Many herald Aten-worship as a breakthrough in human spirituality and cultural evolution: the world’s first monotheistic religion. Aten was originally just an aspect of the sun-god (the “Globe” or “Disc” of the midday sun), ranking low in the Theban pantheon until Amenhotep III privately adopted it as a personal deity. Then Akhenaten publicly exalted Aten above other gods, subsuming all their attributes into this newly omnipotent being. Invocations to Maat (representing truth) were retained, but otherwise the whole cast of underworld and celestial deities was jettisoned. Morbid Osirian rites were also replaced by paeans to life in the joyous warmth of Aten’s rays (which are usually shown ending in a hand clasping an ankh), as in the famous Hymn to Aten.
Similarities between the Hymn and The Song of Solomon (supposedly written five hundred years later) have encouraged speculation about the influence of Atenism on early Jewish monotheism. Sigmund Freud argued that Moses was an Egyptian nobleman and the biblical Exodus a “pious fiction”, while Ahmed Osman advances the theory that Akhenaten’s deity derived from tales of the Jewish God related to him by his maternal grandfather Yuya, the Joseph of the Old Testament.
Equally intriguing is the artwork of the Amarna period and the questions it raises about Akhenaten. Amarna art focused on nature and human life rather than the netherworld and resurrection. Royal portraiture, previously impersonally formalized, was suffused by naturalism (a process which began late in the reign of Amenhotep III). While marshes and wildlife remained a popular subject, these scenes no longer implicitly associated birds and fish with the forces of chaos. The roofless Aten temples made new demands on sculptors and painters, who mixed sunk- and bas-relief carving to highlight features with shifting shadows and illumination.
Most striking is the rendering of human figures, especially Akhenaten’s, whose attenuated cranium, curvaceous spine and belly, and matronly pelvis and buttocks prompted speculation that the pharaoh may have suffered from Marfan’s syndrome – a rare genetic disorder that leads to feelings of alienation and a slight oddness in physical appearance – or was possibly a hermaphrodite: theories only disproved by DNA testing of royal mummies in 2009. Some argue that the Amarna style reflected Akhenaten’s physiognomy, others that such distortions were simply a device that could be eschewed, as in the exquisite bust of Nefertiti. Advocates of the “Akhenaten was sick” theory point out that this was the only time when vomiting was ever represented in Egyptian art; however, Amarna art also uniquely depicted royalty eating, yet nobody asserts that other pharaohs never ate.