Attention has been given to the issue of monotheism in ancient Egyptian religion since the early days of Egyptology. One idea proposed was that Egyptian religion was originally monotheistic and only secondarily developed into a polytheistic system, following the principle of nineteenth-century anthropology that the simple precedes the complex in cultures. According to this view, intellectuals and initiates were thought to have retained a belief in a primitive monotheistic deity while accepting the multiplicity of gods and goddesses as mere personifications of divine attributes; that is, there was one god for the wise and many for the common folk. Theologically, the solitude of the primeval god Nun before the Creation was adduced in support of an underlying primitive monotheism.

This interpretation was challenged by discoveries in the Early Dynastic royal cemeteries at Abydos and by the publication of the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts, and it was alternatively proposed that monotheism developed from a preexistent polytheism. Some scholars have maintained that even as early as the Old Kingdom there was a nameless divine being behind the multiplicity of gods, whereas others have regarded Egyptian religion as only gradually moving toward monotheism. Since Egyptian religion was a historically developed rather than a revealed religion, polytheism has been seen by some as surviving along with the emergence in the New Kingdom of a transcendent deity who could be manifest in many forms.

The Term “God.”.

The situations in which the Egyptian word for “god” was used in a way suggestive of a monotheistic deity are basically two: personal names and the Wisdom Literature. In the Early Dynastic period and during the Old Kingdom, there existed personal names containing the word “god.” Being given to a child at birth, theophoric personal names were spontaneous expressions of joy and devotion to the god of whom the parents had asked the gift of a healthy child. In some of these names the Egyptian term for “god” appears to be used in an abstract way—for example, “god is gracious,” “whom god loves,” “whom god fashioned,” or “god lives.” But paralleling such names are others that mention a specific god, such as “Khnum is gracious,” “beloved of Re,” or “Ptah lives”; this suggests that when the term “god” was used in naming a child, the parents were thinking not of an abstract divinity but rather of a specific local deity to whom they had prayed. There are, in fact, personal names that instead of using the masculine word “god,” employ the feminine word “goddess,” as in “may the ka of the goddess exist,” or “great is the goddess.” Nowhere does evidence exist to suggest that “goddess” was ever employed as an abstract term in Egypt. So, by analogy, it is probable that when “god” appears in personal names, the speaker was thinking of the deity closest to him—one embodying all divine attributes, but not the sole divinity. In interpreting these early names, it is also possible that “my god” rather than “god” is the proper translation, owing to the fact that in Old Egyptian the first person singular pronoun was regularly omitted in writing.

Monotheism has also been held by some scholars to be present in the Wisdom Literature, where as early as the Instruction of Ptahhotep, the term “god” seems to be used in an abstract sense. Some have supposed that the authors of Wisdom texts, being of the elite, were acquainted with the concept of a transcendent monotheistic deity. It should be stressed, however, that in all Wisdom texts the polytheistic element is also present: use is made of the word “gods” in the plural, and specific deities are also named. Since Wisdom Literature was composed for the benefit of the elite scribal class and not intended for broad public dissemination, its polytheistic element was hardly a concession on the part of the sages to appeal to a polytheistic public. Moreover, later Wisdom texts actually mention specific deities even more frequently than earlier Wisdom texts, casting doubt on any supposed trend toward monotheism. It is most unlikely that references to various deities or to gods in the plural were mere turns of phrase. In both the Instructions for Merikare and the Instructions of Ani there are references to caring for the cultic needs of the gods; these must be concrete deities who possessed temples and priests.

In composing a Wisdom text, the writer desired to make his work comprehensible to bureaucrats throughout the land, not just at the royal residence in Memphis or at Thebes. Along the Nile there were many towns, villages, and districts, each with its primary local deities; and in any given community a person would tend to invest the local deity with the highest attributes possible. One must also reckon with mobility as bureaucrats moved from one part of Egypt to another. Because it would have been inappropriate to name a specific god as dominant throughout the text, recourse was had to the vaguer, less precise word “god” instead. Circumstances would change in place and time, so it was best for the author of a Wisdom text to use the neutral “god” in generalizing for the reader's benefit.

Henotheism.

