Friday, February 19, 2010

Akhenaten, monotheism and realism


Tutankhamun's daddy, Akhenaten, is known as the heretic Pharaoh. The son of one of Egypt's great rulers, Amenhotep III (or Amenophis III), Akhenaten presided over a downswing in the empire's fortunes. How much he contributed to the decline is a matter of debate.
He's known mainly for raising Aten, the sun god, to the status of chief deity. This was resisted by powerful priests in charge of temples of other gods, which led Akhenaten to abandon the old capital and shift to a new city, named Akhetaten, and now called El Amarna.
The house altar pictured above, shows Akhenaten with his chief queen Nefertiti and three of their six daughters. It's almost the only example in Egyptian art of a Pharaoh depicted in such an informal context. Friezes and paintings from this period are very different in spirit from what came before and after. They show ordinary people going about ordinary things. Strangest of all, they show a Pharaoh who is no remote ideal. Akhenaten has an elongated skull, a saggy abdomen and, in a number of statues, man breasts.


Akhenaten gained a massive reputation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was mainly because his exclusive worship of Aten was interpreted as monotheistic. Rather than an eccentric, he was seen as a rebel against the power of the priesthood. A man who gave his queen equal status, he could be see as almost a democrat. For Europeans who saw monotheism as the most sophisticated form of worship, and democracy as the most just form of politics, Akhenaten was the only Egyptian ruler who approached these ideals.
H.R.Hall called him the first example of a scientific mind, James Breasted termed him the first individual in all of history, and Sigmund Freud, in his book Moses and Monotheism, suggested Moses was a priest in Akhenaten's time, who was banished from Egypt after the Pharaoh's death, and founded Judaism on the basis of Akhenaten's monotheistic ideal.
If a chap was a monotheist, and a scientific mind, and a democrat, and a rebel, what artistic ideal would he adhere to? To a 19th century European, the answer was obvious: such a ruler would favour Realism, the most rational and democratic of styles. There was evidence enough of Akhenaten's realistic bent of mind in those casual royal images and the unflattering way he was portrayed.
Following this train of thought, experts took the friezes and statues of this period as accurate representations, and built theories based on them. If Akhenaten looked weird in paintings, it was because he looked exactly like that in real life. Why would he look like that? Froelich's syndrome was the first diagnosis. Problem was, Froelich's syndrome made people sterile, and Akhenaten, as seen in that image with Nefertiti, had quite a few children (six daughters with Nefertiti, and two sons with his other queen, his sister Kiya. One of the sons was named Tutankhaten, changed to Tutankhamun after worship of the god Amun returned to the mainstream).
Two years ago, a Yale university physician, Irwin Braverman, suggested Akhenaten's suffered from Marfan's syndrome, which is associated with long, curved fingers, a cleft palate, and an elongated skull. The latest tests have confirmed the cleft palate, and the longish skull, but have eliminated the possibility that Marfan's syndrome was to blame.
What's interesting to me is the idea that the art of Akhenaten's time was realistic. Didn't people notice he wasn't the only person who was shown with a saggy belly and long face? Not just his wives, but his kids had those features as well. Scholars explained this away by saying that, since Pharaohs married sisters, the same defect probably ran in the family. The problem with this is that the most famous sculpture to survive from ancient Egypt, a bust of queen Nefertiti, has her looking more like a supermodel than a Marfan's syndrome victim. It was among the unfinished works found in the studio of the royal sculptor Tuthmose, which explains the unpainted left eye.


