Saturday, July 20, 2013


Fig.1: The all-holy Egyptian pantheon, in an all-holy Egyptian conga line.
History is full of stories of monotheism (the worship of a single god) against the established forces of polytheism (the worship of too many gods to shake a stick at). The Jews in ancient Israel fought for centuries to protect their religion against the polytheist cultures of Assyrians, Persians, and Romans. Roman Emperor Constantine elevated Christianity as the state religion during his reign in the fourth century, creating much strife with the population who followed Roman paganism for hundred of years. The prophet Mohammed fought for and spread the good news of the almighty, infallible religion of Islam against the hedonistic false idols popular in Arabia at that time (there, I played nice, so don't hurt me!). And adherents of Pastafarianism battled hard to make the Flying Spaghetti Monster the one true god over lesser Noodle Monsters such as Linguine, Fettuccine, or (Flying Spaghetti Monster forbid) Macaroni! But perhaps the first (albeit, unsuccessful) instance of this occurring is three thousand years ago in Ancient Egypt, where one crazy pharaoh loved the sun so much, he certainly would have married it if that was an option.

Fig.2: Amenhotep IV, later renamed 
"Akhenaten" and "The Pharoah 
Formerly Known as Amenhotep IV."
The reign of Amenhotep IV (fig.2) of the Eighteenth Dynasty began around 1353 Before Crullers (BC), and started off like any other time in the Egyptian New Kingdom. Massive building projects began throughout Egypt, especially in the capital of Thebes, where there were several depictions of Amenhotep (and his wife, Nefertiti) worshiping the normal pantheon of gods like a good pharaoh. But in the fifth year of his reign, he looked up at the sun and had a crazy idea, possibly because he became delusional after looking at the sun for so long. It was obvious to him that the sun was the major provider to the people in this world, and without it, life would be unbearable (although people further west in the Sahara Desert would beg to differ). And yet, the god that represented the sun disk, the Aten, was a rather minor deity to the Egyptians, who was shadowed (see what I did there?) by other gods like Ra, Amun, and Felix the Cat. In Amenhotep's eyes, this needed to be changed, and it was time for the Aten to rise and shine!

Boom! Another sun pun! I'm on fire today! Just like the sun!

First order of business was for Amenhotep IV to change his name to something with a little more pizazz. He chose Akhenaten, meaning "the living spirit of the Aten," which was just slightly better (and less true) than "blind follower of the Aten" or "The Aten burned my retinas right out." Next, he founded a new capital 250 miles north from Thebes called Akhetaten, which looks like Akhenaten, but is slightly different; in the original hieroglyphs, "feather, rising sun over water, standing long-billed bird, sun disk" is Akhenaten the pharaoh, while "feather, rising sun over water, sitting long-billed bird, sun disk" is Akhetaten the city (big pay attention, people!). For purposes of clarification, lazy historians like to refer to Akhetaten the city (with the sitting bird) as Amarna, after the later Arabic name for the town, so I suppose I'll make it easy and follow suit. You're welcome. I expect a Paypal donation forthwith!

While Akhenaten wished for the Aten to be worshiped as the principle deity, it does not seem as though the other gods were completely thrown to the sphinxes right off the bat. Archaeological evidence of Armarna shows personal objects with depictions of several gods, but it is the Aten that dominates the official records, temple walls, and color-by-number books during this period (fig.3). Unlike the more exciting Egyptian gods like Anubis, who had a jackal for a face (awesome!!!), the Aten was really just a circle with lines coming out of it. Wow, did somebody go to art school for that? Give me a sun disk with a little more personification, like one who is erroneously wearing sunglasses (fig.4). I mean, why does he need sunglasses? He's the sun! He's protecting his eyes from himself?! It's hilarious, and therefore, worthy of my praise.

Fig.3: Akhenaten and his family basking in the cancer-inducing glow of the Aten.
Fig.4: Look at that, it even has hands, and is giving me 
encouragement! Now there's an Aten I can worship!
Unfortunately, in the ninth year of Akhenaten's reign, he pulled the old "Tolerance is for losers" ploy that would become popular with Medieval European monarchs, and decreed that not only was the Aten the chief god, it was the only god meant to be worshiped. He attempted to erase all inscriptions to other gods, which made the Priesthood of Amun, the main religious authority in the kingdom, just a little bit grumpy. But it's not like today where you can stand outside of the President's house and protest for things like guaranteed healthcare for the nation's squirrel population. The pharaoh was the supreme ruler of the land, as well as the voice of the gods (or in the case of Akhenaten, the voice of the shiny-circle-line thing), and if he told you to jump, you would ask him how high and what optimum takeoff angle he would prefer. If he said you only worship the Aten, you better start adjusting your pupils. To show how much Akhenaten loved his sun disk, he even wrote it a cheesy poem typically seen composed in eighth-grade study halls:
    How manifold it is, what thou hast made!
    They are hidden from the face of man.
    O sole god, like whom there is no other!
    Thou didst create the world according to thy desire,
    Whilst thou were alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts,
    Whatever is on earth, going upon its feet,
    And what is on high, flying with its wings.
Fig.5: While Akhenaten is believed to 
be the father of Tutankhamun, there 
was no Maury Povich back then, so 
we will never know for sure.
Someone better contact the lit mag, cause I think we have a winner here!  Anyway, Akhenaten died most likely in 1336 BC after 17 years as pharaoh, but we're not 100% sure. The reason for that is eventually Akhenaten and most of his successors were denounced as heretics once the original religion was re-established in the early 13th century BC, and their names erased from the official list of pharaohs, as well as their lunch cards at the Afterlife Café torn up in front of them. The existence of Akhenaten was not even known until the discovery of his tomb in the late 1800s, as well as his possible son and successor, Tutankhamun (fig.5). Originally named Tutankhaten ("Living Image of Aten") and called King Tutty by his closest peeps, he is believed to have distanced himself from the whole Aten-only thing, and changed his name to settle down the Amun crowd. Nonetheless, his memory perished with the rest of his family until a British guy named Howard Carter disturbed his slumber, and then he went on a rampage until he was captured by some meddling kids and a dog with a speech impediment. I find it ironic that, despite the fact that "King Tut" was banished from the records, he is the pharaoh most identified by little kids and bums on the street. You got burned, ancient Egyptian history makers! Sunburned!

Akhenaten remains an enigmatic figure to this day. Why did he decide to deliberately change around a religion that had kept the Egyptian culture together for over a thousand years? Did he actually believe the sun disk was the only thing worth worshiping? Or did he reason that placing one deity over the others (and then making himself the "living spirit" of that deity) would give him more authority among the people? Was he the world's first monotheist, and ushered in the idea that would become the Big Three of Nintendo, XBox, and Playstation...I mean, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam? Or was it all just a big practical joke that got a little out of hand, and Akhenaten had to say to himself, "Well, I didn't think they would buy this whole circle-line thing, but it's too late to go back now, so I might as well keep this going!" Because Akhenaten and his family's memory was erased, we may never know what was going on in that brain of his, but hopefully through further archaeological research it will eventually dawn on us.

I promise there won't be anymore sun puns in my next histories.

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