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Egypt: Gods - The Great Aten, Aten Worship


Aten Worship

The temple of Aten at Khut-Aten was like at Heliopolis, called Het Benben, a name which probably means "House of the Obelisk;" it was begun on a large scale, but was never finished. It contained many alters wherein incense was burnt and offerings were laid, but no sacrifices of any kind were offered up on them. The high-priest of Aten assumed the title of the high-priest of Ra ar Heliopolis, Ur-maau, and in many respects the new worship was carried on at Khut-Aten by means of many of the old forms and ceremonies of the Heliopolitain priesthood; on stated occasions the king himself officiated. The worship of Aten as understood by Amen-hetep IV was, however , a very different thing from the ancient worship of Aten, for whereas that was tolerent the new worship was not. It is clear from the reliefs which have been found in the city of Khut-Aten that Aten was regared as the giver of life, and the source of all life on this earth, and that his symbols were the heat and light of the sun which vivified and nourished all creation. Aten was also the one physical body of the Sun, and the creed of Aten ascribed to the god a monotheistic character or oneness, of which it denied the existance in any other god. This being so, the new religion could either absorb or be absorbed by the other gods of Egypt, because he had nothing in common with them. Attempts have been made to prove that the Aten worship resembled that of the monotheistec worship of the Hebrews, and to show that Aten is only another form of the name Adon, i.e., the Phoenician god whom the Greeks knew as Aowvis ; but as far as can be seen now the worship of Aten was something like a glorified materialism, which had to be expounded by priests, who performed ceremonies similar to those which belonged to the old Heliopolitan sun-worship, without any connection whatsoever with the relationship of Yahweh, and a being of the character of Adon, the local god of Byblos, had no place in it anywhere. In so far as it rejected all other gods, the Aten religion was monotheistic, but to judge by the texts which describe the power and works of Aten, it contained no doctrines on the unity or oneness of Aten similiar to those which are found in the hymns to Ra, and none of the beautiful ideas about the future life, with which we are familiar from the hymns and other compositions in the Book of the Dead.


The chief source of our knowledge of the attributes ascribed to Aten is obtained from the hymns to this god which Amen-hetep IV caused to be inscribed on his monuments, and from one of them which has twice been published in recent years we obtain the following extracts. The hymn is prefaced by these words :

