Updated date:

Religious counterculture started by Pharaoh Akhenaten of Ancient Egypt

Akhenaten as a spyhnx, bathed in Aten's rays

Akhenaten as a spyhnx, bathed in Aten's rays

The Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted over three thousand years and over the course of its history, very little changed with its religion. Like many ancient civilizations, the Egyptians were a polytheistic society, believing in many gods that were anthropomorphic. These deities had elaborate mythologies attached to their existence. However, during the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE) one pharaoh dared to defy the historic role of religion in addition to kingship to establish himself as an individual. Akhenaten’s counterculture diminished the polytheistic religious stronghold to establish belief in one entity that could explain how the world came to be. The principles behind the new religion he established reflect classic solar mythology as well as he brought forth novel ideas that evolved from religious practice developed during the New Kingdom.

A nice video describing the solar journey...the music is a little intense

What was the Ennead?

Over the course of their history, the Ancient Egyptians believed in a few versions on how the world came to be. One of those creation myths involved the Ennead, where the creator god Atum came forth from the primeval waters and created the first two gods, Shu and Tefnut. Shu and Tefnut in turn had children who were Geb, the god of the Earth and Nut, the sky goddess. Geb and Nut decided to have children as well, and they had four children: Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys. There is another set of mythologies on how Osiris became the god of the underworld with Isis as his consort. But just to summarize, the Ennead was represented by these first nine gods.

Ancient Egyptian Solar Myth

From early in their civilization, the Ancient Egyptians regarded the sun as a creator god or as one of the first gods present during the creation of the world⁠1. The Pyramid Texts from the Old Kingdom contained spells and utterances that were meant to assist the deceased king as he traveled the netherworld, ultimately reaching the gods⁠2 in the heavens. The phases of the sun illustrated to Egyptians the cycle of birth, death and rebirth on a heavenly scale. Every morning, the goddess Nut gave birth to the sun god who began his journey across the sky as the god Khepri. As he started its voyage over the sky, it was greeted and joined by the gods in the Ennead as well as the sun apes who will travel with him on the solar barque.⁠3 During the midday, the sun took its form as the god Re, traversing its celestial world on a ship. Each day, the sun had to face its arch nemesis, Apophis, a giant serpent that represented chaos which threatened to engulf the sun. With the help from the Ennead, the sun would overcome the enemy, and continue its passage as it prepared to set beyond the horizon⁠4.By the time of the New Kingdom when Akhenaten took power, Re had become infused with the god Amun and the new Amun-Re, became the king of the gods, who had its own cosmologic mythology associated with it⁠5.

For more information on Akhenaten's family and background


Akhenaten is most known today for emphasizing the worship of one god the Aten and abandoning the polytheistic religion that had been in place for thousands of years. Born as Amenhotep IV, he was the son of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and his queen, Tiye. Amenhotep the son had an older brother who was expected to be the next king, but after his brother’s death, Amenhotep became heir to the throne. Perhaps it was because of his father’s new interest in the god Aten or from an intense religious education he received, from the beginning of his reign, he felt compelled to advance Aten’s prominence.

At Karnak, (the temple which was dedicated to Amun-Re, the supreme god in the Egyptian pantheon) he erected a few monuments including the Gempaaten and the Hutbenben to extol his love for the Aten⁠1.

In his fifth year as king, Amenhotep made even more dramatic changes to his administration when he decided to move the capital city away from either Thebes or Memphis to Amarna, a new site located in Middle Egypt. Moreover, he changed his name to Akhenaten which meant ‘He who is effective to the Aten’, signifying the final act where he severed ties with the traditional religion.

Major political centers during the New Kingdom

A new solar religion

According to Assmann, the Amarna religion may be the final culmination to what he claims as the ‘New Solar Theology’ an ideology which becomes evident during the reign of Amenhotep III⁠1.

Contrary to the previous mythology, this evolution in the solar cult emphasized the creator god acting ‘alone’ and excludes the 'entourage' of gods present in the classic solar myth⁠2. The 'unifying' god additionally was responsible for creating all aspects of life from mankind to inanimate organisms and cared for them as if it were a paternal figure⁠3.

Both ideas are represented in what Aten symbolized to the new religion. In Amarna religion, Aten was alone and only it was responsible for creating the universe. Foster points out that it was Aten who ‘fashioned the…Many…out of the One⁠4.’ During Akhenaten’s time however, the religion evolved to the point that Aten became a universal god. Not only was it the god of the Egyptians but it also looked after men from the Levant and Nubia⁠5.

Another divergence from the new solar religion was the idea that the king acted as the sole mediator between the god and his people. Akhenaten and his family were the only individuals who could directly access Aten and civilization was left to worship the royal family⁠6. It was as if Aten was Akhenaten’s ‘personal god⁠7.’ Akhenaten not only changed the national religion, he changed the role of the king. From early Egyptian dynasties, the pharaoh was referred to as the ‘Son of Re’ which asserted his relationship to divinity. But with Akhenaten, he had a much more personal relationship with Aten, proclaiming himself Aten’s only 'son'. As Aten’s ‘divine son’, he was the only individual who could understand Aten’s will, implying that the new religion rose and fell with himself⁠8.

A third tangent from the New Solar Theology was that Atenism focused on 'light' and 'life' but excluded the notion of death. Unlike gods from the polytheistic religion, who were anthropomorphic, Aten was the light coming from the sun. In temple and tomb descriptions, it is represented as a sun disk but it had no 'bodily' form, it was an abstract god. This 'total dependence of existence on light’ meant that the sun god's nighttime journey was no longer significant. Aten 'vanishes' at night only to return triumphantly in the morning. Gone were the ideas about the deceased going to Osiris’ kingdom after death. Moreover there was no specific indication of what would happen to one’s soul after death⁠1.

The last and perhaps the most significant philosophy that originated was a belief that time originated from light. Written in the last stanza of the Great Hymn to the Aten, there was a passage where the narrator implies that as long as the Creator was present in the world, life (and time) would continue as we know it:

'The world comes into being from your gesture, as you have created it

When you rise, they live,

when you set, they die;

you are lifetime itself, one lives through you.

Eyes rest on beauty until you set,

all work is laid down when you set in the west⁠2'

Assmann asserts that Akhenaten made a cognitive breakthrough with this philosophy. Although individuals made the connection between the sun god as being a creator, source of life, and assimilated it to light, Akhenaten was the first individual to say that a god ' [was] only light and time; all reality, visible and invisible can be traced back to light and time⁠3'

The Great Hymn to the Aten

A text known as the Great Hymn to the Aten may be the finest example of literature that summarizes Akhenaten’s religious beliefs.

Assmann writes that the hymn can be broken into three sections. The first segment describes the sun’s path as it travels across the sky and sets in the evening:

Splendid you rise in heaven’s lightland,

O living Aten, creator of life!

When you have dawned in the eastern light land,

You fill every land with your beauty…

When you set in western lightland,

Earth is in darkness as if in death⁠1

The sun's cycle represented what the Ancient Egyptians wanted after their life in this world came to an end: ‘Each hoped to become an Osiris after death and to partake in the life of the cosmos through the midnight union with the sun; each hoped that his [soul] would follow the course of the sun god and be allotted a place in the bark of the millions⁠2' Even under the new religion, the the association between the sun's cycle to birth, death and rebirth could not be ignored.

The second segment praises Aten’s deeds as creator of the world. The narrator expresses that it is Aten’s will that gives birth to all creatures from humans to a baby chick and the hymn portrays Aten as a fatherly figure whose concern is to ‘nourish’ and care for all his creations:

‘How many are you deeds,

Though hidden from sight…

You made the earth as you wished, you alone,

All peoples, herds, and flocks;

All upon earth that walk on legs…

You set everyman in his palce,

You supply their needs⁠3

Scholars including Reeves, have compared the similarities of the Great Hymn to that of Psalm 104⁠4. Both writers for the Great Hymn and the psalm use similar language such as “Birds fly from their nests⁠5” or describe creatures ‘growing’, illustrating their gods’ creative power. Like the Great Hymn, the narrator Psalm 104 extols God’s creative force and the care he showers to all living organisms:

Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth.

The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.

The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens.

Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening.

O lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches⁠6.

Akhenaten’s religious practice implies a religious evolution that began during his dynasty and came to fruition under his rule. It is difficult to conclusively state the motivations behind his new religion, but as Assmann writes, there was an attempt to seek 'knowledge and truth’ and to 'discover the one divine principle from which the world had initially originated and originated anew everyday.’ We can only speculate the impact the religion would have had on history if it had taken root more strongly within the hearts of the Egyptian citizens.


Religious counterculture started by Pharaoh Akhenaten of Ancient Egypt by StellaSee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


StellaSee (author) from California on June 07, 2013:

Hi Sarah, I've never heard of that book, I'll go check it out. Thanks for stopping by!

Sarahj78 on June 04, 2013:

Have been fascinated by Ankhnaten for years thanks to Tom Holland's book 'Sleeper in the Sands'. Very interesting to read, thank you!

StellaSee (author) from California on May 14, 2013:

Hi Adam, Ancient Egyptian history IS awesome. I'll take a look at that link you posted here, thanks!

AdamAshton on May 05, 2013:

Nice article, I have always been interested in Ancient Egyptian history. I found some information about Ankhnaten that may be useful to you.


StellaSee (author) from California on February 10, 2013:

Hi Alicia, the Ancient Egyptian people seemed to be a conservative bunch so Akhenaten must have been quite a character! It's funny how Akhenaten had a greater influence on history but his wife (Nefertiti) or his son-in-law (King Tut) is more famous than he is. Thanks for stopping by, I know this wasn't an easy read!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on February 05, 2013:

This is very interesting, Stella. I have never heard of Pharaoh Akhenaten before or of his new religion. Thank you for the information.

Related Articles