Epilepsy, Tutankhamun and Monotheism

A theory on inherited disease in the Egyptian New Kingdom

This Bible History Daily article was originally published in 2012. It has been updated.—Ed.

The Death of Tutankhamun

Archaeologist Howard Carter examines Tutankhamun's remains after his discovery in 1922. What may be the world's most famous archaeological discovery has also sparked the great debate: what killed the boy king?

Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 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.

In the FREE eBook Ancient Israel in Egypt and the Exodus, top scholars discuss the historical Israelites in Egypt and archaeological evidence for and against the historicity of the Exodus.


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.

The legendary Pharaoh Akhenaten, Tutankhamun's father, established a short-lived monotheistic reign at his new capitol, Amarna.

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 is depicted worshipping the sun-disk, the only god in his new monotheistic pantheon. Hutan Ashrafian suggsts that his feminine physique and sunlight-based visions may have been caused by epilepsy.

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.

Read more in New Scientist.

This Bible History Daily article was originally published on September 14, 2012.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Where is Queen Nefertiti’s Tomb?

Has Queen Nefertiti’s Tomb Been Located?

Akhenaten and Moses

When Egyptian Pharaohs Ruled Bronze Age Jerusalem

To See or Not to See: Technology Peers into Ancient Mummies


Additional resources in the BAS library:

“Past Perfect: King Tut, I Presume?” Archaeology Odyssey, July/August 2002.

James P. Allen, “Monotheism: The Egyptian Roots,” Archaeology Odyssey, July/August 1999.

Donald B. Redford, “The Monotheism of the Heretic Pharaoh,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1987.

Donald B. Redford, “The Monotheism of Akhenaten,” in Hershel Shanks and Jack Meinhardt, eds., Aspects of Monotheism (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1996), pp. 11-26.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


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  1. Ric says

    With the discarding of the King’s, brain during Egyptian death rites. Any medical evidence of this latest claim is just a claim by another scholar looking for zebras when perhaps they should first tend to the horses of normalcy.

    Medical science has determined that a leading cause of the Bronze Age King’s death is likely his fractured thighbone. Before medical science advanced from Iron Age chest plastering to nuclear science death relating to fractured thighbones was catastrophic and rarely at the time of accident. This is because of the biomechanics of human physiology. Today, fractured thighbones do not lead to blood clots or fat embolisms because these risks are known and are circumvented before it happens.

    The compound fracture of the King’s distal thighbone was certainly enough to release either a blood clot or glob of fat into his bloodstream. The time allowing for the signs of healing noted in the broken skin should be consider as the amount of time for that released agent of death to reach his vital organs, heart, lungs or brain. Death due to this cause is noted for its pain; look at the King’s face!

    Another favored “cause of death” is infection; this denies the fact that Ancient Egyptians were noted for their ability to treat infections in their common people. Except for their God-King?

    The only reasonable answer for his death is the horse of traditional cause of death throughout the world after a fracture of the thighbone an embolism- a blood clot, or more likely fat. Since his vital organs except the brain are available, it would be interesting to see, if scans could detect an embolism in them. Then there is the lack of his brain matter to consider.

  2. michaEL says

    And he just happend to die as the “Death Angle” Passed-over on Friday the 13th!

  3. Rose says

    The total Solar Eclipse directly over Amarna on May 14, 1338 happened at noon. The eclipse took place between the horns of Taurus (making the constellation visible at noon). A painting in the tomb of Akhenaton’s High Priest Meryra has an image of the Sun unlike any other in Egypt that resembles a total Solar Eclipse. The end of Akhenaton can probably be dated to this Eclipse, the Sun standing down to the Moon over his temple at high noon is probably what did him in.


  4. Pekka says

    Not a new idea about epilepsy per se. The 1940s novel(!) The Egyptian by Waltari assumes this already for Akhenaten, even if not an inherited one necessarily.

  5. Jay says

    Akhenapten’s wife was Nephertiri. From the image of Akhenapten here, I see that he was one-eyed. The famous bust of Nephertiri shows that she was one-eyed also.

    In my Jehovah’s Witnesses interlinear New Testament I read that the first versions of the LXX always showed the Tetragramaton in Hebrew. Current versions of this version are based on late Roman translations. In Greek versions, the Tetragramaton could have been interpreted as “Pi-Pi” by Jews who could not read Hebrew (or Aramaic). Pi is as in 3.14, the ratio used for calculating lengths in circles. Can someone interpret Zaphnath-Paanneah from Hebrew into Greek and into English as in the situation indicated that the tetragramaton was read from left to right? What does Zaphnath-Paanneah look like in Greek if reversed from Hebrew. Also his wife. What does her name look like when the Hebrew spelling is translated to Greek letters and read left to right instead of right to left?

  6. Rose says

    Akhenaton called himself the ‘Son of God’
    (The Moniotheism of the Heretic Pharaoh; Donald B. Redford; Biblical Archelogical Review May/June 1987, VOL. XIII. NO.3)

    The most likely Biblical canidate for Akhenaton was Aaron. Both left the herd to worship the Solar Calf. Both observed the Jubile. Aaron was the High Priest of the Levites and the jubile doctrine of,’Seven Sabbaths of Years’

    Here the king of Jerusalem is under attack by the Apiru in the land and appeals to the Pharaoh for help in the Amarna Letters.

    Say to the king, my lord: Message of Abdi-Heba, your servant. I fall at the feet of my lord 7 times and 7 times. …. EA 287

    Say to the king, my lord, my god, my Sun: Message of Shuwardata, your servant, the dirt at your feet. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, my god, my Sun, 7 times and 7 times. … EA 280

    Leviticus 25:8
    And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years.

    שבעים שבעים (Daniel 9:24)


  7. Val says

    Quite a sweeping statement to say that
    ‘preceding 18th dynasty pharaohs Amenhotep III and Tuthmosis IV, all shared similar features and fates’
    Not something I have read elsewhere in research journals or articles.
    As for the leg injury very recent research has shown that it was only part of an injury that Tutankhamon sustained, and the cause of death was a crushed left side of the body with damage to ribs and heart, caused in all probability by being hit by a chariot.
    as regards Thutmose IV and the dream stele, this has been shown to be a justification of his becoming pharaoh as he was not actually the one to whom the title should have gone.
    And as to Akhenatons monotheism, why does that have to be anything more than what it is! a mans attempt to find his way! if he had suceeded with his new religion, would anyone have remarked on it? perhaps only to mention that it was perhaps down to Jewish influence and nothing more sinsiter

  8. B Jeanne says

    I am not an expert, but read that they commonly married their sisters. This would increase the possibility of genetic inherited disease. I hadn’t heard the epilepsy theory, but did read the possibility of Marphan syndrome which is a hereditary disorder in which the individual has exceptionally long arms and if they live long develop a bent over appearance. In addition the aorta in these people is tortuous and prone to anuresym causing a person to die suddenly due to a massive internal hemorrhage in the chest cavity. Has this been explored as well? Could they find DNA markers for this?

  9. Paul says

    Good article. Especially significant is the connection betwwen Thuthmose IV and Amenhotep IV, both of whom broke with the Theban god Amun in favor the Heliopolan god Ra, but in Akhenaton’s case he took the solar deity to a whole new level. The “Hymn to the Aton” has been compared to Psalm 104, and in paticular verse 2 which describes Yahweh as being “wrapped in a robe of light.” Thothmose IV married a princess from the kingdom of Mitanni, with its capital city Washukanni situated on the Euphrates River. Akhenaton’s father, Amenhotep III, married three princesses from Mitanni, which was dominated by a ruling class of Indo-Europeans known as Maryannu (lords of the sky) and who worshipped gods from India. During this period the earliest part of the Rig Veda was composed, a collection of hymns recited by seers known as Rsis who fathom the mysteries of creation and whose visions are decribed as illumination:
    “These visions and inspired thoughts take shape in the rsi’s heart and find vocalized expression through the speech of the rsi as recited hymns, which are described as sound-forms illumined with light; ‘clothed in beautiful white garments’ and ‘shining like a flame of fire,’ the hymns expand when recited like heaven’s light. The rsis, irradiated with the light of their cognition and ‘bearing light in the mouth,’ are themselves said to be radiant like the sun” (Veda and Torah, by Barbara Holdrege, p.233).

  10. Hrh says

    We are the Royal descendants of Pharaoh Amenhotep 4th aka Akhenaten, aka MOSES! From Akhenaten was actually MOSES! We descend from his grandson who went to Ireland in 1398BC as King Gaedheal born from Moses’s eldest daughter Princess Scota in her marriage to Prince Nuil from Scythe Magog! And so we as the Britannia Royals originating in Dahlria are Scottish -Irish Royals as were the Stewarts before they abdicated the throne of Britain in 1689AD. We however are still full Royals of Britain second cousins to the Windsor’s we infact out rank as High King status! The real British Royals who descend also from our Scottish Kings Corbred 1st and 2nd and High King Mac Alpin……

  11. Hrh says

    We can be found at Facebook as: http://www.facebook.com/andrew.ocrowley Hrh Prince Andrew O’Crowley. These biblical descendants still exist in Australia today!

