The Great Hymn to the Aten

stela of akhenaten and nefertiti

akhenaten worshiping atenHere is the Great Hymn to the Aten, translated by Miriam Lichtheim; also here.

God is the Lifegiver, and when God turns his face away, we are blind and incapable; then when God appears, we are enabled to live our lives.

You rest in the western horizon, and the land is in darkness in the manner of death,
sleepers in chambers, heads covered,
no eye can see its other.
Anything of theirs can be taken from under their heads, they would not know.
Every lion goes out from its den,
every snake bites.
Darkness envelops, the land is in silence, their creator is resting in his horizon.
At daybreak, arisen from the horizon, shining as the disk in day,
you remove the darkness, you grant your rays,
and the two lands are in festival,
awakened and standing on their feet.
You have raised them up, their bodies cleansed, clothing on,
their arms are in adoration at your sunrise.

This is not literally true: in the night time, there is moonlight and starlight. Rather it is a picture of our dependence on God: without God, we are nothing, and can do nothing.

The trees and the birds depend on God. God makes us grow in our mothers’ wombs, and chicks in the egg. God rules all lands, and makes all that they need for them. God decrees that foreigners have different skin, and different languages; God cares for them differently, because God makes Egypt fertile with a flood from the Underworld, a flood from the Bust of Nefretiti, wife of AkhenatenNile, and foreign lands fertile by a flood from the sky, which is the Rain. This contrasts with the earlier idea that foreigners were the enemy, part of the forces of chaos against the Gods’ civilisation in Egypt.

God is the creator of all:

You have made the far sky to shine in it,
to see what you make, while you are far,
and shining in your form as living disk.
risen, shining, distant, near,
you make millions of forms from yourself, lone one,
cities, towns, fields, the road of rivers,
every eye sees you in their entry,
you are the disk of day, master of your move,
of the existence of every form,
you create … alone, what you have made.

This is a hymn of praise, for God gives all we need. There is only one request in it: shine, and strengthen (all for) the king. At the end comes a description of the king, Akhenaten, the son of God:

Motion is in every leg, since you founded the earth,
you raise them for your son who come from your body,
the king who lives on Right, lord of the two lands,
son of Ra who lives on Right, lord of Risings,
Akhenaten, great in his lifespan,
and the great king’s wife whom he loves, lady of the two lands,
Neferneferuaten Nefertiti, eternally alive.

I tend to think that Psalm 104 is independent of this, and no rip-off: a better analogy is convergent evolution. Both writers seek to praise God the ruler of the Universe and fount of all life. Akhenaten’s successors sought to expunge his beliefs, and razed his temples. Moses, traditionally associated with the Ramessid kings, was perhaps a henotheist: he worshipped only one God, but believed the gods of other tribes existed.

Monotheism in Egypt


AkhenatenAkhenaten, the first monotheist, had a belief and ritual system very close to that of his predecessors. His rule began around 1352 BC, when Egypt enjoyed a period of unprecedented prosperity. It had hegemony as far north as Canaan and an alliance with Mitanni to the north. Rather than seeing foreigners as the enemy forces of chaos, a view of them as also God’s creation was developing.

Akhenaten was at first the fourth king of the name Amenhotep, which includes the God-name Amun. Originally a local god of Thebes, Amun had become identified with Ra the Sun-god, portrayed as a man with the head of a falcon and the sun-disc above it. Osiris, God of the Underworld, was an aspect of Ra, and increasingly Ra was seen as the creator-God, with other gods aspects of him, or his created beings. Akhenaten’s god Aten was the sun, with the official name The Living One, Ra-Horus of the horizon who rejoices in the horizon in his identity of light which is in the sun-disc, commonly shortened to The Sun-disc, or Aten.

Amenhotep III was seen as the son of Amun-Ra, born of the Queen-mother in a sacred marriage ritually reenacted annually. Burger_AkhenatenHowever, Akhenaten built his own capital city, Akhetaten, “Horizon of the Aten” where the Aten manifests itself daily. Aten was depicted as a disc emitting rays ending in hands touching the king and queen, Aten’s children, and their family. All other gods, even seen as emanations of Aten, were banned.

Akhenaten was depicted with wide hips, feminine breasts and an elongated face. This style of depiction, as was usual, spread to depictions of his subjects. Portraits showed the royal family kissing and embracing, which was unprecedented. The informality and freedom of expression was a lasting influence for centuries. No statue of the God Aten was necessary: Aten was visible in the sky. The light of the Sun nourished all things continually.

Daily, the King rode by chariot along the 3.5km Royal Road from his riverside palace to the seat of government, symbolising the rising of the Sun. Akhenaten was “the creative manifestation of the Aten” through whom the God did his work. The king demanded total loyalty and worship. The dead existed in the roofless temple with Aten and the king.

After Akhenaten’s death, his cult was expunged. The boy-king Tutenkhaten’s name was adjusted to contain that of the old god, Tutenkhamun. The court moved back to Memphis and the religious centre to Thebes. Akhetaten and its temples were destroyed. The Hittites had defeated Egypt’s northern ally Mitanni, and Egyptian armies in the north failed- a sign that the Gods had deserted Egypt. It is likely that Akhenaten’s body was removed to a small undecorated tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

Here is a translation of the Great Hymn to the Aten, our source for Akhenaten’s doctrines. As before, this post is taken from the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt.