In ancient Egypt during the Middle Kingdom, the word Aten, also spelled Aton, was originally used to describe the orb or radiant disk of the sun. By the mid-New Kingdom times, a solar god named Aten was well known and established among the other Egyptian deities, although it was not until the 18th dynasty of Egypt that the worship of the Aten emerged. During the reign of King Amenhotep III, the worship of the Aten was encouraged. Throughout the history of ancient Egypt, from c. 1550 BC, when the Egyptians finally drove out the Hyksos from their land, the god Amon-Ra had been given credit for this victory and was elevated to the status of chief of all Egyptians' traditional gods and from whom the early Pharaohs claimed descent.
This status was held by Amon-Ra until the ascendancy of Amenhotep Ill's son, Amenhotep IV (1352-1336 BC), to the Egyptian throne. During the fifth year of his reign, Amenhotep IV changed his name from Amenhotep, which meant “Amon is satisfied,” to Akhenaten, which meant “Glory of the Aten.” At this same time, the minor god Aten was elevated to the rank of the state god of Egypt, replacing Amon-Ra.
Instituting the worship of the Aten was the apex of religious reformation ushered in by King Akhenaten. Although Egyptians had always worshipped a chief god, they had also worshipped numerous other gods and goddesses. Akhenaten imposed the worship of the Aten on Egyptian subjects as the sole god to be worshipped. He enforced a new form of strict monotheism, which denied any rivals to the god Aten. Not only did Akhenaten forbid the worship of the former state god Amon-Ra, he closed the temples dedicated to Amon-Ra, persecuted and dispossessed the priesthood of Amon-Ra, and removed all inscriptions of other gods from public temples, monuments, and other building structures. Akhenaten proclaimed himself the priest of Aten and the god's only son. He also had new open-roofed temples built to reflect the essence of the Aten's radiance and power.
The Egyptian gods were traditionally represented by an animal head atop a human body. Usually, the animal chosen to represent a god reflected the character of the god. The earliest representation of the god Aten was in the form of a falcon-headed figure wearing the disk of the sun on its head. As part of Akhenaten's religious reform, the Aten was no longer portrayed as half animal and half human, but as a solar orb, a sun globe with long rays, each ray depicted as long stick-like arms ending in tiny human hands. The hands were sometimes shown holding the Egyptian hieroglyphic sign for life, the “ankh,” which was a cross shaped like a T with a loop at the top, or the hands were shown open, extending his power and grace to the royal family and to all humanity.
The Aten sometimes wore, even as the sun globe, the royal uaeus, which was the sacred asp that was worn on the headdress of divinities and royal personages of ancient Egypt. This was the only manner in which the Aten was allowed to be depicted during the reign of Akhenaten. Because the Aten represented the sun shining at its brightest, no idols were fashioned in the image of the Aten. Akhenaten declared that the Aten's form could not be captured because he was the essence of the sun's creative power and, therefore, his form could not be imagined.
Akhenaten also built a new capital city, named Akhetaton, which means “Horizon of Aten,” for the worship of the god Aten. The former capital city, Waset, had been the residence of the previous god, Amon-Ra. The King did not want to initiate the worship of Aten in a city where other gods had been worshipped; therefore, he moved his capital to a location midway between the cities of Waset and Memphis, where Aten could be worshipped on virgin soil. Today this capital city is known as Tell el-Amarna. The term Amarna is used to describe Akhenaten's extreme ideas in religion and art.
The worship of the Aten was carried out in the city of Akhetaten, where the Pharaoh had two temples built in honor of the god. Aten was worshipped as the creative energy of all life. Worship consisted of offerings of cakes, fruits, flowers, and the reciting of hymns in honor of the Aten. However, respect for Akhenaten's god seemed to have been only among the ruling elite. There is no archeological evidence that the ordinary Egyptian personally worshipped the Aten. The ordinary Egyptian populace often had little to do with the religious customs of Egypt except on religious high days and holidays, when the statue of the gods would be carried in procession outside of the temple walls. They were only affected by the closing of the temples and the termination of the priesthood of Amon-Ra. Artifacts were found even in the capital city of Akhetaten, which revealed that people still worshipped the older traditional gods of Egypt.
The most important document discovered that provides some detailed insights into this new religion is the “Hymn to the Aten,” which was said to have been written by Pharaoh Akhenaten. This hymn is among the most famous writings of ancient Egypt. It resembles earlier hymns to the sun god and is similar in its imagery to Psalm 104 in the Bible. The hymn extols the Aten as the one and only true god, and it also confirms the idea of the Aten as a universal god of all peoples, not just of the Egyptians.
King Akhenaten's break with the traditional customs of Egypt did not become permanent. The worship of the Aten as the chief god in Egypt lasted only as long as King Akhenaten was alive. Although Akhenaten devoted his life and his reign to the worship of the Aten, after his death, the new religion was rejected, the old gods reestablished, and the city of Akhetaten was abandoned. Akhenaten's concept of solar worship did not survive, but the influence on art and thinking of this period of Egypt's history continues to this day to fascinate historians.
When a new King took the throne of Egypt, the Aten's status of state god came to an end, the capital city was moved back to Waset, and sacrifices were once again made to the god Amon-Ra.