When Were Kings Thought to Be Gods?
Throughout history, kings have often been supposed to enjoy a special relationship with the gods of their people, and in many cases, have been regarded as gods themselves. In ancient Egypt, the king or pharaoh was believed to be divine and the Hittite kings were deified after their deaths. The Minoan kings of Crete were identified with the bull-headed sun god.
In many primitive tribes in Asia and Africa, the king was identified with the sacred and divine animal of his tribe. The Swedes and Prussians of pagan Europe had divine kings, and the rulers of the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in Peru were, if not gods themselves, considered to be direct descendants.
Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) who had himself declared a god in the last year of his life, was followed by a number of god-kings throughout the Near East. In the Roman Empire the practice of making the emperor a god originated when Julius Caesar was pronounced Divus Julius after his death. He claimed relation from both Venus and Mars through Aeneas and Ancus Marcius respectively. His great-nephew Augustus adopted the term Divi Filius as well.
The Byzantine emperors were venerated as God’s representative on earth. The Japanese emperor was thought of as supernatural in some degree, but their term “kami”, usually translated as “god”, does not have such an all-embracing meaning as in the West. In China kings interceded with the gods for their people.
Adomnan of Iona is one of the earliest Christian proponents of this concept of kings ruling with divine right. He wrote of the Irish King Diarmait mac Cerbaill’s assassination and claimed that divine punishment fell on his assassin for the act of violating the monarch. Adomnan also recorded a story about St Columba supposedly being visited by an angel carrying a glass book and telling him that he needed to ordain Aedan mac Gabrain as King of Dal Riata, but Columba initially refused and to this response, the angel answered by whipping him and demanding that he perform the ordination because God had commanded it.
The same angel then visited Columba on three successive nights, and then finally Columba agreed and Aedan came to receive ordination. At the ordination Columba told Aedan that so long as he obeyed God’s laws, then none of his enemies would prevail against him, but the moment he broke them, this protection would end and the same whip with which he had been struck would be turned against the king.
Adomnan’s writings, most likely influenced other Irish writers, who in turn influenced continental ideas as well. Pepin the short’s coronation may have also come from the same influence. The Carolingian dynasty and the Holy Roman Emperors also influenced all subsequent western ideas of kingship.
In the Middle Ages, the idea that God had granted earthly power to the monarch, just as he had given spiritual authority and power to the church, especially to the Pope, was already a well-known concept long before later writers coined the term ‘divine right of kings’ and employed it as a theory in political science.