As I write this, the world waits to find out if the chambers behind the walls in King Tutankhamen’s tomb in Luxor, Egypt, will be opened. If they are, our knowledge of the Amarna period could substantially increase. This means today is a perfect time for me to write about the iconic sun disk of Akhenaten, King Tut’s father. I’ve been perplexed by this particular image of the sun, especially familiar to us since the discovery of the royal throne in Tut’s tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter. That image has mesmerized and baffled us for nearly a century.
My favorite time in history has to be the Amarna period. Its art and artifacts, its beliefs, ideas, and ideals all fascinate me. I’ve often wondered what the pharaoh’s larger message to the world may have been. I spent a whole chapter discussing Akhenaten’s gift to us in my book, The Light: A Modern-Day Journey for Peace, where I came to the conclusion that Akhenaten’s sun disk may not be just some haphazard image. In my opinion, it might be a precisely calculated image rendered to impart knowledge. Its objective could be to disseminate a spiritual revelation through imagery, as this was a primary modality for the time in which Akhenaten lived.
With the idea of this precise image in mind, I attempted to decipher what Akhenaten’s sun disk might be telling us beyond what we already know. As I looked in awe at this image of the sun, I began by breaking the image down into its components, as if I were trying to read it using words. The sun, for me, became simply energy. The branching rays were a pathway. The hands (a few holding ankhs) became the material world, or perhaps solid matter. And of course the ankh meant life. Putting the image back together, I came to three possible conclusions for what this mystifying image might be telling us.
1) It represents Light as the highest principal. The information is purely spiritual. In printed reproductions, the rays terminate in tiny hands, and you can see there are also hands that feed life (the ankhs) to the pharaoh and his wife, Queen Nefertiti. Written in words, the essential message perhaps being something like God is Light that feeds or gives us life.
Other scholars, like Sigmund Freud, have posited that Akhenaten’s sun disk represents the worship of a singular god—one without imagery—thus making Akhenaten the first monotheist.
2) Akhenaten may have used the image to describe photosynthesis. With today’s high-powered magnification techniques, we have a better understanding exactly how plants use sunlight directly to create food, and thus life and physical matter. Because Akhenaten drew the sun’s disk with its rays terminating in hands could indicate that he understood photosynthesis and/or wanted to communicate an idea akin to photosynthesis.
Akhenaten’s declarations, observances, and love of nature perhaps support this. Written in words, he might have been saying Light makes matter and Light creates life.
3) Albeit a more farfetched interpretation is that Akhenaten’s image correlates with Einstein’s theory of relativity or E = mc2. Who hasn’t pondered Einstein’s theory? Even schoolchildren have heard of it. Admittedly, I am not a physicist, so I don’t claim more than a rudimentary understanding of his sophisticated equation, but even so, I tried applying the equation to Akhenaten’s iconic image. Does it fit? Well, maybe. Akhenaten’s Sun becomes Einstein’s E. Akhenaten’s rays are Einstein’s = sign. Akhenaten’s hands become Einstein’s m, or mass. Finally, the speed c is accounted for by the intrinsic nature of the rays themselves; thus the rays represent the speed of light, which is required by the equation.*
Neither I nor anyone else knows for sure the precise message Akhenaten was communicating in his perplexing image. These are a few observations that came to mind as I studied the pharaoh and his unusual portrayal of the sun disk. What I do believe is that Akhenaten’s image is neither meaningless nor happenstance. It was purposefully conceived, and perhaps we should more deeply consider what this image is offering us and not simply take it at face value or as a caricature of the sun.
With barriers in our understanding falling, our time has the ability to recognize that science and religion can form partnership at a certain level. Perhaps re-considering Akhenaten’s genius facilitates the process of grasping where they meet.
*I would like to thank John Anthony West and R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz (now deceased) for their groundbreaking work on symbolist theory. Their teachings led me to these insights and to my ability to apply a symbolist viewpoint to the iconic image of Akhenaten’s sun disk.