Kingship: An Overview

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The term kingship refers to a relatively complex and hierarchical structure of society in which a central figurea king or, in certain cases, a queenundertakes a unifying role that acts as a value reference for the various groups that constitute the society. Depending on whether or not this function involves a direct exercise of political power on the part of the person who is discharging it, the king may be considered a monarch, and the kingship may be identified as a monarchy, a word that technically may mean only a particular form of government and nothing else. That the two terms do not correspond is well expressed by the saying that, in many cases, the king "reigns but does not govern." It is also possible to govern in an absolute fashion, as a monarch, by holding military office or administering justice without being legitimately entitled to do so. In such cases the one who governs does so by relying almost entirely upon force, making the role of engendering social cohesion difficult, which is the first duty of a king.

On this basis, then, one can understand that the interest in the subject shown by anthropologists and religious historians stems from the fact that the word kingship refers not only, and not so much, to a form of government but also to a supposed quality belonging to the person who embodies the king that sanctions his legitimacyif not to govern, then at least to reign. This quality has been given various names, even in the Western tradition, such as majesty or dignity and the word kingship itself has been used. It consists of precisely those attributes that mark out the king as exceptional, that make him, in the eyes of his subjects, a sacred person, a moral authority, a common reference point because of his universal value, with consequent displays of devotion and respect toward his person and his family, ancestors included. The analysis of this sacred role has had important consequences for the broad understanding of power in general. If it is indeed true that any form of power is still considered sacredinasmuch as it represents a kind of transcendency, expressing a cultural method that humankind has at its disposal by which it can escape from the condition of contingencyit is also true that, in acquiring such an awareness, which finds its most extreme expression in the idea that political science is a chapter in the comparative historical study of religion (Debray, 1981; Heusch, 1987), thinking regarding the particular forms of power that constitute kingship, typified by association with a detailed set of rituals and a rich mythology, has played no small part.

Defining Kingship

Examples of kingship may be drawn from all four corners of the world, from ancient China to Mexico, from the Egypt of the pharaohs to Mesopotamia, from the kingdoms of equatorial Africa to those of Polynesia. Although far apart in space and time, these societies often show surprising similarities even when they differ markedly in other respects, such as their size. Indeed, it has been noted that the traits that largely identify kingship (insofar as not being exclusively a form of government) are also present in forms of tribal organization, and their ultimate roots come directly from Neolithic social structures. This seems to suggest the importance attributed to the cult of ancestorsor even the well-known motif symbolically identifying the figure of the king with the father figure, understood not so much as a parent but rather as one who provides nourishment and, more generally, as a principle of authority.

The African continent provides numerous examples of this model of kingship (e.g., Mair, 1977; Vansina, 1966), where the main function of the king is not so much to govern as to engage directly with the forces of nature to ensure fertility and prosperity for the community. He has powers, such as the ability to ensure rain, and he must demonstrate their supposed effectiveness or, in certain cases, must pay with his life for his ineffectiveness. These are some of the traits that make up what is sacral in the broadest sense and in many cases differ only in detail. Generally, the idea is that the king guarantees the order of the universe via his privileged contact with the restless world of nature, inhabited by many invisible forces. This enhanced closeness is clear from his being permitted to transgress the laws of the land, which indicates that he does not belong to the social group that is obliged to follow rules by which he is not bound. Among these transgressions, one of the most significant is the practice of incest that often accompanied enthronementa kind of hierogamy, according to Luc de Heusch (1987), that reveals to the greatest degree the alienation of the king from the obligation to obey the rules that bind the community.

Nevertheless, the emphasis upon the alienation and separateness of the king from the general populace means not only an exemption from the obligation to obey normal rules but also the observation of rules that on this occasion apply only to him. For the most part this involves submitting to a whole series of taboos, which serve to conceal the clearly human traits of the sovereign. Thus, in many traditional societiesthe Jukun in Nigeria, for examplehe cannot be seen while doing everyday things such as drinking, eating, sleeping, or directly touching the ground. Various figureswives, sisters, dignitaries, and servants who always gravitate around the courtensure strict adherence to this protocol. They share in the sacred nature of the king to varying degrees and are particularly involved at those moments most loaded with symbolism, such as during the actual investiture ceremony, when the new king is dressed in his robes, changes his name, and receives his royal insignia; or at the time of the funeral rites, which may also involve killing his relatives or particularly close servants, such as someone who is regarded as his double.

