Gods are dead and the age of kings has long since passed from the earth, or so it has been said of the modern age. And yet it seems that now, more than ever, debate is fierce over who should lead a country, while wars are waged in the name of holy righteousness. In fact, the twin threads of gods and kingship are woven throughout human history, and together can be traced back to their very beginnings in the lands of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. In the nascent days of civilization, these dual concepts of gods and kings arose as one in response to man’s greatest need.
Early man was in constant danger. Fleeing the threat of death at every turn, he trembled at the crash of thunder and drew back into the protection of shadows to evade attack from animals. The chaotic universe to which he was entirely subject became his first god. Fearing its power, and begging its mercy, he knew beyond doubt that this awesome force was evinced in two dominions: the world of the Seen, and the realms of the Unseen. God was hidden and yet clearly present in the forces of nature, in the illuminating moon and life-giving rain, in the soaring falcon and the earth-bound serpent. Man taught following generations to scratch an image of birds and snakes onto rocks and trees, and to sleep secure in their protection.
Over time, small units of families and their personal gods merged into clans, and clans into communities. This provided defense against the dangers of existence, and the personal gods evolved into communal powers. But then a new threat appeared. “With the beginning of the third millennium B.C.” the historian Thorkild Jacobsen writes,
“Sudden death by the sword in wars or raids by bandits joined famine as equally fearsome threats” (77). To face this new menace, communities banded together into nations, blending their gods and choosing leaders in times of crisis. When the dangers failed to subside, leaders assumed permanent positions of power. With a ruler on the throne, and a national god in the heavens, the world of the Seen and the realms of the Unseen united – kings joined the gods as co-protectors of the people.
In Bablyon, the similarity between gods and kings is illustrated in the creation story “Enuma Elish”. Tiamat and Apsu – the earliest, formless gods of fresh and salt waters – intermingle to produce primeval gods, who in turn give birth to many others. Soon, a rift develops among the now numerous gods. As the threat of destructive confrontation looms, the god Marduk offers to defend his branch of the god-family, but only if they will agree to make him king. When Marduk proves his power by destroying and re-creating an entire constellation, the gods happily comply:
Joyfully they hailed, “Marduk is king!” They bestowed in full measure scepter, throne, and staff, They gave him unopposable weaponry that vanquishes enemies (Foster 28).
Marduk, who first appeared in Mesopotamia as “a vegetation deity and warden of spring waters,” has been elevated to supreme deity (Foster 247). He conquers Tiamat, forms the universe from her body, then creates his capital city, a holy abode in which to dwell:
“I shall call [its] name [Babylon], Abode of the Great Gods, “We shall hold fe[stival]s with[in] it” (Foster 37)
With little fanfare, Marduk also creates humans, for no other purpose than to labor for the gods. With this creation myth, the responsibilities of ancient man are clearly defined: man’s role is to support his king, who in turn must protect and defend his people.
The Enuma Elish was composed in Babylon around the time of the reign of King Nebechudnezzar I. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, to discover other compositions that directly tie the divine king to this earthly one. The “Marduk Prophecy” claims to be the words of god Marduk himself. After his statue is stolen from the city of Babylon, Marduk foretells of a great king (Nebuchadnezzar) who will appear to restore it:
“A king of Babylon will arise, he will renew the marvelous temple… He will lead me in procession to my city Babylon…” (Foster 216).
And the king’s brilliance will bring great prosperity to Babylon and its people:
“The harvest of the land will be bountiful, market prices will be favorable. Wickedness will be rectified. Obscurities will be brought to light … Brother will have consideration for brother, son will revere father … There will always be consideration among the people” (Foster 216).
In these texts, the king is depicted as the only being capable of bringing man and god together in harmony; he is the linchpin of order. The message is clear: recognize and serve the divine king, and the gods will reward you.
Texts are not the only method for delivering the message of kingly divinity. In ancient Egypt, one of the earliest archaeological discoveries yet found is a work of sculpture called the “Narmer Palette”. This two-sided stone artifact is completely covered on both sides with images of men and animals. The principal scene on the obverse side of the palette is of a king, wearing the “red” crown of Lower Egypt, in some type of victory processional. On the reverse side is another depiction of a king, this time wearing the “white” crown of Upper Egypt, driving a stake into the head of a foe. This artwork is believed to have been buried as a sort of time capsule commemoration of King Narmer, who united the two realms of Egypt into one land in 3000 B.C.E. If this is true, then the Narmer Palette is a snapshot of the moment when regional clan gods were first drawn together into what will soon become the national pantheon of great Egyptian gods. As if to underscore the king’s role, the Palette presents the conquering king face-to-face with a falcon, the definitive Egyptian god of kingship.
The falcon god, Horus, is present throughout the literature of Ancient Egypt. His family lineage comprises the Ennead, or nine principal gods of Egypt, in a story of miracles and treachery. His great-grandparents, Shu (dryness) and Tefnut (wetness) combine to form Nut (sky) and Geb (earth). They, in turn, give birth to four children. Among them is Osiris, who is named from the outset as king. When he is murdered by his brother Seth, their sister Isis manages to resurrect Osiris long enough to become pregnant by him and give birth to their son, Horus. The stage is set for an eternal drama, as Horus assumes supreme power which Seth forever seeks to undermine.
In “The Contendings of Horus and Seth,” we witness Horus’ jubilant coronation:
“Then Horus, son of Isis, was brought, and the White Crown was set upon his head and he was installed in the position of his father Osiris. He was told, ‘You are a good King of Egypt! You are good lord, l.p.h., of every land unto all eternity!” (Simpson 102).
In the Egyptian view, kings were of the gods, and permanently connected to them. Painted on the wall of the tomb of King Ay (18th Dynasty) is a scene of a barque populated by the nine gods of the Ennead*. They are depicted in descending order, ending with Isis and her husband (the dead king Osiris), followed by Horus; they have come to escort King Ay to the underworld. “The Ancient Egyptians envisioned in their ruler both a being and an office, the former originally mortal and the latter always divine,” writes Professor David P. Silverman. “When the two were amalgamated, divine kingship began” (67). King Ay, the entombed descendent of the gods, has passed from his status as Horus, the living god-king, to become Osiris, the kind of the dead.
Gods and kings were born in the ancient lands of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Five thousand years later, the universe remains chaotic and modern man continues to imbue the roles of leadership (presidents, kings and dictators) with sacredness. Like the Egyptians, we recognize that the individual leaders are mortal; but we sense intuitively that the office they hold is more enduring. The unbroken threads of god and kingship continue to run through civilization’s history, connecting us to the dawn of humanity, and the first god of power and mercy.
* See Silverman, page 48.
Foster, Benjamin R. From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia. Bethesda, Maryland: CDL Press, 1995.
Jacobsen, Thorkild. The Treasures of Darkness: a History of Mesopotamian Religion. New Haven: Yale University, 1976.
Silverman, David P. “Divinity and Deities in Ancient Egypt.” Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths and Personal Practice. Ed. Byron E. Shafer. Ithaca: Cornell UP: 1991.
Simpson, William Kelly. The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry. New Haven: Yale UP: 2003.