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Early Egyptian Religious Beliefs and Akhenatens Reforms

During the New Kingdom of Egypt (from 1552 through 1069 B. C. ), there came a sweeping change in the religious structure of the ancient Egyptian civilization. “The Hymn to the Aten” was created by Amenhotep IV, who ruled from 1369 to 1353 B. C. , and began a move toward a monotheist culture instead of the polytheist religion which Egypt had experienced for the many hundreds of years prior to the introduction of this new idea.

There was much that was different from the old views in “The Hymn to the Aten”, and it offered a new outlook on the Egyptian ways of life by providing a complete break with the traditions which Egypt held to with great respect. Yet at the same time, there were many commonalties between these new ideas and the old views of the Egyptian world. Although through the duration of his reign, Amenhotep IV introduced a great many changes to the Egyptian religion along with “The Hymn”, none of these reforms outlived their creator, mostly due to the massive forces placed on his successor, Tutankhamen, to renounce these new reforms.

However, the significance of Amenhotep IV, or Akhenaten as he later changed his name to, is found in “The Hymn”. “The Hymn” itself can be looked at as a contradiction of ideas; it must be looked at in relation to both the Old Kingdom’s belief of steadfast and static values, as well as in regards to the changes of the Middle Kingdom, which saw unprecedented expansionistic and individualistic oriented reforms. In this paper I plan to discuss the evolvement of Egyptian Religious Beliefs throughout the Old,

Middle, and New Kingdoms and analyze why Amenhotep IV may have brought about such religious reforms. The Old Kingdom of Egypt (from 2700 to 2200 B. C. ), saw the commencement of many of the rigid, formal beliefs of the Egyptian civilization, both in regards to their religious and political beliefs, as they were very closely intertwined. “… There was a determined attempt to impose order on the multitude of gods and religious beliefs that had existed since predynastic times… and the sun-god Re became the supreme royal god, with the king taking the title of Son of Re” (David 155).

The Egyptians overall believed that nature was an incorruptible entity and that to reach a state of human perfection in the afterlife, they too would have to change from their corruptible human shells to mimic the incorruptibility of nature. Upper and Lower Egypt were united for the first time under one ruler, however, this would come to an end around 2200 B. C.. In much of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Pharaoh was often depicted as almost larger than life, with great power and much of Egyptian art is a celebration of his accomplishments.

The formation of a royal absolutism occurred during this period, with the Pharaoh and a small-centralized administration, composed mainly of royal kin and relatives, overseeing all aspects of Egyptian life. The Pharaoh was looked at as a living god among the Egyptian people, who assured the success of Egypt as well as its peace. “The Pharaoh belonged both to the world of the gods and the world of men, and he was seen as a bridge between them. Some of the local deities represented various aspects of nature, such as the earth and the sky, or the Nile and it’s gifts of fertility.

So the king, living in their midst, could bring the Egyptians into a harmonious relationship with their divinities and with the forces of nature upon which their whole existence depended” (Hawkes 43). In regard to the religious structure of the Old Kingdom, there was a polytheistic view of the world, as in Mesopotamia. However, unlike the Mesopotamian religion, the Egyptians worked for their kings as opposed to working for their gods. The complex concept of the afterlife was also developed during this period.

The Great Pharaohs of the Old Kingdom built great pyramids to forever protect their remains after death. It was believed that the king (solely) could “spend eternity traveling with the gods… However, in order to obtain eternal sustenance, it was also essential that the king could return to earth at will; here, through his preserved body, his spirit imbibes the essence of food and drink offerings, which were continually brought to his burial complex” (David 126).

These political and religious views were believed to be sacred and intended to be adhered to without change, following the Egyptian’s view of nature as an unchanging constant, and a static phenomenon. After the collapse of the Old Kingdom, there came the First Intermediate Period during which the United Egypt separated. It became a time of turmoil and disaster. The Pharoah was over thrown and society simply collapsed resulting in anarchy throughout Egypt. Famine and disease were widespread and the rich were equal to the poor.

Since the Kingship was discredited, individuals now demanded their own eternity. Tombs were equipped in provincial districts for the local rulers, but gradually, democratization of beliefs came to affect all levels of society, and even the poorest classes hoped to achieve individual immortality (David 132). Order was eventually restored and Egypt entered into a great period of prosperity. This was the Middle Kingdom. Though Egypt was separated, both Upper and Lower Egypt still had a shared religion, just different views as to whom the heroes and villains were in their mythology.

