Home >> Encyclopedia-britannica-volume-12-part-1-hydrozoa-jeremy >> Ijolite to Indaba >> Ikhnaton



IKHNATON (sometimes spelt AKHENATON), the name as sumed by Amenhotep IV. of Egypt.

An adequate understanding of the origins and the history of the religious revolution carried through by this earliest known idealist is impossible without some knowledge of the histori cal and political situation of his generation. When he came to the throne (c. 1375 B.c.) there were plenty of men still living whose fathers had fought in the great wars of Thutmose III., who consolidated the conquests of his ancestors and united the contiguous regions of Asia and Africa into the first stable empire in history. His genius and his far reaching victories made him the first character of universal aspects, the first world hero. Such a towering personality inevitably affected the thought of the early world. The earliest gods of Egypt had been nature gods. As the great Pharaonic State arose, the impressive figure of the sovereign profoundly influenced religion ; the forms of the State passed over into human conceptions of the gods, and the Sun-god, the greatest of them all, was conceived as a pharaoh ruling the other divinities.

When therefore the power of the Pharaohs was extended to include a world empire, this greatly expanded arena of action deeply affected Egyptian conceptions of the Sun-god's realm. In the career of Thutmose III. the idea of universal power, of a world-empire was personalized and visibly bodied forth. This first great human personality of world wide aspects began to affect Egyptian ideas of divine personality. Men began to feel the thrill of universalism, expressed, it should be observed, in terms of political power. Other relations with the outside world beyond the limits of the Nile valley had not clearly disengaged for the Nile-dwellers the "world idea" as we may call it. For example, a net-work of commercial connections with surrounding countries had arisen centuries earlier and had resulted in a litera ture of adventure in far-off countries, as illustrated by such tales as the shipwrecked sailor or the story of the wandering hero. Sinuhe; but such knowledge of distant lands had done little toward bringing the great world without into the purview of Egyptian thinking. Neither did the universal power of natural laws, everywhere visibly active in uniform operation, suggest to these early men the world idea. Many a merchant had seen a stone fall in distant Babylon precisely as it did in Egyptian Thebes, but it had not occurred to him or to any man in that far-off age, that the same natural force reigned in these widely separated countries. It was universalism expressed in terms of imperial power which first caught the imagination of the think ing men of the Egyptian empire, and disclosed to them the uni versal sweep of the Sun-god's dominion as a physical fact. In the ancient East monotheism was but imperialism in religion.

The Sun-god Aton.—As early as 140o B.C. under the mag nificent emperor, Amenhotep III., great-grandson of Thutmose III., the expanded conception of the Sun-god's power was gain ing currency. In order to give this magnified Sun-god a new identity, not embarrassed by older and more limited conceptions, "Aton," an ancient name for the physical sun, was employed to designate him. When Amenhotep III. died (c. 1375 B.c.), his son and successor, Amenhotep IV., was closely associated with the new ideas. He assumed the office of the High Priest of Aton, with the same title, "Great Seer," as that of the high priest of the old Sun-god Re at Heliopolis. It is clear therefore, that the new movement was closely connected with the old Solar theology and probably with its organized priesthood likewise.

The new and transformed Sun-god was obviously conceived as far more than the merely material sun. It is evident that the young Pharaoh was deifying the light of the sun or its vital heat, which he found accompanying all life. Light or heat plays an important part in the new • faith, similar to that which we find it assuming in the early cosmogonic philosophies of the Greeks. In harmony with this conception the god is constantly stated to be everywhere active by means of his "rays." It is perfectly certain that in an age so early in the development of natural science the king could not have had the vaguest notion of the physicochemical aspects of his assumption that all life issued from the rays of the sun, any more than had the Greeks in dealing with a similar thought. Yet the fundamental idea is surprisingly true, and as we shall see surprisingly fruitful.

With the international arena of his empire in view the Pharaoh devised a new symbol for the new god. It depicted the sun as a disk from which diverging rays radiated downward, each ray terminating in a human hand. As suggesting a power issuing from its celestial source and putting its hand upon the world and the affairs of men, it was a masterly symbol. It broke sharply with tradition, and for that very reason it was capable of practical introduction into the many countries making up the empire; for it could be understood by a foreigner at a glance, and this was far from being the case with any of the traditional symbols of the old Egyptian religion. To indicate the imperial power of Aton, however, Amenhotep IV. did employ an Egyptian device. He now enclosed the god's full name, as already intro duced by the king's father, in two royal cartouches identical with those of the Pharaoh, thus suggesting for the god an earthly dominion like that of the Pharaoh.

