The story of the Aten is unique in Egyptian history, as well as being one of the most complicated and controversial aspects of Ancient Egyptian religion. The Aten is an ancient Egyptian Sun God often seen or referred to as part of Re (Ra). There was no creation story for the Aten nor did it have any family members, however it is mentioned in the Book of the Dead, Chapter XLII, in which every body part of a deceased person is placed under the protection of, or identified with, a god or goddess. For example, the hair is associated with Nu, the eyes with Hathor,and the face with Aten; the solar disk does seem to be a good choice to represent the face of a person. The Aten was combined with major gods so there are phrases such as “Atum who is in his Aten (sun disk)” but the Aten itself was not particularly worshipped as a god.
During the Middle Kingdom, the Aten became more widely recognized and mentioned in the famous “Story of Sinuhe” (Papyrus Berlin 10499). In that story, Pharaoh Amenemhat I is described as soaring into the sky and uniting with Aten his creator.
At the beginning of the New Kingdom, Pharoah Ahmose is described on a stela by being like “Aten when he shines.” Amenhotep I, became “united with Aten, coalescing with the one from whom he had come” and Hatshepsut used the Aten on her obelisk in the temple of Karnak to denote the solar disk. Amenhotep III was called Tjekhen-Aten, or “radiance of Aten” a term which was also used in several other contexts during his reign. There is evidence for a priesthood of Aten at Heliopolis, which was the center for the worship of the sun god Re, and of Amenhotep III also incorporated references to the Aten in the names he gave to his palace calling it “splendor of Aten” and his pleasure boat called “Aten glitters.”
However, it was Amenhotep IV who worshipped the Aten as a significant god. To honor this god, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten showing Aten’s importance. He changed the Aten’s hieroglyphic name so that it became “the living One, Re-Harakhty who rejoices on the horizon, in his name which is Illumination which is from the solar orb.” In other words, Aten was the life giving illumination of the sun. This designation changed Egyptian religious theology dramatically. According to Akhenaten, Re and the other sun gods (Khepri, Horakhty and Atum) could no longer be accepted as manifestations of the sun. Aten was now the king of gods, needing no goddess as a companion and having no enemies who could threaten him. In addition, for the ancient Egyptians, Aten was a benevolent god, limitless in power, and creator of all natural phenomena.
After Aten rose to the top of the pantheon, most of the old gods retained their positions, yet that soon changed. Akhenaten had conflicts with the powerful Amun priesthood of Thebes as (according to still existing stela) the priests were saying evil things about him, as well as his father and grandfather. However, the priesthood was not strong enough to stop his religious pursuits at that point in time and he decided to build a new capital city, Akhetaten, in a desert valley north of the old capital in Middle Egypt, an area now called Amarna.
In the “Great Hymn to the Aten”, Akhenaten praises Aten as the creator, giver of life, and nurturing spirit of the world. The hymn is full of descriptions of nature and the position of the Pharaoh in the new Aten-centered religion. Instead of the priests being the conduit to the god, Aten only revealed itself to Akhenaten and only he knew the commandments of Aten. The high priest of the Aten was called the priest of Akhenaten, showing the elevated position of the Pharaoh in this theology as well as the barrier that he formed between his priests and the god Aten.
Here is the ending of the Great Hymn to the Aten:
You are in my heart,
There is no other who knows you,
Only your son, Neferkheprure, the One of Re [Akhenaten],
Whom you have taught your ways and your might.
Those on earth come from your hand as you made them.
When you have dawned they live.
When you set they die;
You yourself are lifetime, one lives by you.
All eyes are on your beauty until you set.
All labor ceases when you rest in the west;
When you rise you stir everyone for the King,
Every leg is on the move since you founded the earth.
You rouse them for your son who came from your body.
The King who lives by Maat, the Lord of the Two Lands,
Neferkheprure, the One of Re,
The Son of Re who lives by Maat. the Lord of crowns,
Akhenaten, great in his lifetime;
And the great Queen whom he loves, the Lady of the Two Lands,
Nefer-nefru-Aten Nefertiti, living forever.
Miriam Lichtheim described the hymn as “a beautiful statement of the doctrine of the One God.”
Akhenaten eventually ordered the closure of the temples dedicated to all other sun gods in Egypt. Not only were these temples closed, but in order to extinguish the memory of these gods as much as possible, armies of stonemasons were sent out all over the land to hack away the image and names of the gods, especially of the god Amun.
However, at this time Akhenaten’s Amarna period had reached the beginning of the end. Soon after the death of Akhenaten, his capital was dismantled, as was his religion. Aten was removed from the Egyptian pantheon; and Akhenaten as well as his family and religion were the intense focus of destruction. Most of their monuments were destroyed, along with related inscriptions and images. While the Aten did continue to be worshipped for some period after Akhenaten’s death, the god soon fell into obscurity.
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Gunn, B. (1923). Notes on the Aten and his Names. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 9(1), 168-176.
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