THE WAY OF REASON
As remarks Sir Wallis Budge,1 it is true that all we know for certain about Akhnaton’s Teaching is found only in two hymns, one short and one long, the former copied several times, partly or in whole, in different courtier’s tombs at Tell-el-Amarna, the latter found written only once on the walls of the tomb of Ay, “fan-bearer on the right side of the King, and Master of the King’s House.” These two songs in praise of the Sun are all that is left of a probably much more considerable religious literature, the rest having entirely perished in the systematic ruin of Akhetaton and the persecution of the Religion of the Disk under Tutankhamen and especially under Horemheb.
But we believe that, if one considers the hymns closely, and in the light of all that the reliefs, paintings and inscriptions tell us, directly or indirectly, about the king’s personality and about his life, then one will find that they imply far more than what Budge appears to admit. One will find that the few enthusiastic admirers of the Religion of the Disk, whom the learned but somewhat prejudiced writer criticises so bitterly, have at least as sound reasons to revere Akhnaton’s memory as he himself can have to minimise the young Pharaoh’s importance in the history of thought.
Of the two known hymns, the shorter one is universally recognised as having been composed by the king himself. The long one is regarded as the king’s work by all authors2 except Sir Wallis Budge, who attributes it to Ay (or Ai), the courtier in whose tomb it was discovered. But the authorship of the
1 Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), Preface, p. xv.
2 Sir Flinders Petrie: History of Egypt (Edit. 1899), Vol. II, p. 214. Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 136. H. R. Hall: Ancient History of the Near East (Ninth Edit. 1936), pp. 306-307.
song seems unmistakable from the text which precedes and explains it. This text, in Budge’s own translation, runs as follows:
“A Hymn in praise of Her-aakhuti, the living one, exalted in the Eastern horizon in his name Shu who is in the Aten, who liveth for ever and ever, the living and great Aton, he who is in the Set-Festival, the Lord of the Circle, the Lord of the Disk, the Lord of heaven, the Lord of earth, the Lord of the House of Aten in Akhut-Aten, (of) the King of the South and the North, who liveth in Truth, Lord of the Two Lands (i.e., Egypt), Nefer-kheperu-ra Ua-en-ra, the son of Ra, who liveth in Truth, Lord of Crowns, Aakhun-Aten, great in the period of his life, (and of) the great royal woman (or wife) whom he loveth, Lady of the Two Lands, Nefer-neferu-Aten, Nefertiti, who liveth in health and youth for ever and ever.”1
In all this prelude there is no mention of Ay and no suggestion of any possible author save “the King of the South and the North, who liveth in Truth, etc. . . .” The next words are: “he saith,” and then comes the hymn proper: “Beautiful is Thy rising in the horizon of heaven, O Aten, etc. . . .” If the hymn be “(of) the king,” as stated in the forward of the text, and if there be no mention of any other author, there is, we believe, no reason to suppose, as Budge does, that “He,” in the expression “He saith,” designates the courtier Ay and not Akhnaton himself.
The first thing that strikes a modern mind in those very ancient songs is the idea, expressed in them, that the Sun is the ultimate origin to which can be traced all the particular features of our earth, be they meteorological, biological, geographical, or ethnical. To look upon our parent star as the Father of all life was not a new thing. Men had done so from the beginning of the world, and this was no doubt the conception at the root of that most ancient and, in former days, most widespread of all religions: Sun-worship. But here, especially in the long hymn, there is something more. Not only is the Sun hailed as the Source of all life — the indispensable agent of fertility and growth through His heat and light — but it is He who determines the succession of the
1 Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), pp. 122-123.
seasons; He who causes both the rain to fall in the countries where it rains, and the Nile to overflow Egypt with its life-giving waters; He who is at the back of all differences of climate upon the globe, and subsequently, who is responsible for all differences of colour and features, of speech and of diet, among men of various countries. We read in the longer hymn1:
“Thou settest every person in his place. Thou providest their daily food, every man having the portion allotted to him, (thou) dost compute the duration of his life. Their tongues are different in speech, their characteristics (or forms) and likewise their skins (in colour), giving distinguishing marks to the dwellers in foreign lands. Thou makest Hapi (the Nile) in the Tuat (Underworld), Thou bringest it when Thou wishest to make mortals to live, inasmuch as Thou hast made them for Thyself, their Lord who dost support them to the uttermost, O Thou Lord of every land, Thou shinest upon them, O Aten of the day, Thou great one of majesty. Thou makest the life of all remote lands. Thou settest a Nile in heaven which cometh down to them. It maketh a flood on the mountains, like the great green sea, it maketh to be watered their fields in their villages. How beneficent are Thy plans, O Lord of Eternity! A Nile in heaven art Thou for the dwellers in the foreign lands (or deserts) and for all the beasts of the desert that go upon their feet (or legs). Hapi (the Nile) cometh from the Tuat for the land of Egypt. Thy beams nourish every field; Thou risest (and) they live, they germinate for Thee. Thou makest the seasons to develop everything that Thou hast made. . . .”
We must realise how novel were, in the fourteenth century B.C., certain conceptions which seem commonplace to us; for instance, that of the identical origin of rain and rivers, both finally the product of the condensation of water that has been first evaporated through the action of the Sun; or the idea that the Nile, however precious it be to the Egyptians whom it feeds, is no more “divine” than other great rivers, and that far from having its origin in heaven, as the ancient dwellers in its Valley believed, it comes “from underground,” like the humblest streamlet, its series of mighty cataracts being not the last degrees of a gigantic celestial staircase, but simply breaks in level of the river’s course from its distant mountainous birthplace.
1 Translation of Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), pp. 130-132.
We must not forget that many of the beliefs which we now regard as “mythology” and treat with the sympathetic smile of grown-up folk for a child’s belief in Father Christmas, were once held, by the people who shared them, as seriously as other articles of faith — no less and sometimes more absurd, but not yet obsolete — are held, even to-day, by our contemporaries. To proclaim, in Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt, that the Nile was a river like all rivers, was to issue a statement about as revolutionary (and shocking) as that of a man who, in medieval Europe, would have openly denied the Christian dogma of the Incarnation. But Akhnaton, like all sincere rationalists, cared little what reactions his beliefs or disbeliefs could start in other people, once he was himself sure that he was in possession of a tangible truth.
We cannot also fail to be impressed by that other idea, so clearly put forward in the passage we quoted, that the Sun, apart from being the condition and cause of life in general, is the ultimate regulator of each individual life — “setting every one in his place” — and also the differentiator of races and of their characteristics, features, complexion, language, etc., which are finally at the basis of all national feelings among men; in other words, that He is the maker of our globe’s history no less than of its geography.
The concept of nation, being closely entangled with a quantity of immediate human interests, is one of those which has been taking the longest time to be viewed objectively. In the days of the apogee of Egypt with which we are here concerned, a nation was that group of people who worshipped the same national gods, and especially who went to battle in the name of the same war-gods. The conception of a “God of all lands” in whose light all those local deities were but magnified men and women, if they were anything at all, was novel enough. The scientific idea that all differences among groups of men were the product of man’s physical environment — strictly geographical, and also economical — and that the physical environment was finally conditioned by the climate, that is to say, by the Sun, was amazingly in advance of Akhnaton’s times, and of many more recent times with which the general reader is more familiar. Far from merely
amounting to the exaltation of any particular sun-god, even of any sun-god “of all lands” above the traditional gods to whom each nation used to bow down, it was the plain, rational assertion that our parent star, origin and regulator of all life on this earth, is ultimately responsible for man’s collective creations — the national gods — as well as for man’s division into racial and linguistic groups; that, in one word, as a brilliant twentieth-century author1 has put it, man is, before all, “a solar product” just as the other inhabitants of the same planet.
