Thursday, 19 April 2018

The Edithorial: Genealogy of the Divisive Tyrant

The Edithorial: Genealogy of the Divisive Tyrant: It’s been week of the unaccountable autocrats. I gave my second lecture as Gresham Visiting Professor in Classics, on Sappho, viewable ...

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Reviewer Notes for 'The Sacred History of Being' (2015)

Notes on Part One:

The Preface gives an outline overview of the book and its parts, and something of the context. One way to look at the book and its subject is as an extension of A.O. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being, which examined the idea of Plenitude from the Classical Greeks onwards. SHB provides an extra nine hundred years to the history of the idea of Being, taking it back into the 14th century B.C.E.

The first chapter explains something of the authors background, and how he came to approach the past from the point of view of the history of the idea of Being, and came to study ancient languages and history in London.

Historians of philosophy treat the 5th century B.C.E. as the proper start of sophisticated philosophical thought, as we now understand it, with figures such as Parmenides, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle as the principal figures. It comes as shock to find Plato recounting the immense age of philosophy in his dialogue The Protagoras. This is the subject of ‘How Old is Philosophy?’, and ‘The Arrival of the Idea of Being’

‘The West and the Other’ explores the way western modes of thought are inverted from those in the east.  ‘The Golem’ is about how it is possible for things present in bodies of evidence to remain invisible. When the SHB project began, I expected it to be difficult to find supporting evidence. In fact it is present in vast quantities both in ancient texts and in the archaeology. But two centuries of scholarship have glided past this evidence, as if it is not there.

‘Change and what is Permanent’ looks at some of ideas which are present, but which are not much studied. These are abstractions, which are normally associated with the philosophical explosion of the 5th century B.C.E. in Greece, but are major components in thought from earlier periods. The human capacity to deal in abstractions is, as a corollary of the notion of cultural progress, assumed to have developed first in Greece. This a poor frame in which to try to understand ancient thought.

The discussion which occupies the rest of Part One of SHB concerns the Ontological Argument, which has been the mainstay of the understanding of the nature and reality of God in the west, since Anselm. The point of this extended discussion of this argument is to show that it isn’t really about the nature of the divine at all, but about the properties and attributes of the divine. In other words, it is loosely argued, and assumes that the frame of time, space and the underlying reality of the world (whatever that might be), is something which exists apart from the nature of God.

This isn’t how divinity was understood or discussed in the ancient world. To argue in this way puts an insuperable barrier between ourselves and the possibility of an understanding of the divine in antiquity, and makes it impossible for us to understand the relationship between religion and philosophy.

Notes on Part Two:

Part two explores ancient Greek ideas about the Divine, and the arguments which were used. It looks in detail at argumentation which appears in Plato’s work, and also at ideas which are reputed to have been part of the doctrines of Pythagoras.

‘The Sweet Song of Swans’ examines the nature and history of the scholarship around the work of Plato, which is contained mainly within the period of the past two centuries. The Platonic corpus is problematic. It appears to be inconsistent. Plato was still writing at 80 years of age, and so it seems possible that Plato changed his views over time, and this is reflected in half a lifetime of writing. On the other hand, there is no evidence that Plato’s Academy was a research institution, and so there is no reason to assume that his views changed during that half a lifetime. Those modern scholars who take this view have a problem however, since they have been unable to dig out the consistent doctrine (hoary with age) underpinning the weaving discourse of the dialogues.

The late neoPlatonic philosopher Olympiodorus gives us some clues as to the reasons for the form of Plato’s discourse. Further clues come from close analysis of some parts of Plato’s dialogues, particularly in the Timaeus and the Sophist.

Plato often refers to looking to the ‘one true thing’. That ‘’one true thing is Being itself, which he characterises as ‘The Good’. It never changes, it is entirely itself, and it is the goal of the philosopher to rise through the forms to the form of the good, and to return again, with knowledge of beneficial things.

J.G. Frazer once said that nothing useful could be said of the idea of Being. This was flying in the face of the whole of antiquity, whose civilizations articulated many aspects of the nature of Being as part of their understanding of the world. ‘Eleven attributes of Being’ discusses these, and why they had such importance in antiquity.

‘Pythagoras on Totality’ concerns a doctrine which was understood both in Mesopotamia and in ancient Greece. The idea can be traced back to the middle of the second millennium in Mesopotamia. Pythagoras is said to have learned of it in a lecture at Babylon after its fall to the Persians. Plato knew of it, and mentions the doctrine in his Timaeus. Once again, it is the idea of the ‘all’ being the location of all knowledge. It is the principal goal of the philosopher to access the totality of all reality. The distinction we customarily imagine to exist between philosophers and priests in antiquity, more or less breaks down at this point.

