Akhenaten’s shift from polytheism to monotheism had a catastrophic effect on the citizens of ancient Egypt. It would be his son, Tutankhamen, who would reverse this trend and restore the original polytheistic religion that ancient Egypt had always known. Therefore, the focus of this paper will be to explore the evolution of this infamous period in ancient Egyptian history. Before delving into why Akhenaten did away with polytheism during his reign, however, it is necessary to understand just what polytheism is.
Polytheism is defined as being the belief in and worship of multiple gods. In many instances, the gods that are worshiped have distinctive functions within the culture they exist, and often take on human characteristics.
They can also take the form and traits of objects found within nature, thus forming hybrids. It was the latter that was most prevalent within Egyptian culture, with many of the gods having both human and animal features. To these various gods, the people of Egypt offered prayer and worship, in the hope and belief that if this was done, all would remain well within their lands (Polytheism, 1).
Polytheism would be a religious concept seen throughout the ancient world, and would continue to exist up to the present day in various parts of the world. Therefore, its success can be found in its longevity. However, its failure – if one can call it a failure – is that it has been successfully challenged by monotheism.
The majority of people today focus their religious faith on one god, as they believe it is only one deity that needs to be worshiped rather than several. This belief in worshipping just one god would fuel a major change in Egyptian religion and culture that would make history as the first attempt at monotheism ever seen.
Akhenaten was part of the powerful line of kings who ruled Egypt during the Eighteenth Dynasty. His father was Amenophis III and his mother was Queen Tiy. Upon the death of his father in 1353 BC, Amenophis IV assumed the throne. By his side was his beautiful and beloved wife, Nefertiti. When her husband made the vast religious changes his reign is known for, she wholeheartedly supported him and possibly even served in a priestly capacity, a role normally reserved for the king.
Just four years into his reign, Akhenaten made a bold departure from the traditional role assumed by the pharaoh. He chose to replace the polytheistic religion that had existed since the beginning of Egyptian history with a monotheistic religion that was centered on a sun-god known as the Aten. According to this new religion, the Aten was the universal creator of all that existed within the world, and its image – the sun disc – was the only divine image seen and worshiped.
To further strengthen the new religion, Amenophis IV changed his name to Akhenaten, and various new temples were built at Karnak in honor the Aten. However, in the fifth year of his reign, Akhenaten chose the site of Amarna to serve as a new capital city and religious center of his kingdom. It would be here that a new royal residence, as well as new temples and peasant dwellings, would be built. In this new capital, Aten and Akhenaten would serve as the main focuses of the Egyptian people, and it would remain so until Akhenaten’s death.
Naturally, this vast change in the religious structure of the kingdom was not well received by the priests. They had been in control of the polytheistic religion that had existed unchallenged until Akhenaten came along. It was they who declared and performed the various rites and rituals that were a part of the religious life. Thus, in essence, it was they who controlled the spiritual lives of the people of Egypt. That religious authority, they were able to transform into political and economic authority as well. Therefore, with the removal of the many gods, the priests in turn lost their power. It would remain so until Akhenaten died.
Taking the throne at a very young, Tutankhamen initially remained in Amarma for the first three years of his reign before relocating back to the original capital of Thebes (Haag, 153). Due to his tender age, it was only natural that Tutankhamen had a variety of advisors to help him rule his vast kingdom. It was through their urging that the traditional religious system of polytheism was restored. Most likely, it occurred around the same time as his coronation by the priests at Karnak, thus enabling the priests the opportunity to reassert the power and control they had lost during Akhenaten’s reign (Haag, 156).
In short order, Tutankhamen had the old temples reopened, the sanctuaries of the temples rebuilt, and the priesthoods reestablished. He also made substantial donations to the treasuries of the temples and ordered that all religious images destroyed by his father be restored. In essence, he was overseeing and implementing the revitalization of Thebes.
With the revival of Thebes, the decline of Amarna coincided. Having the court and all the upper-class citizens relocate back to Thebes resulted in a breakdown of Amarna’s economy, which in turn led to the peasantry leaving the city to go where money could be made: Thebes. Thus, in this manner, the great city that Akhenaten hastily built up just as hastily broke down.
The reign of Tutankhamen would be a brief one, just a mere nine years. Just when he should have come into his own as ruler of a renowned civilization, he was cut down. The question that lingers, however, is whether it was through natural causes or murder that his life came to an end. There are three people, all of whom were close to the young king, who stood to benefit from his untimely death.
First was his wife, Ankhesanamun, who also happened to be his half-sister. When her husband died, she wrote to the Hittites, seeking their help in finding a new husband. In the end, she ultimately married Ay, a government official within Tutankhamen’s court. It is possible that she may have hoped to rule Egypt herself, as well as provide heirs to the throne, through which she could continue to maintain power.
Second was Horemheb, a military commander within the Egyptian army. During the reign of Akhenaten, he saw little military action, as Akhenaten was not the type of king who inspired one to go to battle. However, with the young Tutankhamen on the throne, it would be quite simple for Horemheb to use the army as his tool of overthrowing the king and taking control of Egypt.