What Happened When A God Challenged The Status Quo



Akhenaten with blue crown — Jon Bodsworth via Wikimedia Commons

Think about the last time you went against the will of the crowd and attempted to change something. It likely took courage to voice your opinion in the face of adversity. Maybe you even lost a friend or two — possibly a job. Whatever you attempted to change, you likely went against those who benefited from the current system. Logically, they’d look at you as an enemy if you took their power away or made life different.

Now, imagine going against an entire society and challenging the way the power structure has been for thousands of years. How much courage would that take? The attempt may just be suicidal. One could only imagine the powerful stakeholders you’d come into conflict with. Well, you don’t have to imagine, this happened about 3,000 years ago in ancient Egypt.

Wait, the story gets even better. The person attempting to make this change was thought to be a living god as well. You’d think this would make the process easier, but even deities struggle against the power of human nature. Even a god on Earth has its limits in challenging the status quo as you’ll soon see.

The Power of the Egyptian Priesthood

“Beneath and above everything in Egypt was religion. We find it in every stage and form, from totemism to theology. We see its influence in literature, government, art, and everything….its gods were almost as numerous as in India.”
— Will Durant, “Heroes of History

Durant says gods were everywhere in Egypt. Vegetables, animals, the Nile, and the Sun were worshipped as gods. In addition, the pharaoh was a god himself. Being a living god sounds like a fun life. Imagine having the infinite power of a pharaoh?

However, Durant explains that the power wasn’t truly as infinite as you might expect. The ruler in Egypt had constituencies to deal with, much like today. For instance, there were lesser lords and royal family members who might plot to take power.

In addition, there was a power class one might not think of, which might have even had more power than the pharaoh himself at points — the priesthood. Durant explains priests were empowered by the Egyptian monarchs for their own self-interest. A powerful clergy, in turn, promoted the pharaoh, who was thought to be a living god.

Book of the Dead papyrus of High Priest Pinedjem II — British Museum / Wikimedia Commons

So, the two formed a symbiotic relationship of sorts. The priesthood reminded the people of the monarch’s “divine lineage,” which made it easier to rule. In turn, Durant says the pharaoh made the priests the “necessary props of the throne and the police of the social order.”

However, he says the priesthood soon became corrupted. They used their influence over the numerous gods, life, death, and fortune to enrich themselves. In particular, selling magic charms to protect against dangers found in the afterlife became increasingly profitable. As can be imagined, their wealth and status also influenced politics.

This wouldn’t go unnoticed and an odd rebel came along to challenge this priestly hierarchy.

Pharaoh, Prophet, Poet, Rebel, and Lover

“Rebel, tyrant, and prophet of arguably the world’s earliest monotheistic religion, Akhenaten has been called history’s first individual. His impact upon ancient Egyptian customs and beliefs stretching back for centuries was so alarming that, in the generations following his death in 1336 BC, he was branded a heretic. Official king lists omitted his name.”
— Alastair Sooke, The Telegraph

You may have never heard of the name “Akhenaten,” likely for good reason. The priesthood and power brokers of ancient Egypt worked to make it that way. Although you likely heard of his wife Nefertiti and his son Tutankhamun. So, this monarch didn’t exist in an inconsequential period. He lived within Egypt’s time as an ancient power and among famous names that are familiar to us.

Sooke says his original name was Amenhotep IV and that he wasn’t the chosen heir to the throne. He got pushed into the position after his brother died. Durant says he was more of a poet and lover than a warrior or monarch. In the end, he was unique and had his own ideas. This was the last thing the aristocracy wanted in a pharaoh.

According to Durant, Amenhotep IV had two great loves. The god Aten, the Sun disk, which gave life to all things. The pharaoh dedicated one of the most famous poems in Egyptian history to the deity. His other love was his wife Nefertiti whom he called “mistress of my happiness.” She gave Amenhotep, seven daughters at an age where sons were cherished.


