Review of Akhenaten and the Religion of Light; Translated from the German by David Lorton, by Erik Hornung.

Erik Hornung.Akhenaten and the Religion of Light; Translated From the German by David Lorton.146 Pages, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1999. Isbn 0-8014-3658-3

Originally published in 1995 under the title Echnaton: Die Religion des Lichtes, the English edition of Hornung’s work, though now several years old, is a valuable addition to the standard works usually consulted for information regarding the unique reign of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten. The subject of the Amarna Period has been extensively covered by Aldred,[1] Redford [2] and many others,[3] but rarely does one find a book which is not only accurate, but covers the topic of Akhenaten’s religious doctrine in such a clear and concise manner. Religion in itself is often a confusing and complicated subject; Ancient Egyptian Religion is even harder to comprehend, leaving many modern readers dumbfounded at the sheer number of deities and their interrelationships with one another. When studying the religion of Akhenaten one is faced with the extraordinary leap from the complicated traditional religious system to one which, on the surface, appears similar to modern Judaeo-Christian religions. This fact led to many of the standard texts on Akhenaten being written as commentaries on the life of a religious zealot, littered with assumptions and inaccuracies. Upon further examination the Amarna religion is found to be much more complex than first believed, and this complex religion forms the focus of Hornung’s work.

The first chapter of Akhenaten and the Religion of Light is entitled ‘The Founder of a Religion is Discovered’ and is devoted to the rediscovery in modern times of Akhenaten, and the city, religion, and art style that he developed throughout his reign. In a reign as unique and interesting as Akhenaten’s, the rediscovery of this king who was stricken from the official ‘king lists’ is more often than not overlooked in books and studies devoted to the period. This chapter contains a very good, well balanced evaluation of how modern prejudices have influenced the way in which Akhenaten’s reign has been interpreted by different scholars from Akhenaten’s rediscovery until present times. Chapter Two, ‘The Religious Background’, begins with a clear and simple outline of what is termed the ‘New Solar Theology’ by Assmann.[4] A brief but accurate account of the religious policies of Amenhotep III, father and predecessor of Akhenaten, follows, along with a discussion of his Royal Sed-Festivals. The importance of animal worship in the period prior to Akhenaten’s reign is mentioned, followed by a very brief discussion of a possible coregency between Amenhotep III and Akhenaten.

Chapter Three begins with the Royal titulary of Amenhotep IV’s early years and its central theme of the royal building program, along with a short discussion on the early building work of the reign at Karnak. The development of the Aten into a major deity and this god’s exception as being treated as a king during the reign of Akhenaten is then discussed. Central to this is the Royal Sed-Festivals the deity, the Aten, and the king Akhenaten celebrated together. The dramatic change in art style under Akhenaten from the traditional ‘static’ poses and predictable subject matter to the flowing style with a focus upon the personal life of royalty typical of the Amarna Period is also addressed. Chapter Four, ‘A New Religion’, is devoted to the religion developed by Akhenaten, covering the relationship between the king and the god Aten, as well as the prominent religious role played by Queen Nefertiti. As this chapter is intended as a summary of the teachings of Akhenaten it is very brief, but still covers the aspects of these teachings in sufficient depth to provide the reader with a basic understanding of the topic.

The fifth chapter is also brief, as it deals with the founding of Akhetaten (modern El-Amarna), the city Akhenaten built to be the new capital of Egypt, which was dedicated to the Aten alone. The city itself, which has been intensely studied by others,[5] is adequately described here, as it is the religion, not the city of Akhenaten, that is the focus of this book. Chapter Six is entitled ‘The Pure Teaching’ and covers the innovations of the reign such as the new solar temple architecture. The concentration in the new art style of intimate pictures of the royal family is also discussed as is the change in the name of the Aten. No study on the doctrine of Akhenaten would be complete without a translation of the famous ‘Great Hymn to the Aten’ and this is included in Chapter Six. The universalistic nature of the god Aten is introduced in this chapter which leads the reader into Chapter Seven ‘The Question of Monotheism’. This section details how the religion has now been proven not to be a monotheistic doctrine which would tolerate no deities aside from the Aten, as was once thought. Hornung makes it clear that only certain of the traditional gods of Egypt, especially Amun and his associates, were targeted during the reign of Akhenaten.

Chapter Eight, entitled ‘Belief in an Afterlife without a Hereafter’, explains in a clear and relevant manner the concept of an afterlife as contained within the Atenist religion of Akhenaten. It is an exceptional piece of writing dealing with some of the more complex issues linked to the reign of Akhenaten, such as the removal of Osiris, god of the underworld, and the judgment of the deceased from the afterlife. As issues concerning the world of the dead were central to the fabric of Egyptian civilization, their complete erasure by Akhenaten is both incredible and confounding, and as such is often ignored or glossed over in other works on the topic of the Amarna Period. Chapters Nine and Ten deal with the events of the later years of Akhenaten and with his successors and their return to the traditional gods. A short section on the reigns of Ay and Horemheb bring the Dynasty, and the study by Hornung, to a close.

The final chapter is an epilogue explaining that although the ‘New Solar Theology’ incarnated as the Atenist religion failed not too long after the demise of its founder Akhenaten, the Sun God endured, continuing to shine. Although a fairly brief work, Akhenaten and the Religion of Light by far outshines any of the previous works on the religion of the Amarna Period in both its accuracy and clarity. The original work by Hornung in German is now a few years old, but its conclusions remain accurate and relevant even to this day, and for this reason its translation into English is of great importance, allowing non-German readers the benefit of Hornung’s insight into the Amarna Period. It is strongly recommended as the starting point for anyone undertaking a study of this unique episode in the history of religion.

Kerri Neumann
School of Historical Studies, Monash University.

[1]Cyril Aldred, Akhenaten Pharaoh of Egypt: a new study, Thames and Hudson, London, 1968. Back

[2] Donald Redford, Akhenaten, the Heretic King, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1984. Back

[3] Including the recent publication of D. Montserrat, Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt, Routledge, London, 2000. Back

[4] Jan Assmann, Agypten – Theologie und Frommigkeit einer fruhen Hochkultur, Kohlhammer, Stuttgart, 1984 pp. 235-243. Back

[5] For example, W.J. Murnane and C.C. Van Siclen III, The Boundary Stelae of Akhenaten, Kegan Paul International, London, 1993; Julia Samson, Amarna. City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, Aris and Phillips Ltd., Warminster, 1978. Back