Kingship and Ritual

Edited by Kathryn A. Morgan

from UniversityofTexas Website

The scholarly model of development away from monarchy in most of the Greek mainland is rooted in an overly uncritical acceptance of fabricated king lists and of the relevance of the Roman and eastern models for Greek practice. This acceptance stems from a desire to credit ancient Greek accounts of their own past, but also from a modern prejudice that traces a teleological development from monarchy to various forms of republicanism. The construction of mythic-historical kings satisfies a desire for tidy origins, as well as for an original focus of authority from which subsequent developments are diffused. We must, then, always ask whose interests are served by a model of original kingship and hereditary descent of authority. If aristocratic elites in the Archaic and Classical period fantasized about royal descent, this served the dual purpose of reinforcing their elite status and communicating to non-elites the (relatively) more egalitarian nature of elite influence in the polis. Thus attempts at dominance by powerful members of the elite can be cast as reversion to a superseded past. The contrast between legitimate hereditary kingship and illegitimate and tyrannical usurpation of power may thus be seen as a contrast between a quasi-official historical construction and the harsher reality of authoritarian government.

Second: ritual and cult. If Morris’ emphasis on the chiefly ritual importance of the wanax is sustainable (even if it is not the whole story), the centrality of cult is a major area of continuity between Bronze Age and later notions of monarchic rule. Ritual kingship casts a shadow down as far as the Athenian archôn basileus and the heroic honors paid to ancient city founders. In most later conceptions, it is the gap between the human and the divine that is significant, as we see in much of the poetry of Pindar, and also in the vase paintings cited by Morris. Religious and temporal power do not coincide. Yet the figure of the tyrant complicates this divide. Sicilian tyrants such as Gelon and Hieron were anxious to become city founders, by fair means or foul, and the Emmenids of Acragas may have used their hereditary priesthoods as a springboard for the acquisition of temporal power. Peisistratus’ charade as favorite of Athena, escorted into the polis by the goddess in her chariot, is also relevant here. We start, it seems, with a ritual king who does not embody our conception of monarchic rule. While this tradition continues, we are also presented with an authoritarian ruler (the tyrant) who attempts to draw to himself the trappings of religious legitimation. This change of emphasis lies behind the Zeus-like powers of the tyrant in tragedy and comedy, as detailed by Seaford and Henderson. The Prometheus Bound shows that if a tyrant can be conceived as a god, a god can also be conceived as a tyrant.

According to Zecharia Sitchin, who has written many books on the Sumerian tablets, the term "men of renown" in the Genesis passage should read, from its Sumerian origin, "men of the sky vehicles". This puts rather a different complexion on the whole story and makes a great deal more sense of it. The reference to "heroes of old" is also relevant. The word hero comes from the Egyptian term, "heru, which, according to researcher Wallis Budge, was "applied to the king as a representative of the Sun God of Earth." The precise meaning was "a human being was neither a god nor a daemon." The term has the inference of a crossbreed race.


The writer Homer (8th-9th century BC) wrote that "the heroes were exalted above the race of common men". The poet, Pindar, (518-438 BC) a very relevant name for readers of "The Biggest Secret" by David Icke - used the term, hero/heru, to describe a race "between gods and men". It is extremely likely that Horus or Haru, the Egyptian son of God and a mirror of the much later "Jesus" came from the term heru, which means the Sun God’s representative on Earth, the hybrid or Aryan race. (p 72 - "Children of the Matrix" by David Icke.)


