‘The Gadfly’ – Best-selling Irish novel of all time, Revolutionary China and Soviets loved it – by James Wilson (Irish Central) 11 Feb 2017

Ethel Voynich’s master piece novel, The Gadfly, about revolutionary Italy was a runaway success in revolutionary Russia and China.)

Corkwoman Voynich published the story in 1897 and the story of a young Englishman who travelled to Rome during the most tumultuous time in Italian history captured the Soviet imagination in a way that few other English language novels have done before or since.

The Gadfly sold well over 5 million copies in 22 of the Soviet Union’s official languages and inspired no less than seven musical adaptations and five film and theatre adaptations each.

Originally met with disapproval by the authorities in Tsarist Russia due to its themes of rebellion and social change, it became standard school reading for many years in the Soviet Union and enjoyed considerable popularity in both Iran and the People’s Republic of China too. It was also widely read by Irish Republican and socialist prisoners in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison after the Easter Rising in 1916.

In it, the gallant protagonist Arthur Burton journeys to Italy at the height of the so-called Risorgimento as “The Gadfly” and becomes embroiled in ecclesiastical scandal with a shocking denouement.

Despite being published at the tail end of the 19th century the book enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the 1950’s after a Soviet movie adaptation in 1955 sold 39 million box office tickets. Its enduring mass appeal in China meant that during the Cultural Revolution the once officially sanctioned text was suppressed, as nervous Communist officials worried it would inspire anti-Maoist movements.

Today “The Gadfly” is out of print in the English language, while available free in the public domain site Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3431/3431-h/3431-h.htm –  but it remains a much loved book in many countries that lived under the shadow of communist rule.


Voynich’s The Gadfly: Exploring Connections between Revolutionary Russia and Ireland – By Anna Lively (Age of Revolutions) 10 Dec 2018

Gadfly 7

Picture of Ethel Lilian Voynich, 1901.

Anglo-Irish writer Ethel Voynich’s The Gadfly (1897) is a dramatic story of revolutionary ambition and the fraught relationship between revolutionary movements and the Catholic Church. Set during the nineteenth-century Italian Risorgimento, it tells the story of an Englishman named Arthur (the ‘Gadfly’) who becomes embroiled in the Young Italy movement, helping to distribute weapons and spread seditious, anti-clerical pamphlets. Alongside the Gadfly, there is the quietly brave and revolutionary Gemma, who defies traditional gender roles. This book gained a huge international profile and was popular in Soviet Russia and later in communist China.

This globally-influential Anglo-Irish novel reveals connections between revolutionary Russia and Ireland. The movement towards independence in Ireland c. 1912 to 1923 is now commonly referred to as the Irish Revolution, although this term remains contentious. The more conservative nature of the Irish revolution compared to its Russian counterpart in 1917 has led scholars to ignore their points of comparison and overlap. The Gadfly offers the opportunity to compare these two revolutions in terms of Voynich’s own biography, themes in the novel, and the distribution and political use of the book in Russia and Ireland. 

Voynich’s biography demonstrates the importance of transnational political and cultural networks on the eve of the Irish and Russian Revolutions. Voynich (née Boole) was born in 1864 in Blackrock in Cork to English parents, the celebrated mathematicians and philosophers George and Mary Boole. She moved to London after the death of her father but returned to Ireland regularly during her childhood. As a young woman, she became involved in radical circles in London, meeting prominent Russian political exiles like Prince P. A. Kropotkin and Stepniak (Sergey Kravchinsky). With Stepniak’s help, she learned Russian, working as a governess and tutor in Russia in the late 1880s. Her connections to the Russian Empire deepened after she met and later married Wilfred Michael Voynich, a political radical from Poland (then partly under Russian imperial control), who had recently escaped from exile in Siberia.

While few Irish radicals travelled to Russia or married Russian subjects, Voynich was not alone in her curiosity about Russian politics. During the 1920s and 1930s, numerous young Irish radicals, such as Roddy Connolly (son of the influential socialist and revolutionary James Connolly) and Rosamond Jacob, followed in her footsteps to Moscow, searching for political possibilities. Voynich’s life is just one example of how people’s lives and experiences transcended national and political borders during the revolutionary period, defying neat historiographical categorizations.

The themes of The Gadfly relate to important social and political debates in revolutionary Russia and Ireland. Despite its historical Italian setting, the novel had contemporary political implications. At a time of international suffrage movements, the novel suggests women could play an important role in revolutionary movements. The narrator declares how “Gemma would fight at the barricades. She was made of the clay in which heroines are moulded; she would be the perfect comrade.” Russian and Irish women would indeed play an important role on the ‘barricades’, whether it be women like Constance Markievicz in the Easter Rising, or Bolshevik feminists like Alexandra Kollontai.

The relationship between the Church and revolution is also central throughout the novel. In one dramatic scene, we learn how a Catholic priest informed on the Gadfly after he gave away details of the revolutionary movement in confession. Voynich’s own relationship to religion was complex and changed throughout her life, reflecting some of the wider debates surrounding atheism and socialism in both Russia and Ireland at this time.

The circulation of The Gadfly demonstrates the political significance of literature in Russia and Ireland. The Gadfly was first published in the US and then in Britain in 1897, before being translated into Russian by the critic and translator Zinaida Vengerova, whom Voynich had met in Russia. The dramatic novel became hugely popular, first appearing in serial form in the socialist-leaning journal Mir Bozhii and then in multiple book editions after 1900. Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, The Gadfly (or Ovod in Russian) became a staple revolutionary text, selling an estimated 4 million copies with at least 60 Russian-language editions in print. A 1957 article in the Soviet cultural journal Voprosy Literatury commented on the book’s significance, although it lamented how little was known about its mysterious Anglo-Irish author. This changed after Soviet journalists rediscovered the elderly Voynich in New York, helping her to gain celebrity status in the Soviet Union.

The Gadfly was far less successful in Ireland than in the Soviet Union. During the Irish Civil War of 1922 to 1923, The Gadfly was circulated in some republican circles, including among anti-Treaty prisoners. In his memoir, the Donegal republican Peadar O’Donnell commented how it “is a curious fact, which many of the Mountjoy prisoners must be easily able to recall, that it was around these days that the Gadfly was being widely read in ‘C’ wing.” O’Donnell remembers how his fellow prisoner Joe McKelvey “often commented” on the book, particularly the Gadfly’s execution; McKelvey even placed the book beside his bed before his own execution in December 1922. After this, the book largely fell into obscurity in Ireland. One journalist noted in 1966 how the “only literary recognition [Voynich] has received in her own country is that the book was placed on the banned list of publications some 50 years after it appeared.”

The history of The Gadfly demonstrates the globally-connected nature of both the Russian and Irish Revolutions. Voynich’s travels and circulation of the Gadfly among republican prisoners suggest that the Irish Revolution was not uniformly conservative or detached from international radicalism. And yet The Gadfly was far less popular in Ireland compared to in the Soviet Union. Political policies and cultural attitudes to religion were an important factor in this, and in the wider divergence of the revolutions. The novel’s anti-clerical tone was popular in the Soviet Union, but in post-revolutionary Ireland the Catholic Church exerted considerable influence over society and politics. With its hero the ‘Gadfly’ making blasphemous comments like the “mental disease called religion”, it is hardly surprising that neither the book nor its author was widely celebrated in post-independence Ireland.

Anna Lively is a History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh studying the ‘Transnational connections between the Russian and Irish Revolutions, 1905–1923’. She previously completed an MSc in Contemporary History at the University of Edinburgh, and a BA in History at the University of Exeter. Her research is funded by a Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities studentship. She tweets @AnnaLively14.

Further Reading:

Casey, Maurice. ‘Red Easter’, History Ireland, vol. 24, no. 5 (2016), 40-2. 

Fremantle, Anne. ‘The Russian Best-seller’, History Today, vol. 25, issue 9 (1975), 629-37.

O’Connor, Emmet. Reds and the Green: Ireland, Russia and the Communist Internationals, 1919-43 (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2004).

McGeever, Brendan, ‘The Easter Rising and the Soviet Union: an untold chapter in Ireland’s great rebellion’, Open Democracy, 25 March 2016, accessible at https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/brendan-mcgeever/easter-rising-and-soviet-union-untold-chapter-in-ireland-s-great-rebellion.


[1] Patrick Waddington, ‘Voynich [née Boole], Ethel Lilian (1864–1960)’ (2010). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-38488 18 Nov. 2018.

[2] Ethel Voynich, The Gadfly (Winnetka, Calif.: Norilana Books, 2006), 50.

[3] Ibid., 48-9.

[4] E. Brandis, ‘Rable pod zapretom’, Voprosy Literatury, 3 (1957).

[5] Lewis Bernhardt, ‘‘The Gadfly’ in Russia’, Princeton University Library Chronicle, vol. 28, no. 1 (1966), 1-19. 

[6] Peadar O’Donnell, The Gates Flew Open: An Irish Civil War Prison Diary (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 64-5; Maggie Armstrong, ‘Cork’s heroine of communist literature’, The Irish Times, 30 July 2010, accessed at https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/cork-s-heroine-of-communist-literature-1.629829 18 November 2018.

[7] Voynich, The Gadfly, 60; Joe Joyce, ‘From the Archives’, Irish Times, 27 April 1966, 24.

[8] Voynich, The Gadfly, 179.

The Gadfly – by Ethel Voynich – English Language 1897 Novel About Revolutionaries in 1840’s Italy – Read By Millions in Socialist Russia and Maoist China – Ignored and Unknown in the West

I was scanning the hodgepodge of paperback books on a shelf in the parlor.  I wanted to remove any work I might have sitting on a shelf for decades without touching.  I need to give away some more books and make room in the intellectual clutter of my domicile. 

I saw the title ‘The Gadfly.’  I hadn’t touched that book in years and years; I had never read the novel.  Someone had moved out of an apartment while I was in college and I had adopted the orphaned paperback.  I was impressed with the blurbs on the front and back cover.  The books was reportedly the ‘number one’ American best seller in Russia. 

The Pyramid Published paperback I have has a cover price of fifty cents.  The printing date is ‘April 1961.’   The back cover claims that the ‘rediscovered’ classic was being printed in a 500,000 run because of the anticipated interest.

In Russia a number of movies and operas had been based on the work.  The music from the works is still appreciated and performed today. 

A decent movie from 1955 in good color and period costumes – but – no subtitles – a story set in Italy with everyone speaking Russian.  Employ suspension of disbelief, find the plot of the story before hand to understand roughly what is going on, and then pay attention to the actors faces and body movements.  This is a good movie.  I watched half of it last night.  (1:37:46 min)

I also started to read the text online.

Text at Project Gutenberg – http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3431/3431-h/3431-h.htm

A passable audio reading of ‘The Gadfly’ from Librivox on Youtube

Gadfly 6

From Wikipedia:

The Gadfly is a novel by Irish writer Ethel Voynich, published in 1897 (United States, June; Great Britain, September of the same year), set in 1840s Italy under the dominance of Austria, a time of tumultuous revolt and uprisings.[1] The story centres on the life of the protagonist, Arthur Burton, as a member of the Youth movement, and his antagonist, Padre Montanelli. A thread of a tragic relationship between Arthur and his love, Gemma, simultaneously runs through the story. It is a story of faith, disillusionment, revolution, romance, and heroism.

The book, set during the Italian Risorgimento, is primarily concerned with the culture of revolution and revolutionaries. Arthur, the eponymous Gadfly, embodies the tragic Romantic hero, who comes of age and returns from abandonment to discover his true state in the world and fight against the injustices of the current one. The landscape of Italy, in particular the Alps, is a pervading focus of the book, with its often lush descriptions of scenery conveying the thoughts and moods of characters.