‘Solon in the court of Croesus’ is a re-examination of one of the most famous stories from antiquity, as told by Herodotus. There are details in the story which do not make sense without some analysis. In fact he is telling us about the importance of completion in understanding whether something is good or bad. He also connects the life of man with the cosmos using an unusual selection of numbers.
If we look closely at Homer’s Iliad (Book Eighteen in particular), we can see ideas in the text which are later reflected in Plato’s writing, which suggests strongly that Plato was writing about a body of ideas which was present in the late Bronze Age.

Notes on Part Three:

Ideas about water and ocean are held in common around the Mediterranean in the first and second millennia B.C.E. These ideas are associated with creation and the generation of life. They are also associated with the idea of abundance, which features in the Babylonian creation myth, performed each year by the King and the priests. The liturgy tells us about the intellectual frame of their world, as they understood it.  The physical world is a place of refuge, created by the gods to ensure the well-being of human life. The King is the earthly embodiment of the King of the gods, Marduk, whose character is described in detail. Each of his qualities enables him to maintain the good order of the world. Which tells us important things about how the gods were understood.

Israel suffered from the Assyrian addiction to war and cultural depredation. The Hebrews also spent some time in exile in Babylon, which gave them an insight into Mesopotamian thought about the Divine. Or was that insight garbled by the Hebrews, because they were engaged in a political and military struggle with their neighbours? ‘The Idea of Being in Israel’ considers this question.

The close connection between Hebrew and Assyrian thought was demonstrated by Simo Parpola in the early nineteen-nineties,  who showed that the Jewish Kabbalah is a close analogue of the Assyrian sacred tree. The Assyrian sacred tree is never described in detail in texts, though it is ubiquitous in Assyrian iconography. However if the principal Assyrian gods are placed within the structure of the Kabbalistic tree, with their associated god numbers, the fit is perfect. Formerly the Kabbalistic tree was understood to have been devised sometime in the early middle ages, possibly drawing on gnostic thought. If it is as old as the Assyrian sacred tree, then the history of intellectual thought as we have it is wrong.

The final part of the book concerns the installation of statues of the gods in both Assyria and Babylon. The revelation of close examination of the texts is that they are not talking about installing images of the gods, but the gods themselves. The rituals are described in detail, which gives an extraordinary insight into the minds of the scholars in the royal courts of Assyria and Babylon, and suggests we need to alter our perceptions of how divinity and the gods were understood in the first and second millennia B.C.E.

The postscript summarises how we might now understand the concept of Being, and the meaning of the representation of the gods, in both ancient Mesopotamia, and in ancient Greece.

Notes on the Appendices:

It is a strange fact that neither of the two premier universities in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, managed to get the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and the neoPlatonists into English translation before a private individual did, at the cusp of the two centuries. The work was done by a scholar of great gifts, Thomas Taylor, supported by a private benefactor. He chose to undertake the translation of Plato and Aristotle, and the neoPlatonists, because he did not recognise the notional division between them which has taken root in western academia since the Enlightenment. Post-Enlightenment scholars like to understand Plato outside of a theological context, which doesn’t at all square with the focus of his writing. Plato would have been utterly dismayed to be read in this way, but the neoPlatonists are clearly talking theology, and so they need to be kept apart for the purposes of an academic and untheological understanding of Plato. I’ve included a mildly redacted piece by Thomas Taylor, which explains why Plato’s discussion of the one and the ineffable is a theological matter of some importance.

The appendix on the story of the first sage in Babylonia is included to amplify what we know of the Babylonian understanding of how knowledge is acquired. It is acquired from Being itself, represented by the ocean and the ocean depths, because Being is the all, and all knowledge is necessarily already there. So a conversation with eternity, which is what the all is, is the principle source of knowledge of good and beneficial things.

The extract from the annals of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal on the exercise of kingship shows the importance attached to the idea of excellence in ancient Assyria, and that a concern with excellence was not an invention of the Greeks. Ashurbanipal lived in the seventh century B.C.E. Before now this significant passage had not been retranslated since the late nineteenth century. The Assyriologist Simo Parpola was kind enough to provide a new translation for me in 2005.

Thomas Yaeger, April 10, 2018.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Before Anthropology

[This is a short chapter from my forthcoming book, The Origins of Transcendentalism in Ancient Religion]


Much of the discussion of ancient religion is from an anthropological perspective, so it makes sense to look first at the development of anthropological writing. The first chapter of Eriksen and Nielsens, A History of Anthropology (2001) gives a general account of what they call ‘proto-anthropology’, covering the period from Herodotus up to the European Enlightenment.

