The Sun Kings: Akhenaten

What Is A Sun King?

The Sun Kings are a set of leaders, some of them well established for this title and a few of them not so much, that I have compiled together for this series of posts I will be doing. These leaders broke away from the normality of their people, usually in the name of the Sun, and did things that have made them remembered as, by history and/or by me, as Sun Kings.

Who Is Akhenaten?

Akhenaten was originally born named Amenhotep IV, but in his reign he changed his name to Akhenaten. Amenhotep translates from Ancient Egyptian to mean “Amun is satisfied.” Meanwhile, Akhenaten translates from Ancient Egyptian to mean “Effective for the Aten.”

Akhenaten was the tenth ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt. He reigned from about 1353 BC until about 1334 BC, up to as much as 19 years, but those dates aren’t quite exact.

The reason why the dates are not quite exact for Akhenaten’s rule is because pharaohs who came after him attempted to erase him. Why would they do that?

Well, the answer is because Akhenaten broke away from the traditional religious structures of ancient Egypt. Instead of worshiping the normal Egyptian Gods, Akhenaten promoted the worship of Aten.

Who Is Aten?

Aten is an Egyptian Sun God. However, he is not Ra, or at least he was not Ra to Akhenaten.

To Akhenaten, the two deities were different, and Akhenaten held Aten as above the other deities (including Ra). Normally, Aten is mentioned as a primordial sun deity in certain ancient Egyptian cosmologies, and in other beliefs he is seen as an aspect of Ra.

Historians debate whether or not Akhenaten’s religious views were monotheistic, monolatry, syncretistic, or henotheistic. Based on Akhenaten’s actions, I believe it is doubtful that he is henotheistic. More than likely, he was practicing monolatry for Aten.

Akhenaten built a city for Aten named Amarna, which was intended to be a new capital city. Amarna was abandoned shortly after Akhenaten’s death.

Amarna’s correspondences with the land of Canaan and Mesopotamia show that Akhenaten perhaps had an impact on those people. This is further displayed through the Psalms found in the Bible.

A few of the Pslams, such as Psalms 104, greatly resemble poems that Akhenaten wrote for Aten. However, it is debated by historians over whether or not Psalms was actually inspired by Akhenaten or rather by something written by the Akkadians.

Aten may have also possibly been worshiped by Akhenaten’s father, Amenhotep III. However, the worship of him was destroyed by a later pharaoh named Horemheb–who was the last pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty and ruled in 1295 BC.

Aten does find mentions in the Book of the Dead, which came from around 1500 BC and traces back to even earlier traditions. However, the Book of the Dead had many various canons and varying illustrations.

While Aten is known to be a sun god, he was also called Silver Aten sometimes–which references the moon. Which, in fact, Akhenaten also said Aten was responsible for making.

It is said in Akhenaten’s tomb walls that Aten is worshiped during the day. It is also said that Aten created all countries and peoples but blesses the Egyptians and the Syrians the most by giving them the Nile and Great Rains respectively.

Akhenaten’s tomb walls go on further to say that Aten gives life to all things through the rays of the sun, which are distributed by Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti.

Akhenaten believed himself to be the son of Aten, which is a breakaway from the former ideas of Egyptian pharaohs claiming that they are direct avatars of Horus. This partially contributes to the idea that Akhenaten was practicing a monotheistic religion.

Why Was Akhenaten Hated?

Akhenaten was lost to history for a very long time because of the actions of later pharaohs. This is despite the fact that he was actually a pretty good pharaoh in international affairs and that he was a good pharaoh at keeping vassals of Egypt loyal to Egypt.

The reason why Akhenaten was lost to history is because of his religious beliefs. Akhenaten’s rejection of following the traditional religious beliefs of Egypt went against a very powerful class of clergy that held great influence within Egyptian society.

Despite this, they could not challenge Akhenaten outright during his rule. But after Akhenaten had died, they used his son Tutankhamun to reverse all of the changes that Akhenaten had brought about.

And later pharaohs, like the aforementioned Horemheb, would seek the destruction of worshipers of Aten. But were they really as successful as we think?

The Legacy of Akhenaten and Aten

Akhenaten and Aten are a very interesting one-off of Egyptian history and the Egyptian religion. Beyond that, Akhenaten is also remembered for his poetry.

Akhenaten’s family is also very remembered, such as his wife Nefertiti and his son Tutankhamun. Even despite the fact that Tutankhamun seemed to turn away from his father’s wishes.

Akhenaten also represented a key moment of Egyptian art, as he rejected the normal stylized idealism that Egyptians practiced. You can see some of how Akhenaten was depicted in art via the featured image of this blog post.

Akhenaten’s statues were unfortunately damaged and destroyed. This was all part of the eradication of his memory. However, some parts of the statues do still remain and have been found–they are able to be distinguished because of their rejection of traditional Egyptian stylized idealism.

Akhenaten is also remembered for his blip of potential monotheism in a time when monotheism was thought to not yet really have been a concept, although whether or not he was actually monotheistic is up to debate.

But what about Aten? Was this cult just a farce? Was Akhenaten the heretic, fanatic, insane, madman that various people in history have described him as?

Maybe not. I have a theory that, though Akhenaten died, that Aten’s worship did not quite end as is usually thought. The connections to Syria that Akhenaten and Aten had are worth exploring, and will be in a later Sun Kings post.

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