The Tale of Sinuhe, Great Hymn to the Aten
Creator of all living things
Aten (pronounced AHT-n), or Aton, was an ancient Egyptian god who was worshipped during the reign of the pharaoh, or Egyptian king, Akhenaten in the Eighteenth Dynasty or 1350s to 1330s bce. Unlike earlier pharaohs who had worshipped many gods, Akhenaten claimed that Aten was the one supreme god. This may have been the earliest example of monotheism, or the belief in a single god as opposed to many gods, in the ancient Near East.
Aten was the sun disk, once an aspect of Ra, a much older Egyptian deity. Aten is described as the giver of all life, and as both male and female. Much of what is known about Aten worship comes from the Great Hymn to the Aten, a joyful poem inscribed on the walls of ancient tombs at Amarna, which is located on the east bank of the Nile River in Egypt. The hymn, whose authorship is attributed to Pharaoh Akhenaten himself, describes Aten as the only supreme being and creator. It says that Akhenaten and his wife, Queen Nefertiti, are the only people capable of understanding the god and expressing his wishes. The hymn speaks of Aten as a loving god who brings order and beauty to the world.
Aten, as the sun disk, had no body, no wife, and no children. Although he was recognized as containing the elements of other gods such as Ra and Horus (pronounced HOHR-uhs), he was not the direct subject of any currently known myths. This may be due to the fact that he was not popular for long; it may also reflect the efforts of later Egyptian leaders to remove all traces of the god from the Egyptian cultural record.
Aten in Context
Originally named Amenhotep (pronounced ah-men-HO-tep), Pharaoh Akhenaten changed his name to mean “right hand of Aten.” Akhenaten was determined to promote Aten as the only supreme god and not to honor other gods. To this end, he tried to get rid of images of other gods and to reduce the power of the priests who led the worship of other gods. He built temples to Aten and established a new capital city, called Akhetaten, or Horizon of Aten. Today that city is known as Amarna.
The worship of Aten as the sole supreme being lasted only for the years of Akhenaten's reign. The Egyptian people could not accept the idea of one supreme god and returned to their old belief in many gods after Akhenaten died in about 1336 bce. They destroyed the temples to Aten, and the once supreme being became a minor god among all the other gods. The rise and fall of Aten is an example of how the pharaohs controlled public practice through their powers; Akhenaten promoted his particular favored god in an effort to rally the masses to demonstrate his power, while pharaohs that followed virtually eliminated Aten as a form of protest against the previous pharaoh's rule.
Key Themes and Symbols
Aten was depicted as a disk representing the sun. Rays of light ending in hands extended from the disk and reached down to the king, his family, and the natural world. Unlike other Egyptian gods, Aten was never pictured in human form.
Aten in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Although Aten was the most popular god during the reign of Akhenaten, his popularity all but disappeared after the pharaoh died. The Pharaoh Tutankhamun, who assumed control after Akhenaten's death, abandoned the city built in Aten's honor and returned to worshipping gods that were popular before Akhenaten's reign. Many monuments and much of the art that honored Aten were destroyed, defaced, or recycled over the centuries. In modern times, the Great Hymn to the Aten was used as lyrics for a song in the 1984 opera Akhnaten by Philip Glass.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
In many cultures, the sun is associated with the supreme god or creator. Why do you think the sun is recognized as such an important symbol in cultures around the world?