New Worlds: Signs of Power

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Riffing off last week’s discussion of how we show respect to one another, let’s talk about the things that signal HEY, YOU SHOULD SHOW RESPECT TO ME.

a drawing of the English Coronation Chair

There are a number of items that traditionally mark someone out as having particular authority. Two crop up in particular when we’re talking about royalty: 1) thrones and 2) crowns. In fact, they’re so central to the concept of royalty that they can serve as metonymy for the sovereign or even the entire royal government, as when we talk about having the ear of the Throne (i.e. the king will listen to what you have to say) or the Crown imposing a new tax. When we talk about installing a new sovereign, the most common words for this are “enthronement” and “coronation” (though other terms get used, like “proclamation”). So it’s understandable that they loom so large in the imagination.

But thrones and crowns far from the only objects associated with authority. If you go to see the “crown jewels” of the United Kingdom, you’ll find yourself staring at everything from swords to robes to orbs to trumpets. Because when you get down to it, pretty much anything can be a symbol of power, if people agree to view it that way.

That doesn’t mean regalia is random, though. Quite a lot of it is meant to be worn, because putting splendid adornments on yourself is a good way to impress people: clothing like robes or capes or shoes, or jewelry like crowns, rings, belt buckles, or chains of office. Some are objects that at least theoretically have utilitarian use, whether it’s weapons (swords, maces, staves/scepters, daggers; almost certainly derived from the days when you used those things to win power) or seals (for marking documents as official and authoritative) or fans or flywhisks or sacred texts. Of course, many of those are so heavily decorated — not to mention heavy — that you would never actually employ them; ceremonial swords tend to be encrusted with gems to the point where they almost look more painful to the wielder than the target. So there may not be a whole lot of difference between those and the objects that are purely symbolic, like the widespread European globus cruciger, the orb surmounted with a cross, which represents Christ’s dominion over the world. (And therefore the holder’s dominion over said world on Christ’s behalf.)

And then you have the stuff that holds the monarch instead of being held by them. Thrones aren’t the only form of important seating, of course. In Yoruba it’s a stool; in Mesoamerica, where chairs weren’t so common, the mat someone sat on could be the symbol of their authority, and before Japan started flooring entire rooms with tatami, they were portable items used as seating for the highest-ranking people present. Renaissance European monarchs often had a canopy of estate over their non-throne chairs — which may have served a practical purpose by protecting them from bugs falling out of the rafters, but also provided a splendid “heaven” over their heads. In other parts of the world, umbrellas serve the same purpose. I have no idea what royal carriages looked like in the English past, but judging by the bling-tastic Lord Mayor of London’s state coach, they must have been pretty spectacular. Modify the vehicles as necessary for local tech level and environment: in ancient Egypt the pharoah would have a royal barge to float up and down the Nile, while in ancient India it might be a chariot.

As these examples suggest, a lot of what makes something a symbol of power and status is the wealth it displays. Gold, silver, precious gems, exotic wood, or fine craftsmanship all communicate the message that the person so adorned must be really important. But what about the Stone of Scone, which is literally just a chunk of rock with a rough cross carved into it and a couple of rings to help you lift the bloody thing? What about the Holy Lance in Vienna, which despite having a piece of gold slapped on is basically just a steel blade with an iron nail accessory? What about Kusanagi, so shrouded in ritual and secrecy that whether it even still exists is open to question?

As the orb-and-cross example above suggests, symbolism plays a role. Giving someone a “key to the city” nods back to the days when cities were surrounded by walls, whose gates might actually be locked with a key; even if there are no longer any walls or gates to put the key in, it’s still a way of representing the freedom to come and go whenever you please, or to control other peoples’ access. (Many of my examples here have been royal, but I’ll note that a woman’s ring of keys for doors and chests in her household was often a very practical sign of her power.) But when you get down to it, the primary answer for why a given thing represents status and power is often history.

