Sacred king

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Figure of Christ from the Ghent Altarpiece (1432).

In many historical societies, the position of kingship carries a sacral meaning, that is, it is identical with that of a high priest and of judge. The concept of theocracy is related, although a sacred king need not necessarily rule through his religious authority; rather, the temporal position itself has a religious significance.


The notion has prehistoric roots and is found worldwide, on Java as in sub-Saharan Africa, with shaman-kings credited with rainmaking and assuring fertility and good fortune. On the other hand, the king might also be designated to suffer and atone for his people, meaning that the sacral king could be the pre-ordained victim of a human sacrifice, either regularly killed at the end of his term in the position, or sacrificed in times of crisis (e.g. the Blót of Domalde).

Among the Ashanti, a new king (Ashantehene) was flogged before being enthroned.

From the Bronze Age Near East, the enthronement and anointment of a monarch is a central religious ritual, reflected in the titles Messiah or Christ which became separated from worldly kingship. Thus, Sargon of Akkad described himself as "deputy of Ishtar", just as the modern Catholic Pope is considered the "Vicar of Christ"[citation needed]

The king is styled as a shepherd from earliest times, e.g., the term was applied to Sumerian princes such as Lugalbanda in the 3rd millennium BC. The image of the shepherd combines the themes of leadership and the responsibility to supply food and protection as well as superiority.

As the mediator between the people and the divine, the sacral king was credited with special wisdom (e.g. Solomon) or vision (e.g. via oneiromancy).


Sacral kingship was carried into the Middle Ages by considering kings installed by the Grace of God


Study of the concept was introduced by Sir James George Frazer in his influential book The Golden Bough (1890–1915); sacral kingship plays a role in Romanticism and Esotericism (e.g. Julius Evola) and some currents of Neopaganism (Theodism). The school of Pan-Babylonianism derived much of the religion described in the Hebrew Bible from cults of sacral kingship in ancient Babylonia.

The so-called British and Scandinavian cult-historical schools maintained that the king personified a god and stood at the center of the national or tribal religion. The English "myth and ritual school" concentrated on anthropology and folklore, while the Scandinavian "Uppsala school" emphasized Semitological study.

Frazer's interpretation

A sacred king, according to the systematic interpretation of mythology developed by Frazer in The Golden Bough (published 1890), was a king who represented a solar deity in a periodically re-enacted fertility rite. Frazer seized upon the notion of a substitute king and made him the keystone of his theory of a universal, pan-European, and indeed worldwide fertility myth, in which a consort for the Goddess was annually replaced. According to Frazer, the sacred king represented the spirit of vegetation, a divine John Barleycorn.[citation needed] He came into being in the spring, reigned during the summer, and ritually died at harvest time, only to be reborn at the winter solstice to wax and rule again. The spirit of vegetation was therefore a "dying and reviving god". Osiris, Adonis, Dionysus, Attis and many other familiar figures from Greek mythology and classical antiquity were re-interpreted in this mold. The sacred king, the human embodiment of the dying and reviving vegetation god, was supposed to have originally been an individual chosen to rule for a time, but whose fate was to suffer as a sacrifice, to be offered back to the earth so that a new king could rule for a time in his stead.

Especially in Europe during Frazer's early twentieth century heyday, it launched a cottage industry of amateurs looking for "pagan survivals" in such things as traditional fairs, maypoles, and folk arts like morris dancing. It was widely influential in literature, being alluded to by D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, among other works.

Robert Graves used Frazer's work in The Greek Myths and made it one of the foundations of his own personal mythology in The White Goddess. Most curiously of all, Margaret Murray, the principal theorist of witchcraft as a "pagan survival," used Frazer's work to propose the thesis that many Kings of England who died as kings, most notably William Rufus, were secret pagans and witches, and whose deaths were the re-enactment of the human sacrifice that stood at the centre of Frazer's myth, a speculation taken up by Katherine Kurtz' in her novel Lammas Night.

In fiction

Many of Rosemary Sutcliff's novels are recognized as being directly influenced by Frazer, depicting individuals accepting the burden of leadership and the ultimate responsibility of personal sacrifice, including Sword at Sunset, The Mark of the Horse Lord, and Sun Horse, Moon Horse.[1]

In addition to its appearance in her novel Lammas Night noted above, Katherine Kurtz also uses the idea of sacred kingship in her novel The Quest for Saint Camber. After being swept down a waterfall into an underground cavern, King Kelson Haldane and a companion break into tombs belonging to a reclusive lay order the Servants of Saint Camber in their efforts to escape the caves and return to civilization. The Servants decide Kelson must undergo a ritual trial to atone for the immediate sacrilege and to atone for the anti-Deryni persecutions which his ancestors allowed to continue for nearly two hundred years.[2] His companion Dhugal MacArdry McLain is allowed to keep vigil with the Servants during the test, and he allowed to hold their Camber medals while he waits, but the Servants withhold the king's Eye of Rom (a single ruby earring) on the grounds that "the earring is Haldane and abhorrent to him, until and unless you prove yourself his servant in truth."[3]

See also


  1. Article about Rosemary Sutcliff at the Historical Novels Info website; paragraph 15
  2. Katherine Kurtz, The Quest for Saint Camber, ISBN 0-345-30099-8, Ballantine Books, 1986, p 360-363.
  3. Katherine Kurtz, The Quest for Saint Camber, ISBN 0-345-30099-8, Ballantine Books, 1986, p. 371.


  • Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, (Blackwell, 1993): ISBN 0-631-18946-7
  • William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D., A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, (London, 1875)
  • J.F. del Giorgio, The Oldest Europeans, (A.J. Place, 2006)
  • Claus Westermann, Encyclopædia Britannica, s.v. sacred kingship.
  • James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 3rd ed., 12 vol. (1911–15, reprinted 1990)
  • A.M. Hocart, Kingship (1927, reprint 1969)
  • G. van der Leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestation (1933, English 1938, 1986)
  • Geo Widengren, Religionsphänomenologie (1969), pp. 360–393.
  • Lily Ross Taylor, The Divinity of the Roman Emperor (1931, reprint 1981).
  • David Cannadine and Simon Price (eds.), Rituals of Royalty: Power and Ceremonial in Traditional Societies (1987).
  • Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods (1948, 1978).
  • Colin Morris, The Papal Monarchy: The Western Church from 1050 to 1250 (1989),
  • J.H. Burns, Lordship, Kingship, and Empire: The Idea of Monarchy, 1400–1525 (1992).
"English school"
  • S.H. Hooke (ed.),The Labyrinth: Further Studies in the Relation Between Myth and Ritual in the Ancient World (1935).
  • S.H. Hooke (ed.), Myth, Ritual, and Kingship: Essays on the Theory and Practice of Kingship in the Ancient Near East and in Israel (1958).
"Scandinavian school"
  • Geo Widengren, Sakrales Königtum im Alten Testament und im Judentum (1955).
  • Ivan Engnell, Studies in Divine Kingship in the Ancient Near East, 2nd ed. (1967)
  • Aage Bentzen, King and Messiah, 2nd ed. (1948; English 1970).

External links