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Kingship: Kingship in Sub-Saharan Africa


Kingship is always ritualized to some extent. Since the beginning of the twentieth century scholars have sought unsuccessfully to define a particular type of cultic complex in Africa as "divine kingship." Many now prefer the looser term "sacred kingship." Two opposed arguments dominate this and other anthropological discussions of ritual. One, derived from the work of the English anthropologist James G. Frazer (18541941), dwells on a purportedly distinct set of ideas in which the personal, physical health of the king is responsible for the generosity of nature and the well-being of his people. The other, derived from the great French sociologist Émile Durkheim (18581917), treats such ideas as expressions of sociopolitical realities rather than as primary factors. The sociological view predominated in the 1940s, but in the 1960s anthropologists renewed their interest in Frazer's thesis.

Although many of Frazer's data were drawn from Africa, he thought of divine kingship as characteristic of a particular phase of cultural evolution, not of a particular continent, and he also drew upon European and Middle Eastern ethnography, to which his model may have been more appropriate. Frazer supposed that primitive societies preoccupied with agricultural problems put their faith in a king whose vitality magically ensured the abundance of the harvest and whose death at the hands of a stronger challenger corresponded efficaciously to the seedtime planting of the next crop. Early ethnographic reports concerning the Shilluk people of the Sudan seemed to provide a contemporary example of such ritual regicide.

Dwelling on the association between the king's health and natural fertility, Frazer explained the kingship but not the kingdom. In the first modern treatment of the subject, in 1948, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, relying on better ethnography and a wholly different theory, asserted that the spiritual role of the king expressed the political contradiction between the corporate unity of the Shilluk people and the lack of any central authority capable of subordinating factional interests. In the absence of real control, the king's identity with the moral values of the nation could only be expressed in spiritual terms. Evans-Pritchard found no hard evidence of ritual regicide and suggested that the tradition merely reflected the fact that many kings came to a violent end at the hands of princely challengers.

Meyer Fortes modified this sociological thesis, arguing that all offices were social realities distinct from the individuals who held them. The function of ritual was to make such offices visible and to effect the induction of the individual into his office; as it is said in some parts of Africa, in rituals of investiture the kingship "seizes" the king. Rituals were not simply passive or even imaginary reflexes of the social order but instruments that maintained it and convinced the participants of the reality of royal powers; after the ritual process, the king himself felt changed in his person and took credit for ensuing events (a fall of rain, mysterious deaths) that seemed to confirm the efficacy of the ritual. In this respect, however, kingship did not differ from other social roles such as that of a diviner or an adept in a healing cult.

Another kind of sociological explanation, the reverse of the first, was advanced by Max Gluckman with respect to the Swazi people (Swaziland). Gluckman suggested that the great Ncwala ceremonies provided the people with an annual opportunity to express their resentment of the king's rule and thus stabilized the political system. This "rituals of rebellion" thesis, though widely cited, seems to be based on a misreading of the hymns sung at the Ncwala; on this, more below.

Explanations of rituals in terms of their political functions fail to account for the elaborate content of the rituals, which often involve hundreds of titleholders, experts, courtiers, and lineage heads in rich textures of song, dance, eulogy, costume, taboo, and medication extending over many days and weeks of the year. Rereading the Swazi ethnography, T. O. Beidelman argued that the purpose of the Ncwala was to set the king apart so that he might take on the supernatural powers necessary to his office. He showed how such details as the black color of a sacrificial ox, the king's nudity during the ritual, and the emptiness of his right hand while he danced are consistent with Swazi cosmology and symbolic usage. The color of the ox refers to the powerful but disorderly forces of sexuality that the king must incorporate and master; the king's nudity expresses his liminal status as the "bull of his nation," mediating between the supernatural and the living.

Other writers pointed out that many kings, such as the ba of Benin (Nigeria) or the mwami of Bunyoro (Uganda), were powerful rulers whose spiritual powers seemed to express their real authority rather than compensate for the lack of it. In other instances, the rituals of kingship and respect for the king's supernatural powers remained constant despite pronounced, long-term changes in his real political importance. The same ritual complex might or might not be associated with a hierarchical organization of important functions, so that among the Kongo people, legends and rituals alone fail to make it clear whether the chief to whom they refer is a ruler of thousands or of dozens. Among the Nyakyusa (Tanzania) the divine king remained essentially a priest, whereas among the neighboring Ngonde, who share the same culture and traditions of origin, the king acquired real powers through his control of the trade in ivory and other goods. In Bunyoro, princes fought to succeed to the throne, whereas among the Rukuba (Nigeria) and Nyakyusa the chosen successor must be captured by the officiating priests lest he abscond.

