Hymn to Aten
In Ancient Egypt the king Akhenaten completely altered the lifestyles of all his subjects by demanding that they give their singular devotion to the sun god Aten. Before him, Egyptians had a different system of beliefs with many gods whereas Atenism held that Aten was the central god. Egypt had been a polytheistic society wherein each god had a specified set of abilities and limitations to their powers. Each person chose a god to whom they would dedicate themselves and to which they would give most of their devotion. The god was the choice of the individual, a choice which was no longer available when the pantheon of gods deteriorated to a single all-powerful deity. All Egyptian peoples were forced to embrace the new religion and with it forgo the traditions and customs of their ancestors. The changing religion was only one of the aspects of the Egypt under Akhenaten’s reign which included political, sociological, and economical alterations in the daily life of Egyptian citizens who were living in Africa during the period of Atenism.
Akhenaten ruled Egypt for a period of seventeen years. During that time he established the new religion and with it imposed a myriad of new rules, both legal and religious which would alter the society as a whole. It is not yet understood exactly why Akhenaten decided upon a new religion for Egypt, but what has been found is that he intended the religion to permeate all aspects of society. Artwork that dates back to the time of Akhenaten’s rule shows him closely aligned with the god Aten. He is chosen as leader by that deity and representations frequently depict this relationship. This is one of the earliest incidents of what would become known as Divine Right, the belief that the power invested in a human being was one granted to them by god and that it was therefore not only political betrayal to harm the king, but also heresy. To question the king was to question the gods, or god in this instance. One of the reforms was to politically isolate Egypt from other nations. Whereas before, Egypt has been willing to interact internationally and provide aid and comfort to outside nations, Akhenaten was more interested in insular support of the country itself. In addition, Akhenaten was not heavily interested in the activities of his subordinates such as diplomats and military officers and allowed them to amass power and support of their own which, in turn, allowed opposition to build up to Akhenaten’s rule. In addition, Akhenaten had the capital of Egypt moved to a site in the middle of the country which he named Akhetaten. This act was but another step in the complete alteration of Egypt’s culture from what it had been before Akhenaten took power. Not only was the religion changed, but so too was the center of their country, a physical manifestation of Akhenaten’s cultural revolution.
Aten is a strong god who Akhenaten empowered with abilities of an even greater strength, allowing him to transcend his original position and become the single deity of a new monotheistic Egyptian culture. He became a universal deity because of his exaggerated powers. Instead of a faith-based religion, Akhenaten intended Aten to be experienced by everyone in Egypt as though he were a physical being. Whereas the belief in gods of old was based upon faith and an intangible otherness which could not by physically touched, Aten was to be believed as proven to exist as much as the king himself existed. The emphasis on Aten’s belief was based on three criterions: visibility, tangibility, and being so real as to be an undeniable aspect of life. Besides his powers over the sun which were Aten’s before the rule of Akhenaten, the god was also given the power of creation over all living things. It was believed that Aten created human beings, animals, plants, and anything which had life in it.
The poem “The Great Hymn to the Aten” is a document which shows the extent to which the god Aten was important to Egyptian society under Akhenaten. Through the poetry, the reader can understand a bit more tangibly how life changed when this monotheism was introduced. In the poem, Aten is granted every conceivable power. Instead of being a god concerned with a unique set of duties as is the case in polytheistic religions, he is allowed a large range of abilities from the very creation of life and human existence to the ability to give life and to cause death as well. The poet writes that Aten “settest every man in his place” (line 9). Each person in the world, whether he be a king or the lowest of peasants, is placed in that position by the supreme deity Aten. This allows the king to also reinforce his own placement in the society. If there is indeed only one god and that Akhenaten holds the throne because of the will of that one god, then to depose him would be unthinkable folly and would bring about the wrath of Aten to the conspirator.
“The Great Hymn to the Aten” is a poem which alludes to the complete revolution of religion, politics, and society which occurred when Akenhaten took the throne of Egypt. Not only did Akenhaten want to change Egypt from a polytheistic society to a monotheistic one which would worship the sun god Aten instead of any other gods, Akenhaten also wanted to completely change Egypt. He moved the capital and established Egypt as a singular country without international ties, breaking alliances and leaving allied nations to fend for themselves in their various wars. Akenhaten wanted to establish himself as the human embodiment of the one god and establish a close relationship between king and deity, intending that his leadership would not be questioned by anyone while at the same time neglecting the fact that he was empowering his political enemies within the country. So drastic were his changes to the country and in such a short period of time that he alienated a great number of Egyptians. His beliefs were unpopular to the degree that Akenhaten’s successors returned to the traditional belief systems of their ancestors and did their utmost to bury the residual elements of Akenhaten’s rule.
“The Great Hymn to the Aten.” The Western Humanities Vol. 1. Ed. Roy Matthews & DeWitt
Platt. McGraw Hill, 2010. Print.
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