Visit Us | Contact Us | Membership | Make a Gift | Calendar | Order Online | What's New

Print this Page

Home > Research > Past Post Doctoral Scholars

Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond

Organized by Nicole Brisch
The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
1155 East 58th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
February 23–24, 2007

Abstracts and Bios

Reinhard Bernbeck (Anthropology, University of Binghamton)
Title: “Divine Kingship, Ideologies and Spaces for Resistance”
Abstract: This paper argues that the divinization of kings is a political move to bolster the legitimacy of personalized power. In an ideological analysis, I discuss the value of ambivalence in the production of consent among the ruled by referring to the works of M. Erdheim and E. Wolf. The second part of my paper is devoted to practical processes in divinization: How do they produce new subjectivities, both on the side of rulers and ruled? How are Handlunsgräume, potential spaces for resistance, modified by divinization? I refer mainly to the Old Akkadian period as an example.

Bio: Reinhard Bernbeck is a Near Eastern archaeologist with interests in the economic organization of prehistoric and historic societies. Other interests include the ideological and economic conditions of production of historical / archaeological knowledge. At present, he is working on a comparison of the Assyrian and the U.S. empire. He has conducted fieldwork in Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Iran. His publications include “Krieg, Imperialismus und Archäologie. Zur Zukunft der Vergangenheit Afghanistans” (2003) and “The Past as Fact and Fiction. From Historical Novels to Novel Histories,” in S. Pollock and R. Bernbeck, eds., Middle Eastern Archaeologies. Critical Perspectives (2005) published by Blackwell.


Nicole Brisch (Assyriology, University of Chicago)
Title: Introduction: Divine Kingship

Bio: Nicole Brisch is an assyriologist and sumerologist. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the University of Chicago, she held Postdoctoral Fellowships at the University of Michigan and at Cornell University, where she also taught Akkadian. Her first book, Tradition and the Poetics of Innovation: Sumerian Court Literature of the Larsa Dynasty (c. 2000–1763 BCE) will soon appear in the series Alter Orient und Altes Testament. Her interests include Sumerian royal literature, divine kingship in ancient Mesopotamia, and more recently Mesopotamian religious history.


Jerrold Cooper (Assyriology, Johns-Hopkins University)
Jerrold Cooper is a discussant.

Bio: Jerrold Cooper is an assyriologist and sumerologist. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute in 1969, and has been teaching at Johns Hopkins since 1968. He has had guest appointments at UC Berkeley, UCLA, Padua, Rome “La Sapienza”, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Author of four books and numerous articles and reviews, he is pursuing projects in the following areas: History of Assyriology, Mesopotamian Historiography, Gender and Sexuality in the ancient Near East, the origins and developments of writing systems, and Sumerian Literature.


Erica Ehrenberg (Art History, New York Academy of Art)
Title: Dieu et mon Droit: Kingship in Late Babylonian and Early Persian Times
Abstract: The motto of the British monarch’s coat of arms, Dieu et mon droit, could equally have served as the catchphrase of the Late Babylonian and Achaemenid kings. The sentiment espoused, the divine right to rule, was a defining tenet of greater Mesopotamian kingship ideology and seems to be a universal and enduring one.  Unlike a select number of their royal predecessors (and their compatriots in Egypt), Babylonian and Persian rulers of the sixth and fifth centuries BC did not deify themselves; rather, they followed the more traditional Mesopotamian custom of arrogating to themselves, and themselves alone, divine favor.  While visual representations of Babylonian and Persian kings rely heavily on established Mesopotamian iconographic conventions, they nevertheless betray unique and distinct understandings of sovereignty, manifest in Persia through explicit tableaux and in Babylonia seemingly through the absence of such. A shared trait, delineated in texts, is the notion of auspicious fortune and dazzling aura that characterizes both Mesopotamian and Persian conceptualizations of the royal condition.  A reconsideration of the winged disk symbol perhaps lends insight into the translation of these verbal abstractions into visual form and may proffer a new interpretation of the enigmatic rod and ring motif.  An attendant concern is the formalization of the aura as a halo, a symbol inherent to many and diverse cultures across time and place.

