Thursday, October 5, 2017

Gods, Metaphor, and Sacred Monarchy

I found the article (see link below) on sacred monarchies surviving in the post-modern world intriguing. Recently, I've been thinking about how ancient people used the metaphor of the planets moving across the sky as chariots of the gods. At the time, celestial chariots driven by the intelligent powers of gods was perfectly scientific. But how does this relate to sacred monarchies?

Naturally, there were no chariots, just as there were no celestial spheres responsible for Ptolemaic epicycles, no centripetal Newtonian rope holding planets in their orbits, and there is no rubber sheet of Einsteinian curved space-time surrounding bodies in space. All these are metaphors for natural principles and should not be taken literally.

To ancient people, the "gods" may have been more like what we today would call natural law. They were the eternal and unchanging rules of nature. The gods were each some aspect of intelligence but were not human. The Egyptians emphasized that gods were not human by illustrating them with the heads of species of animals, each representing a different intelligence. Each was a sort of unconcerned "dumb intelligence."

In Far Eastern monarchies, the king assumed the godlike role of the eternal and unchanging by leading a strictly regulated, ritualized, and politically uncontroversial life. The people treated these sacred kings with utmost respect, veneration and deference, provided the kings adhered to their strict regimen. A king provided a central, observable response to the natural principles of the universe that the people could potentially influence through limiting and changing the king's environment.

In the West, however, the gods (and hence their counterparts in Western monarchies) became far less eternal and unchanging and far more human, replete with all the appetites and failings of human beings. This resulted in extraordinary tales of capriciousness, retribution, and the strengths and limitations of power. The Greek poets may have made the gods human to glorify heroism (Homer) or to didactically illustrate hubris and the need for political and social justice (Hesiod). The planetary gods and celestial chariots were never intended to be like this.

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