AKHENATEN AND THE COURT AT AMARNA
So now we have the royal family in their new capital.
The king and queen have changed their names. Amenhotep IV has now become Akh-n-Itn,
"He who is useful to the Aten" ("the radiance of the Aten" has also been proposed but that seems less correct) and he has modified one of his other titular names to
"perfect are the perfections of Re, the only of Re".
Nefertiti is now called Neferneferuiten-Nefertiti,
"perfect are the perfections of the Aten- the beautiful one has come".
Six daughters are born to the king: Merytaten, Maketaten, Ankhesenpaaten, Neferneferouaten-tasheryt(i.e Neferneferouaten the small one) Neferneferoure, Setepenre.
Akhenaten left no canonic text. His "education" of his faithful was above all, oral, aided by mnemonic images.
We can, nevertheless, get a good idea of his religious conceptions thanks, on one hand, to the explanations that he gave of the names of the god Aten and, on the other hand, to two series of hymns that were found engraved in the tombs of courtiers at Tell-el-Amarna.
THE NAMES OF THE ATEN
Akhenaten attached very great importance to the name which he had contrived- on a pharaonic titular model- for the god Aten.
In fact the correct name of the god is not Aten, which is an abbreviation. The texts speak of Pa-Iten-Ankh, i.e.
"the living Aten", the living disc, but even this is but an abbreviation of a much longer official didactic name, which is a real theological explanation.
From year 1 to year 9 of the reign
"Ra-Horakhty-who-rejoices-in-the-horizon-in-his-name-of-Shu-who-resides-in-the-disc". We see, appearing in this expanded name of the Aten, the names of three other classic Egyptian divinities, all with a solar connotation: Ra, the great god of the sun, the falcon Horus who is its classic figurative manifestation, and the god Shu who represents the air, the space between heaven and earth.
Then we notice that the divine names are incorporated into , which was reserved for the pharaoh. Note that the writing of the god's name does not end with the usual hieroglyphic sign of the deity, thus evading the "category of gods". Aten is THE god and is not one of the gods.
The significance is clear: the Aten governs the world as a pharaoh of Egypt does for the two lands. It is a way of proclaiming the consubstantiality of Akhenaten and the god of whom he is the emanation: the royalty of the Aten in heaven is of the same nature as that of Akhenaten on earth.
From year 9 to the end of the reign
Akhenaten changes the name of the god at the same time as he radicalises his policy but without changing the doctrine, by having the animal form of Horus and the name of the god Shu removed, leaving only Ra remaining.
This government of the world by the Aten-king is also shown in the iconography of the god.
We do not know which brilliant theologian imagined the famous appearance of the (), but this extraordinary representative idea illustrates perfectly the discussion: the rays emanating from the disc end in hands and descend upon all creation: they embrace the whole universe, to which they give life via the intermediary of the royal couple, who are the only ones to receive the symbol of life, Ankh.
Apart from the extended name of the god, two series of hymns to the Aten have come down to us, carved on the walls of tombs of high dignitaries.
The great hymn to the Aten exists as one copy only, carved in the entrance corridor of the tomb of Ay ( and ), whereas we know of five copies of the small hymn to the Aten.
These hymns, original though they are, are nevertheless not entirely new in their inspiration. We have, in fact, found examples of solar hymns written just before the Amarna period which are derived from this rationalist trend of which we have spoken and which already take, as a theme for reflection, the unique visible reality.
Those who frequent pharaonic Egypt know that these are the most celebrated texts of ancient Egypt and, as is often the case, this celebrity indirectly feeds imaginative ideas or dreams which are sometimes far removed from the reality of the source.
It is not known who wrote the hymns to the Aten, maybe it was the king himself. Anyway, they reflect the official doctrine. They are addressed to three persons: firstly to the god Ra-Horakhty, of whom the Aten is the visible manifestation, but also to Akhenaten and Nefertiti, inextricably mixing divine praise and royal eulogy.
They deal successively with two themes: the daily solar cycle and the revelation of the god to his son Akhenaten.
These hymns take the form of poems, written now in the vernacular.
