ElAnt v5n3 - REVIEWS - Akhenaton and the Religion of Light

Volume 5, Number 3
November 2000

Akhenaton and the Religion of Light, by Erik Hornung,. Translated by David Lorton. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999. Pp. xiv + 146.

Reviewed by Anthony Spalinger
University of Auckland, New Zealand

In Search of Akhenaton

David Lorton's abilities as an Egyptologist and a translator are demonstrated in the English edition of the German version of 1995. Neither lengthy nor controversial, this analysis of the religious prophet --- to some a mystic, to others a totalitarian menace - provides insights about the sun worshiper, his faith, and the inevitable repercussions the Aten religion had upon ancient Egypt. Fortunately, Erik Hornung is no ordinary Egyptologist with a dated art historical point of view; he instead correctly places the tumultuous episode in its religious and sociohistorical context.

This slim volume is by no means a summary of Akhenaton and his faith. Quite to the contrary, it is a well organized and deftly presented analysis of the heretic Pharaoh from Hornung's own perspective as an authority on Egyptian religion and funerary beliefs.

His study proceeds from what at first an outsider might feel to be too leisurely a pace. In actuality, the author has chosen an excellent means of introducing his themes by commencing with a precis of the modern rediscovery of Akhenaton and Amarna followed by a efficiently detailed overview of the solar theology of Dynasty XVIII. In the latter (Chapter 2 of the work) the influence of Jan Assmann is most keenly noticed. Indeed, Hornung relies in part upon Assmann's transformational studies of the New Solar Religion of the Eighteenth Dynasty, its influence upon the cult of the Aten, and the successor solar cult of the Ramessides. Already in the opening chapter, one senses the impact of these new ideas upon modern researchers. Akhenaton's place in history will be found in his faith, not amidst the arcana of chronological disputes or the febrile imaginations of students of Egyptian art.

The author is highly acute but tolerant in his skepticism regarding many of the longliving conundrums of the Amarna Period. For example, he is openminded toward any coregency between Amunhotep III and Akhenaton (see page 30 in particular), but concludes that no unequivocal supporting data can be found to butress this hypothesis. In similar fashion the evidence for the heb sed of Akhenaton is judiciously covered on pages 39 and following. Hornung is a master of the complicated scholarly literature, with a preference for lucidity and a razorsharp approach to the primary data. His study avoids the intense emotionalism of, for example, Redford's book on Akhenaton while at the same time emphasizing the faith of Akhenaton, an aspect that Cyril Aldred ultimately was unable to grasp.

Chapter 4 is a standout for Hornung's treatment of the Aten, the "light" of the disk, and the king's beliefs. Amarna was a revolution, but one from above. The wholesale redirection of the religious basis of Egyptian society, including the theocratic substructure of the king himself, was programmatic. According to Hornung, the sun disk Aten was the "light" that is in the sun (page 54). This is the author's thesis. Akhenaton's relationship to the Aten was not simply that of father-son - it was a far more personal one than had hitherto existed within Nile Valley civilization - and it meant a complete demythologization of preexisting conceptions of religion, the gods, and the entire gamut of Egyptian intellectualizations centered on those crucial nexi of Being. Hornung stresses this fact over and over again, and the final phase of Akhenaton's life during which a massive pogrom of the traditional gods took place was its logical result.

We have few primary sources from Pharaonic Egypt. This point has to be made lest we assume that the extant monumental inscriptions offer enough material to reconstruct the king's religious outlook with certainty. I am therefore not in agreement with the conclusion stated at the beginning of Chapter 4: "Akhenaton left no holy scripture, so what he founded does not belong to the religions of the book". Surely the brief seventeen years of his reign and the return to orthodoxy immediately thereafter would explain the failure of this religion to persist. We can but barely see the progress of the doctrine; and for the most part it is a few hymns plus the iconographical development of the sun god that allow us to limn the development to monotheism. In Chapter 7 Hornung tackles the question of whether Atenism was monotheistic, and this all too brief survey of the problem accounts for modern responses.

Chronology and the complex issues of royal succession and royal lineage are dealt with in the final portions of the work. Once more the scholarly issues are faced directly and without subterfuge. Problems surrounding Smenkhkare, the royal favorite Kiya, the alleged brief reign of Akhenaton's daughter Merytaten after the heretic king's death - all are treated with expert caution but never ignored. Whether or not Akhenaton ought to be considered a religious fundamentalist is another issue that Hornung does not fail to discuss (see pages 125-6), and his brief comments can be read with Redford's more trenchant analysis of 1984.

An extremely useful bibliography is presented at the end of the work. Hornung has covered virtually all areas of the vast terrain of Atenism and Akhenaton studies. His lifelong devotion to New Kingdom religious literature and royal tombs has provided an excellent basis from which he decided to investigate Akhenaton in more detail.

The author's readable style belies the complexity of the subject. That this work is derived in part from lectures presented in New York and in Ascona no doubt has contributed to the effectiveness of presentation. Hornung's Akhenaton study is of the same outstanding quality as three others. Two of these are Aldred's and one is Redford's. In 1968 appeared Aldred's classic, which covered, step by step, every modern Egypotological dispute over the Amarna period. Judicious in evaluation, in analysis fair, Aldred wrote a masterpiece. It became a watershed in Amarna studies. While improved in historical interpretation owing to subsequent years of scholarly research, his reevaluation of 1988 lacked the youthful flair of the first biography. Both studies nonetheless ignored a profound study of the religious aspect of Atenism. Aldred appears to have remained the genial skeptical Hibernian able to lance controversies with the famous dictum of a Scott's Verdict.

In 1984 Redford's presentation cut through the art historical and architectural-archaeological reconstruction of the Amarna Period and instead concentrated on the political and social transformation in Egypt. By taking this path, the Canadian reintroduced the concept of a vicious and singleminded religious fanatic tearing apart his land. Akhenaton obviously was a heretic, as Redford maintains. The narrow singlemindedness of the Pharaoh forcing his people into a new religion cannot be gainsaid. He employed all of his powers - and they were vast by any standard - to reorient his society. If he had lived for another twenty years the old orthodoxy would have been enfeebled, perhaps beyond recuperation. Redford offered a salutary correction to the position of Aldred, who erroneously maintained that Akhenaton was a conservative.

Now with Hornung we explore the vast spaces of Egyptian religion and family relations, less in art and architecture. He exposes the pressure that Jan Assmann has placed upon the Egyptological community with respect to theology and solar religions in particular. But Hornung's own contributions to the everexciting realm of the king and his sun disk come from his solid experience working in the royal tombs of Thebes and editing numerous volumes of New Kingdom religious literature. Hence, this study of Akhenaton and his religion is complementary to that of Assmann.

An English version of the original German edition was to be desired. We are thankful to Cornell University Press, first for deciding that such a volume was needed, and second for their choice of David Lorton as the translator. Once again we go searching for Akhenaton! And what a splendid journey it is with Hornung as the guide.