Life is Worship: Savitri Devi’s Son of the Sun
by Mark Brundsen
“La vie est un culte : Savitri Devi’s Akhenaton, Fils du Soleil”
Savitri Devi endures as an enigmatic figure in recent history. She is probably best known as “Hitler’s Priestess,”1 a fiercely unrepentant and mystically inclined supporter of National Socialist Germany. She is probably remembered this way because it best allows us to compartmentalize her views. If she is remembered at all, it will be due to her precise lack of “pure evil,” that uncanny quality which is attributed to other Nazi figures for the purpose of dismissing them. The paradox she embodies, of an affirming and loving Nazi, is too incomprehensible for some to even consider. As a result, Savitri Devi remains a compelling avenue into a more realistic historical view of Nazism; her writings reveal an implicit worldview that is actively contested and dynamic, a possibility inconceivable to many who accept the ossified and monolithic post WWII view of Nazism. This is not to say that her views should replace what other knowledge we have of the movement, but that they should reveal to us the multiple dimensions of it, of which hers is but a part. For this reason Savitri Devi offers valuable lessons both to today’s National Socialists, who can learn to support an ideal less derived from a botched view of history (and polar opposition to it), and to those passive acceptors of that orthodoxy of evil, built by their fear upon sketchy conjecture.
It is with this in mind that I’d like to consider her work Son of the Sun: The Life and Philosophy of Akhnaton, King of Egypt,2 written during World War II, while the author remained in India, far from the calamity in Europe, anxiously watching the tragedy of her movement. The text is a thorough examination of Akhnaton’s life as an apostate Pharaoh and the details of his cult of the solar power, the Aton. It is divided into three sections: a description of the King’s early life, up to and including his ascension and his replacement of the national religion; a discussion of the particulars and implications of Atonism; and an exposition of the resultant decline of Egypt due to Akhnaton’s refusal to compromise his beliefs, which concludes with a chapter considering the lessons for people today to be gleaned from Akhnaton’s life and religion. The final chapter reveals Savitri Devi’s ultimate purpose, which she states herself, namely to present for consideration the intellectual work of a forgotten hero: an ancient, but strikingly contemporary belief system which she believed had the potential to light the way beyond the impasse of the modern mindset, crippled by the severance of science (or rationality) and religion, broadly conceived.
Savitri Devi’s style reveals her personality; reading Son of the Sun one can see a highly dedicated and passionate thinker at work, who is content to scare up any information (however creatively employed) to further her thesis. This might come as a shock to the contemporary reader today, overly concerned with the lure of objectivity in history, and is not helped by the fact that at the time there were but a fraction of the studies of Akhnaton available today. Savitri Devi unapologetically uses her imagination to speculate on the details of the King’s life (in particular her description of Akhnaton’s upbringing, of his high regard for his wife, of life in his new capital Akhetaton, and the extent to which Akhnaton grasped intuitively facts which modern science has since described). This doesn’t always come across as scholarly, regardless of her repeated affirmation of the value of rationality. Savitri Devi considers her duty to discuss Akhnaton as a genius, a spiritual and intellectual master, and approaches her task in an active, creative manner. To accommodate this fact, one must be content to regard Son of the Sun as an exposition of Savitri Devi’s own ideas as much as of the life of Akhnaton. If one can accept this, Son of the Sun is a rich and rewarding read.
The first section of the work serves mainly to present the context in which Akhnaton’s life began, and also helps the reader become acquainted with Savitri Devi’s style. Savitri Devi seems intoxicated in her description of Imperial Egypt; she devotes considerable time to descriptions of the wealth and power at the disposal of its King, and the reach of his reign, which involved both economic and religious influence. Similarly canvassed is Akhnaton’s early life, the details of which she admits are inferred from what is known about the man’s later life (p. 19). She does so at length, including speculation about the origins or influences of what was to become his religion.
Some time after the prince became Pharaoh, and having undergone an inner religious change, he erected a temple consecrated to the god Aton, a solar deity already worshipped in Egypt, perhaps synonymous with Ra. Whilst the walls of the temple contain images of Aton with Amon and other national gods, sometime later the King’s tolerance waned and all religious iconography save that of Aton was removed. This is the central historical trace of Akhnaton’s reforms: the influential priests of Amon were prevented from practicing officially and Atonism was declared the only legitimate religion. Akhnaton’s problem, however, was that his innovative pantheist religion didn’t appeal to the lay people, and Savitri Devi speculates that even his devotees may have just been zealous for acceptance or promotion. Akhnaton’s resolve involved the construction of a new capital of Egypt, again gloriously and creatively described.