Akhenaten has effectively raised the spoken language of the New Kingdom into a new written language. This is an important evolution which will last. Up till then, canonic texts, and especially those carved in tombs or on temple walls, were written in Middle Egyptian, a language which had not been current for centuries (like Latin in our churches). In the general care for naturalism, which guides the new religion, Akhenaten orders that, from now on, all religious texts shall be written in the current language that we call neo-Egyptian.
The hymns were probably liturgical texts designed to be recited or chanted during venerations in the temples of the capital. The high spiritual elevation of the texts is undeniable. Let's listen to them.
[Source: Pritchard, James B., ed., The Ancient Near East - Volume 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1958, pp. 227-230].
The prime source, from the tomb of Ay at Amarna, begins with an introduction by Ay. This is as follows :
"Praise of Re Hor-akhti, Rejoicing on the Horizon, in His Name as Shu Who Is in the Aten-disc, living forever and ever; the living great Aten who is in jubilee, lord of all that the Aten encircles, lord of heaven, lord of earth, lord of the House of Aten in Akhet-Aten; (and praise of) the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, who lives on truth, the Lord of the Two Lands: Nefer-kheperu-Re Wa-en-Re; the Son of Re, who lives on truth, the Lord of Diadems: Akh-en-Aten, long in his lifetime; (and praise of) the Chief Wife of the King, his beloved, the Lady of the Two Lands: Nefer-neferu-Aten Nefert-iti, living, healthy, and youthful forever and ever.
The fan-fearer at the right hand of the King, Ay; he says :
It then proceeds with the actual hymn :
"Thou appearest beautifully on the horizon of heaven,
Thou living Aten, the beginning of life!
When thou art risen on the eastern horizon,
Thou hast filled every land with thy beauty.
Thou art gracious, great, glistening, and high over every land;
Thy rays encompass the lands to the limit of all that thou hast made […]
At daybreak, when thou arisest on the horizon,
When thou shinest as the Aten by day,
Thou drivest away the darkness and givest thy rays.
The Two Lands are in festivity every day,
Awake and standing upon (their) feet,
For thou hast raised them up.
Washing their bodies, taking (their) clothing,
Their arms are (raised) in praise at thy appearance.
All the world, they do their work […]
O sole god, like whom there is no other!
Thou didst create the world according to thy desire,
Whilst thou wert alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts,
Whatever is on earth, going upon (its) feet,
And what is on high, flying with its wings.
The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt,
Thou settest every man in his place,
Thou suppliest their necessities:
Everyone has his food, and his time of life is reckoned.
Their tongues are separate in speech,
And their natures as well;
Their skins are distinguished,
As thou distinguishest the foreign peoples.
Thou makest a Nile in the underworld […]
All distant foreign countries, thou makest their life (also),
For thou hast set a Nile in heaven,
That it may descend for them and make waves upon the mountains,
Like the great green sea,
To water their fields in their towns.
How effective they are, thy plans, O lord of eternity!
The Nile in heaven, it is for the foreign peoples
Thou art in my heart,
And there is no other that knows thee
Save thy son Nefer-kheperu-Re Wa-en-Re,
For thou hast made him well-versed in thy plans and in thy strength […] "
All these are inscribed on the walls of private tombs. The only known occurrence of Great Hymn is in the tomb of Ay, while the Small Hymn comes in five versions in the tombs of Meryre, Any, Ipy, Tutu and Mahu. All the hymns use the first version of the canonical name of the Aten and were thus composed between year 5 and year 9 of the reign.
Their exact function is not entirely clear. The traditional interpretation that made them liturgical texts to be recited or chanted in temples is now demolished. For these hymns are addressed to Re-Horakhty, manifested in the Aten but also to Akhenaten and Nefertiti, mixing intimately divine praise and Atenist ideology. The content of the hymns does not differ, the Great Hymn is only more developed. Both types develop two main themes: the daily cycle of the sun god and the revelation of his son Akhenaten’s divinity. They are a transcript of the education provided by Akhenaten himself (whether he or his theologians have imagined it is an insoluble question).
