Sacral Kingship: What it Really Is
Since Rhyd has made such a big deal over the fact that I support sacral kingship, there have been several articles by those in his faction trying to explain what sacral kingship is and how it’s a Bad Thing ™. Problem is, none of the authors seem to have read any of the relevant academic literature on what sacral kingship actually is. This is vexing, because not only are their articles inaccurate, but also because they’re playing on people’s fears of the unknown. So I’m going to talk a little bit here about sacral kingship, what it is, what it isn’t, and why I favor it.
Firstly, the seminal work on this topic, at least for those with Northern Tradition interests is “The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England” by W. Chaney. Of course, this type of kingship existed in other parts of the world as well, but I’m only really interested, being Heathen, in the Northern tradition variety. (1) In this article, I’ll only be exploring the Western European and to some extent Mediterranean versions of sacral kingship. It had its counterparts in Asia with the idea that kings ruled by Heavenly Mandate but that is outside the scope of both my research and my particular religious interests.
I think it is firstly important to point out that, and this is particularly relevant for contemporary polytheists, we have two types of sacral kingship in the ancient world: religious and political. Sometimes the two were merged into one rank, but quite often the ‘sacral king’ was a religious functionary only. While I think that it is possible to have the latter in today’s community (I know of several people who have been tasked with holding this position for their communities), it is important to note that it is a sacral role only and not a political one. Given the structure of our world today, particularly the dominant religious structures, the conditions do not exist wherein a legitimate sacral king or queenship could exist on a political level. While I may (and do) think that such a thing is ideal, it is only ideal under certain very specific conditions and given that we lack cohesive tribal units it is simply not possible today.
Nor is it synonymous, as one Pagan writer recently assumed, with the divine right of kings. Before I touch on that particularly egregious error, first allow me to explain what sacral kingship actually is, something that I doubtless shall be touching on repeatedly throughout this article.
Sacral kingship denotes a type of ruler where “rank rests on sacrality,” and that sacrality is dependent on the ruler possessing a very specific range of skills and qualities.(2) Historian N. Aitchison notes that one of the most important of those qualities was that the king be physically unblemished because, and this touches on the heart of sacral kingship, the body of the king represented the healthy body of the tribe and people, for the well-being of which the king was responsible.(3) Likewise in many cases, the king was bound by taboos and obligations and there were serious consequences to abandoning or breaching them. The well-being of the tribe was of utmost importance, maintained by a sanctioned figure that embodied sovereignty and the blessings of the Gods.(4). The king held and more importantly maintained the luck of the tribe. In many polytheistic cultures, the Norse among them, luck was part of the soul. That means essentially that your sacral king was responsible for the integrity of the soul of his people. He was responsible for preserving his people and ensuring abundance, which he could do specifically because of his connection as a living manifestation of divine sovereignty. He was also the embodiment of his people’s haleness and luck.(5)
One of the biggest misunderstandings that I’ve seen in recent community articles about this topic is the equating of sacral kingship with the divine right of kings. Now, I suspect that this is conscious strategy because such an equation, however, inaccurate, then allows the writers in question to heap the faults and crimes of the worst of our European [Christian] kings onto the idea of sacral kingship, thus discrediting not only the idea of sacral kingship but anyone who supports it. It’s a particularly underhanded and dishonest type of writing, but I digress.
The divine right of kings is an idea originating in the 16th century that states that the monarch is not subject to any earthly authority and moreover rules by the will of God alone. It arose during the Protestant Reformation to justify the monarch’s right to rule but also their absolute authority on religious matters. It actually has its origins in the hierarchy of the medieval state but wasn’t clearly articulated until the middle of the sixteenth century with the reign of James I of England. (6). Not only does this have absolutely nothing to do with sacral kingship (the sacral king was not, in fact, above any authority), but sacral kingship itself dates back to antiquity and did not actually survive the Western world’s transition to monotheism.(7)
Looking at antiquity, amongst the ancient Romans, the rex and regina sacrorum were specifically religious roles. Chosen from amongst the patrician class, their function was to maintain right relationship between the Gods and state. Livy tells us that after abolishing political kingship in ancient Rome:
Mattters of religion then received attention. Since certain public sacrifices had been usually performed by the kings in person, they appointed a king of sacrifices so that kings would not be missed. This priesthood was made subordinate to the pontifex maximus…(Livy, 2.2.1-2)(8)
The ancient Romans were scrupulous with regard to religions matters and obviously this role was considered vital enough that even though they no longer had kings of state, and indeed were very hostile to the notion of kingship throughout the Republic, with respect to sacred things, such a position could not be dispensed with. The Greeks, with their archon basileus likewise felt the same.
