The Character of Kingship

The Character of Kingship

The Character of Kingship

The Character of Kingship


Despite the contemporary fascination with royalty, anthropologists have sorely neglected the subject in recent decades. This book combines a strong theoretical argument with a wealth of ethnography from kingships in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Quigley gives a timely and much-needed overview of the anthropology of kingship and a crucial reassessment of the contributions of Frazer and Hocart to debates about the nature and function of royal ritual. From diverse fieldwork sites a number of eminent anthropologists demonstrate how ritual and power intertwine to produce a series of variations around myth, tragedy and historical realities.


Declan Quigley

Kingship's Leitmotif

Kingship is a unique principle of political organization in that it straddles societies of every type apart from the very simplest hunter-gatherer communities. Clearly not all societies where kingship is present can have historical or cultural connections to each other since they range from small Pacific islands through the classic cases of sub-Saharan Africa to the complex city-kingdoms of south and southeast Asia to modern European democracies. The structural basis of this kind of organization must therefore be found in conditions that are very widespread in human societies. It is undeniable that many countries today function perfectly well without a monarch. And yet, in a great many others, a sizeable proportion of the population clings to the idea that kingship provides an indispensable mechanism for transcending political division and underwriting stability and harmony. While some consider that the symbolic function served by kings and queens has become redundant in the contemporary world, for others this symbolic function is as indispensable as ever because no other form of political authority comes close to providing such a 'shared symbol of a sacred authority above politics or personal power'.

Certain contemporary misconceptions impede the understanding of kingship and to get to the heart of the institution we must go beyond these. In our own historical experience and imagination we are so accustomed to the encapsulation of kingship within states that we can scarcely conceive of kingship as being something other than political. We see the modern monarch occupying a position within the overarching political machinery of the state and we thus conceive of this individual as playing a political role. But kingship has its roots in the pre-modern world, and it is only by looking at that world that we can see clearly that kings reign rather than rule, and that their function is as much ritual as political. As Scubla puts it below, paraphrasing Frazer: 'To reign does not mean to govern or to give orders, but to guarantee the order of the world and of the society by observing ritual prescriptions.' Kingship is an institution that develops its full reality in a . . .

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