Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s ‘Monotheism’: What the Images Tell Us

On Wednesday 15 May 2019, at the Ionic Centre, 11 Lysiou st., Plaka, an interesting lecture by the distinguished Israeli Egyptologist Prof. Dr. Arlette David took place, entitled: Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s ‘Monotheism’: What the Images Tell Us. The event was jointly organized by the Jewish Museum of Greece, the Hellenic Institute of Egyptology and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Below, you can find a brief version of Prof. David’s lecture.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s ‘Monotheism’: What the Images Tell Us

Arlette David, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The study of ancient Egyptian royal iconography during Akhenaten’s reign (circa 1350 BC) may clarify the essence of Akhenaten’s revolutionary doctrine based on his faith in the god Aten. In the royal and elite tombs that were prepared in Akhetaten (Tell el-Amarna), the sacred domain Akhenaten built for his god, the reliefs show the king and his family under the rays of Aten, performing activities and gestures of special significance in their iconographic context. By examining a few scenes in which the royal couple performs peculiar motions or sits in a position never seen before in ancient Egyptian iconography, we will consider what these images reveal about Akhenaten’s politico-religious beliefs. 

By the end of Dynasty 18, around 1350 BC, King Amenhotep IV had brought about a politico-religious reform, at the heart of which stood his belief in a solar creator god, Aten, and the eviction of the traditional pantheon, a doctrine today known as Atenism. Though early in his reign Aten was depicted as an anthropomorphic, falcon-headed figure, by the 4th year of his reign Akhenaten had already conceived the definitive image with which the living God Aten would become associated: an orb with its cobra from whose body a sign of life hung, and rays ending with hieroglyphic hands. Changing his name to Akhenaten, ‘light-effective for Aten,’ probably during the 5th year of his reign, his new religion only admitted one god, for which he built a domain, Akhetaten, the ‘Light abode of Aten,’ on a site today called Tell el-Amarna in Middle Egypt. On the walls of the tombs of his high officials in Amarna it is indeed proclaimed that Akhenaten’s faith was exclusively devoted to Aten for ‘there is no other but him,’ Aten.

But Akhenaten’s new doctrine was not just a religious reform, it was even more a political one, enabling the King to establish a pharaoh-centric regime on a scale probably never attained in Dynasty 18 before his reign: Pharaoh remained the sole authority under Aten’s spotlight, the earthly sun to Aten’s heavenly sun, the perfect child of Aten, rising every morning like his father. With no other god to answer to, Akhenaten established his omnipotence, blurring the notions of kingship and divinity in an unprecedented way, even by his father Amenhotep III: the God Aten had the titulary and attributes of a king, and his son, King Akhenaten, was by the virtue of his solar essence a living god. Not merely exercising a divine office, he was the divine ruler par excellence during his lifetime. In this context, I would suggest that Akhenaten’s faith was monotheistic in the sense that he believed in no other god, but since he conceived himself and Queen Nefertiti as divine, they were worshipped besides Aten by the Egyptian elite who followed the King. His adepts thus believed in a divine trinity in which Akhenaten and Nefertiti were divine manifestations of Aten on earth and Akhenaten was the reigning solar son. We may assume that most Egyptians did not fully understand the new religion since it was only communicated by the King to his immediate entourage; but they could observe the results of Akhenaten’s iconoclasm against major deities at the temples’ gates and in the open cultic rooms of tombs. In Amarna we can see that the population did not wholly abandon the traditional pantheon to follow their King’s Atenism.

I believe that the study of ancient Egyptian royal iconography during Akhenaten’s reign may clarify the essence of Akhenaten’s vision and expose the ways in which he reveals and proclaims his own divine essence. The striking royal image instigated by Akhenaten and the stylistic innovations it entailed were indeed meant to revisit the traditional and depleted formula of royal presentation, to reactivate the royal icon and to imbue it with fresh conceptual avenues. The innovative presentation appeared soon into the reign, before the King transferred his capital to Amarna, probably by Year 4 as demonstrated by the Theban material in Karnak.

Much has been said about the King’s peculiar body-image; my interest however is in some peculiar motifs in Amarna that I found shedding light on essential aspects of Atenist Kingship. I’m discussing here three of them: the unusual motif of a queen sitting in Akhenaten’s lap, the Queen driving her chariot, and the recurrent motif of the King extending a scepter in the light of Aten.

As for the connection between Akhenaten’s faith and pre-exilic/post-exilic Judaism, the similarities among Akhenaten’s most celebrated Great Hymn to Aten, Psalm 104, and pre-Atenist solar hymns to Amun are indeed many, but uncertainties abound too.

Aten remains a ‘phenomenological’ god, directly experienced through the vivifying light and warmth from an astral body, the visible sun; theological, ritual, and perceptual materiality are part of Atenism. The divinity of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, as demonstrated by the analysis of three Atenist motifs, means that Aten is not an indivisible god: though for Akhenaten there was only one god to whom he addressed his thoughts and offerings, he saw himself as Aten’s son and divine, solar image on earth. His entourage had a divine trinity to worship (Aten, Akhenaten, and Nefertiti) and the Atenist individual religious experience had to pass through Akhenaten’s royal agency. Akhenaten is the early morning light on earth, early dawn symbolizing the ultimate potency of the sun when its orb not yet visible already brightens the horizon; Akhenaten is the earthly reflection of Aten’s heavenly energy, his divine image.