* * *
We have just referred to the visible Sun, the flaming Disk in the sky — Aton in the literal sense. And had Akhnaton worshipped nothing more than it, still his religion, with its most scientific view of the earth and of man purely as “solar products” would be something far in advance of most ancient and modern religions based upon dogmatic assumptions that bear little or no relation to elementary physical facts. But there is more in it.
As we have already seen in the preceding chapters, one of the names of the Sun the most widely used by Akhnaton in the inscriptions is “Ra-Horakhti of the Two Horizons, rejoicing in His Horizon, in His name ‘Shu-which-is-in-the-Disk,’” or “the living Horus of the Two Horizons, rejoicing in His Horizon in His name ‘Shu-which-is-in-the-Disk’” — the name under which both the hymns that have come down to us are addressed to Him.
“Shu,” as an ordinary noun, we must translate by “heat” or “heat and light,” for the word has these meanings.2 In the Pyramid Texts, Shu is the name of a god symbolising the heat radiating from the body of Tem, or Tem-Ra, the creator of the solar Disk, in the indivisible trinity Tem-Shu-Tefnut — father, son and daughter; the Creator of the Sun-disk, the Heat and the Moisture; the Principle of fertility, and its indispensable agents. Whatever be therefore the inter-
1 Norman Douglas: How about Europe? (Edit. 1930), p. 173.
2 Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 80.
pretation we give to the word, whether we take it as an ordinary noun or as a proper noun, we have to admit that “the king deified the heat of the Sun” — or the “heat and light,” as Sir Wallis Budge himself says — “and worshipped it as the one eternal, creative, fructifying and life-sustaining force.”1
This permits us to assert with Sir Flinders Petrie that in the Religion of the Disk the object of worship was “the Radiant Energy of the Sun,”2 of which heat and light are aspects.
A scarab of Akhnaton dating from the time when he had not yet changed his name, and found at Sadenga, in the Sudan, after stating his royal titles, reads: “Long live the Beautiful God, the great One of roarings (thunders?) . . . in the great and holy name of . . . Dweller in the Set-Festival like Ta-Thunen, the Lord of . . . the Aten (Disk) in heaven, stablished of face, gracious (or pleasant) in Anu (On).”3 The mention of Ta-Thunen, one of the deities that were to be proscribed by him at a later period is not more surprising than that of Horus, Wepwat, and other gods on the blocks of stone that belonged to the first temple of Aton in Thebes. And the other titles in the prayer are much the same as those found in the longer hymn to Aton: “Dweller in the (Disk), the Lord of Heaven . . .” The title “gracious in Anu” (or On, the sacred solar City of old times) confirms our conviction that the God to whom this prayer is addressed is none but the self-same Aton whom the king already worshipped before he rejected the name of Amenhotep. If this be so, the words “great One of roarings” are most interesting. Given the little we know of the scientific conception of Aton, they would point out, it seems, not to the assimilation of Akhnaton’s God to any “indigenous Sudani Thundergod,”4 as Budge believes, but to the equivalence of the
1 Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 80.
2 Sir Flinders Petrie: History of Egypt (Edit. 1899), Vol. II, p. 214.
3 Translation of Sir Wallis Budge, Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 105.
4 Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 106.
“heat and light” — Shu — within the Disk, to sound in general and thunder in particular, and perhaps also to that unknown form of energy released every time there is thunder, to that force that the king could not name but of which he certainly felt the existence — electricity. They would imply, that is to say, in his mind, the equivalence of all forms of energy.
On the other hand, it is true to say that “the old Heliopolitan traditions made Tem-Ra, or Khepera, the creator of Aten (the Disk), but this view Amenhotep the Fourth rejected, and he asserted that the Disk was self-created and self-subsistent.”1 This statement is all the more significant because it comes from a scholar who, far from being one of Akhnaton’s admirers, has never lost an opportunity to minimise the importance of his Teaching. Here, the enormous gap between the Religion of the Disk and the old Heliopolitan cult, its historic ancestor, is emphasised without the learned author seeming to suspect what a homage he is paying, indirectly, to the young Pharaoh’s genius. For if the object of the latter’s adoration were purely “the heat and light,” or energy within the Disk, then one fails to understand why he rejected the view of the priests of On about a god separate from the Disk and creator of it — a god of whom Shu (the heat and light) is an emanation, in the same manner as Shu’s female counterpart, Tefnut, the goddess of Moisture. And if, on the contrary, the object of his worship were the material Disk itself and nothing more, then why should he have called it “Shu-which-is-in-the-Disk”? Moreover, why should he say in the short hymn: “At Thy rising, all hands are lifted in adoration of Thy Ka”? And, again, in the long hymn, speaking this time of the worship of the Sun, not by men, but by birds: “The feathered fowl fly about over the marshes, praising Thy Ka with their wings”? In the case of a living being its “Ka” designates its double, or soul; that invisible element of it which survives death; its subtle essence as opposed to its coarser visible body. The “Ka” of the Sun would therefore be the Sun’s soul, so
1 Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 80.
as to say; the subtle principle which is the essence of the Sun, and which would survive the material Disk, were it one day to decay and pass away — the eternal Sun, as opposed to the visible Sun.
We believe that the best way to account for this apparent ambiguity is to admit that Akhnaton worshipped the Radiant Energy of the Sun as the Principle of all existence on earth, but deliberately brushed aside the Heliopolitan distinction between the god, maker of the solar Disk, and the solar Disk itself, the distinction between creative energy and created matter. To him — and in this we cannot but admire one of the traits of his far-seeing genius — there was no such distinction. To him the Disk was self-created and self-sustaining, because it was, like all matter that falls under our senses, but a visible manifestation of Something more subtle, invisible, intangible, everlasting — its “Ka” or essence. And Shu, the heat and light, the energy of the Sun, was not the emanation from the body of a god different from it, but the manifestation of that One Thing which the visible flaming Disk was another manifestation. It was the Disk itself, and the Disk was it. Visible Matter was not the product of Energy, distinct from it, nor Energy the product of Matter, distinct from it; nor were any particular forms of Energy, such as heat and light, the products of any creative power distinct from them by nature. But, as was to be suggested thirty-three hundred years later by the inquiries of the modern scientists into the structure of the atom, Matter and Energy were inseparable, and both everlasting; they were one. To maintain the distinctions put forward in olden days by the priests of the Sun in On — the distinction between the creator of the Disk and the Disk itself, and also between both these and the Heat and Light within the Disk — was to deny, or at least to hide, the secret identity of the visible and invisible Sun, of the visible and invisible world, of Energy and Matter.
That identity, Akhnaton had become aware of through some mysterious inner experience of which history has not preserved any description, and by which he transcended the human to reach the cosmic scale of vision. It is probable that
he could not explain it, as the scientists of our age do, in terms of definite patterns of energy. But he knew it, none the less, to be the objective truth. And, anticipating in a tremendous intuition the rational conclusions of modern research, he based his religion upon the three ideas that summarise them, namely:
(1) The essential equivalence of all forms of energy, including that yet to-day unanalysed (and perhaps unanalysable) form which is life;
(2) The essential identity of matter and energy, each of the two being but the subtler or the coarser aspect of the other;
(3) The indestructible existence, without beginning, without end, of that One unknown Thing, which is Matter to the coarser and Energy to the finer senses.
