Royalty's rhyme and reason

April 5, 2002

The death last week of the Queen Mother was seen by many as marking the end of an era. But Declan Quigley argues that while the modern monarchy may have lost much of its influence, for many it retains a 'sacred' function.

Among the many striking features in the anthropological study of kingship, two stand out. The first is that the same highly ritualised elements appear consistently, albeit with different permutations, in societies that have no obvious historical connection. The second is the extraordinary range of monarchical societies - from the smallest Pacific islands to the complex city-kingdoms of South and Southeast Asia to modern European democracies.

Unlike any other principle of political organisation, monarchy seems to straddle every historical era. While many countries today function perfectly well without a monarch, in a great many others, a sizeable proportion of the population clings to the idea of kingship as an indispensable mechanism for transcending political division and underwriting stability and harmony. As Prince Charles recently wrote, monarchy is, "the shared symbol of a sacred authority above politics or personal power".

While some dispute the need for symbolism such as this in the contemporary world, others consider it as indispensable as ever because no other form of political authority comes close to acquiring the same quality of sacredness.

It is difficult to argue with the fact that in the 21st century we are bereft of political solutions to the problems that daily threaten to destroy any hope of peaceful life for a huge swath of the world's population. Local ethnic conflicts, whether in Palestine or Northern Ireland, constantly spill over into the international arena in such a way that the concept of "local" makes less and less political sense.

Communications technology and trade further conspire to undermine any political organisation confined to a particular locality. Monarchs are, by definition, local figures and are restricted within political boundaries that do not "fit" with globalisation. The uniquely international British Commonwealth may sometimes appear to contradict this, but its political ineffectiveness is increasingly exposed, as the recent elections in Zimbabwe have illustrated.

Indeed, if even the United States does not have sufficient might to prosecute war against its enemies without powerful international allies, surely the idea of monarchy and the sense of local ritualistic allegiance it evokes is altogether senseless?

This focus on the usefulness of monarchies typically stresses the attributes of actual people - kings and queens - and actual political units - kingdoms. But to understand monarchy's prevalence throughout human history, it is more productive to focus on the abstract notion of kingship: an ideal polity with an "exemplary centre", as the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz called it.

To demonstrate why societies should want to transform one individual among their number from being like them into someone (or something) exemplary, quite unlike them, a significant proportion of the anthropological literature on kingship has been spent analysing installation rituals of traditional kings. The "setting apart" enacted in the installation, the transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary, is always in some way replicated in the pomp and ceremony that continually surrounds monarchy wherever it is found. Monarchs are repeatedly remade by never-ending ritual.

The monarch must belong to everyone and yet to no one. The installation ceremony strips the new king of his erstwhile identity, literally divesting him of his previous clothes in a robing ceremony where a form of dress - that no one else may wear - signifying permanence is presented to him. One might more accurately say that it is forced upon him - at the least, he will forever after be surrounded by taboos that prevent him from being connected to the world in the manner of ordinary mortals.

In some cases the break with the individual's past identity is enacted in a dramatic fashion. It may be forbidden to make any mention of the king's former name or to address him in a familiar manner. His movement, and the manner of his movement, may be severely restricted, perhaps to being carried everywhere. In some cases his separation from ordinary mortals is so complete that he is forever forbidden from touching the earth with his naked feet.

The famous anthropological examples of royal incest and cannibalism can be understood as other mechanisms to ensure this separation. By breaking with convention in some shockingly fundamental way, the king is placed outside normal society, at the bridgehead between the social and the natural, or heavenly, worlds. His role becomes to mediate with the natural world and with the gods, to ensure that it provides a safe and fertile haven for those ordinary mortals who remain inside society. Should the natural world fail to provide this security and wellbeing, the king typically becomes a scapegoat figure for the failings of the human world, a kind of lightning rod that is the final destination of the malevolent products of social interactions.

Still today, without the constant purificatory rituals performed by specialists from other castes, the Hindu king accumulates the evil and death of his people to become the greatest of threats to his people. When two Nepalese kings were cremated in quick succession last summer, for each a Brahman priest took upon himself the inauspiciousness of his monarch and was ritually expelled from the kingdom. The reasons for this are not as exotic or impenetrable as they might at first appear. One way of defining the king might be to say that he is that individual who is uniquely connected to everyone and is, as such, the target equally of everyone's sinful qualities as their beneficence.

That monarchs in modern democracies are expected to harmonise the natural and social worlds may seem ridiculous. Yet residues of this idea clearly remain, particularly in the association between monarchy and death - the required presence at national ceremonies of remembrance of the war dead, for example, or the way in which a royal death is often likened to a natural calamity of such proportions that time stands still - or ordinary radio and television stop.

Such vestiges notwithstanding, no one in the modern world reasonably expects monarchs to be responsible for general fertility, health and prosperity in the way that is widely reported in the anthropological literature on non-industrial societies. If we compare modern kingship with its traditional counterpart, it would appear that the rupture of the heavily ritualised association between the exemplary centre and a generalised sense of social wellbeing is at the core of the predicament faced by monarchy in the world today. Where kingship is genuinely indispensable, the scapegoating mechanism that is at its core acts to protect and rejuvenate the kingship when an individual king fails in health or deed.

In modern democracies, however, there are many other possible exceptional figures to choose from as convenient scapegoats for society's ills. The scapegoating of contemporary royal figures thus no longer serves to reinvigorate the kingship, but to underline the marginality of their ritual contribution to society's welfare and to the other symbolic devices of political legitimation. Since scapegoating is essential to political life, and to culture generally, some scapegoat mechanism remains an intrinsic element of modern political systems, but it no longer needs to be kingship with all its regalia. The more that some insist that it should be, the more ridiculous this appears. The individuals who find themselves in this unfortunate position are caught in an impossible dilemma. On the one hand, they need to set themselves apart in order to appear regal; on the other hand, should they do so in any situation outside of those where their political role is strictly required, they invite savage ridicule for failing to recognise that this role is now severely reduced. Paradoxically, living up to the demands of kingship has become well-nigh impossible because of its greatly diminished role in today's world.

That the role of kings is now downsized does not mean that it has disappeared completely or that the political institutions that have swallowed up the most important functions of kingship have done so successfully - or ever could do. After India's independence in 1947 and the dissolution of the princely states, caste organisation, with its system of devices for expelling whatever inauspicious forces threatened the kingship, continued to thrive everywhere that Hindus predominated, if in a somewhat mutated state. While the supreme figureheads had gone, the institution of kingship was retained through the ritual practices that had always bound members of patron castes to those who made their patronage legitimate.

But caste organisation means entrenched and heritable invidious distinctions between social groups, and this is not a solution for industrial democracies. Where kingship survives in the modern world, it cannot possibly be with all the ritual ambiguity that produces the king as the paradigmatic scapegoat. Future kings of England cannot be expected to shoulder the problems of the nation in the manner of the late King Birendra of Nepal or of Elizabeth I of England. Nevertheless, the paradoxes of political legitimation persist. For many people monarchy provides the only transcendent solution that they can imagine. If they are deluded, there is good reason for their delusion since something fundamental is lost when we abolish monarchical organisation. Symbolism is not merely symbolic.

Declan Quigley is a lecturer in the department of social anthropology at the University of St Andrews.

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