Conflict Between Amon and Aton.—The king's zeal for the new cult was evident from the beginning. To Thebes, the imperial capital, he gave the new name, "City of the Brightness of Aton," its temple quarter was called, "Brightness of Aton the Great," while the new Aton sanctuary itself was designated as "Gem-Aton," a term of unknown meaning. The priesthood of Amon who had long been the State god at Thebes, was a rich and influential body, and the high priest of Amon was head of a national sacerdotal organization including all the priesthoods of the country. Politically this Amonite priesthood had gained great power. A bitter conflict thus broke out, at first probably, chiefly between Amon and the intruder Aton, but eventually also betwecn Aton and the older gods. The struggle eventually rendered Thebes intolerable to the young revolutionary. He broke with all the old priesthoods and began a drastic persecu tion to make Aton the sole god of the empire, not merely in the king's own thought, but in very fact. As far as their visible and external manifestations were concerned, this extermination of the old gods could be and was accomplished. Even the word "gods," the plural of the common noun "god," was carefully expunged from the monuments. In the tomb of Ramose, his father's old prime minister, a tomb still surviving in the Theban cemetery, Amenhotep IV.'s emissaries hewed out the word "gods" no less than nine times, clearly indicating their intentions, notwithstanding three untouched occurrences of the word which escaped their notice and which we still find in out-of-the-way corners of this marvellously sculptured tomb.

The persecution of Amon was especially severe and to-day the splendid monuments of Thebes are still dotted with unsightly holes where the hated god's name once stood. The young icono clast was even involved in the expungement of his own father's name, Amenhotep, for it contained the name of the hostile god. Living as he probably was, in his father's splendid Theban palace, the wreckage of which is still visible, he finally brought himself to disfigure its sumptuous wall and ceiling decorations with un sightly blemishes where he blotted out his own father's name. With regard to his own name he was himself in the same em barrassing predicament, bearing as he also did, the illustrious throne name "Amenhotep," meaning "He in whom Amon is con tent." The king therefore cast off his old name, with all its tra ditional associations of power and splendor, and chose another of similar significance, "Ikhnaton," which means "Aton is satis fied," or "He in whom Aton is satisfied." The New Capital, Akhetaton.—It is evident that this terri ble revolution, violating all that was dearest and most sacred in Egyptian life and traditions, must have been a devastating experience for the young sovereign. Thebes became an impos sible place of residence. His father's palace was disfigured by his own hand and the towering pylons and obelisks of Karnak and Luxor were a continual reminder of all that his fathers had contributed to the glory of Amon and the old gods. He therefore determined to forsake the capital and imperial residence of his ancestors. In each of the three great divisions of the empire, Egypt, Nubia and Asia, he built a city consecrated to Aton, and in the Egyptian Aton city he took up his own residence. He chose as its site a spacious bay in the Nile cliffs about i 6o m. above the Delta and nearly 30o m. below Thebes. He called it "Akhetaton," which means "Horizon of Aton" and it is known in modern times as Tell el-Amarna. The city thus established was designated as the real capital of the empire. In the sixth year of his reign and shortly after he had changed his name, we find the young king living in his new residence.

The evidence indicates that all that was devised and done in the new city and in the development and propagation of the Aton faith, was the work of the king himself. Everything bears the stamp of his individuality. The men about him must have been irresistibly swayed by his unbending will, for he was evi dently not one to stop half way. But Ikhnaton understood enough of the old policy of the Pharaohs to know that he must hold his party by tangible rewards, and his leading followers enjoyed liberal bounty at his hands. Thus one of his priests of Aton and at the same time his master of the royal horse, named Eye, who had by good fortune happened to marry the childhood nurse of the king, states in his tomb inscriptions : "He doubles to me my favours in silver and gold." The commander of Ikhnaton's army likewise says: "He hath doubled to me my favours like the num bers of the sand. I am the head of the officials, at the head of the people; my lord has advanced me because I have carried out his teaching, and I hear his word without ceasing. My eyes behold thy beauty every day, 0 my lord, wise like Aton, satisfied with truth. How prosperous is he who hears thy teaching of life!" Although there probably was a nucleus of men who really appreci ated the ideal aspects of the king's teaching, such inscriptions make it evident that many were not uninfluenced by "the loaves and the fishes." A beautiful cliff-tomb hewn in the eastern cliffs by royal crafts men at the king's command was the Pharaoh's most welcome demonstration of favour to each one of his followers. The walls of such a tomb chapel bore fresh and natural pictures from the life of the people in Akhetaton, the new capital, particularly incidents in the life of the dead man, and preferably his inter course with the king. Thus the city of Akhetaton is now better known to us from its cemetery than from its ruins.

