The Sacred Legitimation Of Kings

Ancient Egypt, The sacred legitimation of kings

The coronation or ascent to the throne by a king is an official act that most clearly shows the sacral character of the kingdom. Until the 20th century two characteristics in the coronations of kings and emperors remained: through ascent to the throne, the king is placed higher than other men, and the act of accession is connected with supernatural powers. With this action a new era begins. This was expressed in Egypt and Mesopotamia in two acts that marked the beginning of the government of the new ruler. First, upon the old ruler's death, the crown prince took control of the government and soon thereafter established his accession in a festive celebration. The coronation, however, generally had to coincide with a new beginning in nature, such as the New Year's festival. The coronation also was viewed as a cosmic new beginning. The most important initial actions of sacred kingship--the ascent to the throne and coronation with proper insignia and king's robes--have remained the same in primitive cultures in ancient and modern times, as well as in many contemporary Western cultures. The throne, crown, headdress, garment (as sign of dignity), and scepter (the staff through which the rule is carried out) were originally believed to contain the power through which the king ruled. The star garment of the Persian king symbolized his world rulership, similar to the feather mantle of the kings of Hawaii. In many cultures the throne, the crown, and the scepter are viewed as divine and identified with gods and goddesses. This view was especially expressed in the Egyptian royal theology: in the hymnal prayer during coronations, the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt were addressed as goddesses of the red and white crown by the king. In India the throne personified the kingdom. Sometimes, the throne that a new king ascends is viewed as the throne of the god. For example, Hatshepsut, an Egyptian queen (reigned 1503-1482 BC), was announced by Horus: "You have appeared on the throne of Horus." On many Egyptian images the king sits on the throne, and the god is at his side holding a hand over the king. In becoming someone else (a god), the king receives a new name, a throne name. Throne names are known in Africa, Mesopotamia, and Egypt (where the five throne names comprise the whole king theology: birth name, royal name, hawk name, serpent name, and a name that designates the king as heir of the power of the gods of the stars). In Iran, for example, the king is proclaimed by his royal name as world ruler. Immediately upon the proclamation of the new status of the king and his royal name, the subject people generally evoke a jubilant shout, such as "Long live the king." An African variety of a response to the proclamation is "He is our corn and our shield," which shows the importance of the king for his people. Another response to the proclamation is a prayer for the king: African and Polynesian prayers; Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Israelite psalms; and hymns, such as the British hymn "God Save the King.

"The act of adoration of a king is based on the throne rite, which is known only in areas having national kings. Though ascent to the throne and coronation with investiture are worldwide, there are many other rituals connected with sacred kingship. Among these are the anointment of the kings in Israel, India, and Iran, which originally was a ritual that gave strength to the recipient--as noted in primitive cultures (e.g., rubbing with the fat of a lion); pseudo-fights (sham battles), from which the king emerges as victor; ritual cleansing; and ritual meals. The survival of elements of the sacred kingship in the Christian West is especially depicted in coronation rites. In early Christian art Christ is shown as kingly ruler on his throne with a royal court; he is emperor and universal ruler. Sacred kingship also survived in the papacy, as well as in the Holy Roman Empire (until the words Holy Roman were dropped in 1806). In the papacy, for example, the court ceremonies employ forms of address that go back to the imperial language of ancient sacred kingdoms: "Holy Father" or "Holiness."

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