Death of a King

The death of a king is a highly significant event. It is the most dramatic event for the community, exposing the fiction that the sovereign is different from mere mortals. It is an event best kept secret for as long as possible and surrounded with the utmost discretion, from a practical point of view, to ensure the future plans for the succession and because of the worry such news can provoke among the general populace, who regard as an apocalyptic event the termination of the cosmic and social order the king ensured. Hence, the concern in many societies is to keep the interregnum to a minimum, because it is a period of chaos, real or imagined. To appoint a successor in advance or to appoint a figure to function as regent (in many cases the queen mother) is one measure adopted to deal with this situation.

This attitude toward the dangers of interregnum is not the exclusive concern of societies that are little more than tribal, but is a danger every kind of kingship must face. It shows one of the most symbolically specific characteristics of the institution itself. The solutions adopted may be different, but the guiding spirit that lies behind them remains the same. A glance at historical events in Europe tells the story more eloquently than numerous ethnographic examples, because it also serves as a better antidote to any attempt to diminish the importance of that mystical aspect that is a constant mark of kingship all over the world and at every level of social complexity.

To deny the interregnum is to deny the mortality of the king. This fiction was maintained in Renaissance Europe by the French and British monarchies by creating an effigy of the dead king, which was waited upon as if it were the living king himself (Giesey, 1960). This ritual practice was the starting point for the doctrinal elaboration (the subject of a masterly 1957 study by Ernst H. Kantorowicz) according to which the king possessed two bodies: one natural and one political. Only the first one was mortal, whereas the second was regarded as a corporation sole, constituted of a single person considered eternal. The insignia, which symbolized the eternal nature of the royal institution, was the crown.

The analogies are more significant than the differences, evidence of a political symbolism, a reality encompassing both tribal and centralized states. For these reasons, too, as with the distinctions between kingship and monarchy, some modern scholars of kingship consider it necessary to move to a less-marked identification between the kingship and the state (Simonse, 1992), and this has widened the field of study, especially from an ethnological perspective. Ideas such as the segmentary state (Southall, 1956) or the clan state (Adler, 1982) now rank alongside the more classical division between societies based upon ancestral lineage and those based upon the state, considered a throwback to nineteenth-century thinking (Tardits, 1980). It has thus become easier to agree with the argument of Roland Mousnier (1989), stating that groups deal with a kingship every time a leader is deemed to be in a privileged relationship with surrounding forces that, on the basis of accepted categorization, are considered supernatural.

"Ritual" and "politics" can be found together also in simpler societies than those traditionally defined as kingships or monarchies. To assume this seems to be the only way to agree with those authors, for example Valerio Valeri (1980), who warn that, as far as kingship is concerned, to try to establish an evolutionistic relationship between the categories above mentioned is misleading.

To return to the theory of the ritual origin of kingship formulated by James G. Frazer (1890) and restated by Arthur M. Hocart (1927) and the Myth and Ritual school (Ackerman, 1991), it should be clear that this will never mean the ritual origin of politics itself, an activity that, at least in the generally accepted sense of the guidelines about decisions taken with regard to matters of common concern, presumably has existed in all human societies. As far as the theory of the ritual origin of the kingship is concerned, its fortunes stem at least in part from the fact that it flourished in a period when it was firmly believed that politics was an activity that took place exclusively in those societies considered states.

A further implication of the distinction between kingship and monarchy may be the fact that the sacred nature of the king may be more clearly specified when one defines categories such as legitimacy and sovereignty. Thus, Mousnier, in his attempt to clarify the distinction between a king and a monarch, uses various figures to illustrate the differences between the two. In seventh- and sixth-century bce Greece, for example, the term tyrant had not yet acquired any pejorative connotation but indicated simply an illegitimate king, one not meant to take the throne. The tyrant was thus a usurper who, albeit for the common good, illegitimately assumed power in particular circumstances.

