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Belief in one god in ancient Egypt

The solitary sun-god in the reign of king Akhenaten

The most dramatic upheaval recorded in the three thousand year history of ancient Egyptian religion is the reign of Akhenaten.

In his fifth year of reign, king Amenhotep IV changed his birth name 'Amun-is-content' to Akhenaten 'one who is akh for the Aten', akh evoking Egyptian words covering notions of usefulness and light. He founded a new city Akhetaten 'Horizon of the Aten' at a desert bay at a point halfway between Memphis and Thebes, now know as Amarna. Here the only god worshipped by the king would be the sun-god. The temples at Amarna present vast open spaces with altars for offerings and raised platforms. There are pictorial sources for the life of the temples, and inscriptions in the tombs of officials, recording hymns to the sun-god.

The singing of hymns to the sun-god as creator seems to have been at all periods the central feature of the cult of the sun-god Ra. However, this hymn is radically different in its systematic exclusion of any other deities. The singing may have taken place at specific moments of day and year, and in demarcated places within the sun temples, above all the open-air platforms with stepped approach and walls screening the worshipper from view (for such balustraded platforms see Shaw 1994, with reference to monuments including UC 401).

The difference between traditional and Amarnan religious expression is clearest in the iconography of Akhenaten, both in the unusual proportions for the male and female human body, and in the 'portrayal' of the sun-god. At Amarna the sun-god is depicted in radical new style as sun-disk (in Egyptian itn, generally rendered in English as Aten) with sun-rays terminating in hands offering life to the king and the women nearest to him.


The Great Hymn to the Aten

The Great Hymn to the Aten is our principal source for the radical reformulation of ancient Egyptian belief in the reign of Akhenaten. It is inscribed in thirteen columns of hieroglyphs on the west wall of the courtier Ay at Amarna. The original hieroglyphic inscriptions have suffered from vandalism since discovery. The best copy is that by Davies 1908b: pl.27 and pl.41, and an accessible handcopy of the hieroglyphs is in Sandman 1938: 93-96.

There are numerous translations of the Great Hymn, and the following is only one rendering of this, one of the most influential of surviving ancient Egyptian writings.


xay.k nfr m Axt nt pt
itn anx SAa anx
iw.k wbn.ti m Axt
mH.n.k tA nb m nfrw.k
iw.k an.ti wr.ti THn.ti qA.ti Hr-tp tA nb
stwt.k inH.sn tAw r r-a irt.n.k nb
iw.k m ra in.k r r-a.sn
waf.k sn (n) sA-mr.k
iw.k wA.ti stwt.k Hr tA
tw.k m Hr.sn nw Smw.k


Htp.k m Axt imntt tA m kk m sxr n mwt
sDrw m Ssp tpw Hbs
n ptr.n irt snwt.s
iTA.tw xt.sn nb iw.w Xr tp.sn n am.sn
mAi nb pr m rwty.f
Ddft nb psH.sn
kkw HAw tA m sgr pA ir.sn Htp m Axt.f
HD-tA wbn.ti m Axt psd.ti m itn m h(rw)
rwi.k kkw di.k stwt.k
tAwy m Hb rs aHa Hr rdwy
Tsy.n.k sn wab Haw.sn Sspw wnxw
awy.sn m iAw n xaa.k

tA r-Dr.f ir.sn kAt.sn
iAt nb Htp Hr smw.sn
Snw smw Hr AxAxw
Apdw pAw m Ssw.sn
dnHw.sn m iAw n kA.k
awt nb Hr Tbhn Hr rdwy
pAyw xnnt nb
anx.sn wbn n.k sn
aHaw m xd xnty m-mitt
wAt nb wn n xa.k
rmw Hr itrw Hr tft n Hr.k
stwt.k m-Xn wAD-wr

sxpr mAyw m Hmwt
ir mw m rmT
sanx sA m Xt n mwt.f
sgrH sw m tmt rmy.f
mnat m Xt dyw TAw r sanx irt.f nb
hA.f m Xt r tpt hrw msw.f
wpw.k r.f Hr qd
ir.k xrt.f
iw TA m swHt mdw m inr
di.k n.f TAw m-Xnw.s r sanx.f
ir.n.k n.f dmdy.f r sd.s m swHt
pr.f m swHt r mdt r dmdy.f
Sm.f Hr rdwy.fy pr.f im.s

aSA.wy siry.k iw.w StAw m Hr
pA nTr wa nn ky Hr-xw.f
qmA.k tA n ib.k iw.k wa.ti
m rmT mnmnt awt nb
nty Hr tASm.w Hr rdwy
nty m ax Hr pAyw m dnHw.sn
xAswt xAr kS pA tA n kmt
di.k s nb r st.f
ir.k Xrt.sn
wa nb Xry r wnmw.f Hsb aHa.f
nsw wpw m mdwt qdw.sn m mitt
inmw.sn stnw stn.k xAswt

ir.k Hapy m dwAt in.k sw r mr.k
r sanx rxyt mi ir.k sn n.k
nb iry.sn r-Aw im.sn
pA nb n tA nb wbn n.sn pA itn n hrw aA Sft
xAst nb wAt ir.k anx.sn
di.n.k Hapy m pt hAy.f n.sn
ir.f hnw Hr Dww mi wAD-wr
r txb AHwt.sn m dmi.sn
smnx.wy sy sxrw.k pA nb HH
Hapy m pt sw n xAstyw n awt xAst nb Smw rdwy
Hapy iy.f m dwAt n tA mri
stwt.k Hr mna SA nb
wbn.k anx.sn rwd.sn n.k
ir.k trw r sxpr iry.k nb
prt r sqb.sn hh dp.f st tw