1. A hymn of praise to Heru-khuti Harmachis, who springeth up joyfully in the horizon in his name of 'Shu who is in the Disk,' and who liveth for ever and for ever, Aten the Living One, the Great One, he who is {celebrated in the thirty year festival, the lord of the orbit of the sun, the lord of the sun, the lord of the heaven, the lord of the earth, the lord of the House of Aten in the city of Khut-Aten, 2. by the king of the South and of the North, who liveth by Maat, the Lord of the Two Lands, {Nefer-kheperu-Ra-ua-en-Ra, the son of the Sun, who liveth by Maat, the lord of crowns, {Khu-en-Aten, who is great in the duration of his life, 3. and by his great royal wife, his darling, the Lady of the Two Lands, {Nefert-iti-Nefer-neferu-Aten, the living one , the strong one for ever. The hymn proper begins with the words, He {i.e.,, the kingsaith, 4. Thy rising is beautiful in the horizon of heaven, 5. O thou Aten, who hadst thine existence in primevel time. 6. When thou risest in the eastern horizon thou fillest every land with thy beauties, 7. thou art beautiful to see, and great, and like crystal, and art high above the earth. 8. Thy beams of light embrace the lands, even every land which thou hast made. 9. Thou art as Ra, and thou bringest {thyself unto each of them, 10. and thou bindest them with thy love. 11. Thou art remote, but thy beams are upon the earth. 12. When thou settest in the western horizon the earth is in darkness, and is like a being that is dead. 14. They lie down and sleep in their habitations, 15. their heads are covered up, and their nostrils are stopped, and no man can see his neighbour, 16. and all gods and possessions may be carried away from under their heads without their knowing it. 17. Every lion cometh forth from his den, 18. and serpents of every kind bite ; 19. the night becometh blacker and blacker, 20. and thee art his solent because he who hath made them hath sunk to rest in his horixon. 21. When thou riseth in the horizon the earth lightens, and when thy beams shine forth it is day. 22. Darkness taketh to flight as soon as thy light bursteth out, and the Two Lands keep festival daily. 23. Then {men wake up and stand upon their feet because thou hast raised them up, 24. they wash themselves, and they array themselves in their apparel, 25. and they lift up to thee their hands with hymns of praise because thou hast risen. 26. {Over all the earth they perform their work. 27. All beasts and cattle repose in their pastures, 28. and the trees and the green herb put forth their leaves and flowers. 29. The birds fly out of their nests, and their wings praise thy Ka as they fly forth. 30.The sheep and goats of every kind skip about on their legs, 31. and feathered fowl and the birds of the air also love {because thou hast risen for them. 32. The boats float down and sail up the river likewise, 33. for thy path is opened when thou risest. 34. The fish in the stream leap towards thy face, 35. and thy beams shine through the waters of the great sea. 36. Thou makest male seed to enter into women, and thou causest the liquid seed to become a human being. 37. Thou makest the man child to live in the body of his mother. 38. Thou makest him to keep silent so that he cry not, 39. and thou art a nurse to him in the womb. 40. Thou givest breath that it may vivify every part of his being. 41. When he goeth forth from the belly, on the day wherein he is born, 42. thou openest his mouth that he may speak, 43. and thou providest him whatsoever is necessary. 44. When the chick is in the egg, and is making a sound within the shell, 45. thou givest it air inside it so that it may keep alive. 46. Thou bringest it to perfection so that it may split the eggshell, 47. and it cometh forth from the egg to proclaim that it is a perfect chick, 48. and as soon as it hath come forth there from it runneth about on its feet. 49. How many are the things which thou hast created! 50. There were.............. in the face of the One God, and his ........... had rest. 51. Thou didst create the earth at thy will when thou didst exist by thyself, 52. and men and women, and beast and cattle, and flocks of animals of every kind, 53. and every thing which is upon earth and which goeth about on its feet, 54. and everything which is in the air above and which flieth about with wings, 55. and the land of Syria and Nubia, and Egypt. 56. Thou settest every man in his place, 57. and thou makest for them whatsoever they need. 58. Thou providest for every man that which he should have in the storehouse, and thou computest the measure of his life. 59. They speak in tongues which are different {from each other, 60. and their dispitions {or characteristics are according to their skins. 61. Thou who canst discern hast made the difference between the dwellers in the desert to be discerned. 62. Thou hast made {i.e., the Nile in the Tuat, 63 and thou bringest him according to thy will to make rational beings to live, 64. inasmuch as thou hast made them for thyself, 65. O thou who art the lord of all of them, and who dost remain with them. 66. Thou art the lord of every {? land , and thou shinest upon them, 67. thou art Aten of the day, and art revered in every foreign land {?, 68. and thou makest their lives. 69. Thou makest Hapi in heaven to come down on them, 70. and he maketh his rushing waters to flow over the hills like the great green sea. 71. and they spread themselves abroad and water the fields of the people in their villages. 72. Thy plans {or, counsels are doubly beneficent. 73. Thou art the Lord of eternity, and thou thyself art the Nile in heaven, and all foreign peoples an all the beasts on all the hills 74. go about on their feet {through thee. 75. Hapi {i.e.,, the Nile cometh from the Tuat to Egypt, 76. and thou givest substenance to its people and to every garden, and 77. {when thou hast risen they live for thee. 78. Thou hast made the seasons of the year so that they may cause the things which thou hast made to bring forth, 79. the winter season bringeth them cold, and the summer season fiery heat. 80. Thou hast created the heavens which are far extending that thou mayest rise therein and mayest be able to look upon all which thou didst create when thou didst exist by thyself, 81. and thou dost rise in thy creations as the living Aten, 82. and thou dost rise , and dost shine, and dost depart on thy path, and dost return. 83. Thou didst create {the forms of created things in thyself when thou didst exist alone. 84. Cities, towns, villages and hamlets, roads and river{s, 85. from these every eye looketh upon thee, 86. for thou art the Aten of the day and art above the earth. 87. Thou journeyest through that which existeth in thine Eye. 88. ............................. 89. Thou art in my heart, 90. and none knoweth thee except thy son {Nefer-kheperu-Ra-ua-en-Ra, 91. and thou makest him to be wise and understanding through thy councils and through thy strength. 92. The earth is in thy hand, inasmuch as thou hast made them {i.e., those in it 93. When thou risest mankind live; and when thou settest they die. 94. As long as thou art in the sky they live in thee, 95. and the eyes are all upon thy beauties until thou settest, 96. and they set aside their work of every kind when thou settest in the west. 97. Thou risest and thou makest to grow............... for the king. 98. ................ from the time when thou didst lay the foundations of the earth, 99. and thou didst raise them up for thy son who proceeded from thy members. {Here follow two lines wherein the names and titles of the king are repeated.

