Biocultural models of the evolution of religion need to take onboard – The sacral or divine kingship’

Most accounts of the evolutionary origins of religion refer to the shamanistic complex of behaviors as the first set of behaviors that were recognizably – religious’. According to some scholars, the shamans of the upper Paleolithic (and of those traditional societies that persisted into the modern period) traveled, via altered states of consciousness, to the spirit world to attain healing powers and other ritual powers. They would then put some but not all of these powers to work in the service of their communities – or so the story goes. Some powers were used to harm other people or to exert control over the tribal group. But an alternative account of the evolutionary origins of religion suggests that that the shamans should not really be considered religious figures if we want to distinguish between religious and magical rituals.

Most scholars who study religion distinguish it from magic. In both religious and magical rituals, there are interactions with supernatural agents in order to influence day-to-day life and other people. What distinguishes religion and magic from one another is their functions or goals. The religious consciousness is oriented toward purification of Self and, as sociologist Emile Durkheim pointed out, cooperation with others (even when that cooperation is intended to form a group to wage war). The goal of magic is to attain personal ends regardless of consequences to others. Nor is purification an aim of magic. Certainly, some shamans (particularly those found among native North American Indians) were more “religious” than others were, but many scholars think that most shamans were not precisely religious in this strict sense of that term.

The real origin of religion in the strict sense of the term is the cultural complex known in the anthropological literature as the sacral or the divine Kingship. One sees the divine kingship arise whenever human groups attain to a certain level of complexity. Whenever hunter-gatherer groups discovered abundant ecologic resources, such as a plentiful salmon fishery, an unexploited fresh-water lake, or the migration routes for vast herds of deer and antelope, these tribal groups would then grow in population and the simple egalitarian tribal lifeways would give way to more complex social organizations involving clan alliances and chiefdoms. Some of these chiefdoms would eventually emerge as the immediate precursors to the divine kings.

The arrival on the scene of the divine kings marks a turning point in the history of religion and society. When the divine kings appeared, they brought with them the birth of religion as we know it today, with its elaborate rituals, liturgies, initiation rites, priestly offices, and moral content. The divine kings emerge in the transition from the upper Paleolithic to the Neolithic period and they bring with them a religion that emphasizes moral content – the model, the standard for human behavior was now the divine king. The shaman’s myriad roles of diviner, healer, master of ceremonies, visionary, leader, and so forth all devolved onto the king through the intermediary offices of the chieftains and shamans of the complex hunter-gatherer societies of the upper Paleolithic. The king in turn delegated some of these healing, religious and leadership functions over the course of centuries to priests and prophets. Divine kingship lasted, arguably, right up to the modern age. It ended when Cromwell and his henchmen murdered King Charles in England. Of course, there had been regicides aplenty throughout history (including two murders of legitimate kings by Catholic fanatics in France hundreds of years before the 1789 revolution) but when Cromwell did it he and his followers in the avowedly Protestant parliament intended an end to the kingship itself – not just one king. In ancient Greece and Rome, people had attempted something similar, but the termination of the Kingship in both instances resulted in centuries of civil war and then military dictatorship.

In any case, back in the Neolithic new sources of foodstuffs were discovered all over the world and populations began to rise. The first – cities’ were actually ritual centers – where inter-related clans and trading groups would gather, perform religious obligations and then conduct business. These religious centers likely included sites like the temple on Malta, Catal Huyuk, the complex at Gobele Teke in Turkey, Newgrange in Ireland, and Stonehenge in England. These sites were probably built by men’s secret societies and these societies likely attempted to monopolize the religious festivals that took place there each year. The man most venerated in the secret society at some point was invested with authority to oversee the religious festivals and thus became a chieftain. As ritual centers grew people began to build villages and other permanent settlement sites nearby. When agriculture took off these permanent settlement sites became wealthy and started a trade with other settlement sites. When disputes arose, the chieftain settled them with ritual ceremony and at least occasionally with some sort of justice. All this is speculation, but it is likely that some such scenario gave birth to the phenomenon of the divine king.

