The Emergence of Monotheism in Egypt

Although the great king Amenhotep III (1391-1353 BCE) supported these priestly perquisites, the Amon priesthood somehow lost its political power over the king, which set the stage for a "reformation" of sorts. As a result, the pharoah's son, Amenhotep IV (later known as Akhena-ton), fomented the most complete break in the history of Egyptian mythology. This break included the establishment of a new deity, Aton, and a new capital city, Akhenaton.18 While he did not displace Re, the sun god, Aton became the god of the sunrise and the sunset. As the one true god, he took on several roles that had been assumed by other deities, such as caretaker of the dead, a role formerly ascribed to Osiris. More over, in a shift not seen again until the advent of Judaism or Christianity, Aton presented himself as a loving god available to all without threat or force, a purveyor of earthly beauty, joy, and happiness, as well as a heaven in the hereafter. This new Egyptian monotheism had one agent and priest, Akhenaton.

The resulting disavowal of the Amon priesthood and of the other temples at Thebes had important economic consequences. As payments from the pharaoh were cut off, temples were abandoned, priests were reduced to beggary, and sacrileges committed against priests and holy places occurred with increasingly frequency. The priests of Amon scattered and their religious precepts were discredited. And priests were not the only interests groups that were adversely affected. The dramatic explanation of historian James Henry Breasted provides important insights into a whole chain of economic interests that were damaged by the establishment of Aton: "Groups of muttering priests, nursing implacable hatred, must have mingled their curses with the execration of whole communities of discontented tradesmen—bakers who no longer drew a livelihood from the sale of ceremonial cakes at the temple feasts; craftsmen who no longer sold amulets of the old gods at the temple gateway; hack sculptors whose statues of Osiris lay under piles of dust in many a tumbled-down studio; cemetery stone-cutters who found their tawdry tombstones with scenes from the Book of the Dead banished from the necropolis; scribes whose rolls of the same book, filled with the names of the old gods, or even if they bore the word god in the plural, were anathema.''19 As the sole mediator between the people and the distant and abstract god Aton, Akhenaton collected huge rents from the estimated thirty thousand to fifty thousand citizens of Akhetaten and all other parts of Egypt where Akhenaton imposed monotheism to lesser levels of success. Interest groups undoubtedly developed around Aton, but most accounts suggest that the support came primarily from the elite classes, especially those who depended on the king for support.

Just how Akhenaton was able to accomplish this substitution is an issue of some debate. The "gods shift'' probably took place slowly at first. Since the king controlled the army, armed insurrection by the Amon priesthood was not possible. One analyst argues, "Most priests of Amun were royal appointments: even the wealth invested in the

Amun temples and nominally controlled by the priests may have remained at the royal disposal.''20 What is clear is that the move of perhaps no more than a total of eighteen to twenty years created economic suffering for the priesthoods of all gods other than Aton. Just as interest groups for and against privatizing social security in the United States battle for political supremacy, supporters and enemies of Aton and Akhe-naten engaged in strategies to control the political-theocratic process.

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