Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt

Page: 68

[Pg 159] the king built to his god in Akhet-Aten he called Het-Benben, the 'House of the Pyramidion.' It was never completed.

The religion thus thrust upon the people of Egypt met with a by no means ready acceptance. The deities which had hitherto been evolved in each nome or province had each his special attributes and ritual, any or all of which might be absorbed by the central deity. But, as has been said, Aten was incapable of this fusion with the local gods. He was indeed a much more colourless deity than Amen or Horus.

It is interesting to speculate upon the probable motives of Akh-en-Aten in introducing this new cult into Egypt. It has been suggested that his inauguration of Aten-worship was an enlightened, if somewhat misplaced, attempt to unite Egypt under the sway of one religion, a religion in which all could participate, which did not bear the cachet of any one race or caste, and which in consequence would prove equally acceptable to Syrian, Ethiopian, or Egyptian. If such were his aim, it is evident that the people of Egypt were not prepared for the upheaval. The drastic and fanatical measures, too, of Akh-en-Aten defeated his own ends and roused distrust and hatred of the 'Aten heresy.'

A Social Revolt

Accompanying this religious revolution came a social and artistic revolt of no less striking proportions. Aten as a deity was freed, in theory at least, from the trammels of myth and ritual which had grown up round his predecessors in Egypt. His was essentially a naturalistic cult. Social life in Akhet-Aten, therefore, tended to become much freer and more natural. The king and queen moved among the people with less formality than had hitherto obtained; family life was[Pg 160] subject to fewer restraints; in short, a decided tendency to all that was natural and spontaneous was observable. The movement spread in time even to the art of the nation, which shows a certain departure from established traditions in the matter of colouring, while during this reign Egyptian artists show for the first time that they appreciated the effects of light and shade as well as of mere outline.

We have unfortunately no means of knowing the exact period of Akh-en-Aten's reign. Probably it covered about a score of years. After him came various other rulers, but none of these upheld the Aten cult, which speedily declined, while the supremacy of Amen-Ra was triumphantly restored. All monuments and temples in honour of Aten were effaced, and only recovered within recent times by Lepsius, Petrie, and Davies. The last refuge of the god was at Heliopolis, where a sanctuary remained to him.

Aten's Attributes

Now as to the attributes of Aten. As already stated he was a somewhat colourless deity, and is perhaps better to be distinguished by the attributes which are not ascribed to him than by those which are, though in time some of the attributes of Ra, Horus, and other forms of the sun-god were given to him. From his original subordinate position as the abode of Ra—the material disk wherein the sun-god had his dwelling ('Ra in his Aten')—Aten came in time to signify both the god and the actual solar disk. Attempts made to identify him with the Semitic Adonai, the Greek Adonis, have met with no success. Evidence of Aten's early position in the pantheon is to be found in the Book of the Dead, where Ra is addressed thus: "O thou beautiful being, thou dost renew thyself and make[Pg 161] thyself young again under the form of Aten." "Thou turnest thy face toward the underworld, and thou makest the earth to shine like fine copper. The dead rise up to see thee, they breathe the air and they look upon thy face when Aten shineth in the horizon."

A Hymn to Aten

During the period when his cult was supreme in Egypt Aten was regarded by his worshippers as the creator, self-existent and everlasting, fructifier and nourisher of the earth and all it contains, measurer of the lives of men. Aten was invested with a cartouche, wherein he is styled 'Lord of heaven,' 'Lord of earth,' 'He who liveth for ever,' 'He who illumineth the earth,' 'He who reigneth in truth'. A singularly beautiful and poetic version of a hymn to Aten, in which he is exalted as the giver of life and fruitfulness to all things, has been found in the tomb of Aï, a high official under Amen-hetep, or Akh-en-Aten. It begins thus:

Beauteous is thy resplendent appearing on the horizon of
O Aten, who livest and art the beginning of life!

He it was who made the Nile in the Duat and conducted it to men, causing its waters to rise; he, also, who sent the rain to those lands which were beyond the reach of the Nile's beneficent flood.

Thou makest the Nile in the underworld, thou conductest
it hither at thy pleasure,
That it may give life to men whom thou hast made for
thyself, Lord of All!
Thou givest the Nile in heaven that it descendeth to them.
It causeth its waters to rise upon the rocks like the sea;
[Pg 162]it watereth their fields in their districts.

So are thy methods accomplished, O Lord of Eternity!
thou who art thyself the celestial Nile:
Thou art the king of the inhabitants of the lands,
And of the cattle going upon their feet in every land,
which go upon feet.
The Nile cometh out of the underworld to Egypt.

The Aten hymns, then, ascribe to the deity such attributes as any people might see in their sun-god. All the paraphernalia of the cult of Ra, Osiris, and like divinities are absent. There is no mention of the barques in which they sailed across the heavens; of Apep, the great serpent, and the other enemies of Ra; of the companies of gods and goddesses which formed his train. We find in the cult of Aten no myths such as that of the battles of Horus, nor do the ceremonies and ritual of the domain of Osiris enter into it. All these are without parallel in the Aten-worship. It is easily understood why it failed in its appeal to the Egyptian people.

Aten was not even figured as anthropomorphic, as were Ra and Osiris, but was invariably represented as the sun-disk, with rays emanating from it in a downward direction. Each ray terminated in a human hand, to which were sometimes attached the sign of life, the sign of power, and so on. Reliefs of this period frequently depict the king and queen seated with their children, over their heads the symbol of Aten, one of whose numerous hands presents the sign of life to each member of the royal family.