The above version of the hymn to Aten will serve to illustrate the views held by the king and his followers about this god, and may be compared with the hymns to Ra, which are quoted in the section on the forms of the Sun-god, when it will be seen that many of the most important characteristics of hymns to sun-gods are wanting. There is no mention of enemies or of the fiends, Apep, Sebau, and Nak, who were overcome by Ra when he rose in the eastern horizon ; no reference is made to Khepera, or to the services which Thoth and Maat were believed to render to him daily ; and the frequent allusions to the Matet and Seket Boats in which Ra was thought to make his journey over the sky are wholly omitted. The old myths which had grown up about Ra are ignored, and the priests of Aten proclaimed with no uncertain voice the unity of their god in terms which provoked the priests of Amen to wrath. Aten had existed for ever, they said, he was beautiful, glorious, and self-existent, he had created the sun and his path, and heaven, and earth, and every living being and thing therein, and he maintained the life in man and beast, and fed all creatures according to his plans, and he determined the duartion of their life in man and beast. Everything came from Aten, and everything depended upon him ; he was moreover, everlasting. From the absence of mention of the "gods" or of the well-known great gods of Egypt it is evident that they wished to give a monotheistic character to the worship of Aten, and it was, manifestly, this characteristic of it which made the king and his god detested at Thebes ; it accounts for the fact that Amen-hetep IV felt it to necessary to build a new capitol for himself and his god, and supplies us with the reason why he did not settle in one of the ancient religious centers of his kingdom. We should expect that, as he styled humself the high-priest of Heru-khuti {i.e.,Harmachis, where this god was greatly honored, but as he did not, we are driven to conclude that there was in the worship of Aten and in the doctorines of his priests something which could neither brook nor tolerate the presence of another god, still less of other gods, and that something must have been of the nature monotheism.

Now although the hymn quoted above gives us an idea of the views held by Amen-hetep IV and his adherents concerning Aten, it is impossible to gather from it any precise information about the details of the belief or doctorine of Aten, but it is clear that in practice the religion was of a sensuous character, and eminently materialistic. Incense was burnt freely several times in the day, and the hymns sung to Aten were accompanied by the sounds of the music of harps and other instruments, and the people vied with each other in bringing gifts of fruit, and flowers, and garden produce to lay in the alters which were never drenched with the blood of animals offered up for sacrifice. The worship of Aten was of a joyous character, and the surroundings among which it was carried on were bright and cheerful. The mural decorations in the tenple were different from those of the older temples of Egypt, for they were less severe and less conventional, and they were painted in lively colors ; in fact, the artists employed by Amne-hetep IV threw off many of the old trammels of their profession, and indulged themselves in new designs, new forms, new colors, and new treatment of the subjects which they wished to represent. We may see from the remains of their wall decorations that the artists of the city of Khut-Aten made one great step in advance, that is to say, they introduced shading into their painting, and it is greatly to be regretted that it was retraced later. It was only during the reign of Amen-hetep IV that the Egyptian artist ever showed that he understood the effects of light and shade in his work. The texts and inscriptions which were placed upon the walls relate to the glory and majesty and beneficence of Aten, and everywhere are seen representations of the visible emblem of the god. Th form in which he is depicated is that of the solar disk, from which proceed rays, the ends of which terminate in hands wherein are the emblems of life, and sovereignty, in the bas-reliefs and frescoes we see these human-handed rays shining upon the king, and his queen and family, and upon the cartouches containing the names of himself and of his queen Nefert-ith. The simple interpretation of such scenes is that the sun is the source of all life and of everything which supports it upon earth, but it is probable that the so-called Aten heresy was in some way founded upon the views which the Atenites held about this method of representing their god. Be this as it may, Amen-hetep IV loved to be depicted with the human-handed rays falling upon him, and whatever his doctorines of Aten were he preached them with all the enthusiasm of an Oriental fanatic, and on special occasions he himself officated as high-priest of the cult. The wisdom of his policy is open to doubt, but there is no reason for regarding him as everything but an earnest and honest propagandist of a new creed.

Now, as the king changed his religion and his name, so he also caused his own form and figure when represented in bas-reliefs to be changed. In the earlier monuments of his reign he is depicted as possessing the typical features of his father and of others of his ancestors, but at Tell el-Amarna his physical charateristics are entirely different. Here he is potrayed with a very high, narrow, and receding forehead, a large, sharp, aquiline nose, a thin, weak mouth, an a large projecting chin, and his head is set upon a long and extremely slender neck ; his chest is rounded, his stomach inflated, his thighs are large and broad, and in many respects his figure resembles that of a women. It is impossible that such representations of the king would be permitted to appear in bas-reliefs in his city unless he approved of them, and it is clear that he did approve,and that his officials understood that he approved of this treatment of his person at the hands of sculptors and artists, for some of the high officals were themselves represented in the same manner. Still, some of the drawings of the king must be regarded as caricatures, but whether intentional or otherwise cannot be said.

For a few years Amen-hetep IV led a life of great happiness and enjoyment in his new capitol, and his whole time seems to have been passed in adorning it with handsome buildings, fine sculptures, and large gardens filled with trees and plants of every kind. He appears to have bestowed gifts with a lavish hand upon his favorites, who it must be admitted, were his officals who seconded his wishes and gave effect to them. Life at Khut-Aten was joyous, and there is no evidence that men troubled themselves with the thoughts about death or the kingdom of Osiris. If they did, they made no mention of them in their hymns and inscriptions.