It is difficult not to see in these hymns the mystical impetus of a visionary, but from another point of view, we are also in the presence of a closed theological-political programme, which prohibits glosses and other exegeses of which Egyptian thinkers were so fond.
Here is how one can summarize their content (after Pierre Grandet) :
Sunrise of the Aten that fills the universe of light and space under the control of Akhenaten. The god is far off, but his rays are upon the earth.
At sunset, everything falls asleep and the earth seems dead.
The following morning the earth revives, all beings are celebrating and going about their business.
The Aten is the creator of all things in the universe and provides for the needs of his creation.
The beneficial effect of the Aten, relayed by his son Akhenaten, justifies the cult which is a worship of thanksgiving.
(e.g. on a stele in the tomb of Mahu, ) :
At dawn, the rays of the Aten, the uncreated creator, fill the earth, animate beings and manifest the sovereignty of the God.
At night, the earth and all beings are in a state bordering on death.
At sunrise, life is reborn together with the worship at Akhetaton, the centre of the universe.
The Aten shapes Akhenaton in his image each day; only he knows the God. This one, the eternal Creator of heaven, contemplates his creation and sustains it with his rays. All beings, through their appropriate behaviour, praise him with thanksgiving.
The demythologisation of the great cosmic nocturnal drama
We can see that the Aten, who created himself, completely holds the life of the world in his subordination, that he daily renews the creation of which he is "the father and the mother". There is no longer a "first time" for creation, this aspect is never mentioned in the Amarnian theology. The world is recreated every day at dawn - by the disk, which has no existence or hidden nature.
Strange as it may seem, we touch here on the fundamental point in the division between traditional religious concepts and the Amarna concept: It is in this negation of any role of the night and its consequences that the Amarna heresy really resides.
Up till now, the nocturnal evolution of the sun was conceived as being a sort of cosmic drama. The reappearance of the sun each day could only happen after a gigantic conflict in the world beyond. The sun of the day, after having lost his radiance, set and continued his nocturnal voyage in his barque while progressively recharging his energy.
But, during this nocturnal voyage, he had to face all sorts of redoubtable enemies who tried to sink the solar barque and prevent the rebirth of the sun in the morning. It was in this figurative way that the Egyptians expressed the tendency for spontaneous disorganisation that we call entropy. To help the sun win his combat each day required the combined action of the king and men making the appropriate devotions, Maat must reign.
In the new religion, however, all of this dramatic aspect of the solar cycle disappears. No more Apophis or divine barque. The sun will necessarily and mechanically reappear, tomorrow as it did today. Whether we do something or whether we don't, the sun will be there and the days and the seasons will pass.
The sun has from now on a noncyclic trajectory, which ceases at night, like the life which it alone conveys with him. The Great Hymn clearly says :
"You arise as they (men) live, you lie down as they die. You are existence by yourself, it is by you that we live"; "as soon as you lie down in the western horizon, the country is plunged into darkness, in a state of death"
Night is for men the experience of death. The whole life of the world happens during the day, the night is considered as a state of non-life, where nothing occurs, which is useful for nothing. Nevertheless the king specifies that the stars remain alive in his heart.
But the traditional nocturnal journey of the sun had another major function: to resuscitate the deceased in the Duat, to give life back them during the time of its nocturnal journey. To suppress this role, it is ipso facto to deny the existence of the whole traditional system imagined, and likewise for the deceased to have a new life in the beyond. Osiris, the traditional justified (and regenerate for death) god doesn't have any place anymore in the new system and disappears.
For Akhenaten there is no other reality nor other life than the one, physically bathed by the rays of the Aten.
The organisation of society, which leaned towards the traditional form of the maat, is placed in question
As a consequence, all organisation of society which should lead to the realisation of Maat is put in doubt. Maat has not gone but she has changed in nature. Certainly she has become an optimistic view of the world but mechanical, implacable. Maat is no longer the collective work of order in the world, which the king must present to the gods ().
She is everywhere, immutable and only the king can interpret her desire.
In effect, Maat is now Akhenaten himself ! So his every word or gesture becomes sacred and his courtiers address him as "my sun" or, as in the Amarna letter No. 138, "the sun of all lands".
