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The word “king” is derived from the Old English cynn and seems to have been first used for the chiefs or representatives of the cognatic kin groups, or “kins,” into which Anglo-Saxon society was organized. This use of the term seems to lack religious reference, these early “kings” having apparently been primarily arbitrators, leaders, and warriors. Later, the word came to be used to translate the names for rulers in other European languages (such as the Greek basileus and the Latin rex) with whom ritual and religious functions were explicitly associated. Research into non-Western cultures has demonstrated that the association of religious or magical significance with what is usually called kingship is practically universal. The term “kingship” applies not only to those states that, like most modern or recent European monarchies, are considerable in size and population, but also to those many smaller traditional polities that center on a sovereign—or formerly sovereign— ruler or head. These chieftaincies, which are usually hereditary, differ only in scale and complexity from the more familiar Western kingships.

Rituals of kingship. Sir James Frazer was the first to develop the theme of kingship’s ritual or sacral nature, and his famous work The Golden Bough (1890) begins with the Roman legend of the priest–king of Nemi, whose reign ended when he was slain by his successor. Frazer showed that in many ancient states, as well as in contemporary preindustrial societies, kings were commonly thought of either as priests or mediators between gods and men or as gods themselves. Thus the ancient Egyptian kings manifested the divine essence or force upon earth (Frankfort 1948, pp. 107–108) and kings were frequently identified with a sun deity, as in ancient Egypt, the Inca state of pre-conquest Peru, and Japan.

In considering the religious, or sacred, aspect of kingship it is important to remember that ritual is essentially symbolic; like other kinds of ritual, royal ritual is an institutionalized way of saying something that is thought to be important. Although ritual is basically expressive, it is also instrumentally effective. We not only have to ask, therefore, what are the social consequences of royal ritual, but we must enquire what it symbolizes. Since a single rite may have different levels of meaning, kingly ritual may be examined in four broad aspects.

First, there are myths of origin, symbolic statements about the beginnings of particular kingships. I referred above to the widespread identification of kings with the sun, from which many royal lines are supposed to be descended. Elsewhere, kings are thought to be descended from other nonhuman powers or gods. Thus in certain of the Bantu kingdoms of Uganda the traditional rulers are believed to be the descendants of a wonderful race, half men and half gods, who occupied the land many generations ago and then mysteriously disappeared. Such myths are best regarded as a kind of ritual rather than as a kind of history, and they dramatically affirm the uniqueness and distinctiveness of the royal lines to which they refer. Their social importance is that they validate and so tend to sustain the systems of royal authority and prestige to which they relate.

The second important aspect of royal ritual (with the one next referred to, the central component in Frazer’s concept of “divine kingship”) is the mystical identification of the king with the territory and people over whom he reigns. It is widely believed in many cultures that the king should not be allowed to suffer any physical defect or to become old and feeble, for if this should happen the country itself would suffer corresponding injury. Like the priest—king of Nemi, many traditional rulers are, or are believed to be, ceremonially killed when they grow ill or old and their powers begin to wane. It is the belief in the ruler’s death rather than the practice itself that is important, for it shows how kingship may be conceived of as primarily a ritual, symbolic office and not as a merely secular institution.

The third aspect, which is associated with the foregoing, is the expression, in a huge variety of rites and ceremonials, of the king’s uniqueness — his difference from and superiority to ordinary people. Accession always involves some ceremony of crowning or anointing, which effectively consecrates or makes sacred the person of the king. He thus becomes imbued with a special ritual or symbolic value and is set apart as different from other men. Very often there is a special court language or vocabulary to refer to the king and his activities; this usage has been reported from regions as remote from one another as ancient Siam and central Africa. The king’s distinctiveness may also be marked by the use of special prepositional forms by, and of, him—such as the “royal plural” and the use of the third person in addressing him. Often no part of his body may be allowed to touch the earth, as in the Ashanti kingdom of Ghana, and in many kingdoms he must not be seen eating and drinking by ordinary men. Sometimes certain ritually impure foods are forbidden to him. Always there is a regalia of ritually important objects associated with kingship. Some kings have been permitted to practice brother–sister incest, universally forbidden to ordinary people. Where, as is not often the case, such kings have been permitted to have children it may be claimed that such incest is a means of preserving the purity and distinctiveness of the royal line.

It is a characteristic of symbolism that the virtue or power attributed to what is symbolized comes to be ascribed to the symbol itself. Thus a special kind of potency comes to be associated with the king’s unique ritual status. Polynesians believe that the mana of their rulers can kill ordinary men, and in the old Malayan kingdoms it was thought a breach of royal taboo could doom the offender. Sometimes this potency can be beneficial rather than, or as well as, malevolent; thus in England in the Middle Ages to touch the king or even his garment was believed to be a cure for scrofula, “the king’s evil.” Very commonly the king’s potency is conceived of as a power to influence nature. For ex-ample, many traditional African kings were rain-makers; when the rain failed, the king was often blamed for willful neglect. Because he did not use his ritual powers for his people’s welfare, he might be deposed or even killed. Similar usages are reported from other parts of the world; the early Swedish kings are said to have been killed if the crops failed.

The fourth broad aspect of royal ritual is the king’s secular authority. Almost universally the king’s accession to secular power over other men is symbolized by the handing to him on his accession a sword, scepter, or (as in early Egypt) a shepherd’s crook. In some coronation rites the king’s power over other men is symbolically expressed by a mock combat with an opponent who is, of course, defeated. The ancient Egyptian kings performed a rite of discharging arrows toward the four cardinal points of the compass, symbolizing the extent of their worldly domain, and the king of Bunyoro in western Uganda performs a similar rite on accession, exclaiming as he does so: “Thus I shoot the countries to overcome them!”