It is beyond doubt, however, that anthropology, considered as the
science of humanity, originated in the region we commonly refer to
as ‘the West’, notably in four ‘Western’ countries: France, Britain,
the USA and Germany. Historically speaking, this is a European
discipline, and its practitioners, like those of all European sciences,
occasionally like to trace its roots back to the ancient Greeks.*1

Eriksen and Nielsen begin their account of the history of anthropology with Herodotus, who is the earliest writer on other societies whose work is mostly still extant. They know that Herodotus is sometimes unreliable as a witness to the nature of foreign cultures, so they don’t spend a lot of time discussing his work, or the possible reasons some of his accounts are untrustworthy. Herodotus was constructing his history according  to a number of precepts. Apart from his concern with the nature of fame, the one everyone knows about is the long conflict with the Persians, which continued after his death. His stated purpose was to write the story of the conflict, and to provide a background to the conflict. Another one is his presumption that the nature of people and cultures is geographically determined. People in the north, south, east and west are different from each other on that account. If it is hot in one place and cool in another, they will be different from each other. Those somewhere in the middle (i.e., Greece) possess a more balanced nature as individuals, and also in cultural terms.

We could ask where this geographic determinism comes from. The question is rarely asked. The answer to the question, which will be discussed later, is very revealing.

 The Greeks are singled out as being conscious of foreign peoples and societies as something ‘other’, which is a term which often appears in anthropological writing. There are two ways to approach something which is ‘other’ however:

Many Greeks tested their wits against a philosophical paradox
that touches directly on the problem of how we should relate to
‘the Others’. This is the paradox of universalism versus relativism.
A present-day universalist would try to identify commonalities and
similarities (or even universals) between different societies, while
a relativist would emphasise the uniqueness and particularity of
each society or culture. The Sophists of Athens are sometimes
described as the first philosophical relativists in the European

This is true not only for anthropologists, but true for most human beings. It is possible to look in two opposite directions – to what is universal, and to what is particular. And sometimes to see-saw between them, according to circumstances. We function within mental paradigms, open to some categories of what is important and can be understood, and closed to some others. What we see is what it is possible to see with the mental and cultural apparatus we have. And none of these apparatuses are universal in the human population.

The authors conjure a scene, drawn from two famous dialogues by Plato (427-347 BCE), the Gorgias and the Protagoras, in which Socrates is in argument with the Sophists:

We may picture them in dignified intellectual battle, surrounded by 
colourful temples and solemn public buildings, with their slaves scarcely 
visible in theshadows between the columns. Other citizens stand as spectators,
while Socrates’ faith in a universal reason, capable of ascertaining
universal truths, is confronted by the relativist view that truth will
always vary with experience and what we would today call culture.

Which is not the way either Plato or Socrates would have characterised the conflict between their view and the view of the Sophists. The Sophists were interested in the money that their rhetorical skills could bring them, and Plato said they argued to make the worse cause appear the better.  From the point of view of Plato and Socrates, the choice between addressing universals and particulars was not a valid choice at all. The pursuit of what was universal was the way to knowledge of what was true; the opposite was to separate one thing from another, and as a consequence, nothing true could be discovered. Eriksen and Neilsen point out that:

Plato’s dialogues do not deal directly with cultural differences.
But they bear witness to the fact that cross-cultural encounters
were part of everyday life in the city-states.

And they are done with Plato. Aristotle’s contribution to the development of anthropology is not quite so brief, but it is clear that though Aristotle 384-322 BCE) sought to describe and understand difference in the world, his interest is also in universals. The Greeks were always concerned with both however, since the philosophical process known as dialectic was based on the identification of what was the same, and what was different. The process is illustrated very clearly in the early part of Plato’s Sophist.

In his philosophical anthropology he (Aristotle)
discusses the differences between humans in general and animals,
and concludes that although humans have several needs in common
with animals, only man possesses reason, wisdom and morality.
He also argued that humans are fundamentally social by nature. In
anthropology and elsewhere, such a universalistic style of thought,
which seeks to establish similarities rather than differences between
groups of people, plays a prominent role to this day.

 However they concede that:

it seems clear that anthropology has vacillated up through history
between a universalistic and a relativistic stance, and that central
figures in the discipline are also often said to lean either towards
one position or the other.

Which is perhaps an admission that there is something problematic in the discipline of anthropology. Or perhaps there is something problematic and troubling in the human engagement with the world in general.

After a brief interlude after the collapse of the ancient world, and a few remarks about Arab scholarship during the long dark ages in Europe, the authors pick up their narrative in the early fifteenth century CE:

The ‘Age of Discovery’ was of crucial importance for later
developments in Europe and the world, and – on a lesser scale
– for the development of anthropology. From the Portuguese
King Henry the Navigator’s exploration of the West coast of
Africa in the early fifteenth century, via Columbus’ five journeys
to America (1492–1506), to Magellan’s circumnavigation of the
globe (1519–22), the travels of this period fed the imaginations of
Europeans with vivid descriptions of places whose very existence
they had been unaware of. These travelogues, moreover, reached
wide audiences, since the printing press, invented in the mid-fifteenth
century, soon made books a common and relatively inexpensive
commodity all over Europe.

Of course these expeditions were not scientific, but about power money and resources. They were also about fame, which could easily come from such expeditions. It is hard to write truthfully when you are writing a testament to your own glory, and to the glory of the king who paid for the expedition. Even if you could grasp some aspects of the nature of the culture around you. And so:

Many of the early travelogues from the New World were full
of factual errors and saturated with Christian piety and cultural
prejudices. A famous example is the work of the merchant and
explorer Amerigo Vespucci, whose letters describing his voyages to
the continent that still bears his name were widely circulated at the
time….  Occasionally, Vespucci seems to use the Native Americans
as a mere literary illustration, to underpin the statements he makes
about his own society. Native Americans are, as a rule, represented
as distorted or, frequently, inverted reflections of Europeans: they
are godless, promiscuous, naked, have no authority or laws; they are
even cannibals! Against this background, Vespucci argues effectively
for the virtues of absolutist monarchy and papal power, but his
ethnographic descriptions are virtually useless as clues to native
life at the time of the Conquest.

Not all of the accounts were bad, however. They point out that:

…contemporaries of Vespucci, such as the French
Huguenot Jean de Léry and the Spanish clergyman Bartolomé de
las Casas, who gave more truthful and even sympathetic accounts of
Native American life, and such books also sold well. But then, the
market for adventure stories from distant climes seems to have been
insatiable in Europe at this time. In most of the books, a more or less
explicit contrast is drawn between the Others (who are either ‘noble
savages’ or ‘barbarians’) and the existing order in Europe (which
is either challenged or defended).

The philosopher John Locke collected and read many of these more sympathetic books about the New World. He was opposed to the ideas of his contemporary Thomas Hobbes, who famously described human life as ‘nasty. Brutish, and short’. He preferred the idea of the noble savage to the barbarian. Though he did not discuss any of these accounts in his public writing. The books were found in his study after his death.

Eriksen and Neilsen concede that:

the legacy of these early, morally ambiguous accounts still weighs
on contemporary anthropology, and to this day, anthropologists
are often accused of distorting the reality of the peoples they write
about – in the colonies, in the Third World, among ethnic minorities
or in marginal areas. And, as in Vespucci’s case, these descriptions
are often denounced as telling us more about the anthropologist’s
own background than about the people under study.

The authors discuss the responses of European philosophers to the discovery of the New World, including Montaigne, Descartes, and John Locke. Some of their ideas have connections with anthropological thought from a later period. But they concede that anthropology is still some way beyond these important figures. It had been the case since antiquity that:

Exotic peoples had been described normatively (ethnocentrism) or
descriptively (cultural relativism). The question had repeatedly been
raised whether people everywhere and at all times are basically the
same (universalism) or profoundly different (relativism). There had
been attempts to define the difference between animals and humans,
nature and culture, the inborn and the learned, the sensual body and
the conscious mind. Many detailed descriptions of foreign peoples
had been published; some were based on meticulous scholarship.
In spite of these continuities, we maintain that anthropology as a
science only appeared at a later stage, though it is true that its birth
was a more gradual process than is sometimes assumed. Our reasons
for this are, first, that all the work mentioned so far belongs to one
of two genres: travel writing or social philosophy. It is only when
these aspects of anthropological enquiry are fused, that is, when
data and theory are brought together, that anthropology appears.

Fair enough. Though I regard social and cultural anthropology as arts subjects for the most part, rather than science (though in physical anthropology and archaeology there is a great deal of actual science). And then Eriksen and Neilsen make an extraordinary statement, which I’ve italicised.

Second, we call attention to the fact that all the writers mentioned
so far were influenced by their times and their society. This is of
course true of modern anthropologists as well. But modern anthropologists
live in a modern world, and we argue that anthropology
makes no sense at all outside a modern context. The discipline is a
product, not merely of a series of singular thoughts such as those
we have mentioned above, but of wide-ranging changes in European
culture and society, that in time would lead to the formation of
capitalism, individualism, secularised science, patriotic nationalism
and cultural reflexivity.

What on earth does that mean? Is this meant to imply that because anthropologists live in a modern world, they are more capable of detachment and objectivity than those who lived in earlier times? Or are they saying that it has a function in the modern world, which it did not and could not have had when thoughts were largely singular and could never become part of a consensus view and an agreed reality?  They say a little later:

…we have seen that the encounter with ‘the Other’ stimulated European
intellectuals to see society as an entity undergoing change and growth,
from relatively simple, small-scale communities, to large, complex
nations. But the idea of development or progress was not confined
to notions of social change. The individual, too, could develop,
through education and career, by refining his personality and finding
his ‘true self’ …  Only when the free individual was established as
‘the measure of all things’ could the idea of society as an association
of individuals put down roots and become an object of systematic
reflection. And only when society had emerged as an object to be
continuously ‘improved’ and reshaped into more ‘advanced’ forms
could the independent, rational individual change into something
new and different, and even ‘truer to its nature’. And without an
explicit discourse about these ideas, a subject such as anthropology
could never arise. The seeds were sown in early modern philosophy,
important advances were made in the eighteenth century, but it
was only in the nineteenth century that anthropology became an
academic discipline, and only in the twentieth century that it attained
the form in which it is taught today.

