February 16, 2005

The Mythic God-Emperor

So much sycophancy surrounded official and unofficial accounts of the various royal peregrinations in India that it is impossible to measure exactly what the Queen Empress's Indian subjects thought about her. Sir Walter Lawrence, Curzon's future secretary, recalled that in Kashmir during the 1880s Victoria was a cult figure: her image on the coins was revered and many Hindu homes contained her portrait, an icon of benevolence often similar in style and execution to those in temples. A goddess in all but name, it was widely said that she asked every Viceroy to treat her Indian subjects with tenderness.

(Lawrence James, Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India, pg. 318)

The figure of the distant god-king, known only through a name or image that radiates authority and demands reverence, is a stock device in fantasy literature. (That said literature routinely styles this figure the "High King" or "Dark Lord," depending on particulars, and almost universally sets the story in a dragon-infested Medieval Europe is beside the point.) The trope is in turn derived from ancient civilizations which actually did feature royal cults in which the bulk of the population had no contact at all with the leader and only interacted with the government via low-level tax collectors and police. The most notable examples are the Pharonic system and the post-Augustan deified Roman emperors.

However, the above quote struck me as one of the few concrete examples of this phenomenon attaching to a modern ruler. Although I suppose one could make similar claims about the Chinese and Japanese imperial cults right up into the 20th century. I don't know enough about them to say for sure.

Then again, this could be a trivial side-effect of the fact that, with the exception of the two east Asian empires I just mentioned, most empires in the past several centuries have been ruled by monotheistic peoples. While they might (and did) claim to derive their authority from the divine, it would have been blasphemy to claim godhood for themselves. Which in turn makes this quote all the more striking, since the Queen Empress Victoria was decidedly monotheistic herself.

But this raises another question that I lack the data to answer: besides the British Empire, how many recent examples are there of a monotheistic people conquering and ruling a polytheistic one?

Posted by mill1974 at February 16, 2005 12:58 AM