By doing this, Akhenaten changes the very nature of Egyptian royalty, which is now an unlimited absolutism the like of which the country has never known and will never know again after him.
This should finally put an end to the tenacious legend of a gentle, weak pacifist dreamy poet king full of love for all humanity: which is a historical misinterpretation.
The universalism of the Aten
This does not prevent the hymns from being magnificent literary pieces, especially for the universalist approach which we find in them for the first time :
"The Aten of the day, great of majesty. All distant foreign countries, thou makest their life (also), for thou hast set a Nile in heaven, that it may descend for them…
The Nile in heaven, it is for the foreign peoples, (While the true) Nile comes from the underworld for Egypt
Their tongues are separate in speech and their natures as well. Their skins are distinguished as thou distinguishest the foreign peoples"
Thus, the Aten is presented as the universal god while Akhenaten himself always remains a pharaoh for Egypt and never becomes a prophet for all humanity. Akhenaten is "lord of the two lands" while the Aten is "lord of the world". One even wonders if Akhenaten really had the intention of imposing the cult of the Aten in all Egypt. It is certainly not written anywhere.
The text about foreign countries continues thus:
" Thy rays encompass the lands to the limit of all that thou hast made:
As thou art Re, thou reachest to the end of them;
(Thou) subduest them (for) thy beloved son."
In this last phrase we see the limits of the universalist message: the Aten is indeed the god who governs the world, including foreign countries and Egypt's traditional enemies, but the latter continue to be considered exactly as before. And so the very classical ritual scenes where we see the king (or the queen) massacring the so-called enemies are represented as before.
Certainly, they are prophylactic scenes with a magical aspect, with no relationship with reality, but they are still present.
Likewise, people have tried to read into these texts and the military non-interventionism of the king, that Akhenaten was a philosophical, pacifist sovereign. Again: not so!
Badly advised, Akhenaten did not intervene militarily in Asia to support a disintegrating Egyptian empire. But his father, Amenhotep III before him had not intervened either, preferring a gold diplomacy to warlike expeditions. So, nothing new here.
And the only trace we have of a military expedition led against the miserable Nubian peoples who dared, once again, to rise up against Egypt met with the same vigorous reprisals as was usual.
But let's get back to the hymns.
The lyricism continues with praise for the creator: in the morning, when the Aten rises, the earth becomes once again habitable and in festivity. Men, animals and plants give homage to the creator by their renewed activity.
It is the Aten who holds all life in his control because he is
"Creator of seed in women, Thou who makest fluid into man"
It is also he who gives the breath of life both to the child at its mother's breast and to the chick in the egg.
Both distant and near
"it is he who takes millions of forms from his oneness".
The Amarnian naturalism
This religion of the Aten appears to be a naturalist one, one of contemplation of nature, a work of the unique solar creator. So, when the Aten rises, we are told :
" Trees and plants are flourishing. The birds fly from their nests. All beasts spring upon (their) feet. All the world, they do their work"
Here we see this optimistic context expressed: All of nature is a work of the creator and it is therefore intrinsically good. It is considered that the order desired by the creator is the natural order of things and there is no reason to change it. This explains the special Amarna representative style of which we spoke earlier.
Not only are these representations no longer idealised as before but also no attempt is made to hide defects, in fact they are accentuated.
We see too that these representations show unheard of scenes from daily life! The royal couple eating, or holding their little girls on their knees and kissing them (figs ).
We note, nevertheless, that the rules of Egyptian depiction are respected, notably the reclining perspective with the result that we recognise at first glance that the scenes are Egyptian. Moreover, towards the end of the reign, the excesses of the beginning are abandoned and the models which we find in the sculptors' workshops give us a real picture of the king and queen (figs ) though the dolichocephaly sometimes remains. ()
The end of the hymns speak of the role of the king himself:
"And there is no other that knows thee save thy son Nefer-kheperu-Re, Wa-en-Re, for thou hast made him well-versed in thy plans and in thy strength"
and he concludes :" Everything is] made to flourish for the king, ...
