Akhenaten is remembered today as Egypt’s “heretic Pharaoh.” He lived from 1373–1337 BCE and was probably the uncle of Tutankhamun (a.k.a., King Tut). During his reign, he completely changed most aspects of Egyptian religion, abandoning traditional polytheism and introducing the world’s first monotheism. He moved his entire court to the empty desert where his workmen created a new city (which today we call ‘Amarna’) from scratch. Akhenaten also introduced a new art style which completely upset the traditional artistic conventions that his ancestors had established.
In much of his art, the king was depicted in a strange, exaggerated physical form that borders on androgyny and even femininity. Oddly, his family members and staff share these features, which include: elongated head, almond-shaped eyes, protruding jaw, fleshy lips, serpentine neck, narrow shoulders, enlarged breasts, protruding belly and buttocks, wide hips, spindly arms and legs with bulging upper thighs, flat feet, spider-like fingers and toes, knee-joints that bend the opposite way, and even the rare absence of genitalia.
A virtually infinite array of explanations has been proposed to account for these bizarre features, which, to this day, remain unsatisfactorily explained. Interpretations run the gamut from purely physical to purely symbolic. But, could Akhenaten’s strange appearance have an altogether different explanation?
The body of Akhenaten has never been found, and consequently there has been no shortage of speculation about him—almost all of which has been based on the artwork left behind, both two- and three-dimensional, along with scattered inscriptions. The mummified bodies of several of his family members, however, have been found. The mummy of his likely nephew Tutankhamun, for instance, has been subjected to extensive analysis, including CT scans and genetic studies.
Since Akhenaten’s rediscovery by the modern world in 1714, hundreds of questions have been raised on the unusual appearance of the king and his family. Could Akhenaten have actually been a woman? Could he have been a eunuch? Or, in this age of increasing gender confusion, could he have been transgendered, transsexual, or intersexual? Could he have had some mysterious physical syndrome or disorder? Even wilder theories abound. Could he have been a victim of head binding as a baby, producing an elongated skull like those found in Peru? Could Akhenaten have been an extraterrestrial visitor? Could these new art forms be relaying some key ideological information, such as the universal nature of the king? Could they simply reflect new aesthetic concepts envisioned by the king and found today in the work of artists, such as Picasso or Modigliani? Or, could these exaggerated images convey pathology?
Many, possible physical conditions to account for his appearance have been put forward over the years, including Wilson-Turner x-linked syndrome, Froehlich syndrome (adiposogenital dystrophy, suggested by famous Egyptologist Cyril Aldred), Klinefeleter syndrome (a chromosomal disorder in which males have one or more extra X chromosomes) or Antley-Bixler syndrome. These all involve, to some degree, tall and thin bodies, gynecomastia, and abnormal feminine-like fat distribution. They also involve sterility and reduced mental abilities, neither of which seems to have affected Akhenaten.
Egyptologist Bob Brier long argued that Marfan syndrome—the same genetic connective disease that may have affected Abraham Lincoln—is the answer to Akhenaten. Sufferers of this disorder are generally tall and thin and characterized by flat feet, flexible joints, and elongated faces, arms, legs, and digits. It is also characterized by myopia, which, it was suggested, might explain the king’s love of the sun and light. Marfan syndrome, however, would not explain the elongated skulls of the royal family, nor the gynecomastia, protruding belly, or wide hips.
In 2008, the fourteenth Historical Clinicopathological Conference was held at the University of Maryland Medical School, specifically to discuss Akhenaten. There, Dr. Braverman proposed that the king suffered from familial gynecomastia. This, he said, was caused by two different gene defects that resulted in Akhenaten’s unusual “feminized” appearance: aromatase excess syndrome and sagittal craniosynostosis.
Some of this debate was put to rest with the 2010 molecular genetic study carried out by Zahi Hawass and his team on the mummified remains of the royal family of the eighteenth dynasty (to which Akhenaten belonged). This important study helped clarify the life of Tutankhamun (who suffered from numerous genetic disorders and diseases) and rule out the presence of several possible diseases in Akhenaten’s family, including Marfan and gynecomastia. The team, however, was unable to suggest any possible disorder that would account for his unusual art.