Throughout these tombs, both in relief and inscription, the nobles take delight in reiterating the intimate relation between Aton and the king. Over and over again they show the king and the queen standing together under the disk of Aton, whose enveloping rays terminating in hands, descend and embrace the king's figure. The nobles constantly pray to the god for the king, saying that he "came forth from thy rays," or "thou hast formed him out of thine own rays" ; and interspersed through their prayers were numerous current phrases of the Aton faith, which had now become conventional, replacing those of the old orthodox religion which it must have been very awkward for them to cease using. On State occasions instead of the old stock phrases, with innumerable references to the traditional gods, every noble who would enjoy the king's favour was evidently obliged to display his familiarity with the Aton faith by a liberal use of these new allusions. The source of such phrases was really the king himself, and something of the "teaching" whence they were taken, so often attributed to him, is preserved in these "Amarna tombs," as we now commonly call them.

Hymn to Aton.

Among the fragments of the Aton faith which have survived in these tombs are two hymns to Aton, the longer and finer of which is worthy of being known in modern literature. It was probably written by the king himself. In the following translation the effort has been chiefly to furnish an accurate rendering. The headings of the strophes are insertions by the present writer, intended to make clear the arrangement of the subject matter, especially striking because it is identical with that in Psalm civ. of the Old Testament, which is many centuries later.


We may conjecture that this hymn, partially reproduced above, was a fragment from the ritual of Aton as it was cele brated from day to day in the Aton temple at Amarna. Un happily it was copied in but one tomb; in the others we have a miscellany of current quotations and stock phrases which made up the knowledge of the new faith as it had been apprehended by the scribes and painters who decorated these tombs. It is our misfortune that the fragments of the Aton faith, which have survived to us in the Amarna cemetery, our chief source, have thus filtered mechanically through the indifferent hands and the starved and listless minds of a few petty bureaucrats on the outskirts of a great religious and intellectual movement.

The New Universalism.

Nevertheless in this great hymn the new universalism of the empire finds full expression and the royal singer sweeps his eye from the far-off cataracts of the Nubian Nile to the remotest lands of Syria. He was looking be yond the nationalism which had prevailed for over 2,000 years, and he was consciously endeavouring to displace it by a world religion. Irrespective of race or nationality, he bases the universal sway of God upon his fatherly care of all men alike. He calls Aton "the father and the mother of all that he has made," and the hymn which we have just quoted above is very explicit in its insistence that Aton's fatherly care of all men entirely disre gards diversity of speech or difference in colour. To the proud and exclusive Egyptian he points to the all-embracing bounty of the common father of humanity, even placing Syria and Nubia before Egypt as he catalogues the divisions of his empire.

Ikhnaton had gained the conception of a world-lord in two aspects : first, as the creator of the natural world ; and second, as a benevolent father actively concerned for the daily mainte nance of all his creatures, even the meanest. His hymns are the earliest known expression of deep emotion in the recognition of divine goodness and benevolence. Mingled with it is an almost ecstatic rapture in the thought of the all-enveloping light in which he saw revealed both the beauty and the goodness of the natural order. It reminds us of Him who bade us "consider the lilies." The picture of the lily-grown marshes, where, as another hymn tells us, the flowers are "drunken" in the intoxicating radi ance of Aton, where the birds unfold their wings and lift them "in adoration of the living Aton," where the cattle dance with delight in the sunshine, and the fish in the river beyond leap up to greet the light, the universal light whose beams are even "in the midst of the great green sea"—all this discloses a discern ment of the presence of God in nature, and an appreciation of the revelation of God in the visible world such as we find cen turies later in the Hebrew psalms, and especially in our own poets since Wordsworth.

While the creative power and the benevolence of his god were very explicitly affirmed by Ikhnaton, our sources do not show us that he had risen from a discernment of the beneficence to a conception of the righteousness in the character of God, nor of his demand for this in the character of men. Nevertheless, there is in Ikhnaton's "teaching," as it is thus fragmentarily pre served in the hymns and tomb-inscriptions of his nobles, a con stant emphasis upon "truth" such as is not found before nor since. The king always attached to his name the extraordinary phrase "living in truth," and that this phrase was not meaningless is evident as we discern the character of his daily life.