These and other commentaries tended to place Frazer's thesis in doubt. The components of what Frazer thought was a single complex are now seen to vary independently of each other. Also, it has proved impossible to verify any tradition of regicide, although both the tradition and, apparently, the practice of not allowing kings to die a natural death are also associated with some ritual figures who are not kings. Other observances once thought to be specific to divine kings, such as prescribed incest and taboos against seeing the king eat or drink, are present in some instances but not in others. Chiefs among the Dime (Ethiopia) are regarded as having a spiritual power called balthʾu that seems to meet Frazerian expectations since, if the power is "good," it is believed to make the crops grow and livestock multiply, whereas if the harvest is poor the people say, "We must get rid of him; the thoughts he has for the country don't work." A Dime chief is not required to be in good health, however, and eventually dies a natural death.

Africans themselves often speak of the powers vested in kings as independent entities with organic properties. The spiritual power known as bwami among the Lega, for example, is thought to grow and forever renew itself, like a banana tree; this bwami may be vested in a king (mwami) (as among the eastern Lega) or in a graded association (as among the western Lega). From this point of view the purpose of ritual is to favor the growth of kingship as a public resource. Whether or not the king rules as well as reigns, his person is one of the instruments of the process necessary to maintain the kingship. Relics of dead kings are often part of the regalia of their successors or are used to make medicines conferring royal powers. The jawbone of a kabaka of Buganda (Uganda) was enshrined after his death; in Yorubaland, an ba of y (Nigeria) consumed the powdered heart of his predecessor. More generally, the body of a living king is itself a sacred object, modified and manipulated for ritual purposes; among these manipulations, the observances that set him apart from ordinary people often bear more onerously upon him than upon anyone else.

This African perspective is consistent with the sociological one of Fortes, and it is here, perhaps, that we may discover the secret of regicide. Kingship, itself a perpetual office, stands for the corporate unity and perpetuity of the kingdom. Time is therefore intrinsic to the idea of kingship. Time, in turn, has two components: transience and constant renewal. The continuity of the body politic, and of human life within it, may be symbolized by the agricultural cycle or other natural phenomena, by communal rites of passage and succession, or by similar rites in which the king's own life, death, and replacement are made to embody the life process of the community. In such instances, agricultural cycles, initiation cycles, and the succession of kings are not merely metaphors for the continuity and vitality of the social order but substantial constituents of it.

It is not surprising, therefore, among widely separated peoples, including the Lovedu (South Africa), the Nyakyusa, the Rukuba, and the Mundang (Chad), that the death of a ruler or of a surrogate is supposed to coincide with a phase in the cycle of initiations whereby the succession of generations is regulated, although in all these examples the real timing of the events is obscure. The Rukuba king is required to ingest, at his installation, material from the bodies both of his deceased predecessor and of an infant, specially killed for the purpose, whose status is such that he might have been chosen to be king had he lived; these and other Rukuba rituals, which clearly express the theme of renewal and continuity, are believed to cause a long and therefore successful reign. The king himself is not burdened with many taboos; he may be deposed if his "blood" is not strong enough to keep misfortunes from afflicting his people, but he is not himself killed.

During the 1970s anthropologists expressed increasing interest in the subjective perspective in kingship cults, in the content of ritual and its capacity to shape the cognitive experience of participants. The reductionist view that ritual merely expresses political realities seemed inconsistent with the quasi-organic character attributed to kingly powers and with the intense secrecy that in many cases surrounds complex and central cultic performances.

