God-kings and the deification of the rich
Wealth inequality is bringing back the ancient practice of endowering our rulers with magical powers.
Among the achievements of civilization celebrated in modernist discourse — and still taken for granted today — has been our belated decision to stop revering our rulers as gods. This may seem like a modest accomplishment, but it was not long ago that society thought about power quite differently. In its opening stanza, our earliest work of literature declares that “Gilgamesh was called a god and man”; Herbert Mason notes that he was “endowed by tradition with superhuman mind and spirit,” but insists that the legend has survived because of its insight into the human condition. Not, he adds, because of people who “believe in personified gods.”
As is often the case, James George Frazer says bluntly what the 21st century quietly believes but is too polite to say out loud. The “savage,” he writes,
fails to recognize those limitations to his power over nature which seem so obvious to us… The notion of a man-god, or of a human being endowed with divine or supernatural powers, belongs essentially to that earlier period of religious history… Strange, therefore, as it may seem to us the idea of a god incarnate in human form, it has nothing very startling for early man…Our ideas on this profound subject are the fruit of a long intellectual and moral evolution, and they are so far from being shared by the savage that he cannot even understand them when they are explained to him.
It is understandable, when Frazer goes on to associate this primitive perspective with “the lower races,” that modern readers have often been inclined to rehabilitate the ancient world — to reinterpret this talk about incarnate gods as literary flourishes, or as merely unfamiliar ways of expressing sound and sophisticated perspectives on power and hierarchy. Leach, one of Frazer’s most influential critics, followed something like this route:
The words “god” and “king” are habitually used in very loose fashion… Kings are not gods yet they partake in divinity. Kings are mortal, but the office of kingship is immortal; a king’s actual potency is circumscribed, but, in theory, the power of the kingship is absolute.1
In this way, ancient references to the godlike power of rulers can often be read in the same way we might read Abraham Lincoln’s declaration that he was “clothed in immense power”.
Still, it would be another overcorrection to conclude that all this talk about the supernatural abilities of rulers was always metaphorical — or is. While it isn’t difficult to find historical examples of this, one can still find divine kingship discourse in the 21st century. And not (as Frazer might predict) simply in the undeveloped world or among religious communities. The genre of still alive and well in the literature of contemporary secular liberal capitalism: specifically, in the hagiography of the rich.