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

Kingship, especially the sacred aspects of the office of a king, has for a long time fascinated scholars in a variety of fields such as history, religious studies, or area studies. Kingship (or any kind of absolutist power) and its close relationship to and use of religion for the purpose of legitimizing power seem an almost universal concept in human history. Frazer’s famous work The Golden Bough: A Study in Religion and Magic has been highly influential on the topic of sacred or divine kingship and continues to be so until today (e.g. Quigley 2005).

The application of Frazer’s study to the civilizations of the ancient Near East is, however, problematical. His interpretation of sacred kingship was strongly influenced by Christian imagery (Feeley-Harnick 1985). Frazer made a certain form of regicide in which the divine king is sacrificed to ensure continued fertility and prosperity for the community a central element of divine kingship. This form of regicide, however, does not seem to play an important role in all of the societies that exhibit the phenomenon of divinization of the king.

Among the earliest civilizations that exhibit the phenomenon of divinized kings are early Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. Therefore it is all the more surprising that ancient Egyptian-to a lesser extent-and ancient Mesopotamian kingship are often ignored in comparative studies of the phenomenon of divine or sacred kingship.


The first Mesopotamian ruler who declared himself divine was Naram-Sin of Akkad. Naram-Sin reigned sometime during the 23rd century BCE but the exact dates and duration of his reign are still subject to research. According to his own inscription the people of the city of Akkad wished him to be the god of their city. This first instance of self-deification also coincides with the first world empire of the rulers of Akkad, the first time that a dynasty established a territorial ruler over large parts of Mesopotamia. It was also accompanied by certain changes in religion, in which the king proliferated the cult of the Ishtar, the goddess of war and love. Naram-Sin seems to have emphasized Ishtar in her war-like aspect (‘ashtar annunitum) and began to refer to himself as the husband/warrior of Ishtar.

After Naram-Sin no ruler declared himself divine until about 200 years had passed, when Shulgi (2095–2049 BCE), the second king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, took up the custom of self-deification once more. His self-deification may have been viewed in attempts to consolidate the empire he had inherited from his father. The cult of the divine ruler seems to have culminated under Shu-Sin, who was probably Shulgi’s son or grandson and began an extensive program of self-worship (Brisch in press). After Shu-Sin the divinization kings was abandoned once more.

Whether the kings of the Old Babylonian period (c. 2000–1595 BCE) can be considered divine is still subject to debate. Some consider the kings Rim-Sin of Larsa (1822–1763 BCE) and the famous Hammurabi of Babylon (1792–1750 BCE) to have been divine. Both kings struggled to expand their area of influence, and therefore their self-deification may have been part of a strategy to consolidate and legitimize their powers.

The Conference

While Egyptian kingship has been studied time and again (for example O’Connor and Silverman 1995; Gundlach and Weber 1992; Gundlach and Klug 2004) the last overarching study of religious aspects of power in ancient Mesopotamia is almost sixty years old (Frankfort 1948). New materials have come to light since then that make a reconsideration of the topic essential not only to scholars of the ancient Near East but also for scholars of other disciplines.

Understanding of the origins of Mesopotamian kingship is a key element for understanding the divinization of the king. Recently, several, partly differing accounts of the origins of kingship in Mesopotamia have appeared (e.g. Heimpel 1992; Selz 1998; Steinkeller 1999; Yoffee 2005).

Heimpel (1992) and Selz (1998) based their analyses mainly on a study of the semantics of the words for ruler and concluded that in the early third millennium BCE there were two forms of kingship, one that had its basis in sacred bureaucracy, and another one that was based on the dynastic principle. The dynastic principle then became prevalent with the rulers of Akkad. Steinkeller (1999) assumes that in early Mesopotamia kings drew their power from being priests for female deities. After a male deities became more prominent in the pantheon a split of secular and sacred power took place which led to the invention of the military leader who assumed secular power and became the king. There is, however, no evidence for this reconstruction. Yoffee (2005) embedded his reconstruction of the earliest cities, states, and civilizations in the wider context of a critique of social (neo-)evolutionist theories. While the discussion of power in these earliest cities and states figures as just one of several aspects of an ancient civilization to be taken into consideration, he emphasized that the ancient Mesopotamian state consists of several parts that could exercise power, and that Mesopotamian history is therefore largely shaped by conflicts and struggles between these different entities. Mesopotamian kings are according to him not all-powerful as their influence is sharply curbed by local powers and other institutions that sprang up when the central power was weak.

Especially important and thought provoking in connection with the topic of divine kingship are the works of Selz (1997; 2004) and Michalowski (e.g. 1988; 2004). According to Selz (1997) the introduction of divine kingship also presupposes the growing humanization of deities in ancient Mesopotamia. However, this assumption should be discussed in further detail within the framework of this conference.

Another important factor is the iconography of the divine king. The most famous example of this is, of course, the Naram-Sin stela (Winter 1996). The stela depicts the king as a super-human being who wears attributes of kings as well as symbols of divinity, such as the horned crown. In Mesopotamian iconography the horned crown and the flounced robe are both attributes of divinity, but divine kings can only be depicted as wearing either one, never both together (Boehmer 1957-1971). This indicates that there are subtle differences in the way divine kings and deities are represented. Especially for Mesopotamia, but also for other areas in which divine kingship is attested, it would be important to address further how iconography contributed to buttressing the ideological foundation of divine kingship.

Cross-cultural comparisons represent an important factor in the study of divine kingship in ancient civilizations. The areas that would lend themselves best for such a cross-cultural comparison would be ancient Rome (e.g. Price 1987), Africa (e.g. Apter 1992; Gilbert 1994) and ancient China (Puett 2002), and Maya. These comparisons may help bridge gaps in the often highly eclectic evidence of ancient societies and open new venues of research that have not been pursued previously. There is also a question whether similar preconditions produce similar political-ideological outcomes, and what the preconditions for such processes are. This will provide insights into the more general question of the relationship between human political hierarchies and ideas about the supernatural.

The topic of divine kingship should be viewed in a broader context of the use of religion to legitimize power in ancient states. The Achaemenid empire offers a new perspective for this line of research as there is a rich historical and iconographic documentation (for example Lincoln forthcoming; Ehrenberg forthcoming).


The cross-cultural and anthropological comparisons suggested in this symposium will enhance our understanding of divine kingship as an important strategy of pre-modern rulers to bolster their power and to create new ideological foundations to support growing political expansionistic tendencies. The symposium will also further our knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian and ancient Egyptian kingship, offer new insights into the relationship of power and religion in pre-modern societies, and make ancient civilizations part of a discourse on kingship.

Key Participants


Kathleen Morrison (University of Chicago, Anthropology)

For information and free registration, contact:

Nicole Brisch (Organizer)
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
1155 E. 58th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
Tel. s(773) 702-3291


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