Thursday, January 12, 2006

Glossary: Sacred King

James George Frazer popularized the idea of the sacred king in his seminal work The Golden Bough.

Frazer formed different categories of sacred kings such as magician or shaman-kings, priest-kings, divine kings, etc. and even suggested an evolutionary process of development from one type to another.

Others have attempted to divide sacred kings into major categories based on various defining characteristics. The most important of these are: The sacred king as an incarnate god or divine being; the king as an icon of gods or divinity; the sacred king as the agent or representative of God or other divine beings; the king as a sacred sacrifice; the sacred king as herald of a new age or cycle, the messianic or world-conquering king, and the king simply as the holder of supernatural powers especially control over the weather and agriculture. In many cases these types may be combined in actual instances of sacred kingship.

There is much to be said about the intimate connections between sacred kingship and the aspects of the agricultural calendar -- the interaction between Heaven (and the celestial clock) and Earth.

In almost every example of sacred kingship, among the king's primary roles include participation in some form of agricultural or fertility ritual linked with the local calendar, usually the celestial calendar that marks the growing seasons.

Linkage with sky time would naturally bring an association of the king with cycles and ages of greater duration than the solar year. These cycles like the agricultural season involved waxing/growing and waning/dying phases.

The expression of the Chinese philosopher Mengzi (Mencius) that 'every 500 years a sage appears," ("wubainian you shengren zhi xing") was modifed by Hu Shi to wubainian bi you wangzhe xing "every five centuries a king appears." This sage or king was a type of savior whose appearance may have been linked with a particular conjunction of planets (according to David Pankenier).

With the beginning and end of each age, and particularly the so-called "golden age," the birth or ascension of the sacred king is often associated with special supernatural signs. In Buddhist lore, the Cakkavatti (Sanskrit Cakravartin) combines various aspects of the sacred kingship.

When a Cakkavatti comes to fore, a magical "discus" or "wheel" known as the Cakkaratana suddenly appears in the sky. The Cakkaratana takes the king throughout the world forcing the four quarters of the earth to submit to the world conqueror.

A total of seven treasures including the Cakkaratana appear at the advent of the Cakkavatti. These match closely with some of the fourteen treasures that appear in the classical Churning of the Milky Ocean story:

Cakkavatti's treasuresTreasures during Churning of Milk Ocean
The elephant HatthiratanaThe elephant Airavata
The horse AssaratanaThe horse Uchaihsravas
The Veluriya gemThe Kustubha gem
The Royal WifeLakhsmi, the wife of Visnu
The AdvisorDhanvantra, the Divine Physician
The TreasurerParijata, wish-fulfilling tree?

We may view the treasures yielded by the cataclysmic churning event as signs of the advent of a new golden age following a period of great destruction. Very similar treasures accompany the new Cakkavatti, also heralded by supernatural signs, who undertakes a dharmic world conquest i.e., he establishes a right path of living and social order.

Also among the treasures from the Milky Ocean are the newly-born Sun and Moon. This links up with worldwide myths of multiple Suns (and Moons) connected with the ages of the Earth.

These Suns usually rise from the cosmic mountain at the advent of each age. Ho Ting-jui researched this myth extensively and found a surprising diversity of the motif among the Austronesian speakers of Taiwan. He found 33 variants from eight out of 12 Formosan ethnic groups. Ho classifies the multiple Sun myths into three types and associates them them with other myths involving the origin of the Moon, the origin of rituals, the origin of beads, the golden age and the raising of the sky to its present level.

In some cases, these ages are related to the different stages of heaven as among the Yami of Taiwan. Near Pinatubo, the Kapampangans use the term banua "sky, heaven" to refer to an era or age, or to (celestial) time itself.

Not surprisingly the coming of the sacred king of the golden age is also tied to the rising of celestial bodies. Venus as the bright morning star is particularly identified with the new era sacred king in sources as diverse as the New Testament and the myths of Mesoamerica. The rising, setting and rising again of the linked star or planet is often related to rebirth of the sacred king.

In areas were rebirth did not form part of the sacred doctrine, this concept often mutated into the idea of the "sleeping king" or the "once and future king" as found in medieval Europe. In these myths, the king does not die but only sleeps in some hidden cave or castle until the time that he awakes to usher in a new dawn.

Each new era is also correlated with the advent of summer and the helical rising of Sirius, the Dog Star. That this event is also timed in numerous myths with destructive floods gives an indication of monsoon climate origin, were the flooding season occurs in summer. This is also indicated by numerous forms of this myth that mention the Sun at the local zenith when shadows disappear, something that can only happen in the tropical latitudes.

At the dawn of the age the Sun and Moon must explosively break a hole through the top of cosmic mountain through which they will traverse the lower, middle and upper worlds. The sacred king of the era is often described as the custodian of this mountain. From here comes the mandate of Heaven and Earth. And here also the site of what is so often described as the divine war or the 'war in heaven.'

Paul Kekai Manansala


Cakkavatti Sihanada Suttanta.

Del Re, Arundel. Creation myths of the Formosan Natives, Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, n.d.

Jensen, Lionel M. Manufacturing Confucianism, Duke University Press, 1998, p. 371.

Metevelis, Peter J. Myth in History: Volume 2 of Mythological Essay, iUniverse, 2002 (discussion of Ho Ting-jui's Ph.D. thesis).

__. "The Dog Star and the Multiple Suns motif: an Asian contribution to European mythology," Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 64; 2005, p. 133.

Pankenier, David W. "The Cosmo-political Background of Heaven's Mandate," Early China 20 (1995): 121-176.