THE COSMOLOGY OF AKHETATON
Brian E. Colless
The King of Upper and Lower Egypt, who lives by Truth (Ma‘at), the Lord of the Two Lands, Nefer-Kheperu-Rey Wa-en-Rey*, son of Rey, living by Truth, the Lord of the Diadems, Akhenaton*, great in lifespan. *(names in cartouches)
The Great Royal Consort, beloved of the King, the Lady of the Two Lands, Nefer-Nefru-Aton Nefert-iti*, living in health and youth for ever and ever. *(names in cartouches)
The Vizier, the Fanbearer at the right hand of the King . . . [Ay].
O living Aton*, originator of life; *(Sun Disk)
whenever you rise on the eastern horizon* *(akhet, as in Akhet-Aton, horizon of Aton)
you fill every land with your beauty.
You are gracious, great, radiant,
and high over every country;
your rays encompass the lands
to the limits of your creations;
You are Rey* and you penetrate to their very end* , *(r‘, play on words)
and you subdue them for your beloved son*. *(Akhenaton)
Although you are far away, your rays are on earth;
you are in their faces, yet your motion is not perceived.
earth lies in deathlike darkness.
People sleep in their rooms with heads covered,
and not one eye sees another.
Were all their things stolen from under their heads,
they would not be aware of it.
Every lion issues from its den,
and all the creeping things that bite;
darkness shrouds the world in stillness,
as he who made them rests in his horizon.
and shine as the Aton in the daytime.
When you scatter the darkness and give forth your beams,
the Two Lands are in festivity.
People awaken and stand on their feet,
because you have raised them up.
They bathe their bodies, put on their clothes,
and with arms uplifted praise your rising.
The whole world goes about its work;
all the beasts browse on their pasture;
while trees and plants are flourishing.
The birds fly up from their nests,
their wings adoring your being.* *(ka)
All the animals frisk upon their feet;
and all the creatures that fly and alight
come to life when you dawn upon them.
Ships voyage downstream and upstream alike;
every road opens at your reappearance;
the fish in the river leap up in front of you;
your rays are amid the great green sea.
and make human beings from fluid,
sustaining the child in the womb of its mother,
soothing its tears away, a nurse within the womb.
Giver of breath, to nourish all he has made,
when it leaves the womb on its day of birth,
you open wide its mouth and supply its needs.
The chicken in the egg chirps inside the shell;
for you give it breath in there to preserve its life.
When you bring it to the fullness of time for breaking the egg,
it issues from the egg announcing its completion,
walking on its two legs when it emerges.
beyond human understanding!* *(or: hidden from sight)
O sole God beside whom there is no other,
you created the world as you pleased, you alone,
all peoples, cattle, and animals,
whatever on earth walks on legs,
whatever on high flies on wings.
The countries Khor* and Kush*, *(Syria and Nubia)
and the land of Egypt,
you set every person in their place,
you supply their every need.
Each one has their provisions,
and their lifetime is reckoned.
Their tongues differ in speech
and their natures as well;
their skins are distinct,
for you have distinguished the peoples.
you bring it forth as you will,
in order to sustain the people,
since you made them for yourself;
lord of all, toiling for them,
lord of every land, shining for them,
Aton of the daylight, great in majesty.
All distant lands you keep alive,
making a heavenly Hapy come down for them;
it makes waves on the mountains, like the sea,
to water their fields and their towns.
How excellent are your ways, Lord of eternity:
a Hapy* from heaven for the foreign peoples *(Nile)
and for creatures of the wild which go on foot,
and for Egypt a Hapy from the underworld*. *(dat).
when you shine they live, they grow for you;
you made the seasons to foster all you created:
winter to cool them, warmth for them to feel you.
You made the far sky for you to shine in,
in order to behold all that you have made.
You alone, shining in your form as the Living Aton,
rising, radiating, retiring, returning.
You made millions of forms from yourself alone;
towns, villages, fields, roads, and rivers,
all eyes observe you upon them,
for you are the Aton of the daylight on high. . . .
and there is no one who knows you but your son,
whom you have taught your ways and your might.
Earthlings come into being from your hand,
even as you have created them;
when you rise they live,
when you set they die;
you have their lifespan within yourself,
since people live through you.
All eyes are on your beauty until you set,
all work is laid aside when you go down in the west.