On the other hand Amen-hetep IV did not, or could not, abolish the characteristic funeral customs and beliefs of his country, and the tombs of the adherents of Aten bear witness to the fact. The king caused a tomb to be hewn out of the rock in the mountains near the town, on its eastern side, and it contained, when discovered in 1892 by the natives, the things which are usually found in tombs of men of high rank. The sarcophagus was broken in pieces, and scattered about the mummy-chamber and along the corrider which led to it were numbers of objects and fragments of objects made of the beautiful purple and blue glazed faience which is so characteristic of the reign of Amen-hetep IV. The body of the king must have been mummified, and on it must have been laid the same classes of amulets that are found on the royal mummies at Thebes. Portions of several granite ushabtin figures were also found, a fact which shows that those who buried the king assumed he would enjoy a somewhat material life. Seket-hetepet IV thought little about his death and burial and is proved by the state of his tomb, which shows that he made no attempt to prepare it for the reception of his body when the need should arise. This is the more strange because he had caused his eldest daughter Aten-merit, to be buried in it, and he must have known from sad experience what great preparations had to be made, and what complied ceremonies had to be performed when a royal personage was laid to rest. The tombs of the adherents of Aten are very disappointing in many ways, though they possess an interest peculiar to themselves. From the scenes painted on their walls it is possible to obtain an idea of the class of buildings which existed in the city of Khut-Aten, and of the arrangements of its streets and gardens, and of the free manner in which various members of the royal family moved about among the the people. The king's tomb was never finished, and the remains of the greater number of the paintings on its walls show that they were executed not for him but for his eldest daughter, who has already been mentioned. The chief subject chosen for illustration is the worship of Aten, and both the scenes and the text accompanying them represented that the god was adored by every nation in the world.

It is, unfortunately, not known how old the king was when he died, but he must have been a comparatively young man, and his reign could not have been so long as twenty years. In the ten or twelve years of it which he lived at Khut-Aten he devoted himself entirely to the building of his new capitol and the development of the cult of Aten, and meanwhile the general condition of Egypt was going from bad to worse, the governors of Egyptian possessions Syria and Palestine were quarrelling among themselves, strong and resolute rebels had risen up in many parts of these countries, and over and above all this the infuriated priesthood of Amen-Ra were watching for an opportunity to restore the national god to his proper place, and set upon the throne a king who would forward the interests of their brotherhood. This opportunity came with the death of Amen-hetep IV when Tut-ankh-Amen, a son of Amen-hetep III by a concubine, ascended the throne. He married a daughter of Amen-hetep IV who was called Ankh-s-en-pa-Aten, but she changed her name into Ankh-s-en-Amen, and both the new king and queen were worshippers of the great god of Thebes. Tut-ankh-Amen at once began to restore the name and figure of Amen which his father-in-law had cut out from the monuments, and began to build at Thebes. Very soon after his accession he came to terms with the priest of Amen, and in due course removed his court to the old capital. On the death of Tut-ankh-Amen AI ascended the throne by virtue of his marriage with Thi, who was in some way related to the family of Amen-hetep IV. Before Ai became king he was a follower of Aten, and built himself a tomb at Khut-Aten, which was ornamented after the manner of those of the adherents of this god, but as soon as he had taken up his abobe at Thebes and begun to reign over Egypt he built another tomb of the Kings at Thebes.
The decoration of the sarcophagus which he placed in latter tomb makes it quite certain that when he made it he had rejected the cult of Aten, and that he was, at all events outwardly, a loyal follower of the god Amen-Ra. On the death of Ai several pretenders to the throne rose in Egypt, and a period of anarchy followed. Of the details of the history of this period nothing is known, and the only certain fact about it is that the power of the XVIIIth Dynasty was broken, and that its downfall was certain. During the reigns of Tut-ankh-Amen and Ai the prosperity of the city Khut-Aten declined rapidly, and as soon as the period of anarchy which followed their reigns began its population left it, little by little, and its downfall was assured. The artists and work-men of all kinds who attained work there under Amen-hetep found their occupation gone, and they departed to Thebes and the other cities whence they had come. Under the reign of Heru-em-heb the decay of the city advanced and it became generally deserted, and very soon after men came from far and near to carry off, for building purposes, the beautiful white limestone blocks which were in the temple and houses. Heu-em-heb was the nominee of the priests of Amen-Ra, and he used power and influence to stamp out every trace of the worship of Aten, and succeeded. Thus Amen-Ra, conquered Aten, Thebes once more became the capitol of Egypt, the priests of Amen regained their ascendancy, and in less than twenty-five years after the death of Amen-hetep IV his city was deserted, the sanctuary of his god was desecrated, his followers were scattered, and his enemies were undisputed of the country.

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