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Akhenaten's Art: What Some Body Can Say About Religion

09/20/2010 05:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I remember when King Tut was all the rage -- the impressive displays of luxury items from Tut's tomb, the mummy itself, the song "Walk Like an Egyptian." Well, he's back in the news, in a most 21st-century way. This time, archaeologists, with their cool cool stuff and rugged outdoorsy romanticism, aren't the prime movers; rather it's scientists poking away in their fluorescent-lit labs who have shaken things up.

I recently read the Sept. 2010 National Geographic piece and was struck by a profound discovery. I admit that I've been "saving" this thought for a time when I could really do it justice, but I should know by now that such a time never comes. So here goes: even though the piece was about how DNA studies have illuminated family relationships between heretofore mysterious mummies, and even though they reveal titillating information about incest in the royal household, what I found to be the most truly remarkable assertion in the piece merited only a couple of sentences in the article: Akhenaten, now known to be Tut's dad, was not himself deformed. Wow!

Ok, that may not seem "wow"-worthy to you -- yet. But get this: For decades (at least) we've been teaching about how Akhenaten, a revolutionary pharaoh who instituted monotheism in Egypt in the mid-second millennium BCE, chose to portray himself in a more natural manner than his deity-claiming predecessors, with their testosterone-buff-figured statues, had ever done before. In his statues, Akhenaten looks kind of, well, soft and lumpy. Scholars posited all sorts of possible medical conditions that could have led to such effeminate features; Marfan Syndrome led the pack. But recent, highly sophisticated tests put that theory to rest: Akhenaten was perfectly normal. So why the unflattering portraiture? A good possibility: While he, too, identified himself as the representation of the heavenly sphere on earth, in his case it was as the representative of the one and only God. That God, being only One and the source of all life, was naturally both male and female. Think Genesis 1. Wow. So much for the "naturalist style" of Akhenaten's art. His self-image instead made a powerful theological statement.