The approach to the divine in the Wisdom Literature is related to the concept of henotheism, whereby a writer, speaker, or devotee selects a god as his or her own single almighty deity, without, however, denying the existence of other gods and goddesses, any of whom might be seen by someone else as the principal deity. Superficially, this might look like monotheism, but it is not; the Egyptians did not impose a universally exclusive god except during the Amarna period, when Akhenaten selected the Aten and curbed the cults of traditional deities. Of the terms that have been utilized to describe Egyptian religion, “henotheism” seems to be the most appropriate. It implies that when an Egyptian honored a god or goddess in hymn or in prayer, he or she treated that deity, at that moment, as though the deity possessed the characteristics of a sole divinity, with all other gods and goddesses—even the mighty ones—paling into insignificance. The deity who is being addressed at the moment stands out as all-important. The fact that more than one god could be called “king,” or “lord,” of the gods does not reflect a stage between polytheism and monotheism.

A nice illustration of the way a devout Egyptian might single out even a goddess as the object of his devotion occurs in the tomb inscription of the Ramessid scribe Simut. Although initially Simut speaks of the god who guided him early in life as an unnamed male deity, the bulk of the text describes his selection of the goddess Mut to be his patron (to whom he bequeaths all his property), because he found Mut to be at the head of the gods, greater than any other deity, with all that transpires at her command (Wilson, 1970).

It can be argued that the very existence of the god depended on differentiation, such as took place initially at Creation, and that it was therefore impossible to have a deity who was totally one and absolute to the exclusion of others once the existential realm had come to be. Only at the very beginning of Creation was there exclusive unity, which became lost in the differentiating process, when even the Creator became distinguished from the many other deities of the pantheon. A return to the primal monistic state would have meant the very negation of existence. Thus, the Egyptian view of Creation and of the existential realm presented a serious impediment to the development of monotheism from polytheism.

A god could be a unity, as revealed in theophany or epiphany, or when honored by an individual in prayer or hymn, but he/she was also manifold in nature, capable of appearing in numerous forms. A typically Egyptian thought structure involved thinking in pairs. Within this structure, a deity could be both the one and the many. This concept has been termed “complementary thinking,” whereby opposites, instead of contradicting each other logically, complement each other in expressing reality. For monotheism to have developed would have required a radical change in this complementary thought pattern, which permitted the divine, on the one hand, to be a unity in the individual encounter, and, on the other hand, to possess many forms of appearance and attributes.

Summodeism.

During the New Kingdom, particularly in the Ramessid period, hymns were composed that describe a divinity who is a kind of universal supertranscendent god, of whom all other deities are merely secondary emanations. This kind of theology, with its notion of an abstract transcendent god who stands above all other deities and whose true nature cannot even be fathomed by either gods or humans, has been regarded as reflecting a crisis in the traditional polytheism; however, it certainly is not monotheism, since the existence of many deities—even though of lesser quality—is still not denied. Here the term “summodeism” best describes the situation in which there is a supreme god heading a polytheistic pantheon, whose multitude of deities exist as hypostases of the high god by virtue of his transforming himself into the many.

Although Ramessid theologians may have been thinking about divinity along such lines, henotheism with its implicit polytheism nevertheless prevailed in the practice of religion. There is a letter written by the high priest of Amun during the reign of Ramesses IX (translation in Wente, 1990, pp. 38–39) that illustrates how even the top ecclesiastical figure adheres to polytheism when he invokes the blessing of Montu as well as of Amun-Re, king of the gods, for recipients of his letter. In correspondences penned by the elite during the late Ramessid age, there is constant mention of numerous deities. The fact that in these letters one finds the writer saying, “I'm all right today; tomorrow is in god's hands,” might suggest a belief in the existence of a monotheistic deity because the term “god” is modified by the definite article just as in Coptic biblical literature, where it is used in reference to the monotheistic god of the Bible. However, the Ramessid-era expression about tomorrow's being in god's hands occurs in letters that also regularly contain invocations to numerous named deities. Such a collocation in letters written by officials at the end of the New Kingdom does not suggest monotheism, let alone summodeism—which, unlike henotheism, was largely confined to the realm of theology without seriously altering traditional religious beliefs and practices.

Akhenaten's Monotheism.

