The Death of Tutankhamun
Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb ninety years ago not only revealed the opulence of Egyptian antiquities, it sparked one of the greatest medical and forensic mysteries in human history. While a CT scan in 2005 revealed an infected broken leg and a 2010 study of the mummy revealed the DNA of a malaria-causing parasite, the longstanding debate is far from solved. A new theory by Imperial College London surgeon Hutan Ashrafian suggests that the studies of pharaonic death are too focused on the individual’s conditions, and may miss the big picture.
Tutankhamun died at a young age with a feminine physique. His closest relatives, including his father Akhenaten, his uncle or brother Smenkhkare and preceding 18th dynasty pharaohs Amenhotep III and Tuthmosis IV, all shared similar features and fates. While scholars tend to relate the deaths of these pharaohs to separate circumstances, Hutan Ashrafian suggests that the royal family may have had an inherited disorder: temporal lobe epilepsy.
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Ancient Egyptian Pictures of Pharaohs: Does Epilepsy Provide a Clue?
Temporal lobe epilepsy is known to affect the release of hormones and sexual development. Tutankhamun was depicted with a feminine physique. Due to his short life, his representations are far less common than the widespread depictions of his father, Akhenaten. The rebellious pharaoh is often considered the world’s first monotheist and was described by the great Egyptologist Henry Breasted as “the first individual in history.” Akhenaten is notoriously depicted in innumerable representations with feminine curves and Mick Jagger-like lips. In Aspects of Monotheism (full book available for free in the BAS Library), Donald B. Redford describes the ruler’s unique physique:
Above all, Akhenaten had himself represented in a way that, even by the ancients, was not considered flattering: His skull seems malformed, with a lanternlike jaw and an over-heavy head on an elongated neck; and spindly legs support his curiously feminine torso.
Epilepsy may have shaped more than just pharaonic physical features; one of the leading theories of Tutankhamun’s death is based around a serious and infected leg fracture shortly before his death. Rather than presenting an alternative form of death, the epileptic hypothesis presents a seizure-prone king, more susceptible to physical injury due to his illness.
Epilepsy and Egyptian Monotheism
Hutan Ashrafian’s theory of epilepsy extends far beyond the death of a single pharaonic figure; he posits that the epilepsy may have accounted for some major developments in the Egyptian New Kingdom. When people suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy are exposed to sunlight, they are prone to seizures, often resulting in hallucinations and religious visions. Two important 18th-dynasty pharaohs in Tutankhamun’s family had significant religious revelations centered on sunlight. The so-called Dream Stele discovered at Giza describes a religious vision of Tuthmosis IV. “At the moment the sun was at zenith … this noble god speaking from his own mouth like a father speaks to his son, and saying: ‘Look at me, observe me, my son Thutmose.’”
Akhenaten ruled during Egypt’s New Kingdom, which declined in the 12th century B.C.E. in the cataclysmic Bronze Age Collapse. Read more about the end of the Bronze Age here.
Akhenaten’s religious sun-visions took on a much more dramatic form. Akhenaten inherited the New Kingdom throne in the 14th century B.C.E. at the height of the polytheistic dynasty’s power. Recent pharaohs had expanded the nation’s boundaries and created massive temples for their pantheon of deities, yet Akhenaten changed everything for the sake of a sun and light-based Egyptian monotheism. While later pharaohs were quick to reverse Akhenaten’s religious shift and restore polytheism for centuries to come, Akhenaten’s reign stands out as a distinct milestone in the development of religious thought. In his article “Monotheism: The Egyptian Roots” James P. Allen describes Akhenaten’s religious innovations, and his promotion of light and the sun above all other divinities.
Despite its fundamental and persistent polytheism, ancient Egypt also gave birth to the world’s earliest recorded belief in a single god. This was the religion espoused by the so-called heretic pharaoh Akhenaten (c. 1352–1336 B.C.). After ruling for five years in traditional Egyptian fashion, the pharaoh changed his name from Amenophis, which honored the state god Amun, to Akhenaten, meaning “He who is effective for the Sun Disk.” At the same time, he created a new capital on the Nile at Tell el-Amarna, midway between the traditional Egyptian capital, Memphis, and the religious center of Thebes. He called his new city Akhetaten, meaning “Place where the Sun Disk becomes effective.” Clearly, he wanted to make a break with the past…
It is known as the Amarna Period. Its god—indeed, the god of all Egypt if Akhenaten could have had his way—was the natural phenomenon of light, which Akhenaten saw as the prime force in the universe…
When Akhenaten first promulgated his new religion, he identified this force with the traditional sun god Re-Harakhti—that is, the sun (Re) appearing as ruler of the world at dawn (Harakhti). But this traditional god was given another name in Akhenaten’s new religion—a long formula known as the didactic name, which is more credo than name: “The living one, Re-Harakhti, who becomes active in (or from) the Akhet [the space just below the visible horizon] in his identity of the light that is in the sun disk.” This new name served to disassociate Akhenaten’s theology even further from traditional Egyptian notions of divinity. It emphasized the abstract nature of his god: The new image was not an icon to be worshiped but merely a large-scale version of the hieroglyph for light…
Akhenaten’s religion seems to have begun as another example of traditional Egyptian henotheism, the practice of stressing the primacy of one god over all others.
If proven, Hutan Ashrafian’s theory of inherited epilepsy could have ramifications beyond a single medical mystery; it could account for religious shifts in one of the world’s greatest empires. Unfortunately, there is no definitive test for epilepsy, so Ashafian’s theory will remain exactly that: a speculative account.
In the Second Temple period, the Shema‘ Yisrael text in Deuteronomy was a monaltric statement; it stated that Israel had an exclusive relationship with its God, but it did not deny the existence of other national deities for other peoples. Read about a discovery that marks the transition of the Shema‘ Yisrael into a monotheistic statement!
Additional Resources in the BAS library
“Past Perfect: King Tut, I Presume?.” Archaeology Odyssey, Jul/Aug 2002, 36-41.
Allen, James P. “Monotheism: The Egyptian Roots.” Archaeology Odyssey, Jul/Aug 1999, 44-47, 49, 53-54, 59.
Redford, Donald B. “The Monotheism of the Heretic Pharaoh.” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/Jun 1987, 16-30, 32.
Redford, Donald B. “The Monotheism of Akhenaten.” Aspects of Monotheism, 1996, 11-26.
Originally published on Bible History Daily on September 14, 2012. Updated June 3, 2014.