New Worlds: Divine Rights

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

Given the importance of religion in human culture, it’s not remotely surprising that it’s often served as the underpinning for a leader’s right to power. In European history we most commonly see this in terms of “the divine right of kings,” but the connection between divine power and mortal rulership takes a bunch of different forms throughout time and around the world — which is why this couldn’t fit into the previous essay, but needed to be broken out into one of its own.

So let’s dive into the specifics!


According to tradition, the Japanese imperial family is descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu, through her scion Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan. Under State Shintō — a political development of the religion that coincided with the modernization and westernization of Japan — this got upgraded to the status of a living god, a status the Allies stripped away after Japan’s defeat in World War II. But this tradition is probably at least part of why Japan has the oldest continuing dynasty in the entire world: the various shogunates, instead of overthrowing the imperial house entirely, simply ruled on its behalf, allowing the imperial line to continue unbroken for more than a thousand years.

They aren’t the only ones to lay claim to that kind of divine ancestry, of course. But they do stand out as the most successful. And this approach ties in nicely with the common tendency toward political power as a heritable possession, reinforcing it as the specific possession of one bloodline.

Living Gods or Avatars

The brief stint Japanese emperors enjoyed as gods on earth has been standard practice in other parts of the world — for example, in ancient Egypt. From a very early period, the pharaohs were seen as the representatives of the sun god Ra. In some cases they were described as his literal sons, but at other times it was more a matter of them being his avatars, infused with divine power if not his metaphorical DNA.

Amusingly, Rome’s version of this involved a vote: the Senate could decide to deify a living emperor, making him into a state divinity. I haven’t done a great deal of reading on that front, but I feel like nothing exemplifies the pragmatic Roman mind more than the bureaucratization of godhood.

Chosen Ones

If you step down from the level of state leadership, you can find a lot of examples of people declaring they’re in charge because they were personally chosen by God. In most cases, at least in modern times, what this results in is a cult: a small, fringe religion that never achieves mainstream acceptance. But if you look just a little further back in history, Joseph Smith’s visions of God and angels started not only the Latter Day Saint movement (Mormonism) but a whole community that followed his lead.

The flaw in this model is usually that it often doesn’t pass down to a successor very well. It’s telling that both early Mormonism and the early Islamic community suffered significant disputes over succession after their divinely-inspired founders died. Those two movements managed to survive that rocky period, but lots of other examples did not.

Tied to the Land

The Arthurian legend of the Fisher King features a wounded ruler whose crippling injury is echoed in the dwindling of his lands. This may be an echo of an earlier Irish motif, which is the joining of a king to the lands he rules, personified via a sovereignty goddess whom he marries, has sex with, or both. It’s something like the concept I mentioned last week, where a ruler claims power on the basis of the will of the people — except that in this case it’s the will of the deified land itself. And as the king goes, so goes his domain, both for good and for ill.

The Mandate of Heaven

That linkage between the king’s health or behavior and the state of his realm shows up again in the concept of the mandate of heaven. Chinese kings and emperors claimed authority on the grounds that they were blessed by the heavens, due to their virtuous and capable performance. And unlike some other models, they didn’t need to be descended from particular bloodlines in order to lay claim to that role.

But just as a “might makes right” ruler can lose their position if their strength falters, a Chinese ruler could also lose the mandate of heaven — or rather, things going wrong could be taken as proof that he’d lost it. Since his own virtue was supposed to ensure the fertility and peace of the realm, if natural disasters struck, it was a sign that the heavens were displeased with him. And if a rebellion were to overthrow him, that too was evidence that he no longer held the mandate . . . a circular justification in a way, but hardly a surprising one, as it opened the way for a new dynasty to claim the mandate.

Divine Right of Kings

Which brings us at last to the notion of the divine right of kings (and the occasional queen). This concept, as formulated in Europe, bears some connection to a few of the other models here: the sovereign was seen as being anointed by God, which echoes both the “Chosen One” and “Mandate of Heaven” approaches. But what this primarily meant in practice was that European monarchs increasingly held that they were answerable only to God: no lower authority had any right to criticize or punish them.

The perils of this are rather obvious. Since we live in a world where overt divine action is (depending on your point of view) rare or non-existent, the divine right of kings was a highway to despotism — and after that, to revolution. But unlike the mandate of heaven, the divine right of kings left no conceptual space for justifiable revolt. All such disobedience was always against the laws of both man and God.

As with the ideologies in last week’s essay, there aren’t sharp boundaries between these things. The strong form of divine right in England ran up hard against the will of the people in the form of Parliament; inheritance pairs nicely with sacred ancestry, but there’s always somebody else ready to assert their own blessed origin, and to back it up with steel.

But one thing to keep in mind about the religious models in particular is that rulers who claim power on those grounds often have to devote part of their time to carrying out appropriate ceremonies: regardless of their personal behavior, some degree of public piety is required, because their ideology positions them as an intermediary between earth and heaven. Rulers whose authority is based purely in secular sources have their own duties, of course, but the spiritual health of the realm isn’t riding on their shoulders.

All of this is (semi-) separate from what form the government actually takes. So next week, we’ll move on to that question!

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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: Divine Rights — 13 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Divine Rights - Swan Tower

  2. Divine Right of Kings has a loophole, or maybe this isn’t a loophole? Either when the deity wants to humble a king*, or said deity wants to bring in new blood (ie, replacing King Saul with King David)

    * = I’m honestly surprised Charles II of England didn’t try that: “My dad lost his way and went overboard, but I’m faithful to our Lord.”

    • I’m not sure anybody would have bought a pious line from Charles II. 😛

      I think “this is God’s will” was more readily accepted when death came in the form of something like illness or, well, an act of God. Revolutions from below mostly just looked like people being disobedient, not serving as divine agents.

    • “Charles II” and “humble” do not belong in the same paragraph, even as unmatched parts of speech. Thank you for dropping the footnote.

      There’s also the indirect variant, similar to Holy Roman Emperor: Not “divine right” so much as “right via anointment/approval of monolithic religious oligarch” (who can’t be bothered to exercise temporal power himself… and that gender specificity is on purpose).

      • well very true – Kings Charles I and Saul got humbled…to death. David and Charles II, not so much. 😀

        >right via appointment
        …which gets fun when you involve Antipopes. 🙂

  3. Rulership is one of those areas where the Piraha are a little strange…what with no religion (or even spiritualism – they see spirits, but don’t ward them off or attract them)…so, based on the book, it seems like they’re at the intersection of Elders Give Advice meets Chosen Ones (the entire tribe, not an individual)

    and I don’t think that sort of system (in whole or just that form of Chosen Ones) has been done in fiction before.

    • A whole people considering themselves the Chosen Ones is a different matter from singling someone out as the ruler. I haven’t read about the Piraha directly (I just see them being cited a lot as an example of unusual customs), but I’d be surprised if they don’t follow more or less the egalitarian model I described at the beginning of the month — where the people who gain power do so on the basis of earning respect, but the society isn’t significantly hierarchical at all.

  4. I’ve read that there were periods when the Japanese ’emperors’, having more religious duties than secular power, would abdicate as soon as there was a younger family member old enough to perform the rituals, leaving the adult to enjoy life or play what politics he could.

    I’ve recently learned that the later caliphate was similar to the emperor-shogun setup: caliphs starting as religious-secular rulers but becoming religious figureheads to legitimize a sultan.

    • teeeeny question: which later caliphate? the Ottomans? They were the Caliphs, the Shadow Of God On Earth – I think, but am not 100% sure, they also claimed the lower title of Sultan.
      (if they did, it was probably for completeness) 🙂