Although the Aten is attested as a god prior to Akhenaten's reign, Akhenaten's institution of the cult of the Aten as sole deity is unique in the history of Egyptian religion. What he did was to single out this god—who was manifest in the sun disk and its radiating rays of sunlight—from among the others, to be the object of veneration. The Aten was the sun god, and the solar disk was the form in which this divinity appeared. In fact, over the course of Akhenaten's reign one can trace a development that reflects the king's role in implementing a radical new theology. Although other deities were initially still recognized, Akhenaten soon ordered the abrogation of their cults; the persecution of traditional deities, particularly those of Thebes, intensified, as the name and representation of the god Amun were expunged from monuments throughout the land. Even the plural word for “gods” was frequently erased. The king, who had earlier dropped the name Amenhotpe in favor of Akhenaten, had the didactic name of the Aten revised so that it no longer contained elements suggestive of polytheism.

The Amarna theology, as revealed in texts and scenes from tombs and temples, supports the idea that it constituted a form of monotheism. The Aten was about as close to an absolute god as the Egyptians got. He was a jealous god who did not tolerate other deities. Texts speak of the living Aten beside whom there is no other; he was the sole god. The Amarna religion can be described as monotheistic in the sense that it was an established religion whose theology was articulated by Akhenaten, who alone comprehended the true nature of the Aten. In effect, his theology became the religion. By proclaiming the universality and unity of Aten and rejecting the traditional pantheon, Akhenaten was negating the old polytheistic religion.

There are some qualifications to Akhenaten's monotheism. The king, for example, was himself a god and had his own high priest. Whereas Akhenaten in his inscriptions never called himself “god,” but only “son of god,” there are clear cases in which he is referred to as “god” by his subjects, in such expression as “my god who made me” or “the god who fashions people and makes the Two Lands to live.” Akhenaten was not directly identified with the Aten, but since Aten was Re, therefore his son (who was the son of Re and also occasionally identified as Re) was of the same essence as his father, the Aten. The monotheism of Amarna comprised a father-son relationship, in which the son was the incarnation and image of the sun god, daily reborn as the Aten was reborn. In fact, the dual process of the Aten's daily self-creation and his simultaneous regeneration of Akhenaten constituted the focal point of Amarna theology, according to Žabkar (1954).

What is more, Akhenaten's queen Nefertiti also received divine attributes. At Amarna she appears as a deity along with the Aten and Akhenaten in funerary offering formulae, and there are praises and prayers to the king that are paralleled by ones directed to his queen. Hymns to the Aten can be introduced by the words, “Adoration of the Aten, Akhenaten, and Nefertiti.” There thus seems to have been a triadic relationship among the Aten and his children, Akhenaten and Nefertiti. It is quite possible that in developing his religion, Akhenaten was familiar with a much older theology surrounding the creator god Atum and his two offspring, the god Shu and the goddess Tefnut, who were consubstantial emanations of the creator god, providing life and order as energizers at Creation. Thus the Aten filled the role of Atum, while Akhenaten was Shu, the god of air, light, and life, and Nefertiti was equivalent to Tefnut, who symbolized the correct order of the world. The Shu-aspect of Akhenaten is iconographically evident in the four-feathered crowns sometimes worn by the king; and Nefertiti's name, which means “the beautiful one has returned,” possibly equates her with Shu's twin sister Tefnut, who according to mythology returned to Egypt as a charming woman after going south as a ferocious lioness.

The king and queen worshiped the Aten directly, whereas commoners generally approached the Aten only through the intermediation of the king. Absent from the Amarna scene were those processions of portable barks containing images of the gods that had traditionally been adored by the populace. Instead, the king and queen were the objects of popular veneration as they moved about the city of Akhetaten in procession. Evidence from two letters found at Amarna, however, indicates that a commoner could directly implore the Aten in prayer to bestow benefits, so that it would be wrong to suggest that Akhenaten had a monopoly on piety.

There are a few minor points that have been adduced as qualifications to Akhenaten's monotheism. In his boundary stelae of Year 5 of his reign, the king mentions that he found the site of Akhetaten belonging to no god or goddess—a tacit admission of the existence of other deities besides Aten. The early date of this proclamation may, however, not yet reflect the fully developed Aten theology with its exclusion of polytheism. In Amarna texts, the concepts of “fate,” “fortune,” and maat (mʒʿt; “justice”) tend to be personified as goddesses, but such deifications are of a different order than deities of cosmic nature and hardly constitute a serious objection to the characterization of the Aten as a monotheistic divinity. Although some inhabitants of Amarna bore theophoric names that contained the names of traditional deities, this phenomenon has its analogy in the persistence of old theophoric names among Coptic Christians. It has also been pointed out that in private homes and chapels at Amarna, documents have been unearthed that attest to the retention of traditional gods and goddesses as household deities. It is possible, however, that such evidence should be assigned to the reign of one of Akhenaten's successors, Smenkhkare and Tutankhamun.

