Sunday, 18 September 2022
Ever since the death of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been evident how completely British attitudes to the Royal Family are suffused with magical thinking. The newspapers have been full of omens and portents, while hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have queued for 14 hours to walk past the Queen's closed coffin, most looking rigidly ahead, not even glancing at the coffin itself, as if it were not for the likes of the common people to even gaze on such a sacred scene. These attitudes, bolstered by the many stories of minor encounters with the Queen related in so breathless a manner you would think they were recounting miraculous acts, have absolutely nothing to do with the Monarch's actual constitutional role. Instead, they align the Queen with the Divinely Ordained kings of the past.
Folklorists are going to have a field day with all of this, but I have been thinking about it in the context of rulers regarded as living representatives of the gods. An interesting example can be found in the Babylonian New Year Festival, the Akitu. On the fifth day of this twelve day festival, which in essence ensured the continuance of time in the renewal of the year, the king of Babylon went to the temple of the god Marduk to ritually abdicate his throne. The king was stripped of his royal emblems and humiliated by the priest, who abused him and slapped his face. Then the king knelt before the statue of Marduk, and swore to uphold his sacred office with honour and justice. He was reinvested with his royal regalia, and then the priest struck him again. It was thought lucky if this slap stung so sharply it induced tears. It was a reminder that the king was merely a slave of the god.
The kings of ancient Egypt, or pharaohs are they came to be called, were regarded as gods in both life and death. Each king was supposed to be "the living Horus"—an incarnation of the god Horus, the son of Osiris. The king was humanity’s link to the gods. He stood in a special relation to each of them, and it was through him alone that the gods could be contacted. The temples were quite literally homes for the gods, rather than places of worship for the people. In theory every ritual act, designed to please the gods and keep them interested in human affairs, was carried out by the king himself, although in practice most were enacted by priests in his name.
The king of Egypt had a heavy duty to maintain what the Egyptians called maat—a word which means that which is right, true, just, and proper. This religious and moral burden was as serious an element of the kingship as exercising power, administering the kingdom, or maintaining law and order. It was this awesome task that humbled the Eyptian kings before the divine powers. The rites which took place daily in Egyptian temples were repetitions of mythical acts that laid the foundations of maat. This repetition, done by or in the name of the king, secured those foundations, and therefore maintained the balance of the cosmos. To daily recall and re-enact the creation was, as it were, to keep the clockwork of the universe wound up.
It is this almost magical power to keep things going that people are ascribing to the late Queen when they say things like “She’s always been there”. Her loss is felt to leave the world out of balance, and acts such as the long pilgrimage to file past her coffin, undertaken by individuals but on behalf of society as a whole, are understood to be necessary to restore that balance. Many people interviewed in the queue have brought photographs of their mothers or grandmothers on that pilgrimage with them, as if the dead, too, have their role to play.
The maintenance of continuity is seen in Britain today not as the province of parliament, but of the monarchy, in much the same way as it was in Babylon or Egypt in ancient times.