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Akhenaten, Pharaoh of Egypt: A eunuch?

Amenhotep, Divine Ruler of Thebes (also known as Amenophis IV), ascended the throne in 1358 BCE and ruled for 17 years. This was the 18th dynasty in Egypt's New Kingdom period.

"I am not really interested in Akhenaten himself," wrote Dominic Montserrat, "but in why other people are interested in him and find his story relevant and inspirational when he has been dead for three and a half thousand years." (Montserrat, p. 2) "He has become a simulacrum, an endlessly repeated copy with no original. His immortality lies precisely in what is not there." (Montserrat, p. 184)

"To the early scholars in the field Akhenaten was a disguised female or a eunuch form the south (at a time when such were still common)...to the perspicacious classicist Toynbee his sun-cult was a prototype of the Roman imperial Sol Invictus of the 3rd century..." (Redford, p. 4)

Contrasting with the violence of his predecessors, Akhenaten's motto was Ankh em maet, Live in truth (or harmony). During his rule, maet began to be spelled phonetically, rather than with the hieroglyphic of a squatting goddess.

He changed his name to Akhenaten five years into his reign. As Redford explained, during a planned move to the Akhetaten site, Akhenaten decided to break with the worship of Amun as king of the gods. That god's name was made anathema. Akhenaten's public inscriptions referencing his name were blotted out, objects weredefaced, and people named after Amun (including the king himself) were required to change their names. Hence Amenophis (meaning Amun is satisfied) became Akh-en-aten (meaning something like giving power or aid to the sun).

The typical king's title, "the good god," was changed to "the good ruler." He rejected idolatry and said God was formless and transcendental. His god's name was Re-Herakhte and he was manifested in the sunlight that came from Aten, the sun. The sunlight brought the ankh of life to the nostrils of the royalty. The sun was no longer a personal deity to him. Freud argued that monotheism originated with Akhenaten. (See Freud's essay "Moses and Monotheism," which in turn inspired Kahlo's painting "Moses".) Note, however, that just because he represented only one god doesn't indicate what he may have personally believed.

He built a capital city at Tell el-Amarna, but it was quickly abandoned after his death.

His predecessor Amenophis III had also been known by the same name, minus the "Divine" (Amenhotep, Ruler of Thebes). Amenophis III buried the Apis bull which incarnated Ptah. Akhenaten, for his part, promised to bury the Mnevis bull, sacred to the solar worship at Heliopolis, in the eastern hills. (Aldred, p. 43)

In the reliefs at the rock tombs at Amarna, Aldred writes, "Akhenaten is represented with the same elongated neck, broad hips, swelling breasts and plump thighs as Nefertiti. Since he occasionally wears a long clinging robe similar to a woman's gown, figures of the king have often been confused with those of the queen..." Eugene Lefebure, a French scholar near the turn of the twentieth century, believed that Akhenaten, like Hatshepshut, was a woman dressed as a man. Others, after Elliot Smith's hypothesis in 1907, believed he had a pituitary problem known as Fröhlich's Syndrome leading to hypogonadism, a particular fat distribution, and a failure to develop sexually. Aldred points out that Akhenaten had multiple wives, a harem, six daughters with his chief queen Nefertiti, and sexual relations with those daughters, as was customary. The appearance of him in these reliefs may therefore be more of an innovation in artistic style than a scientific representation of him. Aldred calls it "not the least of the enigmas which his reign has bequeathed us."

Modern interpretations are tricky to impose. "The gay versions are misogynistic in that they write the prominent women of Akhenaten's family out of the plot; the others recall Orientalist porn of the nineteenth century, in which pansexual Eastern potentates had sex with everybody imaginable." (Montserrat, p. 10) Glass's Akhenaten opera — in which the character is stripped to reveal sexually ambiguous body — was first performed in 1985. "In the London and New York productions, the singer who played Akhenaten, Christopher Robson, wore an elaborate bodysuit with certain attachments that took three hours to get into." (Montserrat, p. 181)

"There is now a broad consensus among Egyptologists that the exaggerated forms of Akhenaten's physical portrayal...are not to be read literally....These [contradictory] attributes render the king literally suprahuman, a divine body which goes beyond human experience." (Montserrat, p. 48)

Sources

Cyril Aldred. Akhenaten: King of Egypt. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1988.

Donald B. Redford. Akhenaten: The Heretic King. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Dominic Montserrat. Ahkenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt. London/New York: Routledge, 2000.

Further reading

Naguib Mahfouz, Dweller in Truth [al 'A'ish fi al-haqiqa], mentioned by Montserrat.

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