It is worth seeing it spelled out as clearly as that. In the minds of the authors the modern world is only possible because anthropology (as they understand it) is an explicit discourse about ideas of the improvement of the free individual, who is ‘the measure of all things’. As the authors said earlier, sometimes anthropologists are denounced for what they write, on the basis that it tells us more about the anthropologist’s own background, than about the people under study. 

1.Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Finn Sivert Nielsen A History of Anthropology Second Edition, 2001

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Polytheism, Monotheism, and The Cult of the Aten

There is a scholarly view of Polytheism and monotheistic belief in antiquity, which is often quite subtly nuanced. And there is the public view, put about by popularisers, and in religious education classes. The latter view is a simple one, which provides support for the idea that modern religious belief is improved in some way. It suggests that monotheism represents an intellectual advance on polytheistic belief, and provided a basis for cultural unification which was not present before the introduction of the idea. In the public mind there is a simple sequence of polytheism being superseded by monotheism.

There are two candidates which appear to illustrate this transformation, for the argument requires something resembling evidence: the earliest being the supposed intellectual revolution undertaken by the Pharaoh Akhenaten. This revolution failed to the extent that great effort was expended by the other priesthoods in Egypt to obliterate all mention and memory of Akhenaten’s name and actions. He was referred to as ‘that heretic’ by succeeding generations.

The second candidate is the god of the Hebrews, and the supposed development of monotheism. The revolution is recorded in the Pentateuch as the work of Moses. The Hebrew god is shown as being more efficacious than other Levantine Gods (it is to be remembered that, according to the Pentateuch, Yahweh was introduced to the Hebrews before their migration into the land of the Canaanites). [i] This revolution was successful, even if it did not prove a happy transformation for the Hebrews, since later on, it led to the destruction of much of their cultural life, when they were in conflict with Rome. It provided a background for the development of Christianity. The Christian religion, particularly once taken over as the state religion of Rome, oversaw the final destruction of the great polytheistic systems of belief in Assyria, Babylonia, and in Egypt.

The scholarly view has long known that polytheistic belief in the ancient world is complex and much more than just a world of many gods. Divinities were not seen as entirely discrete, and it was possible for principal figures in a pantheon to embrace the lesser gods. Thus the Mesopotamian god Marduk embraced the other gods, and their properties. Gods could appear in the form of other gods – this is expressly described in Egyptian texts, where a god king could appear (for example) in the form of the warrior god Montu, slaying his enemies, whatever the King’s principal divine cult was. In Assyria, a priest possessed by a god might speak a few lines in the character of one god, and in succeeding sentences, speak in the voice of another god. This was conceivable if all of the gods were connected together in a kind of primordial monotheism, which we now describe with the term ‘henotheism’. As a consequence of this way of thinking, the worship of one god did not preclude the recognition of other gods, since they represented related aspects of the worshipped god.

The importance of this phenomenon is that it indicates that the concept of the gods was understood to some extent as a continuum, and that each of the gods represented a different characterization of the divine. The individual gods in effect offered different connections with divinity.

Rome under the republic consolidated its power over conquered territories and people through the assimilation of local gods. While Rome still worshipped its pantheon of gods, such assimilation of local gods in conquered territories was  common. After Rome embraced Christianity however, the former easy equivalence between divinities became impossible, since the God of the Christians could not be the equivalent of all local deities, as it was the universal deity, and by definition, one alone. The policy of the Christian church was to employ the tactic of declaring local and foreign gods as devils and their followers as heathens. They and their characters were not to be embraced, but emphatically rejected.

As justification for this, the god of the Christians became something which had been shown to man by divine revelation, rather than a matter of philosophical argument about the nature of divinity. Whereas in the ancient model of divine things there was an easy acceptance that the gods were in some way realisations of the properties and attributes they represented, and that they could be interchanged and adapted, Yahweh, was the one true god, without peer, and for all eternity.

A similar process - the demonization of Caananite and foreign gods and the forbidding of their worship - occurred among the Hebrews in the earlier part of the first millennium B.C.E. Through the books of the Old Testament we can gain a little understanding of the arc of development in Hebrew thought, and something of the essentially polytheistic nature of their intellectual system before the severe depredations of Hebrew culture by the Assyrians, particularly in the 8th century B.C.E.

The rise of monotheism in Egypt is particularly difficult to understand, but it is important to try and fathom its main aspects in order to gain a comparative view.  It is not clear in fact that what we take to be the development of monotheistic belief in Egypt in the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C.E is any such thing. Before the rise of modern archaeology we knew little about Akhenaten, and there was a tendency among the first scholars to study the evidence, to read easy parallels with monotheism as represented in the Old Testament.  

Excavation at modern Tell el Amarna (Akhet-aten, or ‘Horizon of the Aten’/ ‘Limit of the Aten’), Akhenaten’s new city foundation, quickly revealed that here scholars were dealing with a king whose beliefs and cultural artefacts were significantly different from they had come to expect. [ii]  He seems to have annoyed the priests of other Egyptian cults in his own time, and he is still capable of acting as a lightning rod for uninformed argument even now.

