Deification has been defiance: from the depths of abjection, creating gods has been a way to imagine alternative political futures, wrest back sovereignty, and catch power.
Gods are born ex-nihilo and out of lotuses, from the white blood of the sea-foam, or the earwax of a bigger god. They are also birthed on dining room tables and when spectacles of power are taken too far. They are born when men find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. Gods are made in sudden deaths, violent accidents, they ascend in the smoke of a pyre, or wait, in their tombs, for offerings of cigars. But gods are also created through storytelling, through history-writing, cross-referencing, footnoting, repeating.
Heaven knows, there are plenty of men who think they are god’s gift to humanity. For most of them we roll our eyes and pretend to see a friend across the room that we simply must go to, or vote for anyone else. Serious problems occur when the number of foolish people in a community so outnumbers those with brains that the self-deified persuades enough sheeple that he is who he imagines himself to be. History is far too rich with examples of the Badlands lyric poor man wants to be rich, rich man wants to be king, and a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything. Another, non-rhyming, way to put that last bit is that a king is not satisfied until he becomes a god. Roman emperors were notorious for this brand of nonsense. The appeal of deification is strong. A comparable theological tool has been the Divine Right of Kings, typically used to justify rule over white subjects in Europe. And nicely translated into Manifest Destiny in justifying American expansion westward. As the author notes, sometimes those engaging in apotheosis are crazy like a fox, employing a methodology that is overtly religious for a covertly political aim. Consider how so many evangelicals in the USA, led by their institutional leaders, have made common cause with the most amoral president in American history, claiming his selection by God. You really can fool some of the people all the time.
Anna Della Subin – image from Nina Subin Photography, by Nina Subin
But there are others who find themselves regarded as divine without really trying. Anna Della Subin looks at the history of many people who have been deemed to have risen beyond the merely mortal, whether they were still alive or not. She uses a broad brush for who counts in that list.
There is no single definition of what it means to be a god, or divine. Divinity emerges not as an absolute state, but a spectrum, able to encompass an entire range of meta-persons: living gods, demigods, avatars, ancestor deities, divine spirits who possess human bodies in a trance.
I would add saints to that list, the nyads and dryads of Christianity. Surely prophets could find a cozy place on the spectrum, not to mention heroes of ancient Greek legend, intercessors called karāmāt in Islam, and how about those supposedly “chosen” by god for this or that. Many a king certainly claimed a divine right to rule. But who gets to decide who is a prophet, or a hero, or a saint? Yes, I know the RC canonizes individuals as saints for its institution, but there are plenty of candidates, deemed saints by large numbers of people, who never receive the official imprimatur. Can public opinion alone certify sainthood? Was Mother Teresa a saint before the Church hierarchy canonized her, or did she have to wait until her ticket number was called and her application stamped by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints? Point is, divinity is squishy, and often designated by popular will (with or without political manipulation) rather than bestowed by those sitting atop religious institutions.
For good or ill, most of us are touched by religion, and take on many of its beliefs, whether knowingly or by osmosis. For example, according to western religions, there are the living and the dead, and never the twain shall meet. Well, except for carve-out exceptions here and there. (for raising the debt ceiling, maybe?) Jesus pops to mind. Human? Divine? Less-filling? Tastes great? Even his mother, who supposedly died a natural death was “assumed” up to heaven, her tomb having been found empty on day three post-mortem. Thus, the rather large notion of Mary’s Assumption. And you know what happens when you assume. Not usually physical elevation to another plane of existence. But this line was not always thought to be so fixed. Even in the time of Jesus, the barrier between here and there was seen as more of a curtain than a firewall. But to us in the 21st century it seems particularly strange that people anywhere believed that human beings could become gods. (Well, I hereby offer a carve-out for Sondheim. Our Stephen, who art on Broadway, hallowed be thy name) Yet many have been deified, often without their permission, and sometimes over their considerable objections. (not The Divine Miss M, though) The Pythons were on to something in The Life of Brian. “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.” Surely post-mortem Elvis sightings fit into this array somewhere.
Thus the folks Subin writes of here. The book is divided into a trinity of parts. In the first she covers in detail the divination of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Prince Phillip of the UK, and General Douglas MacArthur. Part I goes into considerable detail about Selassie, and it is all incredibly fascinating, including the use of his supposed divinity by Jamaican politicians for their own ends. Prince Phillip was imagined to be divine by the residents of what is now Vanuatu. It was news to him. It was likely sourced in the knowledge that he was in a position to deliver considerable physical materials to the island, so what could it hurt to feed his ego by claiming godhood for him, if there was even a chance that he might come through with some much-needed supplies. MacArthur was raised to divinity on multiple continents, and in diverse ways. If Stalin, in attempting to minimize the military impact of religion, asked How many divisions has the Pope? had substituted “Pipe” for ”Pope,” considering MacArthur’s apotheosized position, he would have gotten a very different answer.
7 foot balsa rendering of MacArthur built to lead an army of wooden figures against dark spiritual forces – Image from University of Chicago
The section continues, noting several colonial military sorts who were raised up by third-world locals.
Part II offers many more examples of westerners being viewed as gods by the colonized. Queen Victoria is among those, although her newly exalted status did not soften her opposition to women’s suffrage. The local practice of Sati, Hindu widows immolating themselves on their late husbands’ biers, comes in for a look, as those who went through this were deemed holy.
Annie Besant – image from BBC Sounds
There is an immersive tale of Annie Besant, of the Theosophist religion, a supposed single path to divinity, joining the beliefs of all religions, and the rise and fall and rise of Krishnamurti, a boy believed divine, who was nurtured by the Theosophists, and who would ultimately follow his own path. This is a story worthy of its own book, and Netflix mini-series.
