Akhenaten, the Heretic Pharaoh

Warning, this is a very long post xD

The task for this assignment was to discuss whether or not we think Akhenaten was more of a visionary or a madman.

The Amana period is of great interest to scholars, storytellers, and visionaries. Much like how during the Renaissance, art and popular belief underwent a major turnaround, under the rule of Akhenaten, Ancient Egypt underwent numerous changes. Ranging from a religious reform to a more common change of Capital, Ancient Egypt had stood tall and proud in her days prior to Akhenaten’s rule. It’s Pharaoh, Amenhotep IV, who is better known as Akhenaten, was the instigator for such a revolutionary era. What exactly Pharaoh Akhenaten was is a point of major debate, and discussing whether he bordered closer to visionary genius or insane madman is the point of this essay.

I think that Akhenaten is closer to a visionary than anything else. My claim is based on little more than what we know about human reasoning. In the unlikely event that the theories on cognition and human behaviour that I take to be true should be proven wrong, then very little – if anything – of what I discuss below can be taken seriously.

Akhenaten was human. He lived, he did human things, and then he died. Although we like to think of ourselves as a most civilised folk compared to ancient times, this would be a most foolish claim for anyone to make. The ancient world was wrought with political distress – much like our own. The ancient world suffered from poverty and corruption – much like we do. The ancient world speculated about how the world works – it’s been well over 5000 years and we still haven’t figured this one out. In the ancient world, they were overtly biased/prejudiced whereas in modern times, just because more people are against it, it doesn’t mean that this prejudice doesn’t still exist.

One counterpoint to my saying that present-day humans are not all too different from ancient peoples would be to look at the way in which we live our lives. This, however, would get us nowhere as, and I completely agree with this sentiment, the way in which we live our lives is vastly different, we are still the same barbaric people. I reiterate: Akhenaten was a religious visionary.

I have little evidence for this claim apart from what we can deduce about the current behaviour of people. When presented with an ideal that they are forced to strive for, people revolt against the establishment. Akhenaten made some absolutely massive changes to the system. He shifted the capital from Thebes to Akhetaten (modern name Amana) (Spence, 2011). He (arguably) kick started monotheism by being Moses himself (Osman, 2002). This is massive! There are very few individuals who have been so adamant about their beliefs that they rose to power and went against the system. Anyone who was willing to make this great a change when almost the entire world is against them deserves admiration for their pride. Even Hitler, in this regard, ought to be admired for his determination. Indeed, his beliefs were horrible and we cannot forgive him for that but, just as people like my great, great grandparents left Scotland to bring the light of God to the Savages of Africa, Akhenaten and Hitler went further than most people would to secure their beliefs. Some evidence may lead us to believe that Akhenaten caused many of these changes out of spite. He appears in none of the family portraits during his father’s reign (Akhenaton: The Rebel Pharaoh, 1998), and it seems to be the case that out of sheer luck and his mother’s iron will that he became Pharaoh of Egypt (Akhenaton: The Rebel Pharaoh, 1998). But I don’t think it is through spite or greed that he went against the established world order.

Whenever we look at modern cases of vengeance and ‘vigilante justice’ what we dislike about it is that it is typically unequal. Recall the saying “an eye for an eye”? Well, when people take revenge, they tend to take more than just an eye and there is a moral wrong to this. Vengeance and vigilante justice are biased as they are acted upon through emotion (Seltzer, 2014). I think that Akhenaten was absolutely gutted that he was poorly treated as a child, and who wouldn’t be? A healthy human has a sense of self-worth. Part of that entails that one has a sense of ‘being owed their due’ (Dillon, Fall 2015) which basically means to be given what they deserve. If Akhenaten was part of the royal family and the royal family were meant to be included in their family portraits, then he was wronged and should feel resent towards his parents about this. But I think that he forgave his family when he came into power. He did not destroy the old kingdom to an extent that he made it unrepairable. To me, it seems as if he believed that he was under the guidance of an almighty to do right. He seemed to have forgiven his parents and buried his father under the appropriate conditions (Mark, 2011). Now, although Akhenaten only started changing the kingdom later in in his reign, his beliefs seem to be too strong to have been formed overnight. They seem to be something he had always believed; perhaps this was due to his mother’s influence on him (Mark, 2011). Such an influence would give him the power to overcome his anger and resentment as he acknowledges that he has a duty to fulfil, the duty to spread the metaphorical light of the sun deity – the Aten. Just look at one of many Bible verses on this “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Akhenaten still held respect for those who had wronged him and he worked towards an end far closer to justice than retribution. He was able to overcome his anger, if he even displayed any. He forgave and moved on. This is one of the main reasons why I think that Akhenaten was more of a visionary than a madman.

