AKHENATEN: A KING UNDONE
By Anand Balaji
When Akhenaten moved to his new capital, Akhetaten (Horizon of the Aten), he was a man on a mission. Unlike a few kings who had done the same in the past; he had a religious agenda up his sleeve, which would unfold in a few short years. The proscription of the state god Amun Ra was a body-blow to the deity’s massive cult. But the question remains, was Akhenaten a monotheist in the way in which we understand and interpret the word today?
For instance, the concept of Ma’at (the harmony, balance, and equilibrium of the entire cosmos) which was traditionally embodied within the goddess Ma’at including Truth, Justice and Morality was preserved by Akhenaten, who was formally the high-priest of all temples, and his delegates. Dr William Murnane observes that the Pharaoh was careful to stress that he was living within the principles of Ma’at, commonly using an epithet ‘Ankh-em-Ma’at’ – Living in Truth.
Akhenaten had, in his initial years on the throne, tried to encourage the co-existence of Amun and the Aten. But that attempt seems to have backfired. Apart from openly severing ties with Amun, and later Osiris; the adoration of other gods and goddesses, though not banned outright, was not encouraged either – or perhaps there was an uneasy accommodation. This could explain why, at Amarna, we find evidence of clandestine worship—hidden shrines, small images of the popular deities, such as Bes and Taweret – in the form of idols, amulets and scarabs too. The populace held on to the old religion covertly, in spite of decrees to the opposite by the solar disc-loving pharaoh.
Peter Clayton provides the probable reasons why Atenism did not translate into monotheism: “It appears that it was only the upper echelons of society which embraced the new religion with any fervour (and perhaps that was only skin deep). Excavations at Amarna have indicated that even here the old way of religion continued among the ordinary people. On a wider scale, throughout Egypt, the new cult does not seem to have had much effect at a common level except, of course, in dismantling the priesthood and closing the temples; but then the ordinary populace had had little to do with the religious establishment anyway, except on the high days and holidays when the god’s statue would be carried in procession from the sanctuary outside the great temple walls.”
All of the sweeping changes Akhenaten introduced had more to do with economics rather than religion alone. Amun temples were shut immediately after the deity was proscribed; and this meant that revenues could now be easily channeled to the Aten’s coffers – and it was, according to these lines from Parennefer’s tomb: “The servant who is not diligent concerning the offerings of the Disc gives himself over into thy (the king’s) power… corn-imposts of… the Disc they are measured in superabundance!”. Dr Donald Redford gives an account of the uneasy turn of events: “Already large quantities of offerings were being diverted to the Disc at the expense of other temples, and… those officials that did not adjust to the new conditions would be cutting their own throats.”
But it was the layperson who could not make head or tail of the king’s decisions, as Dr Edna Russmann postulates, “The Aten cult probably had little popular appeal, and certainly the people of Egypt must have found it hard to accept this god with no face, no personality, and no richness of myth or superstition.” This must have been Akhenaten’s final undoing.