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Mythology Monday: God-Kings

Submitted: Perhaps you can do a post on deified emperors and to which point they were actually worshiped?

This seems like a simple question, but in actuality it very much is not!

I suspect that our anonymous question-asking friend here is probably referring to the deified emperor cults of ancient Rome, which are pretty famous and popular in western culture even now, but there are actually tons of deified ruler cults, and they aren't all from Rome! The idea of worshiping the king/ruler/emperor as a deity before or after death, or of viewing them as having been born inherently divine, is one that has been around for many millennia in many different cultures. I'm going to try to run down them in semi-chronological order, but chronological order of religion across the world is a hilarious idea that is doomed to failure, so be aware that a lot of this overlaps.

The idea of the deified emperor dates all the way back to ancient Egypt, where the pharaoh was considered a god both during and after their lifetime. Egypt's pharaohs were around for a long time, and the pharaonic god-cult changed over time as well as having different features in the Lower and Upper kingdoms, but most commonly, the king was considered to be the earthly incarnation or representative of Horus himself and due all the same respect as the god. Sometimes he was also considered the son of Ra, the sun god, thus also representing the great power that kept the world animated and supported, and various different goddesses were said to be either his mother or his nurse, including Hathor, Bast, and Mut (depending on who was the most powerful mother goddess figure at a particular time).

An ancient Egyptian stone wall relief depicting the sun god Ra on the left with a falcon's head and a sun disc above it, holding arms out toward the pharaoh Ramesses III, crowned, on the other side

Ramesses III just hanging out and playing ball with Big Daddy Ra, like you do

This wasn't mere lip service, either; the pharaoh was quite literally a god and was treated accordingly. No one was allowed to touch the Pharaoh's person without permission, the rules for saying and doing the appropriate things to honor and behave in his presence were complicated and strictly enforced, and the spectacular palaces, statues, and tombs in their honor were nothing less than the people would have done for any other god. Upon dying, the pharaoh was sometimes considered to also become a new facet of Osiris, benevolent god of the dead, or at the very least to be accepted and welcomed by Osiris as an equal. This living deification is one of the reasons that the pharaohs were so renowned as war heroes; when the pharaoh went out in his chariot with the troops, it was literally equivalent to Horus, god of war, personally marching with the army, and it's hard not to find that inspiring.

The Egyptians were doing this for a very, very long time, starting somewhere in the third millennia BCE, so everyone else on our quick list seems something like an upstart in comparison. The first of the divine Japanese emperors arrived in around 660 BCE; like the pharaohs, the Japanese emperors are also considered inherently divine, in this case because all of them descend from the great empress of the gods herself, Amaterasu. The first of the Japanese emperors, Jimmu, was her grandson, whom she sent to the world in order to conquer it on behalf of the gods and impose order upon it, and all subsequent Japanese emperors are directly descended from him, making their line an unbroken connection to the divine. Not every Japanese emperor is considered to ascend to heavenly godhood after death, but several of them have - for example, Emperor Ojin became the samurai god Hachiman.

An ancient Japanese painting of the god Hachiman, shown here with a sceptre and the red sun disc above his head, wearing opulent robes and holding a length of Buddhist prayer beads, seated on a lotus flower.

Deification means your political opinions on the Shogunate never have to die with you

Because the Japanese emperor is literally descended from the gods, he is generally considered, like the Egyptian pharaoh, to be the closest connection to the divine that humanity can have access to. Even up into the present day, the emperor is not just a head of state but also the head of the Shinto religion itself, since as divinity in human form he can interpret holy law and oversee religious practices in a way non-divine figureheads cannot. He also possesses the Imperial Regalia of Japan, which serve as links to his divine ancestry and proof of his own divinity: the sword Kusanagi that was taken from the body of a dragon by the god Susanoo no Mikoto after he had defeated it, the Yata no Kagami, the mirror in which Amaterasu beheld her beautiful features and ended the long darkness she had allowed to descend on the world, and the Yasakamai no Yagatama, the holy jewel of the gods.

Meanwhile slightly west of all this in India and southeast Asia, we have the concept of the chakravarti (universal ruler) or devaraja (god-king) beginning to be put into practice around 320 BCE, when the powerful Maurya Empire arose and started to have some ideas about how fancy their particular king was. The Maurya Empire's ruling dynasty was considered the be divine, usually as a living avatar of either Vishnu or Shiva (or occasionally the combination deity Harihara), leading to stories being written about the Hindu (and later Buddhist) deities granting them their weapons to show their legitimacy.

A bronze statue of a naked young boy with a flute sitting contemplatively on a stone; the legend on the plinth below says, "Shepherd boy Chandragupta Maurya dreaming of the India he was to create"

Chandragupta Maurya outside the Parliament House of India, still keeping an eye on things

Of course, once an empire as powerful as the Maurya started doing it, tons of other smaller kingdoms in the area followed suit, leading to ancient kingdoms in Java, Thailand, and Cambodia (particularly in the 9th century Khmer Empire, where the famous temple of Angkor Wat was built ostensibly as a monument to Vishnu but in practice also as a monument to the divine king Suryvarman II, whose subjects revered him as an avatar of Vishnu) also deifying their rulers, who became considered the sole sovereigns of their kingdoms through divine mandate.