Origin of Kingship

Vladimir Volkoff (1987) states that whereas a monarchy might be abruptly established, this is not so with kingship, which may only exist as a shared institution with a real or mythical past presenting a stable and reassuring figure, an intersection between the microcosmos and the macrocosmos. Volkoff thus restates in an elegant fashion that legitimacy best describes the fundamental difference between a king and a pure and simple monarch.

How then is the legitimacy of a monarch established? In other words, what is it that makes a rex a term with a much older meaning, as the studies of Émile Benveniste (1969) suggestmore concerned with the figure of the priest than of the sovereign? Of the two main theories on the origin of kingship, the first holds that it originates from within the social group, while the other holds that it has external origins, such as the result of military conquest. The majority of available historical and ethnographic data supports the second hypothesis.

In the theory of the ritual origin of the kingship, which proposes the internal origin of the institution, the problem of legitimacy is in a sense already solved. To repeat the above distinction, it could be said to be a matter of demonstrating the transition from king to monarch, from an individual symbolthe moral and religious reference point of a broad range of groups who remain autonomous in terms of political, judicial, and administrative decisionsto an individual with the power to command all of these groups, which are reduced to unimportant objects and accept his authority.

For the opposing theory, which supports the external origin of the kingship, the problem is to analyze the transition from monarch to king, the shift from a character originating as a result of force to one accepted by the group because of a recognition of his exceptional nature, which makes him appear sacred and gives him legitimacy in the eyes of the entire community. The historical dynamics are naturally different. When the king and the monarch are not the same person, the legitimization of power almost always occurs in the form of a dyarchy. Analysis of a specific example clarifies how all this develops and the different institutional arrangements that may occur.

Two qualifications become appropriate. The first is that the force with which a stranger imposes himself upon a populace is still perceived, on the part of those subdued, in cultural terms as the expression of a superior powerof which he is the embodiment, or with which he has privileged relations. In this sense, the warring conqueror already has a sacred dimension, for he is already seen as the expression of a power with which he enjoys a privileged relationship. The second qualification is closely linked to the broad definition of kingship that has been adopted. On this basis the majority of ethnographic and historical examples put forward by scholars to illustrate the appearance of kingship deal with simply the appearance of a new kind of kingship, that is, a different institutional arrangement of the relationship between the mystical and political elements of power. Finally, it should be added that it is not always clear, when talking of kingship established via conquest, if the society from which the conquerors come is already familiar with a reasonably stable, regal organizational structure of some sort, or if a particular kind of leadership has been drawn up to carry out the conquest.

However that may be, to recall some classical examples, the documentary evidence related to both ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia refers to the existence of an earlier form of kingship. In the first case, the theriomorphic symbolism associated with the kingship (e.g., falcon, scorpion) is too varied not to allude to previous models of regal organizational structure predating the glory of the pharaonic age. As for Mesopotamia, the royal Sumerian genealogy recalls ancient nomad kings, leaders who "live in tents," suggesting a model of kingship, perhaps rather uncertain, that preceded the complex organization of the city-state centered on the temple.

The origins of the kingship of the Congolese, a Bantu people of West Africa, provide a good example of a frequent model for the construction of legitimacy by a foreign king. Lukeni, a fourteenth-century warrior not in command in his own circle of influence, emigrated with some of his followers and subdued the Ambundu, who were organized in small chiefdoms. He married the daughter of a powerful local priest, the mani cabunga, the guardian of supernatural powers, and he ordered his men to marry local women and take on their tribal name. In this way he began a process of territorial expansion, whereas the priest, as well as retaining his traditional ritual functions, was to play an important part in the enthronement ceremony of future kings and thus legitimize their governance.

Japan provides a different model. Here the mikado, or emperor, was considered a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu and was surrounded by an ostentatious ritual. He was regarded as endowed with miraculous powers and was perceived as an intermediary between the people and the divine cosmos. He did not engage in governmental functions, which was the role of the shogun who held military power.