This revival of Frazer's intellectualism did not extend, however, to his evolutionary assumptions about primitive thought, and it emphasized the particularity of symbols whose meanings should be sought in their local context. For example, the skull of a dead Temne chief (Sierra Leone) is kept in a shrine at which daily sacrifices are performed for communal well-being, but that of a Mundang king serves only as a magical device to force his successor to commit the expected suicide. The hair and nails of a deceased mwami of Bunyoro are cut after his death, to be buried with him, whereas those of a lwembe of the Nyakyusa must be taken before he has drawn his last breath, "so that Lwembe might not go away with the food to the land of the shades, that the fertility of the soil might always remain above," and they are used in a powerful fertility medicine. There can be no universal dictionary of symbols, and even in one context a ritual element usually has several kinds and levels of significance, some better defined than others.

In her review of the subject, "Keeping the King Divine," Audrey I. Richards (1969) recommended that in future more attention should be paid to kingship in its relation to other elements of the society in which we find it; for example, other forms of ancestor worship, other kinds of control over nature, other political authorities. Or as an ethnographer of eastern Zaire put it, "chiefship is simply a variant of Bashu ideas about healers, sorcerers, and women." The cultural pattern of the Shilluk (shared by the Anuak, Dinka, and other Nilotic peoples) is very different from that of the Azande (southern Sudan), in which the cultic attributes of kingship are minimal, and from those of the Temne, Rukuba, or Dime, all of which are in turn strongly dissimilar.

In a pattern that is widespread in central, southern, and parts of West Africa, violent powers associated with chiefs and the activities of men in hunting and war were supposedly derived from ancestors. Ancestral cults were paired and contrasted with those of local or nature spirits, from whom powers were procured that were beneficial to the fertility of nature, the activities of women, and the well-being of local communities. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such local cults were merged with the institution of kingship during the process of state formation; the Swazi, Luba and Bushong, and Benin kingdoms provide examples.

In this pattern, the symbolization of violence is often intentionally shocking. A Luba chief, after being anointed with the blood of a man killed for that purpose, put his foot on the victim's skull and drank his blood mixed with beer. Such acts showed that the king possessed superhumanly destructive powers, similar to witchcraft, with which he would be able to defend his people against the attacks of witches and criminals. The Ncwala confers similiar powers on the Swazi king; the hymns sung are a national expression not of rebellion but of sympathy for him in his lonely struggle against such enemies. As the Swazi themselves say, the Ncwala is intended to strengthen the kingship and "make stand the nation." In some kingdoms, designated groups engage in looting, rape, and other disorderly behavior to show that the power that should contain violence is temporarily in abeyance. Often, however, the ritual representation of the chief's violent powers was greatly disproportionate to the amount of real force he commanded; he had authority as the embodiment of the social order but little power.

In contrast, local cults devoted to community well-being emphasized growth and fertility, employing as ritual symbols the color black (associated with rain clouds) and farming implements such as hoes rather than the color red and various weapons associated with war. In other configurations, as among the Nyakyusa, life-giving and death-dealing powers are not segregated in this way. In yet others, such as the Mundang, whose king was as much bandit as sovereign, looting at home and abroad, there was no cult of violence.

Although kings are "made" by the rituals that enthrone them, their powers are maintained by daily observances. The unfortunate leader of the Dime, known as zimu, though he had real political and military responsibilities, was so restricted in his diet and personal contacts as to be virtually an outcast. Besides installation and funerary rites and daily observances, kingship cults include bodies of myth and the ritual organization of space. The plans of royal palaces and grave shrines, even the distribution of shrines in the country, organize rituals in space in conformity with cosmological models. The bodies of some kings, as among the Mundang, are casually thrown away, but for the Nyakyusa the graves of the original kings are among the most fearfully sacred of all shrines. The dynastic shrines of the Ganda are replicas of the royal court, with their own elaborate rituals and personnel centered on a queen sister.

Royal myths commonly refer to the founding of the state and its subsequent history, which the rituals of investiture and periodic festivals may reenact. Until the 1970s, scholars tended to take such myths literally, especially those that attributed the origin of a kingdom to immigrants. Paradoxically, the intellectualist reappraisal of ritual was accompanied by a new view of myths as narrative expressions of real, contemporary sociopolitical relations. The "stranger" status of the king expresses his difference from ordinary people or the separation of dynastic, chiefly functions from local, priestly ones, just as prescribed incest or murder marks the king's removal from his ordinary status and his accession to a new one.