* * *
The “Ka” of the Sun, mentioned in the hymns, must indeed be taken to mean the soul or essence of our parent star. And it seems certain that the immediate object to which the king’s followers were invited to offer their praise was not the material Disk alone, as some critics have supposed, nor the “Ka” of the Disk regarded as distinct from it, but the Disk with its “Ka,” regarded as one; the Sun, body and soul, visible and invisible, matter and energy; the dazzling Orb itself being, as we have just remarked, but what our senses can perceive, at our ordinary scale of vision, of the enormous store of Radiant Energy that gave birth to our planet and all it contains, and continues to keep it alive.
In the hymns, it is repeatedly stated that Aton is “one” and “alone.” It is said, for instance, in the short hymn, “Thou Thyself art alone, but there are millions of powers of life in Thee to make them (Thy creatures) live,”1 and again in the other hymn, “O Thou One God, like unto Whom there is no other, Thou didst create the earth according to Thy heart (or will), Thou alone existing.”2
1 Translation of Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 121.
2 Translation of Sir Wallis Budge: Ibid, p. 129.
It is true that the worshippers of every great god in Egypt had from time immemorial declared that their god was “one”1 even while they themselves admitted the existence of different gods. We find the expression “one” and “alone” in older anonymous hymns to Amon, to Ra, to Tem, and other deities, long before Akhnaton. And it is also true that “it was obvious that Aten, the solar Disk, was one alone and without counterpart or equal.”1 But if we see, as it seems we should, in Akhnaton’s identification of the solar Disk with its “Ka” or essence the sign of his belief in the oneness of invisible Energy and visible Matter, then the words “one” and “alone,” when used by him, become more than casual utterances. They express the only knowable attribute of that supreme entity, Substance and Power at the same time, which is at the back of all existence; they qualify the essence of all suns — the universal “Ka” — not only the essence of our Sun. For these are the same. And whether Akhnaton personally knew or not of the existence of other suns besides the one that rules the life of our earth, it makes little difference. His religion bears from the start the character of the broadest and most permanent scientific truth, embracing, along with the reality of our solar system, that of all existing systems; nay, of all possible systems.
For we know to-day that the self-same earthly varieties of what we call matter go to compose the visible bodies of all distant worlds in space. We know that the heat and light that our Sun sends us through His beams, the “Shu-within-the-Disk” that Akhnaton adored, is the self-same Radiant Energy that burns and shines in the remotest nebulae. For us, born after the invention of the telescope and of the spectroscope, the ritual worship of our Sun, coupled with the modern belief in the essential identity of Matter and Energy, is a symbolical homage. Through Him, the visible Disk, Father and Mother of the Earth and our sister planets, our adoration goes to that ultimate Unknown, Father and Mother of all the worlds that spin round and round their
1 Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 79.
respective suns, in fathomless infinity; Father and Mother of all the suns themselves that go their way, bound by inflexible inner laws, at countless light-years from one another; to that ultimate Unknown that contains movement, and heat and light, and finally life and consciousness within it: Cosmic Energy.
To Sir Wallis Budge and to many others it may seem “inconceivable” to attribute to a man born centuries before the invention of the telescope, anything approaching our grandiose vision of millions of suns and planets evolving through the unlimited abyss of interstellar void, in a divine dance without beginning or end. But who can tell how far man’s insight can take him, even without the precise intellectual knowledge of its objects? Who can tell if Akhnaton, gazing at the glory of his clear night sky full of stars, did not conceive the idea that each of those distant lights might well be a Sun, like ours, maker of worlds over which he daily rises and sets? And who can tell how far in Egypt astronomy had actually reached, even without the help of the telescope? Much of it — like much of all sciences in antiquity — was secret and has been lost. We therefore cannot assert that, in deifying the Radiant Energy of the Sun and the Disk itself, the inspired youth did not deliberately put forward the worship of that indefinable, unknown and perhaps unknowable Reality that modern science meets both in the atom and in the systems of starry space.
But as we have already said, whatever may have been the limitations imposed upon his knowledge of the physical universe by the technical conditions of scientific investigation in his time, it remains true that the cult which he evolved is that of the only Thing which modern science can hail as the ultimate Reality — as God, if science is ever able to speak of a God. It matters little whether he could or could not appreciate his own creation from the point of view of a modern scientist, even from that of a layman of to-day with a summary knowledge of the conclusions of science. And if, with Budge and others, one suggests that this was impossible, then all one can say is that the relation of his religion to the great facts of physical existence, discovered millenniums after
him, is all the more admirable, and his genius all the more staggering.
* * *
The only materials on which we can base our knowledge of the Religion of the Disk are too scanty for us to be able to say how far its Founder was aware of the structure of the physical universe as we have learnt to conceive it. It is interesting, however, to consider how exactly certain of Akhnaton’s main utterances tally with those conclusions of modern thought now looked upon as definite scientific acquisitions.
One of the points on which he insists the most, in both of the hymns which have survived, is the all-importance of the beams of the Sun. Not only does he say: “Thou sendest forth Thy beams and every land is in festival,”1 but also: “Breath of life is to see Thy beams,”2 and also: “Thy beams envelop (i.e., penetrate) everywhere, all the lands which Thou hast made” . . . “Thou art afar off, but Thy beams are upon the earth”3; and again: “The fishes in the river swim up to greet Thee; Thy beams are within the depth of the great sea. . . .”4 The rays of the Sun play an equally prominent part in the symbol of Akhnaton’s religion: the Disk with downward beams ending in hands which hold the looped-cross ankh, sign of life. As we have seen, no other image but that one was allowed in the temples, and that was not intended to portray the object of worship (which was beyond any representation whatsoever), but to remind the worshippers of the main truth concerning it — namely, that the Essence of the Sun — the “heat and light” within the Disk — is not confined to the Disk itself, but is present and active, and beneficent (life-giving) wherever the rays of the Sun reach. The
1 Short Hymn, Translation of Sir Wallis Budge, Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 119.
2 Short Hymn, Translation of Sir Wallis Budge, Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 121.
3 Long Hymn, Translation of Sir Wallis Budge, Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 124.
4 Long Hymn, Translation of Griffith, quoted by Sir Flinders Petrie, History of Egypt (Edit. 1899), Vol. II, p. 216.
symbol is found “in every sculpture,” a fact that marks the stress that the king put upon it. And it is “an utterly new type in Egypt, distinct from all previous sculptures.”1
Here, and more so perhaps in the hymns, we find indeed, simply and forcibly expressed, the assertion that the Sun-rays are the Sun’s energy, everywhere present, everywhere active, and that it is through them that He manifests Himself — a truth that modern science has recognised and of which modern therapy is trying more and more to make a practical use. And it is, no doubt, in considering the Sun-rays, agents both of heat and light, that Akhnaton grasped intuitively the great scientific truth which gives the whole structure of his Teaching a solid foundation of intellectual certitude so rarely found in more popular religions — namely, that he realised the equivalence of heat and light and of all forms of energy. Rightly has Sir Flinders Petrie written in 1899: “No one — Sun-worshipper or philosopher — seems to have realised until within this century, the truth which was the basis of Akhnaton’s worship, that the rays of the Sun are the means of the Sun’s action, the source of all life, power and force in the universe. The abstraction of regarding the radiant energy as all-important was quite disregarded until recent views of the conservation of force, of heat as a mode of motion, and the identity of heat, light and electricity have made us familiar with the scientific conception which was the characteristic feature of Akhnaton’s new worship.”2
Another assertion within the hymns which tallies amazingly with the modern conception of the ultimate reality, is the one previously noted: “Thou Thyself art alone, but there are millions of powers of life in Thee, to make Thy creatures live.” It is the assertion:
1st, that there is finally no other reality but the One. (Thou art alone.)
