August 29, 2013

Worship of the Aten

Worship of the Aten
In the worship of the sun disc, the Aten, some scholars have seen metaphysical reasoning far ahead of the times. Others have asserted that it offered nothing new. Akhenaten himself has been variously interpreted as a mystic/ascetic and as a rebel/fanatic. Certainly, to understand Akhenaten and the brief epoch of sun worship, we must place it in the broad context of the 18th Dynasty. This was a time when the Egyptian empire extended to its greatest extent and when, to all outward appearances, it was at its most stable.

Worship of the Aten
In fact, there were undercurrents of discontent. A new warrior society had emerged from the humiliation of the Hyksos occupation. Great conquerors like Thutmose III had extended Egypt’s borders to embrace a vast empire. As a result, tribute and booty poured into Thebes. Naturally most of the wealth was bestowed upon Amon- Ra, the god of the victors, and the priests consequently came to control undreamed of material rewards. They and the cult that they promoted became tarnished by self-interest. Amenhotep IV, as he was first known, grew up in an atmosphere geared to change. His father was Amenhotep III (with whom he may have shared a coregency) and his mother was the Great Royal Wife, Queen Tiy.

The concept of the Aten (Itn), which means ‘the sun’s disc’, was not invented by Akhenaten. His grandfather, Thutmose IV recorded on a commemorative scarab (in the British Museum) that he fought a campaign in Asia ‘. . . with the Aten before (him)... to make the foreigners to be like true people (i.e. Egyptians) in order to serve the Aten forever’.  And in the reign of his father, Amenhotep III, the term Aten first came into prominent use at Thebes.

Worship of the Aten
Worship of the sun, in one form or another, is apparent thoughout ancient Egyptian history. The pharaoh himself was regarded as ‘son of the Sun-god’; important local deities, like Amon, Min and Khnum, under the influence of the solar worship, bore the sun disc on their heads and appended ‘Ra’ to their names. Daily temple rituals were oriented to the sun. The representation of Ra- Harakhte, ‘Horus of the Horizon’, which was the traditional form of the Sun-god, was a hawk crowned with the sun disc; it is, therefore, significant that the Aten, like the national god Amon-Ra, was represented as such. It was only later that the hawk gave way to the solar disc with slanting rays ending in hands.

It would appear that the priests of Amon at Thebes at first saw' no danger in allowing worship of the solar disc. They permitted several sun temples to be constructed within the sacred precincts of Amon’s temple complex at Karnak. The main difference that can be discerned between worship of Amon-Ra and the Aten in the early stages, was a vibrant call to draw the attention of worshippers away from the darkened sanctuaries of Amon-Ra toward the light of day. Stress was placed on Maat (Truth/Order) in a desire to free religious rites from the shackles of superstition encouraged by the priests of Amon and to revert to a more purified form of sun worship. In other words the people were encouraged to turn from the darkened sanctuaries of ‘The Hidden One’ (i.e. Amon) and worship the visible, unapproachable orb directly beneath the open sky.

In the sixth year of Amenhotep IV’s reign, the status quo drastically changed. He announced the founding of his new city, changed his name to Akhenaten (‘Splendour of the Aten’) and promulgated a decree that henceforth one god, the Aten, should be worshipped. He officially ordered the closing of all the temples of Amon. He gave instructions that the possessions of the state priesthood should be confiscated and that all statues of the national deity should be destroyed.

The massive temples of honour of Amon-Ra could not be dismantled but Akhenaten ordered the name of ‘Amon’ be effaced from the reliefs. His workers applied themselves to the task with exaggerated zeal, scoring out Amon’s name at the top of Hatshepsut’s lofty obelisk at Karnak and even the royal ‘cartouche’ of Akhenaten’s father, Amenhotep III.

Worship of the Aten
Two years later, in the eighth year of his reign, Akhenaten, his Queen Nefertiti (whose name was extended to include the new epithet Neferneferna^w), and their two daughters (later there were six) took up residence at Akhet-Aten. Akhenaten set up boundary stelae on the cliffs on both sides of the Nile; they recorded an oath in the name of his ‘father’ the Aten that neither he, his wife, nor his children would pass the limits he was setting and that the land would be sacred to the Aten forever.

Worship of the Aten was not so much a new realm of thought as a revision of traditional beliefs toward recognition of the unlimited power of the Sun-god. The religion of the Aten should not be regarded as a sudden outburst of spiritual inspiration. In a forever expanding world, religious concepts change. In Akhenaten’s reign sun worship was lifted from the suffocating cloak of accumulated ritual, spells, oracles and all the awesome journeys through monster- infested subterranean channels of the underworld. It was worship of the sun disc in the open, calling on the Aten as the creator and preserver of mankind.

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