Was Akhenaten’s Atenism monotheistic or polytheistic?

In the 14th Century B.C. Pharaoh Akhenaten, (formerly Amenhotep iv) who is referred to as “The Heretic” ruled Egypt during the 18th Dynasty -the Armana Period.

He has been viewed as the first monotheist – the belief in the existence of only one god –  by many scholars and has been credited as the inspiration for the beliefs of Moses. He disbanded the priesthoods of Amun and the other major AE Gods, having their images removed from temples as much as possible and elevating the Aten, the sun disc to represent  his religion.


Images of the gods were replaced by images from nature, and the pharaoh was shown as serene, smiling with his family rather than depictions of great war scenes with the pharaoh smiting enemies and foes.

What we do know, is that Akhenaten’s Atenism did not necessarily revolve around “One god”. The Aten was the symbol of his worship, but the Aten symbol always depicted both the Sun disc and the rays that emanated from it – each ray ending with a hand holding an ankh symbol, which represents the life force. The hands are usually holding the ankhs near the nose or mouth of Akhenaten and, if she is included in the depicted scene, to Nefertiti.


These rays are very suggestive of the meaning of the Shekinah as a feminine aspect of divinity, also referred to as the Divine Presence, that occurs in other belief systems. The Shekinah, among other things, represents the majestic presence or manifestation of god which has descended to “dwell” among men, the presence of god on earth or a symbol or manifestation of the god’s presence. 

This is what the Jewish Encyclopedia tells us about the Shekinah.

The Shekinah as Light

“According to this view, the Shekinah appeared as physical light; so that Targ. to Num. vi. 2 says, “Yhwh shall cause His Shekinah to shine for thee.” A Gentile asked the patriarch Gamaliel (c. 100): “Thou sayest that wherever ten are gathered together the Shekinah appears; how many are there?” Gamaliel answered: “As the sun, which is but one of the countless servants of God, giveth light to all the world, so in a much greater degree doth the Shekinah” (Sanh. 39a). The emperor (Hadrian) said to Rabbi Joshua b. Hananiah, “I desire greatly to see thy God.” Joshua requested him to stand facing the brilliant summer sun, and said, “Gaze upon it.” The emperor said, “I can not.” “Then,” said Joshua, “if thou art not able to look upon a servant of God, how much less mayest thou gaze upon the Shekinah?”(Ḥul. 60a).

The Nature of Shekinah

“Maimonides regarded the Shekinah, like the Memra, the Yeḳara, and the Logos, as a distinct entity, and as a light created to be an intermediary between God and the world; while Naḥmanides (Maybaum, l.c.), on the other hand, considered it the essence of God as manifested in a distinct form. So in more modern times Gfrörer saw in “Shekinah,” “Memra,” and “Yeḳara” independent entities which, in that they were mediators, were the origin of the Logos idea; while Maybaum, who was followed by Hamburger, regarded the Shekinah merely as an expression for the various relations of God to the world, and as intended to represent: (1) the dwelling of God in the midst of Israel; (2) His omnipresence; (3) His personal presence, etc. (Maybaum, l.c. pp. 51-54).

That the Shekinah was not an intermediary is shown by the Targum to Ex. xxxiii. 15, xxxiv. 9 (Maybaum, l.c. pp. 5, 34), where the term “Shekinah” is used instead of “God.” The word often occurs, however, in connections where it can not be identical with “God,” e.g., in passages which declare that “the Shekinah rests,” or, more explicitly, that “God allows His Shekinah to rest,” on such a one. In short: in the great majority of cases “Shekinah” designates “God”; but the frequent use of the word has caused other ideas to be associated with it, which can best be understood from citations. In this connection the statements of the Talmud and Midrash are more characteristic than those of the Targumim, because they were spontaneous and were not made with reference to the text of the Bible. The Shekinah is frequently mentioned, even in the very oldest portions; and it is wholly unjustifiable to differentiate the Talmudic conception thereof from the Targumic, as has been attempted by Weber, although absolute consistency is observed neither in Targum, nor in Talmud and Midrash, since different persons have expressed their views therein.

Since the Shekinah is light, those passages of the Apocrypha and New Testament which mention radiance, and in which the Greek text reads δόξα, refer to the Shekinah, there being no other Greek equivalent for the word. Thus, according to Luke ii. 9, “the glory of the Lord [δόζα Ḳυρίου] shone round about them” (comp. II Peter i. 17; Eph. i. 6; II Cor. iv. 6); and it is supposed that in John i. 14 and Rev. xxi. 3 the words σκηνοῦν and σκηνή were expressly selected as implying the Shekinah.” Jewish Encyclopedia – Shekinah


Similarly, we have the Gnostic Barbelo, the first emanation of the Monad, Mother of the Aeons, the Perfect Glory, the image of the invisible spirit. In the Apocryphon of John, we have the passage:

“And his thought performed a deed and she came forth, namely she who had appeared before him in the shine of his light. This is the first power which was before all of them (and) which came forth from his mind, She is the forethought of the All – her light shines like his light – the perfect power which is the image of the invisible, virginal Spirit who is perfect. The first power, the glory of Barbelo, the perfect glory in the aeons, the glory of the revelation, she glorified the virginal Spirit and it was she who praised him, because thanks to him she had come forth. This is the first thought, his image; she became the womb of everything, for it is she who is prior to them all, the Mother-Father, the first man, the holy Spirit, the thrice-male, the thrice-powerful, the thrice-named androgynous one, and the eternal aeon among the invisible ones, and the first to come forth.” The Apocryphon of John – Nag Hammadi Library


In the Gnostic Gospel of the Egyptians, the Barbelo is described as virginal, yet “the uninterpretable power, the ineffable Mother. She originated from herself […]; she came forth; she agreed with the Father of the silent silence.


Was the feminine aspect in Atenism important? I believe it was, and Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt has also introduced this theory into understanding the Atenist religion. It has also been suggested that the feminine attributes that Akhenaten was depicted with and which became increasingly prominent – the pendulous breasts, rounded belly, broad hips and heavy thighs – represented the feminine side of his Divinity and fertile side of his kingship.

Who were the main opponents to the religion of the Aten and why? During the reign of the pacifist Akhenaten, Egypt’s power in the region was weakened. Because Akhenaten had denied the existence and prohibited the worship of any other gods, the priesthoods were no longer needed, no longer funded and became impotent. They wanted the priesthood to be as powerful as it had been previously, with many temples dedicated to the multiple gods these priests had served.

I’m not making the usual Moses was Akhenaten claim, but I am suggesting that the followers of the religion of the Aten, with its male and female promincence (reflected in the reign of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and subsequently arguably by Akhenaten and his male co-regent with the feminine epithet) was the same religion..that of Amenhotep’s mother…that of the Hebrews.
“Even Redford assumes the possibility that the (monotheism) of Israel derives its origin from Amarnian religion ”

I’m actually suggesting that none were “monotheistic”, in view of the masculine/feminine aspect and others have argued for this, or philosophised over it, since antiquity.

2 thoughts on “Was Akhenaten’s Atenism monotheistic or polytheistic?

  1. I have the impression that the Egyptian religions had become corrupted by materialism by the time Pharaoh Akhenaten had swept them away for a period of time during his reign.


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