2nd, that the One contains within It infinite possibilities of life and the tendency to bring them forth into actual existence. That is the only meaning we can ascribe to
1 Sir Flinders Petrie: History of Egypt (Edit. 1899), Vol. II, p. 214.
the words “millions of powers of life” or “millions of vitalities in Thee.” 3rd, that, consequently, “creation” is not the miraculous act through which an agent, distinct by nature from the created things, causes them to spring out of nothingness, but the gradual manifestation into actual existence of the different possibilities, latent within the One; in other words, that the One supreme reality is immanent in all things, and that it has been and is for ever producing all the endless variety of the universe out of Itself.
If we regard that One object of worship — that essence of the Sun, which is the essence of the solar system — as the same mysterious entity that modern science calls Energy and places at the root of all existence, material or immaterial, then what we have said of it and of the meaning of creation becomes clear. That idea of the infinity of beings as transient products of one fundamental agent, Power and Substance, Essence of life as well as of so-called inanimate existence; that conception of a world in which, strictly speaking, there is no place for pure passivity, but where the inanimate is just life, so as to say, at the lowest stage, is indeed the one suggested by the boldest generalisation of our times. We may call it metaphysical, in a way. But it is no airy metaphysics; no outcome of pure fancy; no dialectical invention. It fits in with the accumulated experience of men who have learnt to measure the infinitely small and the infinitely great, and to see the universe at different scales of vision. It should perhaps as yet be called an hypothesis rather than a fact. But it is the hypothesis that explains the facts which we know: it is the philosophical projection of the science of our times. And one can only marvel at the intuition of the adolescent king who grasped it thirty-three hundred years ago.
* * *
There is still more to be said. In the longer hymn, Akhnaton addresses the following words to his God: “Thou art in my heart; There is none who knoweth Thee excepting Thy Son, Nefer-kheperu-ra Ua-en-ra. Thou hast made him
wise to understand Thy plans and Thy power.”1 Which means that, to him, the impersonal Essence of the Sun, Radiant Energy, which he adores as the One uncreated, everlasting, ever-active Principle of existence in general, is the self-same reality that he discovers at the root of his consciousness — the Essence of his own soul. And he adds to this utterance a still bolder and stranger one. Nobody, says he, knows that One Reality save he himself, “the Son of the Sun who came forth from His substance,” “like unto Him without ceasing,” as he no less boldly styles himself in other passages of the same hymn and of the shorter one.
The two statements are connected. The first, in spite of appearances, implies the second. The second, detached from the first, loses its real meaning.
The words “Thou art in my heart” can mean simply “I love Thee.” And were they addressed to a personal god they could hardly mean anything more. They can also be interpreted as “Thy Essence and my essence are one; Thou art in me.” And as they are, in this hymn, addressed to an impersonal, immanent Entity — Radiant Energy — that seems to be the main sense to give them. Their other meaning, i.e., “I love Thee,” can and should be added, but only as the natural supplement of the more important idea. The main thing, for Akhnaton, appears indeed to have been to recognise, to realise, divinity in the Sun and in himself; and it was impossible, evidently, for him not to love it, once he knew it — once he had felt it.
Of the process that led him to that realisation we shall never know. He has not described it in any existing document, and it is doubtful whether he could have described it. The series of deductions by which Sir Wallis Budge endeavours to show us how the young Pharaoh came to believe in his own divinity2 would surely not have sufficed to convince Akhnaton himself, were they not backed by some genuine experience of universal oneness, lived from within. It was to that experience that he implicitly referred, both
1 Translation of Sir Wallis Budge, Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 134.
2 Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 82. (Quoted in Chap. III, pp. 54-55.)
when he said: “Thou art in my heart” and “No one knoweth Thee save I, Thy Son.”
It is a well-known fact that all kings of Egypt were looked upon first as “sons of Ra” and later on — as the patron-god of Thebes, Amon, gradually rose to prominence and became the main god of the whole country — as “sons of Amon.” And this was no metaphor in the minds of the Egyptians, nor perhaps in the minds of the kings themselves. It was really believed that the god used to visit each queen destined to be a Pharaoh’s mother in the form of her human husband, and become, by her, the actual physical father of the future king. On many Pharaohs’ monuments is pictured the story of this divine conception. For instance, on the bas-reliefs of Queen Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir-el-Bahari one can see the god Amon, in the form of Thotmose the First — even Amenhotep the Third, Akhnaton’s father — the tolerant, easy-going Pharaoh, under whom the cult of Aton was first encouraged — allowed his mother, Queen Mutemuya, to be represented companying with Amon in the form of Thotmose the Fourth. Tradition was tradition. And who knows? He perhaps himself believed in the story of his divine origin as all Egypt did.
But Akhnaton never put forth any similar claim. He did, it is true, repeatedly declare himself “Son of the living Aton”; but not in the miraculous sense his fathers had claimed to be “sons of Amon.” No bas-relief, no painting, no evidence of any sort is to be found which could allow us to suppose that he regarded himself to be, physically, the son of aught but his earthly father, Amenhotep the Third. The idea of a miraculous conception is, in fact, incompatible with that of an impersonal God. And Akhnaton was too much of a rationalist not to avoid that contradiction. “Son of the living Aton,” i.e., “Son of God,” he certainly did proclaim himself to be. But that was in an entirely different sense. His own divinity was, to him, a consequence of his unity with the One divine Power-Substance at the back of all
existence — an implication of his experience of a state of super-normal consciousness in which he felt his subtle self identical, in nature, with the universal Energy which he adored. In other words, we should see in this claim to divinity the expression of the innermost certitude of a self-realised soul who can say of the One ultimate Reality: “I am That,” of God: “I am He”; not merely the customary boast of a king of Egypt about his solar descent.
But the modern critical mind will ask: Why, then, that exclusive claim to the knowledge of Godhead? Why the strange sentence: “There is none who knoweth Thee excepting Thy Son, Nefer-kheperu-ra Ua-en-ra” (Beautiful Essence of the Sun, Only One of the Sun)? If the God Whom Akhnaton worshipped was Radiant Energy, the Principle of all life, present even in apparently inanimate matter, then how could he claim for himself the monopoly of wisdom? A personal God, still endowed with mysterious human feelings could, for some reason beyond mortal understanding, prefer one man to all others and reveal “His plans and His powers” to him alone. But surely an immanent God of the type of “the heat and light within the Disk” could not be accused of such partiality.
