Some of you who follow the Pagan blogosphere have probably noticed some very heated exchanges lately. There has been a simmering tension between certain figures in the Devotional Polytheist movement (for example John Beckett and Galina Krasskova) and the writers and publisher of Gods & Radicals (specifically Rhyd Wildermuth). This post, regarding the “New Right” presence within Pagan and Polytheist circles, documents some of the racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic strains present in corners of our community, which sometimes have a violent streak, brought those tensions to the surface. I am not going to re-hash the whole controversy, but I thought I would pick up one specific idea mentioned and think about it. I may move on to others at another time.
One of the philosophical positions that is shared by certain members of the Pagan and Polytheist community and certain members of the New Right is the idea of Sacral (or Sacred) Kingship. This is often known as the “divine right of Kings”.
We learned about this in school as a Medieval European idea, tied to Feudalism and the monolithic Christian Church. It has, in reality, a far more complex and varied history. Modern examples include the Vatican and Tibet before the expulsion of the Dalai Lama, where temporal and religious power sit together in one leader. It also refers to the Queen of England’s role in the Church of England (as well as similar Church/Monarch relationships in countries like Norway and Denmark).
Sacral Kingship is often tied to Pagan and Polytheist mythology and lore. The ancient High King of Ireland is said to have been married to a Goddess. Certain Roman Emperors were deified after their death. Pharaohs had a close relationship to the Gods and Goddesses of ancient Egypt. The idea is also tied to the mythology of a King’s blood sacrifice to heal the land or continue the agricultural cycle. Frazer’s The Golden Bough links the “Dying God” stories from various cultures to the sacrifice of Kings, and Robert Graves and Margaret Murray were popular authors who furthered these connections between Pagan Gods and the blood sacrifices of Kings.
Yvonne Aburrow has a wonderfully witty criticism of this thinking within Paganism. Societies run by Kings and Queens are romanticized by those of us living in modern Democracies. Yvonne points out that for those living in a society where Monarchy’s strict class hierarchy and unearned social privileges still exist, Sacral Kingship is more difficult to idealize.
For any student of history, hereditary monarchy and aristocracy has clear problems. There’s no guarantee that the eldest child (often son) of the strong leader has any of the parent’s virtues. Children reared in a bubble of privilege and protection may have little understanding or empathy for those they are expected to lead. And that doesn’t even mention the way some royal houses have had restricted marriage partners so severely and for so many generations that the genetic penalties of inbreeding have come into play.
But Kings have sometime been chosen by war, which is in itself an argument against Kingship – the good of the people can’t be served when succession conflicts create violence and destruction. And Kings have sometimes been chosen by election in one form or another rather than by heredity. As Yvonne points out, this is often just called Presidency in our current world, rather than Kingship.
Galina Krasskova is one Polytheist who says she is an advocate for Sacral Kingship. I haven’t seen her elaborate on her views on the subject, and what parts of Sacral Kingship she envisions as useful to the Polytheist revival that she wants to manifest. I am guessing the actual murder of Kings is not part of her plans, so what exactly does this mean for a modern world?
I believe in Leaders. I believe we can choose people to fill roles in a community – and that some people are more qualified than others to fulfill particular roles, either by natural talents, inclination, experience, or education. But do Leaders need to be Kings (or Queens) with all the baggage those terms carry?
Most days, I believe in Democracy as preferable to most other systems, although I know it can have its abuses and corruptions. I know it can allow majorities to tyrannize minorities. I know it can be horribly manipulated by media and misinformation. I know it can force Leaders to make popular decisions for short-term gain at the expense of a longer term goal. Compared to the crap shoot of putting decisions into the hands of a monarch chosen by heredity or force, I’ll take Democratic process, even with its flaws.
I believe in the power of stories to shape our worldview and our world. I love ancient stories and the view that they give us into other cultures and other times. Ancient myths sometimes involve Kings. Fairy tales often involve various members of a royal family (although perhaps Princes and Princesses more often than actual ruling monarchs).
I believe in the project of creating stories to shape our world and our lives, and I think we need to create more stories about who we are and who we want to be. What does it mean when we tell and repeat stories based around Kings and Princesses, these people of privilege? Are we supposed to put ourselves in their place? Are we supposed to critique our leaders based on these stories and thereby discern their wisdom? Are we creating a world where we are empowered when they center on those “above our station”?
And a final thought and question: how can we tell if our gods are choosing our leaders? Pagans and Polytheists are not only a tiny minority, but have an incredible diversity of devotions, practices and traditions. Even if we receive a sign that Odin or Isis chooses a King or Queen for us, who would even believe us or even agree?
We do have leaders who proclaim themselves or are proclaimed by others as chosen by God to lead the people of the United States, such as Ted Cruz and George W. Bush. I think it’s safe to say these aren’t the gods that most Pagans or Polytheists would be looking for as endorsing candidates.
I will admit I may have a blind spot when it comes to the stories of a Sacred King who dies to redeem his people. It has an echo of the central mythology of Christianity – a son of God who dies to redeem the sins of his followers. I grew up with that story and it never resonated. I understood it intellectually and never felt the emotional power that seemed to satisfy so many others around me. I never felt the need for that kind of redemption.
As an amateur gardener, I don’t see why a King needs to be sacrificed to ensure the next harvest. Death is necessary to create the next crop, absolutely. But the dried leaves and kitchen scraps that go into my compost heap are not Kings, they are the most common, but most valuable of resources. The worms that convert them into rich soil are not legendary King-killers. The process that keeps the world moving and growing is so much more modest and yet no less miraculous.