Since thou didst found the earth
And raise them up for thy son, who came forth from thy body: the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, ... Ak-en-Aten, ... and the Chief Wife of the King ... Nefertiti"
It is extremely clear; the king is the sole divine intercessor, the only one to have received the revelation of the Aten and who can convey it.
THE CULT AT AMARNA
So what was life like in the new capital?
It was, of course, still a busy building site when the court moved in. Several temples, exclusively dedicated to the Aten, were built, among them the great temple, the main one. It is called "Gem-pa-Aten", i.e. "find" or "meet" the Aten ().
It is very different to temples dedicated to other deities in this period, especially to Amun. But it is not an entirely new style as it is quite similar to the solar temples of the Vth Dynasty, some nine centuries before.
In a traditional temple the approach was from the light to the shade, towards the holy of holies where the statue of the god rested.. Here, all is open sky so that the life-giving energy of the rays of the Aten might spread over the hundreds of open-air altars, covered with animal, vegetable and floral offerings, where the daily worship was celebrated.
It was Akhenaten and Nefertiti themselves who offered adoration to the rising sun each morning and we can see pictures of the king humbly prostrated before the divinity who he alone had the right to venerate with no intermediary.
There are still priests, and even a high priest of the Aten, but they no longer participate directly in the offering, in the maintenance of the divine power. Prostrated, during the worship, before the royal couple (and not before the divinity), their role is purely administrative: they materially maintain the domain of the Aten and that is all. They are known as " the servants of god".
The meaning of the offering has radically changed: since there is no longer any need to maintain and renew the divine life each day, the offering has become an action of indulgence (). One offers to the Aten a part of his creation as a sign of recognition for his goodness. Nothing is expected in return. Another frequent image is that of the king offering the names of the solar disc to the solar disc! ()
The appearance of the king at the "window of appearances" above the main processional way () is likened to the appearance of the Aten in the sky. Here is a view of the place where this window was situated: .
Another aspect of the cult is the processional outing of the king when he leaves his palace to go to the temple. The appearance of the king and queen is equivalent to the rising of the Aten.
They are always shown riding in a chariot and escorted by policemen and soldiers (). These movements in a chariot pulled by two horses take into account an important aspect of the symbolism so dear to the sovereign: movement. Akhenaten and Nefertiti move on their chariot like the Aten in the sky and bring the breath of life.
These outings of the royal couple replace the ancient traditional processions of the other gods, especially Amun, during the great festivals. But here, there are no oracles, the god Aten is a silent god whose wishes only the king is competent to reveal.
No more real priests, no more oracles… Akhenaten has found a very efficient way of preventing any criticism of his actions!
Note, too, that the practice of magic, so important in the traditional religion, has no place in the Amarna system and disappears.
This shows us, if that were still necessary; that the king is not the weak, soft personality that some would like to think.
To try to impose on Egypt reforms so contrary to its traditions, to smother any fancy of resistance in the land, required an iron hand in a leaden glove. Besides, it is only necessary to observe the attitudes of the persons in the presence of the king: never in Egypt do we see so many people bent before their master, or so many soldiers and policemen shown ().
It is also at Amarna that we have found the biggest police barracks ever found in Egypt.
The choice of the location of the capital is also unparalleled, with its rocky circle surrounding the city on all sides except that facing the Nile, thus providing a natural protection ().
Another major consequence of the system is that it is immutable, with only the king able to define it.
Thus the necessity for men to adopt an attitude conforming to Maat disappears. What is now required is an attitude conforming to the will of the king!
Likewise, the statues, to which the Egyptians have always rendered homage as being the hypostases where their gods manifest themselves, disappear. Akhenaten is very clear on this point: in a harangue to his courtiers dating to the beginning of the reign, he expressly states that they are stone idols of no value whatsoever. Imagine the effect!
In his religion, there is no need for statues since the sun is visible to all. The only iconic representations permitted are those of the radiating disc and the royal couple, living "statues".
In private houses, too, effigies of the royal couple will replace the statues, which have become useless. Several have been found in the houses of Amarna, in the little domestic altars. As the worship of individuals could not be addressed directly to the god, it was to these effigies that it was made ().