To understand the king’s statement we must not forget that he had in mind the knowledge concerning the ultimate One, not the presence of it. From the reality of Cosmic Energy at the root of all things, it would be rash to infer that the knowledge, i.e., the clear consciousness of it, is universal. That clear consciousness of the Essence of existence within the individual seems, in fact, excluded not only from apparently inanimate matter (from which individuality itself does not yet emerge), but also from the plants and from the lower and even higher animals, including nearly all men. Every atom of matter contains the divine spark. Every living creature is possessed with some dim awareness of it. Many men, it may be, repeating without experience the words of experienced religious authorities, think themselves more fully conscious of its presence than they really are. Extremely few are able to realise that their essential identity with the ultimate Principle of all things is not a myth, and
that, in truth, “they are That.” To those alone belong the knowledge of God and the wisdom “to understand His plans and His power.” Akhnaton was undoubtedly one of them, and he was conscious of his knowledge.
But a glance at the inscriptions in the tombs of his followers — and at their careers — will convince anyone that they did not share his enlightenment. Of the “Teaching of life,” which they praise so emphatically, they say simply nothing which shows that they actually grasped it. And many of them put such stress upon the rewards they received from their inspired Master in gold and silver and official promotion, that one gets the impression that the lust of material advantages played a definite part in their conversion to the Religion of the Disk. Others, it is true, appear to look upon the king as a god; but even if they were sincere in doing so, that would be no proof that they were able to follow him in the path of knowledge. After all, the only test of a true disciple lies in his actions; and when, a few years after Akhnaton’s premature death, the priests of Amon started persecuting his memory, then none seem to have dared — or cared — to stand openly against the tide of events; none seem to have considered their king worth suffering for, once he was no longer there to distribute honours and gifts to them. They preferred a quiet old age, with perhaps new honours, under the restored rule of the national gods and of their priests, to the glory of sharing with their Master the double curse of a self-seeking gang and of a misled nation. At least, that is what seems to have been their state of mind. For had any serious resistance been opposed to the re-installation of the traditional religion, we believe that Tutankhamen’s scribes would not have failed to report how thoroughly it was crushed. And, in absence of any such report, we may doubt the fervour of the disciples who survived the young Teacher. Moreover, we know that few of those for whom Akhnaton had caused tombs to be dug out in the vicinity of his own even cared to make use of them — a tangible mark of indifference to him and to all that he stood for.
From these various signs we can infer, with a fair amount of safety, that among the crowd of courtiers who professed to
have welcomed his rational religion, and even in the midst of the inner circle of those on whom he had thought he could rely to “carry out his Teaching,” Akhnaton realised more and more, as years passed by, that he was all alone. He could not help remarking the gap which existed already during his lifetime between the life of his followers and the pure doctrine of reason, love and truth, which he preached to them. And that, no doubt, convinced him that they entirely lacked the foundation of genuine religion which he possessed: the experience of an overwhelming truth which lay in them, but transcended them. No one indeed could understand “the plans and power” of his God — the nature of life and its meaning — unless one had that experience; unless one was, like himself, aware of the oneness of his individual essence with that of the Sun and of the whole universe.
In the passage quoted above, the king does not use the name under which he is now immortal, Akhnaton, but that under which he was generally known in his days, at least to his foreign correspondents whose letters we possess; his nesu bat name,1 Nefer-kheperu-ra, which means “Beautiful Essence of the Sun.” This may be a mere coincidence. It may also be a deliberate symbolical choice. “There is none who knoweth Thee excepting Thy Son, Nefer-kheperu-ra,” may well mean that one could not penetrate the nature of the object of the king’s worship, the solar and at the same time cosmic Energy — and know, therefore, what one was worshipping — unless one was conscious of being, one’s self, “the beautiful essence of the Sun,” one with Him, as Akhnaton was. Experience had taught him that it was not possible to transmit that consciousness; that, however much he would preach the existence of the One Power-Substance — of the Sun-disk, identical with the Energy within the Disk — it would remain a meaningless mystery to all men save those who had realised their own innermost identity
1 A Pharaoh had several names: his “Horus name,” his “Nebti name,” his “Golden Horus name,” his “Nesu bat name,” his “Son of Ra name.” Sir Wallis Budge (Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism, Edit. 1923, p. 3) gives a list of those “strong names” in the case of Tutankhamen. The name by which a Pharaoh is generally known to history is his “Son of Ra” name.
with that One Thing, their natural filiation to It; who had become aware of their being “sons of the Sun, like unto Him without ceasing.”
He knew no man who, by his life, gave signs of possessing such enlightenment. He only knew for sure that he possessed it. And his strange words, which we have just recalled, can therefore be taken to mean, equally: “No one knows Thee save I, the only one who can call myself Thy Son,” and: “No one knows Thee save that man who, as I am, is aware of his identity with Thee within his individual limitations, and who thus can be called Thy Son.” The two interpretations are correct. The second is a consequence of Akhnaton’s conception of immanent divinity, felt by him in the Sun and in himself; and also the recognition of the impossibility to transmit the knowledge of that ultimate Reality: Cosmic Energy. The first is the recognition of his own unique position in the history of the world which he knew. In his days, within his surroundings, and even among the older religious teachers, if any, whose fame had come down to him, he could see no one conscious of the great truth which he had realised. He was, therefore, “the Only One of the Sun”; and he admitted it without false modesty.
But his very conception of Godhead logically excluded any miraculous personal revelation. And it is reasonable to admit that, had he met any man having the same awareness as he of his ultimate oneness with the Principle of all things, he would not have hesitated to salute in him a true “son of the Sun” or “son of God” — one of his rare equals.
* * *
We have seen, up till now, how Akhnaton’s Teaching, as known through the hymns, is based upon an inner experience of universal unity — which real spiritual seers seem to have shared in all times and all countries — and upon an intuition of genius of which the correctness, at least as far as the material universe is concerned, has been proved nowadays, by our men of science. The first gives the Religion of the Disk that sort of certitude that lies in the concordance of
reliable testimonies. The second gives it the intellectual certitude that forces us to accept a scientific hypothesis, when it explains facts. This can be said to sum up the positive value of the Teaching from a rational point of view.
But the Teaching is perhaps as remarkable for what is absent from it as for what it contains. As we have already tried to point out in the introductory chapter of this book, Akhnaton seems to have deliberately avoided the three things of which we find one or two at least linked up, throughout history, with every successful religion: a background of supernatural stories — i.e., a mythology; miracles, and a theory concerning the destiny of the dead.
It suffices to compare his hymns to the Sun with those written previously or at about the same time, or even later, in Egypt and elsewhere, to feel all the difference. Hymns like those quoted by Sir Wallis Budge from the papyrus of Ani as “good typical examples of the songs of praise and thanksgiving addressed to the Sun-god by orthodox Egyptians under the XVIIIth Dynasty”1 need, in order to be properly understood, the study of a whole elaborate symbolism. The association of the name of the god Tem with that of Horakhti, repeated allusions to the boats Seqtet and Matet, in which Ra sails through the sky; to Nut, the sky-goddess, mother of the Sun-god; to the Lake of Testes that rejoices at the god’s passage; to Sebau, the god’s enemy, “whose arms and hands are cut off,” and many other such mythological recollections, poetic as they may be, only render the hymns obscure to all save people well-versed in Egyptian religion. Those poems, like most of the religious literature of far more widespread creeds in our own times, bear the indelible stamp of a definite civilisation at a definite epoch. By the associations they evoke, by the pictures they recall through the magic of proper names and forgotten stories, it is the whole atmosphere of ancient Egypt that they bring back to us. If, as the historian does, one seeks in them nothing else but a faithful glimpse into the past, then all the better. But if one were to read them for one’s own religious
1 Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 136, and following.
edification, the result would be disappointing. The Egyptian religion is now dead; the proper names, however well-sounding, would stir no longer devotional associations in anybody’s heart; the hymns, like all the rest of the old cult of which they were a part, are simply out of date. And in the very time they were daily sung in Egypt, they were out of tune with the religious habits and the familiar conceptions even of the Sun-worshippers of other countries. A Syrian, a Babylonian, a Mykaenian, would have had to take the trouble to learn who was Nut and who was Sebau, and what were the boats Seqtet and Matet before he could follow the trend of inspiration in a hymn to Ra — just as to-day a Buddhist has to acquaint himself with much history, much legend, and much philosophy alien to his own before he can enjoy to the full the beauty of an Easter sermon in a Christian cathedral. Any mythology is of a limited appeal, whether in time or space.
