Amen (sometimes spelled Amun) is the name of one of the principal supreme deities of ancient Egypt. Alongside Ptah, Atum, and Ra, Amen is considered one of the central deities in the history of the Nile Valley civilization. Few deities have had as long a reign in the human imagination as Amen. Indeed, reverberations of the ancient African name can be found in the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian religions as each religious group ends its prayers in the name of Amen. This entry looks at the god and then describes his influence in the New Kingdom.
Name and Representation
The origin of Amen is lost in antiquity. However, Amen is one of the ancient Egyptian gods because we know he appears in some of the earliest texts. During the 5th dynasty, Amen was considered a primeval God within the Pyramid Texts. These were the texts written on the walls of some of the 100 pyramids in Egypt. It is written in the Pyramid Texts that ascending into the sky, the per aa (pharaoh in Hebrew) would, as the son of Geb, sit “upon the throne of Amen.”
Even then, Amen was different in a sense from the other deities in the fact that there was little information about him. He was often described as hidden, an unseen creative power central in the Egyptian myth of world creation. Although the name “Amen” means “hidden” and “unknown,” this has not prevented human beings from seeking to make representations of the great god. Although it is true that the name suggests concealment, it could also mean invisible, hence Amen is the invisible force that permeates the sky, the Earth, and human beings and demonstrates his universality by concealing his true identity behind an epithet that means “hidden.” The ancient Africans in the Nile Valley referred to Amen as “asha renu” meaning “rich in names.”
The name Amen means “the hidden one” or “the unknown one” in the ancient Mdw Ntr, the divine language of ancient Egypt. It is a meaning that accompanied the name down the centuries. When people say the name Amen, they are pronouncing the most enduring name of a deity on Earth. Worshipped as the power that stood behind the achievements of the mightiest warriors of antiquity such as Senursert, Thutmoses III, and Rameses II, Amen takes his place as the war god par excellence. But more so, because of the numerous offerings made in his name in the Nile Valley, Amen is the name most revered by the ancient priests of Egypt.
Representations of Amen in an anthropomorphic sense suggest a figure like a king. He often appears wearing a crown consisting of two high plumes. Each feather is divided vertically in two sections and horizontally in seven sections. Indeed, other representations of Amen show him as a man seated on a throne holding a scepter as a symbol of life, as a man with the head of a frog, as a man with the head of a uraeus, as an ape, or as a lion on a pedestal. Sometimes Amen is seen as a man with an erect phallus. His sacred animals are the ram with curved horns and the Nile Goose; both are animals associated with the creative or procreative energies of the universe.
The greatest temples of Amen seem to have been at Waset in Upper Egypt and at Gebel Barkal in Nubia. Here the living god was worshipped alongside his consort Mut and the child Khonsu, giving us the trinity of deities that were based on the original idea of Ausar, Auset, and Heru. In the processional road to Amen's temple stood crio-sphinxes, ram-headed lions, each one with an image of the pharaoh between its front legs. Amen stood supreme for 2,000 years in Kemet and Nubia, and even when the deity was temporarily superseded by another such as the case of Aton during the 18 th dynasty, Amen always returned to his same prominence.
Power and Prominence
In the New Kingdom, the power of Amen was nearly absolute. Amen is paired with the sun god, Ra, and is referred to as “a fierce red-eyed lion.” He is called “the eldest of the gods of the eastern sky” in The Book of the Dead. No two priests were ever any more important in protecting the name of a god than two brothers, Hor and Suti, who were the masters of the Waset temple in the 18th dynasty during the reign of Amenhotep III. They were the architects involved in the construction of many of the buildings dedicated to Amen.
On a granite stelae now found in the British Museum, the two brothers had written the hymn that begins, “Amen when he rises as Harakhti.” This added prestige to the deity Amen and thrust him in the forefront of the Egyptian pantheon. He is called “the king of the gods” at first in the White Chapel of Senursert I of Dynasty XII. Furthermore, “Amen-Ra king of the gods” nesu netjeru was a title given to illustrate the connection between Amen and the mightiest of the sun gods.
Many Egyptian leaders were given names that reflected the name of Amen (e.g., Hatshepsut Khenemet Amen, which means “united with Amen”; Amenemhat, which means “Amen is preeminent”; Amenhotep, which means “Amen is satisfied”; and Mery Amen, which means “Beloved of Amen”).
Hatshepsut called Amen “great in majesty” and had written on one of the obelisk (tekenu) set up at the Waset temple that Amen was her father. Indeed, the office of king that she held was given to her, she claimed, by the king of the gods, Amen, her father.
Thutmoses III, not to be outdone by Hatshepset Khenemet Amen, pushed the Egyptian army deep into Asia, claiming the territory in the name of Amen. In fact, Thutmoses wrote the names of the vanquished kings on leather and had those names deposited in the great temple at Waset (Karnak) so that Amen would not forget the king's triumphs in the name of Amen. The gift of Amen to Thutmoses had been nothing less than the complete domination of the world the Egyptians knew.
In one of the most written about battles in ancient history, the name of Amen comes into play again. Rameses II, the great monarch of Egypt, is on the battlefield of Kadesh by the river Orontes; when he finds himself in distress, he calls out to Amen to remember his paternal responsibilities. Rameses is surrounded by 2,500 enemy chariots. He asks Amen not to abandon “his son.” The situation looked hopeless, and Rameses chides the god, “Does Amen favor the Asians? Has not Rameses given Amen the spoils of war, chariots, monuments, endowments of lands, cattle, and wives? Did Amen count these gifts from previous campaigns as nothing?” According to Rameses, the god answered him by giving him the hand strength equal to 100,000 soldiers and the per aa cuts his way out of the hostile enemy territory. Of course, the reinforcements arrived just in time for Rameses to tell his story for history.
Nothing illustrates the power of Amen more than the two temples on the eastern bank of the Nile River in the town today called Luxor, but known in ancient times as Waset. There is the temple of Luxor, which is Mut's main abode, but also a temple of Amen. Then there is Ipet-sut, the most sacred place where they count off places as tributes are brought. Here in a vast enclave of spiritual grounds and religious buildings, the name Amen reverberated for centuries and the people called the place “Akhet,” meaning “the place where the light of dawn first emerges” because it was a place of education and spiritual enlightenment. Amen was active here as the god who advises, instigates, and fights for Egypt.
- Asante, M. K. (2007). The History of Africa. London: Routledge.
- Budge, E. A. W. (1904). The Gods of the Egyptians or Studies in Egyptian Mythology. London: Methuen.