When you rise you make people advance for the King;
every foot is astir since you founded the earth;
you rouse them for your son who came from your body,
the King who lives by Truth*, Lord of the Two Lands, *(Ma‘at)
Nefer-Khepru-Rey Wa-en-Rey*, *(sole one of Rey)
the son of Rey, who lives by Truth, the Lord of the Diadems,
Akhenaton, great in lifespan,
and the Great Royal Consort, beloved of the King,
the Lady of the Two Lands, Nefer-Nefru-Aton Nefertiti,
alive and young for ever and ever.
Akhenaton and Nefertiti worshipping the Aton
This hymn to the Sun-Disk, known conventionally as the Great Hymn to the Aton, was found inscribed on the western wall of the tomb of Ay, a courtier of King Akhenaton (Akhnaten). Pharaoh Akhenaton and his wife Nefertiti (Nefert-Iti) were the founders of the Aton cult, in which Amon and the other gods were ignored and exclusive worship was accorded to the Aton, the disk of the sun. This was around the middle of the 14th century B.C.E., just when Amon of Thebes had reached a peak of prominence as Amon-Rey. Regarded as supreme creator-god, Amon absorbed into himself Rey, Horus, Atum, Harakhti, and Khepri; and he was also said to be manifested in the visible disk of the sun.
Pharaoh Akhenaton turned his back on Amon and the city of Thebes, to the great annoyance of Amon's priests, who thus found themselves deprived of influence over the King. In the new city of Akhetaton ('Horizon of the Aton'), halfway between Thebes and Memphis, the Aton received sole worship, and this has led some modern scholars to call King Akhenaton the first monotheist in history. If this was in fact a case of monotheism its life was brief, as was that of its founder, for after the short reign of Akhenaton (about 1365-1349 B.C.E.) the realm of Egypt was restored to normal and polytheism was reinstated, with Amon-Rey and Pharaoh Tutankhamon ruling in Thebes and Memphis again (see Empire of Horemheb, Decree of Tutankhamon).
There are other hymns to the Aton that have survived on the walls of tombs located in the ruins of Akhetaton (now known as Amarna). Five copies of The Short Hymn to the Aton have survived; and in the unused tomb of Ay (who was to reign briefly as King after the death of Tutankhamon) there are two Hymns to the Aton and the King and a Prayer to the King. See Miriam Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, II, 89-100, for translations of these and also The Great Hymn.
Whether Akhenaton was the author of the Great Hymn or not, he is certainly presented as the person speaking the words. He is "the beloved son" of the Aton, and he alone knows the Aton, and so no one can approach God except through his son. This is very similar to the situation in Christianity.
Comparisons have been made between certain lines of The Great Hymn and Psalm 104 in the Bible. For example, Psalm 104:19-23 has in common with the hymn such details as the setting of the sun, the emerging of beasts from their dens when the darkness sets in (lions are particularly named), the rising of the sun, people going out to work, ships sailing on the waters, and the exclamation "How manifold are your works". All these things are so natural in a hymn on the providence of God and the pattern of daily life that there might well be no connection between the two poems. Moreover, it hardly seems likely that the Israelite Psalmist could have known what was written on the walls of the abandoned tombs and temples of Akhetaten (Amarna). If there has been any borrowing of ideas it may have come through Egyptian sun-hymns (see stanza 9 of the Hymn to Amon-Rey, Cosmology of Thebes) as part of the influence that undoubtedly flowed from Egypt into Israel in ancient times. It should be emphasized that in Psalm 104 it is Yahweh the God of Israel who received praise as giver of life, not the sun.
One notable feature in both hymns is the provision of water for humankind and the world. In Israel we see Yahweh making springs gush forth in the mountains and from his lofty abode watering the earth with rain (104:10-13). For the Egyptian, however, the source of water is Hapy, the Nile River, issuing from the underworld; but the poet recognizes that even though Egypt has almost no rainfall, foreign peoples are sustained by a Hapy (a Nile) coming down from the sky in the form of showers. Hapy was the name of the god of the Nile, but if Atonism was monotheism then the Nile would presumably not be classed as a divinity. The same applies to Truth (Ma‘at), usually regarded as a goddess, here appearing in the introduction and in the closing reference to the king, living by Ma‘at.
Towards the end of the text there is a lacuna and several untranslatable sentences, but on the whole the hymn is well preserved.
Editions and Translations
N. de G. Davies, The Rock Tombs of El Amarna, 6 vols (London 1903-1908) VI, 29-31.
M. Sanfman, Texts from the Time of Akhenaton (Brussels 1938) 93-96.
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, II, 96-100.
J. Kaster, The Literature and Mythology of Ancient Egypt, 111-116.
J.A. Wilson, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 370-371.