Murder-of-the-father:  From Osiris to Akhenaten


An essay by Daniel Kolos

October 20, 2002

Freud wrote, “To find the starting point for the psychoanalytic opinions upon religious life we must go one step further. What is today the heritage of the individual was once a new acquisition and has been handed on from one to another of a long series of generations. Thus the Oedipus complex too may have had stages of development, and the study of prehistory may enable us to trace them out." "But the later religions too have the same content, and on the one hand they are concerned with obliterating traces of that crime or with expiating it by bringing forward other solutions of the struggle between fathers and sons, while on the other hand they cannot avoid repeating once more the elimination of the father".

The Father’s Early Death as a Fact of Life

In an ordinary ancient Egyptian family setting, the moment a child is born, the father would, mythopoeically, be considered to be dead.  That is the essence of the Horus Kingship.  A short life expectancy often resulted in fathers dying before their son was born.

What happened, then, within families where the father was alive and well and living out his days and prospering even as his son was growing up?  They faced a paradox.  A mutual exclusivity underlies the myth of Osiris: the father cannot be contemporaneous with the son.  But the uncle can.  This archetype of the “Lion King” is older than Egypt and was most likely the norm in hunting-gathering societies.   In the secure setting of agricultural Egypt, however, where the struggle for survival was replaced by time for imagination and leisure, or entertainment and leisure goods production, myth took a far more important social role than in the earlier hunting-gathering setting. 

When a son was born, therefore, the father became redundant, but an uncle was always around.  Mythologically, the father was suddenly out of the picture.  He had gone to the West, to Amentet.  In a family setting the father is actually absent most of the time.  This situation was true both in ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and in our own past two centuries:  he is gone to the royal court, gone to the fields, gone to work, or gone to the marketplace (agora).  The son, therefore, may not learn his absent father’s trade in certain cultures, or in specific social classes.  Without a father to role model his son, the son will likely grow up treating his environment as an enemy to control or defeat, based on the developmental model of Joseph Chilton Pearce, most recently published in “The Biology of Transcendence.”  We have, then, a fairly good, albeit simple explanation for the development of military classes of all nations at any period in history.  However, the rise of militarism is not the topic of this essay. Moreover, Amenhotep III did not follow that pattern and did not participate actively in foreign wars.   Just the opposite!  If he was contemporary with Theseus, who ruled Athens, then AIII may even be the architect of the general peace that reigned around the Mediterranean so that no city-state was allowed to build a warship with over five rowers on each side.  There is no excuse for AIII to have abandoned his two sons, unless the ancient Egyptian court conventions demanded it. 

Late 18th Dynasty Historical Background


During the reigns of Thutmose III, Amenhotep II and Thutmose IV, these kings were so busy going on military campaigns into all the countries around Egypt that their children certainly did not see much of them until after their military training, well into their teen years.  Royal children, especially, grew up in the harim with all the royal women and only heard stories about their father.  The fact was that the King was gone was as it should be because mythologically the King became Osiris the moment his son was born, not necessarily when the King died.

Either Amenhotep-Son-of-Hapu or the young Amenhotep IV (later Akhenaten) noticed this paradox.  At least one of them noticed that it would be easier on the psyche if the father did what the myth set out for him to do:  go West.  If Amenhotep IV grew up with this paradox, wondering why it was that he, a son, was exiled to Heliopolis while his father was lording it over all Egypt and all the foreign lands from Memphis, then perhaps we can find an explanation for his acts once he was co-regent.

Working with the theory of a long coregency between Amenhotep III and Akhenaten after the death of Prince Thutmose, the older brother, we find both father and son moving from the traditional capital city of Memphis South to Thebes.  Amenhotep III built a palace with a major recreational lake on the West bank of the Nile River, while Amenhotep IV engaged in feverish building activity on the East bank, both
south and east of the existing Karnak Temple.  Both Co-Regents built vast Jubilee temples, of which only Akhenaten’s Gem-Pa-Aten temple survives:  its perimeter walls were 600 meters long and 240 meters wide!

Amenhotep III:  Active Visionary or Passive Dupe?

We don’t know the mechanics by which this double invasion of Thebes took place.  But one possible interpretation is that Amenhotep IV exiled his father to the West Bank, using Amenhotep-Son-of-Hapu to ‘murder’ him symbolically, that is, to render Amenhotep III into an Osiris figure, someone who dwells in the West.  Once there in his Malkatta Palace, young Amenhotep IV worshipped his father as a god – Ra-Harakhty, the setting sun.  Judging by the titles Amenhotep III used for himself, he seemed to have fully cooperated with his son. 


