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Apercu´ of Armana Period Iconographic Representation of the Egyptian God Aten

The religious symbolism that evolved contemporaneously with the beginning of a civilized and structured world in Ancient Egypt found its roots in the Egyptian concern for the afterlife. The pantheon of divinities, derived from the tutelary gods of each of the various independent city-states along the Nile prior to unification achieved during the “Old Kingdom” phase (2575 – 2150 BCE), contributed to a vibrant, tangled and complex religious construct of multifarious interconnected deities and their associated relationships. [1]

Many of these deities had a symbolic and figurative representation in some animalistic or totemic form, such as bulls and birds [2]. Horus, the falcon-god protector of the Pharaohs, is embodied as a hawk or falcon. The Pharaohs themselves were considered divine: they were believed to be the children of the sun-god Re who had assumed human form [3] and were then incarnated as Horus. As the living Horus, the Pharaoh/King was “given the land and people of Egypt to care for during his time on earth. After “death” he simply returned to dwell eternally with his peers, the gods, while his eldest son became the new embodiment of Horus on earth.”[4]

Palette of Narmer, from Hieakonpolis, Dynasy I, c. 3150 – 3125 BCE.
Slate, Height 25”, Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Although the Palette of Narmer [5] (an engraved sculptural ritual piece commemorating King Narmer's unification of Upper and Lower Egypt), has an early (ca. 3100 BCE) presumed symbolic reference to the sun disk (above right center), still this representation was only part of the developing mythologies of many supernatural presences to be worshipped accordingly. This polytheistic proclivity continued unabated for centuries down through the various phases of Egyptian history and dynasties.

It wasn't for another fifteen hundred years that there would be an aberration to totemic and figurative representation and polytheistic worship, that during the reign of Akhenaten (Pharaoh Amenophis IV, 14th cent. BCE), which occurred in roughly the same period as the anecdotal Hebrew “Exodus.” The possible connections between the monotheism of Akhenaten and that of the putative Hebrew historical background of the same region and approximately the same time period have not escaped the attention of astute and curious researchers of the ancient past.

Although there is no definitive archaeological or historical evidence for the Exodus [6], there are many tantalizing references in extant Egyptology that can be interpreted in various ways, some even suggesting that Akhenaten and the Hebrew leader Moses may be one and the same person [7]. Here in this paper, however, we would like to briefly explore various aspects of the imagery associated with Akhenaten, and the representation of Aten as a sun-disk.

The period of the rule of King Akhenaten and his queen Nefertiti during the Fourteenth Century BCE is known as today the “Armana Phase” of the Egyptian ruling dynasties, resulting from the King's construction of a new capital city he called “Akhetaten” (Horizon of the Aten) at an archeological site contemporarily known as “Armana.” [8]

During this phase King Akhenaten instituted a radical revision of Egyptian theological and artistic practices that in our modern era has inspired intense debate regarding its connotations and symbolism. At the forefront of this revolution was Akhenaten's simultaneous but paradoxical consolidation and rejection of Egyptian theology's pantheon of deities into one omnipotent and omniscient god known as “Aten.” Aten had been previously identified as the physical sun disk that was a home/manifestation of Egypt's primary deity, Atum-Re. During the reign of Akhenaten, however, the sun disk itself became identified as having in some aspect of divine qualities, either as a “god” itself, or as the principle representation of this universal god Aten. [9]

The artistic manifestations of this new era in Egyptian thought, whether it was a forced change instituted by the imprimatur of Pharaonic totalitarianism, or whether simply by an empathy to revising the age-old Egyptian canonical order are startling, to say the least.

The new art stood in sharp contrast to the representational iconography that had dominated Egyptian life for over two thousand years. This new art, and the poems and hymns that accompanied it, expressed the experience of living while at the same time emphasizing the wondrous creation of Aten and Aten's munificence toward mankind. This was a major break with the static formal motifs that characterized Egyptian art of previous centuries concerned primarily with the creation of eternal realms for the dead and the glorification and preservation of the eternal divinities of the Pharaohs as god-kings. [10]

Akhenaten and his Family from Akhetaten
(modern Tell el-Armana), Dynasty 18, 1348-1336/5 BCE.
Piece similar to: Painted Limestone relief, 12¼ x 15¼”. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin,
Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Ägyptisches Museum