Western Christianity offers yet another model based upon the fact that monotheism puts forward a transcendent god in contrast to the equality of all humanity. In this instance the king cannot be considered divine in origin, as in Japan, or be confused with a god, as with the Egyptian pharaoh. The religious realm remained firmly in the hands of a complex ecclesiastical apparatus that was involved in coronations from the eighth century until the time of Charles X in 1825 in France at Rheims, during which period the king was religiously anointed. The entire history of Europe consists of continuous attempts by the church and the state to assert their own superiority. The result was not so much a differentiation of roles, as in the preceding examples, but rather, as Kantorowicz has explained, an attempt to imitate each other, which is particularly evident in certain rituals of clothing and which culminated, as far as the king was concerned, in the claim that the sovereignty was divine in origin.

Alongside this institutional scenario, which in historical terms was interrupted by the French Revolution, there is a persistent popular image of the king. Marc Bloch (1924), in his now classic study, described the magical powers attributed to the medieval king, such as the ability to cure scrofula, and Yves-Marie Bercé (1990) investigated the equally fascinating topic of the king who is not dead but in hiding and will return to his people. These works provide evidence of the important mythological background that surrounds kingship even in Europe, which experienced the formation of the modern state, and evidence of the profitable use of the results of more than a century of anthropological research on this subject.

The Divine King and the Ritual Regicide

The history of this research can be traced back to the publication of The Golden Bough by James G. Frazer in 1890. This work deals with the theme of kingship, in particular its magic and sacred aspects, expanded upon in subsequent editions. It was the first important theoretical comparative formulation. It expresses the idea that the attribution to certain individuals of presumed magical powers that enabled them to interact with the forces of nature and positively influence it was decisive in them assuming the roles of chiefs and kings in the first human societies. One of the consequences of their privileged contact with the forces of nature would have been concern for their physical condition, the fear that their degeneration would drag down the whole universe with it. To prevent this catastrophic hypothesis from becoming reality, it was thought necessary to anticipate the natural death of the king and kill him first, which would allow his soul to be transferred to a stronger successor, and his physical well-being would thus be harmoniously linked via the sympathetic principle of magic to that of the whole universe.

In the first edition of The Golden Bough, the killing of the king does not appear as a relevant feature when the author speaks of the "divine King," a person distinct from the "magical King," the most meaningful example of which is provided by the Japanese mikado. It does appear in the third edition (19111915), when Frazer inserts a reference in the fourth volume of the work (1911), which eventually reached twelve volumes, to the Shilluk of the Sudan, among whom, according to a letter sent him by Charles G. Seligman on December 13, 1910, regicide was practiced until a few years previous. The subject of ritual regicide acquired a central place in the discussion of sacred or, as Frazer put it, "divine" kingship. Perhaps because the paroxysm seemed to embody it best, or perhaps because he was deliberately referring to the most archaic period of the institution of the kingship, Frazer thought it the expression of a still savage sense of the sacred that shed light upon the nature of the kingship in his subsequent histories. Scholars were naturally reluctant to ignore the importance of these references in the picture of an evolutionistic interpretation of the kingship.

This evolutionary outlook still retains its appeal when kingship and, particularly, ritual regicide are discussed. In the late twentieth century, William G. Randles (1968) gathered the various references to this subject in subsequent anthropological literature into a structured plan that identifies four possible stages in the evolution of the kingship. At the first level, the society actually determines in advance the length of the king's reign, thus indicating the maximum control over his fate. At the second level, regicide takes place at the first signs of the sovereign growing old. At the third, the sovereign is obliged to prove that he is worthy of the throne by undergoing trials in which he risks his own life. Only at the fourth stage does the king gain control of his own fate and acquire the right to die a natural death.

This representation is useful in that it attempts to incorporate a wide range of ethnographic evidence within an apparently logical sequence where certain events, regarded as horrifying to modern sensibilities, are not denied as such but are instinctively moved back to the distant past. This, however, encourages an inflexible interpretation, which is still unacceptable.

