Why Didn't Monotheism in Ancient Egypt Work?

Pharaoh Akhenaten attempted to institute monotheism during his reign, declaring Aten the only god.
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Ancient Egypt is often associated with the celebration of its many gods. Daily life revolved around customs and rituals of worship. Pharaoh Akhenaten stands out in Egypt's history because of his attempt to transform centuries of polytheistic worship into a monotheistic culture by abolishing the worship of other gods in favor of Aten, the sun god. His reign, which lasted from 1375 to 1358 B.C., was almost entirely dedicated to this goal.

1 A New Name and a New Capital

One of the first acts that signaled Akhenaten's departure from the existing religious structure in Egypt was abandoning his name, Amunhotep, which came from the god Amun, the god of mysteries whose center of worship was in Thebes. He adopted the name Akhenaten, which means "he is agreeable to the sun disk." Soon after, he removed the Egyptian throne from Thebes and re-established it in a remote, unpopulated desert location on the Nile. He named the new capital Akhenaten. This departure marked not only a religious but also a political separation from the rest of Egypt. Egyptian priests possessed a great deal of social, economic and political power at the time, and the shift from polytheism to monotheism threatened their power. The rejection of Thebes and the priests spelled popular doom for Akhenaten.

2 The Sole Link to Aten

Once established in his new capital, Akhenaten declared himself the sole link to Aten. Though pharaohs in Egypt had always been considered to have a divine connection to the gods, none had ever been decreed to have sole access to them. Having removed himself from the public to his new remote capital, he also removed the public's only access to the new god he wanted them to follow. This was a complete departure from the religious customs of the Egyptian population, which had always maintained connection to the gods through individual worship, priests and access to the pharaohs. Even those who followed him to his new location saw little benefit from this new religion, which was almost exclusively built on Akhenaten's personal relationship with Aten.

3 The Mythless God

The sun god Aten was represented by a sun disk, unlike the other Egyptian gods who were represented by humans, animals or a combination of the two. A sun disk was an inanimate object that was difficult for people to relate to. In addition, there was no myth or story associated with Aten's supremacy, just a sudden declaration by an isolated pharaoh who did little to inspire the population to worship this deity.

4 Extremism

Akhenaten's attempts to convert Egypt into a monotheistic nation during his lifetime led him to commit extreme acts. He had inscriptions that read “gods” changed to “god” and had the name Amun erased from temples and other public areas. Temples dedicated to other gods were closed or destroyed. In addition, his worship of the sun god included constant sunbathing, and many of the structures he built in his new capital were roofless, making them unbearable for visitors, both foreign and Egyptian. Akhenaten's odd practices and extremism made him unpopular and difficult to understand, let alone follow. His efforts to institute monotheism in Egypt failed, and after his death, polytheistic worship reemerged throughout the country.

Lynn Blanch is a writer, translator and educator. She is the co-founder of an educational/cultural nonprofit in Brazil, speaks fluent Portuguese and has published a travel blog. She holds a bachelor's degree in liberal arts from Sarah Lawrence College.