To him "living in truth" meant sincere acceptance of the daily facts of living in a simple and unconventional manner never before seen in the life of a sovereign and quite impossible of harmoniza tion with the outward pomp and splendour of an oriental emperor. For him what was was right, and its propriety was evident by its very existence. Even in public he divested his daily round of those outward and formal observances which his royal ancestors had observed for 2,000 years. Thus, his family life was open and unconcealed before the people, even in intimate manifes tations of family affection. He took the greatest delight in his children and appeared with them and the queen their mother on all possible occasions as if he had been but the humblest scribe in the Aton-temple. He had himself depicted on the monuments while enjoying the most familiar and unaffected intercourse with his family, and when he drove in his chariot to the temple to carry on its formal service, the queen and the daughters she had borne him likewise drove thither through the acclaiming multi tudes and shared with the king the temple service. All that was natural was to him true, and he never failed practically to ex emplify this belief, however radically he was obliged to disregard tradition.

Effect of the Revolution on Art.

These revolutionary changes in religion and in the position and character of the head of the State were not confined to theology, statecraft or palace proprieties. They unavoidably affected also the art of the time, and it was the intention of Ikhnaton to modify art in accordance with his regard for "truth." His chief sculptor, Bek, appended to his title the words, "whom his majesty himself taught." It is evident that the artists of Ikhnaton's court were taught by him to make the chisel and the brush tell the story of what they actually saw. The result was a simple and beautiful realism that saw more clearly than any art had ever seen before. They caught the instantaneous postures of animal life; the coursing hound, the fleeing game, the wild bull leaping in the marsh ; for all these belonged to the "truth" in which Ikhnaton lived. The exalted divinity which for untold centuries had invested the Pharaoh's person with inviolable sacredness was stripped away without hesi tation. Ikhnaton's artists represented him as they saw him, in attitudes of parental affection as he fondled his little daughters, or even as the object of the wifely solicitude of his queen as she stands in his presence in affectionate concern for his needs. Such is the lovely scene on the back of the famous palace chair, pre served to us in the tomb of Tutankhamun. For the first time in the history of art the subject of a great composition was a human relationship, and to depict it the artists of the day shook off the shackles of immemorial tradition. The monuments of Egypt and even the furniture and equipment of daily life bore what they had never borne before, a Pharaoh depicted in the natural and unaffected relations of life, and completely liberated from the rigid and conventional posture demanded by both the traditions of court propriety and by the venerable teachings of the State theology regarding the divinity of the sovereign. It is in this extraordinary art, which we commonly call the "Amarna school" or "Amarna art," that the revolution of Ikhnaton is most clearly disclosed as the earliest known age of spiritual emancipation.

Loss of the Empire.---A

man wholly absorbed in a revolution like this found little time or inclination to devote any attention to the critical state of the empire. For three generations the royal house of Egypt had stood in close relations to the kings of Western Asia, and especially the kings of Mitanni on the Upper Euphrates had given their daughters in marriage to the Pharaoh. Supported by such alliances Ikhnaton failed to ap preciate the gravity of the new movements which were transform ing the political situation in Western Asia. In the north the expanding power of the Hittites gradually absorbed all the Pha raoh's vassal States in Syria; while in the south, i.e., in Pales tine, the incoming mercenary bands of nomads were steadily taking possession of Palestine, which the Pharaohs had held for centuries. It was this movement of nomadic hordes from the desert toward a settled life in the Palestinian towns, which carried the Hebrews into Palestine. At Akhetaton, the new and beautiful home of the Aton faith, the temple of Aton resounded with hymns to the new god of the empire, while the empire itself was no more.