The study did help highlight the difficulties of comparing artistic depictions with actual human remains. For years, the bizarre appearance of Akhenaten was explained as a physical disorder. Now that we can confirm that the king did not have Marfan or something similar, could, perhaps, the answer lie in symbolism? We know that Bek, the king’s chief sculptor, commented that he was a “disciple whom the king himself instructed.” The king therefore told Bek and his other artisans, such as Thutmose, exactly how he wanted to look, describing in detail the new style.
Other problems with physical explanations exist as well, the most important being that his physical likeness changed throughout his 17-year reign. Scholars have identified at least three major art phases during the period. The earliest images depict the king in a traditional manner, worshipping all the deities. The second stage marks the true breakthrough in imagery, occurring during the king’s second/third year. It is during this phase, between years three and nine, that we see the most exaggerated and unusual depictions of Akhenaten. Images, such as the giant Karnak Colossi, suggest that he might have had a physical disorder. The third phase begins during year nine, and it is during these later years that Akhenaten’s art moved towards a less exaggerated style. The unique physical aspects of the king were retained, only their degree of exaggeration was lessened.
One of the foremost Akhenaten scholars alive today, Dr. Donald Redford, has been insistent that we not divorce the radical king’s new ideology from his nascent art style. Redford feels that the strange depictions of the king are nothing more than symbolic and that the king was both “mother and father” to his people. Egypt was accustomed to combining male and female physical traits in their deities, and many were depicted as androgynous, such as Nun, the god of the primeval waters of creation, and Hapi, the water god who controlled the flow and flooding of the Nile. Those depictions, however, look markedly different than Akhenaten’s, and they do not include the entire suite of unusual features present in the heretic king’s art.
“Like a Bird”
What if, however, the strange appearance of the heretic king had nothing to do with his actual physical appearance? What if it had more to do with birds? Akhenaten had a great fondness for birds, having them painted all over his city in scenes of bucolic marshland bliss, and even keeping them in different areas of his city, primarily in the lush garden palaces. Besides being a common motif in the quixotic Amarna art, they were a common sacrifice for the Aten each day along with oxen, wine and flowers.
What’s more, birds formed a key part of Akhenaten’s new religious ideology. The formal name of his god contained three distinct bird elements: the quail chick and ostrich feather of Shu and the falcon of Ra-Horakhty: Living Ra-Horakhty of the Two Horizons who rejoices in the horizon in his name of Shu who is in the Aten sun disk. During the first few years of his rule, Akhenaten worshipped all the gods of Egypt. However, he favored Ra-Horakhty, the syncretistic solar deity of Ra and Horus.
The akh bird was also very important to the king. It was an ancient symbol, going back to the Old Kingdom, Akhenaten’s favorite era. The northern bald ibis was used in hieroglyphs to depict the akh, which was the highest form of soul a person could attain in the afterlife, a shining immortal spirit. The akh also had to do with the mutually beneficial relationship between humans and gods. Thus, Akhenaten was akh (“effective” or “shining”) for his father and god, the Aten (Akh-en-Aten), as the Aten was akh for his son. But that’s not all.
The case can be made that when, in his year five, he changed his name to Akhenaten, the king had taken on the very spirit of the Akh bird and that he wished to imbue himself with the essence of the northern bald ibis bird (who symbolized “effectiveness,” “righteousness,” and “radiance”). If the akh was depicted as a bird, it makes sense that the king may have been adopting the physical attributes of the bird itself, to greater glorify his father and signify his immortality.
Also important to Akhenaten was the immortal Bennu Bird of Heliopolis. Researcher Andrew Collins has noted that the akh shining spirit was bound up with the Heliopolitan creation myth of the bennu bird, or grey heron. When Ra first appeared over the formless void of Nun, he cast his light upon the primeval mound that emerged from the waters. This mound was called the benben stone, and on it landed the bennu bird, which was the “soul.” or Ba, of Ra. The bennu bird was immortal and formed the template for the later Greek Phoenix bird of resurrection.
Akhenaten held Heliopolis in great respect, likely having spent his childhood there. When he moved south to the capital Karnak, he called it “Heliopolis of the South” whenever he could, and he even built a temple there called the “Mansion of the benben stone.” He worshipped the sun in open-air courts and believed in the Heliopolis creation story involving the benben stone, Atum, Shu, Tefnut, and the bennu bird. When he moved to Amarna, he built a similar sanctuary to the benben stone. Because the bennu bird was seen as the soul (or Ba), of Ra, it is very likely he would have held great respect for this symbolic bird of immortality. It is tempting to imagine the king acting out the part of the bennu bird during a ritual in the sanctuary of the Benben stone, recreating the first moment of creation, his name “being pronounced every day continually forever.”
Akhenaten’s Avian Features
This reporter’s research has identified numerous physical features appearing in the art of Akhenaten that could have been intended to invoke avian imagery without depicting it directly. Therefore, instead of showing himself with wings and an actual beak, for example, the king modified the shape of his own body to appear more bird-like, thereby not violating his prohibition against animal imagery. This hybridization marked a new phase in Egyptian art and was particular to Akhenaten and his advanced thinking. I have identified many different physiological traits, which I think were meant to integrate avian imagery, including hyper-flexible knee joints and serpentine necks.
Hyper-flexible joints are a key feature of Amarna-period art and have been noticed not only in the king but in his wife, children, and even courtiers, as well. I believe this is one of the most important indicators of avian imagery, for the backwards-bending leg of the bird is one of its most noticeable features; even though the joint in question is the ankle in the bird and the knee in humans—they appear in roughly analogous spots. Another key feature of the exaggerated art of Akhenaten was the serpentine neck that was much longer than the traditional Egyptian neck. Akhenaten drastically increased his neck length, and such distorted necks often appear to bend forward at an unusual angle, resisting easy interpretation. It seems clear to me this was intended to invoke the necks of birds, primarily the ibis and heron (the akh and bennu birds).
Additional evidence for the bird theory comes from the three Akhenaten art periods themselves and how they relate to bird imagery during his reign. It was no accident, I suspect, that the king began showing himself in his radical new style in his year two. This was at this same time that he began displaying his god, the Aten, in a bold new manner, as a sun disk at the center of his compositions. Through this, he was able to shed the old falcon image of his god, the Aten, and would no longer employ animal images in depicting himself or his god. It was at this same time that his more exaggerated body images appeared, and he stopped using a bird to depict his deity.
Then, in year nine of his rule, the king made further theological changes, making his religion even more abstract. He outlawed all animal imagery, depictions of other gods, and even banned the plural word for “gods” (netjeru). He ordered that words be spelled phonetically, and he updated the name of his god, the Aten. He stripped out the bird glyphs, including the falcon of Ra-Horakhty and the quail chick and feather of Shu. Only Ra, the abstract sun disk, remained. His god was now Living Ra the Ruler of the Two Horizons who rejoices in the horizon in his name of sunlight, which comes from the Aten. It was at this same time that the king’s own images become less exaggerated and “bird-like.” It is thus possible he was grafting the bird elements of Ra-Horakhty, and the akh and bennu birds, onto himself in his early years, only to discard them from his image as his religion grew more abstract, aniconic, and intolerant in his later years.
The Bird King
It has been debated for centuries why Akhenaten and his family were portrayed in such a strange and exaggerated manner. These many notions have tended to range somewhere between symbolic and physical. However, based on evidence collected so far, including mummies of Akhenaten’s family, the images may be best understood as symbolic of something deeper in the king’s thinking. This would be consistent with his personality: a revolutionary who changed every aspect of religious life in his country, and even evolved during his reign to become more and more abstract.
Akhenaten, I believe, blended bird imagery into his own representations to take on a more divine aspect and to increase his claim to immortality. These characteristics were not obvious (such as tail feathers) but subtle. So subtle were they, in fact, that until now, no one has thought of them as an artistic motif, despite many the avian epithets—“pigeon chest” and “chicken legs”—directed at him in literature. Through art, I think, he realized he could imbue his own body with the graceful, aesthetic, and immortal aspects of the birds of his religion and, in a very real sense, become an eternal god himself. Akhenaten was an artistic genius, ahead of his time and still, I believe, under-appreciated.
Jonathon Perrin is the author of Moses Restored: The Oldest Religious Secret Never Told, available in print or as an e-book from Amazon.com.