  12. Paul says

    We also know that Pharaoh Akhenaton’s bodyguards or “Medjay” have left descendants, because they’re in “The Mummy Returns.”

  13. Paul says

    “It’s so very lonely, you’re one thousand light years from home;.” Rolling Stones’

  14. Varghese says

    Dr. Velikovsky in his book Ages in Chaos has a low regard for “the first monotheist in world history”. Dr. Velikovsky writes that that invasions of Habiru [ which he interprets as Arabs / Bedouins / Desert tribes] from the east and of the king of Hatti [ which he interprets as Shalmaneser III as Hatti was already vassal to Assyrians] from the north menaced Egyptian domination of Syria, a domination which,ceased shortly after the reign of Akhnaton. In their letters the Egypt’s vassals incessantly ask for help against the invaders and often also against one another. King Akhnaton, “the first monotheist in world history,” did not care for his empire; he was immersed in his dream of “areligion of love.” Little or no help was sent; the mastery of the pharaohs over Syria and Canaan was broken, and the control of Egypt over her Asiatic tributary provinces was swept away.

  15. Paul says

    A nice little summary by Varghese of the demise of the first historical attempt at monotheism, which we could easiy dismiss as a failure if it wasn’t for the fact that the Israelites were influenced by what has been refered to as the “Amarna Revolution.” There is a curious article in the November 1970 issue of National Geographic entitled, “Computer Helps Scholars Re-create an Egyptian Temple.” Before Akhenaton established Amarna as the capitol of the Aton cult, he built a large temple complex at Karnak devoted to his queen Nefertiti which was meticulously dismantled by Pharoah Horemheb:
    “Horemheb rose to power within 15 years of Akhematon’s death. As a military officer under Akhenaton, he doubtless once worshipped the Aton. Now with the old gods again in vogue, he may have wished to erase the memory of his early devotion – and express his contempt for the dead queen” (p.648).
    This temple was called Per Aton (House of the Aton) and was decorated with a facade of sandstone blocks on which were carved scenes that showed the rays of the sundisk permeating every aspect of daily life:
    “When the photographic work began, we knew of nearly 30,000 blocks. Karnak workmen traditionaly have called them ‘talalat,’ a puzzling designation, for the word is the Arabic collective meaning ‘threes'” (p.641).
    This is where it gets weird, with this Arabic word ‘talalat’ and the Hebrew word ‘tallit':
    “Tallit originally meant ‘gown’ or ‘cloak’ and was worn by the wealthy and by distinguished rabbis and scholars. Later it came to mean ‘prayer shawl.’ The image here derives from the Midrash; see Midrash Tehillim 104:4; ‘Rabbi Shim’on son of Yehozadaq asked Rabbi Shemu’el son of Nahman, ‘How did the Blessed Holy One create the light?’ He answered, ‘He wrapped Himself in a white tallit, and the world shone from His light.’ He said this to him in a whisper. Rabbi Shim’on said, ‘Is this not stated explicitly in the Bible? He wraps Himself in light as in a garment’ (Psalm 104:2). Rabbi Shemu’el replied, ‘As I recieved it in a whisper, so I told you in a whisper’ (Zohar; The Book of Enlightenment, by Daniel Matt, p.212, commenting on the face of Moses being radiant in Exodus 34:30).