Bio: Erica Ehrenberg is an art historian and archaeologist specializing in ancient Mesopotamia and Persia. She serves as Dean of the New York Academy of Art as well as Executive Director of the American Institute of Iranian Studies and is a visiting scholar at NYU. Her main field of interest is Late Babylonian and early Persian iconography and her publications have concentrated on the transition between the two periods, as illuminated particularly by glyptic. Among her recent contributions are Persian Conquerors, Babylonian Captivators (forthcoming), “A Corpus of Fifth Century Sealed Tags in the Yale Babylonian Collection” and “Babylonian Fortleben and Regionalism in Achaemenid Mesopotamia.”


Paul John Frandsen (Egyptology, Copenhagen University)
Title: Linguistics and the Definition of Kingship in Ancient Egypt.
Abstract: The problem of the king’s divinity and its definition has been the subject of Egyptological discussions for more than a century. If the problem is approached from a historical perspective, the millennia long history of the country may be seen as a process where the internal colonization of the Nile Valley and the increasing contact with the world outside are correlated with a process of desacralization of the person of the king. The present paper takes a linguistic approach to the discussion of the differentiation between the divine and mortal aspects. It deals with a number of so-called constituent elements of the king’s persona from the point of view of inalienable possession.

Bio: Paul John Frandsen was trained in Egyptology, Coptic, Assyriology and Linguistics. He studied at Copenhagen and at Oxford (Worcester) Universities with Erik Iversen, Wolja Erichsen, J.W.B Barns, Hans Jakob Polotsky, J.R. Harris, Jørgen Læssøe and Oliver Gurney. He has published books and articles on Egyptian grammar, economic history and religion. Methods and theories constructed by social anthropologists have always played a part in his research, and he has just finished a book entitled Incestous and Close-Kin Marriages in Ancient Egypt and Persia: An Examination of the Evidence. I have, finally, published articles on Egyptology and opera. In the summer of 2000 I gave a series of lectures on Philip Glass’ opera Akhenaten in Chicago. Some of his more recent publications are: ‘On the Origin of the Notion of Evil in Ancient Egypt’, in: Göttinger Miszellen 179 (2000), pp.9–34. ‘Le fruit défendu dans l’Égypte ancienne’, in: Bulletin de la Société d’Égyptologie Geneve 25 (2002–2003), pp.1–18. ‘Aida and Edward Said: Attitudes and Images of Ancient Egypt and Egyptology’, in: J. G. Dercksen (ed.), Assyria and Beyond. Studies Presented to Mogens Trolle Larsen, Leiden and Leuven: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten and Peeters, 2004, pp.205–227. ‘The Bitter Honey at Dendara’, in: Ernst Czerny, Irmgard Hein, Hermann Hunger, Dagmar Melman, Angela Schwab (eds.), Timelines. Studies in honour of Manfred Bietak; vol.3, (= OLA 149,3), Leuven, 2006, pp.197-201. ‘Judasevangeliet [Translation of the recently published gospel of Judas into Danish with an introductory chapter on Gnosticism]’, in: Papyrus 26/1 (2006), pp.34–43. ‘Faeces of the Creator or The Temptations of the Dead’, in: Mark Collier & Panagiotis Kousoulis (eds.), Ancient Egyptian Theology and Demonology, Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, to appear late in 2006. [34 pages]. ‘Menstrual Taboo in Ancient Egypt’, to appear in: Journal of Near Eastern Studies 66, 2007 [31 pages].


David A. Freidel (Anthropology, Southern Methodist University)
Title: Maya Divine Kingship: Archaeology, Iconography, Epigraphy.
Abstract: The Preclassic and Classic Period lowland Maya (700 B.C.–900 AD) of southeastern Mexico and northern Central America developed and sustained a cult of divine kings, called k’ul ajaw or holy lord. This institution was closely tied to a cult of maize gods who transcended death and experienced rebirth. As the maize god was the source of the flesh of humanity, so Maya holy lords were the source of sustenance. Maya holy lords performed rituals of death and rebirth and other shamanic rituals, hence the hypothesis that Maya divine kingship was shamanic. Maya divine kingship was inspired by and significantly derived from earlier Olmec kingship. As lowland Maya divine kingship developed in the Preclassic, a dogma emerged that the maize god had experienced rebirth in the center of Maya country, and that the Maya were the true people of his flesh. Some Maya kings resisted this dogma and insisted that the creation of human beings included all the known people in Mesoamerica. This schism in Maya religion led to enduring conflict during the Classic period and ultimately precipitated the ninth century Collapse and the demise of the institution of divine kingship.

