On Friday 3 June 2022, the five planets visible to the naked eye lined up in order of their distance from the sun across the pre-dawn sky.
The previous day, Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, commenced a celebration of her unprecedented 70 years as monarch. Later on the same Friday, her 14th Prime Minister was jeered as he entered St Paul’s Cathedral, mother church of the Diocese of London, and one of the churches created at the time of St Augustine of Canterbury in the seventh century AD. The following Monday, the current PM scraped through the rather odd ritual of a vote of confidence by his own party, with a thin majority.
It’s safe to say that in other times historians would have found that the stars were telling us something. It was a comet that assured the Romans of the apotheosis of Julius Caesar, a man who had ignored the soothsayers on his way to his death, an interpretation fully exploited by his adopted son, Octavius, who knew how to use the popular interest in portents to further his own political ambitions.
Sixteen centuries later Shakespeare refers to astrological tales and portents. In King John, Hubert reports to the King
My lord, they say five moons were seen tonight—
Four fixèd, and the fifth did whirl about
The other four in wondrous motion.
Old men and beldams in the streets
Do prophesy upon it dangerously.
This is not the modern way of things, although an influential astrologer in the White House is not ancient history, but it is interesting that it is not. For while our scientific and secular methodologies would make any such connection seem absurd, the scaffolding of sovereignty remains strongly religious. The symbolism of the moment when audible opprobrium was cast at the Prime Minister was striking to all. The contrast between a composed. respected monarch, who has been more or less silent except for brief and highly choreographed and ritualized events, and whose life has been in some senses immensely constrained, and a flamboyant, eccentric political leader, was extreme. That this popular outcry happened outside the steps of a church which took form after the Great Fire of London and miraculously survived the Blitz of World War II to become an iconic symbol of the city which the Prime Minister once led as Mayor, made it an even more consequential moment. How many people booed and how representative they are was irrelevant to jittery MPs returning from a week-end of heightened emotion.
I have been reading A. Azfar Moin and Alan Strathern’s excellent edited collection Sacred Kingship in World History: Between Immanence and Transcendence. The volume responds to two books I have discussed here before, Alan Strathern’s Unearthly Powers: Religious and Political Change in World History and Marshall Sahlins and David Graeber’s On Kings.
This group of books is encouraging us to look differently at the nature of early kingship. Graeber and Sahlins revivified the notions of dying kings and stranger kings, which had been staples of earlier anthropological literature. Both are ways of understanding – and limiting – the power of the king (or queen). The limitations placed around a monarch are ways of thinking through the relationship between power, those who wield it and those who are subject to it.
A. Azfar Moin and Alan Strathern discuss the relationship of kingship and the shift (around the time of the Axial Age) from immanence to transcendence. Immanence is expressed through rites, embodied in ritual, and its cognitive mode is myth. Transcendence privileges a cognitive mode of revealed truth and doctrinal purity, is enacted through rationalized and intellectualized ethical codes and the rituals are subordinate and somewhat empty embodiments. The classic immanent approach to kingship is the divination of the king, the construction of a role which is analogous to the gods but circumscribed. The stranger king, the outsider, represents an irruption into history, but also sets up dichotomies – inside, outside; king, priest; authority, resistance. The divinized king is beyond criticism so has to be constrained differently; the stranger king is in persistent tension with the increasingly critical spirit of a religious and ethical code.
So a version of this story is that in immanence, religion and politics are not distinct and cannot be separated. Part of the Axial Age achievement is to separate religion and to see it as a new and often oppositional form of politics. The king can resist, adopt or subvert, but never ignore. Modernity represses immanence and allows politics and political doctrine to replace and subordinate religion.
This is fascinating but also far too sharp. Transcendence never leaves immanence behind and there are long periods where society sits uncomfortably between the two. So one of the dyarchies can be between the co-existence of the divinized elder (passive, senior, indigenous) and the stranger king (active, junior, outsider).
But even in this softened version, what are we actually describing? Is this what actually happened? What people remembered? Is it a pattern we create ? A pattern we create almost independently of evidence, and at a very high level of abstraction as a satisfying hypothesis?
This is hard to answer. I continue to believe that this patterning is a remarkably successful way of understanding the Roman kings as long as one allows them to be seen as braiding different characteristics together. But I don’t think the Roman kings were actually as the historians described them, so this patterning is already my reading of a series of Roman readings.
One might think that this is a parlour game for scholars. But this is a very serious conversation about how we interpret power and its limitations.
Immanent kings are deeply embedded in a cosmic order and that is what limits them. As the great scholar Hocart noted, the first kings must have been dead kings, and early kings are dying kings – they are constrained by rituals of closure and reinvention. They are assumed to have an end from the beginning and they are often silenced, or restrained in some ways, in order to be absolute in other ways. This is their strength and weakness – and their great utility as an emblem of power as a dialogue.
Stranger kings are zealots, often less trammelled by constraint. They look as if they are solutions but they carry within them the challenge of disaster. How do you resist a zealous king?
The tensions and conflicts which ensue are the great reversals and collapses of our histories. These are the periods we know as revolutions. This weekend, a queen, nearly a century old, who has lived a life of peculiar circumspection , was brought up against the junior partner of the British constitutional diarchy, the populist leader, the stranger (since all such leaders are elected not born), and to some extent the zealot. For all sorts of reasons, things have frayed. Our assumption is that we will get past this, that systems will hold. Probably they will. The planets after all lined up in their rightful order.
This is mythical thinking, but power is about myths. And myths are necessarily distortions and projections, and we need to be alive to their consequences.
One kind of argument that might follow is that we may have thought that we had arrived into transcendence because reason and resistance could stop a zealous king. That has not worked out well. If that means that we need to fall back on immanent stories, we need to be sure they still work.
At some level and to some observers, they still do. Ben Okri wrote a poem for the Queen on her Jubilee which begins
She’s done the most difficult thing,
Lived a life of myth
Inside a life of flesh
This sums up the argument of sacred monarchy – and he goes on
And I think that there’s
Something greater than duty
That drives her
And holds her up,
In that slowly fading,
Always glimmering throne.
And it’s something to do
This is a poetic testament to the enduring power of the notion of sacralized monarchy.
Power is capable of sustaining a mythical view of oneself and one’s destiny and persuading others to believe it, and it works through the scaffolding of sovereignty. There are different kinds of power and different kinds of sovereigns and kings. There are also different kinds of myths. The disenchantment brought by modernity means that we are not used to reading our world through this lens – we defer this to fantasy novels and films. Other times saw things differently. When Brutus raised his hand against Caesar he did so conscious that he was the descendant of the Brutus who had expelled a king and that Caesar was the descendant of the first of the line of kings. This genealogy justified the knife he wielded.
The question that arises over time, it seems to me, is the efficacy of the myth which opposes the misuse of power, and especially in disenchanted modernity where one cannot readily turn to religious or ethical codes. When a politician can own the construction of myth relatively unchallenged, terrible things can happen, as we see in Putin’s Russia. And a leader who unifies the sources of power, as an immanent king did, but is not constrained by rules and obligations, is terrifying.
That perhaps is why over time we have told so many stories about the limitation of power. It is one of our most vital, most desperately needed myths.