Krishnamurti – image from the Theosophical Library
Subin takes us into the 20th century in which there were some in India who viewed Hitler as (yet another) avatar of Vishnu, and later, according to some, Vish reappears in the person of U.S. president Dwight David Eisenhower, who might fit the bill a bit better, given that he had control of nuclear arms and could, with such god-like power, become a literal destroyer of worlds.
Ike visits India in 1959– image from Outlook India
Subin also looks at the myth-making around the early European visits to the New World. Expedition leaders said that the locals revered them as gods, but it is quite possible, given that they did not at all speak the local patois, that the New Worlders had been significantly misquoted. She points out that the claims added heft to the already strained reasoning being crafted to justify enslaving the indigenous people and seizing their land, in seeing them as too barbaric, and simple-minded to rule over their own affairs.
This book is as much about colonialism as it is about religion. I was shocked, frankly, at how many cases Subin cites of people (usually public officials of one sort or another), being worshipped as gods in various places. Most often, in this telling, anyway, it is white colonials being raised up by the colonized. Sometimes while still with us. Prince Phillip, for example, was worshipped while still in his prime. Captain Cook, on the other hand, was seen as a deity both before and after he had been the long pig main course in a Hawaiian feast. Julius Caesar could probably relate. (Et yet, Brute?)
Subin makes a case for apotheosis being primarily a white colonial enterprise, not that Westerners necessarily went to colonial nations expecting to be worshipped, but they were more than happy to take advantage of the local predilections when it suited their needs.
She also writes about the consolidation of religions, particularly the many faiths that were lumped together under the heading of Hinduism. Animism to ancestor worship to shamanism to localized religions, to world religions seems much like the global consolidation of small businesses to large businesses to corporations to trans-national corporations in the economic sphere, and toward a similar purpose.
So, there is a huge lot to unpack in this book. And not just the specific history of humans being worshipped as something more. There is a lot in here about the whiteness infused in colonialism and the cited examples of apotheosis. There is a mind-bending discussion about whether we are people made in god’s image, and the implications of religions that hold that image as reflecting the color of their skin alone.
I have some gripes, per usual. While I loved the deep-dig stories about several of the characters portrayed here (Anne Besant, Krishnamurti, Hailie Selassie, et al) I often felt bogged down in a firehose flow of names, places, and dates where accidental god-hood took place. Reading in the more survey-report sections became a slog. Which is one reason why this review is being posted two weeks post publication, not the Friday immediately before or after. I was not exactly dashing back to my computer to read. Maybe it is like taking too large a slice of a torte, and being unable to finish it.
Some dismissive items bugged me. There is a reference early on (in the wake of the pale world’s first “internecine” war [WW I]) to WW I, which seems remarkably oblivious regarding the centuries of war waged by European nations on each other.
I also caught a whiff of what I perceived, correctly or not, as woke lecturing, with only whiteness, in the guise of the association of godliness with whiteness by the colonial powers, at fault for all the world’s ills. I make no argument with her perception of colonial whitewashing of history, but aren’t other invasive cultures worth at least a mention? Were there no examples to be found of the people subjected by the Japanese, the Chinese, by Genghis Khan, by Incas, Aztecs and other expansive cultures encountering the same sort of deification? I get the sense that she is rooting for the elimination of all authority held by Caucasians.
White supremacy will not leave us until we reject the divinity of whiteness. White is a moral choice, as James Baldwin writes. Faced with the choice, I blush and refuse.
I take issue with this. While I agree that white supremacy is of a cloth with an exclusively white divinity and that both deserve to be rejected, I feel no personal reason to blush at being white. My working-class ancestors were being exploited by their rulers in diverse European nations when Conquistadors and explorers of various maritime powers were seizing lands in the New World from the residents they found there. Horrible? Of course. But not a cause to blanket-blame white people. For the moment at least, and despite the history, which is nicely referenced in the book, of how we came to use the mislabel of race, it remains a common element of today’s world. As such, it is not a moral choice to refuse or to accept being white. It just is. And I, for one, make no apology for DNA over which I had no choice.
Gripes over, there is much in Accidental Gods that is eye-opening and fascinating, with several detailed stories that could each justify their own books, a serious examination of deification in several contexts, and gobs of unexpected information, if a bit too much at times.
Were these deified people gods? Of course not. They were human beings who were born, lived and died like the rest of us. Insisting that they are deities is some hi-test bullshit. That said, bovine droppings may smell bad, but mix them with some compost and you can make a meaningful fertilizer, a popular ingredient in terrorist explosives. And deified humans have proven quite useful in fueling many a sociopolitical crop.
It doesn’t matter whether anyone believes it or not; belief is not the right question to ask. As Merton wrote, “When a myth-dream is constantly in the papers and on TV, it seems pretty real!” The religion of Philip is real because it has been told and retold, by South Pacific priests and BBC storytellers, by journalists and Palace press officers, in a continuous, mutual myth-making over the course of forty years.
Review posted – December 24, 2021
Publication date – December 7, 2021
I received an e-ARE of Accidental Gods from Holt in return for my eternal blessings upon them as their rightful and all-powerful ruler. Particular blessings upon Maia for her help in arranging this miracle.
This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads
Item of Interest from the author
—–London Review of Books – Several Subin pieces for LRB
—–The Guardian – How to kill a god: the myth of Captain Cook shows how the heroes of empire will fall – an edited excerpt
Items of Interest
—– General MacArthur among the Guna: The Aesthetics of Power and Alterity in an Amerindian Society
—–The Guardian – 11/27/21 – ‘There was a prophecy I would come’: the western men who think they are South Pacific kings by Christopher Lloyd
—–George Carlin: Stand Up About Religion