  16. Paul says

    I incorrectly spelled the word for these sandstone bricks; it should be talatat (there’s even a wiki-page on it). In the second or third year of Akhenaton’s reign a sed-festival, or jubilee was celebrated, though this festival is normally conducted in the king’s 30th year. The commentator Rose #6 suggested, however, that the jubilee of Akhenaton had inspired the 50 year jubilee in Levitcus 25:10, which I have yet to discover, though I cannot rule out the uniqueness of this premature jubilee:
    “That the Karnak jubilee was not considered to be Amenhotep IV’s own official first sed-festival is proved by a later inscription in which a courtier at Amarna includes a wish to see the king ‘in his first jubilee’ in his funerary prayers, clearly indicating that such a festival had not yet taken place” (“The Oxford History of Egypt” by Ian Shaw, p.276).
    Akhenaton was regarded as the son of the living Aton (or son of God) and acted as the god’s counterpart on earth. In an interesting inscription by one of Akhenaton’s officials, the tomb of Tutu gives us a deeper understanding of the Aton:
    “Thy rays bear a myriad of jubilees for thy son, living in truth, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferkheprure- Wanre (Akhenaton), my god, my fashioner, and my creator” (“Ancient Records of Egypt, vol. 2″ by James Breasted, p.416).
    Now I’m suggesting something controversial, that the concept of this sun god as being the origin of creation was borrowed by the Israelites;
    “For before the Blessed Holy One created the world, He and His name were enclosed within Him, one. Nothing existed until there arose within the will of the thought actualizing all by impress of the signet (seal, signet, stamp), creating the world. He traced and built, but it did not endure until he enwrapped Himself in a wrapping of radiance, supernal right, creating the heavens” (“The Zohar, vol. 1″ by Daniel Matt, p.116).

  17. Paul says

    In case you’re confused about my previous comment concerning “supernal right,” it alludes to Wisdom that is personified in Proverbs 8 and in the book of Zohar this unfathomable Wisdom is the Hebrew letter ‘yod’ which is the first letter of the tetragrammaton, YHVH. The “revolution of the yod” is similar to the motion of the galaxy, from which “myriads of jubilees” of the life, death and rebirth of stars that form the heavens emitting light towards infinity. Perhaps this is why the columns inside Solomon’s temple had lotus flowers holding up the ceiling, since the lotus is also a symbol of rebirth.

  18. Paul says

    I was wrong about the lotus capitals being inside Solomon’s temple when they are only outside on the two columns flanking the entrance and these do not hold up the ceiling like many Egyptian temple columns that provide structural support with lotus flower capitals. Amenhotep III used them in the temple at Soleb:

  19. Paul says

    “It is also noteworthy that Amenhotep III named his own palace complex ‘the gleaming Aten’ and used stamp seals for commodities that may be read ‘Nebmaatra [his prenomen] is the gleaming Aten’. Of course, sealings are economic documents and could as such refer to the palace complex itself; they might, therefore, have been intended to be read as ‘the gleaming Aten of Nebmaatra’. What is certain is that the association of the Aten with Amenhotep III was well established in his own documentation prior to the reign of Amenhotep IV / Akhenaten” (“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” by Ian Shaw, p.262).
    So this Aton cult started with Amenhotep III who built temples in a southern region that is native to the Blue Lotus, which some regard as having a narcotic effect, though I’ve seen that episode of “Secrets of the Dead” where they did a DNA analysis on the existing species which showed no trace of a hallucinagenic.. There is also a scaled down representation of four pillars with two having lotus capitials and two having papyrus capitals symbolizing Upper and Lower Egypt, symbols that were used throughout Egypt’s history. The image can be found after you scroll down to Amenhotep III:
    If I could capture “A Day in a Life” to sum up the motif of the intertwining of the lotus and papyrus plants it would be in 1965 at the Albert Hall where a gathering of poets (papyrus) set in motion the psychedelic movement (lotus).

  20. Janet says

    The first monotheist? It is interesting to me how the first rule of modern progressive scholarship is, “First, discount everything in the Bible, since we have already decided it isn’t true.” That attitude isn’t based on knowledge. It is based on bias. How many times though has such scholarship been demonstrated to be false? Over and over again, discoveries have been made which support the biblical narrative.

    Progressive scholarship thinks that mankind was initially polytheistic and gradually moved into monotheism, with monotheism being more intelligent obviously. Has anyone considered that it was actually the other way around, with monotheism occurring first?

  21. INkethayezizwe says

    Janet, and Paul, has anyone bothered to find out about the baNtu spiritual practices? Instead of the world speculating about the original practices of Africans, why doesn’t the world observe the denizens instead?

  22. Edgeydave1 says

    Thanks for the enlightenment! I enjoyed reading the Pharaoh stories. Can you tell me what those two objects are that Pharaoh Akhenaten is holding in his hands?

Continuing the Discussion

  1. In the news: Epilepsy, Tutankhamun and Monotheism | Petros Koutoupis linked to this post on June 4, 2014

    […] Biblical Archaeology Society Article: Epilepsy, Tutankhamun and Monotheism Author: Noah Wiener Date: 06/3/2014 Synopsis: Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb […]

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