To maintain his kingship the king had to demonstrate supernatural powers repeatedly: he had to show strength and vitality and that he could heal others, and enhance the prosperity of his people by calling the animals to sacrifice, by creating rainfall, or by creating trade links and so forth. He had to arbitrate disputes with wisdom, justice, and mercy. As populations grew and conflict with nearby tribes grew in intensity the King had also to become an effective warrior.

The great anthropologist Frazer wrote the original study of the phenomenon of the divine king (The Golden Bough 1890/1900). His paradigmatic case involved the king who protected a sacred oak grove, a shrine of the goddess Diana at Lake Nemi in Italy. The king slept in this grove (supposedly protecting a “golden bough” on one of the trees) and fought off men who wanted to replace him as king. Diana’s priestesses supplied the king with all his needs. But he would forfeit the kingship whenever someone could kill him. That person then becomes the next king until someone kills him and so on. In short, when the king’s vitality began to wane, he was ritually killed so that a healthy and more vigorous man might be installed, thus sustaining life within the kingdom. Although one king would die, the king’s vitality was sustained mystically via what we today would call the office, the institution of kingship. It was always staffed by a man infused with strength, health, and vitality because his body was identified with the health and prosperity of the people. Frazer identified the mytheme of the dying and resurrecting kingship throughout the mythology of the world’s peoples. It appeared to be one of the founding myths of human society.

Just as the normal method of the religious sacrifice was to create a sacred individual or god who was then killed and eaten to facilitate communion or possession by the god, so too an individual king could be supernaturalized via the accretion of the sins of the polity or group. He was the perfect man to take on the sins of all others in the tribe because he was the only man who had connections with everyone else in the tribe. He could be infected by or receive impurities from anyone and everyone in the kingdom because he was connected to everyone in the kingdom. The priests would ritually certify that the king had indeed managed to contain all the evil impurities of the kingdom. Once it had been certified that he had indeed taken on the sins of the people, he was killed and thus the massive load of sin was eliminated. This was the scapegoating ritual. Instead of eating and becoming one with the supernaturalized king, the king was simply killed outright and then discarded or he was ostracized and left to die at sea or in the wilderness.

The idea in both forms of sacrifice was to 1) supernaturalize or make sacred the victim and 2) kill the victim and then 3) either eat the victim or discard the body. In a communion ritual, the sacrifice was intended to facilitate possession or union with the God. In the scapegoat ritual the sacrifice was a form of exorcism-the evil spirits were expelled from the community. The king took on the sins of the people and these sins could be destroyed by destroying the body of the king. In the positive sacrifice of communion, one individual was deified during the communion experience. In the negative form of sacrifice, a group effect was involved – the sins of the group were personified in the form of evil spirits who possessed the king’s body that then had to be destroyed in order to eliminate the sins.

It has often been pointed out (most recently and lucidly by Quigley 2005, 1-24) that the king unifies the people and makes intra-group cooperation possible because each person in the group is related to the king (as subjects) in the same way. The king is set apart from the rest of the group precisely because he alone is related to all of the subjects in the group or realm. He has a legal relation to each person in the group and thus every person in that group is united by or shares that common relation to the king. This universal relation to the king simultaneously makes him sacred (a unifier) and a potential scapegoat because he alone is in a position to receive contaminating contact with all persons if and when the group is infected with some sort of evil. Most of the rituals surrounding the king are aimed at keeping the king sacred or set apart or pure, spotless or healthy.

Sanctification and purification rituals were a constant of the life of the divine kings. His person was surrounded with all sorts of taboos regarding contact and behavior. The waning of his vitality and his death was fraught with foreboding and dread by the people because his death would inevitably imply that all the poisons and evils that the king would normally – channel’ and eliminate ritually would now have no effective elimination mechanism. An early solution to these sorts of problems would be to turn the king himself into a receptacle of all the impurities and evils accumulated in the society and then ritually kill the king. The sacrifice of the king would – kill’ the impurities along with the king since the king had been made to contain or embody these evils in the first place.