Gadfly 2


Arthur Burton, an English Catholic, travels to Italy to study to be a priest. He discovers radical ideas, renounces Catholicism, fakes his death and leaves Italy. While away he suffers great hardship, but returns with renewed revolutionary fervour. He becomes a journalist, expounding radical ideas in brilliant satirical tracts published under the pseudonym “the gadfly”. The local authorities are soon dedicated to capturing him. Gemma, his lover, and Padre Montanelli, his Priest (and also secretly his biological father), show various forms of love via their tragic relations with the focal character of Arthur: religious, romantic, and family. The story compares these emotions to those Arthur experiences as a revolutionary, particularly drawing on the relationship between religious and revolutionary feelings. This is especially explicit at the climax of the book, where sacred descriptions intertwine with reflections on the Gadfly’s fate. Eventually Arthur is captured by the authorities and executed by a firing squad. Montanelli also dies, having lost his faith and his sanity.

With the central theme of the book being the nature of a true revolutionary, the reflections on right wing religion and left wing rebellion proved to be ideologically suitable and successful. The Gadfly was exceptionally popular in the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and Iran exerting a large cultural influence. In the Soviet Union The Gadfly was part of school reading and the top best seller, indeed by the time of Voynich’s death The Gadfly is estimated to have sold 2,500,000 copies in the Soviet Union alone.[5] In P.R. China, there are several publishers translated the book, and one of them (China Youth Press) sold more than 2,050,000 copies.[6] Irish writer Peadar O’Donnell recalls the novel’s popularity among Irish Republican prisoners in Mountjoy Prison during the Irish Civil War.[

The Russian composer Mikhail Zhukov turned the book into an opera The Gadfly (Овод, 1928). In 1955, the Soviet director Aleksandr Faintsimmer adapted the novel into a film of the same title (Russian: Ovod) for which Dmitri Shostakovich wrote the score. The Gadfly Suite is an arrangement of selections from Shostakovich’s score by the composer Levon Atovmian. A second opera The Gadfly was composed by Soviet composer Antonio Spadavecchia.

On the other hand, in Italy, where the plot takes place during the Italian Unification, the novel is totally neglected:[8] it was translated into Italian as late as in 1956 and was never reprinted: Il Figlio del Cardinale (literally, The Son of the Cardinal). A new edition, carrying the same title, came out in 2013.

Theatre adaptations

  • 1898. The Gadfly or the Son of the Cardinal by George Bernard Shaw. This version was created at Voynich’s request to forestall other dramatisations.[9]
  • 1899. The Gadfly by Edward E. Rose, commissioned by Stuart Robson. Voynich described this version as an “illiterate melodrama”, and tried to get an injunction to stop it being performed.[10]
  • 1906. Zhertva svobody by L. Avrian (in Russian).
  • 1916. Ovod by V. Zolotarëv (in Russian).
  • 1940. Ovod by A. Zhelyabuzhsky (in Russian).
  • 1947. Ovid by Yaroslav Halan (in Ukrainian)

Opera, ballet, musical adaptations

Film adaptations



  • See Voynich, Ethel Lillian (1897). The Gadfly (1 ed.). New York: Henry Holt & Company. Retrieved 13 July 2014. via Archive.org
  • Robin Bruce Lockhart, Reilly: Ace of Spies; 1986, Hippocrene Books, ISBN 0-88029-072-2.
  • Andrew Cook, Ace of Spies: The True Story of Sidney Reilly, 2004, Tempus Publishing, ISBN 0-7524-2959-0. Page 39.
  • Gerry Kennedy, The Booles and the Hintons, Atrium Press, July 2016 pp 274-276
  • Cork City Libraries Archived 18 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine provides a downloadable PDF[dead link] of Evgeniya Taratuta’s 1957 biographical pamphlet Our Friend Ethel Lilian Boole/Voynich, translated from the Russian by Séamus Ó Coigligh. The pamphlet gives some idea of the Soviet attitude toward Voynich.
  • [1]
  • O’Donnell, Peadar The Gates Flew Open (1932) Ch. 14
  • S. Piastra, Luoghi reali e luoghi letterari: Brisighella in The Gadfly di Ethel Lilian Voynich, “Studi Romagnoli” LVII, (2006), pp. 717–735 (in Italian); S. Piastra, Il romanzo inglese di Brisighella: nuovi dati su The Gadfly di Ethel Lilian Voynich, “Studi Romagnoli” LIX, (2008), pp. 571–583 (in Italian); A. Farsetti, S. Piastra, The Gadfly di Ethel Lilian Voynich: nuovi dati e interpretazioni, “Romagna Arte e Storia” 91, (2011), pp. 41–62 (in Italian).
  • Therese Bonney & R. F. Rattray, Bernard Shaw, a Chronicle, Leagrave Press, Luton, England, 1951, p.135.


  1. Los Angeles Herald, Volume 604, Number 8, 8 October 1899, p.13

External links

Grammys: Great Porn, Maybe, But Music It Was NOT – by Ilana Mercer • 14 Feb 2019


I used to have some respect for Lady Gaga. With all her pretentious Yoko Onanisms, Stefani Germanotta, Gaga’s real name, is actually a hard-working and, at times, polished singer.

But to watch Gaga, at the 61st Grammy Awards, perform a number called “Shallow” was to endure an assault on the eyes and the ears.

Legs permanently splayed like an arthritic street walker, Gaga traipsed around catatonically, attempting to head-bang, but getting disoriented. Some things are best left to a macho, metal-head guy.

Gaga’s look was not a good one. But her sound, which is what counts here, was positively terrible. Yet, Gaga—lugging microphone and mount around like a geriatric with a walker—was a highlight in what was a pornographic, cacophonous extravaganza.

