University of Helsinki, Helsinki 2006
How Kings are Made, How Kingship Changes
A Study of Ritual and Ritual Change in Pre-Colonial Owamboland, Namibia
Doctoral dissertation, March 2006.
This study discusses the legitimacy basis of political power and its changes in historical African societies. It starts from Luc de Heusch's tenet that political power required a legitimacy basis of a spiritual kind, often formulated as sacred kingship. In ancient and pre-literate societies such kings were held to be responsible for the fertility of man, land and cattle. The king was a paradoxical figure, symbolising society, but standing above it, while simultaneously being its victim by being ritually killed at old age. This was also how Owambo sacred kings were conceived. De Heusch suggested that African kings derived their power over fertility from having been made 'sacred monsters' in the rituals of installation. With the example of Owambo kingship, this study argues that the transgressive and monstrous aspect is only one of several dimension of a king's sacredness and brings out the nurturing and symbolically female aspect, identified but not analysed further by de Heusch. In the Owambo kingly installation a king-elect was made sacred, and part of it was that a link was ritually created to the early owners of the land. Their consent made it possible for the king to promote fertility and to appropriate power emblems needed for ruling. In the kingdom of Ondonga the early owners of the land were the spirits of early Bushman inhabitants and those of an early kingly clan, both neglected in public memory. The sacred dimension of kingship was further augmented when kings manipulated and appropriated rain rituals and initiation rituals, both of which were related to fertility. The study argues that even though there were aspects of the 'sacred monster' in Owambo kingship, its manifestation was, in part, a distortion of the reciprocal aspect of kingship that was expressed in the homage paid to various ancestor spirits. A change in succession practices from ritual regicide to political assassination took place concomitant with the introduction of firearms, and this broke the sacrificial aspect of sacred kingship paving the way for a more predatory form of kingship while the sacred status of the king was retained.
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Last updated 21.02.2006