Sacral kingship recognizes the inherent sacrality of sovereignty. In many cases, both Mediterranean and northern European, the sacred king was bound through what religious studies scholars term hieros gamos, or sacred marriage. He was symbolically wed to the Goddess of sovereignty of his land. This was the case in bronze age Greece, and we certainly see elements of it both in Irish lore, Mesopotamian, and to some degree early Scandinavian. (9) In this way the king was tied directly to the fertility of the land and while he was in right relationship with the sovereign Goddess(es), the land would flourish, fruitful and wealthy. Later we see something approaching almost a vassalage system between the King and the Gods of fruitful abundance.
Åke Ström notes that kingship in Old Scandinavia was “entirely sacral.”(10) It was the king’s obligation to perform certain yearly sacrifices to the Gods, which in turn sustained the fertility of the land. Ström actually links all priestly sacrifice and duties to a “disintegrated sacral kingship,” a position that I personally question, but which would serve to highlight the presumed importance of the connection between sacred rights and ancient monarchical power. He notes a runestone dating from 900 C.E. with an inscription that references a particular person by calling him “the priest of sanctuaries, the honorable prince of housecarls.”(11) The connecting factor is a connection with sovereignty, or royal power. Aitchison supports this and likewise draws a comparison between power and physical force, which brings us back to the Greek idea of life force or ΒÍος, the protection of which is really what is behind the institution of sacral kingship. (12)
For those of us who support sacral kingship as both a religious and political institution, it is largely because just as the shaman negotiates and maintains relationships with the spirit world for the folk, the sacral king maintains the container in which the luck, haleness (holiness), and well being of the community are contained. It is his (or her) responsibility to make sure that such a container is a fertile field upon which the blessings of the Gods may fall.
Part II, coming hopefully next week, will explore the nature of Sovereignty and Power.
1. Historian Goffart makes a compelling argument for the lack of sacral kingship amongst Roman era German tribes, noting that it was largely a Scandinavian development. I think there is room for his assertions to be challenged as his article is primarily aimed at deconstructing Nazi era ideas of the cult of the leader, but it must be noted that Roman sources on Germanic tribal structures do seem to bear out the lack of a cohesive idea of sacrality with respect to rule. William Chaney offers a different interpretation of the surviving evidence, one that points to the centrality of sacred kingship amongst the early Germanic tribes.
2. Aitchison, p. 60-61.
4. In tribal societies like the Irish, which Aitchison examines, the king was not the only person who embodied sacrality and likewise carried obligation and taboo. So important was this function that in some cases the sacral king could be put to death to protect the strength and well-being of the tribe, to protect its potency though E.O. James notes that this most often occurred either through the sacrifice of a ritual substitute, or symbolically in the course of a ritual, which would, one presumes, ostensibly lead to a transfer of power to a new sacral king. James, p. 63 in “The Sacral Kingship” in Contributions… In the same work, historian Ström notes that in ancient Scandinavia there is evidence that sacral kings were actually ritually sacrificed in Uppsala to deliver their people from some terrible dangers. See p. 709. This would have been part of his job, his obligations as king in protecting his people. Under the right circumstances, sacred king could turn into homo sacer at a moment’s notice, becoming then the ritual scapegoat carrying danger and destruction and malignancy away from his people by virtue of his death. To be sacer was a dangerous thing. It means that one belonged to the Gods. That is its original meaning and we draw our word ‘sacrifice’ from this Latin root.
5. See here, which I found on a simple google search. You do see some sense of the medieval ruler as what E.O. James terms a ‘mixta persona’: containing elements of both priest and ruler, but it was nowhere near the role of the sacral king of antiquity. See James, p. 64 in “The Sacral Kingship” in Contributions… See also Chaney, p. 63.
6. Sacral Kingship can be found in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Italy, Ireland, certain parts of Scandinavia, and Israel to name but a few cultures and communities who embraced this structure. In Ireland and Northern Europe there are some difficulties in ascertaining precisely how this may have functioned if only because of the orality of the cultures and the potential for Christian writers to have “de-paganized” the lore. See Draak, p. 651 in “The Sacral Kingship,” in Contributions…
7. See also Warrior, p 7.
8. See Draak, p. 656 in “the Sacral Kingship” in Contributions…
9. Ström, p. 702 in “The Sacral Kingship” in Contributions…
10. Ibid, p. 704. His article is fascinating in its analysis of the accoutrements of the ritual of blot, even if one disagrees with his conclusions.
11. Aitchison, p. 45
Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Aitchison, N.B., “Kingship, Society, and Sacrality: Rank, Power, and Ideology in early Medieval Ireland” in Traditio, Vol. 49 (1994), published by Fordham University, p. 45-75.
Chaney, William, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 1970.
Goffart, Walter, “Two Notes on Germanic Antiquity” in Traditio, Vol. 50 (1995), published by Fordham University, p. 9-30.
“The Sacral Kingship” in Contributions to the Central Theme of the VIIIth International Congress for the History of Religions, published with the help of the Giunta Centrale per gli Studi Storici, Rome, April, 1955.
Warrior, Valerie, Roman Religion. NY, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006.