Thinking About the First Monotheist: Not Moses, but Akhenaten

In the 14th century BCE, the Egyptian pharoah Akhenaten, father of “King Tut” (Tutankamen), and husband of Nefertiti, seems to have had some profound revelation that there was only one God, and that God’s name was Aten—who manifested himself in the disc of the sun.

And it was revealed to Akhenaten that the one true God, Aten, had one son, and one son only—and I bet that you can guess who that son was. 

That’s right, Akhenaten himself.

Akhenaten, under inspiration of his newfound monotheism (or proto-monotheism)—and if we would be mean, narcissism—quickly acted in honor of his God, and commanded that the people of Egypt turn on their pantheon of gods in gestures of iconoclasm (destroying the statues and temples to the other gods, save Aten). This, the people did on behalf of Akhenaten, but with only partial enthusiasm (as archeology attests).

Akhenaten also moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a brand new city, built from scratch—the Brazilia, as it were, of his day.

The name of the new city was Heliopolis (sun city).

And he presented himself to the people as the one that they must go through to get to Aten himself.

In other words, Akhenaten acted as both the chief priest, king, and interpreter between God and man.

And in Heliopolis the people built a huge open-air temple to Aten—and Akhenaten was frequently paraded, along with his family, along the main thoroughfare of Heliopolus. Akhenaten’s family was treated, as it were, with all the deference that the pantheon of Egyptian gods once received.

What’s not to like?—at least if you’re Akhenaten.

And, predictably, Akhenaten wrote hymns of praise to such a wonderful arrangement (for himself), and they were written inside a tomb, and we now know of this “poem” as Akhenaten’s “Hymn to the Sun,” which has been broken by scholars into twelve stanzas, the first of which reads thus:

When in splendor you first took your throne

          high in the precinct of heaven,

     O living God,

          life truly began!

Now from eastern horizon risen and streaming,

     you have flooded the world with your beauty.

You are majestic, awesome, bedazzling, exalted,

     overlord over all earth,

yet your rays, they touch lightly, compass the lands

          to the limit of your creation.

There in the Sun, you reach to the farthest of those

     you would gather in for your Son [Akhenaten],

          whom you love;

Though you are far, your light is wide upon earth;

     and you shine in the faces of all

          who turn to follow your journeying.

Reading Akhenaten’s “Hymn to the Sun,” we might debate its merits as a poem—most scholars think its pretty good, and in places moving—but it’s also hard not to think of Akhenaten as a kind of North Korean Kim Jung Ill—a totalitarian generating around his god—and himself—a cult of perfect personality.

The first stanza of the “Hymn to the Sun,” for example, locates all life as dependent upon a monarch who takes his throne “high in the precinct of heaven.” And this God does not confine himself to national boundaries, but incorporates into his project the whole world. Akhenaten says of Aten: “You . . . compass the lands / to the limits of all your creation” and “gather” them in “for your Son, / whom you love.”

In other words, with the first monotheist apparently comes religiously sanctioned imperialism.

And who cannot visualize a 1930s propaganda poster in these lines:

Though you are far, your light is wide upon earth;

     and you shine in the faces of all

          who turn to follow your journeying.

In our age of ever more strident religious monotheism, Akhenaten seems to be a prototypical emobodiment of totalist impulses—and deserves study and reflection.

Here’s a book on Akhenaten, put out by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, that I recommend: http://www.amazon.com/Pharoahs-Sun-Akhenaten-Nefertiti-Tutankhamen/dp/0878464700/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1219416031&sr=8-1

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Thinking About the First Monotheist: Not Moses, but Akhenaten

  1. P J Rice says:

    I found your summary of Akhenaten’s personality very much to the point and witty. I am sure you will know that many claim that Moses and Akhenaten were one and the same. Moses was certainly consumed with the “revelation” that he was God’s foremost chosen on earth, who was always right. God told him so after all, so why not?
    On that basis they could have been the same person – but did not Akhenaten’s tomb paintings show him dead and mourned by Nefertiti? It seems as though he’d have to have been ressurected if he were Moses as well.
    This is perhaps an irrelevant comment, but it popped into my mind as I was reading.

  2. santitafarella says:

    PJ Rice:

    I actually didn’t know that some equated Moses directly with Akhenaten. I know that some have speculated the Mosaic monotheism derives from Akhenaten’s monotheism.

    Akhenaten’s era is a fascinating one to study, and relatively easy because it was isolated. After Akhenaten died (perhaps you already know this) his son abandoned “Sun City”, returned the capitol to Thebes, and went back to worshipping the traditional Egyptian pantheon.

    Kids those days.

    —Santi

  3. Thomas says:

    You must be a christian. I found your writting boring, and predictable. Sadly lacking any real scholarship, and a quite frankly laughable! Akhenaton was a very progressive thinker given that he lived over 3500 yrs ago!!! wouldn’t ya say? , and at least scholars know he was a real live person, unlike moses and abraham who’s only proof we have is from a jewish story book of myths. People like you make me chuckle.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Thomas,

      I’m not a Christian, but an agnostic. And you can call Akhenaten “progressive” if you wish. I agree that the religion associated with him was innovative for its time. It’s philosophically interesting. But I also see in Akhenaten a good deal of the subsequent faults inherent in monotheism.

      I’m curious why you’re concerned to defend him. Is there a cult to which you belong in which Akhenaten is revered? Do you seriously believe that Akhenaten’s monotheism was free of onerous political usages?

      Akhenaten’s monotheism was an ideology backed by the power of a state (and in service to the interests of that state). That means some things were highlighted and other things were repressed. I’m interested in why you would ignore the repressions.

      —Santi

  4. des says:

    With some insight into analyzing the stories in the quran it would appear that akhenaten grew up in the same house as moses and is likely the unknown man from the family of the pharoah who spoke up defending moses when his father, the pharoah wanted to kill him. he also was the one to warn moses that the pharoe had plans to kill him. It is evident that he was a believer in moses’ message and later united all gods into one, i.e. the religion of moses. thus he is not the first monothiest. It is also suspected that this is the same man called “dul qarnayn (man with 2 horns)” who travelled to the places where the sun rises and that where it sets and in between. in the west he introduced law, in the east the people were primitive and he let them be and in the middle he found people who asked for help building a barrier to protect them from gog and magog (in the quran pronounced yajouj and majouj. apparently, recently a journalist by coincidence found out that these 2 words in chincese mean the asian continent and the horse continent. Thus it would make since that these people were complaining about the chinese and mongols fighting each other and causing destruction so he used his egyptian technology and helped them build a wall that protected them. The journalist believes this is the city wall of zhengzhou where he visited and seen it first hand. The timing fits perfectly and it is no coincidence that walls started appearing in that culture at the time of akhenaten. Also, the whole dynasty was created because it was allowed to prosper under the protection of the wall. It is no coincidence that this dynasty is only outdated by the egyptian, babylonian and samerra.

  5. Wissam says:

    I invite you to look into that time and discover that Yusif (Joseph) son of Yaaqub (Jacob) lived at that time and was a companion of Akhnaton (Akhenaten) and he actually gave the pharoah the message about Allah (God). I read somewhere that he was a monotheist and then later changed back to blasphemy.
    Also, Ibrahim and many prophets who are proven to have existed were monotheist before that pharoah.

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