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“The Great Hymn to Aten” and the Beginning of Monotheism

Today, monotheistic religions prevail globally, but people were inclined to honor many gods in ancient times. For example, in ancient Egypt, much of the time, religion was polytheistic. The emergence of monotheism, in turn, is associated with the development of Judaism and later Christianity and Islam. However, such a source as The Great Hymn to Aten is related to religious reform in ancient Egypt, which favored one god – Aten. Although the facts about the influence of Atenism on the emergence of other monotheistic religions are contradictory, this religion is still the first example of monotheism.

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Atenism – the religion dedicated to Aten has a short history associated mainly with one pharaoh, and the primary source of information about it is the studied hymn. It is believed that the author of the poem is the pharaoh Amenhotep IV, mainly known as Akhenaten, who introduced this religion (Wade 3). Amenhotep IV was a representative of the 18th dynasty and allegedly took the throne in 1358 BCE (Wade 1). This dynasty mainly relied on the sun as some eternal and constant phenomenon, on which the whole world depended and which destructed the darkness associated with danger (Wade 2). This theme is reflected in the hymn – the sun’s daily appearance is worshiped, and darkness is represented as a threat.

The theme of the victory of light Aten brings to destroy the darkness is revealed through opposite images of night and day. For example, the night’s image is described in this way: ” Whenever you [Aten] set on the Western horizon, / the land is in darkness in the manner of death” (Simpson 290). Then the hymn creates contrast and represents the day image, the time of Aten:

But when day breaks you are risen upon the horizon,
and you shine as the Aten in the daytime.
When you dispel darkness and you give forth your rays
the two lands are in festival,
alert and standing on their feet,
now that you have raised them up (Simpson 291).

Considering only the religious reform of Akhenaten, one can imagine him as a prophet. Nevertheless, Laboury (239) emphasizes that it is necessary to consider Akhenaten primarily as a politician. The power and activity of rulers in the time of the pharaohs were not separated from religion. Therefore, it is essential to consider what the situation was during his reign. Amenhotep IV came to power in time of prosperity and peace instead of his older deceased brother, replacing their father, Amenhotep III (Wade 10). The father devoted a significant part of his reign to deification as Aten, the material manifestation of the sun god – Amun Re, and the sun’s visible part – the solar disk (Laboury 239). Aten’s image and form also had some significance for the new religion.

Appearance is another feature, giving uniqueness to Akhenaten’s religious changes and the pharaoh himself. Unlike other gods, Aten was not depicted anthropomorphically – with the human body, but as a solar disk, the rays of which end in hands (Wade 8). The solar disk was a more universal and perfect form than the human body and made god more unlimited. Damen (para. 26) also notes that gender division may not have been applied to Aten in the effort for universality. This desire could also affect the way Akhenaten was portrayed – often with feminine features and without genitals. In this way, images emphasized his proximity to Aten and his difference from other people.

After becoming a ruler, Amenhotep IV announced the construction of a new temple for the service of the only god Aten. Akhenaten established a monopoly on serving him and presenting his will to the people, declaring himself the first servant and Aten’s son. Such a measure was supposed to protect the pharaoh from potential criticism and support the legitimacy of any action. The hymn significantly represents the image of Akhenaten, named Nefer-kheperu-Re Wa-en-Re in the poem:

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You are my desire,
and there is no other who knows you
except your son (Nefer-kheperu-Re Wa-en-Re)
for you have apprised him of your designs and your power (Simpson 294).
Moreover, the hymn also supports the image of Akhenaten as ruler, emphasizing that Aten created the world around for him:
When (you) rise, (everything) grows
for the King and (for) everyone who hastens on foot,
because you have founded the land
and you have raised them for your son
who has come forth from your body,
the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the one Living on Maat,
Lord of the Two Lands (Nefer-kheperu-Re Wa-en-Re)
son of Re, the one Living on Maat, Master of Regalia,
(Akhenaten), the long lived,
and the Foremost Wife of the King, whom he loves,
the Mistress of the Two Lands,
(Nefer-nefru-Aten Nefertiti),
living and young, forever and ever (Simpson 295).

At first, only becoming the pharaoh, Akhenaten did not deny other gods. Such a form of religion as henotheism – worship of one of the gods recognizing others is not uncommon for ancient Egypt (Wade 2). However, the pharaoh decided to change the religion radically, and the studied hymn reflects the message that Aten is not just the main god but the only one. Moreover, the central theme in the poem is that Aten is the sole creator of life and the world:

How plentiful it is, what you have made,
although they are hidden from view,
sole god, without another beside you;
you created the earth as you wished,
when you were by yourself,
mankind, all cattle and kine,
all beings on land, who fare upon their feet,
and all beings in the air, who fly with their wings (Simpson 292).

Based on the lines presented, Akhenaten created a new cosmogony – the story of the beginning of the world. Various legends about the creation of the world appeared in all cultures. They helped people determine their place in the world and describe everything around them based on their position. The cosmogony of Akhenaten put him as the first servant of Aten in an exceptional place compared to other people, which again suggests his desire for power through a new religion.

Other Aten’s images presented in the hymn are also interesting – they praise his power and emphasize that he is the only god and, in this way, support the theme of the sole creator. For example, the hymn, after the presentation of the pharaoh, begins with the statement about the magnificence of Aten, who created life. The translated poem includes words such as “perfection,” “great,” “appealing,” “sparkling” to describe the god of the sun (Simpson 290). Aten is also presented in the image of the power that begins life and cares about birth. In particular, the hymn claims that God “placed the seed in a woman / and have made sperm into man” (Simpson 291). The text also claims that Aten nourishes the children in the womb and helps them take their first breath (Simpson 292). Thus, the theme of the mighty and one god Aten is revealed through the images in which he appears.