Aside the gorgeous Alicia Keys, host of the 2019 Grammys, who is talented and charming, and Dolly Parton, a consummate pro—the event showcased the gutter culture that is the American music scene. The country is truly in the musical sewer.

The petulant female artists, so proud of their seized power, showcased power, all right—but it was all in the hips, the pelvis, and in thrusts and twerks of the tush. Not one transcendent, inspiringly beautiful dance move did these throngs of crass stompers execute, on the pimped stage.

Janelle Monáe? The sum total of this artiste’s musical “talent” is simulating sex on stage. “Let the v-gina monologue,” she hissed venomously at her adoring, masochistic fans, while moving her nether regions to a base, atavistic beat. Indeed, in an orifice, Miss Monáe has found the right interlocutor.

Let us stipulate for the record that this is never about lyrics. Cardi B screaming that she “likes morning sex” but that nothing in this world does she love “more than checks” is not an issue.

Put it this way, if the greatest composer ever, Johann Sebastian Bach, set his divine, god-like cantatas to the saucy, naughty lyrics of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, would I decry his sublime composition as immoral? Don’t be daft. The music of J.S. Bach would still be sublime if it were set to Cardi B’s gutter language.

My point: Cardi B doesn’t make music. The category for which she and her sisters should be nominated, if I am being charitable, is street theatre.

Incessant, asinine, genital-speak is one of the things that distinguishes these female artistes (as in “a person with artistic pretensions”) and makes them particularly repulsive. Do they not realize some things are best left veiled and mysterious?

Women of Monáe’s ilk are first to robotically protest the objectification of their sex, but are complicit in ensuring that The Act itself suffers the very same fate: sex has been made an object, a fashionable accessory, part of an empowering, emasculating life-style.

Screaming there was aplenty at Grammys No. 61. But good voices? None at all. Informed we were that the insipid Kacey Musgraves, a two-chord whiner, is what passes for country music, these days.

While I don’t much care for the country twang, for a while, country music was the closest to rock one could get. The riffs, the relative facility with the instruments, and the musicians’ manliness—amid the rapid queering of rock outfits—resembled the rock of yesteryear. But Kacey Musgraves versus the fabulous Faith Hill? Never the twain shall meet. Why, Musgraves makes me miss Sarah McLachlan and her soft-pop Lilith bosom buddies.

The only great melodies on stage, February 10, 2019, were the few achingly beautiful old songs botched by the newbies’ ugly warbling.

Yes, it’s the custom to yodel and ululate. Nobody learns to sing properly. An example of a caterwauling duo was Chloe x Halle, who absolutely mutilated the exquisite, evocative “Where Is The Love,” performed, in 1972, by Donny Hathaway and the heavenly Roberta Flack.

Again, not one memorable song did I hear, sporting a decent chord progression and some melodic variety; not one vaguely competent guitarist or instrumentalist: nothing at all. As musicians, most of the performers were objectively G-d-awful. Moving melodies, harmonic complexity, gorgeous arrangements, furious licks, superb singing and impossible time-signature fluctuations—by the sound of it, these are competencies lost.

Players (Chris Cornell – “When Bad Does Good”) sustained one or two pitches and exhibited little proficiency on any of the instruments they belabored (St. Vincent, “Masseduction“).

In all, instrumentalist these days can mostly only strum, and produce an amorphous blend—an ill-differentiated, sloppy sonic porridge. Such a structureless cacophony pleases the lazy ear because it’s repetitive, and chock-full of blurry, angst-riddled crescendos.

This deficit in skill is understandable. Why bother acquiring instrumental proficiency, instruction in composition or voice training, when a guitar is just a sexy prop? Swaying hips, a jutting pelvis, bedroom whispers or affectation and attitude (Dua Lipa, H.E.R. ) will get you all the attention and fame you crave, because these gutter-culture commodities are what’s in demand.

Which is where Cardi B comes in. “Be Careful” (an actual Cardi B number, in whose video she culturally appropriates the “Kill Bill” wedding scene). Even if you forget that a glorified lap dancer is not a musician; don’t get addicted to this woman’s audial porn.

As to H.E.R, formerly Gabi: She calls her winning album an “EP,” which stands for “extended play.” My point precisely. What my trained ear hears is aimless, skills-less, stream-of-consciousness, monotonous musical phrases, characterized by little to no harmonic resolution, other than spasms of caterwauling.

And the winner is … Give it up for technology. The tartlets I watched “sing” at the 61st Grammys would have been even more inaudible and tuneless were it not for the mighty Auto-Tune: the “holy grail of recording,” that “corrects intonation problems in vocals or solo instruments, in real time, without distortion or artifacts.”

Indeed, this T & A line-up would be reduced to even more embarrassing grunts, out-of-tune yelps, and bedroom whispers, if not for the Auto-Tune technology.


China Plans To Build Space Solar Station – By Tsvetana Paraskova (Oilprice.com) 15 Feb 2019

Sun Earth

Chinese scientists have revealed plans to build and launch in orbit a space solar station that could capture the Sun’s rays 24/7, Chinese media report.

China has already started to build an early experimental space power plant in the city of Chongqing, The Sydney Morning Herald reported, citing an article in China’s Science and Technology Daily.

The space solar station, planned to orbit the Earth at 36,000 kilometers (22,370 miles) could provide “an inexhaustible source of clean energy for humans,” according to Pang Zhihao, a researcher at the China Academy of Space Technology Corporation.

Such solar power technology could supply reliable energy 99 percent of the time and have six times the intensity of the solar farms that work on the earth, the scientist says.

China will start by launching small solar stations between 2021 and 2025, while a possible next step would be a Megawatt-level station planned to be built in 2030.

The energy from the space solar station would be converted into a microwave or laser beam that would be sent to the earth.

However, the project has two major hurdles to overcome in order to become a practical solution. One is the weight of a space solar station, expected to be more than two times the weight of the International Space Station. The other is the safety impact of laser or microwave beams sent to the earth.

China is not the only country studying the potential of harnessing the power of the Sun in space.

