Great Hymn to the Aten
The Great Hymn to the Aten is the longest form of one of a number of hymn-poems written to the creator god Aten and attributed to King Akhenaten who radically changed traditional forms of Egyptian religion replacing them with Atenism.
The hymn-poem provides a glimpse of the religious artistry of the Amarna period expressed in multiple forms encompassing literature, new temples, and in the building of a whole new city at the site of present day Amarna as the capital of Egypt. Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson said that "It has been called 'one of the most significant and splendid pieces of poetry to survive from the pre-Homeric world.'" Egyptologist John Darnell asserts that the hymn was sung.
Various courtiers' rock tombs at Amarna (ancient Akhet-Aten, the city Akhenaten founded) have similar prayers or hymns to the Aten or to the Aten and Akhenaten jointly. One of these, found in almost identical form in five tombs, is known as The Short Hymn to the Aten. The long version discussed in this article was found in the tomb of the courtier (and later Pharaoh) Ay.
Akhenaten forbade the worship of other gods, a radical departure from the centuries of Egyptian religious practice. Finally, Akhenaten issued a royal decree that the name Aten was no longer to be depicted by the hieroglyph of a solar disc emanating rays but instead had to be spelled out phonetically. Thus Akhenaten extended even further the heretical belief that Aten was not the disc or orb of the sun (the Egyptian sun god Ra) but a universal spiritual presence (see Akhenaten and Atenism). Akhenaton's religious reforms (later regarded heretical and reverted under his successor Tutankhamun) have been described by some scholars as the earliest known example of monotheistic thought while others consider it to have been an example of henotheism.
Excerpts of the hymn-poem to Aten
From the middle of the text:
- How manifold it is, what thou hast made!
- They are hidden from the face (of man).
- O sole god, like whom there is no other!
- Thou didst create the world according to thy desire,
- Whilst thou wert alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts,
- Whatever is on earth, going upon (its) feet,
- And what is on high, flying with its wings.
- The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt,
- Thou settest every man in his place,
- Thou suppliest their necessities:
- Everyone has his food, and his time of life is reckoned.
- Their tongues are separate in speech,
- And their natures as well;
- Their skins are distinguished,
- As thou distinguishest the foreign peoples.
- Thou makest a Nile in the underworld,
- Thou bringest forth as thou desirest
- To maintain the people (of Egypt)
- According as thou madest them for thyself,
- The lord of all of them, wearying (himself) with them,
- The lord of every land, rising for them,
- The Aton of the day, great of majesty.
From the last part of the text, translated by Miriam Lichtheim:
- You are in my heart,
- There is no other who knows you,
- Only your son, Neferkheprure, Sole-one-of-Re [Akhenaten],
- Whom you have taught your ways and your might.
- [Those on] earth come from your hand as you made them.
- When you have dawned they live.
- When you set they die;
- You yourself are lifetime, one lives by you.
- All eyes are on [your] beauty until you set.
- All labor ceases when you rest in the west;
- When you rise you stir [everyone] for the King,
- Every leg is on the move since you founded the earth.
- You rouse them for your son who came from your body.
- The King who lives by Maat, the Lord of the Two Lands,
- Neferkheprure, Sole-one-of-Re,
- The Son of Re who lives by Maat. the Lord of crowns,
- Akhenaten, great in his lifetime;
- (And) the great Queen whom he loves, the Lady of the Two Lands,
- Nefer-nefru-Aten Nefertiti, living forever.
Analyses of the poem are divided between those considering it as a work of literature, and those considering its political and socio-religious intentions.
If this were a new religion, invented to satisfy our modern scientific conceptions, we could not find a flaw in the correctness of this view of the energy of the solar system. How much Akhenaten understood, we cannot say, but he certainly bounded forward in his views and symbolism to a position which we cannot logically improve upon at the present day. Not a rag of superstition or of falsity can be found clinging to this new worship evolved out of the old Aton of Heliopolis, the sole Lord of the universe.
Egyptologist Dominic Montserrat discusses the terminology used to describe these texts, describing them as formal poems or royal eulogies. He views the word 'hymn' as suggesting "outpourings of emotion" while he sees them as "eulogies, formal and rhetorical statements of praise" honoring Aten and the royal couple. He credits James Henry Breasted with the popularisation of them as hymns saying that Breasted (erroneously) saw them as "a gospel of the beauty and beneficence of the natural order, a recognition of the message of nature to the soul of man"(quote from Breasted).
Montserrat argues that all the versions of the hymns focus on the king and suggests that the real innovation is to redefine the relationship of god and king in a way that benefited Akhenaten, quoting the statement of Egyptologist John Baines that "Amarna religion was a religion of god and king, or even of king first and then god."
In his book Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis compared the Hymn to the Psalms of the Judaeo-Christian canon, as did Breasted (who broke them up into stanzas to resemble Western poems). Miriam Lichtheim commented about an alleged resemblance with Psalm 104 saying that "The resemblances are, however, more likely to be the result of the generic similarity between Egyptian hymns and biblical psalms. A specific literary interdependence is not probable."
- Wilkinson, Toby (2011). The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 289–290. ISBN 978-1408810026.
- Darnell>, John. Tutankhamun's Armies: Battle and Conquest During Ancient Egypt's Late Eighteenth Dynasty. p. 41. ISBN 978-0471743583.
- Lichtheim, Miriam (2006). Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume II: The New Kingdom. University of California Press. p. 90. ISBN 978-0520248434.
- Brewer, Douglas j.; Emily Teeter (2 edition (22 Feb 2007)). Egypt and the Egyptians. Cambridge University Press. p. 105. ISBN 978-0-521-85150-3. Check date values in:
- Pritchard, James B., ed., The Ancient Near East – Volume 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1958, pp. 227-230.
- Lichtheim, Miriam (2nd Ref. Ed. 2006). Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume II: The New Kingdom. University of California Press. p. 99. ISBN 978-0520248434. Check date values in:
- Sir Flinders Petrie, History of Egypt (edit. 1899), Vol. II, p. 214.
- Lichtheim, Miriam (2nd Ref. Ed. 2006). Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume II: The New Kingdom. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520248434. Check date values in:
- H. R. Hall, Ancient History of the Near East (1913), p. 599.
- Montserrat, Dominic (2002). Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt. Routledge. p. 38. ISBN 978-0415301862.
- Montserrat, Dominic (2002). Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt. Routledge. p. 40. ISBN 978-0415301862.
- John Baines (1998). "The Dawn of the Amarna Age". In David O'Connor, Eric Cline. Amenhotep III: Perspectives on His Reign. University of Michigan Press. p. 281.
- Montserrat, Dominic (2002). Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt. Routledge. p. 101. ISBN 978-0415301862.
- Lichtheim, Miriam (2006). Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume II: The New Kingdom. University of California Press. p. 100. ISBN 978-0520248434.
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