BMCR 2015.11.28

Akhenaten and the Origins of Monotheism

, Akhenaten and the Origins of Monotheism. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. xvi, 293. ISBN 9780199792085. $55.00.


In nine chapters, James K. Hoffmeier (cf. table of contents, available in the Preview) examines the current facts as well as interpretations about Akhenaten’s religion. He does not intend to produce an exhaustive treatise on Akhenaten and his times, as the focus here is primarily on the religious developments that lead to the earliest known form of monotheism in history. Hoffmeier’s considerable experience with the Amarna period goes back for more than four decades. It includes his participation in the Akhenaten Temple Project in Karnak in the mid 1970s and excavations on his own in Northern Sinai between 1999 and 2008. He is also familiar with all the relevant sources and the numerous interpretations resulting from them. He states: the “intention of the present research is to attempt to investigate Akhenaten’s religion with the sensitivity of the phenomenologist and to employ comparative considerations” (140).

Akhenaten (c. 1352 untill 1336 BC) remains the most controversial as well as intriguing pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. Our knowledge of his reign derives almost exclusively from archaeological sources, many of which are scattered and often in a much damaged state. After his reign, he fell under damnatio memoriae. His monuments were re-used as building materials and his images and names destroyed. The strange, almost expressionist depiction of Akhenaten himself and his family in sculpture and relief has led to many speculations about various medical defects and diseases. But the king’s early images were executed in the conventional Egyptian style that in no way suggests any health issues. Akhenaten began as Amenhotep IV and has often been labeled as the first monotheist for his introduction of a new form of worship focused on the sun-disc (Aten), previously an element of the sun god Re. The cult of Aten originally started in Karnak alongside the other cults. But a few years later the king founded a new capital on virgin territory in Middle Egypt called Akhet-Aten (Horizon of the Aten; modern el-Amarna) where he could build without any distraction a more elaborate center to worship his god. The preoccupation with Aten and the new city also drew heavily on the resources of all other Egyptian temples.

Chapter 1 provides an interesting overview of solar worship in the Old Kingdom. Two of earliest solar deities were Horus and the creator god Atum. The latter was the patron deity of Iunu, the Greek Heliopolis, which later became the center for the sun god Re. The architecture (pyramids, sun temples, obelisks, bnbn-stone) and iconography (sphinx, uraei, sun-disc) of this period had a profound solar focus.

Chapter 2 summarizes the development of Egyptian religion after the Old Kingdom when a local dynasty from Thebes in southern Egypt rose to power and fostered the cult of Amun. Little of this local god is known from earlier times, but he eventually became the most supreme deity of the Egyptian pantheon after he was merged with Re to Amun-Re early in the 12 th Dynasty. Hoffmeier succinctly outlines the relevant building projects and terminology on behalf of Amun-Re until the reign of Thutmose IV. His cult reached its pinnacle under Akhenaten’s father Amenhotep III. However, forms of solar worship increased during the 18 th Dynasty from Thutmose I onwards and also the sun-disc grew in importance under Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III. The latter received the epithet “Dazzling Aten” at the time of his first jubilee while the cult of Amun-Re had become the most predominant in Egypt.

Chapter 3 deals with the beginnings of the Amarna period. During his early reign, Amenhotep IV erected several temples for Aten to the east of the precinct of Amun in Karnak, some of the remains of which have been discovered since the 1920s. They include the unique colossi of this strange looking pharaoh shown on the reliefs. They also include an asexual image of Amenhotep IV. Hoffmeier evaluates the different interpretations on them as well as the question of how far these depictions reflect a genetic disorder (125-134). He dismisses the latter, since the mummy from KV 55, which shows no abnormalities, is now regarded as that of Akhenaten, following the results of DNA testing.

The subsequent chapter covers the theories of how actually Atenism evolved. In his fifth year, Amenhotep IV changed his royal names (with the exception of his throne-name Neferkheperure-waenre), called himself Akhenaten, and moved the court to his newly found city Akhet-Aten north of Thebes. The impetus for Akhenaten’s revolution remains obscure, however. In one inscription, he even declares that the other gods “cease one after another”.1 There is also the question of whether the pharaoh experienced a divine encounter. After presenting the relevant texts Hoffmeier concludes that the king eventually “found” Aten himself and at some point might have experienced a manifestation or revelation. One other clue is the fact that many Aten temples contain the term “finding” ( gm) even in their names.

The sixth chapter takes a look at the spread of Aten worship. There is enough evidence for his cult throughout the country beyond the temples in Karnak and Akhetaten. In some cases, however, blocks with inscriptions relating to Aten or Akhenaten found at certain sites may not always be indicative of worship there and may point to re-used building material from other Aten temples.

Akhenaten is still regarded as one of the first monotheists in history. In chapter 7, Hoffmeier highlights the various steps of his religion, which in its final stage can be likened to monotheism. At one stage this resulted in the closure of the other cults and the persecution of most of the other gods, particularly Amun, whose names and images were destroyed and removed (198-203).

The most important texts from Akhenaten’s time are the Hymns to Aten, which were found in different versions in the tombs of courtiers in Amarna. The longest, The Great Hymn to Aten, was found in the tomb of Ay, later Tutankhamun’s successor, while much shorter recensions are known from five other tombs. Their composition is generally attributed to Akhenaten himself. They are the theme of chapter 8, which includes translations of one shorter hymn as well as the Great Hymn. An interesting conclusion is that many components of the sun hymns are not as original as they seem.2

The concluding chapter takes a look at how far Atenism influenced Egypt in general as well as the Bible. It has often been assumed that Psalm 104 from the Old Testament has many similarities with the Great Hymn to Aten. Hoffmeier compares relevant passages of both texts and concludes that there is at the present no direct connection between these two texts, even though an Egyptian influence cannot be ruled out: “The fact that Atenism was a monotheistic religion does not prove that Mosaic Yahwism, possibly originating in the following century, was also monotheistic, but from the perspective of the historian of the history of religion, there is no reason to deny that possibility”.

Hoffmeier’s book provides a fluent read, especially for those who are more or less familiar with Egyptological terminology. All in all, it is an excellent and stimulating contribution and provides a truly in-depth introduction to the religion of Akhenaten’s period and its origins. The book contains numerous b/w photographs, many by the author himself, and line drawings to underline the reasoning. An extensive bibliography as well an index of Egyptian terms and a general index conclude this well done book.3


1. Cf. W. F. Murnane, Texts from the Amarna Period of Egypt, Atlanta 1995, 31.

2. The translation is that of W. F. Murnane, Texts from the Amarna Period of Egypt, Atlanta 1995, 112-116, 157-158, enhanced by Hoffmeier with many Egyptian terms added in brackets.

3. There are few spelling mistakes. One that recurs is the transliteration for “dazzling” — thn (written with the t underlined and a dot beneath the h). It is written here without an underlined t. This seems very likely a proof editing error.