The most remarkable feat of monarchy is to have survived into the 21st century, frequently challenged but still strong. It has persisted even though the hereditary principle has frequently meant that a reigning king or queen was not suited to the role, whatever their birthright. How was monarchy come to be associated with deomcracy and tolerance, when its roots lie elsewhere, in religious ritual, in absolutism and in the theory that kings rule by divine right? Brenda Ralph Lewis traces the origins and development of the idea of monarchy from ancient cultures to the rise of the modern world and the challenges to monarchical rule from revolutionaries and political theorists. She explores the biblical basis for European monarchy and its development at the hands of medieval clerics, who turned monarchy into a sacred institution, "God's annointed". She also explores monarchy in Asia and Africa, which in many ways has preserved the ancient origins of teh institution more carefully than their European counterparts. the book provides an overview of how kings and queens came about and of the many forces that have shaped the identity of monarchy and in many cases caused its downfall.
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The History of an Idea
By Brenda Ralph Lewis
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Brenda Ralph Lewis
All rights reserved.
Monarchy in the Ancient World
Human beings are not equal. If they were, there would never have been any kings, emperors, aristocracies, leaders or anyone else who stood out from the crowd. In our egalitarian times, it may be unfashionable to say so, but nature, which is the driving force in such matters, has never worked on the basis of equality. The lottery of the gene pool from which individuals take their characteristics, abilities and personalities has always ensured that some are better endowed than others. In modern societies, all may be equal before the law. Opportunities are there for everyone. Human rights are, or should be, universal.
However, theory and practice part company before the obvious fact that some are better than others at exploiting the chances offered to them. Leaders have an inborn quality of command which impresses those who lack it. Talent is a mysterious gift, arising from a mixture of intelligence, inheritance and sheer chance. Genius is even more rare.
Nature's inequalities have been of benefit to all societies across the centuries, from the most primitive to our own age of space exploration and advanced technology. In all ages, extraordinary individuals have been required to solve problems, provide hope or inspiration in times of trouble and, when life has been under threat, devise ways of enabling it to continue. In earliest times, rituals, ceremonies, sacrifices and superstitions all had their part to play in mollifying the destructive forces of nature – fire, volcanoes, floods or the strange workings of heavenly bodies. However, it was those who looked as if they could exert control over rampant nature who leapt ahead of the rest and began to forge the brand of personal power that eventually led to the institution of monarchy.
Monarchy, especially in Britain, has long been regarded with awe, infused with magic. Royalty is special, almost a race apart, human because royals die like everyone else, but somehow perpetual. This may sound like some fanciful delusion but it is more solidly based in human experience than it sounds.
The ancient medicine man, with his ritual dances, strange gestures and magic potions exerted a strong influence over the members of his tribe, who looked to him to cure their ills or devise a defence against their enemies. Shamans appeared to have the ability to make rain, produce thunder or drive the moon from the face of the sun during total eclipses. Sorcerers could curse and kill from a distance. Today, we would say that the medicine man had some basic medical knowledge not given to all. The shaman knew how to read the sky and realised that the sun in eclipse was only a temporary state. The sorcerer had an inkling of human psychology. But for those unaware of the secrets of such magic, this was impressive – and comforting – stuff.
It was also power, and power where it most mattered. This not only raised these 'magicians' to a special position in society, it raised their families as well. In time, magic became a family business, and a family secret. Oligarchies arose in which magic abilities were thought to pass from one generation to the next. The first heirs to the 'throne' were heirs to tribal magic, with the knowledge and the right to exert power over the tribe. Their abilities ensured their dominance, the dependence of the tribe ensured their continuity.
Shamans may have been working their magic 27,000 years ago or more, when cave painters at Lascaux in France, Altamira in Spain and Panchmarhi in India were making images of the animals they hunted for food. Working in semi-darkness with crude tools and raw pigments, these prehistoric artists achieved a wonderful degree of realism, perspective and skill in the use of colour. These cave paintings were discovered in the late nineteenth century, but only recently was it realised that there was more to them than met the eye.
