Saturday, February 02, 2013

Heretic Pharaoh
A Note

The Aton 

One of the most controversial historical figures is that of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, a Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty who reigned c. 1353-1336 B.C.E.1 The reasons for the controversy are rather obvious, the Pharaoh’s attempted religious changes and to put it bluntly the rather grotesque physique indicated by the art work of his reign. 

All of this has led to endless but ultimately quite fruitless and irrelevant speculation much of it totally absurd about Akhenaten’s motives. To say nothing of all sorts of idiotic speculation about the psychology of the Pharaoh.2 

The fact is all we can do is make educated guesses into why Akhenaten did what he did. Sadly the official records of his reign are not terribly helpful in trying to figure out the motive and purposes of his religious changes.3 

It is of important to record that although Akhenaten has earned a lot of kudos for his advanced religious views he has also gotten a great amount of what can only be termed abuse that depends more on personal dislike for the image of Akhenaton created in the mind of the writer than on any actual documented behavior of Akhenaten4  

In this posting I will treat just two aspects of the reign of Akhenaten. The first is the question of why Akhenaten had himself depicted in such a strange manner. Certainly it was strange in comparison with the way Pharaoh’s usually were in Egyptian art. The second will be a speculation about one of the motives for the religious revolution attempted during his reign. 

One of the most extraordinary features of ancient Egyptian art is its startling consistency over time. Most people would have trouble distinguishing between Egyptian art of the 26th century B.C.E., and Egyptian art erected by the Ptolemaic Pharaohs of the 1st B.C.E. And one of the most “orthodox” conventions of ancient Egyptian art was how the Pharaoh was depicted. 

The following is a thoroughly conventional picture of the Pharaoh Akhenaton from early in his reign.

The Pharaoh Akhenaten

Note the massive shoulders, slender waist and strong legs. This Pharaoh is an impressive imposing figure. Of course what the Pharaoh’s really looked like is quite another matter. It is obvious that these images are political propaganda, iconography and are not meant to be realistic.5

The Pharaoh Akhenaten

Now look at this depiction of the Pharaoh Akhenaten. It certainly is far removed from that imposing figure. The shoulders are small, the arms thin, the belly is not flat but protruding and potbellied. The hips and upper legs massive in comparison to the upper body. The face instead of being compact and strong is elongated with large fleshy lips. The expression not firm and commanding but dreamlike. In fact it looks like a caricature.  

The contrast with previous ways of depicting the Pharaoh is very large.  

So why did Akhenaten require this way of depicting himself?  

Several scholars have insisted that this is what Akhenaten actually looked like. That Akhenaton had either Frohlich’s syndrome or Marfan syndrome. The problem with this is that it assumes that the representations are accurate representations of Akhenaten’s physical body.  

The problems with that, aside from the fact we don’t have Akhenaten’s body, are manifold.  

First past representations of Pharaoh’s were not physically accurate, so why assume this one is. Secondly the style was used in the depictions of most everyone in art of the time period, especially members of the Royal family.6 

Secondly we have depictions of Akhenaten, before he instigated his religious changes and they depict him as a conventional Pharaoh.7  

As for why Akhenaten was depicted in this manner perhaps looking at religious iconography might be a more fruitful source of explanation.  

Well for example the elongated heads that Akhenaten and his family were depicted with could represent the egg of creation. The large thighs and hips could represent fertility. Similarly the elongated face could possibly be a fertility symbol.8  

It is important to remember that supreme God according to Akhenaton was the Aton, who was the disk of the Sun. Akhenaton perceived Aton as a source of fertility and abundance. The God was both masculine and feminine in effect a bisexual, androgynous deity.9 

In Akhenaten’s conception he was the Son of the Aton which meant that he, like the Aton combined masculine and feminine attributes. This characteristic would be shared by other members of the Royal family in representation and of course it would be copied by others anxious for royal favour.10  

In Akhenaten’s new faith he and the royal family worshiped the Aton and everyone else worshipped the Royal family as children of the Aton. It appears to be the case that at the very least the sculptures of Akhenaten and family greatly exaggerate certain features for iconographic and religious propaganda reasons.11 

A second issue is why did Akhenaten embark on his attempted religious revolution. There were likely many reasons but one likely reason will be outlined here.  