The Middle Kingdom, which occurred between 2040 and 1674 B. C. , saw the re-emergence of a united Egypt. The Pharaohs of this period were once again the center of the kingdom, and the military might of Egypt was far greater than it been in previous centuries. However, the Pharaoh was not as great a political power as he had been in the Old Kingdom, as the nobles had begun to gain a sense of greater independence from the Pharaoh, in respect to the idea that they needed him to assure themselves a place in the afterlife.

They believed that they could obtain eternity themselves by using symbols of the monarchy from the Old Kingdom as well as magical spells, which they collected from the Pyramid Texts. The nobles had their own large tombs, but they “were no longer constructed near the King’s pyramid but were scattered more independently across the necropolis, and the high quality of the wall-decoration in these tombs indicated their owner’s importance” (David 129). The political structure of the Middle Kingdom was also changing from that of the Old Kingdom.

In the past, the government was run by only the immediate family of the Pharaoh, in the Middle Kingdom however, “he began to marry into the wealthy but non-royal nobility, destroying the fictional divinity of the royal line” (David 131). Around 1674 B. C. , the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt separated once again. This Second Intermediate Period saw the Hyksos, Semitic invaders from Palestine, come and overtake the Egyptian ruling class. These peoples were expelled from Egypt around 1553 B. C. , which gave rise to the New Kingdom of Egypt.

The capital was moved to Thebes and “these rulers attributed their ascendancy over the Hyksos to the powerful support of their local god; Amun. … The kings eventually associated him with the old northern sun-god Re, creating the all new powerful deity Amen-Re” (David 147). Also at this time, there began a new imperialistic movement within the Egyptian culture, and we see several crusades into Asia and the Mid-East during this time frame. Egypt ruled in Asia for about a century or so, but lost it due to the lack of interest on the part of the royal court in the contents of its Asian subjects.

Though for the most part, the Egyptian religion remained as it had in the previous kingdoms during the first part of the New Kingdom. Amenhotep IV, or Akhenaten as he later changed his name to, brought about many religious reforms. Amenhotep IV began a series of reforms to ensure the Pharaoh’s status as a living god among the people, as opposed to a simple agent of the sun-god Amen-Re, as the priests of the royal court were beginning to assert a more powerful and independent role.

Assisted by the royal family, Amenhotep IV commenced on a series of religious reforms, which would help him regain the power lost to the priests. He worshiped Aten, the radiant god of the sun disk. Why this particular god Aten was chosen may never be known, But Amenhotep IV apparently so inspired by his faith that he wrote The Hymn to the Aten in his praise. At first he tolerated worship of other gods along with Aten, but eventually he chiseled out the name of Amen-Re from anything which beared the name, and closed the temples of the other gods.

The Pharaoh and his family were to worship Aten, while the remainder of the populace was to worship the Pharaoh. Amenhotep then moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes, which was primarily centered on Amen-Re, to a new location called Akhenaten, now modern day Armana, to further separate from previous beliefs. Amenhotep IV also changed his name to Akhenaten, which translates to “It pleases Aten”. Akhenaten also replaced his advisors with new men, instead of the Amen serving priests. These changes showed a move toward a more monotheist view of the Egyptian world, a view that had never been observed before.

Although each period and line of kings favored a supreme state-god, there had always been toleration of the multitude of deities in Egypt’s pantheon” (David 155). This new religion saw the worship of Aten as the principal hero in Egyptian religion, with gods like Amon as enemies. These reforms however, would be short-lived, and the only enduring sign of this Pharaoh’s significance is in the Hymns, which were written to the “new” god Aten. In The Hymn, Aten is proclaimed to be the sole god, and responsible for all of creation. O unique god, who has no second to him!

You have created the earth according to your desire, while you were alone, With men, cattle, and wild beasts, all that is upon earth and goes upon feet, and all that soars above and flies with its wings (Akhenaten lines 60-65). The Hymn also proclaims the pharaoh as the gods sole representative on earth, and virtually interchangeable with one another. When you rise you make all to flourish for the King, you who made up the foundations of the earth. You who rise them up for your son, he who came forth from your body, … (Akhenaten lines 122-125). The writing is very beautiful and was inscribed on walls in various tombs.