Secular kingship. Some early “kings” were also heads or representatives of kin groups, and some were war leaders, rather than priests or leaders in ritual. In such cases kingship was evidently a political office rather than a ritual or priestly one, though it seems that invariably symbolism and rite accrete around such office, whether or not they have contributed to its raison d’être. In all king-ships, loyalty to the person of the king has been the supreme political value, and this has found expression in a variety of ceremonial usages; prostration or obeisance, hand-kissing, declarations of fealty, and so on. Where kingships have been secular in origin (e.g., due to military conquest) it has often been found expedient to “desecularize” them; witness the sedulous fostering of the notion of the “divine right of kings” in Jacobean England. Even wholly nonsecular or ritual kingships can have political importance, for although the king may discharge no governmental or administrative role, he may nonetheless provide a focus and symbol for his people’s sense of national or tribal identity and so form an indispensable expression of their political unity.

Where kings are secular rulers their judicial or arbitrative role may be important. The notion of the “king’s justice,” often regarded as his private and personal possession, is widespread. Indeed, it appears that some kingships have developed in consequence of this need for arbitration. Students of tribal histories, principally in Africa, have recorded traditions of the emergence of royal dynasties from an original arbitrator, often of a different tribe from that of his subjects (and so presumed to be more impartial than any of them could be), who was invited to live among them and settle their disputes. The king’s judicial or regulatory function may form a key element in the maintenance of social control in smaller-scale societies. Like other aspects of his power, a king’s legal or regulative functions may also be expressed symbolically. In ancient India and elsewhere the comparison between the king’s role and the sun’s orderly course, seen as a vital regulatory force in the world, was explicit. In modern monarchies, where judicial function, like other governmental activity, has become the concern of nonroyal specialist bodies, the judicial role of kings has, of course, become obsolete; but it may survive, at least formally, in the convention that the king instigates judicial proceedings against malefactors (Rex v. John Smith) and in such institutions as the “king’s pardon.”.

The economic aspect of kingship is usually most important in those societies which are small enough in scale for the king or chief to maintain some kind of personal relationship with all, or at least with a considerable number, of his subjects. In such polities the king is also the wealthiest man in the kingdom, but his wealth takes the form of services and material goods rendered as tribute to him by his subjects, and he does not retain it for his own private use. Rather he redistributes his wealth among his people in the form of feasts, gifts for favorites, and help for the needy. This constant circulation of goods and services from the periphery to the center and outward again may, at least until the intrusion of a cash economy and the consequent availability of a variety of new things to spend money on, form the basis of a system of relationships of closely knit interdependence between ruler and subjects. Many traditional small-scale states in Africa, southeast Asia, and elsewhere have exemplified this type of economic kingship until very recent times. But with increasing economic specialization, the advent of money, and the spread of centers of production and distribution throughout the community, kings’ economic significance, like their judicial importance, has declined almost to vanishing point.

We can conclude that although Frazer’s evolutionary theory of the development of kings from priests may account for the historical origins of some kingships, it certainly does not explain all of them. Many traditional kingships have been symbolic or emblematic rather than secular, and they may have originated for this reason. But there is plenty of evidence that many other kingships have come into existence for quite other reasons, such as the conquest of a formerly segmentary society by superior force, the voluntary acceptance of an independent outside arbitrator, and the emergence, in a variety of possible conditions, of one individual or kin group in a segmentary community as primus inter pares. Shaka’s kingship over the Zulu was of this last type.

But in whatever way different kingships have originated, essential to all of them is their symbolic, expressive quality, and it was Frazer’s great merit to have perceived and stated this. For the majority of their subjects all kings are symbols: they symbolize the kingdom they reign over and its people, its prosperity and security, even its very existence. As is commonly the case with symbols, values ascribed fundamentally to what is symbolized run over into the symbol itself; in the institution of kingship they are expressed in a proliferation of rite and ceremony. Like all ritual, the primary aim of royal ritual is expression, but just because it is expressive it is often thought to be instrumental as well. In a certain sense, then, all kings are “divine” but some kingships are more divine than others.

A number of factors have played a part in the decline of the importance of kingship throughout the modern world: the increased size and complexity of modern administrative organization; the destruction of the old interpersonal bonds of loyalty and dependence which linked the rulers of small-scale polities with their subjects; the introduction of modern economic systems and the consequent breakdown of traditional rulers’ monopoly of economic power. But probably the most important factor is the rejection, characteristic of modern literate and scientifically oriented industrial societies, of traditional “expressive” values in favor of modern “instrumental” ones. Often, in earlier times, it was enough that the “divine king” should merely exist in a good moral and physical condition. Nowadays kings who are not at the same time rulers (and few are) are widely regarded as anachronisms, retained, if they are retained at all, for sentimental rather than practical reasons. To those who no longer ascribe to kings their traditional potency as symbols, they are bound to seem an unnecessary and expensive luxury. In any case, it may well be held that modern government is too complex a business to be left to hereditary monarchs whose claim to rule is based on ascribed rather than achieved qualification. No doubt most men will continue to create symbols in order to represent the often inarticulate values they cherish. But evidently the institution of kingship has, for most people, ceased to fulfill this role.

J. H. M. Beattie

[Directly related are the entriesMonarchy; Political anthropology; Stateless society.]


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Frazer, James (1890) 1955 The Golden Bough. 3d ed., rev. & enl. 13 vols. New York: St. Martins; London: Macmillan. → An abridged edition was published in 1922 and reprinted in 1955.

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Seligman, Charles G. 1934 Egypt and Negro Africa: A Study in Divine Kingship. The Frazer Lecture for 1933. London: Routledge.

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