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Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine

Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine

Anna Della Subin


Accidental divinity seems to have happened more frequently than one might expect. The mechanisms are very different, ranging from deliberately playing into people's expectations (in the case of Cortés and the Spanish conquest of South America), to possession by spirits in Nigeria and India, to the entirely accidental raising of Britain's Prince Philip to godhead.

In Prince Philip's case the claims are taken very seriously. When his new worshippers want a photograph of him, it initiates a flurry of activity to consult with anthropologists and archaeologists to determine the right way to carry the ceremonial pig-killing stick he is to appear with. There seem to be a mixture of motivations: a sincere desire not to offend, but also an unmistakable impulse to gain a subtle lever of control over a far-away imperial possession. Having a god on your side, as the Roman emperors knew, never hurts.

One perhaps has to feel sorriest for Haile Selassie, the very Christian emperor or Ethiopia who had to run for his life ahead of Mussolini's invasion and spent an exile in England campaigning for is country's liberty. After all this genuine accomplishment, he accidentally becomes a god to people he didn't know or understand as part of Rastafarianism (before becoming emperor he was known as Prince – or Ras – Tafari), which itself emerges from a Jamaican nationalism needing an origin myth. It shows how a need for religion remains entwined into the modern world's most modern impulses towards self-determination and independence.

3/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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