Though much of what Akhenaten was proposing was a drastic change from the traditional beliefs of Egyptian religion, there were some aspects of these reforms shown in “The Hymn to the Aten” that were not that far a cry from much of what was taught and believed in the past. As with the gods of the past, Aten was visible, as in that he could be presented in a painting to the people who worshipped him. This new god, Aten, was allowed to be pictured in the elaborate murals on tomb walls and so on, much the same as the old gods of the prior religion were.

Aten was also the embodiment of the sun, as Amon-Re was in the old religion, and was worshipped much the same as Amon-Re was prior to Akhenaten’s condemnation of him. Aten was also seen as The Creator of all that was Existing, which also held to the traditional belief that the sun god was the chief creator of the universe. It was also believed in this new religion as in the old one, that the Pharaoh was the next of kin to the sun god, even though the sun god had changed from Re to Aten. It was also believed that the sun god was raised above the other gods, while being able to have his presence encompass everything.

None of these ideas were new to the Egyptian people, as they were exhibited in the old religion; however there was much in this new theology that was extremely different from the traditions of the old. “The Hymn to the Aten” introduced a great many new concepts to the religion of the Egyptian people. The nature of Aten as the creator is different from previous religious beliefs. Aten was said to have created the world out of his own will to do so, not out of necessity. Also, we see Aten being distinguished from nature, as well as seeing that nature is not a separate being in the theological order of things.

Nature is now believed to be ordered under Aten, with no separate, sovereign being of its own. The Nile is no longer believed to be the embodiment of a god, but a creation of the god, Aten. These two views are the result of the shift toward the monotheist belief that Aten is the sole god in the cosmos, worshipped by the Pharaoh and his family, who are in turn worshipped by the Egyptian people. Aten is now seen as a universal god, who is worshipped by everyone on earth, just in forms and fashions differing from those of the Egyptians; not as a god who was specific to the Egyptian people.

Though this hymn offers much that is vastly different from the old beliefs in Egyptian culture, it is also an effort to revitalize the old beliefs. “The Hymn” is intending to bring the Pharaoh back into the center of Egyptian religion, politics and culture. It is an attempt to revive and reestablish the unquestionable divinity of the Pharaoh. However, it is going about it by completely severing ties with the old traditions of Egyptian religion. “The Aten had no moral philosophy or attractive mythology which could inspire the general worshipper” (David 157).

The Hymn” also creates a paradoxical relationship between the two theological views as expressed in Egyptian culture. On one hand, there is the new tendency toward a monotheistic religion, with Aten as the sole god, and no other gods governing nature, etc. On the other hand, there are the old views on religion being expressed; the Pharaoh was worshipped by the people of Egypt as a god, and he in turn is worshipping the god Aten; thus, there is more than one god. These new religious views also appeared to help influence a major break in the traditional art of the time.

Rather than producing idealized portraits as had been done for hundreds of years prior, Akhenaten encouraged artists to represent him in informal situations – basking in Atens benevolent rays. With his blessing, the artists portrayed Akhenaten not as a conqueror, riding in a war chariot and trampling his enemies, but as a family man, relaxing with Nefertiti, his queen, and his daughters. “The Hymn to the Aten”, though it offered new ideas on Egyptian religion, was an attempt by a ruler who enjoyed the idea of a divine title to regain what his predecessors had.

The religious reforms brought about by Akhenaten were intended to restore the position of the Pharaoh to the level of absolute rule which had once been held due to belief that the Pharaoh was the personification of the gods. This however was not to be, as the priests which Akhenaten had fought against in his attempt to redefine the Pharaoh’s divinity would take advantage of the weakness of Akhenaten’s successor, Tutankhamen. “Tutankhamen’s immaturity enabled the courtiers and officials to direct political and religious events…

The court moved back to Thebes, and the royal couple changed their names to Tutankhamen, demonstrating their renewed allegiance to Amen-Re. The king restored the old temples of the many gods, and reinstated the priesthoods” (David 158). The reforms, which Akhenaten brought to return the power once held by the Pharaoh in the Old Kingdom, were unable to be understood. The people who Akhenaten had to ensure comprehension of his reasoning did not, for they no longer were connected to the old order which he was trying to reestablish.

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