An important clue to the intellectual background of the change in styling lies in Akhenaten’s former name: Amenhotep. At this time (the fourteenth century B.C.E.) the cult and the priesthood of the god Amun were powerful and prominent, and they had an important power base in Luxor. [iii]  Amun is the first element in the name of Akhenaten’s original name, and that of his father. The relationship of Egyptian pharaohs to the various priesthoods is undeniably complex, however the tradition in Egypt was that the king was a representation of the divine on Earth. He was a god king, and could appear in the form of any member of the divine pantheon. No-one however would be comfortable with a Pharaoh whose principle identification would be that of a lesser god. So the most important divine name in the Pharaoh’s name would be that of the divine cult which had the greatest power and prestige at the time. The cult would then be the cult of the King. [iv]

Amun is a strange god. He is unknowable and unseen. His shrine was kept in a darkened temple. He could be represented in one of his many forms, and through symbols. But his nature defies human understanding. He was regarded as an old god, though his cult did not have a history stretching back into the distant past. Which means that Amun was recognised as a primordial god, involved in the creation of the world, even if there was no ancient cult of Amun. This means that the God was understood to be theologically significant in the 14th century B.C.E. Hence the incorporation of the Gods’s name in the names of successive pharaohs.

The significant point to remember is that, as Amenhotep, Akhenaten could appear in some divine form, but could not manifest as the god himself. That is, he was Amun, who appears as other things, but by his very nature, cannot appear directly in his principal nature. He transcends shape and form, and is the unknowable god. Clearly there is an abstruse theology behind the articulation of a divine nature which is invisible and unknowable. One might characterize the Assyrian god Ashur in a very similar way: he sits at the head of the pantheon, embraces the other gods, and manifests himself through presence and action expressed in terms of representation by other divine forms.

Akhenaten however had a very specific idea of what was divine. This idea departed radically from the complex and nuanced theologies of Luxor and Thebes. On the face of the matter, it used to be argued that Akhenaten represented the sun as divine.[v]  This has been presented as a heresy pure and simple, from the point of view of the other priesthoods in Egypt. The evidence however does not support the notion that Akhenaten forbade the worship of other gods from the outset, or that the priesthoods of other gods regarded the worship of the Aten as a danger. After all, the sun was a divine figure in the pantheon of gods, represented by Ra. But this was, at the time, a sun god whose essential nature was understood to be beyond its outward appearance. The sun was its symbol, and the good things which came to man from it were the product of its essential nature, rather than its appearance and physical properties of heat and light. We know this since at this particular period, the god Ra was often conjoined with the unknowable formless god, as Amun-Ra. In this way the representational and symbolic nature of the visible sun was emphasized.

It is useful to look closely at the name of Akhenaten’s god. We know it as Aten, and that is how it is given by most scholars. His full title however was ‘The Ra-Horus who rejoices in the horizon, in his/her Name of the Light which is seen in the sun disk’. We find this full rendering of the Aten’s name on the stelae placed around Akhetaten, which was Akhenaten’s newly founded capital. These stelae were placed to mark the boundaries of the new foundation. Sometimes the full name was shortened to Ra-Horus-Aten, or just ‘Aten’. Since two of the names of Akhenaten’s god refer to the sun (Ra being an older name for the sun god), it seems that some kind of intellectual synthesis of older ideas had taken place.
The Aten is first mentioned (to our knowledge) in the Story of Sinuhe, which dates at least as far back as the twelfth dynasty, where the dead king is described as uniting with with the sun-disk in the heavens. Akhenaten’s iconography never shows the god in anthropomorphic form – instead the Aten is always shown as the sun disk with rays of light extending from it, with hands at the end of each ray. Akhenaten and his family receive these rays, and stand between the Aten and the ordinary Egyptians. The Sun god was considered to be neither male nor female, but both simultaneously, an idea which was reflected in the depiction of Akhenaten in sculpture and reliefs.

Eventually the worship of the other gods was proscribed, probably after a period of struggle between the royal court/cult of the Aten, and the priesthoods, for which we have no direct detail – particularly the priesthood of Amun. This does not mean that such a proscription was always part of the intention of Akhenaten; he may have felt that he was forced to do this owing to the strength of political opposition. However his adoption of the worship of the sun disk, of which he was the representative on earth, as the supreme deity, is an idea which does leave the other gods as fundamentally irrelevant to the life of Egypt. Akhenaten’s Egypt however, was not monotheistic in any meaningful sense, as long as other gods were worshipped.