But if we now turn to the hymns which Akhnaton has left us, we can see in them practically nothing which could not be grasped in the fourteenth century B.C. by a Syrian, by an Indian — nay, by a Chinese or by a man from the forests of Central Europe — as well as, or no worse than, by an Egyptian; nothing which is not to-day able to appeal to any man, without his needing any preparation other than a heart open to beauty. The only thing that would require explanation is, in the shorter hymn, a reference to “the House of the Benben Obelisk . . . in the City of Akhetaton, the Seat of Truth.”1 We know that the Benben Obelisk was the immemorial symbol of the Sun, worshipped in On or Anu, the Heliopolis of the Greeks, the “City of the pillar.” According to the ancient tradition reflected in the Pyramid Texts, “the Spirit of the Sun visited the temple of the Sun from time to time, in the form of a Bennu bird, and alighted on the Ben-stone in the House of the Bennu in Anu.”2 In recalling the Benben stone, Akhnaton, it would seem, wished to stress how deep were the roots of his exclusive cult of the Sun in the
1 Shorter Hymn, Translation of Sir Wallis Budge, Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 119.
2 Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 63.
most revered tradition of Egypt. The worship of Aton, as we have seen, was evolved out of that of the god of On, the age-old sacred City of the Sun. And the “House of the Benben Obelisk” meant simply the main temple of the Sun in the king’s new capital, also a sacred City. But apart from that allusion there is, in the two hymns and in the prayer composed by Akhnaton and inscribed upon his coffin, and in the references to his Teaching in the courtier’s tombs, not a word which needs, on the part of the readers, any special knowledge of Egypt and of her beliefs, in order to be understood.
The very name of the Sun which comes back over and over again in every text of the time, whether composed by the king or by his followers, is neither Ra, nor Khepera, nor Tem, nor even Horus of the Two Horizons — a name mentioned once, in the introduction to the shorter hymn — but Aton, i.e., the Disk, a noun designating the geometrical shape of the visible Sun — and which can be literally translated into any language.
The symbol of Godhead was neither a human figure nor an animal with a particular history at the back of it, nor a disk encircled by a serpent (a common representation of solar-gods in Egypt1), but simply the solar-disk with downward rays ending in hands, bestowing life to the earth (“ankh,” the looped cross, which the hands hold out, is, as we have said, the hieroglyphic sign for “life”). This symbol “never became popular in the country”2; it was perhaps, like the rest of the Religion of the Disk, “too philosophical” for the Egyptians as for many other nations. But it was a truly rational symbol, free from any mythological connections and clear to any intelligent person.
The text of the hymns refers to no legends, to no stories, to no particular theogony; only to the beauty and beneficence of our parent star, to its light “of several colours,” to its universal worship by men, beasts and the
1 Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), pp. 80 and 81.
2 Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 81.
vegetable world; to the marvel of birth; to the joy of life; to the rhythm of day and night and of the seasons, determined by the Sun; and to the great idea that the heat and light within the solar-disk, the “Ka” or Soul of the Disk, and the Disk itself, are one, and that all creatures are one as the children of the one Sun — the one God. We find here nothing but conceptions that need, in order to be accepted, only common sense and sensitiveness to beauty; and in order to be understood in their full, not a theological but a rational — and also spiritual — preparation; not the knowledge of any mythology or even of any human history, but a scientific knowledge of the universe, coupled with a spirit of synthesis.
We can only here, once more, quote Sir Flinders Petrie, to whom the world owes so much in the whole field of Egyptology. “In this hymn,” says he, after having reproduced the text of the longer hymn, “all trace of polytheism and of anthropomorphism or theriomorphism has entirely disappeared. The power of the Sun to cause and regulate all existence is the great subject of praise; and careful reflection is shown in enumerating the mysteries of the power of the Aten exemplified in the animation of nature, reproduction, the variety of races, and the source of the Nile and watering by rain. It would tax anyone in our days to recount better than this the power and action of the rays of the Sun. And no conception that can be compared with this for scientific accuracy was reached for at least three thousand years after it.”1
* * *
Another remarkable trait of the Religion of the Disk is that it seems to have been completely devoid of that belief in miracles which holds such a place in most of the more popular religions, both ancient and modern; a belief, nay, without which the fundamental dogmas of most great world-wide religions of to-day could not be accepted by their followers.
1 Sir Flinders Petrie: History of Egypt (Edit. 1899), Vol. II, p. 218.
When we speak of “miracles” we mean any events, impossible according to the laws of nature, but of which one yet admits the occurrence, taking it to be the result of a special intervention of God, or of any other power, in the natural scheme of things. It must be noted that any conception of immanent Godhead — i.e., any conception in which Godhead and Nature are not distinct from each other; in which the ultimate Power is not “outside” the universe, but bears to it the relation of the soul to the body it animates — excludes the idea of supernatural intervention on the part of God. And any rational view of the world, whether pantheistic, theistic or atheistic, excludes miracles altogether. It is therefore natural that Akhnaton never ascribed to the impersonal Energy behind the Disk (and behind all things) which he worshipped, the occasional tendency or even the capacity to break, in favour of human issues or at the request of human devotees, the immovable laws of action and reaction of which it is Itself the hidden Principle.
In reading the hymns, one has the impression that, to him, the order of nature and the mystery of life were quite marvellous enough in themselves, without man’s needing to seek, beyond them, in happenings that stagger him as unnatural (whether they really be so or not) an occasion to praise the power and wisdom of the Creator. We have already seen that he never attributed to himself a miraculous birth as other Pharaohs, formally at least, were accustomed to do. He could not see in what way even such an event as that could be more divine than the everyday mystery of a germ, nursed by the universal Life-force within the egg or within the womb, and becoming in course of time a young bird or a child.
Whether the king possessed or not the power of performing unusual deeds, in the manner of many religious teachers of all times, we do not know. In the praise of him by some of the most enthusiastic of his followers — praise of which a sample has been quoted in a preceding chapter — there is not the slightest hint that he did. It is, of course, not impossible that he did. If one is to believe a tradition persisting for
centuries after the downfall of Egypt, the technique of developing one’s psychic powers beyond the ordinary credible limits was not uncommon among the priests of the Nile Valley. In it even lay, one may imagine, their unshakable hold over the minds of the people. And there would be nothing unnatural in supposing that a man who, up till the appointment of Merira, exercised in the new cult the functions of High-priest of the Sun, was able to take interest in such an art. Moreover, we know definitely that Akhnaton had assumed the age-old title borne by the High-priest of the Sun in On: Urma — the seer, or “the great one of visions”1 — which, if taken in the literal sense, does imply some powers beyond the ordinary. But in the light of the evidence now available we should, it seems, admit that, even if he did, to any extent, possess the capacity of working feats of wonder, he made no use of it, preferring positive knowledge and the logical and beautiful expression of knowledge in his life and Teaching, to the easy task of impressing ignorant crowds. It is also quite plausible that he never endeavoured to cultivate the art of acquiring supra-normal command over the physical world, considering it as not essentially connected with spiritual development, and therefore as superfluous.
