Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen":
AMENHOTEP IV AND THE HYMN TO ATEN


At the time when Egypt was at the height of her career as a world power during the New Kingdom, the land was shaken by a revolutionary religious doctrine which threatened to sweep away the theological dogmas of centuries. The key figure in this iconoclastic movement was the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV who came to the throne c. 1370 B-C. to reign as co-regent with his father Amenhotep III (c. 1397-1360 B.C.). This youth, frail of body, with the temperament of a dreamer and the fanatical zeal of a reformer, inspired the somewhat extravagant description of him as 'the first individual in human history' (J. H. Breasted). So romantic a figure has he appeared to historians, that many have credited him with originating the worship of the god Aten and establishing the first monotheistic faith.

There is, however, a continually increasing body of evidence which points to the fact that the cult of Ten had developed before the time of Amenhotep IV, indeed probably as early as the reign of Thutmose IV (c. 1411-1397 B.C.). It is likely that the worship of Ten developed from the ancient cult of the Helopolitan sun-god Re. In the course of time the syncretistic character of Egyptian religious thinking had led to the fusion of the god Re with many other deities such as Atum, Horns, and Amun, with the consequent assimilation of their characteristics and functions. The new cult paid homage to the physical orb of the sun (for which the Egyptian word was Ten), stripped of its mythological accretions. Hence, except in the earliest period, no images or other representations of Aten were employed other than the figure of the sun disc with its rays extending towards the earth, each ending with a hand beneficently proffering the hieroglyphic symbol for life. . Central to the new faith was the idea of 'living on ma 'at.' This important term ma 'at, variously translated 'righteousness, justice,' or 'truth,' meant basically the divinely ordained cosmic order. By the Middle Kingdom it had acquired the overtones of social justice. But Akhenaten's use of it emphasized the aspect of truth, by which he meant the subjective truth of the senses rather than the traditional objective, universal truth. This is consonant with the further observation that the Atenist faith was an intellectual rather than an ethical one, a fact which is apparent in the Aten Hymn. . . .

Noble though this doctrine may have been in many ways, it failed to win the approval or support of any but Akhenaten's circle of courtiers and adherents. To the people, as from time immemorial in Egypt, the Pharaoh was himself a god, and Akhenaten did not seek to alter this. Only he and his family were privileged to offer worship directly to Ten; the people directed their prayers to the king, and through him the blessings of Ten were vouchsafed to them. It was inevitable that a doctrine of so contemplative and intellectual a nature would be incomprehensible to the common folk who either ignored it or adopted a hostile attitude towards it. This fact, combined with the lack of a spirit of compromise, so essential to the syncretistical-minded Egyptian, spelled disaster for Atenism. Under Akhenaten's co-regent and successor Smenkhkare, perhaps even before the former's death, a movement for reconciliation with the Amon-Re cult began. Before many years had passed, Atenism was forgotten, and the heretic king Akhenaten was anathematized by later generations. . . .

The first strophe extols the splendor of Aten as he rises in the heaven. Re, the sun-god of Heliopolis, is identified with Aten in line 7. . . . The next two strophes describe the terrors of darkness, when Aten is absent from the sky, as contrasted with the joys of day, when he has returned to pour his beneficent rays on the earth. . . . The fourth strophe speaks of Aten's life-giving powers in the world of nature. . . . The fifth and sixth strophes laud Aten as creator of the Universe. . . . In the seventh strophe Aten is hailed as a universal god, creating and sustaining all people....... The eighth strophe tells of Aten's concern for foreign lands....... Ten is viewed as the creator of the seasons in the next strophe.

1. Thou dost appear beautiful on the horizon of heaven, 0' living Aten, thou who wast the first to live. When thou hast risen on the eastern horizon, Thou hast filled every land with thy beauty.

5. Thou art fair, great, dazzling, high above every land;

Thy rays encompass the lands to the very limit of all thou hast made.Being Re, thou dost reach to their limit And curb them [for] thy beloved son;Though thou art distant, they rays arc upon the earth;

10. Thou art in their faces, yet thy movements are unknown. When thou dost set on the western horizon,The earth is in darkness, resembling death. Men sleep in the bed-chamber with their heads covered,Nor does one eye behold the other.

