Epithet An epithet

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The Great Hymn to the Aten

Literary Focus


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.

The Great Hymn to the Aten

translated by Miriam Lichtheim


Splendid you rise in heaven’s lightland,°

O living Aten, creator of life!

When you have dawned in eastern lightland,

You fill every land with your beauty.


You are beauteous, great, radiant,

High over every land;

Your rays embrace the lands,

To the limit of all that you made.

Being Re,° you reach their limits,


You bend them the son whom you love; 

Though you are far, your rays are on earth,

Though one sees you, your strides are unseen.

When you set in western lightland,

Earth is in darkness as if in death;


One sleeps in chambers, heads covered,

One eye does not see another.

Were they robbed of their goods,

That are under their heads,

People would not remark it.


Every lion comes from its den,

All the serpents bite;

Darkness hovers, earth is silent,

As their maker rests in lightland.

Earth brightens when you dawn in lightland,


When you shine as Aten of daytime;

As you dispel the dark,

As you cast your rays,

The Two Lands° are in festivity.

Awake they stand on their feet,


You have roused them;

Bodies cleansed, clothed,

Their arms adore your appearance.

The entire land sets out to work,

All beasts browse on their herbs;


Trees, herbs are sprouting,

Birds fly from their nests,

Their wings greeting your ka.°

All flocks frisk on their feet,

All that fly up and alight,


They live when you dawn for them.

Ships fare north, fare south as well,

Roads lie open when you rise;

The fish in the river dart before you,

Your rays are in the midst of the sea.... 


How many are your deeds,

Though hidden from sight,

O Sole God beside whom there is none!

You made the earth as you wished, you alone,

All peoples, herds, and flocks;


All upon earth that walk on legs,

All on high that fly on wings,

The lands of Khor and Kush,°

The land of Egypt.

You set every man in his place,


You supply their needs;

Everyone has his food,

His lifetime is counted.

Their tongues differ in speech,

Their characters likewise;


Their skins are distinct,

For you distinguished the peoples.

You made Hapy in dat,°

You bring him when you will,

To nourish the people,


For you made them for yourself.

Lord of all who toils for them,

Lord of all lands who shines for them,

Aten of daytime, great in glory!

All distant lands, you make them live,


You made a heavenly Hapy descend for them;

He makes waves on the mountains like the sea,

To drench their fields and their towns.

How excellent are your ways, O Lord of eternity!

A Hapy from heaven for foreign peoples,


And all lands’ creatures that walk on legs,

For Egypt the Hapy who comes from dat.

Your rays nurse all fields,

When you shine they live, they grow for you;

You made the seasons to foster all that you made,


Winter to cool them, heat that they taste you.

You made the far sky to shine therein,

To behold all that you made;

You alone, shining in your form of living Aten,

Risen, radiant, distant, near.


You made millions of forms from yourself alone,

Towns, villages, fields, the river’s course;

All eyes observe you upon them,

For you are the Aten of daytime on high....

Those on earth come from your hand as you made them, 


When you have dawned they live,

When you set they die;

You yourself are lifetime, one lives by you.

All eyes are on your beauty until you set

All labor ceases when you rest in the west;


When you rise you stir [everyone] for the King,

Every leg is on the move since you founded the earth.

You rouse them for your son who came from your body,

The King who lives by Maat,° the Lord of the Two Lands,

Neferkheprure, Sole-one-of-Re,


The Son of Re who lives by Maat, the Lord of crowns,

Akhenaten, great in his lifetime;

(And) the great Queen whom he loves, the Lady of the Two Lands,

Nefer-nefru-Aten Nefertiti,° living forever.

  1. 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?

  1. 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?

  1. 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.

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