Caltech for example has its Space Solar Power Project, which has researched the use of ultralight, foldable, 2D integrated elements, Caltech has developed a prototype which collects sunlight, converts it to RF electrical power, then wirelessly transmit that power in a steerable beam.

According to Caltech’s research, “Collecting solar power in space and transmitting the energy wirelessly to Earth through microwaves enables terrestrial power availability unaffected by weather or time of day. Solar power could be continuously available anywhere on earth.”


Ancient Egypt’s Aten – The First God – by James K Hoffmeier (Aeon) 12 Feb 2019

The first God

Out of the many gods of ancient Egypt an inspired Pharaoh created a monotheistic faith. What was Atenism and why did it fail?


A small stele, probably used as a home altar, depicts Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti with their three eldest daughters. Aten is represented as a sun-disc with the Sun’s rays ending in hands proffering Ankh signs to the royal couple. Amarna period, c1340 BCE. Courtesy the Neues Museum, Berlin



More than 3,000 years ago, ancient Egypt, with its myriad gods and goddesses, saw the founding of two monotheistic religions within a century of each other. One is associated with Moses, the Bible and ancient Israel’s faith, which is the foundation of Judaism and Christianity. The other burst on to the scene around 1350 BCE, flourished for a moment, and was then eclipsed when its founder died in 1336 BCE. We call the religion Atenism. Where did it come from? And why didn’t the world’s first monotheism last?

(1954 Movie ‘The Egyptian’ from the popular novel by Mika Waltari concerning the times of Akhenaten  (2:13:03 min) )

In the 4th millennium BCE, there were two distinct cultures in Egypt: one in the Delta (north) region, the other in the south. This geographical and political dualism had its counterpart in religion. In the north, the most powerful god in the Egyptian pantheon was Re, the sun god. His cult centre was in a suburb of present-day Cairo, still known by the ancient Greek name Heliopolis, ‘City of the Sun’, and his principal icon was a pyramid-shaped stone called the benben. The pyramids and obelisks still familiar today owe their shape and symbolic significance to this ancient solar image. By his agency, Re created other gods, over which he was chief, as well as humans. Re’s son was Horus the sky-god, represented as a falcon, and the Pharaohs were the incarnation of Horus. So their title was ‘Son of Re’.

Meanwhile, in the southern town of Thebes (modern Luxor), the god Amen emerged as the most powerful religious force. As his name suggests in ancient Egyptian, Amen is the ‘hidden one’ and is often depicted in human form with blue skin, representing the blue sky or atmosphere. Amen’s principal cult centre was Karnak Temple in Thebes. Around 2000 BCE, then, there were two dominant deities in Egypt: Re, who reigned in the north, and Amen, who ruled the south.

Northern and southern Egypt were embroiled in civil war between c2150 and 2000 BCE. Rival pharaohs ruled Egypt, resulting in parallel kingships based in Memphis in the north and Thebes in the south. It was left to a 11th-dynasty ruler, the Theban Mentuhotep II to unify the land through war around 2000 BCE. By around 1950 BCE, Amenemhet – meaning ‘Amen is foremost’ – founded another dynasty, the 12th. He was the first to incorporate Amen into his name. Amen’s time had come. In a unifying gesture, Amenemhet moved the capital north, back to the Memphis area where Upper and Lower Egypt meet, with his devotion to Amen intact. He called his new capital Itj-tawy, ‘Seizer of the Two-Lands’, and likely here he fused together Amen and Re into a single, powerful deity: Amen-Re, who was called ‘the king of the gods’. Amen-Re’s influence spread through all Egypt, and for 600 years he had no rival atop the pantheon. Karnak mushroomed into the largest temple complex in ancient Egypt as ruler after ruler honoured this god, his consort, Mut, and Khonsu, their son.

The Karnak complex expanded significantly between 1500 and 1350 BCE when the 18th-dynasty monarchs ruled. While Memphis remained the political capital, Thebes was considered the imperial capital. From Karnak, divine oracles directed the kings to conquer neighbouring lands, and they duly obliged. Egypt’s empire stretched north and east to beyond even the Euphrates River, and in the south, Nubia, the northern half of Sudan, was colonised. Tribute and booty poured into Egypt during this century and a half, with Karnak Temple and its powerful priesthood the major recipients. There is no greater testimony to the prosperity of this era than the colossal building projects of Amenhotep III (1390-1353 BCE) at Karnak and Luxor Temples, largely in the name of Amen-Re. Egypt and its god Amen-Re had reached the zenith of power. But no one could have foreseen how quickly things would change with the death of Amenhotep III.

The crown-prince Thutmose, eldest son of Amenhotep III, was set to follow his father to the throne. However, the prince died unexpectedly, leaving the succession to his younger brother. This prince, also called Amenhotep, might have been only in his mid-teens when his father died in the 38th year of kingship, around 1353 BCE, when he became Amenhotep IV. His youth is demonstrated in a carved scene in the tomb of a high-ranking official named Kheruef where the new king is shown making offerings to the gods under the watchful auspices of his mother, rather than standing alone or with his queen, the famous Nefertiti. The gods to which he is depicted making offers are Atum and Re-Horakhty (both solar deities). Atum is presented as a human with a kingly crown on his head, while Re-Horakhty is a human with the head of a falcon, a sun-disc upon the raptor’s head. It appears that, from the outset, Amenhotep IV had an affinity for traditional sun-gods. He was not yet a monotheist.

Based on an inscription dated to regnal year 1 of Amenhotep IV at the sandstone quarry of Gebel el-Silsileh (south of Luxor), we learn that here the new king began his first building project. It records the hewing out of a large benben stone for ‘Re-Horakhty who rejoices in his horizon in his name of Shu which (or who) is in the Aten in Karnak’. This lengthy name seems to be a theological creed, and is often called the ‘didactic name’ of Aten. No earlier form of the sun-god employed such a lengthy name. So this is new.