Akhenaten was certainly atypical. Anyone would be tempted to say that he was a madman, but so could they argue for Socrates, Jesus, and Hitler being bonkers. Akhenaten included, the four of them came about and formed massive changes.

Socrates led a life trying to question things and get others to do the same (Plato, 399 BCE). He (arguably) started the movement called philosophy which branched into countless disciplines. Socrates was a firm believer in his ideals but he was not like Akhenaten or Hitler, he had no ‘throne’ from which to preach his beliefs. He wandered the streets and tried to educate the youth and get them to question things (Plato, 399 BCE). He lived life in the pursuit of truth and he died for this belief (Plato, 399 BCE).  Socrates was a great man and brought about an incredible boon to the world. Was he mad? More than likely. Jesus took much the same path as Socrates in that he became a martyr for what he believed in. The Romans allegedly put him to an end but even that did not stop him from returning and forgiving his betrayers (Farstad, 1982). We can all agree that Judas did a terribly wrong thing. To betray someone is a cardinal sin and perhaps Akhenaten felt much the same way. Having the world against his beliefs, and having an opposition so vast that they tried to wipe him for the records of history. Akhenaten was very much like Jesus. And Socrates. And Hitler. For unlike the two already discussed, Hitler had something much closer to what we could call a throne. Hitler, like Akhenaten, had enough power to force his ideals upon the world. They had military and economic power which, in the case of Hitler, were used to wage war and oppress the masses.

Akhenaten led a military campaign or two (Spence, 2011) but nothing equitable to WWII. Instead, Akhenaten focussed on his belief and living a happy life with his family. His ignoring of the many duties he had as ruler (Akhenaton: The Rebel Pharaoh, 1998) (Mark, 2014) (Spence, 2011) and the aforementioned letters (Siddall, 2010), show that he was not too concerned with matters of the kingdom. What motive would he have for doing any of this?  I think that Akhenaten was a real family guy and he wanted to make those he loved happy. And he wanted to be happy himself. Combine this with his religious zeal and he starts to look a lot more like us.

The artistic appearance of the Pharaoh and his children in the Amana period might be enough to allow us to infer that Akhenaten might have been afflicted by a number of genetic disorders, he may even have been a woman in the disguise of a man (Reeves, 1990) or a hermaphrodite that embraced both of their opposing genders. Something must have caused this anti-stylisation as seen in typical Egyptian art. The leading theory used to be that Akhenaten suffered from some genetic disorder, and this might account for the changes we see in Egyptian history if said disorder affected his mental cognition as well. Evidence for this is further supported by the fact that egg shaped skulls have been found in KV55 (Handwerk, 2007). This similarity between malformed skull from that period and the art makes one more inclined to believe that there was something more to just an aesthetic change in the art (Lorenz, 1998). He may have suffered from Marfan’s syndrome (Akhenaton: The Rebel Pharaoh, 1998) or Froehlich’s syndrome (Lorenz, 1998) but both of these have been put aside for a more reasonable explanation.