The diffusionist viewpoint is similar and can be considered a less rigid form of evolutionism, with more regard for the definite historico-geographical links of cultural factors. The most important works of this school, such as the monograph by Charles K. Meek (1931) on the Jukun of Nigeria, in which he adduces symbolic parallels with ancient Egypt, remain essentially faithful to Frazer's view. The first attempted classification of this representation was by Seligman (1934), who in his Frazer Lecture of 1933 summarized the essential features of the so-called divine king. For him a king was divine if:

  1. He was able to exercise influence, voluntary or otherwise, over the forces of nature;
  2. He was regarded as the dynamic center of the universe;
  3. His daily actions were meticulously controlled and constantly checked;
  4. He had to be put to death when his powers declined so that his weakness did not drag down the whole kingdom with it.

The final point is the most interesting one because it became the criterion by which to identify the figure of the divine king and distinguish him from the sacred king. In practice, divine kings were those who were not able to die natural deaths but had to be ritually killed. The fact that this characteristic has remained difficult to demonstrate from empirical evidence, and in many kingdoms is not hinted at even in mythological traditions, has led the majority of scholars to prefer the expression sacred (or sacral) kingship. This may be seen from the title "The Sacral Kingship" given to the Eighth International Congress of the History of Religions, on the subject of kingship, held in Rome in 1955. Its proceedings were published in 1959.

In the meantime, the diffusionist trend has been giving way to a functionalist interpretation that provided the first real alternative to Frazer's model. What had previously been analyzed in terms of cast of mind and superstitions was now seen in institutional terms. These were viewed by Frazer as the result, or at least the reflection, of certain beliefs. The similarities between societies that were far apart from each other in terms of space and time were, for Frazer, an indication that the societies were at more or less the same stage of intellectual development. For the functionalists the reverse was the case. Beliefs were no longer the central issue; it was the need for structured social integration that was important and that provided the key to interpreting the ideology and symbolic practices, including those in which such societies were similar. The analysis was therefore mainly synchronic in nature, so origins are discussed only in a figurative sense. The "origins" of a cultural phenomenon are only found within the society in which it is exhibited. They are the place it occupies and the function it performs taken as a whole. The rich symbolism associated with the kingship is thus essentially seen in terms of the need for group social cohesion.

One of the most important monographs with this approach was published by Hilda Kuper (1947) and concerned the Swazi, who celebrate the ncwala ritual. This provided the starting point for Max Gluckman to provide details of the category in "Rituals of Rebellion" (1963). The category allowed the various phenomena of puppet kings, scapegoat kings, or kings humiliated or mocked in literature to be interpreted as dramatic representations of the conflict that would end with the reaffirmation of the unchangeable nature of the existing order, the renewal and re-endorsement of the kingship. The evidence may be ethnographic as well as historic, as in the case of the New Year ceremony (akitu ) of the ancient Babylonians, the Roman Saturnalia, or various rituals that accompanied Carnivals in European history. Once again it raises, albeit only indirectly, the matter of the interregnum. It raises fear of the specter of anarchy in order to forestall it.

With regard to the question of regicide, the clearest expression of the functionalist view is the reinterpretation of the case of the Shilluk in the work of Edward E. Evans-Pritchard (1963/1948). For this people, the author contests the previous picture of a centralized society and holds that the king reigns but does not govern. The Shilluk lands are subdivided into autonomous areas, with regard to which the king acts as the focus of social cohesion. He is regarded as the descendant of Nyikank, the hero and founder of the entire people. This identification makes him the center of moral values, leading to the creation of a system that links together religion, cosmology, and politics. Furthermore, sacrality, according to Evans-Pritchard, was not an attribute of the king himself but of the office of kingship. The legitimacy of an individual king's reign could thus be revoked if it was felt that he did not satisfactorily embody the kingship. The belief that the king should be killed in particular circumstances was cleverly exploited by those who had ambitions of power and were excluded from it. The regicides were therefore nothing more than political murders disguised as ritual killings.