Thus, the divine kingship represents a paradox at the heart of the social contract: He is simultaneously sacred and polluted, good and evil. The very rites that were intended to keep him ritually pure or – good’ did so by eliminating the evils that accumulated over time in his person. The most important of these rites were all derived from the foundation rite of the kingship itself: the installation or coronation rite. This set of rites made the man a king; set him apart from all others and ritually purified him. By forming a set of contacts with all people in the realm, these rites also made him a channel for all the impurities of the people. Spirit possession was at the heart of both sides of the king; his positive sacrality and his negative impurity. He was possessed and embodied the positive God when he was purified and he was possessed by the evil spirit being or beings when he was prepared for ritual sacrifice.

In short, the king experienced both positive divine possession and demonic possession. The job of the priests was to perform the rites of purification to expel evil spirits from the king’s body/person and thereby from the realm. These rites of purification eventually became bloody sacrificial rites and then rites of exorcism.

In his classic work – Kingship’, Hocart (Hocart 1927) reviewed the cross-cultural literature on rituals associated with the kingship. Installation or coronation rituals typically involved a spirit possession sequence as when the Fiji islanders used kava to install a king. In the Fijian language – to be installed as king’ is identical to – to drink the kava’. The specially prepared – chiefly kava’ was thought to induce possession by the spirit entities called the water sprites, which made the man the God-king. Hocart argued that coronation rituals the world over included up to twenty-six characteristic features. These are:

(A) The theory is that the king dies and is reborn as a god. (B) By way of preparation he fasts and practices other austerities. (C) An armed guard keeps away strangers, sinners, women and children. (D) A kind of sabbath is observed; all are quiet as at a death. (E) The king fights a ritual combat and comes out victorious. (F) He makes a formal promise to rule justly. (G) He receives communion in one or two kinds. (H) At one point the people indulge in obscenities or buffoonery. (I) The king is invested with special garments. (J) He is baptized with water, and (K) Anointed with oil. (L) A human victim is killed. (M) The people rejoice with noise and acclamation. (N) A feast is given. (0) The king is crowned. (P) Puts on shoes. (Q) And receives other regalia such as a sword, sceptre and ring. (R) He sits upon a throne. (S) He takes three steps in imitation of the rising sun. (T) At the conclusion of the ceremony he makes a tour of his dominions and receives the homage of his vassals. (U) He receives a new name. (V) The queen is consecrated with him. (W) So are his officials, during either the ceremony or the tour. (X) Those who take part in the ceremony are dressed as gods, some- times with masks, (Y) Which may be those of animals. (Z) A king may be consecrated several times, going up one step each time. (Hocart 1927, 70-71).

The ritual combat that the king wins demonstrates his vitality, and that he is a healthy, pure vessel ready to take on the impurities of the people of the realm. He demonstrates his ability to handle impurities right after the people perform acts of buffoonery and obscenity. He is crowned directly after this display of impurity. The human sacrifice is usually part of the king’s family. It indicates that the king will no more be related to a single group or clan in the society but instead will be related to all. His justice will be impersonal and blind. The human sacrifice also prefigures the king’s own ritual death and killing. The baptism and the anointing mark the turning points in the rite where the man puts off his old identity and becomes a new being…a God-man. He is purified, deified, and now ritually possessed by his sponsor, the solar deity, or high God of the realm.

It is worth taking a quick look at one example of the divine kingship. The divine kings of ancient Pre-Columbian Americas also practiced self-mutilation as a form of divination, but again these spirit possession rituals were part and parcel of the royal installation rites. There is now good archaeological evidence concerning the sacred Mayan kingship installation (and – maintenance’) rituals (Fields and Reents-Budet 2005).