Was Akhenaten's reign a "revolutionary" period in Egyptian history?  The evidence we have for Akhenaten is puzzling in a number of ways: he changed the artistic canon of Egypt, moved his capital, changed the public forms of worship and ritual; and changed the design of temples. The reasons for these changes are not easy to understand. Consequently Akhenaten has been the victim of both modern conjectures by Egyptologists, and also the speculations of the lunatic fringe: the evidence is enigmatic, suggestive, and lends itself to speculation. However, such is the psychological power of the ”perceived” figure of Akhenaten that even the actual evidence is sometimes discounted.

It is easy, for instance, to characterize Akhenaten as in some way abnormal, as an aberration within his culture, by arguing from the evidence of the extant Amarna letters and the boundary stelae that he walled himself up in his new city foundation of Akhet-Aten; also, from his apparent refusal to go to the assistance of his Levantine dominions when under attack from the north; and, developing this notion further into Akhenaten as the first notable pacifist, arguing that he was not depicted in the traditional warrior pose of "Smiter of Asiatics".

As for the last assertion, it is untrue to say that Akhenaten is not depicted in traditional fashion: he is shown as a warrior in a number of kiosks; also, he initiated one campaign in Nubia, and in the Levant he "responded to the collapse of the Mittani before the Hittites with a mixture of diplomacy
and military action" [O'Connor, in Trigger, Kemp, O'Connor, Lloyd,  Ancient Egypt: A Social History, ch. 3, p.220.] The remains of the Amarna archive of cuneiform tablets are insufficient for us to determine the precise nature of Akhenaten's response to Levantine difficulties: most of the letters are from Byblos, and their precise chronological order is uncertain. They can be arranged to illustrate a continuous decline, but they might as well be arranged to show a series of ups and downs.

As for his supposed voluntary imprisonment in his own capital Akhet-Aten, this also is a conclusion which is not warranted by the evidence. Akhenaten identifies one of his stelae saying that it is the "southern stela which is on the eastern mountain of Akhet-Aten, that is the stela of Akhet-Aten, which I shall let stand in its place" [M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. II, p. 50: the later Boundary Stelae of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten)]. This can be literally understood to mean that he himself stayed permanently within its boundaries, but it is more likely that he meant that the stelae themselves would not be moved.  Later in the same text [op. cit., p. 51] he emphasises the importance he attached to the existence of the stelae in the places in which they had been made. Of the oath on the stelae he says:

It shall not be erased. It shall not be washed out. It shall not be hacked out. It shall not be covered with gypsum. It shall not be made to disappear. If it disappears, if it vanishes, if the stelae on which it is falls down, I shall renew it again, afresh in this place in which it is.

Why he regarded the precise limits of Akhet-Aten as a matter of great importance is not clear, though since the city was understood to participate in eternity it is easy to understand concern with the precision of its limits as an extension of Akhenaten's wish that the city abide.

The art of Amarna is, compared with the whole history of Egyptian art, distinctly naturalistic: is this an innovation by Akhenaten? A naturalistic style was already beginning to appear under Amenhotep III, although the precise chronology of this is difficult to determine because of the unsolved problem
of co-regencies. It may be safe to say that Akhenaten developed (or rather encouraged through patronage) a style of art already coming into existence. On the other hand, the characteristics of images of Akhenaten may be connected with a pattern of religious ideas specifically associated with him: modern scholars find the religious ideas to be the strongest evidence of his revolutionary character.

It can be argued that what Akhenaten did was to change the emphasis on the character of Re, who had been becoming increasingly important in the eighteenth dynasty, so that the religious focus of Egyptian culture shifted even more from the invisible aspect of Re (Amun in the yoking Amun-Re), to the visible aspect of the sun, the disk (the Aten). This by itself does not represent a great innovation, for "the identification of king and disk had become more explicit in the reign of Tuthmosis IV... and was to continue until Ramesses III... the cult itself survived"  [Trigger, et al, op. cit., p. 220.]

In the hymn to the sun from El-Amarna, the Aten is described as the living sun. But it is also spoken of as Re. Both terms refer to the sun, but they do not mean precisely the same thing. One of his titles contains "Re": i.e., "Nefer kheprure - Sole one of Re". "Shu" also appears in one of his
titles: i.e., "Harakhti that rejoiceth  in the Horizon  in his name Shu, which is the sun" [A. Erman, The Ancient Egyptians, pp.289-291; 292]. Therefore it is not legitimate to argue that Akhenaten rejected all forms of divinity save the Aten. What we can say from the evidence of Amarna art, the texts of the Amarna hymns, and the boundary stelae. is that he seems to have rejected all forms of divinity unconnected with the sun, or at least those not closely connected with it.

In focussing his attention on the sun's disk, what is Akhenaten doing? Is this a radical or reactionary change? One can argue from the hymns and the art that Akhenaten is locating his god in a very concrete way: worshipping the sun itself and its visible attributes and tangible properties (i.e., warmth and light; promotion of growth and vitality);with most other gods being ignored as irrelevant.