And not only does the Founder of the Religion of the Disk claim no miraculous powers for himself, but there is, in the fragments concerning his creed which have come down to us, not an allusion whatsoever to occurrences defying the laws of nature. The very idea of such seems to have been alien to the spirit of the king’s Teaching.
* * *
Finally, Akhnaton appears to have given his followers no definite doctrine about death and the fate of the dead.2 The custom of mummifying dead bodies, prevalent in Egypt
1 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 51. Breasted: Cambridge Ancient History (Edit. 1924), Vol. II, p. 111.
2 “The Aten religion contained,” says Sir Wallis Budge, “none of the beautiful ideas on the future life, with which we are familiar from the hymns and other compositions in the Book of the Dead” (History of Egypt, Edit. 1902, Vol. IV, pp. 121-122). See also J. D. S. Pendlebury’s Tell-el-Amarna (Edit. 1935), p. 157.
from time immemorial, was observed under him and in his own case. He therefore surely did not discourage it. But it is doubtful whether he subscribed to the essential ideas about the hereafter that the Egyptians associated with it. It is doubtful also whether the personal views he may have had about the mystery of death were ever preached by him as a part of his Teaching. For though the evidence on which all discussion of this subject is necessarily based is very scanty, there seem to be reasons for one to distinguish between his idea of the survival of the soul and that of his followers.
The only document which may be taken to express his own views is the prayer inscribed at the foot of his coffin, and probably composed by himself: “I breathe the sweet breath which comes forth from Thy mouth; I behold Thy beauty every day. It is my desire that I may hear Thy sweet voice, even in the North wind, that my limbs may be rejuvenated with life through love of Thee. Give me Thy hands holding Thy spirit, that I may receive it and live by it. Call Thou upon my name unto eternity, and it shall never fail.”1
It seems, from this prayer addressed to the One God, that Akhnaton believed in the survival of the individual soul after death. The “I” who speaks here is, or at least has all the appearances of being, a personal consciousness. But it is difficult to imagine personal consciousness beyond death without some sort of survival of the body. We all feel that we owe much of what we are to the characteristic constitution of our various organs. If nothing is to remain of our material self under any form, then the only sort of immortality we can expect, if any at all, is the impersonal immortality of that which is, in us, common to all beings; substantial everlastingness, rather than individual immortality. Akhnaton seems to have been aware of this, and not to have separated the survival of the individual from some sort of hazy corporeality. At least, that is what we would imagine to be implied in words such as: “. . . that my limbs may be rejuvenated with life through love of Thee.”
No one can say whether those very same words also imply
1 Quoted by Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 259.
that the Founder of the Religion of the Disk shared the age-old Egyptian belief in the resurrection of the dead. It may be he did. It may be he did not. It may be that, in his eyes, the “limbs” that constitute, in eternity, the agent of individualisation, were those not of the resurrected mummy but of some surviving “body” more subtle than the visible one. In Akhnaton’s conception, as it can be inferred from the hymns, there is, as we have seen, no clear-cut line of demarcation between the material and the immaterial — between the everlasting “Ka” of the Sun-disk and the Disk itself, and doubtless also between the immortal “ka” of a man — his subtler self — and that man’s body.
There is no mention of the rising of the dead anywhere in the solitary prayer, just quoted, which reveals to us practically all we know of Akhnaton’s own beliefs, or hopeful conjectures, on the subject of death. But one or two courtiers do express, in the inscriptions in their tombs, the wish that their “flesh might live upon the bones,” which seems to imply the hope of resurrection. As we have once already remarked, one of the most constant desires of nearly all the king’s followers was to continue to see the Sun after death — “to go out to see the Sun’s rays”; “to obtain a sight of the beauty of every recurring sunrise,” etc. . . . Many also prayed for more tangible happiness; for the unchanged favour of their royal Master in the world beyond the grave; for name and fame in this world of the living; even for a share of the consecrated food offered at the altar of the Sun, “a reception of that which has been offered in the temple”; “a drink offering in the temple of Aton”; “a libation,” spilt by the children of the deceased “at the entrance of his tomb.”1
Arthur Weigall, in his admiration for the inspired young king, has endeavoured to present him as the most outstanding precursor of Christianity in the Pagan world. And he attributes to him, precisely for that reason, ideas of the hereafter little different from those of an honest church-going Englishman — except, of course, for the important fact
1 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), pp. 122-125.
that “we hear nothing of hell”1 in his Teaching. Those ideas, whatever be their value, are much too precise, even in their necessary vagueness, to tally with the very vague references in the prayer we have mentioned, and somewhat too Christian-like to be ascribed to the world’s first rationalist. Moreover, it is noteworthy that Weigall quotes, in support of them, only extracts from the inscriptions in the courtiers’ tombs, and never the prayer which he himself holds to be “composed by Akhnaton.”2 And there is a difference in tone and in spirit between that prayer and those inscriptions.
From the prayer, nothing precise about Akhnaton’s view of death can be pointed out, save perhaps, as we have said, that he believed in the survival of the individual under some much subtler state of corporeality (there is no mention of food or drink in his words) and that he considered the universal Energy within the Sun — the object of his worship — to be the principle of the new life, no less than of life under the form we know it. This seems to be the sense of “Give me Thy hands, holding Thy spirit, that I may receive it and live by it.” The words: “. . . that my limbs may be rejuvenated with life through love of Thee,” may also imply, along with the idea that consciousness is inseparable from corporeality under some form or another, that other idea that love of the supreme Reality — ultimately identical with the knowledge of It — is the condition of consciousness, in that life beyond death which Akhnaton expected for himself. Apart from these conjectures, which the text of the prayer suggests, we know nothing of his personal conception of the hereafter.
On the other hand, the hopes and wishes of the courtiers — to rise from the dead; to live and see the Sun; to enjoy food and drink offerings made to Him, and libations spilt by their descendants at their intention; to be remembered on earth and to see and serve the king in eternity — could be, more or less, the hopes and wishes expressed by any orthodox Egyptians of the time. There is nothing new in the beliefs
1 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 121.
