Epilepsy, Tutankhamun and Monotheism

A theory on inherited disease in the Egyptian New Kingdom

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.

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.


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.

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


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  • JAMES says

    Of the oldest written records that mention religion that I am aware of – Hittite, Sumerian/Babylonian, Egyptian – they all describe polytheistic systems. If you are aware of ancient texts that describe monotheistic systems (apart from Aten & Y**H), please enlighten us. Of course, written records from antiquity are hard to come by and they “only” take us back to the mid to late Bronze Age (and we haven’t deciphered all of them anyway). We can push back a bit further by piecing together clues from ritualistic objects and paintings/reliefs. Incomplete? Of course. Sometimes maddeningly ambiguous? You bet! But until we build a time machine this is the best one can do.

    Anthropologists would argue further that both Polytheism & Monotheism are products of more highly developed social structures, beginning with the earliest communities organized around agriculture. Their predecessors appear to have been neither Polytheists or Monotheists, but rather, Animists – seeing everything as being alive. This is evident in classical Greek myths, which carry remnants of the animist past in the form of fauns, water nymphs, etc. So there is a third option.

    By the way, throwing political terms around as insults (“Progressive” this and that) is divisive and doesn’t help you make your points (quite the opposite, in fact). Instead, you tend to come across as a bitter crackpot. Try to keep your snark levels under control and argue with evidence and logic.

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

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