Two important facts require to be explained:

1. The suppression of Amun (associated with the sun through the yoking Amun-Re) by the quite literal obliteration of the name wherever it was found, and
2. the obliteration of references to "gods" in the plural ["Neteru"]. Amun (more accurately, Amun-Re) is described in other sources as “Greatest of heaven, eldest of earth, lord of what existeth who abideth in (?) all things. Unique in his nature... chiefest of all gods. Lord of Truth, father of the gods who made mankind, and created beasts... more immanent of nature than any god, over whose beauty the gods rejoice... thee who didst create the gods, raise up the sky and spread out the ground... the Lord of Eternity, who created everlastingness... thou whose chapel is hidden, lord of gods. [Erman, op. cit., "The Great Hymn to Amun", p. 283-4.]

The point here is that Akhenaten appears to have been suppressing the worship of a god whose very nature ought to have made it very difficult to conceive of such a worship in the first place, halfway through the 2nd millennium B.C.E. The description of his nature indicates that it  is essentially a transcendent one. This is without question a philosophically based conception of a creator deity, the Lord of Eternity who created the other gods, who raised up the sky, and spread out the ground. In this hymn, Amun is the lord of an undifferentiated plenum, from which the physical world is generated.

Amun is one who remains forever unknown: "One falleth down dead on the spot for terror, if his mysterious, unknowable name is pronounced". That is, if we did know Amun, and could pronounce his name, it would breach every comfortable category of our understanding: "no god can address him by it, him with the soul (?) [i.e., the Ka which connects him with eternity] whose name is hidden, for that he is a mystery" [A. Erman, op. cit., p. 30]. In contrast the disk of the sun is a visible image of the divine, and is therefore a proper and publicly intelligible object of worship and adoration; and for the same reason the king is also a proper object of worship: since one is reckoned as the image of the other
As noted earlier, the identification of the king and the sun disk predates the reign of Akhenaten, which implies that his actions and beliefs ought to be intelligible – to some extent at least - within a pre-existing pattern of ideas in Egypt. One might speculate that the singular nature of this image is the reason for the suppression of the divine plurals, but I think that the matter is much more complicated. If Amun is intrinsically mysterious ("...none knoweth his mysterious nature..."), then to come to exist in the manifold of space and time, he must appear in a form which can be understood - as a manifestation or metaphor of his real unknowable nature.

Thus: "He who shaped his egg himself... the divine god who came into being of himself: all gods came into being, after he began to be”. Hence all gods can be understood as aspects of the unknowable Amun: "of mysterious form... the wondrous god with many forms". But Amun "hid himself from the gods, and his nature is not known" [A. Erman, op. cit., p.299]. To determine the intention of Akhenaten's actions, we have to gain a clearer understanding of the meaning and usage of theological concepts and terms, in both his own period, and in the preceding dynasties. This clarity is some way off.

Select bibliography:

Clayton, Peter A., Chronicle of the Pharaohs, Thames & Hudson, 1994
David, Rosalie, Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt, Penguin Books, 2002
Erman,  Adolf, The Ancient Egyptians. A sourcebook of their writings. Translated by Aylward M. Blackman, Harper & Row, 1966
Lichtheim, Miriam,  Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. II: The New Kingdom, University of California Press, 1976
Redford, Donald B. Akhenaten: The Heretic King, Princeton University Press, 1984; American University in Cairo Press, 1989
Shafer, Byron E., The Temples of Ancient Egypt, IB Tauris, 1998
Shaw, Ian, ed. Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, OUP, 2000
Shorter, Alan W., A Handbook of Egyptian Gods, RKP, 1937
Trigger, Kemp, O'Connor, Lloyd, Ancient Egypt: A Social History, CUP, 1983
Wilkinson, Richard W., The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, 2003



[i] There is little attempt to describe the transition to monotheism in terms of a competition of ideas. I remember the competition between the priesthoods of Yahweh and Baal from bible class in school – Yahweh and Baal were invoked sequentially to ignite kindling. Baal failed, and Yahweh succeeded.
[ii] All further instances of ‘horizon’ as a term should be understood to connote ‘limit’ and ‘boundary’, unless indicated otherwise. ‘Akhet’ may also mean ‘inundation’, which ties together the importance of the limit and inundation for the annual regeneration of the world.
[iii] The temple at Luxor appears to have been built around 1400 B.C.E., and was dedicated to the Theban Triad of the cult of the Royal Ka (Amun, Mut, and Khonsu). The Ka is one of the two Egyptian conceptions of the soul, and it represents Pharaonic participation in divinity. The temple complex is not dedicated to one god alone, but to three related aspects of divinity.
[iv] The cult of Amun is not as old as other Egyptian cults, so its importance did not arise simply from its longevity. So it is likely that there was a strong intellectual component in the struggle between the cult of Amun and the cult of the Aten in the 14th century B.C.E.  
[v] We are familiar with Plato using the sun as an image of the Good in the Republic, where its character and nature illustrates a point about leading men out of intellectual darkness. But there was no attempt to argue that the sun was the good or the divine in actuality.