete, physical world. What Akhenaten did not have time to process and work out, the Ramessides did for him.
Akhenaten was likely the first individual with a personal god. Although Amenhotep III had prepared Aten to be god of all his empire, thereby superimposing the Aten on Amun-Re, Akhenaten took that all-encompassing function and did what? He personalized it!
Assmann’s assessment was that Akhenaten was too
violent, and too selective, but, in fact, in pioneering abstract dualism, he
did not have the time to let it percolate down into the communal consciousness
of the people of
There is more evidence that Akhenaten with his
co-called Amarna experiment bridged a conceptual gap in human development. One such evidence was the growing reference
of the god being in someone’s heart, a concept dear to fundamentalist and
evangelical Christians. It is the same
abstract dualism at play today as it was for the q8th dynasty: that, although god is one, he is able to
become the personal god of many. This
concept of individuals having a personal god found its first expression in the
18th dynasty Amun-Re solar hymns (Amenhotep II Ostr.
Akhenaten refined it by designating himself to be the sole individual to whom Aten reveals himself.
Another trend that leads us to see change in Egyptian
consciousness is a sense of loss of order in the world. In the
It was not until the French post-Freudian Psychoanalyst Lacan recognized this bewilderingly effective phenomenon to human powerlessness that our culture began to deal with it.
In conclusion, this development of the abstract logical function to dominate the human mind to in the 18th Dynasty, followed and no doubt was forced by Amun-Re’s push for its own, self-serving, political dominance. In the process, Egyptian concepts that were previously linked to concrete reality were uprooted. In response, Amun-Re worshippers produced texts in which they declared that the world had become confusing and unintelligible. (p. 194-95) Akhenaten may have been the last thinking person to try to make sense of his world which was, in his era, for the first time viewed through a dominant brain filter of rationality. His youth and experimental nature conspired with the phylogenetic development of his era so that his own abstract logic-dominated mind viewed everything first and foremost as political and manipulatable. Those who followed him began to manipulate reality and history. Akhenaten was their first victim. Our civilization still seems not to have moved beyond this trap that the ability to manipulate reality equates with control.