Morris’ focus on cult is chiefly picked up by Seaford’s treatment of the tyrant in tragedy. For Seaford, one crucial aspect of the tyrant is his perversion of ritual. We see this both in the stories associated with historical tyrants such as Polycrates, and in the abuse of ritual by tragic characters such as Clytemnestra. The abuse of the sacred forms part of a larger pattern in which the destruction of the royal family and the institution of polis cult becomes a structuring principle in Greek tragedy. The contrast with Morris’ picture of the Bronze Age situation is instructive. There, kingly authority is ritual authority. In the later period, however, ritual becomes a tool in the pursuit of power, and is often perverted by that pursuit. Seaford’s tragic tyrant exists in a problematic relationship with ritual, and successful polis cult is only possible once the tyrant has been expelled. Thus religious legitimation and power has been detached from the king and attached to the polis. It seems reasonable to consider this a symptom of the considerable transformation in governmental structures after the Bronze Age. Even if, with Morris, we find traces of communitarian government in the earlier period, it is clear that there has been a reconfiguration of attitudes towards the individual figure of authority. But the area in which the tension between individual and community is played out remains constant, and that area is ritual.

Another important characteristic of tyrannical power is wealth. Seaford points out that tyrants are greedy for money and the power it allows them to exercise. Yet tyrannical greed may have a positive counterpart in lavish expenditure, and here again, the importance of religious factors is striking. As Morris notes, the capacity of sanctuaries in the Archaic period to attract tyrannical largesse and the concomitant power and influence wielded by such sanctuaries, reminds us of the religious significance of kingship in the prehistoric period. Historical tyrants, both Greek and foreign, seek legitimation and negotiate power in their relationships with these sanctuaries. Just as tyrannical greed is intimately connected with impiety in the world of tragedy, so tyrannical expenditure upon offerings and religious building projects attempts to realign the tyrant and re-embed him in the religious sphere. In the tragic imagination, as Seaford suggests, the use of money may mark a failure in reciprocity, but on a pragmatic level it enables successful diplomatic exchange and marks pre-eminence. Thus it is that the Athenian demos engages in quasi-tyrannical expenditure with its massive use of public moneys, a phenomenon analyzed in Lisa Kallet’s fascinating essay. The demos both taxes and spends in a demonstration of its pre-eminent power; its role as economic patron forestalls challenge from members of the elite, who do not have the resources to match it. The symbiotic relationship of tyranny, wealth, and expenditure (studied by Kallet and Seaford), taken together with the implication of the king or tyrant in religious concerns (as we see in the essays of Morris and Seaford), goes far to explain the extraordinary magnificence of the fifth-century building program on the Athenian acropolis. While Kallet rightly sees this as an instance of public patronage, it is significant that this patronage, to use Morris’ words, marks "the convergence of polis and shrine."

The third area where Morristreatment of kingship is significant for this volume as a whole is that of regional geographic variation. This concern manifests itself in the remaining essays in two ways. It emerges as an awareness that we can best understand Athenian developments in light of a broader Greek context. Thus we note that robust forms of kingship established themselves chiefly on the margins of the Greek world, while the communitarian model had greater force in the heartland. Nevertheless, a network of economic, military, and diplomatic relationships ensured lively exchanges between widely varying constitutions. My own essay explores the notion of "constitutional slide" as a function of the close proximity of differing forms of government. The richness of constitutional variation allows both Plato and Isocrates to criticize democratic tyranny and construct political structures based on ethics rather than on the number of people in whom power was vested.


Regional variation mandates an awareness of multiple audiences and permits the development of "amphibolic" readings of texts as diverse as Isocrates’ Panathenaicus and the funerary monument of Dexileos, the object of an unsettling analysis by Josiah Ober. Ober rightly points out that tyranny in the Classical period was a concern to poleis other than Athens. Our tendency towards Athenocentrism often predisposes us to ignore this wider context, but to do so is to ignore an important area of cultural exchange. Tyranny could remain a concern in Athens because the Athenians had frequent contacts with kings and tyrants in a politically unstable world. But it was an exportable concern, as Ober’s investigation of the Erythrae decree concerning repairs to the statue of a tyrannicide shows. Athens liked to export democracy to the subject cities of its empire, but its hatred of tyranny, and the concomitant iconography of resistance to tyranny was just as real an export.