Among the ancient Maya (1500 B.C.E to 1520 C.E.), the kings put on regalia and masks of the Maize God, became possessed by the God and then performed a sacred dance that they literally believed renewed the order of the cosmos. They danced while wielding the principal symbol of royal power, a – bundle’ called the Pisom Q’aq’al (bundled fire and glory). The bundle was apparently composed of very ancient materials including the – skin’ of various gods. The authority of Mayan kings to rule over others was derived from their capacity to interact with spirit beings and to intercede on behalf of the people with these spirit beings. The kings demonstrated their capacities in the supernatural realm via spirit possession rituals. The king would raise the world tree (a ceiba or a maize plant) separating earth from sky and establishing the cosmic order. The earliest lowland Maya kings established their kingship via 1) creation of a sacred space including the placement of a quincunx-patterned cache (often depicted in kings’ murals and stelae and made up of precious greenstone – celts’), 2) receiving and wearing the trefoil crown (the sak hu’unal, a white bark or cloth headband adorned in the center with a carving of the jester God in jade or greenstone) and then 3) receiving the title of ajaw. All of these – bona fides’ established the ritual purity, the actual divinity of the King. The divinity was made manifest via spirit possession phenomena. Once the title ajaw was conferred the king was pure and identified with or embodied the Maize God.

In many rituals, kings dressed as the Principal Bird Deity, danced, and then became possessed by that deity. These spirit possession rituals could only be performed by the king, but it was his obligation to do so as it established his capacity to intercede with the Principal Bird Deity on behalf of the people. Often kings were buried as the Principal Bird Deity as well (for example, in the late Preclassic Tom II at Kaminaljuyu Mound E-III-3, the dead king wore a complex greenstone avian mask depicting the principal Bird Deity).

Interestingly, royal tombs typically contained cinnabar – a sacred red mercury ore used round the world to purify all that it touched. This practice recalls the use of red ochre in Neanderthal burials. The Mayans may have used cinnabar both ritually to purify the king’s tomb and to protect the tomb from grave robbers, as it was known to be a toxic ore. Mayan kings also had the responsibility of leading processions into and participating in the sacrificial rites at the sacred mountains or temples. These were the famous pyramids of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations. The Mayan kings became possessed by Gods on the temple mount, while the priests performed the sacrifices that would re-purify the king. For example, at Structure 5c-2nd at Cerros, Belize, is a temple pyramid decorated on its façade with four great stone masks. Two of these represent the funerary masks of the Maize god and his twin brother while the other two represent the ancient shaman priest God Itzamnaaj and Chaak, the axe-wielding killer god of the sacrifice. The latter two gods caused the death and resurrection of the Maize God so the King began by – impersonating’ them in the ceremonies.

At Copan, in what is now Honduras, there is a massive complex of structures, including pyramids, a Hieroglyphic stairway, a ritual ball court, the Popol Na, the so-called Rosalia building, and elaborately carved altars and stelae portraying Copan’s 16 divine kings, all oriented around the rituals of the divine kingship. Copan’s divine kings reigned from about 426 C.E. to 822 C.E.

In the great plaza at Copan there is a stele with carvings depicting the 16 divine kings (four to a side) with the founder of the dynasty K’inich Yax k’uk Mo depicted as handing off the emblems of dominion and a flaming torch to the most recent king (when the stele was constructed). On this stele ( – Altar Q’) the kings are seated on their name glyphs but all owe their origin to the founder K’inich Yax k’uk Mo. K’inich Yax k’uk Mo was buried at Copan and apparently was a master at spirit possession rituals. Wisely, however, he also established strong ties to the powerful cities of Tikal and Teotihuacan and that, along with his spiritual powers, helped to cement his power and establish his dynasty. Rosalia was the principal ceremonial temple at Copan and his burial place. The height of its use was approximately 6th century C.E.

