Early Egyptian Beliefs and Akhenatens Reforms Essay

This essay has a total of 2817 words and 11 pages.

Early Egyptian Beliefs and Akhenatens Reforms

During the New Kingdom of Egypt (from 1552 through 1069 B.C.), there came a sweeping
change in the religious structure of the ancient Egyptian civilization. "The Hymn to the
Aten" was created by Amenhotep IV, who ruled from 1369 to 1353 B.C., and began a move
toward a monotheist culture instead of the polytheist religion which Egypt had experienced
for the many hundreds of years prior to the introduction of this new idea. There was much
that was different from the old views in "The Hymn to the Aten", and it offered a new
outlook on the Egyptian ways of life by providing a complete break with the traditions
which Egypt held to with great respect. Yet at the same time, there were many commonalties
between these new ideas and the old views of the Egyptian world. Although through the
duration of his reign, Amenhotep IV introduced a great many changes to the Egyptian
religion along with "The Hymn", none of these reforms outlived their creator, mostly due
to the massive forces placed on his successor, Tutankhamen, to renounce these new reforms.
However, the significance of Amenhotep IV, or Akhenaten as he later changed his name to,
is found in "The Hymn". "The Hymn" itself can be looked at as a contradiction of ideas; it
must be looked at in relation to both the Old Kingdom's belief of steadfast and static
values, as well as in regards to the changes of the Middle Kingdom, which saw
unprecedented expansionistic and individualistic oriented reforms. In this paper I plan to
discuss the evolvement of Egyptian Religious Beliefs throughout the Old,

Middle, and New Kingdoms and analyze why Amenhotep IV may have brought about such religious reforms.

The Old Kingdom of Egypt (from 2700 to 2200 B.C.), saw the commencement of many of the
rigid, formal beliefs of the Egyptian civilization, both in regards to their religious and
political beliefs, as they were very closely intertwined. "... There was a determined
attempt to impose order on the multitude of gods and religious beliefs that had existed
since predynastic times... and the sun-god Re became the supreme royal god, with the king
taking the title of Son of Re" (David 155). The Egyptians overall believed that nature was
an incorruptible entity and that to reach a state of human perfection in the afterlife,
they too would have to change from their corruptible human shells to mimic the
incorruptibility of nature. Upper and Lower Egypt were united for the first time under one
ruler, however, this would come to an end around 2200 B.C.. In much of the Egyptian
hieroglyphs, the Pharaoh was often depicted as almost larger than life, with great power
and much of Egyptian art is a celebration of his accomplishments. The formation of a royal
absolutism occurred during this period, with the Pharaoh and a small-centralized
administration, composed mainly of royal kin and relatives, overseeing all aspects of
Egyptian life. The Pharaoh was looked at as a living god among the Egyptian people, who
assured the success of Egypt as well as its peace. "The Pharaoh belonged both to the world
of the gods and the world of men, and he was seen as a bridge between them. Some of the
local deities represented various aspects of nature, such as the earth and the sky, or the
Nile and it's gifts of fertility. So the king, living in their midst, could bring the
Egyptians into a harmonious relationship with their divinities and with the forces of
nature upon which their whole existence depended" (Hawkes 43).

In regard to the religious structure of the Old Kingdom, there was a polytheistic view of
the world, as in Mesopotamia. However, unlike the Mesopotamian religion, the Egyptians
worked for their kings as opposed to working for their gods. The complex concept of the
afterlife was also developed during this period. The Great Pharaohs of the Old Kingdom
built great pyramids to forever protect their remains after death. It was believed that
the king (solely) could "spend eternity traveling with the gods... However, in order to
obtain eternal sustenance, it was also essential that the king could return to earth at
will; here, through his preserved body, his spirit imbibes the essence of food and drink
offerings, which were continually brought to his burial complex" (David 126). These
political and religious views were believed to be sacred and intended to be adhered to
without change, following the Egyptian's view of nature as an unchanging constant, and a
static phenomenon.

After the collapse of the Old Kingdom, there came the First Intermediate Period during
which the United Egypt separated. It became a time of turmoil and disaster. The Pharoah
was over thrown and society simply collapsed resulting in anarchy throughout Egypt. Famine
and disease were widespread and the rich were equal to the poor. “Since the Kingship was
discredited, individuals now demanded their own eternity. Tombs were equipped in
provincial districts for the local rulers, but gradually, democratization of beliefs came
to affect all levels of society, and even the poorest classes hoped to achieve individual
immortality” (David 132). Order was eventually restored and Egypt entered into a great
period of prosperity. This was the Middle Kingdom. Though Egypt was separated, both Upper
and Lower Egypt still had a shared religion, just different views as to whom the heroes
and villains were in their mythology.

The Middle Kingdom, which occurred between 2040 and 1674 B.C., saw the re-emergence of a
united Egypt. The Pharaohs of this period were once again the center of the kingdom, and
the military might of Egypt was far greater than it been in previous centuries. However,
the Pharaoh was not as great a political power as he had been in the Old Kingdom, as the
nobles had begun to gain a sense of greater independence from the Pharaoh, in respect to
the idea that they needed him to assure themselves a place in the afterlife. They believed
that they could obtain eternity themselves by using symbols of the monarchy from the Old
Kingdom as well as magical spells, which they collected from the Pyramid Texts. The
nobles had their own large tombs, but they "were no longer constructed near the King's
pyramid but were scattered more independently across the necropolis, and the high quality
of the wall-decoration in these tombs indicated their owner's importance" (David 129). The
political structure of the Middle Kingdom was also changing from that of the Old Kingdom.
In the past, the government was run by only the immediate family of the Pharaoh, in the
Middle Kingdom however, "…he began to marry into the wealthy but non-royal nobility,
destroying the fictional divinity of the royal line" (David 131).

Around 1674 B.C., the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt separated once again. This
Second Intermediate Period saw the Hyksos, Semitic invaders from Palestine, come and
overtake the Egyptian ruling class. These peoples were expelled from Egypt around 1553
B.C., which gave rise to the New Kingdom of Egypt. The capital was moved to Thebes and
"these rulers attributed their ascendancy over the Hyksos to the powerful support of their
local god; Amun. ...The kings eventually associated him with the old northern sun-god Re,
creating the all new powerful deity Amen-Re" (David 147). Also at this time, there began a
new imperialistic movement within the Egyptian culture, and we see several crusades into
Asia and the Mid-East during this time frame. Egypt ruled in Asia for about a century or
so, but lost it due to the lack of interest on the part of the royal court in the contents
of its Asian subjects. Though for the most part, the Egyptian religion remained as it had
in the previous kingdoms during the first part of the New Kingdom. Amenhotep IV, or
Akhenaten as he later changed his name to, brought about many religious reforms.

Amenhotep IV began a series of reforms to ensure the Pharaoh's status as a living god
Continues for 6 more pages >>