The concern to dispense with Frazer meant that this interpretation held sway for some time, although it was in fact somewhat contradictory. To begin with, it talked of a king who reigns but does not govern, though at the same time it considered the regicide as motivated by ambitions of power.

A further unconvincing point concerns the clear distinction between the person and the office, with the resulting transfer of the sacrality issue to the latter. Michael W. Young (1966) drew attention to this in an essay that began by reconsidering the case of the Jukun. In his view the position taken by Evans-Pritchard considered the body of the sovereign as a mere vessel. The fact that a social and cosmic bond may conceivably be identified with a physical body must have repercussions (in terms of the sacrality) for the individual whose body is thus identified. Referring to the distinction made by Kantorowicz concerning medieval and Renaissance English kings, Young makes the point that, for the Jukun, the body of the king is different from those of the common populace in that it is linked to juwe, a quality that can be compared to what English jurists saw as the dignitas of the political body of the king, which was immortal, as opposed to his physical body. The regicides were thus ritual acts with political consequences, rather than the opposite.

The strength of the arguments against the Evans-Pritchard position could not be clearer. They were reinforced by so-called neo-Frazerians, the most representative of whom is Heusch, who began his own study of sacred kingship in 1958, concentrating in particular on the symbolism of royal incest and more generally advancing a comparative analysis with the Bantu kings on the figure of the sacred king as a transgressor of rules. The same subject was dealt with by other authors, such as Laura Makarius (1974) or Alfred Adler (1982) with respect to the Mundang of Chad and Jean-Claude Muller (1980) regarding the Rukuba of Nigeria. The last two authors regarded the kingship as an essentially symbolic structure, thus restoring the theoretical plausibility of ritual regicide.

Nevertheless, despite an inclination to consider ritual regicide as widely practiced, the neo-Frazerians, by paying scant attention to historical dynamics, are unable to get past the idea that it should be placed at the beginning of institutional history. They thus ignore important occurrences of ritual killing that are much more recent and do not tally with an implicitly evolutionist outlook.

A theoretically important suggestion to overcome the limitations of this outlook could be to adopt the idea of the sacré sauvage put forward by Roger Bastide (1975). Bastide uses this idea to highlight the fact that, in contexts that are particularly dramatic in terms of cultural impact, the sacred manifests itself not in a tame, domesticated manner but in all its explosive violence, giving rise to unexpected events that most people would be inclined to relegate to the remote past. Colonial impact has certainly been one of those situations that have produced a kind of historical reversal.

The most profitable application of these suggestions has been a reinterpretation of Congolese kingship in the work of Kajsa Ekholm Friedman (1985). This author demonstrates that, contrary to the frequent representation of the kingship as the transition from a "purely symbolic" king to a plenipotential king, in the case of the Congo the situation is precisely the opposite. Whereas initially the king's sovereignty and effective power are clearly displayed, in more recent times, as a result of the disintegration produced by colonial impact, events have led to the scapegoat procedure, the coronation of marginal individuals who are given the title of king and humiliated in every possible way. Thus, what one would prefer to think of as a remnant of a previous age is more effectively interpreted if related to current events.

Allowing for the plausibility of ritual regicide does not necessarily imply adherence to an evolutionist view of kingship. This important lesson, which is based upon an open attitude to actual historical investigation, was illustrated by the comparative analysis of Nilotic societies by Simon Simonse in Kings of Disaster (1992). This important study not only includes instances of regicide as the result of a failure to make the rains fallincluding in the late twentieth century (in 1984 in the case of the queen of the Sudanese Bari), it also stresses that regicide per se is not necessarily the definite outcome but only one possible result, albeit the most dramatic, among a series of alternatives that remain open to the society until the last moment.