ir.n.k pt wA.ti r wbn im.s
r mA iry.k nb iw.k wa.ti wbn.ti m xprw.k m itn anx
xa.ti psd.ti wA.ti Xn.ti
ir.k HHw n xprw im.k way
niwt dmiw AHt mtn itrw
gmH tw irt nb r aqy.sn
iw.k m itn n hrw Hr tp n Sm.n.k
n wnn irt nb qmA.k Hr st r tm.k mA Haw [...] wa irt.n.k

iw.k m ib.i nn wn ky rx.tw
wp Hr sA.k nfr-xprw-ra wa-n-ra
di.k sSA.f m sxrw.k m pHty.k
xpr tA Hr a.k
mi ir.k sn
wbn.n.k anx.sn
Htp.k mwt.sn
ntk aHa r Haw.k
anx.tw im.k
wn irw Hr nfrw.k r Htp.k
wAH.tw kAt nb
Htp.k Hr imny
wbn srwd [...] nswt
wn m rd nb Dr snT.k tA
wTs.k sn n sA.k pr m Haw.k
nswt anx m mAat nb tAwy
nfr-xprw-ra wa-n-ra
sA ra anx m mAat nb xaw
ax-n-itn wr m aHa.f
Hmt nswt wrt mrt.f nbt tAwy
nfr-nfrw-itn nfrt-ii.ti anx.ti Dt


You rise beautiful from the horizon on heaven,
living disk, origin of life.
You are arisen from the horizon,
you have filled every land with your beauty.
You are fine, great, radiant, lofty over and above every land.
Your rays bind the lands to the limit of all you have made,
you are the sun, you have reached their limits.
You bind them (for) your beloved son.
You are distant, but your rays are on earth,
You are in their sight, but your movements are hidden.

You rest in the western horizon, and the land is in darkness in the manner of death,
sleepers in chambers, heads covered,
no eye can see its other.
Anything of theirs can be taken from under their heads, they would not know.
Every lion goes out from its den,
every snake bites.
Darkness envelops, the land is in silence, their creator is resting in his horizon.
At daybreak, arisen from the hrozion, shining as the disk in day,
you remove the darkness, you grant your rays,
and the two lands are in festival,
awakened and standing on their feet.
You have raised them up, their bodies cleansed, clothing on,
their arms are in adoration at your sunrise.

The entire land carries out its tasks,
every herd rests in its pastures,
trees and plants are sprouting,
birds flying up from their nests,
their wings in adoration for your spirit.
Every flock frolics afoot,
all that fly up and alight,
they live when you have shone for them.
Boats sail north and south too,
every road is opened at your sunrise,
and the fish on the river leap at the sight of you
Your rays penetrate the Great Green.

You who cause the sperm to grow in women,
who turns seed into people,
who causes the son to live in the womb of his mother,
who silences him in stopping him crying.
Nurse in the womb, who gives breath to cause all he has made to live,
when he goes down from the womb to breathe on the day of his birth,
you open his mouth in form,
you make his needs.
When the chick in the egg speaks in the shell,
you give it breath within to cause it to live,
you have made him, he is complete, to break out from the egg,
and he emerges from the egg to speak to his completion,
and walks on his legs, going out from it.

How numerous are your works, though hidden from sight.
Unique god, there is none beside him.
You mould the earth to your wish, you and you alone.
All people, herds and flocks,
All on earth that walk on legs,
All on high that fly with their wings.
And on the foreign lands of Khar and Kush, the land of Egypt
You place every man in his place,
you make what they need,
so that everyone has his food,
his lifespan counted.

Tongues are separated in speech, and forms too -
Their skins are made different,
for you make foreign lands different.

You make a Flood in the underworld, and bring it at your desire
to cause the populace to live, as you made them for you,
lord of all they labour over,
the lord of every land.
Shine for them, O disk of day, great of dignity.
All distant lands, you make them live,
you place a Flood in the sky, to descend for them,
to make waves over the mountains like the Great Green,
to water their fields with their settlements.
How effective they are, your plans, O lord of eternity!
A Flood in the sky for foreigners, for the flocks of every land that go on foot,
and a Flood to come from the underworld for Egypt,
your rays nursing every meadow,
you shine and they live and grow for you.
You make the seasons to nurture all you mae,
winter to cool them,
heat so they may taste you.


You have made the far sky to shine in it,
to see what you make, while you are far, and shining in your form as living disk.
risen, shining, distant, near,
you make millions of forms from yourself, lone one,
cities, towns,. fields, the road of rivers,
every eye sees you in their entry,
you are the disk of day, master of your move,
of the existence of every form,
you create ... alone, what you have made.


You are in my heart, there is none other who knows you
beside your son Neferkheperura-sole-one-of-Ra.
You instruct him in your plans, in your strength.
The land comes into being by your action, as you make them,
and when you have shone, they live,
when you rest, they die.
You are lifetime, in your body,
people live by you.
Eyes are on your beauty until you set.
All work is stopped when you set on the west;
shine, and strengthen (all for) the king.
Motion is in every leg, since you founded the earth,
you raise them for your son who come from your body,
the king who lives on Right, lord of the two lands,
son of Ra who lives on Right, lord of Risings,
Akhenaten, great in his lifespan,
and the great king's wife whom he loves, lady of the two lands,
Neferneferuaten Nefertiti, eternally alive.



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