This sculpture is on display in Berlin, as is the frieze at the top of this page, which shows Nefertiti in a rather different light. Which of the two is more realistic?
Once we get over the realism hurdle, one can see the art of Akhenaten's reign for what it is: clearly the inferior of work created in the time of many other Pharaohs, except in the last years when Tuthmose produced some marvels. Just because Akhenaten looks mis-shapen doesn't mean we should admire his sculptures more than we admire those of his father Amenhotep III.
Akhenaten's democratic attitude also crumbles on close inspection. He forced citizens to pray to Aten, abandoning the worship of their traditional gods. How liberal is that?
As for his monotheism, it wasn't exactly what scholars made it out to be. He never claimed Aten was the only God, merely that no other god should be worshipped. Akhenaten was a bit like a staunch Shaivite, who acknowledges the existence of divinities other than Shiva, but insists on Shiva's superiority, and will pray only to Shiva.
So he wasn't a realist, he wasn't a democrat, he wasn't a proper monotheist, he certainly wasn't a patron of Moses, that is a complete red herring dreamt up by Freud. He was an idiosyncratic king, probably not a very efficient ruler, who makes for an interesting diversion from the sometimes boring pomp and grandeur of the Pharaohs. Prejudices about the best form of worship and the best style of art raised him far above his station, and led to some wild theories which presumed everything in sculptures and paintings dating from his reign was an accurate representation. It wasn't. Now CT scans and DNA tests are confirming the fact that those portraits are stylised just like everything else in Egyptian art.

10 comments:

DS said...

oh, I wish Akhenaten was marfanoid.In med college was teased I was, cos of long arms. I could've claimed a pharoahonic heritage.

Realism? Ha. Can't come across more stylised images. And tut,tut,Freud.

Girish Shahane said...

That's just the med school geek way of flirting, I guess.

seana said...

Freud has a lot to answer for.

It's kind of discouraging to think how much of our sense of reality relies on our own cultural moment's interpretation of things.

Nice post. I'm curious about why this odd style came to be in the arts of that time, though.

Girish Shahane said...

Thanks, Seana. Egyptian artists must've been confused by Akhenaten's diktats, and tried to evolve a new style as best they could, but it looks very crude compared to the one polished over centuries. Before they could settle in the new style, the dispensation changed again.

seana said...

I think it was in Thomas Mann that I came across the whole Aten=Sun God idea. I can't remember how it all played into the whole Joseph and His Brothers novels, though.

The picture you show does seem very modern somehow. You could see Akhenaten and the family in some sort of present day cartoon without a huge strain on the imagination.

Girish Shahane said...

Yes, it's definitely a relief (no pun intended) in the midst of zillions of statues of remote Pharaohs.

Aakar said...

BBC's In Our Time podcast on Akhenaten discusses the family portrait and other things.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00mwsly

Girish Shahane said...

Thanks, Aakar, wish they had a transcript. I'll hear it later to check if they claim the portrait is realistic.

VV said...

Coincidentally, I was at Tell El Amarna a few days back looking at the ruins and tomb paintings. Our guide's explanation for the hip-py Akhenaton shape was that akenaton wanted to portray himself as having male and female characteristics (like an egyptian ardhanareshwari) so that he is the direct representation of the one Aten (who is neither male or female). The guide claimed that he was friends with the archaeologist Barry Kemp (who had a little house there) who had mentioned this to him.

Amarna is also in an extremely hot and harsh valley (as opposed to the relatively more green Thebes/Luxor). I did feel bad for all those who were forced to move to the treeless Amarna from Thebes as I was dying in the arid heat but maybe the Nile was closer to Amarna then. It is quite interesting that as soon as he died, everybody moved back.

Ironically, Akenaton himself went on a rampage destroying many beautiful monuments in Karnak and other places (just as his own monuments would be destroyed later).

Girish Shahane said...

Hey, VV, welcome back, hope you had a great trip.
It's quite striking while going down the Nile what a difference there is between the green east side and the barren west; easy to see why the Egyptians connected these with the rising and setting of the sun and with birth and death, and therefore lived and worshipped on the east and were buried on the west.
Akhenaten reversed this tradition and forced people to live, as you say, in a parched, blazing city.
Plus, also, he was as intolerant as those who followed him. Little that is rational or democratic about him really.