Bio: David Freidel is an archaeologist working on the Maya. He is a University Distinguished Professor at Southern Methodist University. His fields of interest include complex societies, Mesoamerica, Lowland Maya, and material symbol systems. He is the principle investigator and co-director of the archaeological project in El Peru-Waka, an ancient Mayan site in northern Guatemala. Among his contributions are Maya Cosmos, Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path and A Forest of Kings, the Untold Story of the Ancient Maya.


Michelle Gilbert (Anthropology and Art History, Sarah Lawrence College)
Title: The sacrilized body of the Akwapim king
Abstract: The installation rites of an Akwapim king in Ghana show how he is set apart, sacralized and “ancestralized”. This rite transforms him from an ordinary person into a non-person, a “body fetish” or a “sacred monster” (to use the terms of de Heusch) with magical and religious powers. The insoluble problem is that the kingship, the “body politic”, never dies, it is corporate; but the “body natural”, the biological person is mortal and subject to age (Kantorowicz 1957). Inspired by Luc de Heusch’s defence of Sir James Frazer’s ideas on kingship, regicide, and scapegoats (1997, 2005), I reexamine Akwapim royal installation rites, the annual festival of purification and, briefly, the death of an Akwapim king when the king’s two bodies—“good” and “bad”—go to the grave together; I pay particular attention to surrogate human victims and suggest that the meaning of the anointment of the king with “ancestral dust” and with blood from the black stools needs further examination.

Bio: Professor Gilbert is an anthropologist and art historian specializing in African art and architecture; as well as religion, political power, and divine kingship in Ghana. She is the author of Hollywood Icons, Local Demons: Popular Art in Ghana and articles on royal art, popular theatre, religious pluralism, and chieftaincy in Akuapem, Ghana. Some of her publications are The Leopard Who Sleeps in a Basket: Akuapem secrecy in everyday life and royal metaphor and Aesthetic Strategies: The Politics of a Royal Ritual.


Bruce Lincoln (Divinity School, University of Chicago)
Title: The Role of Religion in Achaemenian Imperialism

Bio: Bruce Lincoln is the Caroline E. Haskell Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School as well as Associate Faculty in the Departments of Anthropology and Classics. Bruce Lincoln emphasizes critical approaches to the study of religion. He is particularly interested in issues of discourse, practice, power, conflict, and the violent reconstruction of social borders. His research tends to focus on the religions of pre-Christian Europe and pre-Islamic Iran, but he has a notoriously short attention span and has also written on a wide variety of topics, including Guatemalan curanderismo, Lakota sun dances, Melanesian funerary rituals, Swazi kingship, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Marco Polo, professional wrestling, and the theology of George W. Bush. His most recent publications include Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 and Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship, which won the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in 2000 and the Gordon J. Laing Prize from the University of Chicago Press in 2002. Two books on religion and empire are scheduled to appear in 2007: La politique du paradis perse (Paris: Paul Geuthner) and Religion, Empire, and Torture: The Case of Achaemenian Persia, with an appendix on Abu Ghraib (University of Chicago Press).


Piotr Michalowski (Near Eastern Studies, University of Michigan)
Title: The Mortal Kings of Ur: A Short Century of Divine Rule in Ancient Mesopotamia
Abstract: The structural features of early Mesopotamian kingship differed from time to time and place to place. Many of the kings may have been sacred; as far as we know the first one to claim divinity was Naram-Sin of Akkad (c. 2250 BCE). Upon his death, his successors appear to have given up on the idea of their own divinity. A few generations later Mesopotamia was once again brought together under the rule of one dynasty: the second king of the Ur III state, Shulgi (2094–2047 BCE), proclaimed himself divine, and this time the notion persisted after the life of one monarch. The divinization of Shulgi was not an isolated act, but part of a complex reformulation of the role and status of the king, and of the ideological representation of the person of the ruler. This radical restructuring of the role of the Crown took place in the context of a profound crisis that followed the death of Shulgi’s father on the field of battle. Shulgi rebuilt the state, and at the same time radically reinvented most of Mesopotamian literature, which was now put in service of royal self-representation, and anchored the ceremonial and literary conceptualization of divine kinship in a dynastic foundation myth centered on the figure of the semi-divine culture hero Gilgamesh.

Bio: Piotr Michalowski is an Assyriologist and Sumerologist whose manifold interests include Mesopotamian literature, languages, and cultures. He is the George G. Cameron Professor for Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and a member of the American Philosophical Society. Among his varied contributions to the field are the articles The Ideological Foundations of the Ur III State, Ancient Poetics, Mesopotamian Vistas on Axial Transformations, and Literary Works from the Court of King Ishbi-Erra of Isin as well as his forthcoming book The Royal Correspondence of Ur.