The second section consists of an examination of Atonism, predominantly via a close reading of Akhnaton’s two surviving hymns (of which multiple translations are provided as an appendix), and thus contains both Akhnaton’s and Savitri Devi’s central ideas. In the hymns, Akhnaton refers to Aton, the disk of the sun, by various other terms. The term that interests Savitri Devi is “Shu-which-is-in-the-disk,” with “Shu” denoting both heat and light. She compares this use to Akhnaton’s similar references to the roarings of thunder and lightning, which he assimilates with Aton. Savitri Devi uses these two strands of evidence to suggest that Akhnaton had a profound conception of energy, heat and light, regarding them as ultimately equivalent, a fact which has ostensibly been validated by scientific investigation.
Evidence of this realization prompted Sir Flinders Petrie, in his History of Egypt, which Savitri Devi cites (p. 293), to remark “If this were a new religion invented to satisfy our modern scientific conceptions, we could not find a flaw in the correctness of [Akhnaton’s] view of the energy of the solar system.” Sir Wallis Budge is quoted as claiming that Akhnaton worshiped only a material object, the literal sun, but Savitri Devi rejects this by citing instances in which Akhnaton refers to the Sun’s Ka, its soul or essence. Budge also admits to Akhnaton’s view of the Disk as self-created and self-subsistent, which is a marked distinction from the older Heliopolitan cults which included a creator figure.
Akhnaton seems to have followed this rational religious approach consistently. His teaching is entirely void of mythological narrative, tales of miracles, and metaphysics. Savitri Devi’s thesis in conceiving the religion of the Disk is that Akhnaton saw and worshipped divinity in life itself. In the hymns Akhnaton asserts the earthly origin of the Nile and equates its gifts with other rivers and also rain, a departure from the common view of the divine origin of the Nile, or whatever was one’s source of water. Akhnaton similarly asserts his own earthly origin, as opposed to the accepted practice of each Pharaoh claiming a divine birth. Akhnaton thus retains his direct divine connection—he calls himself the Son of Ra—but translates the divine conception to one that is unambiguously physical. The probability of the religion’s emphasis on immanence is bolstered by the absence of idolatry. Akhnaton worships neither “a god . . . in the image of a man, nor even an individual power,” but an “impersonal reality” (p. 141). This is consistent also with a lack of moral prescriptions contained within the cult, with only the value (which Akhnaton applies to himself, via a regular moniker) of “living-in-truth”: a particular spirit involved in one’s actions (p. 193) is what is of import.
Such an absence does not, however, prevent Savitri Devi from suggesting what that spirit might value by examining the hymns. Whilst many commentators had earlier stressed Akhnaton’s internationalism and “conscientious objection to warfare” (Weigall quoted in the text, p. 150), and his love of all human beings, Savitri Devi reads the hymns less anthropocentrically. She argues that the hymns express “the brotherhood of all sentient beings, human and non-human” (p. 150, emphasis in original), and that animals by their very nature worshipped the Ka of the Disk, thereby blurring the lines between man and beast, or the material and metaphysical (so assertively maintained by Jewish, Greek and Christian thought). Plants are also included in the hymn, though not as such active agents as animals.
Savitri Devi’s discussion culminates in her assertion that Akhnaton was against anthropocentrism: the idea that man is a unique and privileged being and that the environment’s only value is its utility to man (p. 161). Her own views on this subject are more fully developed in Impeachment of Man. In proposing such a life-centered view, Savitri Devi precedes even Aldo Leopold’s seminal essay The Land Ethic (1949), which is generally regarded as the year zero for modern environmental ethics and Deep Ecology. Needless to say, our aim in mentioning this is not to posit Savitri Devi as the mother of such developments, for the intellectual mainstream has no interest in her ideas and thus they have had little influence.
