Haile Selassie (right). Picture credit: Bettmann via Getty Images

What a piece of work is man

Anna Della Subin’s new book explores how leaders become Gods

Artillery Row Books

Of all of Boris Johnson’s recent offences, the worst is to have permitted partying in Number 10 on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral. To the New Hebrides islanders who have worshipped Philip as a god since the Seventies, this blunder would have been not just a crime, but sacrilege.

Anna Della Subin devotes a whole chapter of Accidental Gods to Philip’s “tropical godhood”, concluding that it mattered most at home, where it brightened the fading aura of the monarchy. Her book is a whimsical panorama of men who like Philip were “unwittingly turned divine” — women are largely excluded, because, with the resonant exception of Queen Victoria, they did not attract such veneration.

Though Subin covers figures from the Emperor Augustus to Donald Trump, the book concentrates on the causal loop between deification and European imperialism. The indigenous peoples who encountered Francis Drake and Hernán Cortés were said to have greeted them as gods. Centuries later, decolonising nations hailed Haile Selassie and Mohandas Gandhi as divine for resisting or dismantling Empires.

Subin attends not just to male gods but “meta-persons” of all kinds, such as spirits or avatars. The flexibility is important because what makes a god is easily lost — or found — in translation.

Accidental Gods, Anna Della Subin (Granta Books, £20.00)

It was probably European misunderstanding of the honorifics showered on Cortés or Captain Cook which generated stories of their deification. Subin’s book therefore rightly insists that indigenous peoples and their conquerors “co-authored” the gods. On the side of the Europeans, Christianity coloured thinking about whether and how seriously to take deifications.

That changed a little when nineteenth-century pioneers of the comparative history and science of religion cultivated secular neutrality towards the truth claims of any one religion. But less than one might think. These scholars often reproduced the biases of a Protestant upbringing in viewing genuine religion or religions — categories they invented — as defined by distinctive, clear and sincere beliefs. When we ask whether people in the New Hebrides really believed in Philip or what they believed about him, we risk reproducing that conceptual high-handedness. What, Subin rather asks, did people hope to achieve by deifying men or claiming possession by them?

Her answer is: any number of things. Although Accidental Gods has fun with the quaint methodology of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and other gargantuan Victorian works of comparative mythology, it resembles them in founding its argument on and sometimes losing it in a heap of examples.

This is a book which contains Indian devotees of both Gandhi and Adolf Hitler. And yet Subin’s overstuffed cabinet of curiosities does have organizing themes. The first is that people deified the representatives of powerful states in a bid to propitiate them or even just to understand their rampages. Hence the cult in the British Raj of the psychotic soldier, John Nicholson.

Nicholson’s habit of whipping those he caught worshipping him during his lifetime only increased the sadistic allure of “Nikalsain’, which lingered for decades after his death and transcended the distinctions the Raj sought to draw between Sikh, Hindu and Muslim communities. In the same way, when in 1945 the United States defeated Japan and humbled its divine Emperor, some Shintoists transferred their reverence to General Douglas MacArthur. After MacArthur went on to fight Communists in Korea, his spirit possessed South Korean shamans, who kitted themselves out with GI uniforms, Marlboros and whisky, the better to receive him.

Deification is the pursuit of politics by other means

It would be depressing to conclude that deification was merely the apotheosis of the strong. Subin understandably prefers examples in which it generated “mystic mutiny”. In 1925, one Major Crocicchia in the French colony of Niger imprisoned unruly mediums for hosting — and parodying — the spirits of colonial officials. But they soon broke out of jail with the help of a still more powerful spirit, namely his own: “Krosisya”.

Subin doesn’t just rescue the insurgent logic of such faith from the mocking incomprehension of colonial observers; she is keen to suggest that it worked. In Jamaica, the cult of the Ethiopian emperor. Haile Selassie, was spun together from tattered copies of National Geographic magazine and the dashed prophecies of street preachers. Selassie himself was dismayed to learn he had become “Jah”. Rastafarianism’s theology looks arbitrary, as when “Rasta philologists’ cut up English words they felt were negative, turning “sincerely” into “incerely”. But in venerating the head of the only African state to beat off European predators, Rastafarians had found an icon of black supremacy. As a cultural force, they became electoral allies of Michael Manley, Jamaica’s decolonising Prime Minister.

Subin’s hectic pantheon suggests then that deification is the pursuit of politics by other means: the doings of gods and spirits not only mirrored the struggles of the world below; they also intervened in them. What Subin calls “mythopolitics’ often had unexpected outcomes, as in her riveting chapter on the baroque Theosophy of Annie Besant, a campaigner for Indian nationalism.

In 1909, Besant and her ally, the pederastic priest, Charles Leadbeater, began grooming the ten-year old Jiddu Krishnamurti as the incarnation of the “World Teacher”. As the divine Jiddu’s foster mother, Besant fell out with his earthly father, who launched court proceedings to rescue him from Leadbeater’s clutches. She also disquieted Nationalists, who believed that she had kidnapped Jiddu as part of a scheme to retain the motherly grip of the British Empire on India.

Even a cleansing shower of statues is unlikely to solve the intractable inequalities of the United States

In the end, it was the god himself who sank the Theosophists. In his mid-thirties, Krishnamurti suddenly disavowed his divinity, leading Leadbeater to wail that “the Coming has gone wrong” and hastening the elderly Besant’s death.

It is a shame then that Subin ultimately drops a schematic framework over her accidental gods. The key to all mythopolitics turns out to be “whiteness”. The book’s final section identifies “white gods’ such as Captain Cook as the most malevolent, important figures on Olympus and inspires the maxim that “white supremacy will not leave us until we reject the divinity of whiteness”.

The suggestion that divine men arose to sanctify white supremacy depends on an overly compressed and presentist reading of nineteenth-century history, which reduces religion to an “epiphenomenon of race” (I can just about remember when it was an epiphenomenon of class). It tempts Subin to confuse magical thinking for political analysis.

“The forecast calls for more”, she writes of attacks on statues of Cook. “White gods will fall like raindrops”. But even a cleansing shower of statues is unlikely to solve the intractable inequalities of the United States, which dominate her closing reflections.

Insofar as the Black Lives Matter movement has developed a religious as well as a socio-economic and political critique of the American state, it has focused on the complicity of Christian theology with racism: on God’s appropriation for whiteness, rather than on lesser white gods. Subin’s final page dreams of a time when race and “white divinity” will be no more and women get to be divine.

After completing her picaresque and inquisitive book, it is almost disappointing to find out that Heaven will be run by the modern Democratic Party.      

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