Many animals were shown pierced with spears. Some paintings were effectively X-ray images, showing the animals' insides. From this and other evidence, the theory grew that prehistoric cave paintings were a part of a system of sympathetic magic designed to promote success in the hunt. Situated deep inside the caves, the areas of the paintings were like temples or shrines where prayers were said and the appropriate rituals performed.
Quite possibly, the shamans or medicine men presided. The caves, infused with mystery and an eerie, frightening atmosphere, were the perfect stage for magic. The small oil lamps that passed for illumination in prehistoric times flickered among the pools of darkness. Shadows moved over the walls. The shaman's voice echoed in and out of the grottoes and uneven surfaces. In this setting, the paintings could take on a dreamlike air of virtual reality. Afterwards, the hunters set out, spiritually fortified by the ceremonies. If the hunt was successful, it was an easy matter to ascribe its success to the shaman and his rituals – and the images painted on the cave walls.
Prehistoric cave-dwellings, and their paintings, were not isolated, however, or if they were, it was not for long. Where the hunting grounds were fruitful, they attracted numerous families to the area, and the crowding, inevitably, led to rivalries. Just as inevitably, rivalries led to war. Most of the early wars arose over food and water resources or the invasion of territory by neighbouring tribes. The weapons – stakes, axes, bows and arrows – were already to hand: the tools that could kill animals could also be turned on enemies. So could the skills already developed for the hunt: strategy, tactics, or the nerve to stage ambushes or work the element of surprise.
In these circumstances, the most able, most fearless warriors would naturally rise to positions of command. They knew by instinct how and where to attack the enemy, defend a position, work out a plan of action or inspire trust and confidence in others. How they knew, where their abilities came from, were part of the mystery that made them superior.
Wars and winning wars became so vital to the survival of the tribe that the warrior general soon became the warrior chief. In larger groupings, he would become the paramount chief or the warrior king. Somewhere along the way, the proto-kings of prehistoric times took on the mantle of the shamans and medicine men. Quite possibly they were descended from them, so that magic and military leadership were powerfully combined in one person.
There was more to this than the rise of one man to the pinnacle of power. The connotations of this rise were of vital importance in the evolution of human society. In The Golden Bough, the classic work of comparative religion first published in 1890, Sir James Frazer put it this way:
The rise of monarchy appears to be an essential condition of the emergence of mankind from savagery. ... The rise of one man to supreme power enables him to carry through changes in a single lifetime which previously many generations might not have sufficed to effect; and if, as will often happen, he is a man of intellect and energy above the common, he will readily avail himself of the opportunity.
Even the whims and caprices of a tyrant may be of service in breaking the chain of custom which lies so heavy on the savage. And as soon as the tribe ... yields to the direction of a single strong and resolute mind, it becomes formidable to its neighbours and enters on a career of aggrandisement, which at an early stage of history is often highly favourable to social, industrial, and intellectual progress.
However, the rise of kings was not simply a political development, but one that was intimately bound up with religion and the idea that monarchs enjoyed a line to the gods not given to other mortals. From there, it was easy to see kings as the earthly representatives of the gods, and finally, as gods themselves. These transitions were hardly difficult. The ancient shamans and sorcerers were believed to commune with the gods. This made them into a readymade élite. The gods 'spoke' to them, and only to them, and they conveyed the divine pronouncements to the people.
Kings as warriors had a similar interest in reserving their eminence to themselves and their families. However, the notion that innate talent or genius enabled some to succeed where others failed was rarely in keeping with the thought processes of a superstitious age. Instead, the most obvious explanation was that successful war leaders were personally guided by the gods or spirits. And when the functions of king and priest or magician were combined, there was a dual interest in maintaining the supremacy their skills had enabled them to achieve.
