Ancient Egypt was a culture rich in theological beliefs. In a religious cosmos featuring 8,700 major and minor deities, one god, Amun was consistently depicted as the Egyptian supreme creator-god and the king of all the gods. Amun was ancient Egypt’s god of the air, sun, life and fertility. While the popularity of many Egyptian gods waxed and waned, surviving evidence suggests Amun retained his place in the Egyptian mythological firmament from almost its inception through to the end of pagan worship in Egypt.
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Facts About Amun
- Amun was the Egyptian supreme creator-god and the king of all the gods
- The first recorded written mention of Amun occurs in the Pyramid Texts (c. 2400-2300)
- Amun eventually evolved into Amun-Ra, the King of the Gods and creator of the universe Pharaohs were depicted as the ‘son of Amun.’
- Amun was also known as Ammon and Amen and as Amun “The Obscure One,” “mysterious of form,” “the hidden one,” and “invisible.”
- Amun’s cult gained enormous wealth and power, rivalling that of the pharaoh
- Royal women were appointed as “god’s wife of Amun” and enjoyed highly influential places in the cult and in society
- Some pharaohs presented themselves as the son of Amun to legitimize their reign. Queen Hatshepsut claimed Amun as her father while Alexander the Great proclaimed himself a son of Zeus-Ammon
- Amun’s cult was centred at Thebes
- Akhenaten banned the worship of Amun and closed his temples, ushering in the world’s first monotheistic society
The first recorded written mention of Amun occurs in the Pyramid Texts (c. 2400-2300). Here Amun is described as a local god in Thebes. The Theban god of war Montu was Thebes’ dominant deity, while Atum at this time, was merely a local fertility god who with his consort Amaunet formed part of the Ogdoad, a cluster of eight gods who represented creation’s primordial forces.
At this time, Amun was accorded no greater significance than other Theban gods in the Ogdoad. One differentiating feature of his worship was that as Amun “The Obscure One,” he did not represent a clearly defined niche but embraced all aspects of creation. This left his followers free to define him depending on their needs. Theologically, Amun was a god who represented nature’s mystery. His doctrinal fluidity enabled Amun to manifest as almost any aspect of existence.
Amun’s power in Thebes had been growing since the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE). He emerged as part of the Theban triad of deities with Mut his consort and their son the moon god Khonsu. Ahmose I’s defeat of the Hyksos peoples was attributed to Amun linking Amun with Ra the popular sun god. Amun’s mysterious connection with that which makes life what it is was associated with the sun the most visible aspect of life-giving properties. Amun evolved into Amun-Ra, the King of the Gods and creator of the universe.
What’s In a Name?
One of the consistent characteristics of ancient Egyptian religious beliefs is the ever-changing nature and names of their deities. Amun served several roles in Egyptian mythology and ancient Egyptians ascribed numerous names to him. Inscriptions of Amun have been discovered throughout Egypt.
The ancient Egyptians called Amun asha renu or “Amun rich in names.” Amun was also known as Ammon and Amen and as “The Obscure One,” “mysterious of form,” “the hidden one,” and “invisible.” Amun is typically shown as a bearded man wearing a headdress with a double plume. After the New Kingdom (c.1570 BCE – 1069 BCE), Amun is depicted as a ram-headed man or often simply as a ram. This symbolised his aspect as Amun-Min the fertility god.
Amun King of the Gods
During the New Kingdom Amun was lauded as the “King of the Gods” and “The Self-created One” who created all things, even himself. His association with Ra the sun god linked Amun to Atum of Heliopolis an earlier god. As Amun-Ra, the god combined his invisible aspect as symbolized by the wind together with the life-giving sun his visible aspect. In Amun, the most important attributes of both Atum and Ra were merged to form an all-purpose deity whose aspects embraced every part of the fabric of creation.
So popular was Amun’s cult that Egypt almost took on a monotheistic outlook. In many ways, Amun paved the way for one true god, Aten promoted by the Pharaoh Akhenaten 1353-1336 BCE) who banned polytheistic worship.
Amun during the New Kingdom emerged as Egypt’s most widely venerated deity. His temples and monuments scattered throughout Egypt were extraordinary. Even today, the main Temple of Amun at Karnak remains the biggest religious building complex ever constructed. Amun’s Karnak temple was connected to the Southern Sanctuary of the Luxor Temple. Amun’s Barque was a floating temple at Thebes and was considered to be amongst the most impressive construction works built in honour of the god.
Known as Userhetamon or “Mighty of Brow is Amun” to the ancient Egyptians, Amun’s Barque was a gift from Ahmose I to the city following his expulsion of the invading Hyksos people and ascension to the throne. Records claim it was covered from the waterline up in gold.
