Akhenaten and his monotheistic religious revolution are (now) historically well-documented. But within a few decades of his death (over three thousand years ago) the process of erasing all memory of his regime was already well underway. That process would eventually succeed in eliminating all knowledge of Akhenaten for thousands of years. Jan Assmann succinctly describes how this “forgetting” took place:
The simplest and commonest technique of forgetting is the destruction of memory in its cultural objectifications such as inscriptions and iconic representations. This is what happened to the monotheistic revolution of Akhenaten, and the destruction was thorough enough to keep this event completely unretrievable until its archaeological rediscovery in the course of the nineteenth century…. The Amarna episode came to be completely forgotten within about eighty years, but the experience was traumatic enough to produce legendary traditions which — because of their unlocatability in the official cultural memory — became free-floating and thus susceptible to being associated with a variety of semantically related experiences.
[Moses the Egyptian p. 216]
Since there is very little (if any at all) historical documentation for either the person Moses, or the dramatic events depicted in the Book of Exodus (and/or the movie The Ten Commandments), some have suggested (indeed this is precisely what Assmann is implying above) that this “traumatic”, “unlocatable” memory of Akhenaten’s failed revolution “freely floated” until it landed on the children of Israel.
It is worth stressing how detailed our knowledge of Akhenaten is. He was born Amenhotep IV, and became Pharoh in 1353 BC. His father, Amenhotep III, had ruled for four decades during one of the most prosperous periods in Eygptian history. Amenhotep IV married the famous Nefertiti, and together they had six children, all daughters.
Starting in the early years of his reign Amenhotep IV unleashed a cultural revolution. He built a new capital city and moved 20,000 people to inhabit it (while it was still under construction); changed his name from Amenhotep, which means “Amen is satisfied”, to Akhenaten, which means “The One Beneficial/Effective for Aten”, which was also the name of his new capital city; reorganized the government bureaucracy and restructured the priesthood to place those most loyal to him in the strongest positions of power; and also instituted changes in art, architecture and even in the Egyptian language! At the ideological core of this cultural revolution was an abrupt theological shift from the many Goddesses and Gods of the traditional Egyptian pantheon to a focus on a single, solar Deity named Aten.
In his Akhenaten and the Religion of Light, Erik Hornung quotes from the findings of the 19th century Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius that Akhenaten commanded:
…. the names of all the deities be hacked away from all public monuments, and even from the accessible private tombs, and that their images be destroyed to the extent possible.
In his conclusion to that book Hornung wrote
In Amarna religion [that is, the monotheism of Akhenaten], for the first time in history, an attempt was made to explain the entire natural and human world on the basis of single principle…. Akhenaten was perhaps the first fundamentalist in history.
Akhenaten had a son (by a wife other than Nefertiti) who was named Tutankhaten, which means “Perfect is the Life of Aten”. This son did not immediately take the throne when his father died in 1336 BC, probably because he was only four or five years old at the time. The boy had been born and raised in the city that bore his father’s name, and as a child never knew any religion other than the now official state religion that consisted of the worship of one, and only one, God, Aten.
Other members of the royal family ruled at least until Tutankhaten was nine or ten years old. Almost immediately a scaling back, at the very least, of Akhenaten’s revolutionary monotheism was underway. Soon after he began to rule (in 1332), Tutankhaten moved the capital back to Thebes, and changed his name to the one we now know him by: Tutankhamun: “Perfect is the Life of Amun”. Soon after Tutankhamun’s death, Horemheb became Pharoh and ruled from 1319-1292. Horemheb set about completely erasing all evidence of both Akhenaten and his son Tutankhamun.
The above summary is taken mostly from Erik Hornung’s book, already mentioned, and the first two chapters of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun: Revolution and Restoration by David P. Silverman, Joseph William Wegner and Jennifer Houser Wegner. Silverman, Wegner and Wegner describe the actions of Pharoh Horemheb in this way:
Within a few years [of taking the throne], Horemheb began to revise the events of the recent past. In his apparent wish to ensure that later generations of Egyptians would not think of or remember the chaotic times under the Amarna pharohs (Akhenaten and Tutankhamun), who had preceded him, he dismanteld Akhenaten’s temples and removed his name and images from statuary and relief. He also razed the newly built capital city and targeted the monuments of Tutankhamun, appropriating them for himself.
Now, as to Moses there is, in fact, no shortage of sources that purport to tell his story: from the Bible and Josephus to Sigmund Freud and Cecile B. Demille. The problem is that none of these stories can be supported with facts.
One possible scenario, as previously alluded to, is that despite the best efforts of Horemheb and others to erase the shameful impiety of Akhenaten’s monotheism from written history, the idea itself continued to have Egyptian adherents. Some of these adherents might have been Asiatic migrants who had settled in Egypt and were later expelled, and who then returned to Asia/Canaan.
