Written by Jenisha Sabaratnam.
As Pharaoh of Lower and Upper Egypt, King Akhenaten undoubtedly had immense power over his land and subjects throughout his seventeen year rule of the 18th dynasty of Ancient Egypt. Though it was common for Pharaohs to justify their rule through religion, Akhenaten took it one step further. He changed the primary god of worship from Amun to Aten, and used poems and steles* – among other things – to assert his dominance, validate his rule, and defend his religious reforms.
Akhenaten uses both the poem, ‘Hymn to the Aton’, and the stele ‘House-shrine’ to promote his authority and power over Egypt and his subjects. Throughout ‘Hym to the Aton’, Akhenaten unduly praises the God Aten to the point where he indirectly asserts his own kingly power to be greater than even that of Aten’s. While in stark contrast, the image carved into the stele depicts Akhenaten as affectionate and familial, with Aten approving and blessing the Pharaoh in this respect. However, though the stele presents the king’s supposedly tender and benevolent personality, rather than his military might – as earlier Pharaohs had done – Akhenaten uses the altruistic message of the stele as a way to deceptively promote his own kingly supremacy and justification of his reign.
King Akhenaten asserted his dominance as a righteous ruler of Egypt by focusing on religious power exclusive only to the king. Upon becoming king, Akhenaton changed the traditionally central god of worship from Amun (known as the king of all gods) to Aten, the sun god, while also evidently merging Aten’s name into his own. In fact, Akhenaten dedicated so much of his time on religion and religious reforms, that he ended up ‘…ignor[ing] the military and administrative problems of the Egyptian empire.’ It is interesting to note however that Akhenaten experienced no dire consequences to his extreme actions, whether it be heavily controlling one aspect of everyday life or having a complete lack of control in another. In fact it wasn’t until Akhenaton’s son, Tutankhamen, came into power that these religious reforms – to many of the people’s relief – ended. This clearly shows that those under the Pharaoh, either out of respect or fear of his power, were constrained from speaking out – no matter how much the Egyptian people may have disliked his actions. This speaks immensely of a Pharaoh’s power during the height of Egyptian civilization.
In ‘Hymn to the Aton’, Akhenaten excessively praises the god Aten; his position as the only ruler to actually worship this god portrays him as the supreme leader. This further indicates that he has power matching, even surpassing that of Aten’s. Akhenaten’s praises to the god are seen right from the beginning of the poem in which he declares: ‘Thou appearest beautifully on the horizon of heaven, / Thou living Aton, the beginning of life!’ Though Akhenaten continues to compliment Aten, he does so by referring to himself in the third person: ‘Thou art in my heart, / And there is no other that knows thee / Save thy son [Akhenaten], /For thou hast made him well-versed in thy plane and in thy strength.’ Akhenaten indirectly honors himself by claiming that God Aten’s actions have in fact been to elevate himself as the king. This is emphasised in the final lines of the poem: ‘But when thou risest again, / Everything is made to flourish for the king, / Since thou didst found the earth / An raise them up for thy son, / Who came forth from thy body: /The king of Upper and Lower Egypt, … Ahk-en-Aton’ Thus, regardless of the manner or expanse that Akhenaten credits the God Aten with, it is only another technique employed in order to benefit the establishment of his own authority. The subjects reading this poem are presented with the image that their king, ordained by god, has a direct link to an immeasurable amount of holy power.
In contrast, Akhenaten use the stele – titled ‘House-shrine’ – to similarly boast of his power, but in a more modest and shrewder way than in ‘Hymn to the Aton’. The stele features his family gathered under the blessing of Aten, and illustrates to the people that Akhenaten’s family – his wife, Nefertiti, and his three daughters – is privy to the authority and access that comes with being descendants of Aten. The stele shows that Akhenaten along with his wife are the only representatives of God on Earth.
Anything Aten claimed to express to Akhenaten relating to religion, rule and power had to be taken as the utmost truth. This gave him power beyond that of any earlier Pharaoh. He could single-handedly make decisions for Egypt based on his personal preferences and opinions, while using religion and his sole connection with Aten as the justification for his judgments and actions. This stele was small enough to be mass produced and for people to keep in their homes, serving as a physical reminder of Akhenaten’s authoritative governance in his subjects’ private homes. Akhenaten managed to deceive his people and bring them to believe that his power was really just a byproduct of his humbleness and kindness.
The stele also has a second component that is subtler in the way Akhenaten defends his power. One major feature of the stele is the way Akhenaten is portrayed in relation to his wife, Nefertiti. In a day and age when women were undoubtedly secondary to men, and when Pharaohs themselves had multiple wives, the stele would have had a huge impact on the population of that time to see Akhenaten not only carved to be directly facing his wife, but also sitting on the same plane, as opposed to above her. He is tenderly and carefully holding his child, probably his eldest due to the larger size of this child compared to the others, for a kiss, while his wife holds their other two children. This image of a complete family is significant as it depicts to the people that Akenaten is both loving and caring.
To add to this message, Aten, portrayed as a sun disc, is centered directly above the family, extending his rays in the form of hands out towards them and his hands almost touching both Akhenaten’s and Nefertiti’s faces, approving and blessing them as the rightful rulers of Egypt. By changing the primary god of worship and therefore the religion of Egypt during this reign, Akhenaten became the only link between the god Aten and his subjects. This would have given him immeasurable power in the way he could rule by using Aten’s name as a validation for any of his actions. However in so doing, he also needed to prove to his people that he was as powerful, or even more so, as previous kings.
Through ‘Hymn to the Aton’ Akhenaten desired to show his direct authority by praising the god Aten and ended up honoring himself more than the god. He is able to gain justified supremacy through the worship and reverence of his people towards him. ‘Hymn to the Aton’ and the ‘House-shrine’ are valuable sources in understanding how the Pharaoh wished to portray himself – as more commanding than the gods themselves – and, therefore, cannot be used as the consensus for the beliefs of the common population.
Edited by Pritchard, James B. “Hymn to the Aton: Religious Reform and Monotheism”. Ancient
Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969. Translated by John A. Wilson.
“House-shrine” stele. New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, ca. 1340 BCE.
* A stele is a stone or wooden slab, erected as a tall monument and was used in Ancient Egypt for funerary purposes, to mark sacred territories and as territorial boundaries, as used by Akhenaten.