An epithet is a descriptive name, adjective, phrase, or title that is repeatedly used to describe or characterize a quality or characteristic of a person, place, or thing. We use epithets when we refer to “America the Beautiful,” “Richard the Lionhearted,” or “Paris, the City of Lights.” In “The Great Hymn to the Aten,” epithets are used to honor and show respect for the attributes of the Egyptian sun god, Aten.
“The Great Hymn to the Aten” is the longest of several New Kingdom praise poems to the sun god Aten. This poem, composed as a hymn, or sacred song, was found on the wall of a tomb built for a royal scribe named Ay and his wife. It was intended to assure their safety in the afterlife.
The Egyptians had worshiped the sun—along with a host of other gods—since the Old Kingdom. But during the Amarna period of the New Kingdom, the pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who later took the name Akhenaten (“he who serves the Aten”), declared that the sun god, Aten, was the one true god. Thus, Egypt was introduced to one man’s concept of monotheism, or belief in one god.
Akhenaten, who came to power as a child and ruled from 1379 B.C. to 1362 B.C., was an unusual ruler. Under his reign, conservative, tradition-bound Egypt experienced a revolution that affected every aspect of life. Akhenaten was a talented poet, and this poem, as well as several others, has been attributed to him. But Akhenaten’s break with tradition must have seemed too shockingly revolutionary for the Egyptians, who for centuries had recognized and worshiped approximately eighty gods, each of whom took a different form and represented a different power. As soon as their radical pharaoh died, the Egyptians returned to the worship of their traditional deities.
Apostrophe is a figure of speech in which a writer directly addresses a thing, concept, or absent person. An apostrophe is written in the second person, using the pronouns you and yours. How does the use of apostrophe convey a deep reverence for Aten?
An epithet appears in the second line of the poem: “living Aten, creator of life!” Highlight other epithets in the poem. To what major characteristics of Aten do they refer? What do the epithets tell you about the relationship between Aten and his people?
What aspects of the poem make it particularly suitable for oral presentation? (Consider such features of the poem as repetition, parallelism, imagery, etc. ) Highlight these examples in a second color and explain their significance.