Whatever the historical facts might be, the story of Exodus is clear enough. It tells the tale of a Hebrew who was raised as an Egyptian — and not just any Egyptian but the adopted son of the Pharaoh’s daughter. Not only was this Hebrew, named Moses (Egyptian for “child”), brought up as a member of the royal family, he was essentially (if not by blood) the brother of the Pharaoh-to-be, Ramses II.
The story goes that Moses eventually turns against his “brother” and leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, across the Sinai desert, and into Canaan. In this narrative Pharaoh and Egypt come to represent all that is evil: oppression, slavery, cruelty, injustice and, of course, polytheism. On the other hand, Moses and the “children of Israel” represent all that is good: freedom, morality, justice and, of course, the belief in the One True God.
The depths to which the Manichaeistic set piece of “Egypt versus Israel” has penetrated the western psyche is illustrated by the rhetoric of the Black church tradition
going back to the days of slavery and up to this day. One wonders what must have gone through the minds of recently enslaved Africans when they first discovered that this story is central to the religion of their new “masters”! Even the titles of Negro Spirituals reveal the strength and pervasiveness of this “cultural memory”: Didn’t old Pharaoh get los’
, Turn back Pharaoh’s army
, Go down Moses
Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell ole Pharaoh
To let my people go
When Israel was in Egypt land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard the could not stand
Let my people go
“Thus spoke the Lord”, bold Moses said
“If not, I’ll smite your first born dead”
Let my people go
A century after the abolition of slavery, the imagery of Pharaoh versus Moses still resonated strongly with African Americans, as can be seen in the last speech given by Martin Luther King before his assassination, the famous “Mountaintop speech“:
We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying — We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.
Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity….
I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
One final example of the deeply ingrained equation of Egypt and “Pharaoh” with injustice, oppression and all things evil is to be found in a 2007 entry entitled We Were Slaves to Pharaoh (a direct reference to Deuteronomy 6:21) in a blog that describes itself as “A Vegetarian Journal for Quakers and Other People of Faith”:
His [Jesus’] execution at the time of Passover, at the hands of the Roman overlords and their creatures the Temple authorities, (not the Jewish people), was the answer of the Pharaoh of his day to Jesus’ prophetic proclamation of the Kingdom/Commonwealth of God. His resurrection was God’s response, “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” to the violence that enforced the rule of the new Pharaoh. It proclaims God’s will that we be liberated both from human slavelords, and from bondage to the fear of death.
As the above makes clear, there is a strong tendency for the Moses/Egypt good-versus-evil narrative to seamlessly morph into a Jesus/Rome good-versus-evil narrative. One even finds (in fact very often) modern Pagans uncritically adopting the resulting equation of Pagan Rome with all that is oppressive, unjust and evil!
The pervasive influence of the story of Moses and Pharaoh is not in any way diminished by it’s lack of historicity. If anything this highlights the power that the story holds over the western mind. Naturally, attempts have been made to reconcile, somehow, the traditional story of the founding of Israel with historical fact. Moses Maimonides, a 12th century Torah scholar (well, in fact he was much more than that — one of the most brilliant minds of the Middle Ages, and possibly of all time) who was born in Moorish Spain, studied in Morocco, spent most of his adult life in Egypt, and was buried in Palestine, attempted just such a reconciliation in his Guide for the Perplexed (which was written in Arabic like all of his voluminous work).
Maimonides used the people that he referred to as “Sabeans” to represent everything that the revolutionary monotheism of Moses was a revolution against. The precise identity of these Sabeans is not really important, because despite the fact that Maimonides’ goal was to historicize Moses, what he actually produced was yet another myth, or, rather, a rationalistic sounding interpretation of the existing (that is, Biblical) myth. This effort at historicizing is not without siginficance, though, for Maimonides took the crucial step of proposing an interpretation based on (what he believed to be) historical fact. Therefore, whatever deficiencies there are in Maimonides’ results, as history, he nevertheless championed the methodology of objective historiography.
Here are some of the things that Maimonides says concerning the religious/philosophical beliefs of the Sabeans:
All the Sabeans thus believed in the eternity of the Universe, the heavens being in their opinion God. Adam was in their belief a human being born from male and female, like the rest of mankind; he was only distinguished from his fellow-men by being a prophet sent by the moon; he accordingly called men to the worship of the moon, and he wrote several works on agriculture…..In accordance with the Sabean theories images were erected to the stars, golden images to the sun, images of silver to the moon, and they attributed the metals and the climates to the influence of the planets, saying that a certain planet is the god of a certain zone. They built temples, placed in them images, and assumed that the stars sent forth their influence upon these images, which are thereby enabled (to speak) to understand, to comprehend, to inspire human beings, and to tell them what is useful to them. They apply the same to trees which fall to the lot of these stars. When, namely, a certain tree, which is peculiar to a certain star, is dedicated to the name of this star, and certain things are done for the tree and to the tree, the spiritual force of that star which influences that tree, inspires men, and speaks to them when they are asleep. All this is written in their works, to which I will call your attention. It applies to the “prophets of Baal,” and the “prophets of Asherah,” mentioned in Scripture, in whose hearts the Sabean theories had taken root, who forsook God, and called, “Baal, hear us” (1 Kings xviii. 26); because these theories were then general, ignorance had spread, and the madness with which people adhered to this kind of imaginations had increased in the world. When such opinions were adopted among the Israelites, they had observers of clouds, enchanters, witches, charmers, consulters with familiar spirits, wizards, and necromancers.