All in all, Amarna theology can be considered monotheism because it proclaims “the unity of god” and excludes the constellations of older polytheistic deities. Like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it was an established religion, founded on the revelation of the Aten to Akhenaten, who alone knew the Aton and anathematized the old polytheistic tradition. The degree to which Amarna theology influenced Israelite monotheism has been much debated. Although there is some similarity between the Great Aten Hymn and Psalm 104 in the negative evaluation of nighttime and in the treatment of nature as nondivine, responding to the life-giving activity of the divinity who constantly nurtures creation, the peculiar theocracy inherent in the triadic relationship of the Aten, Akhenaten, and Nefertiti bears absolutely no resemblance to the god of the Hebrew scriptures.

See also AKHENATEN; ATEN; DIVINITY; and RELIGION.

Bibliography

  • Allen, James P. “The Natural Philosophy of Akhenaten.” In Religion and Philosophy in Ancient Egypt, edited by William Kelly Simpson, pp. 89–101. Yale Egyptological Studies, 3. New Haven, 1989. Regards Atenism as natural philosophy rather than religion, suggesting that Akhenaten, not the Aten, was the god of the new religion.
  • Assmann, Jan. Egyptian Solar Religion in the New Kingdom: Re, Amun. and the Crisis of Polytheism. Translated by Anthony Alcock. London and New York, 1995. Treats the emergence of a high transcendent deity during the New Kingdom, particularly as revealed in Ramessid hymns.
  • Assmann, Jan. Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Cambridge and London, 1997. Traces the origins of Moses' monotheism to Akhenaten's religious revolution.
  • Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Ithaca, 1982. Provides a good summary of the monotheism debate among historians of Egyptian religion, arguing that monotheism was not a possible development from polytheism except through the radical reforms of Akhenaten.
  • Johnson, W. Raymond. “Amenhotep III and Amarna: Some New Considerations.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 82 (1996), 65–82. Discusses the possible identification of Akhenaten's father Amenhotpe III with the Aten, and Akhenaten and Nefertiti as the divine pair Shu and Tefnut.
  • Morenz, Siegfried. Egyptian Religion. Translated by Ann E. Keep. Ithaca, 1973. Deals with the basic characteristics of Egyptian religion, divine immanence and transcendence, and Atenism as a trinitarian theology.
  • Murnane, William J. Texts from the Amarna Period in Egypt. Society of Biblical Literature Writings from the Ancient World, 5. Atlanta, 1995. Convenient up-to-date translations of texts relating to the Amarna period.
  • Redford, Donald B. Akhenaten, the Heretic King. Princeton, 1984. An overview of Akhenaten's reign, important for its discussion of documentation from Thebes pertaining to the early years of Akhenaten's reign before the move to Amarna.
  • Silverman, David P. “Divinity and Deities in Ancient Egypt.” In Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice, edited by Byron E. Shafer, pp. 7–87. Ithaca and London, 1991. Discusses types of deities, divine kingship, and monotheistic tendencies in the reign of Akhenaten.
  • Wente, Edward F. Letters from Ancient Egypt. Society of Biblical Literature Writings from the Ancient World, 1. Atlanta, 1990. Provides translations of letters of the Ramessid era (pp. 111–204) and the two letters from Amarna in which a commoner addresses the Aten directly (pp. 94–96).
  • Wilson, John A. “Akh-en-Aton and Nefert-iti.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 32 (1973), 235–241. Concentrates on divine aspects of the king and the queen at Amarna.
  • Wilson, John A. “The Theban Tomb (No. 409) of Si-Mut, Called Kiki.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 29 (1970), 187–192.
  • Žabkar, Louis V. “The Theocracy of Amarna and the Doctrine of the Ba.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 13 (1954), 87–101. A well-documented discussion of the theology surrounding the father-son relationship between the Aten and Akhenaten.

Edward F. Wente