Little is known about this temple as it was destroyed after the king’s death, and the blocks reused to build other edifices in the area. Only a handful of decorated and inscribed blocks have survived, and some remain partially visible in the 10th Pylon or gateway at Karnak. One of these blocks, which now graces the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, shows the new deity: ‘Re-Horakhty who rejoices in his horizon in his name of Shu which is in the Aten’. Only the head of the falcon is preserved. A large sun-disc sits on its head, which has a cobra wrapped around the disc with its head flaring up just above the falcon’s beak. This initial representation of the sun-god looks just like the solar deity, Re-Horakhty. On the right side of the scene, the king himself is depicted and above him the lower portion of a sun-disc is preserved. It has cobras on both sides, and hanging from their necks is an ankh-sign, the so-called key of life. Three more ankhs are connected to the underside of the Sun.

Something changed, and the king built at least four temples to Aten

Another block believed to be from this same temple preserves only a portion of a larger scene. It too contains the creedal name, but it depicts the image of the god Shu, whose name occurs in the creedal formula, along with his wife, Tefnut. Here, she is called ‘the father of the gods’, and the first god created by Atum is associated with atmospheric or cosmic light. It is clear from this early temple block that the introduction of this new form of the sun-god did not preclude mentioning primordial deities such as Shu and Tefnut. That means that Amenhotep had no aversion to ‘the gods’: at this stage, he could not even be called a henotheist, or one who worships one deity without rejecting the existence of others.

But something changed between the king’s second and fourth regnal years. During this period, he built at least four temples to Aten in eastern Karnak. These sanctuaries were later dismantled, but thanks to the Egyptian penchant for recycling building material, the temple blocks were reused elsewhere. Over the past few decades, tens of thousands of inscribed blocks from these later edifices have been collected by Egyptologists. Over time, they have become dilapidated, thereby exposing the earlier stone. The sandstone blocks in question were of a different size than those used to construct previous temples (called talatat by Egyptologists). Because of their unique size, they are easily recognisable when reused.

Efforts to piece together this massive jigsaw puzzle (actually four puzzles!) have been a challenge, but some impressive scenes have been reconstructed on paper from drawings and photographs of the decorated blocks. From these scenes, the four original temples were identified. One key Egyptologist leading the effort to assemble the blocks was the historian Donald Redford (then of the University of Toronto), who sought to glean as much information as possible from the scenes about the formative years of Atenism.

In 1925, French Egyptologists working at Karnak Temple were summoned to examine some strange demolished statues that were uncovered outside the eastern wall of the temple complex during the excavation of a drainage canal. After exposing more of the statues, which turned out to represent Akhenaten and temple blocks, the work was abandoned, and the area largely forgotten. Fifty years elapsed before work resumed in 1975. As a graduate student, I had the privilege of working with Redford on these excavations between 1975 and 1977. We re-excavated the now-covered area exposed in 1925, and then moved north where we uncovered the southwest corner. Years later, the northwest corner was found too.

Between the corners, an entrance was cleared where the avenue of statues continued west, perhaps toward one or more of the other Aten temples. The telltale talatat blocks were used throughout. The western wall was 715 feet (220 metres) wide. Ongoing work has uncovered traces of talatat walls and statue fragments below the village farther to the east of our excavation area, showing that it was a square structure. This makes it the single largest temple built at Karnak up till that time. And the name of the temple, critical to understanding the origins of Atenism, is found on talatat blocks: Gemet Pa-Aten, ‘The Aten is Found’.

By studying the carved reliefs and texts on the blocks, a number of conclusions could be reached about this new religion. Significantly, it was within the large, open courtyard that a royal jubilee was celebrated, and in fact this might have been the main function of Gemet Pa-Aten. Royal jubilees were normally celebrated on or around the 30th anniversary of the coronation (that’s when Amenhotep III did his), and they rejuvenated the kingship. At around age 19-20, Akhenaten surely did not need such a boost!

At coronation, the throne name of the king was revealed. When construction on Gem Pa-Aten began, in the 2nd or 3rd regnal year, the king still used his birth name Amenhotep. But before the project was completed around his 4th or 5th year, without explanation he dropped that name and adopted the name by which he is known in history: Akhenaten. It means ‘He who is beneficial to the Aten’. The blocks from early in the project that had ‘Amenhotep’ written on them were erased and replaced by his new name.

Images of other deities were expunged, and the plural writing for ‘gods’ scratched off

The iconography of the deity in this temple (and the others at Karnak) was altered to reflect the king’s changing theology. The falcon image virtually disappears, only to be replaced by the ubiquitous sun-disc with extended Sun rays, and the extended name ‘Re-Horakhty who rejoices in his horizon in his name of Shu which is in the Aten’ is written in a cartouche, a device used to identify royal names. With the jubilee, Akhenaten seems to signal that the Aten was now the ultimate ruler, replacing Amen-Re.

This alteration of the king’s name was the first step in a programme to exterminate Egypt’s most powerful deity. What followed was a systematic programme of iconoclasm in which images of Amen and writings of his name throughout Egypt were desecrated and removed. Beyond Egypt’s north Sinai border, in recent excavations I directed, limestone door lintels inscribed with the name of Amenhotep II (Akhenaten’s great-grandfather) were uncovered. Here too, ‘Amen’ was obliterated from the cartouche, and so was Amen-Re’s name. The zealots were careful, however to preserve the writing of Re, which is written with the sun-disc sign (the same hieroglyph used in Aten’s name). The temples of his father, Amenhotep III, were not off-limits. ‘Amen’ is hacked out of the cartouches and images of Amen were erased, even in temples in distant Nubia (Sudan). In some instances, images of other deities were also expunged, and there are cases where the plural writing for ‘gods’ (netjeru) had been scratched off.