Akhenaten, Nefertiti And Children (Aten above)— Picture By Neoclassicism Enthusiast -Wikimedia Commons

Durant says the usual custom for the pharaohs would be to take another wife, but he never did. While most pharaohs portrayed images of strength, Amenhotep had artists capture him in everyday life with his wife and many children. It was common for Nefertiti to sit by his side and his children to play at the bottom of his throne during official business.

It wasn’t too long before Amenhotep began challenging the aristocracy around him. Upon becoming pharaoh, Sooke says he began a large building project at Karnack, dedicating the buildings to Aten instead of the god of the area Amon.

Soon after Amenhotep, who was named after Amon, changed his name to Akhenaten, which means “effective for the Aten,” This was just the beginning.

There Is Only One God, and His Name Is Aten

“[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…”
— excerpt from “Great Hymn to the Aten” by Akhenaten

Akhenaten soon did something completely earth-shattering. He said there was only one god, Aten, and banned the worship of all others. Durant says the pharaoh did this over 600 years before the prophet Isaiah. Furthermore, Akhenaten had effectively taken away the power of a priestly class that represented thousands of gods. As you can imagine, many weren’t happy.

To enforce his idea, he had the names of all other gods scratched out across Egypt. Durant explains his own ministers and administrators began to hate him. According to Sooke, Akhenaten created his own capital around the fifth year of his reign. He likely did this to have a fresh start for a new order and a new god. In addition, he might have done it to get away from detractors and surround himself with loyal followers.

Akhenaten also created a new style of open-air temples where the god Aten could shine down on his worshipers. The pharaoh also had a palace created with a balcony, so he could make “window appearances” to his devoted followers. Sounds like a modern-day celebrity doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, he wouldn’t live past thirty, dying a relatively young man. It’s unknown whether he died a natural death or was helped along by those who wanted a return to the status quo.

From God to Criminal

After the death of Akhenaten, his son Tutankhamun took his place. Within a few years, he reversed his father’s monotheism decree, siding with the priests. He also abandoned Amarna and moved the capital back to Memphis. All the destroyed names of the gods were restored.

In revenge, priests removed the name Akhenaten from all text and structures, ordering his name never to be spoken. From then on, he was referred to as “the great criminal.” However, the priests weren’t done punishing the heretic.

Egyptologist and author Ramy Romany visited the tomb of Akhenaten, KV55, on his show Mummies Unwrapped. It was very peculiar. The pharaoh’s body wasn’t mummified, and the tomb wasn’t decorated. It was also small and removed from the family’s traditional burial place.


Desecrated Sarcophagus of Akhenaten In Cairo Museum — Hans Ollermann Wikipedia Creative Commons

His sarcophagus was also purposefully desecrated. In addition, protection stones called cardinal blocks were placed intentionally backward. They’re usually placed in a way to keep the world out, however, it appears the stones were turned to keep Akhenaten in — a final everlasting punishment.

Romany says chipping names off walls wasn’t uncommon but destroying a mummy in this way is unprecedented. They were attempting to kill his memory and chance for eternity. So, it appears that even a living god has a limit: death.

Even a God Can’t Change the Will of a Crowd

About 3,000 years ago a living god challenged the status quo of his time. He attempted to upend a corrupt priesthood and mold the likely first monotheistic religion the world had ever known. This isn’t a big deal now, but it was mind-blowing in his time period.

Alastair Sooke reminds us how much the world might have changed if he was successful. Atenism might sit beside Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as a great religion, and Akhenaten might have been its prophet. However, even a god on Earth is limited in its power versus the will of the crowd.

While the priestly class may have thought they destroyed him forever, after some research his name is known to us today. Although he may have been referred to as “the great criminal” after his death. Modern man looks at him admiringly as a sort of rebel and unique thinker.

He also reminds us that our efforts of going against a crowd are likely nowhere near as difficult as what he attempted. So, perhaps we should be a bit braver. It’s not like they can erase our name for eternity, Akhenaten is a prime example of this.

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