15. Were all their goods stolen which are beneath their heads They would not be aware of it. Every lion has come forth from his den, All the snakes bite. Darkness prevails, and the earth is in silence,

20. Since he who made them is resting in his horizon, At daybreak, when thou dost rise on the horizon, Dost shine as Aten by day, Thou dost dispel the darkness And shed thy rays.

25. The two Lands arc in a festive mood, Awake, and standing on (their) feet,For thou hast raised them up; They cleanse their bodies and take (their) garments;Their arms are (lifted) in adoration at thine appearing;

30. The whole land performs its labor.All beasts are satisfied with their pasture; Trees and plants arc verdant. The birds which fly from their nests, their wings are (spread) in adoration to thy soul;All flocks skip with(their)feet;All that fly up and alight Live when thou has risen [for] them. Ships sail upstream and downstream alike, For every route is open at thine appearing. The fish in the river leap before thee,

40. For thy rays are in the midst of the sea Thou creator of issue in woman, who makest semen into mankind, And dost sustain the son in mother's womb, Who dost soothe him with that which stills his tears, Thou nurse in the very womb, giving breath to sustain all thou dost make!

45- When he issues from the womb to breathe on the day of his birth, Thou dost open his mouth completely and supply his needs. When the chick in the egg cheeps inside the shell, Thou givest it breath within it to sustain it. Thou hast set it its appointed time in the egg to break it,

50. That it may emerge from the egg to cheep at its appointed time; That it may walk with its feet when it emerges from it.How manifold is that which thou hast made, hidden from view! Thou sole god, there is no other like thee! Thou didst create the earth according to thy will, being alone:

55. Mankind, cattle, all flocks, Everything on earth which walks with (its) feet, And what are on high, flying with their wings.The foreign lands of Hurru and Nubia, the land of Egypt-Thou dost set each man in his place and supply his needs;

60. Each one has his food, and his lifetime is reckoned. Their tongues are diverse in speech and their natures likewise; Their skins are varied, for thou dost vary the foreigners. Thou dost make the Nile in the underworld, And bringest it forth as thou desirest to sustain the people

65 As thou dost make them for thyself, Lord of them all, who dost weary thyself with them, Lord of every land, who dost rise for them, Thou Ten of the day, great in majesty.As for all distant foreign lands, thou makest their life,

70. For thou hast set a Nile in the sky,That it may descend for them, That it may make waves on the mountains like the sea, To water their fields amongst their towns.How excellent are thy plans, thou lord of eternity!

75. The Nile in the sky is for the foreign peoples, For the flocks of every foreign land that walk with (their) feet, While the (true) Nile comes forth from the underworld for Egypt. Thy rays suckle every field; When thou dost rise, they live and thrive for thee.

80. Thou makest the seasons to nourish all that thou hast made: The winter to cool them; the heat that they (?) may taste thee. Thou didst make the distant sky to rise in it, To see all that thou hast made.Being alone, and risen in thy form as the living Aten,

85. Whether appearing, shining, distant, or near, . Thou makest millions of forms from thyself alone: Cities, towns, fields, road, and river. . . There is no other that knows thee,

95- Save thy son Akhenaten, For thou hast made him skilled in thy plans and thy might. The earth came into being by thy hand, just as thou didst make them (i.e mankind).When thou hast risen, they live;

100. When thou dost sct, they die.For thou art lifetime thyself, one lives through thee;Eyes arc upon (thy) beauty until thou dost set. All labor is put aside when thou dost sct in the west; When [thou] risest [thou] makest . . . flourish for the king.

105. As for all who hasten on foot,Ever since thou didst fashion the earth,Thou dost raise them up for thy son who came forth from thyself,The King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Akhnaten.


Introduction and translation by R. J. Williams, in D. Winton Thomas (ed.), Documents from Old Testament Times (London: Thomas Nelson, 1958)

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