Akhenaten's Belief System
An essay by Daniel Kolos
based on a series of discussions on email@example.com
A discussion whether Akhenaten thought of the Aten as his God from our point of view is a non-starter: our culture is so heavily invested in "Yes-there-is-a-God" and 'no-there-isn't-a-god' that the seeming black-and-whiteness of this artificial polarity obscures the underlying belief system. And the belief system is where everything 'happens'. Time and again psychologists and anthropologists show by example that 'whatever people believe in, it works.' (Joseph Chilton Pearce, A Crack in the Cosmic Egg, for one.)
There is still another polarity obscured by the "Yes-there-is-a-God" and 'no-there-isn't-a-god' mantra: the polarity of "The-God-out-there" and 'the-god-within.' Aten as the sun-disk, no matter how we look at it, is "The-God-out-there," and offers no change at all in the underlying belief system of the ancient Egyptians. Many of the academic Egyptologists are saying that there was no Amarna Revolution, just as shift in power from Amun to the Aten.
But if the Aten was Amenhotep III while he was alive - even if he deluded himself by usurping all the attributes of a non-anthropomorphic sun-disk (see the Great Hymn to the Aten, presumably by Akhenaten), then we have a situation where Amenhotep III role modeled a 'god-within-himself' and Akhenaten adopted that belief system and followed in his father's footsteps.
The obvious differences between this "The-God-out-there" and 'the-god-within' polarity starts with control. If Akhenaten perceived or conceived of the Aten as "The-God-out-there," then he was committed to forcing that perception down everyone else's throat, because his position as the Son of The Aten would then be based on everyone else accepting the supremacy of The Aten over all other Gods. That is the current political view where a belief in an outside agent requires power and control, demands obedience and loyalty from others under the threat of punishment.
In contrast, and in accordance with certain Hermetic practices and beliefs, 'the-god-within' needs no acknowledgment from others. Whatever deity (or lack thereof) we individually adopt or become is of no concern to others!
The only way anyone can convey his own belief system is by role modeling. That is how it happens in 'real life' where our parents, no matter what they said to us, their children, in so many words, they nevertheless role modeled their inner, secret, personal beliefs (and prejudices) with far better results without even trying. There is no control or power issue when it comes to 'the-god-within'.
So if Akhenaten was the Revolutionary that so many other academics and nonacademic see in him, then the only thing that would have been 'revolutionary' in his own time would have been this belief system in "The-Aten-as-the-god-within." The message of that 'revolution' would be non-verbal, broadcast through role modeling: that everyone else was also be free to find their own 'god within'. Only such a starkly strange departure from the controlling tentacles of any of the major temples of Egypt would have upset the ancient Egyptians and caused Akhenaten's successors to call him a 'Criminal' and 'The Wretched One."
People who reflect on this matter vacillate between seeing Akhnaton as a giver of the "Truth", or as a great man, or simply as an interesting historical figure. In order to get a handle on the environment within which he lived, I like to consider William Theaux's historical interpretive model wherein Akhenaten is said to have been remembered as Moses and Oedipus, then reconstructed from those three separate memories as Hermes Trismegistus.
First of all, Akhenaten was not a
law-giver! He did not give out any Truths like Moses did with his 10
Commandments, almost all of which come from the Book of the Dead. Akhenaten
claimed only that he lived his (own) truth, the Ankh-em-Ma'at part of his name.
Unlike the Christian scriptures where Jesus says time and again that 'there is
no access to the father but through me,' Akhenaten did not have any such
pretensions or controlling aspect to his religion/belief. Such a claim simply
does not exist in any of his writings.
Whether you follow the Akhenaten=Moses=Oedipus=Hermes Trismegistus (AMO=H3) connections because it is a brilliant deduction or simply as a door to explore the rich cultural heritage we have inherited from each of their eras, there are bound to be the inevitable similarities between any two given personalities in this lineup. For example, if Akhenaten really had a belief in a 'god within', then he is more like Oedipus, who did not try to persuade anyone else to believe what he believed in! But if Akhenaten was just an ordinary Egyptian who adopted The Aten as "The-God-out-there" for political reasons, then he is more like Moses, who practically murdered anyone in his assembly who did not accept YHWH as their communal 'only' (or unique) God.
I have argued both sides of this coin (I mean polarity) over the years, and to be fair I must point out that for Akhenaten, it was not the Aten that was 'unique', but he called himself 'unique', a self naming that would argue for a belief system in 'the-god-within'.
Many forms of mysticism, other than Hermeticism, teach this polarity that if you want power in the world, you have to adopt a God-out-there, but if you are content with your own inner power, and you don't' want to participate in the incessant competition, control and mind games, then you adopt a god within, which would leave you in the world, but not of the world. Fundamentalist or Evangelical Christianity has this appeal wherein they 'accept' Jesus Christ into their hearts as a 'personal savior', so that Jesus becomes an instant god within. If this Christian/mystical practice was what Akhenaten adopted for himself 1300 years before Christ, then there is a similarity in their traditions (or belief systems) as 'the-god-within'.
A connection has been suggested between Christ and Akhenaten. It doesn't take a theologian to see that as soon as the early Church gained 'power' through the political backing of the Roman Emperors, they began to control the belief system of their population. The first act of control was to make sure that their God remained 'outwore' somewhere in abstract abandonment, separated from personal experience.
And that is one of the questions I have been asking and debating: whether or not Akhenaten reached this level of detached abstraction whereby the Aten was banished from human experience, yet, still affected human experience in every way (in the same sense that the detached, abstract Christian God is, at the same time, omniscient and omnipresent and sees every time you pick your nose). And, as you can see from the tone of my argument here, I tend to favor Akhenaten as role modeling his father, breaking rank with the controlling powers of the great Temples and instituting his own 'Aten-as-the-god-within' hoping that others would freely choose their own 'god within'.
However, I may be wrong. Maybe Akhenaten realized that nobody was interested in a 'personal' god within, so he had a crisis in confidence (in this case, self-confidence) and cynically turned into 'Moses' and hammered his God into his unfortunate followers with a ferocity that was born from his disappointment with himself for not being able to make a non-violent, non-controling 'god within' work.
The jury is still out on this question of Akhenaten's historical role. I have noted, for example, along with numerous other scholars that the military presence at Akhenaten bodes towards a controlling, totalitarian interpretation of his methods. Although the soldiers are incessantly bowing to Akhenaten as King, any and all scenes of violence depict Egyptians humiliating foreigners: that is the sign of an empire trying to beat its subject or client states into submission, very much what the United Sates is doing nowadays throughout the world. It has always been a certain historical signal that the 'empire' is overextended and is about to deteriorate or disintegrate.
William Theaux's ultimate purpose with his AMO=H3 model is to provide a tool for the historical filtering of ideas to apply to our own time.
To continue the exploration of ideas that
mold our own time, please go to the next essay: