Tuesday, July 17, 2012


One of the common themes for discussion of Akhenaten is the worship of Aten. I am going to approach this topic as a question and answer style. I think this way it will be a little easier to address all of the aspects of this topic without tangents or confusion.

Who or what is Aten?
Aten is the disk or the visible portion of the sun (Ra/Re/Amun/etc). You could say Aten is the light of the sun which is why Aten is often depicted as rays instead of with the usual Egyptian human or human/animal style. Though there are times in Egyptian history that Aten was shown as a falcon. Aten is the portion of the sun that was believed to bring life, give health and healing. Some Egyptian mythology, prior to Akhenaten, states that life could not go on without the shining part of Ra, which is Aten.

When did Aten worship begin?
Though the worship of Aten is likely from much earlier in Egyptian history one of the first large scale references to Aten is from the 12th dynasty Story of Sinuhe. (Akhenaten was in the 18th dynasty). After the 12th dynasty the worship of Aten increased until during the reign of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten's father, Aten became one of the chief deities.

What is the Silver Aten?
The Silver Aten is another name for the moon used in a few hymns and writings.

Is Atenism monotheism?
The short answer... No. There are several competing ideas about what Atenism is or was in the time of Akhenaten and to the pharaoh himself. One point is that in many of the hymns to Aten other deities such as Ra, Ra-Horakhty, Shu and others are mentioned. Though Amun was shunned other deities are merged with or mentioned with Aten in hymns. This suggests that there were other recognized deities. It is quite common in Egyptian history for various forms of the same deity or merged versions of deities to appear in mythology. One idea is that Aten is no different that this and represents a merger of Ra and/or Horus with Aten. Another view is that Akhenaten practiced monolatry, that is he recognized that there were many gods, did not deny their existence but chose to elevate one above all others. Given that he was the pharaoh and therefore head of the religion as well as the state it seems likely that his personal religious choices could have huge effects on Egyptian religion. There are many other theories about what Atenism really is. In some modern forms it is practiced as a monotheistic religion.

Is there a link between Judaism and Atenism?
It is hard to say whether or whether not Atenism had any influence on Judaism. As there had been several rounds of conquering and trade between Egypt and the Middle East there was likely some exchange of religious ideas. One such idea points to the fact that Aten and God (Judeo-Christian God) are one in the same because of how Akhenaten recorded the deity speaking to him and asking things of the pharaoh such as building a new city. This is likely not the case since this is not the first or last writing of Egyptian gods asking pharaohs to build things. Thutmosis IV, a couple kings before Akhenaten, was asked by the Sphinx to unbury it. Other pharaohs also reference building monuments for similar requests from deities. Some suggest that Moses might have been a priest under the rule of Akhenaten. There isn't much proof for any of this as of now. It is an interesting idea but I would like to see more proof in the form of writings from the time period or just after or some other link beyond speculation before I can say anything on this for certain.

Akhenaten: The Heretic King by Donald Redford
The Amarna Letters from Tyre as a Source for Understanding Atenism and Imperial Administration by Luis Siddall
A Program of Political Theology in Armarna Tomb Art: Imagery as Metaphor by Elizabeth Meyers
UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology: Amarna Art by Dimitri Laboury


  1. As an Atenist,at first the aten was worshiped as one of many gods,in the time of Aken Aten however,Amenhotep the fourth started as a polytheist(as much as we know),then raised the Aten as chief god,then progressed to monotheism,so one must judge the first worship of only one god in light of this natural progression.
    Secondly,there is no proof that Moses was an atonist priest,true,but then there is no proof that Moses actually even existed,so one has to speculate on dates,likelihoods and circumstantial evidence.I think with the nearest dates of Moses being just after the worship of one true god,aten and the removal of idols to be replaced by symbols ending in allowance of only the name of aten,the striking similarities with the famous psalm 104 with the atenist prayer,one can only come to a strong conclusion that Moses was indeed influenced by atenism in the creation of the Jewish religion.
    Also please remember that in the monotheistic religions of say Christianity,god the creator and sustain-er of life is also worshiped with Jesus,the virgin Mary and the saints and yet it is still ultimately a monotheistic religion.

    1. There is much in the Amarna texts and those just prior to Akhenaten's rule that talk about the beginnings of Monotheistic practices in the court. Because the pharaoh is the chief priest of the state and head of the "main religion" in the cultural context most texts refer to the state religion as being monotheistic and do not place the same limitations on the individuals of the society. There are many precedents in Egyptian texts for many people worshiping in ways other than that of the state religion. However, through much of Egyptian history the Pharaonic Law required all persons to take part in the main religious ceremonies of the state's chief deity. During the time of Akhenaten this would be participation in his monotheistic styled Aten worship. At any time in Egyptian history it is important to distinguish between personal worship of the citizens and the state/formal worship. Often they were different. You are correct that, as I also talked about, Aten was originally one of many gods, an aspect of Ra. Some texts seem to suggest that the ideas of Aten and Ra diverged when Aten was still seen as a healing and gentle god/aspect/being and Ra was taken to be a more war-like god as some of the pharaohs began military campaigns. In any event it is a very interesting topic to think about. I understand you are coming from the view of a practitioner and I am going on the archeological details which do not always come to perfect agreement. I also follow Aten but in the more ancient form where Aten is an aspect of Ra and Benu (i.e. their shining parts).

      I do agree that their is not proof for a correlation between Moses and him being an Aten priest. My point was that with all the back and forth conquering between Egypt and the Middle East all during Egyptian history that it is quite possible that beliefs flowed between the two cultures. I am certain that during the centuries of Egyptian and Middle Eastern history that the repeated conquering mixed beliefs in some areas. (After all this did happen with Roman and Egyptian religious practices later on.)

      Henotheism is also appropriate to mention here. It is basically a monotheist who thinks.. well maybe their are other gods but I don't believe they exist really or follow them. Many scholars also use this term for Akhenaten's personal religious beliefs and those beliefs he partially imposed on the state.

      I however do not agree on the idea of one psalm indicating that Atenism directly influenced the creation of Judaism. Part of this is due to the disconnect in the research about who wrote them. Most of the psalms are attributed to Moses, David and Solomon, however, there are a number of psalms that reference things that existed or took place after these figures would have died... such as a temple in Jerusalem and references to things believed to deal with the exile to Babylon. Another concern with this interpretation is dates. Akhenaten was ruling in mid/late 1300s BC and the psalm in question (according to church references and biblical scholars) doesn't seem to have been written until 1100 BC or even as late as 900 BC. This puts a vast distance of time between monotheistic Atenism and the writing of psalm 104.

      Jesus, Mary and the Saints are not gods. Monotheism means one god. You can have prophets, heroes, holy men/women and so on and still be monotheistic if you only have one Deity. Worship of lesser beings such as angels, prophets or holy persons does not define whether something is monotheistic or not as they are not deities.