The storm which had thus broken over Ikhnaton's Asiatic empire was not more disastrous than that which threatened him in Egypt ; but there was no faltering in his steadfast policy. At his command temples of Aton had arisen all over a land which was now convulsed with revolution. Some years after Ikhnaton had disappeared, his son-in-law, Tutankhamun, left the follow ing description of the hopeless situation of Egypt both at home and abroad : "The temples of the gods and goddesses were [deso lated] from Elephantine [First Cataract] as far the marshes of the delta. . . . Their holy places were forsaken and had become overgrown tracts . . ., their sanctuaries were like that which has never been, and their houses were trodden roads. The land was in an evil pass, and as for the gods, they had forsaken this land. If people were sent to Syria to extend the borders of Egypt, they prospered not at all; if men prayed to a god for succour, he came not ; . . . if men besought a goddess likewise, she came not at all." Opposition to the New Religion.—Ikhnaton had endeav oured to exterminate some of the most cherished beliefs of the people, especially those regarding the hereaf ter. Throughout the entire cemetery of his new capital not a single tomb contains the name of Osiris, upon whom every Egyptian, following the faith and practice of his ancestors, expected to depend for pro tection and guidance through the terrible fears and dangers that beset the dead in the world beyond the grave. This attempted banishment of Osiris must have aroused the fiercest opposition among the people. Eighteen hundred years after Ikhnaton's revo lution, the Christian emperor, Theodosius, endeavoured to banish from Egypt the old pagan gods of the people, in an effort to intro duce exclusively the God of the Christians. Long after the death of Theodosius the old gods of Egypt continued nevertheless to be worshiped by the people of Upper Egypt. What the power of the Roman emperor failed to accomplish could not of course be attained under much less favourable circumstances by Ikhna ton. The Aton-faith remained but the cherished theory of the idealist Ikhnaton and a little court circle surrounding his person; it never really became the religion of the people.

To the secret resentment and opposition of the people we must also add the dangerous activities of the dispossessed priesthoods, especially the politically powerful former priests of Amon, the old State god. Even more dangerous was the disaffection and discontent among the leaders of the army as they beheld the Egyptian empire in Asia falling to pieces for lack of effective military intervention. One of these leaders indeed, an officer named Haremhab who had long been a favoured partisan of Ikhnaton, not only contrived to win the support of the military class, but also gained of the priests of Amon, who were of course looking for just such a man. Thus both the people and the priestly and military groups alike were united in plans for the overthrow of the hated dreamer in the palace of the Pharaohs, of whose thoughts they understood so little, and who incensed them with the teaching that both the Asiatics and the Egyptians were all children of the same kindly Father. In this dangerous situation, having no son to succeed him, he gave his eldest daughter in marriage to one of his favourites, and needing sup port, appointed his son-in-law as co-regent with himself. His position seems to have been complicated by family troubles in these closing days, and we find the name of his queen expunged from some of the family monuments at Amarna. He survived but a short time after arranging the co-regency and about 1358 B.C., in the i7th year of his reign, when he was probably not yet 3o years of age, he passed away.

It must be admitted that Ikhnaton pursued his aims with fatuous blindness and feverish fanaticism regardless of the de structive costs. There is something hectic and abnormal in this extraordinary man, suggesting a mind which may even have been diseased. Some question has been raised regarding the identity of the body found in his coffin; but it should be noted that the skull found with this body is one of the largest human crania ever found. However much we may censure him for the loss of his empire, however much we may condemn the fanaticism with which he pursued his aim, it must be recognized that there died with him a spirit such as the world had never seen before—a brave soul, undauntedly facing and opposing the momentum of century long tradition, in which it had never occurred to any mind before his to do anything but thoughtlessly acquiesce. He was the first of the long line of revolters against tradition and thoughtless acceptance of the past. He stepped out of the long line of conventionally colourless Pharaohs that he might disseminate ideas far beyond and above the capacity of his age to understand. Among the Hebrews, seven or eight hundred years later, we look for such men. We must look back upon him to-day not only as the world's first idealist and the world's first individual, but also as the earliest monotheist and the first prophet of internationalism —the most remarkable figure of the Ancient World before the Hebrews.


-The Monuments: N. de G. Davies, The Rock Bibliography-The Monuments: N. de G. Davies, The Rock Tombs of Tell el Amarna, Archaeological Survey, Egypt Exploration Society (6 vol., 1903 sqq.) ; Theo. M. Davis, The Tomb of Queen Tiyi (1910), The Tombs of Harmhabi and Touatankhamanou (1912) ; T. E. Peet and C. L. Woolley, The City of Akhenaton, vol. 1 (1923) ; Howard Carter and A. C. Mace, The Tomb of Tutankhamen (1923) ; Mittheilungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft, Nos. 34, 55 and 57.

The Treatises: J. H. Breasted, Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt (1912) and History of Egypt (1912) ; also chaps. 5 and 6 in vol. II., Cambridge Ancient History, from which the above article quotes liberally. (J. H. BR.)

aton, god, empire, name, world, gods and egypt