Aten “God of the Sun-Disk” was the focus of Atenism, the religious system formally established in ancient Egypt by the late Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten. Exact dating for the 18th dynasty is contested, though a general date range places the dynasty in the years 1550 to 1292 B.C.E. The worship of Aten and the coinciding rule of Akhenaten are major identifying characteristics of a period within the 18th dynasty referred to as the Amarna Period (c. 1353–1336 B.C.E.). Atenism and the worship of the Aten as the sole god of ancient Egypt state worship did not persist beyond Akhenaten’s death. Not long after his death, one of Akhenaten’s 18th dynasty successors, Tutankhamun, reopened the state temples to other Egyptian gods and re-positioned Amun as the preeminent solar deity. He is depicted as a solar disk emitting rays terminating human hands.

Etymology The word Aten appears in the Old Kingdom as a noun meaning “disc” which referred to anything flat and circular; the sun was called the “disc of the day” where Ra was thought to reside. By analogy, the term “silver aten” was sometimes used to refer to the moon. High relief and low relief illustrations of the Aten show it with a curved surface, therefore, the late scholar Hugh Nibley insisted that a more correct translation would be globe, orb or sphere, rather than disk.

Origins The Aten was the disc of the sun and originally an aspect of Ra, the sun god in traditional ancient Egyptian religion. While the Aten was worshiped under the reign of Amenhotep III, it was made the sole deity to receive state and official cult worship under his successor Akhenaten, though archaeological evidence suggests the closing of the state temples of other Egyptian gods likely did not stop household worship of the traditional pantheon. Inscriptions, such as the Great Hymn to the Aten, found in temples and tombs during Akhenaten’s reign showcase the Aten as the creator, giver of life, and nurturing spirit of the world. Aten does not have a creation myth or family but is mentioned in the Book of the Dead. The first known reference to Aten the sun-disk as a deity is in The Story of Sinuhe from the 12th Dynasty, in which the deceased king is described as rising as a god to the heavens and “uniting with the sun-disk, the divine body merging with its maker”.

Worship The cult-center of the Aten was at the capital city Akhenaten founded, Akhetaten, though other cult sites have been found in Thebes and Heliopolis. The use of Amarna as a capital city and religious center was relatively short lived compared to the 18th Dynasty or New Kingdom as a whole as it was shortly abandoned after the death of Akhenaten. Inscriptions found on boundary stela accredited to Akhenaten discuss his desire to make the city a place of worship to Aten, dedicating the city to the god and emphasizing the royal residences’ efforts in worship.[19] Major principals of the Aten’s cult worship were recorded via inscriptions on temples and tombs from the period. Straying significantly from the tradition of ancient Egyptian temples being hidden and more enclosed the further one went into the site; temples of Aten were open and did not have roofs in order to allow the rays of the sun inside. No statues of Aten were allowed as they were seen as idolatry.