An excellent example of art from this era would be the Stela of the Royal Family: “Akhanaten and his Family,” from Akhetaten (modern Tell-el Armana), a painted limestone in sunken relief. Here Akhanaten and Nefertiti are shown seated in a homey domestic scene both holding and tending to their children. The family's androgynous, elongated and sinuous body forms typify the ubiquitous bodily representation of the era that is such a noticeable and curious difference from the formal Egyptian style and has been the cause of so much speculation about the impetus of its origins. (See above photo)

The carving, almost impressionistic in its execution, creates a gestural feeling of movement that gives life to the piece that previous depictions of Egyptian royalty lacked. Lines are widened and deepened on curves of the figures that cast shadows imitative of flattened brush stokes. The remaining space surrounding the couple includes a pictographic narrative no doubt relating to the piece.

Above the royal couple - creating a triangular formal arrangement that references the pyramidal monuments of the region and adumbrates Christian iconographical sculptural and painting arrangements three thousand years later - is the deeply incised circumference of the sun-disk as an abstract representation of Aten. Aten's rays, perhaps metaphysically transformed into “arms,” each ending with a hand/ankh, shine down upon the happy family and caress them with Aten's benevolence. Unlike that imagery of earlier periods which was hidden from public view in tombs, stelae such as this appeared as shrines in private homes. [11] As a paradigm for Akhanaten's subjects, this scene could have been instruction to the faithful of the ideal relationship to their new deity and Aten's all-encompassing providence in life.


What can we make of this sun-disk emblem? Obviously, it combines aspects of the actual physical sun disk with abstract representations of the deity's perceived powers. But its connection as an abstract symbol to the early Palette of Narmer cannot be overlooked. The circle, triangle, and square as elemental gestalt figures can be transformed into symbols potent with meaning: the triangle's metamorphosis into the Pyramids at Giza has carried an entire culture’s theology wrapped up in it. So with the “circle” of the sun - and the suggestion of its roundabout journeys, its “light” in both a physical and revelatory sense, and the “warmth” of its life-giving presence both physically and spiritually.

In a similar fashion, Christian theology of our time has created an abstract image of the “Son of God” as the homonymic “Sun” of God, replete with metaphors that echo the same attributes of Aten: an all-encompassing Divinity that “shines” a benevolence and “warmth” upon humanity in the “circle” of life.

“You had to have been there,” is a phrase we are fond of uttering when we find difficulty in verbally expressing a situation we may have been in, and it is more than apt when applied to any attempts to fathom the Egyptians' gnosis of their religious framework. After all, we find ourselves struggling to understand the motives and artistic expressions of recent past generations, say nothing of a realizing a clear-cut definition of this ambiguous religious symbolism three and a half millennia past, despite two centuries' study of the voluminous artifacts from the Egyptian dynastic civilization.

Yet, when we compare earlier likenesses of Egyptian deities in their embodiments as birds of prey, bulls, and other animalistic images, it appears that Ahkanaten, with his portrayals of Aten as a faceless, rounded disk, may have finally created a totally abstract conception of his god, with the core of its ethos non-dependent upon familiar and naturalistic references. Given the totality of the Egyptian civilization's abstract mental advancement necessary to create a calendar so accurate it was remarked upon by the Greek historian Herodotus [12], or to build monuments like the Pyramids, this really not surprising at all.

Daniel John Bornt
Champaign, Illinois
1 March 2003



[1] Gods and Men, Henry Bamford Parkes, p. 60
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Pharaohs of the Sun, Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen, Freed, Markowitz, and D’Auria, p. 97
[5] Gardner's Art Through the Ages, 11 th ed.
[6] Exodus as History, URL: by Christopher L. Constas, A & S Honors Program, Gasson 102, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467
[7] The Mystery and Controversy of the Story of Moses: Was Moses Akhenaten? URL:
[8] Art History, Marilyn Stokstad, 2nd ed., p. 119
[9] Pharaohs of the Sun, Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen, Freed, Markowitz, and D’Auria, pp. 98-99
[10] Ibid. pp. 101-105
[11] Ibid. p. 107
[12] “Egypt According to Herodotus” The World of the Past, Jacquetta Hawkes, p. 549

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