Tell el Amarna, Capital of the Disk: The Cult of the Disk

For a very long period of time, the worship of the Aten (also spelled Aton) was held to be a heretical doctrine invented by Akhenaten, source of such upheavals that religious tradition in Egypt never fully recovered. A few comments on certain aspects of the problem will suffice to set the picture straight.

Dynasty XVIII Nefertiti making an offering to the Aten - Low relief from the antechamber - Tell el Amarna, civilian necropolis, the tomb of Mahu

In the first place, Akhenaten did not invent the Aten. His name appears as early as in the Old Empire Pyramid Texts, where it is listed under the Litanies as one of the avatars of Re, manifested in the form of a Disk. Moreover, it is a fact that worship of the Disk took root in Thebes well before Akhenaten's arrival on the scene. It seems that Tuthmosis IV already embraced this old Heliopolitan doctrine with great fervor. Although one cannot go so far as to say he abandoned the official cult of Amon (also spelled Amun), it is interesting to note that he was one of the first pharoahs of the New Empire to recognize the authority of Re, thus linking up with an already millenary theological system. By having the famous "Dream Stela" carved between the paws of the Giza Sphinx, he asserted that he owed his throne to Re-Harakhty, Re of the Two Horizons: "I shall give you," the god says, "royalty on earth at the head of the living, you will wear the White Crown and the Red Crown." Thus, at a time when orthodoxy still held a firm grip, Amon was deprived of his basic right of deciding for himself who was worthy of manifesting him on earth, who was his son the sovereign. After Thutmose IV, Amenophis III went even a step further, as testified by a block found in the foundations of the tenth pylon at Karnak. Here the king is shown in the company of the same Re-Harakhty, designated as the "Jubilant in the Horizon in his name of Shu which is the Aten."

Why, one wonders, did this return to the doctrines of Heliopolis occur. Most certainly it was an attempt by the kings to escape the Amon clergy, whose members were becoming more insolent by the day and were gradually taking over everything. But beyond this, it was above all out of a need for authenticity, as experienced in the learned circles of the capital towards the end of Dynasty 18. Under the influence of Amenophis-son-of-Hapu (who, in turn, belonged to the Heliopolitan colleges), the ancient writings were re-studied, the old rituals re-honored. We know, for instance, that the celebration of Amenophis III's first jubilee instigated an enormous compilation one month prior to the event, in order to ensure that everything would take place in the right tone. There is much reason to believe that all the painstaking research involved allowed theologians to rediscover the pure source of early sun worship, long since eclipsed by the cult of Amon. This could only lead to the reassertion of the primordial deities Re-Harakhty and the Aten.

If in effect, then, Akhenaten did not invent the Aten, but merely adopted the ideas of his forefathers, where does the heresy lie? It lies with the fact that he claimed it as absolute, devoting himself exclusively to celebrating the Aten and proclaiming himself prophet thereof by adopting the epithet ur mau, from Chief Prophet, as borne traditionally by the highest pontiffs of Heliopolis. As master of the rituals, he asserted himself as the living aspect of the Aten, identifying with that god to the point of having himself represented, in the upper part of the civil stelae, as the unique vehicle of popular piety. Nefertiti and the royal daughters were subsequently linked to this myth: the familiar scenes uniting the king, the queen and the princesses in the intimacy of their apartments are not in the least anecdotal: their figuration was intended as a reminder that, beyond his basic unity, the Aten is at once father, mother and child - that is, the principal creator and creature.

Hand of Akhenaten making an offering to the Aten - Sandstone - H 0.235 - From Ashmunein - New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

As a child of the Aten, Akhenaten assumed the prerogatives which, until that time, had been reserved to the prohets and grand priests. And, truly a first in Egyptian history, he even claimed to guide his people along the way to revelation. Many a courtier from Tell el Amarna had the stelae at the entrance to their tombs carved with the boast of "having been taught the doctrine by the King himself" or "having listened to the doctrine day by day from the lips of the King himself."

Divested of their basic powers, the traditional clergy openly challenged the King, transforming what might have been but a positive cleansing of the dogma into a fierce battle for prestige between partisans of the Heliopolitan tradition and the upholders of Theban orthodox doctrine. The struggle gradually grew into a conflict between Re in his aspect of the Aten and Amon, and, finally, between the King and the priests. It was at this point that matters became dramatic, since Akhenaten, forced into a defensive position by the events, had to adopt a policy that was certainly more intransigent than he would have desired: in his fourth regnal year, he changed his name from Amenophis, Satisfaction of the Aten, to Akhenaten, Acting Spirit (that is, incarnation) of the Aten. Less than two years later, he left Thebes to found, "at a site belonging to no god or goddess, to no sovereign, to which no one had any rights," a new capital, a new epicenter of his authority, Akhetaten, Horizon of the Aten.

Aak -en-Aten

The period during which the King set up his court at Tell el Amarna coincided with extremely serious troubles in Thebes: the holy city's temples were shut down, its priests banned from office. All images of Amon were desecrated, and his name and epithets hammered out; his wife Mut was subject to the same fate. Indeed, fanatics beyond all limits, the partisans went so far as to break into the necropolises to erase, at the very bottom of the tombs, all mention of that contemptible god. Still others heaved themselves up to the top of the obelisks to attack the sun symbols. Evidence was even found of a scribe who had gathered together all the archival documents under his responsibility in order to wrathfully cross off all the words in any way analogous to the names Amon and Mut; not even the word mut, mother, was spared! Akhenaton could do nothing to avoid having his own father Amenophis's cartouches defiled.
The cult of the Aten was hardly the love doctrine it purported to be!