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Why Did Akhenaten Overthrow the Traditional Egyptian Religion in Favor of a Monotheistic Religion?

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Why did Akhenaten overthrow the traditional Egyptian religion in favor of a monotheistic religion?

The "heretic king" Akhenaten "Beneficial for Aten" was born Amenhophis IV "Amun is satisfied". (Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt Volume I, pg 49) By the time he was seated as pharaoh in 1350 BCE there was already growing tension between the priesthood of Amun and his father Amenhophis III. "The power of the priesthood of Amun was threatening the traditional kingship," (Handout, The Legacy of Egypt, pg 17) and Amenhophis III knew that something had to be done to secure the power of the pharaohs. However, it was his son Amenhophis IV who would be the one to accomplish this, and in the process would exercise more control over the destiny of the elite than any earlier pharaoh. (Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt Volume I, pg 50)

When Amenhophis IV became pharaoh his father was still a ruling pharaoh and evidence exists that they had a co-regent rule. (Handout, pg 17) He was in my opinion very much the prodigal son, in that he was able to accomplish what his father could not. It was not until his sixth year of reign that he changed his name from Amenhophis to Akhenaten. During those six years I believe that he witnessed firsthand the power of the priesthoods and slowly declining power of the pharaohs. His father had started work on a temple in Karnak which was aimed to appropriate the cult center of the state god Amun, who was a solar deity. (Oxford Volume I, pg 50) Amenhophis IV completed work on the temple in Karnak in the fifth year of his reign, but before he finished his father's project he started one of his own, and a new city, and eventually the new capital of Egypt was commanded to be built. Akhetaten became the center of Amenhophis IV attention and his eventual home.

During the building of Akhetaten, Amenhophis IV changed his name to Akhenaten due to his worship of Aten represented as the "Sun-Disk". It was with this new fervent belief that started his "revolution from above", and created what is believed to be one of if not the first monotheistic state religion. His new religion was monotheistic in the sense that it was an established religion whose theology was articulated by Akhenaten, who alone comprehended the true nature of the Aten. (Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt Volume II, pg 434) The Aten became as close to an absolute god as the Egyptians ever got, and he was a jealous god and had no tolerance for other deities. Akhenaten even went so far as to have the didactic name of the Aten revised so that it no longer contained elements suggestive of polytheism. (Oxford, pg 434) This "revolution from above", was aimed at reasserting the pharaoh's absolute authority over the elite and priesthood.

The new religion and his "revolution" could not have succeeded without the destruction of the other old cults. In the process of razing the temples of the other deities he also systematically eliminated the priesthoods associated with each one. In doing so, he also removed from power the established families who were supporting the bureaucracy of the powerful priesthoods. (Oxford Volume I, pg 50) The previous priests were replaced with "new men", loyal perhaps high ranking generals, taken from the military so that the pharaoh would have complete control over the priesthood as well. While this new religion may seem just like any other sun cult there were some major differences between the new religion and older cults. Akhenaten's new religion lacked any mythology and its exclusivity and emphasis on light as the defining essence of the deity set it aside from other cults. (Oxford Volume I, pg 51) The population at large was denied access to the god, as it was only approachable indirectly through the king. During this "revolution" there appeared radical innovations in artistic practices, which were unlike any previous Egyptian art form.

During the religious revolution this artistic revolution was taking place as well. A new form of realism and freedom began to appear, and more domestic subjects were being treated naturalistically. (Handout, pg 17) The art of this time appears to be more life-like and seems to represent the figures in an almost brutally honest form. Since such depictions could only have been created with the approval of Akhenaten, it is possible that he himself inspired this change in art form. The exaggerated feature of him and the reliefs depicting himself and his queen (Nefertiti) could be an attempt for him to set himself and his reign apart from any previous pharaoh. There appeared to be a very strong feminine influence in the art and during his reign the female artistic form is exalted like never before. (Handout, pg 17) The depiction of Akhenaten as a family man could be related to his religion.



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