Having included an extensive list of Aten’s accomplishments in the text, the author emphasizes his strength and control over all aspects of human life. Aten’s description of power correlates with another Egyptian work – Cannibal Spell for King Unis. Although the hymn is more glorifying and the spell more intimidating, they have common features. According to the spell, the deceased ruler Unis becomes a god, and destroying other gods becomes powerful and, at the same time, the only one (Puchner 27). Thus, both texts are aimed at the requirements of worship of sole powerful deities.

However, creating such a cult had negative consequences – defeats in wars, diseases and other problems were the pharaoh’s fault. Notably, due to the focus on religion, the pharaoh paid little attention to other aspects of government, for example, international relations (Wade 10). His children were forced to save the country, and Akhenaten was recognized as a failed ruler (Laboury 242). Thus, the introduction of Atenism and the pharaoh’s elevation did not have the supposedly expected effect of creating strong authority for Akhenaten.

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Atenism and the hymn praising Aten have features that make it possible to claim that this religion is monotheistic confidently. With proclaiming the considered god as a single creator, Akhenaten deleted references to the multiplicity of gods of the past. Their names and the plural designation “gods” were erased in temples, obelisks, and other places (Hoffmeier 264). The fact that Aten is a single god is emphasized with such words as “sole” and “alone,” as well as the fact that only he is credited with creating and managing the world through the hymn. The author of the hymn lists multiple achievements except for the world creation – the creation of seasons, various languages, and other acts. Maintaining faith in one god makes Atenism the first historical example of monotheism.

There are contradictory facts on which one could judge the possibility of the influence of Atenism on the emergence of Judaism, the first official monotheistic religion. According to Damen (para. 46), two main factors must be evaluated – similarity and the possibility of religions’ representatives’ interactions to establish the possibility of influence. For example, considering contrasts – Aten’s form seeks universality, he has it and interacts with the pharaoh, and the Jewish god, in turn, is unlimited and often acts through intermediaries – angels, floodwaters, and other measures (Damen para. 47). Atenism and Judaism share some common monotheistic features, but religions also differ significantly among themselves.

The question of possible contact to influence the development of Judaism is broader. In particular, the Israeli nation could not yet form in the 14th century BC. However, the Bible has information about Wandering patriarchs that could borrow monotheistic ideas (Damen para. 48). The Bible also describes Egyptian Captivity – the several-century enslavement of Hebrews by the rulers of the New Kingdom (Damen para. 49). In turn, Hoffmeier (265) argues that although the monotheistic nature of Atenism is not evidence of its influence on Judaism, historians have no reason to deny the connection. However, with closer consideration, some of these arguments can be challenged. For example, the city in which the Jews were supposedly located is far from Achetaton, and after the reign of Akhenaten, people destroyed a lot of evidence of Atenism (Damen para. 50). Moreover, many phenomena in history arose simultaneously in several places independently of each other – writing, building, and similar things.

An exciting aspect of the study of Atenism as a potential source for other monotheistic religions is the similarity of The Great Hymn to Aten with the biblical psalm (see table 1). In particular, Psalm 104 praises god for grass and trees for animals and birds, for the sea in which fish and ships can swim (Damen para. 53-54). The text correlates significantly with the hymn, where trees and plants for cattle and birds, swimming barges, and fish in the water are also mentioned together (Simpson 291). The similarity of meaning and sequence is striking and is an argument for the possible connection between religions.

Table 1: Comparison of fragments of The Great Hymn to Aten and Psalm 104

The Great Hymn to Aten Psalm 104
The entire land performs its work:
all the cattle are content with their fodder,
trees and plants grow,
birds fly up to their nests,
their wings in praise for your Ka.
All the kine prance on their feet;
everything which flies up and alights,
they live when you have risen for them.
The barges sail upstream and downstream too,
for every way is open at your rising.
The fishes in the river leap before your face
when your rays are in the sea (Simpson 291).
Bless the Lord… you who coverest thyself with light as with a garment…
Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters;…
He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and… the trees
Where the birds make their nests; as for the stork, the fir trees are her house.
The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats;…
(As) the sun ariseth, (the beasts) gather themselves together…
There go the ships: there is that leviathan (whale), whom thou hast made to play therein (qtd. in Damen para. 54).

Thus, The Great Hymn to Aten praises the god Aten, and he was worshipped in the first monotheistic religion in history. The central theme corresponds to this perspective – the text mainly describes the sun god Aten as the creator of the world and life. The hymn also raises the theme of how the sun drives away darkness and danger. The poem creates the image of the ruler Akhenaten, who introduced religion and presumably wrote the hymn as the son of Aten, exalting his personality. Hence, one can assume that the pharaoh’s goal in changing religion was to strengthen his authority. Other images addressed by the text include day and night, and various images of Aten glorifying him. The facts about whether Atenism influenced the emergence of another monotheistic religion of Judaism are controversial, but such a possibility cannot be denied.

Works Cited

Damen, Mark. “Akhenaten and Monotheism.” History and Civilization, Web.

Hoffmeier, James Karl. Akhenaten and the Origins of Monotheism. Oxford University Press, 2015.

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Laboury, Dimitri. “Aten vs Amun. Religious Politics and Political Religion under Tutankhamun and His Father, Akhenaten.” Tutankhamun. Discovering the Forgotten Pharaoh, edited by Simon Connor and Dimitri Laboury, Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2020, pp. 238-243.

Puchner, Martin. “Cannibal Spell for King Unis.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. W.W. Norton, 2012. 26-28.

Simpson, William Kelly, editor. Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry. 3rd ed., Yell University Press, 2003. Web.

Wade, Sabrina. “Atenism and Pharaoh Akhenaten’s Attempt to Deify Himself.” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History, vol. 11, no. 2, 2021, pp. 1-15.

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