[Part 3, XXIX]
The idolaters also held cattle in esteem on account of their use in agriculture, and went even so far as to say, that it is not allowed to slay them, because they combine in themselves strength and willingness to do the work of man in tilling the ground. The oxen, notwithstanding their great strength, do this, and submit to man, because it is the will of God that they should be employed in agriculture. When these views became generally known, idolatry was connected with agriculture, because the latter is indispensable for the maintenance of man, and of most animals. The idolatrous priests then preached to the people who met in the temples, and taught them that by certain religious acts, rain would come down, the trees of the field would yield their fruit, and the land would be fertile and inhabited.
[Part 3, XXX]
And here is an example of Maimonides using “normative inversion” directed against the Sabeans to explain Mosaic Law:
When these ideas [of the Sabeans] spread, and were considered as true, God, in His great mercy for us, intended to remove this error from our minds, and to protect our bodies from trouble; and therefore desired us to discontinue the practice of these useless actions. He gave us His Law through Moses, our teacher, who told us in the name of God, that the worship of stars and other corporeal beings would effect that rain would cease, the land be waste, and would not produce anything, and the fruit of the trees would wither; calamities would befall the people, their bodies would be deformed, and life would be shortened. These are the contents of “the words of the covenant which God made” (Deut. xxviii. 6-9). It is frequently expressed in all parts of Scripture, that the worship of the stars would be followed by absence of rain, devastation of the land, bad times, diseases, and shortness of life. But abandonment of that worship, and the return to the service of God, would be the cause of the presence of rain, fertility of the ground, good times, health and length of life. Thus Scripture teaches, in order that man should abandon idolatry, the reverse of that which idolatrous priests preached to the people, for, as has been shown by us, the principal object of the Law is to remove this doctrine, and to destroy its traces.
[Part 3, XXX]
According to Jason Philip Rosenblatt in his Renaissance England’s Chief Rabbi: John Selden,
Maimonides relies on The Nabatean Agriculture, translated by Ibn Wahshiyya’ for a description of ‘the doctrines, opinions, practices, and cult of the Sabians”. It becomes necessary to understand idolatry because it is the mirror image of Hebraic self-identification, what [Jan] Assmann calls “a polemical counter-construction”. This narrative inversion is the utter negation of the mutual religious translatability….
Writing over seven centuries after the death of Maimonides, Sigmund Freud once again took up the task of attempting to historicize Moses. The opening sentence of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism is
To deny a people a man whom it praises as the greatest of it’s sons is not a deed to be undertaken lightheartedly — especially by one belonging to that people.
But Freud’s attempt ends up being yet another contribution to the cultural memory of Moses, rather than to the history, properly speaking, of Moses. And that is because there was still no historical documentation for Moses or the story of Exodus.
But Freud did have the advantage of being in possession of the relatively newly discovered facts about the Amarna period of Egyptian history, and Akhenaten’s monotheistic revolution. I’ll conclude this post with an excerpt from Jan Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian:
Freud knew what all the others [Maimonides, etc.] did not know: that there really was a monotheistic and iconoclastic counter-religion in ancient Egypt. He was able to fill the gap that so many had tried to fill with fanciful reconstructions. If the history of the this discourse, from the early oral beginnings after the breakdown of the Amarna revolution until modernity, can be reconstructed as a story of remembering and forgetting, Signumd Freud is the one who restored the suppressed evidence, who was able to retrieve lost memories and to finally complete and rectify the picture of Egypt. With his book the Moses/Egypt discourse seemed to come to a conclusion. If we look at Moses and Monotheism not from the viewpoint of Freud’s oeuvre but from that of the Moses/Egypt discourse, we realize that this book had to be written. The rediscovery of Akhenaten simply could not pass unnoticed by those who looked for Egyptian origins. The case of Moses had to be reopened.
The discovery of Akhenaten and his religious revolution was a sensation in itself. But it must have gained even more importance in the eyes of an Aufklarer thinking along the lines of the Moses/Egypt discourse. Akhenaten must have appeared to him as the ultimate solution to the riddle. Freud’s Moses oscillates strangely between being a figure of memory and being a figure of history. This accounts for many of the obstacles Freud encountered in writing his book. He began writing a historical novel and ended up by using almost juridical forms of authentification to present his historical evidence. As a figure of history, Freud’s Moses lacks “proofs”. The testimony of Scripture is dismissed as merely the voice of memory, which counts for nothing in the “tribunalistic situation” of history. Instead, Freud is looking for historical traces and clues, and is all too aware of their scarcity.
See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)
Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones