During the New Kingdom of Egypt, from 1552 through 1069 BC, there came a sweeping

change in the religious structure of the ancient Egyptian civilization. The Hymn to the Aton was

created by Amenhotep IV, who ruled from 1369 to 1353 BC, and began a move toward a

monotheist culture instead of the polytheist religion which Egypt had experienced for the many

hundreds of years prior to the introduction of this new idea. There was much that was different

from the old views in the Hymn to the Aton, and it offered a new outlook on the Egyptian way of

life by providing a complete break with the traditions which Egypt held to with great respect. Yet

at the same time, there were many commonalities between these new ideas and the old views of

the Egyptian world. Although through the duration of his reign, Amenhotep IV introduced a

great many changes to the Egyptian religion along with the Hymn, none of these reforms outlived

their creator, mostly due to the massive forces placed on his successor, Tutankhamen, to

renounce these new reforms. However, the significance of Amenhotep IV, or Akhenaton as he

later changed his name to, is found in the Hymn. The Hymn itself can be looked at as a

contradiction of ideas; it must be looked at in relation to both the Old Kingdom's belief of

steadfast and static values, as well as in regards to the changes of the Middle Kingdom, which saw

unprecedented expansionistic and individualistic oriented reforms.

The Old Kingdom of Egypt, from 2700 to 2200 BC, saw the commencement of many of

the rigid, formal beliefs of the Egyptian civilization, both in regards to their religion and their

politics, as they were very closely intertwined. The Egyptian belief that nature was an

incorruptible entity was exhibited, and that to reach a state of human perfection in the afterlife,

they too would have to change from their corruptible human shells to mimic the incorruptibility of

nature. Upper and Lower Egypt were united for the first time less than one ruler, however, this

would come to an end around 2200 BC. In much of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the pharaoh was

often depicted as almost larger than life, with great power. Much of the Egyptian art is a

celebration of the accomplishments of the pharaoh. The formation of a royal absolutism occurred

during this period, with the pharaoh and a small centralized administration, composed mainly of

royal kin and relatives, overseeing all aspects of Egyptian life. Any surplus of the peasants was

collected by the government in a wide variety of taxes and the like, amounting to approximately

one fifth of the total produce harvested, and reserved for the pharaoh: " But when the crop comes

in, give a fifth of it to Pharaoh." The pharaoh was looked at as a living god among the Egyptian

people, who assured the success of Egypt as well as its peace.

In regards to the religious structure of the Old Kingdom, there was a polytheistic view of

the world, as in Mesopotamia. However, unlike the Mesopotamian religion, the Egyptians worked

for their king as opposed to working for their gods. The Egyptian pharaoh was the chief operator

behind the religious system, and he was believed to be the actual son of Re, the sun god. The

complex concept of the afterlife was also developed during this period. The intricate process of

mummification and burial along the west bank of the Nile, in the "Land of the Dead," began and

the firm belief in the afterlife began to form. These political and religious views were believed to

be sacred and intended to be adhered to without change, following the Egyptian's view of nature

as an unchanging constant, and a static phenomenon.

After the collapse of the Old Kingdom, there came the First Intermediate Period during

which the United Egypt separated. Though Egypt was separated, both Upper and Lower Egypt

still had a shared religion, just differing views as to whom the heros and villains were in their

mythology. The Middle Kingdom, which occurred between 2040 and 1674 BC, saw the re-

emergence of a united Egypt. The pharaohs of this period were once again the centre of the

kingdom, and the military might of Egypt was far greater than it had been in previous centuries.

However, the pharaoh was not as great a political power as he had been in the Old Kingdom, as

the nobles had begun to gain a sense of greater independence from the pharaoh, in respects to the

idea that they needed him to assure themselves a place in the afterlife. They believed that they

could convince Osiris themselves by using symbols of the monarchy from the Old Kingdom as

well as magical spells which they collected from the Pyramid Texts. The political structure of the

Middle Kingdom was also changing from that of the Old Kingdom. In the past, the government

was run by only the immediate family of the pharaoh. In the Middle Kingdom however, if one was

able to learn to write, then they had the option of becoming a member of the bureaucracy.

Around 1674 BC, the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt separated once again.

This Second Intermediate Period saw the Hyksos, who Semitic invaders from Palestine, come and

overtake the Egyptian ruling class. These peoples were expelled from Egypt around 1553 BC,

which gave rise to the New Kingdom of Egypt. After the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt,

there began a new imperialistic movement within the Egyptian culture, and we see several

crusades into Asia and the Mid-East during this time frame. Egypt ruled in Asia for about a

century or so, but lost it due to the lack of interest on the part of the royal court in the contents of

its Asian subjects. Though for the most part, the Egyptian religion remained as it had in the

previous kingdoms during the first part of the New Kingdom, Amenhotep IV, or Akhenaton as he

later changed his name to, brought about many religious reforms.

Amenhotep IV began a series of reforms to ensure the pharaoh's status as a living god

among the people, as opposed to a simple agent of the sun god Amon, as the priests of the royal

court were beginning to assert a more powerful and independent role. Assisted by the royal

family, Amenhotep IV commenced on a series of religious reforms which would help him to

regain the power lost to the priests. He instigated a break from the god Amen toward the sundisc

Aton. He chiselled out the name of Amen from anything which beared the name, and closed the

temples of the other gods. The pharaoh and his family were to worship Aton, while the remainder

of the populous was to worship the pharaoh. Amenhotep then moved the capital of Egypt from

Thebes, which was primarily centred on Amen, to a new location called Akhenaton, now modern

day Armana. Amenhotep IV also changed his name to Akhenaton, which translates to "it pleases

Aton." Akhenaton also replaced his advisors with new men, instead of the Amen serving priests.

These changes showed a move toward a more monotheist view of the Egyptian world, a view

which had never been observed before. This new religion also saw the worship of Aton as the

principal hero in Egyptian religion, with Amon and Osiris as the central enemies. These reforms

however, would be short-lived, and the only enduring sign of this pharaoh significance is in the

hymns which were written to the "new" god Aton.

Though much of what Akhenaton was proposing was a drastic change from the traditional

beliefs of Egyptian religion, there were some aspects of these reforms shown in the Hymn to the

Aton that were not that far a cry from much of what was taught and believed in the past. As with

the gods of the past, Aton was visible, as in that he could be presented in a painting to the people

who worshipped him. This new god, Aton, was allowed to be pictured on in the elaborate murals

on tomb walls and so on, the same as the old gods of the prior religion were. Aton was also the

embodiment of the sun, as Amon-Re was in the old religion, and was worshipped much the same

as Amon-Re was prior to Akhenaton's condemnation of him. Aton was also seen as the creator of

all that was existing, which also held to the traditional belief that the sun god was the chief creator

of the universe. It was also believed in this new religion as in the old one, that the pharaoh was the

next of kin of the sun god, even though the sun god had changed from Amon to Aton. It was also

still believed that the sun god was raised above the other gods, while being able to have his

presence encompass everything. None of these ideas were new to the Egyptian people, as they

were exhibited in the old religion, however there was much in this new theology that was a far cry

from the traditions of old.

The Hymn to the Aton introduced a great many new concepts for the religion of Egyptian

people. The nature of Aton as the creator is different from previous religious beliefs. Aton was

said to have created the world out of his own will to do so, not out of necessity. Also, we see

Aton distinguished from nature, as well as seeing that nature is not a separate being in the

theological order of things. Nature is now believed to be ordered under Aton, with no separate,

sovereign being of its own. The Nile is no longer believed to be the embodiment of a god, but a

creation of the god, Aton. These two views are the result of the shift toward the monotheist belief

that Aton is the sole god in the cosmos, worshipped by the pharaoh and his family, who are in

turn worshipped by the Egyptian people. Aton is now seen as a universal god, who is worshipped

by everyone on earth, just in forms and fashions differing from those of the Egyptians, not as a

god who was specific to the Egyptian people

Though this hymn offers much that is vastly different from the old beliefs in Egyptian

culture, it is also an effort to revitalize the old beliefs. The hymn is intending to bring the pharaoh

back into the centre of Egyptian religion, politics and culture. It is an attempt to revive and

reestablish the unquestionable divinity of the pharaoh. However, it is going about it by

completely severing ties with the old traditions of Egyptian religion. The hymn also creates a

paradoxical relationship between the two theological views as expressed in Egyptian culture. On

one hand, there is the new tendency toward a monotheistic religion, with Aton as the sole god,

and no other gods governing nature, etc. . . . On the other hand, there is the old views on religion

being expressed; the pharaoh was worshipped by the people of Egypt as a god, and he in turn

worshipping the god Aton; thus, there is more than one god.

The Hymn to the Aton, though it offered new ideas on Egyptian religion, was an attempt

by a ruler who enjoyed the idea of a divine title to regain what his predecessors had. The religious

reforms brought about by Akhenaton were intended to restore the position of the pharaoh to the

level of absolute rule which had once been held due to the belief that the pharaoh was the

personification of the gods. This however was not to be, as the priests which Akhenaton had

fought against in his attempt to redefine the pharaoh's divinity would take advantage of the

weakness of Akhenaton's successor, Tutankhamen. The reforms which Akhenaton brought to

return the power once held by the pharaoh in the Old Kingdom were unable to be understood, as

the people who Akhenaton had to ensure understood his reasoning did not, for they no longer

were connected to the old order which he was trying to reestablish.


Bailkey, Nels M. Readings in Ancient History. 5th ed. Toronto: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996.

Holy Bible. New International version. Grand Rapids, MI.: International Bible Society, 1973.

Starr, Chester G. A History of the Ancient World. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press,


Related Essays on History: Ancient