On The Feast of Opet, Amun’s primary festival, the barque carrying Amun’s statue from the inner sanctum of Karnak temple was moved downriver with great ceremony to the Luxor temple so the god could visit his other dwelling place on earth. During the festival of The Beautiful Feast of the Valley, held to honour the dead, statues of the Theban Triad consisting of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu travelled on Amun’s Barque from one bank of the Nile to the other to participate in the festival.
The Wealthy and Powerful Priests of Amun
By Amenhoptep III’s (1386-1353 BCE) ascension to the throne, the priests of Amun at Thebes was wealthier and owned more land than the pharaoh. At this moment the cult rivalled the throne for power and influence. In an abortive attempt to curb the priesthood’s power, Amenhotep III introduced a series of religious reforms, which proved ineffectual. Amenhotep III’s most momentous long-term reform was to elevate Aten a formerly minor deity, as his personal patron and encouraged worshippers to follow Aten in tandem with Amun.
Unaffected by this move, the Amun cult continued to grow in popularity ensuring its priests enjoyed comfortable lives of privilege and power. When Amenhotep IV (1353-1336 BCE) succeeded his father on the throne as pharaoh, the priest’s cozy existence changed dramatically.
After reigning for five years, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten, which translates as “of great use to” or “successful for” the god Aten and initiated dramatic and highly contentious series of wide-sweeping religious reforms. These changes upended every aspect of religious life in Egypt. Akhenaten banned the worship of Egypt’s traditional gods and closed the temples. Akhenaten proclaimed Aten as Egypt’s one true god ushering in the world’s first monotheistic society.
After Akhenaten died in 1336 BCE, his son Tutankhaten assumed the throne, changed his name to Tutankhamun (1336-1327 BCE), opened all the temples and reinstated Egypt’s old religion.
Following Tutankhamun’s premature death, Horemheb (1320-1292 BCE) a general ruled as pharaoh and ordered Akhenaten and his family’s name to be wiped from history.
While history had interpreted Akhenaten’s attempt at religious reforms, modern Egyptologists view his reforms as targeting the enormous influence and wealth enjoyed by the Priests of Amun, who, owned more land and held greater wealth than Akhenaten at the time of his ascension to the throne.
Popularity of the Amun Cult
Following Horemheb’s reign, Amun’s cult continued to enjoy widespread popularity. Amun’s cult was widely accepted throughout the New Kingdom’s 19th Dynasty. By the dawn of the Ramessid Period (c. 1186-1077 BCE) Amun’s priests were so wealthy and powerful they ruled Upper Egypt from their base in Thebes as virtual pharaohs. This power transfer contributed to the fall of the New Kingdom. Despite the ensuing turbulence of the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069-525 BCE), Amun prospered even in the face of a growing cult following for Isis.
Ahmose I elevated the existing custom of consecrating royal women as Amun’s divine wives. Ahmose I transformed the office of God’s Wife of Amun into a highly prestigious and powerful one, particularly as they officiated at ritual ceremonies festivals. So enduring was Amun’s following that the 25th Dynasty’s Kushite kings maintained this practice and the worship of Amun actually surged thanks to the Nubians accepting Amun as their own.
Another sign of Amun’s royal favour was the claim by Queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE) was her father in an effort to legitimise her reign. Alexander the Great followed her lead in 331 BCE by proclaiming himself a son of Zeus-Ammon, the Greek equivalent of the god at the Siwa Oasis.
The Greek Zeus-Ammon was pictured as a bearded Zeus with Amun’s ram’s horns. Zeus-Ammon was associated with virility and power via imagery of the ram and the bull. Later Zeus-Ammon made the journey to Rome in the form of Jupiter-Ammon.
As Isis’ popularity grew in Egypt, Amun’s declined. However, Amun continued to be regularly worshipped at Thebes. His cult became particularly well entrenched in the Sudan where Amun’s priests became sufficiently wealthy and powerful to force their will on the Meroe kings.
Finally, the Meroe King Ergamenes decided the threat from the Amun priesthood was too great to ignore and he had them massacred around c. 285 BCE. This severed diplomatic ties with Egypt and established an autonomous state in Sudan.
Reflecting on the Past
Despite the political turbulence, Amun continued to be worshipped in Egypt and Meroe. The Amun cult continued to attract devoted followers well into classical antiquity (c. 5th century CE) until Christianity replaced the old gods across the Roman Empire.
Header image courtesy: Jean-François Champollion [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons