Posted by: gdevi | January 28, 2012

English 220: Akhenetan’s Hymn to the Sun Study Notes

English 220

Dr. Devi

Ancient Literatures-Akhenetan’s Hymn to the Sun Study Notes

I have posted these on eCampus as well, okay?

Pharoah Akhenetan (1375-1358 BCE) elevated the worship of the sun-disc “Aten” above the worship of all other deities, including the most powerful God Amun-Re of the New Kingdom. Akhenetan built a city of Sun “Heliopolis” in honor of the Sun god and either subsumed all other gods under the Sun god or caused them to be blocked out of sacred inscriptions. We see the emerging trend of monotheism — absolute and categorical worship of one unified god–in Akhenetan’s worship of the Sun. All subsequent Abrahamic faiths from the region follow this monotheistic emphasis on One God.  Ancient Egypt was an agrarian society and the power of the sun was needed for agriculture. Akhenetan’s Hymn to the Sun extends the power of Sun from the natural world to the human world, from Egypt to beyond, encompassing all creation of earth and sky. A “hymn” is a praise poem or song sung for a divine deity or a personification. Akhenetan’s Hymn to the Sun is one of the surviving oldest forms of lyric poetry. The hymn abounds in vivid imagery and striking turns of thought, and presents one of the earliest templates for monotheistic representations.

Stanza I: Sun rises in the east. Sunrise equated with day, life, and everything beneficial and illuminating. What are the attributes of Sun and sunrise as described in this stanza?

Stanza II: Sun sets in the west. Sunset is equated with darkness, night, death. What are the associations evoked with darkness and night in this stanza?

In these two opening stanzas, we can see a symmetrical exposition of the relative power of the Sun as a divine deity through its effects on the human and natural world.

Stanza III: Description of Dawn. Egyptians had a dawn god, Horus, but here Horus has been set aside and merged into Aten or Sun god. Dawn is an aspect of Sun. What are the various activities associated with dawn in this stanza? Notice how daily activities of the human world are described as triggered by the breaking of dawn.

Stanza IV: The daily happenings in the natural world when dawn breaks. Animals, big and small, birds, fish, and commerce such as ships sailing the sea (Great Green Sea is the Mediterranean) — they all owe their activities to the Sun and daybreak.

In these two symmetrical stanzas, we see the continued exposition of Sun’s power and generosity towards both the human and natural worlds.

Stanza V: Sun’s power continues with the creation of the womb in women, and semen in man, and the creation of a child. The child’s first breath itself is given by Sun.

Stanza VI: Sun’s life giving power described in the natural world with the chick and the egg.

In these two symmetrical stanzas we hear the exposition of Sun as the source of fertility and the reproductive cycle in both the human and the natural worlds.

Stanza VII: Sun is the source of variety in the natural world. How is natural variety described here?

Stanza VIII: Sun is the source of variety in the human world. How is human variety described here?

In these two symmetrical stanzas we learn about the sun as the sole creator of endless and limitless variety in the human and natural worlds.

Stanza IX: Sun created Hapy (the Nile river god) — deliberate monotheistic turn in the poem to make another existing deity into a subset of the Sun. Sun is Hapy; Hapy is Sun. There is a Nile on earth. There is a Nile in the sky and Sun causes it to rain so that agriculture may flourish.

Stanza X: Summation of Sun’s omnipotence and limitlessness; all of the above are once again reintroduced and underscored. “How splendidly ordered are they, your purposes for this world,”

Stanza XI: Sun as the one god, the monotheistic elevation of Sun:

“You are the one God

shining forth from your possible incarnations

as Aten, the Living Sun

Revealed like a king in glory . . .”

This stanza encapsulates the monotheistic turn in the poem.

Stanza XII: In this lyrical concluding stanza, the poem turns our attention from the power of the Sun over all the world to its presence and power in the King’s heart.

“And you are in my heart:

there is no other who truly knows you

but for your son, Akhenetan.”

The King presents himself as the son of the Sun, and invokes Sun to “Lift up the creatures of earth for your Son/ who came forth from your Body of Fire!” The divine origin of kings. In all monotheistic beliefs, there is an interface between the deity and the people. It could be the King as here, or the priests as in later civilizations.

Most ancient cultures revered Sun, and Sun is one of the oldest divinities. Hindus worship the Sun to this day, in a practice dating back to the Vedic times (1700-1100 BCE). Buddhists worship the Sun as well. Here is the Vedic prayer to Sun (Aditya or Surya in Sanskrit) known as Gayatri. Both the prayer and the metre in which it is written are known as Gayatri. In Sanskrit, Gayatri and Savitri are synonyms for Sun.

Om bhur bhuvah svahah

tat Savitur varenyam

Bhargo devasya dheemahi

Dhiyo yo na prachodayat

Om shanti shanti shanti

The first line of the “Gayatri mantra” is an obligatory phrase in all Vedic mantras: Om bhur bhuvah svahah refers to the different planes on which Hindus believe we exist. Bhur (earth), Bhuvah (celestial/ sky) and Svahah (astral). With spiritual practices a human can live in all three planes; earth is just one plane of existence in Hinduism, just as the human body is one form of existence, “Sthoola shariram” (gross body), contrasted with “sookhshma shariram” (subtle body/consciousness). In Hindu cosmology, there are seven planes including earth, six of them above earth — seven heavens (know the expression “seventh heaven”?) and seven planes below earth. Earth is just one plane in the middle.

The meaning of the remaining three lines is thus:

tat (that) savitur (of the Sun) varenyam (the best)

bhargo (radiance) devasya (divine) dheemahi (let us meditate – verb)

dhiyo (thoughts/ intelligence) yo (which) nah (our) prachodayat (may it push outward, inspire-verb)

Translated paraphrase: “Let us meditate on the divine radiance of that Sun god, so that its brilliance may inspire our own intelligence.”

Practicing Hindus face the east and recite this mantra everyday at daybreak.


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