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Ancient pharaohs, temporal lobe epilepsy, and the birth of monotheism

Did the religious visions and experiences associated with temporal lobe epilepsy, suffered across generations by a pivotally important royal family in ancient Egypt, give birth to monotheism? This newly advanced theory, which adds a possible new dimension to the longstanding and widely accepted belief that monotheism was founded by the pharaoh Akhenaten, a.k.a. Amenhotep IV (the father of Tutankhamun), sounds like something of a stretch. But that doesn’t make it any less interesting.

Tutankamun’s mysterious death as a teenager may finally have been explained. And the condition that cut short his life may also have triggered the earliest monotheistic religion, suggests a new review of his family history … [A]ll of these theories [about Tutankamun’s death] have missed one vital point, says Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon with an interest in medical history at Imperial College London. Tutankhamun died young with a feminised physique, and so did his immediate predecessors … “It’s significant that two [of the five related pharaohs] had stories of religious visions associated with them,” says Ashrafian. People with a form of epilepsy in which seizures begin in the brain’s temporal lobe are known to experience hallucinations and religious visions, particularly after exposure to sunlight. It’s likely that the family of pharaohs had a heritable form of temporal lobe epilepsy, he says. This diagnosis would also account for the feminine features.

… Tuthmosis IV had a religious experience in the middle of a sunny day, recorded in the Dream Stele — an inscription near the Great Sphinx in Giza. But his visions were nothing compared with those experienced by Akhenaten. They encouraged Akhenaten to raise the status of a minor deity called the “sun-disk”, or Aten, into a supreme god — abandoning the ancient Egyptian polytheistic traditions to start what is thought to be the earliest recorded monotheistic religion. If Ashrafian’s theory is correct, Akhenaten’s religious experiment and Tutankhamun’s premature death may both have been a consequence of a medical condition. “People with temporal lobe epilepsy who are exposed to sunlight get the same sort of stimulation to the mind and religious zeal,” says Ashrafian.

“It’s a fascinating and plausible explanation,” says Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. However, the theory is almost impossible to prove, he adds, given that there is no definitive genetic test for epilepsy.

— Jessica Hamzelou, “Tutankamun’s death and the birth of monotheism,” New Scientist, September 5, 2012

(Story via The Daily Grail)

Note that Ashrafian lays out his theory in full in the September 2012 issue of Epilepsy & Behavior, in an article titled “Familial epilepsy in the pharaohs of ancient Egypt’s eighteenth dynasty.”

Image: Painting of the Aten from Amarna, Public Domain {{PD-US-no notice}} via Wikimedia Commons