Savitri Devi also reads Akhnaton’s hymns as supporting a benevolent nationalism. Whilst Akhnaton perceived the brotherhood of all creatures (uniting humanity by the fact of their singular relation to the Aton), he also believes that the Aton “settest every man in his place” which includes the division of “strange” (as in differing) peoples (p. 158 note). Here Savitri Devi discusses at length the rights of all peoples to self-determination and her fierce opposition to imperialism. Finally, Savitri Devi speculates upon Akhnaton’s view of women, expressed by the fact that, contrary to custom, he only had one wife (although this has subsequently been found to be false) and by the inclusion of Nefertiti in the hymns, seemingly as an equal to Akhnaton. She does admit, however, that we do not know in what way or to what degree the Queen understood her husband’s religion.
The final section of the book focuses on the outcomes of the Pharaoh’s world view. Because of his neglect of imperial politics, sanctioned by his beliefs, the state declined. In a number of conquered territories, loyal vassals, under threat of invasions and uprisings, desperately appealed for help to the Pharaoh, to whom they’d paid significant regular tribute. Akhnaton refused to intervene, and scarcely replied to their letters, most of which have been preserved; he even postponed an audience with a messenger for months.
Whilst other historians have read this apathy as selfishness, Savitri Devi gives Akhnaton the benefit of the doubt and explains this non-action with his belief in the self-determination of tribes and nations, and sees this tragic bloodshed as the only avenue in a no-win situation, the real test of the Pharaoh’s principles. Either he could have suppressed the uprisings with bloodshed, which would have kept the enmity alive, or he could sanction an ultimate sacrificial conflict, which would end the escalatory cycle of violence, both oppressive and resistant. This approach stands in contrast to the imperatives dictated by modern individualism, which has no mechanism to halt such a process.
Needless to say, such an outcome was political suicide, and Savitri Devi goes on to speculate on what could have been if Akhnaton attempted instead to expand his religion by use of his power, describing a worldwide spread of the cult. However, that would be contrary to the very essence of the religion itself, which is elitist, reliant as it is upon a deep intuition of the essence of the universe and being. Thus Akhnaton’s destiny, to be forgotten and to have his religion abolished with hostility, was to Savitri Devi, “the price of perfection.” Savitri Devi concludes the work with directly considering the religion’s suitability to Aryans today.
It should be clear from this exposition that there are some conflicting ideas in Son of the Sun, which should impel us to consider Savitri Devi as more than a partisan propagandist for evil. Unfortunately, whilst Savitri Devi spends excessive energy on repeating and emphasizing her theses (to the extent that the work is unnecessarily lengthy), she for the most part neglects some points of conflict, such that they remain unresolved in the text. That is not to say that they undermine Savitri Devi’s aims, but that opportunities for developing her ideas are left untouched, quite probably because she saw no necessary tension, whereas contemporary readers likely will.
Central are the conflicts between her affirmation of the universalist view of life versus the division of the human races, and her heralding of Akhnaton as the world’s first individual versus her support for his anti-individual policies. These difficulties ultimately dissolve when one makes some subtle distinctions, which are so often neglected by both nationalists and their opponents today, most likely due to an orthodox reading of WW II.
The aims of nationalism do not necessarily coincide with imperialism, and Savitri Devi adamantly distinguishes between them. The fact that humanity is a brotherhood under the Aton similarly does not demand that all cultures assimilate their differences; on the contrary it encourages them to celebrate their different paths of life and worship.
The revelation of universal brotherhood also doesn’t compel Savitri Devi to adopt a populist stance: she supports Akhnaton’s refusal to dilute his religion for the masses, who would only pervert it. People today might complain of a “double standard” in the hierarchy of rights in Egypt, but Savitri Devi naturally regards these differences as superior to a blanket egalitarian stance.
Akhnaton’s unwillingness to accommodate the masses is poetic and pure but futile. This raises the question of the validity of elite rule entirely, for if it is right but can never be properly established, what value is there in theorizing and championing it? The political norm today is only more populist, with the expectation of universal suffrage, linked as it is to the concept of humanity. René Guénon warns against such rule when he states that “the opinion of the majority cannot be anything but an expression of incompetence.”3 But once those powers have been granted, how can the situation possibly be reversed? This riddle is perennial, being as it is the central question of politics, and we oughtn’t expect Savitri Devi to solve it for us. Savitri Devi, like many others today, can only take bitter solace in the belief that her ideas, like Akhnaton’s, have the value of truth, regardless of the reckoning of the masses.
