Ancient History

Was Egyptian Atonism the first monotheistic religion?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. Monotheism is perhaps best summed up by the first half of the Muslim profession of faith: "There is no god but God." Simply put, monotheism is the belief that there is one and only one Supreme Being in the universe; typically, such a belief entails the worship of this God. Many people regard the Abrahamic tradition, which gave rise to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as the first notable instance of monotheism in human history. It is true that Judaism is probably the oldest monotheistic religion that still has a significant number of followers today. However, history tells us of a monotheistic revolution in Egypt that probably predates the authorship of Jewish holy scriptures and definitely predates the unified Kingdom of Israel (circa 1000 B.C.), which allowed Judaism to cultivate its teachings and dogma.

    This Egyptian monotheistic revolution arrived under the 18th-dyansty pharaoh named Akhnaton, also known as Amenhotep IV, and his wife, Nefertiti, also known as Nefreteti or Nofretete. Akhnaton and Nefertiti ruled during the 14th century B.C. Nefertiti is well-known to modern scholars because an intriguing, beautiful and well-preserved limestone bust of her was uncovered at Tell el Amarna in 1913. The bust is now part of the Berlin Museum's collection. Yet despite her famous visage, little is known about Nefertiti. One of the most salient facts about her existence is that Nefertiti and her husband promoted a monotheistic belief in an Egyptian god known as Aton.

    Aton, or Aten, was a sun god of the Egyptian pantheon, usually depicted in artistic renderings as a solar disc reaching out toward the earth and its inhabitants with many-fingered rays of light. Though the Egyptian religion had traditionally been polytheistic, during his reign, Akhnaton promoted Aton to the lofty position of humankind's only god. According to the pharaoh, Aton was not only the most exalted god among many -- he was the only god that was to be worshipped. Thus, Atonism was one of the first truly monotheistic religions. Akhnaton attempted to impose Atonism on his subjects by using state power to forbid all other forms of worship. However, after Akhnaton's death, Atonism was gradually abandoned by the Egyptian people and mostly forgotten.

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