In the history of monotheism
, before there was Judaism
or even Zoroastrianism
or any other form of it, there was Atenism.
deities, history well records, arose from the first human religions, the original animism
-- a belief in beasts
having a spiritual existence all their own. These notions combined with the idea that men's own deceased ancestors had spirits that lingered on in this world -- some more powerfully than others -- led to the first progression of religion, into the notion that there were even more powerful spirits with ultimate authority over some domain, such as a spirit with absolute power over the flow of rivers. These were the earliest Gods. And, naturally, once men devised the notions of such Gods, they rewrote the older stories passed down from times beyond memory to claim that these Gods had always been so, and to credit them with all manner of creative enterprise.
Some 4000 years ago, in the desert kingdom of Egypt
, mythology records the earliest reports of one such deity, Aten. Initially, Aten was mentioned in the "Story of Sinuhe" (an ancient Egyption story with some curious parallels to some later biblical tales) to be the God of the Sun-disk, a servant or perhaps simply a face of Sun-God Re. But some seven-hundred years later, the Pharaoh crowned as Amenhotep IV would declare Aten to be the one true God, of which all others were shadows, nothing more than aspects or reflections of this one underlying truth.
So assured was Amenhotep IV of Aten's place as the one true God, that the Pharaoh would not only change his name to Akhenaten
, meaning, “beloved of Aten” (a title perhaps unsurprisingly reminiscent of the similarly interpreted “Amadeus
”), but would decree as well that the names of other “false” Gods were to be scratched out, their images destroyed. Akhenatan additionally commissioned an epic poem in worship of Aten -- the "Hymn to the Aten
" -- which deemed Re (formerly recognized as chief of the Gods) as simply another aspect of Aten (declaring to Aten, "As thou art Re, thou reachest to the end of them"), and included the stanza
How manifold it is, what thou hast made!
They are hidden from the face (of man).
O sole god, like whom there is no other!
Thou didst create the world according to thy desire,
Whilst thou wert alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts,
Whatever is on earth, going upon (its) feet,
And what is on high, flying with its wings.
Though this religion was enforced for two decades by decree of the Pharaoh, the whims of man would not allow this newfound cult of Atenism to flourish in Egypt beyond the life of its progenitor. After Akhenaten’s death, those left in power quickly abandoned the belief; they changed the name of Akhenaten’s child heir from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun
(restoring the name of Amun, one of the banished Gods), and they smashed the temples built to Aten during Akhenaten’s reign. The new capital that Akhenaten had begun construction of, Akhetaten
, was abandoned and left to crumble. But in addition to the Egyptian historical, the influence of the cult of Aten may well have been preserved and passed on to other cultures in the region, as evidenced by the word Adonai
-- which even today remains one of the chief names of God employed in Judaism