Amun (also Amon, Ammon, Amen) is the ancient Egyptian god of the sun and air. He is one of the most important gods of ancient Egypt who rose to prominence at Thebes at the beginning of the period of the New Kingdom (c.1570-1069 BCE). He is usually depicted as a bearded man wearing a headdress with a double plume or, after the New Kingdom, as a ram-headed man or simply a ram, symbolizing fertility in his role as Amun-Min. His name means “the hidden one,” “invisible,” “mysterious of form,” and unlike most other Egyptian gods, he was considered Lord of All who encompassed every aspect of creation.
Origin & Rise to Prominence
Amun is first mentioned in the Pyramid Texts (c. 2400-2300) as a local god of Thebes along with his consort Amaunet. At this time, the supreme god of Thebes was the war god Montu and the creator god was regarded as Atum (also known as Ra). Montu was a fierce warrior who protected the city and helped it expand while Atum was the supremely powerful, self-created deity who arose on the primordial mound from the waters of chaos at the beginning of creation. Amun, at this time, was associated with protecting the king but, largely, was simply a local fertility god paired with his consort Amaunet as part of the Ogdoad, eight gods who represented the primordial elements of creation.
Amun was considered no more powerful or significant than the other gods who were part of the Ogdoad but represented the element of “hiddenness” or “obscurity” while the others represented more clearly defined concepts such as “darkness,” “water,” and “infinity.” Amun as “The Obscure One” left room for people to define him according to their own understanding of what they needed him to be. A god who represented darkness could not also represent light, nor a god of water stand for dryness, etc. A god who personified the mysterious hidden nature of existence, however, could lend himself to any aspect of that existence; and this is precisely what happened with Amun.
Around c. 1800 BCE the Hyksos, a mysterious people most likely from the Levant, settled in Egypt, and by c. 1720 BCE they had grown powerful enough to take control of Lower Egypt and render the court at Thebes obsolete. This era is known as The Second Intermediate Period (c. 1782-c.1570 BCE) in which the Hyksos ruled Egypt. In c. 1570 the prince Ahmose I (c. 1550-c.1525 BCE) drove the Hyksos out of the country and re-established the city of Thebes.
Since the time of the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE) Amun had been growing in power in Thebes and was a part of the Theban triad of deities with his consort Mut (who replaced Amaunet) and their son Khonsu, the moon god. When Ahmose I defeated the Hyksos he attributed his victory to Amun linking him to the well-known sun god Ra. As Amun was “The Hidden One” linked to no definable natural phenomenon or principle, he was malleable enough to fit with any attribute one wished to add to him. In this case, the mysterious aspect of life – that which makes life what it is – was linked to the visible life-giving aspect of existence: the sun. Amun then became Amun-Ra, creator of the universe, and King of the Gods.
KING OF THE GODS
Following Amun’s ascendancy during the New Kingdom, he was hailed as “The Self-created One” and “King of the Gods” who had created all things, including himself. He was associated with the sun god Ra who was associated with the earlier god Atum of Heliopolis. Although Amun took on many of Atum’s attributes and more or less replaced him, the two remained distinct deities and Atum continued to be venerated. In his role as Amun-Ra, the god combines his invisible aspect (symbolized by the wind which one cannot see but is aware of) and his visible aspect as the life-giving sun. In Amun, the most important aspects of both Ra and Atum were combined to establish an all-encompassing deity whose aspects were literally every facet of creation.
His cult was so popular that, as scholar Richard H. Wilkinson observes, Egyptian religion became almost monotheistic and Amun “came particularly close to being a kind of monotheistic deity” (94). The popularity of this god, in fact, ushered in the first monotheistic religious movement in Egypt under Akhenaten (1353-1336 BCE) who banned polytheistic worship and established the state religion of the one true god Aten.
Although Akhenaten’s efforts have historically been viewed as a sincere effort at religious reform, he was most likely motivated by the great wealth of the Priests of Amun, who, at the time he ascended to the throne, held more land and greater wealth than the pharaoh.
Significance & Cult
Once Amun was identified as the most powerful deity in the universe he acquired epithets which described his various aspects as best they could. Wilkinson writes how “the Egyptians themselves called him Amun asha renu or ‘Amun rich in names,’ and the god can only be fully understood in terms of the many aspects which were combined in him” (92). He was known as “The Concealed God” – he whose nature could not be known and associated with air or the wind which can be felt but not seen or touched. He was also the Creator God who originally stood on the first dry ground at the beginning of time and created the world by mating with himself.
Once he was linked with Ra to become Amun-Ra, he took on Ra’s aspects as a solar god and, as one would expect from a creator, was also a fertility god linked with the fertility deity Min (a very ancient god) and known in this regard as Amun-Min. As he had absorbed the attributes of the war god Montu of Thebes, he was regularly invoked in battle (as Ahmose I had done) and so was also a war god. His mysterious nature infused and gave form to all that human beings could see and all that remained hidden from sight and so he was also a universal god, the most powerful in the universe and, naturally, the King of the Gods. Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch writes:
In his chief cult temple at Karnak in Thebes, Amun, Lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands, ruled as a divine pharaoh. Unlike other important deities, Amun does not seem to have been thought of as living in some distant celestial realm. His presence was everywhere, unseen but felt like the wind. His oracles communicated the divine will to humanity. Amun was said to come swiftly to help Egyptian kings on the battle field or to aid the poor and friendless. When he was manifest in his cult statues, Amun periodically visited the necropolis of Thebes to unite with its goddess, Hathor, and bring new life to the dead.
Amun in the New Kingdom rapidly became the most popular and most widely venerated deity in Egypt. Wilkinson notes that “the monuments which were built to him at that time were little short of astounding and Amun was worshipped in many temples throughout Egypt” (95). The main Temple of Amun at Karnak is still the largest religious structure ever built and was connected to the Southern Sanctuary of the Luxor Temple. The ruins of these temples, and many others to Amun, may still be seen today but there was also a floating temple at Thebes known as Amun’s Barque which was said to be among the most impressive works created for the god.
Amun’s Barque was known to the Egyptians as Userhetamon, “Mighty of Brow is Amun,” and was a gift to the city from Ahmose I following his victory over the Hyksos and ascension to the throne. Egyptologist Margaret Bunson writes, “It was covered in gold from the waterline up and was filled with cabins, obelisks, niches, and elaborate adornments” (21). On Amun’s great festival, The Feast of Opet, the barque would move with great ceremony – carrying Amun’s statue from the Karnak temple downriver to the Luxor temple so the god could visit. During the festival of The Beautiful Feast of the Valley, which honored the dead, the statues of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu (the Theban Triad) traveled on the ship from one side of the Nile to the other in order to participate.
On other days the barque would be docked on the banks of the Nile or at Karnak’s sacred lake. When not in use, the ship would be housed in a special temple at Thebes built to its specifications, and every year the floating temple would be refurbished and repainted or rebuilt. Other barques of Amun were built elsewhere in Egypt, and there were other floating temples to other deities, but Amun’s Barque of Thebes was said to be especially impressive.