By about 220 BCE, China had begun their own imperial dynasties and rushed to join the fun. Chinese emperors, at least early on, tended to do the opposite thing from the Egyptian and Japanese versions; they were seldom divine during their lifetimes, but rather ascended to become deified after their deaths based on how incredible their deeds were and how large a mark on history they made while they were alive. Such famous figures as Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor, or Guan Yu, the famous warlord, were considered to have become gods upon their deaths, ascending to continue their important work of supporting and ordering the universe on a cosmic level after doing so thoroughly during their mortal lives.

A huge stone statue of the Chinese emperor Huang Di, sitting before a golden backdrop with artwork of flames, holding a sword and wearing the crown of office; in front of him, two men look up

Yellow Emperor so badass he gets this type of sword 2000 years before it was invented

By the time of the Zhou Dynasty, the idea of the Mandate of Heaven arose (largely to help the new dynasty justify overthrowing the old one), which claimed that the gods directly supported the dynasty and its emperor and therefore he ruled by divine right. This eventually led to the idea of the emperor as the Son of Heaven, imbued directly with deific power, which generally resulted in the emperor being considered to automatically ascend to heaven after his death. As in ancient Egypt, the emperor being the literal expression of divine power on earth caused some truly complicated and draconian rules about what could or could not be said to or around him and what kinds of rituals and respect had to be shown to him.

(Fun fact: the Japanese idea of the divine imperial emperor was probably actually based on the Chinese model that they saw when visiting the mainland, but then they attempted to make themselves retroactively the first to do it by setting the time period of Emperor Jimmu previous to the rise of the Qin Dynasty, thus allowing themselves to claim they were the original divine emperors. You see what I mean about trying to do any kind of mythological history strictly chronologically.)

And then finally we're at Rome, which is probably where you wanted us to start. Rome is comparatively a baby next to these older traditions; the first Roman emperor didn't begin reigning until 46 BCE, and, just like the Chinese emperors, the idea of the emperor as divine was put in place in order to legitimize his power, making it obvious that the gods supported him and that therefore humans had no business trying to challenge his power. Unlike in some of these other cultures, the Roman love of voting meant that there was actually a vote for the emperor, after his death, to decide on whether or not he was deified, which meant that unpopular or unsuccessful emperors didn't automatically get to be gods, but emperors everyone loved were easily elevated to godhood.

An alabaster cameo of the Roman emperor Augustus, wearing the laurel leaf of victory and holding a sceptre topped with an eagle, surrounded by gold and pearl inlay

The eagle sceptre stands for "Iūpiter is my bro, don't talk back to me"

The cult of the deified emperor, once he had been voted into place, could take a few forms. Sometimes the emperor was directly deified, which was the case with Emperor Augustus up above there, who was thereafter worshiped as Augustus, divine lord; other times, the emperor (and his family members, usually) were identified with existing gods, and said to be or represented as images of existing gods, such as considering the emperor a particular epithet of Iūpiter. Some emperors were also able to take on some of the divine power of their predecessors; Augustus, for example, was able to leverage having been so closely associated with or "created by" Julius Caesar that he was considered supported by the already-deified Julius' divine power after death as well.

But wait, there's more! Because over in the Americas, we have the classical Maya civilization, where the king, called the ahau, was considered the sole connection between the worlds of mortals and the worlds of the divine. It's a little harder to tell exactly how the ahau's relationship with divinity worked out, since we have fewer written records for the Maya than we do for Rome, but much as the Egyptians considered the pharaoh an earthly version of Horus, the Maya considered the ahau to be the earthly form of Hun Hunahpu, the god of maize, fertility, and life.

An ancient Maya stone relief of the ahau T'ah 'ak' Cha'an sitting enthroned above two much smaller supplicants

Ahau T'ah 'ak' Cha'an has some things to say to you puny mortal humans

Even when the Maya aristocratic class was at its most powerful and least worried about whether the ahau approved what they were up to, he was still indispensable as the link that allowed the gods to act on earth and kept the kingdom prosperous and safe. His divine power was shown not only in artwork like that above, depicting him obviously more powerful than other humans, speaking to the gods, or even ascending to the heavens himself, but also in his royal regalia, which included a scepter that represented the lightning god K'awiil and a headband that represented the bird god Huun Ahau, both of them clearly lending their power and legitimacy to his rulings.

Obviously, while this is a quick sampling of the most common and popular divine emperors, it's in no way a complete list. Kings like being revered as gods, generally - it makes it much easier to get things done and people tend to respect you more and rebel a lot less often when they think they'll receive a smiting from the cosmos for it - and therefore the device has been used by a lot of ruling powers throughout history, some more successfully than others. How sincere each imperial cult is depends largely on the emperor in question and the historical and cultural factors at work in the religion at that time, so that some emperors were quite literally and popularly considered divine, while others were just paid lip service while everybody else waited to roll their eyes and go back to what they were doing once he'd left.

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