The religion of light

Pharaoh Amenhotep IV changed the name to Akhenaten in honor of the god Aten. After his death his name was erased from the lists of kings, all his monuments, all his symbols were destroyed to erase his memory. In modern times, his epigraphs dating back to the time of Amarna (Akhetaten) were rediscovered, and it became clear that Akhenaten had carried out an unprecedented religious reform. He had destroyed the symbols of Egyptian polytheism, replacing them with a monotheistic cult of a new god of light, which he called “Aten”. The theology to which it was inspired was that of the “solar cult”.

At the center is located the gait solar motion, engine for the existence of the world. Every day renews the work of creation, even in the night “Aton” rises in the world of the dead where he brings light that regenerates the dead. All this happens not without overcoming obstacles or adverse events, for example facing the monstrous snake Apophis. Thus he renews every night in the depths of the underworld. The new title of the sovereign, which revealed the dogma of Aton to the country, was first recorded on the steles of the eastern bank.

He transformed his «name of Horus», «powerful bull with high feathers», too close to Thebes, in «powerful Bull loved by Aton». His “name of nebty”, “Great of royalty in Karnak”, became “Great of royalty in Akhetaten”, the “name of Horus of Gold”, “Which raises the Crowns in the Southern Heliopolis” was changed to ” That raises the name of Aton “.

He retained the name of coronation, and changed Amenhotep into Akhenaten “Pleased to Aten,” simply replacing the name of the god. This tendency, moreover, accorded well with the inspiring motif of the funerary books, such as the Book of What is found in Hades, the solar litanies and the Book of Doors, that is, with the desire to concentrate on Ra creation and maintenance of life. Amenhotep IV chose to adore the sensitive aspect of the Sun, the Disc, whose role is clearly defined in heliopolitan theology since the Old Kingdom. The result was a general universalist tone, which indeed presents the appearances of monotheism, and often the great hymn to Aton, inscribed on the western wall of the tomb of Ay ad Amarna, has been compared to Psalm 104:

When the sun goes down on the western horizon, the universe is immersed in darkness and dead. Men sleep in the rooms, their heads wrapped, and no one can see their brother.

They could be stolen from them all the goods under their heads and they would not notice!

All the lions have left their caves and all the reptiles bite. They are the darkness of an oven, and the world lies in silence.

It is because its creator rests on its horizon.

But at dawn, when you rise on the horizon and when you shine, or Solar Disk, during the day, You cast out the darkness and emit your rays.

Then the Double Country is celebrating humanity is awake and standing: you have made them get up! As soon as the body is cleansed, they take their clothes and their arms are in adoration when you rise.

The whole universe is dedicated to its work.

Every flock is satisfied with its grass; green trees and grass; the birds rise in flight from the nests with their wings spread out, they are in adoration before You.

All animals jump on their paws. And all those who fly and all those who settle live, when You rose for them.

Ships descend and go upstream.

Every way is open, because you appeared.

The fish, on the surface of the water, leap towards your face: because your rays penetrate to the bottom of the sea.

You who make the embryo develop in women, You who create the seed in men, You who make the child live in the womb, You who calm him with what makes the tears cease, You, the nurse of those still in the womb , You who continually give the breath to vivify your every creature when it comes out of the womb to breathe, the day of birth.

You make your mouth open completely and provide for its needs.

When the chick is in the egg and it peeps in the shell You give it the breath of life inside, to vivify it.

You have prescribed a moment for him, because he breaks it from within. It comes out of the egg to pigolare, in due course, and walks with its own paws as soon as it has come out (…) (Daumas: 1965, 322-323).

The originality of Akhenaten consists in having focused every creative feature on the solar disk, a tangible manifestation of the supreme divine power within everyone’s reach. The pharaoh, in this way, provided his subjects with an image that was easy to understand and avoided delegation to a specialized clergy, unique and only able to serve as an intermediary between men and an impenetrable god. Aton literally allowed the immediate perception of the divine, in clear opposition to Amun, the “hidden” god. The correspondence that delegated to the king the capacities of the Creator remained to be established. Akhenaten made the Pharaoh the Disc by inscribing its name in a royal cartouche, as was done for that of the sovereign land. The «title» of Aten was very simple: «Ra-Horakhty appeared in the Horizon», «In his name of Shu who is in the Disco».

The Disc was therefore a form of the Creator like the king, its terrestrial equivalent: we are back to the traditional system of hypostasis, albeit with slight modifications. Aten was also attributed to the care of the dead, which is logical because the god assumed the different roles of the solar creator. Osiris, however, did not lose importance, not even in the real family, as evidenced by the giant Osirians who represent the pharaoh. But the traditional funeral cult tended to fade in general.

The influence of the Atonian reform on the people was almost nothing, for two reasons: the first is the rapid transfer of the court to Akhetaten, which made it very difficult to know the new cult for those not belonging to the royal entourage, except for the presence of the buildings wanted by Akhenaten to Karnak. The second and deeper reason is that the new cult did not correspond to the structures of society: the people, in fact, continued to live on traditional religious bases. Invocations to Amon were even found in the working village of Amarna. Moreover, one must think of what level religious culture usually was among the most humble strata of the population: theological speculation and the arcana of power certainly did not come out of the enclosures of temples and palaces. The progress of popular piety during the New Kingdom betrays rather elementary concerns; the common mortals had no great metaphysical worries. Moreover, the image that Akhenaten gave of himself was less original than what modern tradition would have us believe. In fact, he kept the entire protocol of his predecessors: presented as “pacifist” by today’s scholars, because he did not take part in the struggles that upset the Near East under his reign, he was often represented in the act of slaughtering the enemies won not only in classical style works, such as the façade of the third pylon of Karnak, but also in those marked by the new style, such as the talatats we have mentioned above. On them, even Nefertiti wields the heg bat over the heads of the vanquished enemies! (Hall: 1986, Fig. 36-40).

The so-called “Amarnian revolution” did not in any way affect the administrative system, which remained exactly as before, often with the same officials. On the political level, it, rather, strengthened theocratic absolutism: the king, “handsome son of Aton”, became the obliged intermediary between men and the Disc. As such, the pharaoh was the object of an adoration that we see depicted at the entrance to the tombs of the high dignitaries. In fact, while maintaining its traditional titles, Akhenaten is often called “son of living Aten”. Aten, the god of Akhenaten, changed his royal title only a few years later. This happened simultaneously with the foundation of a new residence in the fifth year of the reign.

This divine worship of the king resulted in a certain marginalization of the other deities; on the other hand, however, the fact of linking the funeral becoming of the courtiers to that of the sovereign was, in a certain way, a return to the origins, in the sense of research on the past that characterized the reign of Amenhotep III as those of his predecessors : search for ancient records, the tomb of Osiris in Abido and so on. The reform really made itself felt above all in two fields: economic and artistic. Akhenaten had some temples closed, or limited his activity, and transferred clerical goods to the Crown. The first consequence was the increase in administrative centralization and its executive arm, the army.

The setting aside of the local authorities made the administration’s action more difficult and thus formed a whole system of corruption and arbitration against which Akhenaten would later have to fight. The construction of the new capital and of the new temples was done to the detriment of the economy in general, and of the divine in particular: the system of divine properties was, from the point of view of centralization, nefarious, but the abandonment determined the destruction of a production and redistribution circuit that no new structure was replacing.

Leonardo Lovari

From Anemos – Harmakis Edizioni

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