Colonial rule abolished or profoundly modified all kingships and their rituals, appropriating many of their powers and banning some practices deemed essential by the people to create true kings. Central mysteries of surviving cults were and are known only to the participating experts. Consequently, we have few descriptions of the working of kingship in practice, and only one extensive set of ritual prescriptions, for the kingdom of Rwanda. Even much better information, however, would not render unambiguous the functions of kingship, which have always been responsive to changing circumstances, or reveal beyond doubt the relationship between ritual prescription and actual event. Kings as well as anthropologists debate whether regicide is a necessary practice or symbolic truth; in the mid-nineteenth century an ba of y refused to submit to regicide, and in 1969 the king of the Jukun (Nigeria) was reported in the press to be sleeping with a loaded revolver under his pillow. Part of the power and mystery of kingship is its refusal to be bound by rules and its centrality to the political process.

See Also

Bemba Religion; Southern African Religions, article on Southern Bantu Religions; Swazi Religion.


James G. Frazer's ideas on divine kingship can be found in the various editions of The Golden Bough; his one-volume abridgment (New York, 1922) has been frequently reprinted. The modern revival of Frazer begins with Michael W. Young's article "The Divine Kingship of the Jukun: A Re-evaluation of Some Theories," Africa 36 (1966): 135152, and includes Luc de Heusch's Sacrifice in Africa (Bloomington, Ind., 1985). Recent neo-Frazerian accounts of divine kingship include Alfred Adler's La mort est le masque du roi: La royauté sacrée des Moundang du Tchad (Paris, 1982), Jean-Claude Muller's Le roi bouc-émissaire: Pouvoir et rituel chez les Rukuba du Nigéria (Quebec, 1980), and Dave M. Todd's "Aspects of Chiefship in Dimam, South-West Ethiopia," Cahiers d'études africaines 18 (1978): 311332. De Heusch has returned to Frazer's thesis in his "The Symbolic Mechanisms of Sacred Kingship: Rediscovering Frazer," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 3, 2 (1887): 213232, which includes references to recent studies, and has applied his version of the concept in Heusch, Le Roi de Kongo et les monstres sacrés (Paris, 2000).

E. E. Evans-Pritchard established the sociological approach in opposition to Frazer in his The Divine Kingship of the Shilluk of the Nilotic Sudan (Cambridge, U.K., 1948). Relevant essays by Meyer Fortes include "Of Installation Ceremonies," Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute for 1967 (London, 1968). Max Gluckman's "rituals of rebellion" thesis is to be found in his Order and Rebellion in Tribal Africa (London, 1963). Audrey I. Richard's review, "Keeping the King Divine," is in Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute for 1968 (London, 1969).

Classic ethnographic accounts of kingship cults include John Roscoe's The Bakitara or Banyoro (Cambridge, U.K., 1923), in which he gives, for Bunyoro, the best account of a king's daily observances. Hilda Kuper's An African Aristocracy: Rank among the Swazi (London, 1947) sets a vivid description of the Ncwala in an analysis of the political system; T. O. Beidelman interprets the symbolism in "Swazi Royal Ritual," Africa 36 (1966): 373405. Monica Wilson's richly detailed Communal Rituals of the Nyakyusa (London, 1957) includes trancripts of interviews with senior participants in kingship and other cults. Ray E. Bradbury's illustrated article "Divine Kingship in Benin," Nigeria 62 (1959): 186207, is a useful companion to the film Benin Kingship Rituals, made by Bradbury and Francis Speed. The only extensive published set of esoteric ritual prescriptions is La royauté sacrée de l'ancien Rwanda (Tervuren, Belgium, 1964), edited by Marcel d'Hertefelt and André Coupez. Ritual features of Luba kingship, with special reference to art works and attitudes concerning them, are presented in M. N. Roberts and A. N. Roberts, Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History (New York, 1996).

Among recent historical accounts of the development of divine kingships are, on the Bashu, Randall Packard's Chiefship and Cosmology (Bloomington, Ind., 1981), which explains the relationship between chiefly power and control of natural forces; on the Luba, Thomas Q. Reefe's The Rainbow and the Kings (Berkeley, 1981); and, on the Kuba, Jan Vansina's The Children of Woot (Madison, Wis., 1978).

Wyatt MacGaffey (1987 and 2005)

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