Similar historical observations are made by Claude Tardits (1980, 1990) and Dario Sabbatucci (1978). Tardits rejects the concept of the divine king and is reluctant, as far as Africa is concerned, to use even the notion of the sacred king, remarking how, in this case, one may speak of sacrality and transcendence only by referring to the cult of ancestors and is still, it may be added, a form of eschatology. Sabbatucci is even more skeptical. He starts by correctly urging caution about whether the populations studied by ethnologists may really shed retrospective light upon previous millennia, as based upon a conjectural model of history. He then turns to an extreme theory, according to which eschatology was an entirely Egyptian creation, produced by the historical experience of kingship. Life in the next world, previously the exclusive privilege of the pharaoh, became available to the people.

This process, in so far as it is real, should not be regarded as something absolute, as a one-way journey. Power may not be redistributed unless it has previously been assumed. If societies are indebted to kingship for the creation of more sophisticated models of transcendence, this is not the case when it comes to the longing for transcendence per se. The immortality gift historically offered by kingship was appreciated because people could recognize the fulfillment of a previous shared aspiration in it.

Kingship and Transcendence

The idea that kingship represents a particularly attractive model of transcendence, as one of the principal gauntlets thrown down by humans in the face of death, may be recognized in the fact that poets and writers have long been interested in this custom. Authors such as Homer, William Shakespeare, Luigi Pirandello, Eugène Ionesco, Italo Calvino, VladimirVolkoff, Elias Canetti, and many others have produced memorable writing on the subject of kingship. They have enlightened readers in many ways, and even as far as regicide is concerned, one may begin to understand that the most incisive writing may be contained in literary works (Vaughan, 1980). The sacrality of the king may only be understood when one sees the kingship of humanity, and in this regard poets have great vision. Thus, in the analysis of kingship, more so than in other fields, Aristotle's theory that poetry expresses a more philosophical and universal form of knowledge than history may be productively cited (Riccardo, 1997).

However, bringing this kind of thinking to bear concerning kingship involves the danger of becoming involved in the actual political defense of kingship. In other words, if the figure of the king is perceived as extremely close to, if not directly linked to, human nature itself, a little like God in the philosophy of Saint Augustine, empirical consideration of his absence from the political and institutional stage may be transformed into a kind of disquiet, rather like that presumably felt by those traditional societies at the physical decline of their sovereign. In this case, analysis of kingship and what it may have symbolized for peoples who experienced it is cloaked in a thinly disguised nostalgia for a bygone age. Kingship is seen as a panacea for the ills of the modern world, whereas modernity itself is considered in its turn to be a kind of interregnum, a void to be filled in the near future. One moves from kingship as poetry to kingship as therapy.

Such ideas are common in certain general studies on kingship. Thus Jean Hani (1984) is interested in the subject of kingship as a way to denounce modern Western secular thinking and the idea that sovereignty resides in the people. He highlights the unifying role of kingship, that individuals thus become part of a mystical Body, whereas secular political regimes operate in the opposite way, fragmenting society with subsequent conflict between its different parts, which are completely divided. It is clear that the historical advance of pluralism is denigrated here, perceived as irremediable chaos, a kind of interregnum, as opposed to those systems in which the sacrality of power would be able to ensure harmony between the whole and the parts.

The thinking on royal, or rather imperial, symbolism of Claudio Bonvecchio (1997) is mostly similar in tone. His analysis starts from a statement of the degeneration of the current liberal idea of popular sovereignty, where the king (rex ) is replaced by the law (lex), a barren standard that will never be able to replace the symbolic richness, particularly as expressed imperially, because this is the best embodiment of the original model of sovereignty. Even more so than Hani, he emphasizes the "prescriptive emptiness of character" of sovereignty in the secular age, which is like "a pathology which denies any meaning to man, alienating man from himself, from society, from nature, from the cosmos" (Bonvecchio, 1997, p. 36). To rediscover the original idea of sovereignty would therefore mean to master the real self, and thus be not so much a political battle as an existential one. Can one consider this battle politically neutral? Maybe so, but only on condition of avoiding the temptation to try to buttress it with the firm support of an institution to justify and promote it. A true poet does not need it.

See Also

Charlemagne; Constantine; Myth and Ritual School; Theodosius.


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Gaetano Riccardo (2005)

Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis

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Kingship: An Overview

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Kingship: An Overview