The temple appears to have been dedicated to the Sun God K’inich Ajaw, the divine patron of Copan kings. Interestingly, Hocart believed that one of the constants of the divine kingship was that kings almost invariably operated under the aegis of the solar cult – that is they were patronized by or they considered their patron to be the Sun God. The Sun was non-arbitrary and all powerful. K’inich Ajaw was the titlular spirit entity of the dynastic founder K’inich Yax k’uk Mo. It was as if this king was in a state of constant possession by this Sun God. The king not only embodied the Sun God and his impartial justice – he was the Sun God materialized, in person, right before the eyes of the people of Copan. Within the Rosalia temple complex lay the tombs of K’inich Yax k’uk Mo and his wife.

The tomb itself was apparently intentionally buried – despite the fact that it was covered with a magnificent white stucco façade and elaborately covered panels depicting the founder as Sun God. The excavators of this building found extensive evidence of spirit possession rituals conducted within the temple/pyramid after the founder was buried there. There were beautifully carved incense burners and mirrored divination instruments typically placed on jaguar pedestals, sacrificial stone knives that were more than just decorative pieces, ceremonial scepters known as eccentric flints, stingray spines that the kings used to pierce their tongues in order to get a copious flow of blood to use during spirit possession rituals, jaguar claws, jade jewelry and much else besides.

Clearly, these pyramidal mortuary complexes were sites created by and for the divine kingship. They commemorated founder kings/Gods and they facilitated maintenance of kingship via spirit possession rituals of the most elaborate variety. In other temples, excavators have found traces of mind-altering substances of various kinds (e.g. ayahuasca derivatives), still in divination bowls involving mirrors and incense. Other hallucinogens were derived from nerve toxins found in the glands of a specific toad. There are carved altars with images of the God-king wearing a spoon, which was used to ingest hallucinogens that facilitated spirit possession. We also have extant carved figurines – for example, the figure holding a jaguar cub from Alta Verapuz, Tamahu (400-200 B.C.E) now at the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Ethnologia in Guatemala City, where one can see forms of the jaguar emerging from beneath the human form. This is a depiction of a spirit possession caught in the act of transformation from human to god. The eyes of the king/jaguar God were originally made of a glowing pyrite to emphasize the spiritual entity within the human form.

A similar story could be told of virtually every other civilization. Kings were the center or religion and they used priests to perform the rituals that held societies together. Over time, the priests tried to assert control over kings and decided when these purification rituals were needed, and this conflict led to human sacrifice rituals.

In most other cultures (with India and the West constituting partial exceptions), the priests never gained the upper hand over the kings and thus human sacrifice never became so prominent a characteristic in these other societies. In ancient India the priestly caste, the Brahmins, became powerful by creating a vast series of purification rituals that only they could follow and understand. The kings had to undergo many of purification rituals, of course, but at the heart of these rituals was the use of the hallucinogen soma and then a possession state. In the West, the priests had a powerful ally in the pope, whose own status as a priest or as a royal monarchic figure remained unclear for centuries. The popes, however, generally sided with the priests against the kings and emperors. Certification of efficacy of purification rituals, i.e. of the legitimacy of the kingship itself, lay in the hands of the priests at key turning points in the history of the West, but they never fully wrested these powers from the kings and thus the history of the West oscillates between these two religious poles. When priests were in the ascendancy and the kings were devalued by the priests, demonic forms of possession among the people tended to proliferate, leading to witch scares or a proliferation of ecstatic cults.


Fields, V.M. and Reents-Budet, D. (2005). Lords of creation: The origins of sacred Maya kingship. London: Scala Publishers; Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Frazer, James George . (1959 [1890, 1900]). The New Golden Bough: A New Abridgement of the Classic Work, edited by T. H. Gaster. New York: S. G. Phillips.

Quigley, D. (2005). “Introduction: The character of Kingship.” In The Character of Kingship, edited by D. Quigley. Oxford: Berg.

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