Ultimately, all the most vital elements in life were claimed by, or accorded to, the king. One was the fertility of the soil, which became of cardinal importance once the early hunter-gatherer stage of civilisation gave way to farming. Another was the direction of religious ceremonies, on the principle that if the gods were present in the form of their earthly representatives, the kings, then prayers would be more efficacious. The leadership of armies was a further monopoly and another was the right of kings to choose their own successors. Frequently, although not always, successors were sons of the previous monarch: they became kings in their own right on the premise that heredity had given them the same abilities and qualities as their forebears. In this way, dynasties – the greatest of all monopolies – were established and perpetuated. So was the veneration accorded to monarchs, which was little different from the worship given to the gods. It was therefore in the interests of kings to appear as godlike as possible. In Sumeria, the earliest known civilisation of Mesopotamia, monarchs buttressed their power by laying claim to divinity. This, they said, came to them at birth from the gods and goddesses who were their parents. They also took on the mantle of established deities and were worshipped, in addition, as incarnations of Tammuz, the god of fertility, or as the earthly lieutenants of Ishtar, the goddess of heaven. Later, in the twenty-third century BC, Sargon, King of Akkad, asserted his divinity towards the end of his reign, after his military conquests had created the first great empire in Mesopotamia.
In the ancient world, the godly status of kings was nowhere more elaborately displayed than in Egypt. The divine pharaoh was an integral part of the Egyptian religion and was thought to be the reincarnation of Horus, son of the god Osiris. It was from Osiris that the pharaohs inherited their ability to live after death. With the pharaoh as its centrepiece, the civilisation of Ancient Egypt institutionalised the powers of the ancient shamans and sorcerers. According to Dr Henri Frankfort, the Dutch-born Egyptologist: 'Kingship in Egypt remained the channel through which the powers of Nature flow into the body politic, to bring human endeavour to fruition.'
This exalted function was maintained even after the concept of kingship changed during the Middle Kingdom (2080–1640 BC): the pharaohs, it was now believed, were not in themselves divine but were appointed by and answerable to the gods. This was the origin of the Divine Right of Kings, which later saw its greatest days, and greatest disasters, in Europe.
Whether as gods or divine appointees, the pharaohs possessed qualities not given to ordinary mortals, such as Ka or vital energy. They were expected to dispense maat – justice, stability and truth – maintain the cycle of the seasons and perpetuate the divine order. They were the source of the continuing relationship between nature and human beings, which was first established by Osiris. Through their power, they regulated the passage of the sun through the sky from sunrise to sunset. Through them, the River Nile ebbed and flowed.
The importance of the divine pharaohs could hardly have been greater. If anything, they regarded themselves as even mightier than the gods. In the twentieth century BC, Pharaoh Amenemhet I, whose divine name, Wehem-masul, meant 'he who repeats births', set out the all-embracing extent of his powers when he said: 'I was the one who produced barley. The Nile respected me at every defile. None hungered in my years or thirsted in them. Men dwelt in peace through that which I wrought.'
Amenemhet, originally a vizier of humble origins and a usurper, was still subject to the cut and thrust of politics and the rivalries inherent in the use of power: a 'harem conspiracy' was brewed against him and he was assassinated by his bodyguards in 1962 BC. However, in ancient Egypt, death was not the end. A dead pharaoh, it was believed, was still capable of caring for his people and exercising his powers for their benefit in the afterlife. Divinity was also his legacy: Amenemhet's son, Senusret I, automatically assumed his father's godly status when he succeeded him.
The perception of the pharaoh as god depended, of course, on the continual existence and worship of the ancient Egyptian pantheon. This was why the priests in the fourteenth century BC reacted so violently when the maverick pharaoh Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaten, the 'pious son of Aten', sought to alter the basis of ancient Egyptian religion. In place of a pantheon of gods, Akhenaten chose to worship only one, the sun god Aten, later known as Aten-Ra. Akhenaten retained his divinity as pharaoh and presented himself as the mediator between Aten and the Egyptian people.
