Sacral King


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.

 

 

 

Germanic kingship refers to the customs and practices surrounding kings among the pagan Germanic tribes of the Migration period (circa AD 300-700) and the kingdoms of the Early Middle Ages (circa AD 700-1000). The title of king (Proto-Germanic:*kuningaz) is in origin that of the leader elected as sacral and military leader from out of a noble family, usually considered of divine ancestry, in the pagan period.

The Germanic monarchies were originally pagan, but their contact, during the Völkerwanderung or Migration Period, with the Roman Empire and the Christian Church greatly altered their structure and developed into the feudal monarchy of the High Middle Ages.

The term “barbarian monarchy” is sometimes used in the context of those Germanic rulers that after AD 476 and during the 6th century ruled territories formerly part of the Western Roman Empire, especially the Barbarian kings of Italy. In the same context, Germanic law is also termed leges barbarorum “barbarian law” etc.

 

 

Election of a King at “The Stones Of Mora” by Olaus Magnus

 

 

The Germanic king originally had three main functions:

  • To serve as judge during the popular assemblies.
  • To serve as a priest during the sacrifices.
  • To serve as a military leader during wars.

The office was received hereditarily, but a new king required the consent of the people before assuming the throne. All sons of the king had the right to claim the throne, which often led to co-rulership (diarchy) where two brothers were elected kings at the same time. This evolved into the territories being considered the hereditary property of the kings, patrimonies, a system which fueled feudal wars, because the kings could claim ownership of lands beyond their de facto rule.

As a sort of pagan high priest, the king often claimed descent from some deity. In the Scandinavian nations, he administered blóts at important cult sites, such as the Temple at Uppsala. Refusal to administer the blóts could lead to the king losing power (see Haakon the Good and Anund Gårdske).

According to the testimony of Tacitus (Germania), the early Germanic peoples had an elective monarchy already in the 1st century.

“They choose their kings by birth, their generals for merit. These kings have not unlimited or arbitrary power, and the generals do more by example than by authority.

 

 

The notion has prehistoric roots and is found worldwide, on Java as in sub-Saharan Africa, with shaman-kings credited with rain-making 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. Domalde).

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

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

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 (oneiromancy).

 

Examples

Sacral kingship was carried into the Middle Ages by considering kings installed by the grace of god

2 thoughts on “Sacral King

  1. I’d suggest “Jesus and the Victory of God” by N.T. Wright as another example of sacral king, a king whose purpose is more than kingship but also of prophet and of priest.

    Good post.

  2. This I found rather interesting. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the development of the ideology of kingship from the Middle Neolithic. One strand which I find of particular interest is the notion of king as priest, prophet and king; the embodiment of the ancient city state. We see this time and again in both Homer and the Hebrew Bible (both early Iron Age with cultural memories of the Bronze Age).

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