It has been noted by many that Akhenaten during his reign showed particular animosity against the cult of Ammon. Now Ammon was more or less the patron God of the 18th dynasty and had been elevated to supremacy among the Egyptian Gods. In fact under the name of a composite deity Ammon-Ra he had even usurped the position of the Sun God Ra.12  

The result of all this was that steadily over the years the Priesthood and Temples of Ammon had acquired vast wealth and estates throughout Egypt, further the Priesthood of Ammon had steadily acquired more and more economic and political power.13 

In theory the Pharaoh of Egypt was a God and the power of Pharaoh was supposedly unlimited. Steadily over the years the power of Pharaoh was being increasingly challenged by the various Priesthoods, especially that of Ammon. Gradually the Pharaoh felt both power and wealth slipping out of his hands and the Priesthood gradually drawing more wealth into its hands and leaving the Pharaoh with less.14 

Now Akhenaten probably knew that there was a time when Ammon was a mere local deity in Thebes. Further Akhenaten likely knew of a time when in the Egyptian Old Kingdom, when the ruling deity was the Sun in the form of the God Ra. During this time the Priesthoods were nowhere near as powerful or wealthy further they were clearly subordinate to the Pharaoh.  

It is usual to consider Akhenaten a religious revolutionary. However in some important respects Akhenaten was in fact conservative and trying to turn the clock back. By crushing the cult of Ammon and creating a new cult centered around the Sun and the royal family he was endeavoring to reassert Pharaonic power, by curbing the wealth and power of the priesthoods, especially that of Ammon.15  

Akhenaten likely saw the powerful priesthoods as a threat to his power and one that needed to be cut back and pharaonic power and wealth reasserted and the priesthoods once again be made subservient to the Pharaoh. Taking back all the wealth heaped upon the priesthoods especially that of Ammon also played a role.  

It for example appears to be the case that the army, which probably felt the priesthoods to be rival for power in the state seems to have supported Akhenaten’s policies and was rewarded for its support.16  

Thus in many respects Akhenaten was attempting a counter revolution. A counter revolution that ultimately failed.  

Sometime later I may do another posting about Akhenaten.  

1.   Stannish, Steven M., New Evidence for the Amarna Period, Phd., Dissertation, Miami University History Department, Oxford Ohio, 2001, p. ii.  

2. I will spare the reader a list of the wild, bootless, effusions concerning Akhenaton’s psychology but one can start the road to fantasy land with Freud, Sigmund, Moses and Monotheism, 1939 can be found at The Internet Archive Here.  

3. Aldred, Cyril, Akhenaten King of Egypt, Thames and Hudson, London, 1991, pp. 237-248, Wilson, John A., The Culture of Ancient Egypt, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1951, pp. 206-216, Breasted, James Henry, A History of Egypt, Bantam Books, New York, 1905, pp. 297-318, Redford, Donald P., Akhenaten The Heretic King, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1984 pp. 57-63.  

4. See Redford above and Reeves, Nicholas, Egypt’s False Prophet Akhenaten, Thames and Hudson, London, 2001, for outstanding examples of dislike.  

5. Picture is from Aldred p. 90. 

6. Ibid, pp. 231-236, Marfan Syndrome, Wikipedia Here, Akhenaten, Wikipedia Here, Tyldesley, Joyce, Nefertiti, Penguin Books, London, 1998, pp. 92-109, Kemp, Barry, The City of Akhenaton and Nefertiti: Amarna and its People, Thames pp. 23-45.  

7. Aldred, pp. 88-92.  

8. Aldred, pp. 231-236, Tyldesley, pp. 92-109.  

9. Aldred, pp. 237-248, Tyldesley, pp. 67-91, Reeves, pp. 140-147, Wilson, pp. 222-233, Redford, pp. 169-181.  

10. IBID, Reeves, pp. 146-149, Kemp, pp. 231-263.  

11. Tyldesley, pp. 91-109, Aldred, pp. 86-94, Wilson, pp. 223-224.  

12. Reeves, pp. 154-155, Aldred, pp. 279-290, Wilson, pp. 221-222, 225. 

13. Wilson, pp. 206-210, Redford, pp. 158-165, Reeves, pp. 43-46.  

14. IBID, Redford, pp. 185-203.  

15. IBID, and Footnote 13.  

16. Footnote 14, Wilson, p. 231.  

Pierre Cloutier

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