The dislocation of Egyptian spiritual life was immense. Amun, the supreme creator god, was demoted. The cult of Osiris was banned. The names of all other Egyptian deities were erased from the walls of temples. All previous religious festivals were cancelled. The main temple at Tell-el-Amarna was realigned with a valley through which the sun first appeared at daybreak: unlike the temples of Amun, they were left open to the sky – and the sun.
However, even the divine pharaoh could not shift the huge weight of traditional worship and devotion given to the established gods. Ordinary Egyptians refused to alter their beliefs. The priests pronounced Akhenaten's changes blasphemous and Akhenaten himself, a heretic. After his death in around 1336 BC, he was buried in a small, undecorated tomb. The priests of Amun, who returned to power in the reign of his successor, Tutankhamen, defaced the name and image of Akhenaten wherever they occurred, and destroyed the monuments he had built. The Egyptians were never again diverted from their ancient beliefs until the advent of Christianity in the first centuryAD. Up to that time the divine status and all-embracing powers of the pharaohs continued to derive from the traditional gods.
Much later, royal, or rather imperial, divinity made its appearance in ancient Rome. Shortly after 29 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, great-nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, achieved power: although he never claimed the title, contenting himself with pater patriae, father of the people, or princeps, first citizen, Octavianus eventually assumed the status of Rome's first emperor under the new name of Augustus. After their deaths, Augustus and several of his successors were proclaimed gods. Special temples were erected dedicated to their worship. The Romans were generally tolerant about religion, and faiths that had originated all over the Empire were permissible in Rome. Each faith was allowed its own temple. However, there was one proviso: all of them had to acknowledge the Roman emperors as gods. Only the Jews, with their devotion to Yahweh, the one and only God, refused to obey. The tone was set by Julius Caesar, who was made a god after the conspirators who murdered him in 44 BC were caught and punished. The divinity of the Roman emperors lasted for three centuries: they were still being worshipped in western Asia and Egypt when the Roman Empire turned Christian after 313 AD.
The king as god was not a principle confined to a single part of the world. It was global. It arose in places far away from the civilisations of Mesopotamia, China, India or Rome and did so without any known contact. In Aztec Mexico, for example, the Great Speaker, or tlatoani, was regarded as divine, and elaborate precautions were taken to avoid looking them in the face. This belief was similar to that of the ancient Jews that to look on the face of God was to invite death. In addition, the tlatoani was considered so sacred that his feet were not supposed to touch the ground. This accounted for the behaviour of the tetecuhtin, the Aztec nobles, who carried the litter of the Great Speaker Moctezuma Xoyoctzin, better known as Montezuma, at his first meeting with Hernan Cortés, the Spanish conquistador who invaded Mexico in November 1519:
'Montezuma descended from his litter,' wrote Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of Cortés' conquistadores, 'and ... great [lords] supported him beneath a marvellously rich canopy of green feathers, decorated with gold work, silver [and] pearls. It was a marvellous sight. The great Montezuma was magnificently clad ... and wore sandals ... the soles of which were of gold and the upper parts ornamented with precious stones. ... Many more lords ... walked before [him] sweeping the ground on which he was to tread and laying down cloaks so that his feet should not touch the earth. Not one of these [lords] dared to look him in the face.'
Excerpted from Monarchy by Brenda Ralph Lewis. Copyright © 2011 Brenda Ralph Lewis. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
One Monarchy in the Ancient World,
Two Monarchy in Asia,
Three Monarchy and the Church,
Four Renaissance Monarchy,
Five Absolute Monarchy and the Divine Right of Kings,
Six 1848, Year of Revolutions,
Seven Monarchy in England,
Eight Constitutional Monarchy,
Nine Abolishing the Monarchy,
Ten The World of Royal Celebrities,