Similarly, Savitri Devi provides a gushing account of Akhnaton’s imperial wealth and status, which she states is “the prize of war” (p. 14), whilst subsequently affirming Akhnaton’s refusal to maintain such a state, his principle of the right of self-determination, and his belief that war was “an offence to god” (p. 242). Akhnaton’s position can be excused by the fact that he was born into a certain situation and did his best not to leave it as he found it, but to try to improve the long term state of affairs as he perceived it. Savitri Devi, however, does not cover this in the text.
But Savitri Devi’s view also stands in contrast to her unending support of National Socialist Germany, despite writing Son of the Sun during the years of war. We must firstly of course grant her the dignity of having ideals superior to her compromised political affiliations, much as any other supporter of a political party maintains an identity separate from party policy. But Savitri Devi also acknowledges the unfortunate need of a morally compromising force of change in her Europe when she notes that “violence is the law of any revolution within Time” (p. 241 emphasis in original). She regards Akhnaton as a man “above Time,” who stood by his ideals only to have them dashed, in implied contrast to Hitler (hitherto implicitly paralleled with the Pharaoh), who recognized the above axiom (a line of thought developed in her later work The Lightning and the Sun.) Savitri Devi doesn’t make explicit her views on Lebensraum, though it seems that if some of her ideals are open to compromise by political necessity, then expansion may be no exception.She is also keen to display continuity between Akhnaton’s solar cult, Hinduism, and modern National Socialism, by attempting to make various biological linkages with the former two ideas and stressing the cultural common ground of the centrality of the sun, and the importance of beauty, caste and principle. Ultimately the cultural connections are far greater than the biological ones, and culturally National Socialism could not match its predecessors.
Savitri Devi does evaluate the replacement of a severed religion-state relationship with a unity in the idea of the “religion of Race” (p. 288). Whilst she initially approves of a move back to such a material and spiritual unity, she criticizes it for being too narrow in its scope to be fruitful. She likens it to a return to the “national gods of old,” which were, notably, what Akhnaton’s revolution superseded. Ultimately, Savitri Devi cannot endorse such a goal; whilst it may be better than the ideas of its “humanitarian antagonists” (p. 288), it remains a narrower denotation than “man” and thus can permit both the anthropocentric exploitation of nature and the selective exploitation of other humans. Such a reduction imposed upon the “Religion of Life” is untenable, and Savitri Devi would rather one aim the other way, recognizing “cosmic values as the essence of religion” (p. 289). This seems similar to Julius Evola’s rejection of the National Socialist’s biological view of race, which he replaced with a spiritual racial concept. Such a view, whilst playing a secondary role to her courageous optimism about National Socialism, shows us that Savitri Devi sought to refine the movement she supported and that it in no way compelled her to limit her thought.
The complexities and seeming contradictions in Savitri Devi’s thought, particularly as they relate to her political convictions, are certainly not impasses and shouldn’t lead us to dismiss her thought and remember only her action. On the contrary, they should compel us to challenge our conception of her actions (and the National Socialist context itself) in order to accommodate her thought. Viewed in this light, it is Savitri Devi’s political convictions that now strike us as anomalous; she poured unending faith into the post-war National Socialist movement (which surely could not have come close to living up to her ideals), ultimately in vain, which can only have damaged her reputation as a writer.
The historical accuracy of Son of the Sun is not of central importance. Savitri Devi skillfully utilized history to select and develop a religion that unified the rational and spiritual needs of humanity, whilst portraying at its summit a genius-hero worthy of any attempts at emulation. This is the primary achievement of the work. Whilst the modern fetish for authenticity is strong, it is ultimately trumped by the modern fetish for originality and novelty. Atonism, of course, has not been adopted by anybody. But its naturalistic and aesthetic approach to life, and its lack of moral prescription, is an invaluable lesson to modern people. Son of the Sun itself is an achievement of the very solar spirit it upholds. Akhnaton, King of Egypt, and Savitri Devi can both teach us the truth that life is worship.
1 The title of a recent biography: Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas, Hitler’s Priestess: Savitri Devi, the Hindu-Aryan, Myth and Neo-Nazism (New York: New York University Press, 2000).
2 A Son of God: The Life and Philosophy of Akhnaton, King of Egypt (London: Philosophical Publishing House, 1946), later republished as Son of the Sun: The Life and Philosophy of Akhnaton, King of Egypt (San Jose, California: A.M.O.R.C., 1956).
3 René Guénon, The Crisis of the Modern World, trans. M. Pallis and R. Nicholson (London: Luzac, 1962), p. 72.