Kathleen Morrison (Anthropology, University of Chicago)
Kathleen Morrison is a discussant.

Bio: Kathleen Morrison is a professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences in the College and Director of the Center for International Studies. She studies the archaeology and historical anthropology of South Asia with a focus on precolonial and early colonial South India. Her interests include state formation and power relations, agricultural organization and change, colonialism and imperialism, landscape history, urbanism, urban-rural relations, botanical analysis, Holocene hunting and gathering, and the integration of archaeological, historical, and ecological analysis.
Professor Morrison will be a discussant for the conference.


Michael Puett (East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University)
Title: Human and Divine Kingship in Early China: Comparative Reflections
Abstract: In comparative discussions of kingship, China is often mentioned as a prototypical example of human, as opposed to divine, kingship.  As Manabu Waida argued in the Encyclopedia of Religion:

“The classical Chinese conception of sovereignty took shape in the Ch’in and Han periods (221 BCE–220 CE).  While the sovereign adopted the title, connoting supreme power, of huang-ti (emperor), he was never considered divine, at least while he was alive, nor was he regarded as an incarnation of a divine being.  Rather, he was a unique man representing Heaven’s will on earth and serving as the link between heaven and earth.  The Chinese notion of the Son of Heaven in its classical form had nothing to do with the genealogical conception of kingship, such as in ancient Egypt or Japan, that the king was the descendant of a certain god or the god incarnate; the emperor was simply the earthly representative of Heaven or heavenly will.”  (8.331)

In fact, however, claims to divine kingship were extremely strong in early China.  Although such claims were always hotly debated, they nonetheless played a crucial role in the development of the imperial system in China.

My goal in this paper will be to twofold.  First, I will discuss the tension between claims of divine and human kingship in early China, explicating why the tension developed and what implications this tension had for early Chinese history.  Second, I will discuss the implications of this tension for re-thinking the place of China in comparative frameworks on kingship.

Bio: Michael Puett is a Professor of Chinese History at the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. His work has focused on the intellectual, cultural, and political history of early China. Among his recent contributions are The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China and To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China.


Clemens Reichel (University of Chicago, Near Eastern archaeology)
Abstract: Numerous studies have been devoted to the origins of divine rulership in Mesopotamia and its manifestation in political life and religion. By comparison, little attention has been paid to the decline or termination of a cult to a king following a political crisis or the collapse of a system. A unique insight into such a transition comes from a temple that was found at Eshnunna (modern day Tell Asmar) and which was dedicated to Shusin (2,037–2,029 B.C.), the fourth king of the Ur III Dynasty (2114–2004 B.C.). Built by Ituria, a governor (ensí) of Eshnunna, during a time when this city was the capital of a province within the Ur III state it was a monumental building that was physically connected to the governor’s palace, highlighting the close ties that the local rulers had established with the royal dynasty at Ur. The cult of Shusin at Eshnunna ended early in the reign of his successor Ibbisin (around 2026 B.C.), when the city gained its independence from Ur. The temple itself, however, was not destroyed but continued to assume new functions that directly reflect Eshnunna’s changing political fortunes as an independent state. Using both archaeological data from the excavation and textual data from both the temple and palace, this presentation will outline the history of this temple, reconstruct events that occurred during the last month of cultic activity, and follow the afterlife of the temple and of its administrators in the post-Ur III period.

Bio: Clemens Reichel is a Research Associate in Mesopotamian Archaeology at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Having studied at the Universities of Freiburg (Germany) and London (U.K.) he received his Ph.D. after completing his dissertation Political Change and Cultural Continuity at Eshnunna from the Ur III—Isin/Larsa Period (2070–1850 B.C.). Since 2001 he has been the Director of the Oriental Institute’s Diyala Project, coordinating the publication of the remaining 15,000 objects from the Diyala Excavations in an on-line database. He has excavated widely in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. Since 2004 he has been American co-director of the Syrian-American Excavations at Hamoukar.

Reichel’s research interests have addressed a wide variety of topics concerning administrative and economic complexity in prehistoric and historic periods; he is also working on data models to facilitate the entering and management of archaeological and textual data into computerized databases. More recent publications include a book chapter on sealing practices at Drehem during the Ur III period, a gazetteer of archaeological sites in the Tabqa Region (Syria), articles on early urbanism and warfare in Late Chalcolithic Syria, and on creating an online Iraq Museum Database at the Oriental Institute.