A decision was also reached around the 5th or 6th year to abandon Thebes and establish a new capital in middle Egypt called Akhet-Aten (also known by the modern Arabic name ‘Amarna’), meaning ‘the Horizon of Aten’. This pristine land had not been sacred to any deity before. No city or temples previously stood there. Only temples to Aten were built there, and the largest was called Gemet Pa-Aten. With the move of the royal family to Akhet-Aten, a third and final form of Aten’s name is introduced: ‘Living Re, Ruler of the Horizon, Rejoicing in the Horizon in His Name of “Re, the Father, who has come as the Aten”’. Gone are ‘Horakhty’ and ‘Shu’, two deities, and only Re the sun-god who manifests his power in or through the visible Aten or sun-disc remains. The king no longer tolerated any divine name or personification of a force of nature that could be construed as another deity.

The exclusivity of Aten and the campaign to exterminate Amen and other deities is proof positive of a movement from polytheism to monotheism. If doubt remains that Akhenaten was a monotheist, consider some elegant and touching lines in The Great Hymn to the Aten, inscribed on the wall of the tomb of the high official named Aye at Amarna:

O sole god beside who there is none …
You create the earth according to your desire, you alone:
People, all large and small animals, all things which are on earth, which walk on legs,
Which rise up and fly with their wings.
The foreign lands of Syria and Nubia, (and) the land of Egypt …
The lord of every land who rises for them, the Aten of daytime, whose awesomeness is great.
(Now concerning) all distant countries, you make their life …
(O you) who gives life to the son in his mother’s womb, and calms him by stopping his tears;
Nurse in the womb, who gives breath to enliven all he makes …

The themes of universalism, divine oneness, the exclusivity of Aten and his tender care for all creation drive home the point that ‘there is none’ beside Aten. This is a monotheistic statement not unlike the Islamic confession ‘there is no god but God’. And on the theme of divine oneness, the Jewish Shema comes to mind: ‘Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.’ The sun-god was a universal deity: wherever one went in the world, the Sun appears.

(A popular novel of Akhenaten’s times ‘The Egyptian’ by Mika Waltari)

Atenism was a monotheistic experiment. But what instigated such a radical shift from the polytheistic orthodoxy that had flourished in Egypt for millennia, and what led to the demotion of Amen-Re from his preeminent status, a position he had held for centuries? Here, there is little agreement among Egyptologists. There are those who think that this religious move was designed to wrest power from the Amen priesthood’s dominance that challenged the crown itself. Simply put, it was a political move. But this view does not adequately consider Akhenaten’s genuine devotion to Aten as reflected in the incredible temples dedicated to him, not to mention the intimacy expressed towards Aten in the hymns.

Others consider Atenism to be simply the climax of an evolution that had been underway for more than a century, in which Re had been moving towards universal status. This interpretation, however, does not take into account the programme of iconoclasm towards Amen and other deities, and the disappearance of traditional images of the sun-god (human form, falcon head, pyramid images, etc). One could advance Aten without eradicating Amen in a polytheistic system.

My theory is that Akhenaten himself very early in his reign (or even just before) experienced a theophany – a dream or some sort of divine manifestation – in which he believed that Aten spoke to him. This encounter launched his movement which took seven to nine years to fully crystallise as exclusive monotheism. Great idea, but based on what evidence? Mention has already been made of the two major Aten Temples called Gemet Pa-Aten constructed at Karnak and Akhet-Aten. A third temple by the same name was built in Nubia. Three temples with the same name is unprecedented, and suggests that its meaning, ‘The Aten is Found’, was vitally important to the young king’s religious programme. Could the name of the three sanctuaries memorialise the dramatic theophany that set off the revolution?

Akhenaten also uses the same language of discovery to explain how he found the land where he would establish the new city, Akhet-Aten. The aforementioned boundary inscription records Akhenaten’s words when travelling through the area that would become his new capital:

Look, Aten! The Aten wishes to have [something] made for him as a monument … (namely) Akhet-Aten … It is Aten, my father, [who advised me] concerning it so it could be made for him as Akhet-Aten.

Later in the same inscription, the king again repeats the line: ‘It is my father Aten who advised me concerning it.’ These texts point to an initial phenomenological event in which the king discovered the new form of the sun-god and then, through a later revelation, Aten disclosed where his Holy See should be built.

With Atenism, the evolution from polytheism to monotheism occurred rapidly, in just a few years

Historians of religion over the past 150 years thought that such a shift to monotheism must have been a gradual development taking place over millennia. Just like every field of learning in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the academic study of religion was shaped by evolutionary philosophy, an extension of Darwinian thought. From this perspective, religion began in the hoary past from animism, where everything – trees, rivers, rocks, etc – was possessed by spirits; followed by totemism; then polytheism; henotheism; culminating finally in monotheism. This linear development took thousands of years, it is claimed, moving from simple to complex forms. Some thinkers maintain that monotheism was achieved in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE for the ancient Jews, a development mirrored among Greek philosophers, in Zoroastrianism and other Asian religions during the same general period. But with Atenism, as the evidence suggests, the evolution from polytheism to monotheism occurred rapidly, in just a few years, contrary to the traditional understanding that monotheism appeared eight centuries later.

Some have toyed with the idea that either Moses influenced Akhenaten or vice versa. Indeed, Sigmund Freud in his book Moses and Monotheism (1939) opined: ‘I venture now to draw the following conclusion: if Moses was an Egyptian and if he transmitted to the Jews his own religion, then it was that of Ikhnaton, the Aton religion.’ But there is simply no evidence for such a connection. As noted, Akhet-Aten was located in central Egypt, more than 200 miles away from the Land of Goshen in the northeastern delta where the Bible places the Hebrews. Based on an inscription made upon the stones that marked the city’s boundaries, Akhenaten vows that he would never leave this sacred zone: ‘I shall not pass beyond it.’ This means that the kind of contact between Moses and the Pharaoh reported in the book of Exodus could not have occurred given the distance between the two.

