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Man, Woman or Both? Meet Akhenaten, The Only Androgenous Pharaoh

Ancient Egypt

Man, Woman or Both? Meet Akhenaten, The Only Androgenous Pharaoh

If you thought that ancient Egypt had always been only about large pantheon of gods, solid and emotionless sculptures and masculine pharaohs only, have a look at this short episode from Egyptian history, when people looked like aliens and sunrays had hands.

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Daughter of Amenophis IV or Akhenaten,1351-1334 BC, Walters Art Museum

During the 17 years long reign of the pharaoh Amenhotep IV (circa 1352-1336 BC), the political, social and religious orders in Egypt underwent a complete and drastic metamorphosis. For example, Amenhotep IV moved the capital away from Thebes to Amarna and established a new cult of Aten (literally the sun disc, an aspect of god’s Ra being) as the only one god, in other words, he changed polytheism to monotheism.

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The sala of Akhenaton, 1356-1340 BC, Musée du Caire

Moreover, he took up a new name- Akhenaten, which means “pleasing to the Aten” and made himself his son and the high priest, which was almost synonymous with the god.  Since the pantheon of gods had disappeared, the hosts of artists, priests and temples were completely unnecessary. It was the royal family who took sole control over religion, art and the entire society.


Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children, c.1340 BC, Egyptian Museum of Berlin

This change largely influenced the visual style of representation. The main subject of art was Aten and the royal family. For the first time in history pharaoh was depicted in domestic environment, playing with his children or expressing his love. Akhenaten, who wanted  to distinguish himself from the other pharaohs, forgot about convention depicting royal family in an idealized way and turned to exaggerated naturalism. Elongated heads, thick lips and heavy-lidded eyes were the main characteristics of the new style. The sunrays terminated in hands are the symbols of Aten who blesses the happy royal family.


Akhenaten,Aton temple, Karnak, Egypt, 18th dynasty

For the first time in the history of ancient Egypt, women were equal to men because Aten and Akhenaten were called father and mother of all. Akhenaten was the symbol of both women and men himself. Therefore, he was usually depicted with breasts and feminine hips, in order to symbolize life and fertility.


Akhenaten and Nefertiti, 18th Dynasty, Musee du Louvre

However, after Akhenaten’s death everything came back to the old order. His son Tutankhamun restored polytheism and moved the capital back to Thebes.

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Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.


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