The history of god Aten and his religion is one of the most controversial and exciting aspects of ancient Egypt. Old scripts also refer to god Aten as Aton, Atony or Itn. There are also several interesting aspects to the story of god Aten, which intermingled with Pharaoh Akhenaten.
One can not understand the religion of god Aten without mentioning Akhenaten. He was this king who prominently sent shockwaves throughout the land of Egypt. Undoubtedly, the rise and fall of god Aten reveal great interest. It shows how kings were able to control and influence the religion of ancient Egypt.
History and Origin
Initially, the word Aten referred to anything that resembled a disc. The word appears in the Old Kingdom as a noun that people used to denote anything flat or circular. Ancients referred to the sun as the “disc of the day”, where Ra‘s supreme god resided. Besides, they also referred to the moon as the “silver Aten”.
After observing the relief illustrations of Aten, scholar High Nibley concluded the following thing. High Nibley emphasised that the term Aten would refer to a globe or a sphere rather than a disk.
The Story of Sinuhe from the 12th Dynasty is the first text about the sun-disk deity, Aten. The text recounts the rising of a deceased king to meet with the sun-disk god.
Over time, people started to use the term Aten associated with solar deities. The word expressed the sun as a life-giving force of light.
Description of god Aten
According to ancient texts, Aten was once one of the aspects of the supreme god Ra. People generally considered Ra the sun god and the ultimate giver of life. However, there is little information about Aten before the reign of Akhenaten.
Most of the information about the god comes from the Great Hymn to the Aten. The ancient Egyptians inscribed this joyful poem on the walls of ancient tombs at Amarna or Akhetaten. This place is located on the east bank of the Nile River and became the centre of the Atenism religion.
Pharaoh Akhenaten himself wrote this poem where he described the god as the supreme being and creator. The god was the rays of light themselves who would descend on the earth to give life to everyone. Texts describe Aten as both male and female who doesn’t have a physical form.
The Rise of Aten
People worshipped the deity Aten extensively in the reign of Amenhotep III. In his power, imagery depicted the god as a falcon-headed man who looked similar to Ra. However, the actual rise of the deity started from the reign of Amenhotep III’s successor, Amenhotep IV.
Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten by incorporating the name of the god himself. During his reign, the Pharaoh established god Aten as the central god of Egypt.
Furthermore, he made Atenism the state religion and introduced monotheism. This term describes the worship and belief in a single god instead of worshipping several gods.
The culture of ancient Egypt links intimately with different gods and goddesses. The brave tales of various gods enrich the mythology of Egypt. Before this, the people of ancient Egypt had always worshipped numerous deities.
So the concept of monotheism sent shock waves across Egypt. King Akhenaten insisted that the only Aten was the sole god of the earth. Furthermore, he quickly established several temples of the god and demolished the worship of other gods.
The king went a step ahead and tried to get rid of the images of other divinities. He built a capital city called Akhenaten, or Horizon of Aten, that solely worshipped the god Aten.
Akhenaten and Aten
The term Akhenaten translates to “right hand of Aten”. The name itself indicates the thought process of the king towards the god. With establishing the Atenism religion, Akhenaten proclaimed that he and his wife Nefertiti connected with Aten. Thus, the king seated himself as the messenger between the supreme god and other human beings.
Akhenaten claimed that the rays of the sun disk only held out life into the palms of the royal family. Moreover, he insisted that everyone else received energy from the god in exchange for loyalty to Aten.
Akhenaten’s Hymn to Aten focuses on the world of nature and the god’s role in it. The hymn denotes the devotion of the king towards the deity.
“Aton creates the son in the mother’s womb, the seed in men, and has generated all life. He has distinguished the races, their natures, tongues, and skins, and fulfils the needs of all.”
Different archaeological findings have enabled historians to decipher the thought process behind Akhenaten’s monotheism. The king considered the sun’s rays the god and giver of life itself.
Instead of believing in worshipping the different ancient gods of Egypt, Akhenaten decided to honour something he could view. According to this Pharaoh, the sun’s rays or Aten were responsible for life on earth. Hence, the deity Aten was the sole god of the entire planet.
The Fall of Aten
The worship of Aten, however, declined after the death of Akhenaton. The ancient Egyptians violently rejected this new religion and eradicated it after the king’s demise. The Egyptian elite and general population reestablished the old deities and abandoned the new city.
Maybe the general population had never actually accepted the radical concept of worshipping one god. The king’s son Tutankhamun reinstated the cult of god Amun and lifted the ban on other religions.
The Final Take
The cult of Aten lasted for another ten years or more after the king’s death. His son’s reign was one of tolerance and acceptance. Hence, Aten stopped being the sole god, and Tutankhamun rebuilt his father’s temples. It remains one of the most controversial moves made by a king. Undoubtedly, the rise and fall of Aten introduce us to an interesting socio-political pattern of ancient Egypt. Also, it allows us to understand the effect of religion on the lives of ancient Egyptians.