Monotheeism - The New Dogma, The New Art

Ancient Egypt History

Ikhnaton Songs to Aton

Songs to Aton

Ikhnaton Songs to Aton not only one of the great poems of history, it is the first outstanding expression of monotheism seven hundred years before Isaiah.

Perhaps, as Breasted suggests, this conception of one sole god was a reflex of the unification of the Mediterranean world under Egypt by Thutmose III.

Ikhnaton conceives his god as belonging to all nations equally, and even names other countries before his own as in Aton's care; this was an astounding advance upon the old tribal deities.

Note "A Hyme to the Sun" the vitalistic conception: Aton is to be found not in battles and victories but in flowers and trees, in all forms of life and growth;

Aton is the joy that causes the young sheep to "dance upon their legs," and the birds to "flutter in their marshes."

Nor is the god a person limited to human form; the real divinity is the creative and nourishing heat of the sun; the flaming glory of the rising or setting orb is but an emblem of that ultimate power.

Nevertheless, because of its omnipresent, fertilizing beneficence, the sun becomes to Ikhnaton also the "Lord of love," the tender nurse that "creates the man-child in woman," and "fills the Two Lands of Egypt with love."

The New Dogma

So at last Aton grows by symbolism into a solicitous father, compassionate and tender; not, like Yahveh, a Lord of Hosts, but a god of gentleness and peace.

It is one of the tragedies of history that Ikhnaton, having achieved his elevating vision of universal unity, was not satisfied to let the noble quality of his new religion slowly win the hearts of men.

He was unable to think of his truth in relative terms; the thought came to him that other forms of belief and worship were indecent and intolerable.

Suddenly he gave orders that the names of all gods but Aton should be erased and chiseled from every public inscription in Egypt; he mutilated his father's name from a hundred monuments to cut from it the word Amon; he declared all creeds but his own illegal, and commanded that all the old temples should be closed.

He abandoned Thebes as unclean, and built for himself a beautiful new capital at Akhetaton "City of the Horizon of Aton."

The New Art

Rapidly Thebes decayed as the offices and emoluments of government were taken from it, and Akhetaton became a rich metropolis, busy with fresh building and a Renaissance of arts liberated from the priestly bondage of tradition.

The joyous spirit expressed in the new religion passed over into its art.

At Tell-el-Amarna, a modern village on the site of Akhetaton,

Sir William Flinders Petrie unearthed a beautiful pavement, adorned with birds, fishes and other animals painted with the most delicate grace.

Ikhnaton forbade the artists to make images of Aton, on the lofty ground that the true god has no form; for the rest he left art free, merely asking his favorite artists, Bek, Auta and Nutmose, to describe things as they saw them, and to forget the conventions of the priests.

They took him at his word, and represented him as a youth of gentle, almost timid, face, and strangely dolichocephalic head.

Taking their lead from his vitalistic conception of deity, they painted every form of plant and animal life with loving detail, and with a perfection hardly surpassed in any other place or time.

For a while art, which in every generation knows the pangs of hunger and obscurity, flourished in abundance and happiness.

Had Ikhnaton been a mature mind he would have realized that the change which he had proposed from a superstitious polytheism deeply rooted in the needs and habits of the people to a naturalistic monotheism that subjected imagination to intelligence, was too profound to be effected in a little time; he would have made haste slowly, and softened the transition with intermediate steps.

But he was a poet rather than a philosopher; like Shelley announcing the demise of Yahveh to the bishops of Oxford, he grasped for the Absolute, and brought the whole structure of Egypt down upon his head.

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