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Austin Cline

Was Monotheism a Product of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy?

By February 25, 2013

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The oldest known form of monotheism appears to have originated with Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV), an Egyptian pharaoh. It's likely that his monotheistic reformation of Egyptian religion influenced the development of Judaism, and hence also Christianity and Islam. But where did Akhenaten get the idea for monotheism from, given his heavily polytheistic context? Perhaps it was caused by epilepsy.

Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten)
Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty

It's difficult, if not impossible, to accurately diagnose something like epilepsy so long after the fact, but there's more than one way to study the issue. Recent research on Akhenaten's family has produced some interesting evidence. It's not conclusive, but it is highly suggestive.

Tutankhamun, the only one of the family whose body has been found and who was probably Akhenaten's son, died with a very feminized physique. Paintings of Tutankhamun's uncle or brother Smenkhkare show the same. Amenhotep III and Tuthmosis IV, two of Akhenaten's predecessors, show the same. This, in turn, suggests temporal lobe epilepsy.

"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, [Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon with an interest in medical history at Imperial College Londo] says.

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.

Orrin Devinsky, a neurologist at the New York University Langone Medical Center, thinks the theory must remain speculative.

"The exact timing of Akhenaten's religious conviction is not so clearly documented, and most cases of sudden religious conversion are not due to epilepsy," he says. "Monotheism could be related to epilepsy, or bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, or drug intoxication from a fungus - but this paper does not sway me to any of these options."

Markel agrees: "Do we know that a seizure led to monotheism? It's a nice idea, but we don't know," he says. "It's a very interesting hypothesis, but it's just that - there's no definite proof."

Source: New Scientist, September 08, 2012

Akhenaten would certainly not have been the first person to have experienced visions due to temporal lobe epilepsy and there have certainly been a lot more since him. He also certainly wouldn't have been the first to interpret such visions through the lens of religion.

Akhenaten may, however, have been the first to have been in a position to impose his religious interpretations on everyone else. Others may have been able to inspire religious followers, but Akhenaten's religious visions may still be driving human culture and religion even down through today.

February 25, 2013 at 8:23 pm
(1) craig says:

because he appeared “feminized”doesn’t mean he was homosexual

March 1, 2013 at 5:28 pm
(2) Sally says:

@ Craig
It most certainly doesn’t but the issue of sexuality was never raised.
The post made two points:

(a) Males with temporal-lobe epilepsy – TLE – often have ‘feminized’ bodies (I’m not a medical person, so I can’t comment on this) – Akhenaten and his sons might be said to have possessed such ‘feminized’ bodies; and

(b) Sufferers from TLE often have hallucinatory religious experiences.

But of course we will never know – when mummifying a body, the Egyptians pulled out the brain (through the nose) and threw it away! One can apparently get impressions of the brain from the inside of the skull, but this would entail slicing off the top of Tut’s head – you can imagine the furore that would raise, and in any case such impressions are inexact indicators of how the brain might have misfired.

One should also note that some scientists have speculated that Akhenaten suffered from Marfan’s Syndrome (as may Abraham Lincoln).

May 7, 2013 at 3:41 am
(3) jonathan says:

I know people who have had temporal lobe epilepsy, and have bookshelves filled with nothing but books on philosophy, religion, magic, mysticism, mythology, and esoteric stuff. They do not believe in one god, and are essentially atheist by the typical mono-theistic definition/perspective.

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