As Froehlich’s syndrome has been, by and large, ruled out by historians for its inapplicability to Akhenaten who, according to the records we have, was not mentally retarded or infertile like one with Froehlich’s syndrome is likely to be (Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, n.d.), the other popular belief is that Akhenaten suffered from Marfan’s syndrome. As these are genetic disorders, we would be able to find them in any DNA left on his mummy. Even if we cannot find his mummy to confirm this but if we have the mummies of his relatives like some say we do (Handwerk, 2007), then we can conduct a genetic test on them and infer as to whether or not Akhenaten had this. If Akhenaten did suffer from this, it would explain why he was hidden as a child. Embarrassment from his parents. We even have patients who suffer from Marfan’s syndrome that don’t see Akhenaten’s reactions as unintelligible (Akhenaton: The Rebel Pharaoh, 1998). If Akhenaten was a rational being, as we can only assume he was, then it is safe to assume that he would have taken the steps he did. However, I think that Akhenaten bordered more on the side of a visionary as his beliefs seem true and not just an excuse for a change. It is relatively undisputed that Tutankhamun was one of the children of Akhenaten (Handwerk, 2007) (Spence, 2011) (Akhenaton: The Rebel Pharaoh, 1998). If this is true, then the genetic testing done on Tutankhamun would prove Akhenaten’s suffering of this to be false. If Akhenaten did not suffer from these syndromes and he displayed no overt hate towards his father then he must be far closer to a visionary than a madman.

We can further support the claim that Akhenaten was primarily concerned with his family and his religion by the fact that he left many of Egypt’s vassals to sort out their own issues and refused to acknowledge their pleas for help (Siddall, 2010). He used his power to spread word of his deity which he proclaimed to be ‘the one true god’ (Spence, 2011). In the Amana era, there was a hieroglyph that came about to represent the Aten (Goldwasser, 2010). Unlike much of Atenism that was ‘scratched out of history’, this symbol remained and can be found in the tombs of Pay and Raia, and the tomb of Horemheb (Goldwasser, 2010, p. 164). The introduction of a new symbol into any text is not a hasty process. A new word or idea typically takes generations to be accepted (Mesthrie, 2013) and yet in the Amana period, this new symbol appears within Akhenaten’s rule as an almost pictographic representation of the image of the Aten (Goldwasser, 2010). The chief responsibility of the Pharaoh was to maintain Ma’at (Sharland, 2016), this was clearly not something that Akhenaten took seriously. The Amana period is responsible for such a grand intensity of change that it seems only rational that Akhenaten forfeit the Pharaoh’s role as keeper of harmony in order to bring about his Amana turnover. This shows us that no argument for ‘visionary’ or ‘madman’ can be made without acknowledging that he showed both.

The core of being a madman is that one is wild and uncontrolled. A madman is someone who behaves as if insane or lunatic (Dictionary.com, n.d.). Akhenaten led a change in the art style of an empire (Sharland, 2016). He introduced new vocabulary items (Goldwasser, 2010) and paved the way for monotheism (Spence, 2011), he rejected that which was determined as truth by his predecessors and moved the head of an empire (Akhenaton: The Rebel Pharaoh, 1998). This change that he led was controlled and appears to me to have been planned in advance. I am left concluding that Akhenaten was less of a madman and more of a genius/visionary who truly believed themselves to be the chosen one of the Aten. Hence his translating as “Servant of the Aten” (Spence, 2011). Akhenaten was a leader. A leader who was willing to sacrifice the stability of an empire to bring their truth to that empire. In his early rule, Akhenaten was still more visionary than anything, but after he disbanded all other priesthoods (Akhenaton: The Rebel Pharaoh, 1998) and declared the Aten as the sole God of Egypt (Budge & Tutankhamen, 2005; Spence, 2011), he was undoubtedly more zealot than visionary.

The massive changes that Akhenaten brought about would lead anyone to conclude that he was a madman. But, I think, that because he still gave his father a respectful burial (Mark, 2014; Spence, 2011), and that the declaration of the Aten as the sole god of Egypt comes only in his later years (Budge & Tutankhamen, 2005; Spence, 2011; Sobat, 2014). Akhenaten bears a striking similarity to many other figures in history that we know to be visionaries. Hitler, Jesus, Socrates and Moses are all people who led a life in accordance with their untraditional beliefs. As we know more about their lives than his, it is safe to assume that, for these reasons, it would be safe to assume that Akhenaten was more of a genius religious visionary than a wild and uncontrolled madman.
















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