Monotheism, the believe that only one god exists and was brought to the Egyptians of the 18th Dynasty by Akhenaten. Some even believe that Akhenaten was the pioneer of a monotheistic religion that later became Judism. One of those is Sigmund Freud, in his book Moses and Monotheism he argues that Moses was an Atenist priest that was forced out of Egypt after Akhenatens death.In this book Freud argues that what Akhenaten was trying to achieve in ancient Egypt, to promote monotheism, was successfully achieved by the biblical Moses. Freud also said that monotheism was not a Jewish but an Egyptian invention, descending from the cult of the Egyptian sun god Aten.
But back to Akhenaten…..Akhenaten became king of Egypt by chance, his older brother Crown Prince Thutmose died at a young age and made Akhenaten (during those times going by the name Amenhotep IV) next to take over the throne. Before the death of his brother Akhenaten was studying religion and could have been preparing to become a priest. His early education has often been seen as a reason for his strong affinity with religion.
But could Akhenaten during his 17 year reign make this complete turnaround from polytheism to monotheism? In a way, the time was on his side. After his death, Amenhotep III left a wealthy and peaceful Egypt behind. Foreign cultures introduced their gods into Egyptian religion, some of them got associated with the Egyptian king, especially in his warlike aspect. On the other hand the foreign people got more and more seen as part of god’s creation and protected by the earthly representative of the sun-god Ra, the pharaoh.
The sunrise was seen as a repetition of the “first occasion”, the creation of the world in the beginning. Ra went through the same cycles as did the sun, the cycle of death and rebirth.
At sunset he entered the netherworld to be regenerated and reborn as Ra-Horakhty. (Horakhty = “Horus of the two horizons”). Together with the sun-god the dead were also reborn and joined Ra on his daily journey. Osiris, god of the dead and the underworld, was increasingly seen as an aspect of Ra. More and more all other gods became to be seen as an aspect of Ra, being the primeval creator of all. All other gods had emerged from him; this made them all aspects of him. This can be seen as an early tendency to a form of monotheism and made Akhenatens believe in Aten, being the one and only true god, maybe a very logical result of the religious atmosphere of these days.
The Amarna period.
If it had not been for Akhenaten, Aten had almost not have been figured in ancient Egyptian history. Aten first appeared during the 12th dynasty in the story of Sinuhe as a sun disk but merely as an aspect of the sun god Re. It seems that Aten became more important during the reign of Amenhotep III but it was Akhenaten that started the Atenist revolution and made Aten the “one true god”.
Akhenaten builds temples to the Aten and other structures near the temple of Karnak. Adoration of the traditional Egyptian gods was still continued these early years of his reign. But in his fifth regnal year, on the thirteenth day of the eighth month, the King who a month before that changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten, started the construction of the city Akhetaten (The horizon of the Aten). During year 7 of Akhenatens reign Akhetaten became the capital city of Egypt. By shifting his court to the new capital it moved away from the influence of the traditional center of religion and its priests. This gave way to the changes of the focus of religious and political power.
Year nine of Akhenatens reign marks the moment of many radical changes.
Akhenaten now ordered the defacing of all Amun’s temples and those of all other gods throughout Egypt. Although Akhenaten is often seen as being a pacifist, one has to realize that these radical changes cannot have taken place without using any force. Akhenaten carried out a program of religious reforms declaring Aten no longer the superior god but the one and only god, forbidding the worshipping of all other gods publicly and privately. During this period the way Aten’s name was written also changed. No longer was Aten represented as the solar disk but written phonetically.
No longer was the God worshipped by the pharaoh and the priests in the closed surroundings of a temple, but among the people and in the open air under the rays of the sun disk.
Now Akhenaten’s monotheism was completely in effect and would last till his death, eight years later.
The decline and aftermath of Akhenatens monotheism.
With Akhenaten’s death, the Aten cult he had created and sustained, almost immediately fell apart. Due to pressure of the priest of the Amun cult and the fact that many people in fact never completely stopped worshipping the traditional gods in the privacy of their homes where they kept the symbols of these gods hidden, the return to polytheism became inevitable. Three years after Akhenaten’s death, his son Tutankhaten, who succeeded him (with Akhenatens vizier Ay as regent) at the age of eight years, left Akhetaten to return to Thebes. This is when he changed his name from Tutankhaten (Living image of Aten) to Tutankhamun (Living image of Amun).He was probably too young to make his own decisions and maybe not more than just a puppet of the priests. With the priests effectively in power, temples that Akhenaten had build, among them the ones in Thebes, were disassembled, their building blocks reused to create new structures. Inscriptions to Aten got defaced and the written record of the Amarna revolution and Atenism deleted. Later on even Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun and Ay were removed from the official list of Pharaohs hereby making Amenhotep III immediately succeeded by Horemheb and in doing this denying the first monotheistic period in human history.
Sources used: Wikipedia and “The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” (chap.10, The Amarna Period and the Later New Kingdom (c.1352-1069 BC) written by Jacobus van Dijk)