The main reason I reject the theory of one religion impacting the other is that each one is based on its own theophany. The Lord God appeared to Moses at the burning bush in Sinai and revealed his name, Yahweh, according to Exodus. Akhenaten had his own divine encounter that gave rise to Atenism. Put another way, both religions stand on their own distinctive revelations.

Typically, what is needed for a religion to endure is that a leader or prophet who believes he or she received a divine message has a band of faithful followers to disseminate the tradition, and a set of authoritative writings is preserved for future generations. This is the case of Moses and the Torah (the Law). Similar is the case for Christianity with Jesus, his apostles and the New Testament Scriptures, and likewise Muhammad and the origins of Islam and the Quran, as well as Joseph Smith, the Latter Day Saints and the book of Mormon.

Akhenaten’s movement lacked followers who shared his convictions so that, when he died, his family and the priests and officials who had served him jettisoned Atenism and restored Amen-Re atop the pantheon of deities and reopened closed temples. His daughters, whose birth names all included ‘Aten’, were renamed with Amen instead, and his eventual successor traded in his previous name: Tut-ankh-aten became Tut-ankh-amen. Aten’s temples were demolished, the great city Akhetaten was deserted, and the various hymns to Aten that expressed the theology of his religion remained memories on the walls of tombs. Not one of these has been found in later writing to indicate that a scriptural tradition resulted.

If indeed Moses lived in the 13th century BCE as many scholars today believe, then it seems likely that Akhenaten was the first human in recorded history to embrace the exclusive worship of one god. But it is the teaching of one God expressed in the Hebrew Bible that has endured the test of time, and remains the longest lasting monotheistic religion. Atenism was an idea whose time hadn’t yet come: a shade of the great monotheisms to be.



Exercise May Help to Fend Off Depression – by Gretchen Reynolds (NY Times) 13 Feb 2019

Jogging for 15 minutes a day, or walking or gardening for somewhat longer, could help protect people against developing depression.


Jogging for 15 minutes a day, or walking or gardening for somewhat longer, could help protect people against developing depression, according to an innovative new study published last month in JAMA Psychiatry. The study involved hundreds of thousands of people and used a type of statistical analysis to establish, for the first time, that physical activity may help prevent depression, a finding with considerable relevance for any of us interested in maintaining or bolstering our mental health.

Plenty of past studies have examined the connections between exercise, moods and psychological well-being, of course. And most have concluded that physically active people tend to be happier and less prone to anxiety and severe depression than people who seldom move much.

But those past studies showed only that exercise and depression are linked, not that exercise actually causes a drop in depression risk. Most were longitudinal or cross-sectional, looking at people’s exercise habits over a certain period or at a single point of time and then determining whether there might be statistical relationships between the two. In other words, active people might be less likely to become depressed than inactive people. But it’s also possible that people who aren’t prone to depression may be more likely to exercise. Those types of studies may be tantalizing, but they can’t prove anything about cause and effect.

To show causation, scientists rely on randomized experiments, during which they assign people to, for instance, exercise or not and then monitor the outcomes. Researchers have been using randomized trials to look at whether exercise can treat depression after people already have developed the condition, and the results have been encouraging.


But it would be almost impossible to mount a randomized trial looking at whether exercise prevents depression, since you would need to recruit a large number of people, convince some to exercise, others not, follow them for years and hope that enough develop depression to make any statistical analysis meaningful. The logistics involved would be daunting, if not impossible, and the costs prohibitive.

Enter Mendelian randomization. This is a relatively new type of “data science hack” being used to analyze health risks, says Karmel Choi, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychiatric genetics at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who led the new study.

With Mendelian randomization, scientists zero in on small snippets of genes that vary from person to person. These variants are passed out before birth and do not change afterward; they are not altered by upbringing. Thanks to large-scale genetics studies, scientists have associated many of these snippets with specific health behaviors and risks. People with certain gene variants are, for example, more likely to overeat or be physically active than people without that variant.

More recently, scientists realized that these differences in people’s DNA offered, in effect, ready-made randomized trials designed by nature, since the variants occurred in mathematically random fashion.

Because of that inherent randomization, scientists could crosscheck the numbers of people with or without a snippet related to a health risk or behavior, such as, say, a strong likelihood to exercise, against another health outcome, such as severe depression. And if a large percentage of people with the variant did not develop the condition, scientists felt they could conclude that the behavior related to that variant caused the change in risk for the other condition.

And that result is what Dr. Choi and her colleagues found when they applied Mendelian randomization to exercise and depression. To reach that conclusion, they turned first to the UK Biobank, an enormous database of genetic and health information for almost 400,000 men and women. There they identified people who carried at least one of several gene variants believed to increase the likelihood someone will be active. Most of those people were active, and few of them had experienced depression.

People without the snippets, meanwhile, tended to move less, and they also showed greater risks for depression.

Delving deeper, the scientists found that, statistically, the ideal amount of exercise to prevent depression started at about 15 minutes a day of running or other strenuous exercise. Less-taxing activities like fast walking, housework and so on also afforded protection against depression, but it took about an hour a day to have an effect.

Finally, to be sure that physical activity was affecting the risk for depression, and not the other way around, the scientists repeated the Mendelian style of analysis on a separate large genetic database. This time they looked for gene variants related to depression and whether people who carried those variants and a propensity for depression tended to be physically inactive. It turned out, they did not.

So, the researchers concluded, physical activity in this analysis lowered the risk for depression, but depression did not affect whether people exercised.

Mendelian randomization remains a mathematical exercise, of course, and in the real world, people’s lives and behaviors are shaped by more than genetics. Many factors no doubt play a role in who develops depression. The gene variants related to being active could, for instance, also and separately play some kind of antidepressant role, Dr. Choi says, adding that the intertwined genetic and behavioral linkages between exercise and mental health will require many more studies to disentangle.

But already these results do provide “strong evidence” that being physically active, whatever your genetic makeup, can help protect against depression, Dr. Choi says.