Sure, the Stone of Scone is a fairly plain rock. But it’s a plain rock that supposedly served as a pillow for the Israelite patriarch Jacob and later became the coronation stone of Scottish monarchs before the English stole it in the thirteenth century and built it into the chair they used for their own coronations and didn’t give it back until 1996. Like the iron nail in the Holy Lance (supposedly a relic of Christ’s crucifixion), the intrinsic value isn’t what matters; it’s the connection to important people and events. It doesn’t matter whether the common people ever get to see Kusanagi; that sword, along with the mirror Yata no Kagami and the necklace of comma-shaped jewels Yasakani no Magatama, has been part of the enthronement ceremony for the Japanese emperor since the ninth century, and the origins of those three items connect the imperial line back to their divine ancestor, the sun goddess Amaterasu.

So from a narrative standpoint, it doesn’t matter so much whether a given object has precedent in reality as a symbol of authority. The real question is whether it fits into its own context. Special shoes to prevent special feet from touching the ground, a sacred bell whose ringing begins and ends vital ceremonies, a splendid belt that symbolizes the world and thus positions its wearer as the center of that world — nearly anything can work, so long as it has a rationale the reader can believe in.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Signs of Power — 12 Comments

  1. Two things come to mind: first, you’re surrounded by fierce guards dressed to intimidate, and two, big banners with power symbols on them, placed either up behind you, larger than life, or carried to snap in the wind around you, making it seem you are lord of the wind.

      • This is a fascinating subject–the greater the power, the less possible it was to be alone, even when you craved it. I sometimes wonder if some of the weird behavior of the Powerful of the past stems from the explosive yearning to be alone.

  2. Like the Lord Mayor’s coach, the place the Powerful Person lives can signal all sorts of stuff, much of it purely associational. One understands why Versailles signals Power–but 10 Downing Street, as sedate as it looks from the street, also packs a punch of authority. I believe it’s in The American President that someone calls the White House “the greatest home court advantage” there is–it was meant to support the authority of its main occupant.

  3. I greatly enjoyed this, because it touches on a personal favorite topic of mine: people taking a relatively common symbol and then making it unique with what matters to them, or with their personal history. For example, many rulers might have crowns, but only Pharaohs of the Two Kingdoms would have the unique Pschent, combining Hedjet, the crown of Upper Egypt with Deshret, the Crown of Lower Egypt (to say nothing of the unique meanings of each crown: the red and the white, the vulture and the cobra). Or consider the various names for thrones: Chrysanthemum Throne, Phoenix Throne, Dragon Throne, Lion Throne, Peacock Throne, Sun Throne, Silver Throne… while some of those are merely descriptors of the throne (Silver, Peacock), others speaks to a whole mythology and meaning behind the concept and right of rulership.
    What I really love to see is symbols that embody the culture and power that brought one to a throne. A kingdom conquered by a chariot-riding people (as Upper Egypt was by the Hyksos) might expect a new ruler to ride in a new chariot to symbolize his ascension. A kingdom based off some Alexander the Great equivalent might have every king ride a Bucephalus equivalent – I think Tolkien did something similar with only the Kings of Rohan allowed to ride the Mearas. Especially in fantasy stories where a royal family might have magic, I’d expect to see a lot more of it – if the Royal Family is known for mastery of, say, Water Magic, they could have every coronation take place on a body of water, or have fountains and aqueducts running through the palace/city.

  4. Yeah, context is the important thing. Take the Irish celts. They had pretty primitive living spaces, very little in the way of furniture, and status was largely established via brightly-dyed clothes, and jewellery. Even then, kings/queens would have worn torcs rather than crowns (albeit fashioned out of gold). No thrones, either. Instead – when a feast was being held – tribal leaders would have sat cross-legged on the ground along with their subjects, but at the centre of the hut, closest to the fire and whatever was being cooked. Your proximity to them was an indication of your status.

    Reminds me a lot of how certain pack animals congregate at night (e.g. hyenas) with the alpha dog at the centre of a scrum of bodies, while those further down the pecking order are relegated to the (colder) periphery.

    • Luxury and ostentation are definitely relative! Even fairly poor people in the U.S. often enjoy comforts that an early Irish king could only dream of.

  5. “the widespread European globus cruciger, the orb surmounted with a cross, which represents Christ’s dominion over the world.”

    Also represents medieval Europeans knowing the world was a globe. :p

    • Interestingly, the myth that they didn’t know seems to be tied in with the politics of science vs. religion — basically it was a way for later centuries to emphasize how foolish and ignorant religion made people in the past.