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Hymn To Aten

Mention Egypt to any North American and instantly images of deserts, pyramids and the sphinx will come to mind. We tend to think of the Egyptian culture in terms of the images portrayed to us through Hollywood movies such as The Mummy and Indiana Jones. Although popular at the box office these films do little justice to the Egyptian culture. The Great Hymn To Aten was a prayer found in a tomb in Akhentaten. What does this prayer lead historians to believe about Egyptian society and the circumstances under which it was written? Does it support the ideas of an Egyptian civilization that valued order, reliability, and agriculture? What was the importance of Akhenaten in the New Kingdom? What is this particular Hymn's value and limitations as a historical source? Is the Hymn restricted in the sense that it does not portray an accurate picture concerning contrary religious opinion?

The Hymn to Aten gives insight into certain aspects of Egyptian civilisation in the New Kingdom. It is an invaluable way to understand Akhenaten's Monotheism. Egypt was stripped of all other gods and given Aten (the solar disk). Aten was as written in the Hymn, "sole god, without another beside." Akhenaten's monotheism stressed the powerful effects that Aten had upon Egypt and that all life was reliant upon Aden "giving breath to all that has been begotten." Other lines within the prayer stress Aten as the "Creator of all Earth" . His actions are essential to human life from the moment of conception through everyday life. In reality, the Nile is the life source of Egypt. It is what made "Egyptian agriculture one of the wealthiest in all the ancient world." The degree of reliance upon Aten as the sole deity is most exemplified by the line, "In the underworld you have made a Nile that you may bring it forth as you wish to feed the populace." The fact that Aten is a solar disk is not surprising as the Hymn enables us to see the importance of agriculture to the ancient Egyptians.

Readers of the Hymn get a sense of the centrality of agriculture to the Egyptians. The Hymn refers to the Aten's rays that "give suck to every field, when you rise they live, they grow for you" . The basis of these verses stem from their knowledge of farming. Plants grow towards the light, they die when there is no light, and " the Nile in the sky" refers to the essential rain needed to help grow the crops. Another trait associated with farmers is the need for regularity and order. The days and the seasons are important to farming and agriculture. When Aten rises "everything grows" and "when he sets, they die" . It is also important to note that when Aten sets in the west to rest "all work is put down". Egyptian farmers rested when Aten did.

The Great Hymn to Aten reveals within it's praises Akhenaten's role as the son of Aten and his divine kingship. Akhenaten exhalted himself to a position of considerable power for "there is no other who knows him, except for his son." It was through Akhenaten that the people worshipped their god. Essentially Akhenaten created a situation where one god was the source of all life. Egypt was completely reliant on this sole god and the only person able to converse with Aten was Akhenaten. This shifted the power from the former priests of Amun-Re to the Pharaoh himself. This may have caused discontent among the people of Egypt, as worship and religion were central to their daily lives. "Egyptian life was suffused with religious practices, from daily rituals and seasonal festivals to ethical teachings and magic." His powerful position is further supported by the fact that every Egyptian believed that all that grew within Egypt grew for Akhenaten. "You have founded the land and you have raised them for your son," refers to the importance of agriculture and sustenance. Essentially Akhenaten serves as the lifeline between Aten and the people.

The Hymn to Aten proves to be a valuable historical source when looking at the Amarna revolution. The document's dependability is enhanced by the fact that it was probably written by Akhenaten himself or one of his appointed high priests. It was found in "a tomb at Akhentaten." This is significant because the tomb was in the New Capital of Egypt and centre stage of the revolution itself. It is probably the most sincere expression of devotion from that time period in the New Kingdom.

As useful as the Great Hymn to Aten is in giving historians a reliable account of the Amarna revolution, one must also be aware of the certain limitations this document presents. The Hymn focuses mainly on Aten and his son the Pharaoh. There is however brief mention of "the fore-most wife of the king" towards the end of the Hymn. Beyond the mention of the god himself and the two heads of the royal family there is no other insight into further power distribution within Egypt and no mention of high priests or temples. As the document served as a hymn and a way to praise the sole god Aten the existence of contrary religious opinion is completely left out. This comes as no surprise after Akhenaten went to such lengths as to have the "erasure of Amun-Re," from monuments and texts throughout all of Egypt. The prayer also does not enlighten the present day reader to the foundation or origins of monotheism. As Egypt was primarily polytheistic in the past it leads one to wonder where Akenaten first encountered the idea to promote such radical reform as monotheism.

As a historical source the Great Hymn to Aten is of value. It provides the reader with a reliable account of the ideas and expressions of Akhenaten. When reading a document such as this, readers need to be aware of the fact that as a hymn of praise it has a very narrow scope and tends to glorify those ideas within that narrow scope. A hymn will not give insight to anything that may contradict it or make it seem less convincing. The Hymn to Aten sheds an accurate light onto very specific parts of Egyptian history. Perhaps if modern day filmmakers could incorporate more from the insights given from documents such as this one, blockbuster hits such as The Mummy and Indiana Jones could portray a more complete and accurate picture of the Egyptian culture.


Noble, Thomas F. X.. et al, Western Civilization: The Continuing Experiment. 4th ed.

Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.

Rogers, Perry M. Aspects of Western Civilization: Problems and Sources in History.




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