Gebhard Selz (Assyriology, University of Vienna)
Title: The Divine Prototypes
Abstract: This paper sets out to demonstrate that our categories human vs. divine are not very helpful in understanding the concept of divine kingship. Instead, the concept of proto-types, as formulated by the cognitive sciences and anthropology with special emphasis on various “practices” can help to improve our understanding of the role of divine kingship and various sanctification processes in early Mesopotamian history.

Bio: Gebhard Selz is an assyriologist and sumerologist whose main interests are the economic and religious history of third millennium BCE Mesopotamia. In 1998 he became professor for Semitic Philology and Oriental archaeology at the Institut für Orientalistik of the University of Vienna after teaching at the Freie Universität Berlin. Recent publications include Untersuchungen zur Götterwelt des altsumerischen Staates von Lagash (1995); ‘The Holy Drum, the Spear, and the Harp.’ Towards an understandig of the problems of deification in Third Millennium Mesopotamia (1997); Composite beings: Of Individualization and Objectification in Third Millennium Mesopotamia (2004); and Early Dynastic Vessels in ‘Ritual’ Contexts (2004).


Irene Winter (History of Art, Harvard University)
Title: “Touched by the gods: Visual evidence for the divine status of rulers in the ancient Near East”
Abstract: While there are specific periods in the historical sequence of the ancient Near East in which rulers were explicitly accorded divine status, there are considerably more periods when rulers were described and treated as if they were born of the gods and/or manifested divine signs. I would like to examine visual representations associated with the first case – viable for the Akkadian and Ur III Periods – as a ground for considering the proposition that even when NOT explicitly granted divinity, rulers nevertheless were often represented verbally and visually AS IF they occupied a place in society that merited divine attributes, qualities, and status.  I will use comparative material from other cultural traditions in which rulers were elevated to divine status during their lifetimes (Rome), were considered ‘divine’ as part of royal ontology (Egypt), and/or chose to relinquish divinity (Yoruba) in order to illuminate the Mesopotamian case. In general, I am interested in the nature of “kingship” as it existed and developed within the Mesopotamian sequence, along with the socio-political as well as religious forces that could be said to explain both the necessary association of rulers with divinity and the cultural hesitancy to reify the ruler as a god.  The tension between these two forces plays itself out in interesting ways throughout the Mesopotamian sequence, from the 3rd millennium to the 1st millennium, and can be observed in the visual record no less than the textual.

Bio: Irene Winter is an authority on art and architecture of ancient Mesopotamia. She is the William Dorr Boardman Professor of Fine Arts in the department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University. In 1983 she received a MacArthur prize. In 2005. She delivered the Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery in Washington. Among her recent contributions are Defining ‘Aesthetics’ for Non-Western Studies: The Case of Ancient Mesopotamia, Ornament and the ‘Rhetoric of Abundance’ in Assyria, and The Conquest of Space in Time: Three Suns on the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin.


Greg Woolf  (University of St Andrews, Scottland)
Title: From Imperial Cult to the Religious Construction of the Emperor: changing perspectives on the Roman case
Abstract: Romanists no longer debate whether or not imperial cult was religious or political, nor whether it was imposed or spontaneous, nor whether or not élites believed or participated in it. Discussion has moved on to question the unity and coherence of the diverse iconographic, ceremonial gestures with which some emperors and some of their relatives were treated, before and after their deaths, as participating in/partaking of the divine. Employing case studies from around the empire this paper will ask how far imperial reception of and guidance for local initiatives succeeded in establishing norms of practice and representation.

Bio: Greg Woolf is a Professor of Ancient History and the head of the School of Classics at the University of St Andrews in Scottland. His research interests include the cultural history of the Roman empire. His past work has included studies of patronage, of epigraphy as a cultural phenomenon, of literacy and of the economic history of the empire and its urbanization. A major focus of his research has been on the archaeology and history of Roman Gaul, especially the cultural changes usually termed Romanization. He has carried out fieldwork in northern France. He maintains interests in the later prehistory of Europe, in archaeological theory, and in the Younger Pliny. More recently he has been engaged in the study of religious practice in the Roman provinces. Recent contributions include A Sea of faith? and Local Cult in Imperial Context: the Matronae revisited.

Revised: March 10, 2009

Home > Research > Past Post Doctoral Scholars