The setting sun, of course, is the dying sun.  Thus, Amenhotep IV aligned reality with myth, although he changed the terms, or the names from Osiris to Ra-Harakhty.  His father was the dying god; the son, therefore, became the ever regenerating, newly born god, the rising sun.  During his five years at Thebes, where Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten, a new theology was born that also included a new cosmology:  Ra-Harakhty was also the Aten, just as Ra at Heliopolis was also the creator-god Atum.  Akhenaten’s Great Hymn to the Aten can be interpreted as a paean to a creator-deity.  In the process, however, the old belief system must have caused great problems and Prof. Donald B. Redford has pinpointed fragments of Akhenaten’s complaints that ‘dark words’ were being uttered against him, his father and his grandfather, Thutmose IV.

The Death of the Osirian Myth


What happened to Osiris, Horus and Seth in Akhenaten’s new theology?  If these characters were actual historical figures, or even tribes, who formed and forged the original Two Lands of Egypt, then replacing them would have been tantamount to denying them.  If these names were rival tribes where the Seth tribe over-ran the Osirian tribe and then the Horus tribe, having kinship with the Osirian tribe, over-ran
the Sethian tribe, then we are dealing with an ancient cultural transference that Akhenaten denied.  In his zeal to align myth with reality, Akhenaten closed the door to the past and dealt only with the present.

Admittedly, it is very confusing for us that the Osirian myth can be interpreted as historical, astral, symbolic or psychological.  It may have been a stroke of genius to cut his ties with any or all of these belief systems and seemingly focus only on the living, vibrant concept of Kingship in the here and now.  But their scheme was not that simple.  All three characters, Amenhotep III, Amenhotep IV and Amenhotep-Son-of-Hapu, believed in the continuity of Kingship from the time of the Sun Kings who had built the Pyramids.  These were the Old Kingdom Kings who attached Ra, the name of the sun god, to their own names and displaced Osiris as the main god of worship in the Two Lands some 1000-1500 years before Akhenaten.  There were some complications, though, even back then!


It is very likely that Osiris became the god of life after death in this Old Kingdom period, and paved the way for another god of the West, Amun, to manifest himself as a temporal deity in the Middle Kingdom.  In other words, Amun, and eventually Amun-Ra, may have been nothing less than a symbolic form of Osiris.  Amun, after all, was originally a funerary deity of the West bank of Thebes.  As a new god, or perhaps as an old god in a new role, Amun had neither defined roles, nor parameters or bounds within which he could exercise his traditional powers once his worshippers crossed the Nile River and set Amun up as a temporal ruler over the living.  His traditional funerary powers became redundant and first his urban priests assumed for Amun the sexual power of Min, and eventually the powers of Ra.  That is the syncretism of Amun-Ra. 

Without traditional bounds, however, Amun and his priests behaved like the neuveau-riche:  nothing was too good for them, nothing was enough for them, and in the Eighteenth dynasty they even made an attempt to control the royal family.  Perhaps it was this Osiris figure posing as Amun-Ra that the trio of Amenhoteps hoped to drive back into his ancestral home symbolically, magically, and politically.

Birth of the “Murder-of-the-Father” concept


“Murder-of-the-father” could not exist in an Osirian setting either as a conscious or as an unconscious concept.  In that myth it is the uncle who kills the father and the orphaned son seldom kills the uncle:  rather, they spend their lifetime contending against one another over the father/brother’s legacy.  Whether Akhenaten sent his father to the West bank knowing that he was committing symbolic murder, or followed a scheme of Amenhotep-son-of-Hapu unaware of the symbolic consequences, we cannot
tell from our armchairs.  But Freud’s fascination with Akhenaten was contemporaneous with the identification of a psychological situation that the Greek ‘hero’ Oedipus had committed.  Both Immanuel Velikovsky and William Theaux had recognized this connection between Oedipus and Akhenaten.  What Akhenaten, then, created either consciously or unconsciously was the very setting for the symbolic murder of his father.

At least three levels of this symbolic murder exist.  First, the elimination of the Osiris myth; secondly, the exile of Amenhotep III to the ‘West’; and finally the attempted elimination of Amun.  In our minds, however, the attempted elimination of the father, or at least making the father redundant, is what the ‘murder-of-the-father’ is all about.

Daniel Kolos

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