Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
Aten, the disk of the sun, stands in a class by himself in Egyptian mythology. Although he possesses certain broad characteristics in common with other sun-gods of Egypt, yet an examination of this deity shows that he[Pg 157] differs widely from these in many respects, and that his cult is indeed entirely foreign to the religious genius of the Egyptian people. The cult of Aten, of which there is little record before the time of Amen-hetep IV, sprang into sudden prominence during that monarch's reign and became for a time the State religion of Egypt. Of its origin nothing is known, and it would appear that under the Middle Kingdom Aten was an obscure local deity, worshipped somewhere in the neighbourhood of Heliopolis. His important position in the Egyptian pantheon is due to the fact that his cult was directly responsible for a great religious, social, and artistic revolution which occurred during the reign of Amen-hetep IV.
With the overthrow of the Hyksos kings and the consequent establishment of the Theban monarchy (at the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty), Amen, the local god of Thebes, took the place of honour in the Egyptian pantheon, and was worshipped as Amen-Ra. However, it is known that Thothmes IV did much to restore the worship of Ra-Harmachis. His son, Amen-hetep III, built temples to this deity and to Aten at Memphis and Thebes. In this he would appear to have been supported by his wife Tyi, daughter of Iuaa and Thuau, who, though not connected with the Egyptian royal line, became chief of the royal wives. Possibly she herself was originally a votary of Aten, which would account for the reverence with which her son, Amen-hetep IV, regarded that deity. On the accession of the last-named monarch he adopted the title of 'high-priest of Ra-Heru-Akhti, the exalted one in the horizon, in his name of Shu who is in Aten,' this implying that, according to the view generally current at that period, he regarded Aten as the abode of the[Pg 158] sun-god rather than as the divinity himself. In the early part of his reign Amen-hetep worshipped both Amen and Aten, the former in his rôle of monarch, the latter in his private capacity, while he also built a great obelisk at Thebes in honour of Ra-Harmachis. Then it became apparent that the king desired to exalt Aten above all the other gods. This was by no means pleasing to the worshippers of Amen, whose priesthood was recruited from the noblest families in the land. A struggle ensued between the votaries of Amen-Ra and those of Aten, and finally the king built a new capital, dedicated to the faith of Aten, on the site of what is now Tell-el-Amarna, in Middle Egypt. Thence he withdrew with his followers when the struggle reached its height. To the new city he gave the name of Akhet-Aten ('Horizon of Aten'). His own name, Amen-hetep, he changed to Akh-en-Aten ('Glory of Aten').