2 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 248.
that they presuppose. The only new thing is that all the paraphernalia of threatening monsters and protecting gods that was generally associated with those same beliefs, all the awe that the dead would have to face in the land of shadows, and the magical formulas, declarations, incantations, etc., to propitiate the hostile powers of the netherworld, are completely absent from the inscriptions in the rock tombs of Tell-el-Amarna. “We look in vain for the figures of the old gods of Egypt, Ra, Horus, Ptah, Osiris, Isis, Anubis, and the cycles of the gods of the dead and of the Tuat (Underworld), and not a single ancient text, whether hymn, prayer, spell, incantation, litany from the ‘Book of the Dead’ in any of its recensions, is to be found there. To the Atenites, the tomb was a mere hiding-place for the dead body, not a model of the Tuat, as their ancestors thought. Their royal leader rejected all the old funerary Liturgies like the ‘Book of Opening the Mouth,’ and the ‘Liturgy of funerary offerings,’ and he treated with silent contempt such works as the ‘Book of the Two Ways,’ the ‘Book of the Dweller in the Tuat,’ and the ‘Book of Gates.’ Thus it would appear that he rejected en bloc all funerary rites and ceremonies and disapproved of all services of commemoration of the dead, which were so dear to the hearts of all Egyptians. The absence of figures of Osiris in the tombs of his officials, and of all mention of this god in the inscriptions found in them, suggests that he disbelieved in the Last Judgment and in the dogma of reward for the righteous and punishments for evildoers. If this were so, the Field of Reeds, the Field of Grasshoppers, the Field of Offerings in the Elysian Fields, and the Block of Slaughter with the headsman Shesmu, the five pits of the Tuat and the burning of the wicked were all ridiculous fictions to him.”1
From this negative evidence it can be gathered that Akhnaton definitely rejected all that appeared to him as irrational in the Egyptian traditions regarding death. He surely did away with all the magic intertwined with them, and he may have had, about man’s liberty and responsibility
1 Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), pp. 94, 95.
in general, sufficient doubts to “disbelieve” in the Last Judgment and in the dogma of reward and punishment once and for ever. If his courtiers omitted so much of the conventional funerary symbolism in their tombs, it is because he saw in it something meaningless, perhaps even harmful, and forbade it. But the positive instance of his followers’ beliefs in immortality does not necessarily indicate, in a parallel manner, what were his personal views. Nothing proves that he subscribed to all the hopes which they express in their inscriptions. On the contrary, stripped as it was of all the traditional mythology of the netherworld, their idea of life beyond death may well have been much nearer to the conventional Egyptian views than his. We are inclined to believe it was, when we think of the courtiers asking to enjoy a part of “the food deposited on the altar every day,” and libations and such. Here it seems that the old faith in the necessity of funeral offerings lingers in the believers in the new rational religion. It is noticeable that, in Akhnaton’s own prayer, there is no mention of offerings whatsoever. The love he had for Aton, the One God, was sufficient to “rejuvenate his limbs with life.”
From all this one may infer that, whatever were his personal conjectures concerning the hereafter, Akhnaton did not make them an article of his Teaching, but allowed his disciples to solve the problem of death as they liked, provided the solutions they would choose were not, in his eyes, too flagrantly childish. The mythology of the netherworld, as the Egyptians had believed in it for centuries was, no doubt, to him, a network of “ridiculous fictions.” And as Sir Wallis Budge adds, he actually gave his followers “nothing to put in the place of these fictions,”1 because there was, indeed, nothing to give them. And as a rationalist that he was, he seems to have been much less definite about all he said, or hinted, regarding the possibilities of the next world, than he had been in his assertions about the realities of this; much less categoric, also, in his attitude towards other people’s views, when these concerned that great beyond of which he
1 Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 95.
had no more experience than they or any man ever had.
The fact, for instance, that some of his followers ask, in their tomb inscriptions, for food and drink, does not prove that he taught them anything positive about funeral offerings, nor that, forerunning Christ who, “after his resurrection asked for food,” he believed that “material food or its spiritual equivalent would be necessary to the soul’s welfare in the next world.”1 But it does prove that he did not brand the old belief in the same uncompromising way as he had condemned that in a multitude of local gods or in the cult of images.
He appears simply never to have pronounced himself on the problem of the hereafter, perhaps because he deemed that problems of this world and this life should be solved first, perhaps also because he felt less sure of the solidity of his own conjectures about death and after death — of which he had no direct knowledge — than of that of his positive intuition of the ultimate Essence: heat-and-light within the Sun, and world-consciousness within himself. He cancelled, in the funeral traditions of the Egyptians as in the rest of their religion, all that which struck him as definitely meaningless or absurd. He tolerated only such remnants of the past as were but harmless customs — for instance, the habit of embalming the dead — or age-old beliefs which were as difficult to disprove as to justify and which, therefore, might have contained some spark of truth. In his Teaching, he seems neither to have asserted nor denied the current Egyptian dogma of the resurrection of the flesh. It may be that he associated it, in his mind, with the idea of individual survival which would imply, it seems, corporeality. But what corporeality after death meant to him, is not clear to us. The one thing, however, which can be said, is that his uncertain attitude towards the problem of death, and the open mind which he appears to have kept with regard to several ancient beliefs and customs about which, even to-day, one cannot easily pass a decisive opinion, are perfectly consistent with that rigorous rationalism that we remarked all through his
1 Arthur Weigall: Life and Times of Akhnaton (New and Revised Edit. 1922), p. 124.
doctrine, along with the inspiration that fills it. They are the signs of a truly scientific spirit.
* * *
It seems right to believe, with Budge, that the fact that he put “nothing in the place” of the old fictions about the next world had the result of turning the Egyptians away from Akhnaton and his Teaching; not, as the learned author says, because “being of African origin, they never understood or cared for philosophical abstractions,”1 but because they were men and, like most men, foolish, and craved for illusions — better than nothing — in the absence of available knowledge.
We may add that the omission of any “mythology” and of miracle-stories from the Teaching had the same immediate effect. People always wished to be entertained, moved and astonished by marvellous tales, and made to believe them. And all the great successful religions, when based originally on purely philosophical principles — as Buddhism — have seen more and more miraculous narratives creep into their sacred literature as years passed on, and as they spread to further countries. Had the Religion of the Disk not been nipped in the bud, it is probable that the same thing would have happened with it, in course of time.
But, if the absence of what makes a religion popular condemned it, from the start, never to spread of its own impetus; if its Founder himself, doubtless feeling how far too rational his Teaching was for the needs of the mob, never tried to preach it, save to a few men chosen among the first of the land, this was not without an advantage. Popular religions of Akhnaton’s time, that long held sway over nations, have died out. And they could not possibly be revived, now or in the future, precisely because of the mythology and supernatural stories and particular views about death and funerary rites which overload them and hide the amount of truth that they did contain (as all religions do) and make them
1 Sir Wallis Budge: Tutankhamen, Amenism, Atenism, and Egyptian Monotheism (Edit. 1923), p. 96.
the products of definite geographical and historical environments, the property of particular civilisations. And nearer to us, in our own world, the greatest obstacle, perhaps, to the proselytism of the well-known international religions still alive, is that they too are irremediably linked up with a particular background of history and legend, stamped with a definite couleur locale; also that they appear inseparable from such supernatural events as the modern mind is no longer ready to accept. Islam cannot be preached to England or Germany detached from the marvellous stories that once stirred the admiration of the medieval Arab tent-dweller. Christianity cannot be preached to India and China detached from its Jewish and Greco-Roman associations; and in Europe itself — one of its oldest fields of expansion — Renan was already conscious that, if anything would one day make people sceptical and indifferent towards it, it would be those very miracles that once made its fortune.1
But Akhnaton’s Teaching, devoid of the three things that have assured the success of other doctrines, is also free from the germs of decay contained in them. Logically, it can be revived, now and in any age to come, in any place where rational thinking is more than an empty profession. The absence of miracles, as well as of any positive answer to the insoluble question of death, makes it a religion that the critical mind can prefer to many others. Its rationality, one of the most potent causes of its failure in Egypt, in the days of its Founder, could therefore one day become the main source of its appeal to the disinterested, truth-seeking intelligentsia of all the world. This hope, however premature it might still seem, in our times, is not unjustified, considering the nature of the Teaching and the history of man’s religious evolution.
1 Renan: Life of Jesus (Translation by William G. Hutchinson), pp. 162-163.