Sacral Kingship – Is That the World We Want to Make?

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”.

Louis XIV, endorsed from above

Louis XIV, endorsed from above

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.

Seti I sitting on the lap of Isis By Olaf Tausch - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14797351

Seti I sitting on the lap of Isis By Olaf Tausch – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14797351

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 don't think George R.R. Martin believes in Sacral Kingship

I don’t think George R.R. Martin believes in Sacral Kingship

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.

The Art of Making Brothers (and a poem)

As readers will already know, I am part of the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, a neopagan order for men who love men. I am on the Council for the Chicago Temple and, specifically, I am the Warder. One of the responsibilities of that role is to guide Seekers through an application process to become Brothers in the Outer Order.

Last night, we went through a Rite of Passage, officially inducting three men into the Outer Order, so we made new Brothers. This was my first group to guide through the process since I took this position. The ritual itself is wonderful – inspired by initiations in other esoteric groups, but infused with the unique elements of the Brotherhood. I can’t tell you much about the ritual itself, but it often has a profound effect on those who have experienced it.

In addition to signaling the growth of the Brotherhood and the health of the organization, the process has been a growing experience for me. I have stepped into a role of gatekeeper, and learned more about the value of keeping silent, one of the Four Powers of the Sphinx.

The candidates have already come through the Novitiate training when they apply, so they have some understanding of the Brotherhood. But the Rite of Passage is more than just a “graduation”. It provides an experience of its own.

On a separate note (since I shouldn’t say much more about the Rite of Passage), I am going to share a poem I wrote, which was inspired by some of the principles and cosmology of the Brotherhood.

 

What do you seek?

The wonder is the start – Youth’s gift to the world.
Roads lead outward from home – we must Explore.
An open heart discovers many Loves, but
Needs Healing for those times when hearts will break.
Stay strong, watch and protect, be Warrior-wise.
Find the Androgyne’s balance in yourself.
Other worlds will speak to your Shaman soul.
Reaching wisdom, we will take the Elder’s chair.
Make your way from the mundane and to our gates
And through the Labyrinth’s turning path
To a sacred fire that leaves a true core.
In the eyes of the Phoenix, see your heart
Open to the possible, to your Will –
Now burning, now born anew, now Transformed.

Queerness and Othering: Identity vs. Description

My friend Theo at the Queerwitch blog wrote a piece about the use of “Queer” as a identity and a descriptor. I appreciate the perspective on this question, one that I think about frequently. I was writing some of my thoughts as a comment, and then, well, it turned into a rather long blog post of my own.

I don’t entirely trust in the objective power of description, especially when it comes to questions of social identity. I’m not saying these descriptive categories aren’t useful – they certainly can be when we are trying to understand our community. But they can also be a problem.

Racial categories can be slippery. In this country for example, with our fraught racial history, we often think of race in terms of Black and White, with Asians sometimes acknowledged as a population. Who falls into which category has changed over time. Those with a quarter or even an eighth part of Black ancestry were considered Black, even though clearly a majority of their genetic makeup may have been from European roots. And that doesn’t even address the shifting preferences for the terms “Negro”, “Colored”, “Black” and “African American”. Irish, Italian, and Jewish people were not really considered White by Americans in the 19th and early 20th century, until each of those identities were later folded into the White American identity. I sometimes wonder if actual Caucasians, as in a people from the Caucasus, who often have olive skin and dark hair, would be considered White in 19th century America. Latin and Hispanic people pose an even more complex set of issues. Many Latin American and Caribbean countries are as racially diverse as the United States, and yet often people of entirely European descent or entirely African descent are called Latino/a as a racial identity, rather than an ethnic/cultural/linguistic identity.

Clearly, the rules change around racial categories.

Religious identity is even slipperier. Is religious identity based on belief, as most Protestant Christians would assert? Is it based on birth and the religion of your parents, or even a specific parent (i.e. Judaism is inherited through the mother)? Can you shop for Churches in the American way, and pick your religion like you would pick a car or refrigerator? Do you need to follow certain rituals to claim your religious identity? Once you choose, can you change your mind (an offense punishable by death in many branches of Islam, for example)? How about all the different traditions that claim that they are the true followers of a religion/prophet/tradition, while others are false – while competing groups may make the exact same exclusive claim to the same identity?

The ability to use descriptive categories that may contradict the chosen identity of those who are being identified is a position of power, of privilege. Governments, institutions, poll takers, businesses, media outlets – they are the ones that choose the categories, the boxes to check on the multiple choice forms. Sometimes, there is an attempt to accurately and inoffensively use “descriptions”, even as they realize that self-identity may be more complicated. This process can be useful, certainly, but it still has the problem of putting people into categories that the categorized may not agree with.

So that brings us back around to the label “queer”. The reclaiming of the insult started in the 1980’s and became a part of common discourse in academia in the 1990’s. Advocates of the word claim (rightly) that it provides a catch-all term for gay, lesbian, bi, trans, intersex, and a list of other non-traditional/non-straight gender and sexual identities. It is inclusive of many “others”.

On the other hand, for many gay men and lesbians of my generation (I’m in my mid-forties) and older often object to being called queer. It is still the insult that we learned about when we were younger. Theo refers to an article from the HuffPost presenting one such perspective. The use of the term may not be “triggering” as Theo surmises – that terminology is definitely from a younger generation – but it still may offend. If some preacher on the street condemns the “Sodomites” or “perverts”, I may find being described this way as offensive, even if it’s not associated with a personal incident of abuse. It is the terminology of an entire hate-filled worldview and I refuse to allow them to choose my descriptions.

Now for me, I sometimes identify myself as queer, and I really appreciate being thought of as part of a queer community. I like a community that embraces trans, genderqueer and poly identities. I like a community open to discussions about kink and asexuality. I feel privileged to be considered part of a diverse and fascinating group. I have embraced the “otherness” that is part of me, and not just because of my sexuality.

This is not the perspective of many of the gay men and lesbians who are voicing this objection to being called queer. The thinking for many of my peers is that being attracted to a person of the same sex was just an uncontrollable characteristic, like having blue eyes or being left handed. It should not count to make someone other – it should not make them queer. They want their sexual identity “normalized” – to be considered just one of the many characteristics that are in the range of the “regular”.

If you ever have the occasion to look at gay men’s dating ads, they often include phrases like “just a regular guy”, or even more telling “straight-acting”. There are also gay men who go out of their way to say they’re “not stereotypical”, which usually means they embody the stereotype of a “normal” man of their age, race and class, rather than what they think of as a stereotype of a gay man. It almost never means that they actually defy stereotypes.

It has always struck me that “normal” and “regular” are unappealing descriptions to embrace. Perhaps it’s good to be normal in some ways – like having your blood pressure in the “normal” range, but I can’t embrace it as a social aspiration. But this is my perspective, and perhaps my own bias of preferring the company of people who are more unusual. But I should be more generous. I suspect nearly everyone has something unusual about them, but they shouldn’t be encouraged to hide it in order to appear “normal”.