Should We Believe the Stories of Men Mistaken for Gods?

“Dear Sir,” the letter from Lord Sandwich to the English naturalist Joseph Banks started, “poor Captain Cooke is no more.” That was about all the Earl or anybody else may say with certainty, since phrase of the explorer’s demise had solely simply reached England’s shores, almost a 12 months after he died on the black-sand seashore of Kealakekua Bay, on the island of Hawaii, on Valentine’s Day, 1779. Yet the passage of time didn’t make clear the matter: though 1000’s witnessed Cook’s demise, precisely how he died is a matter of dispute to this present day.

According to Cook’s journal, and to diaries stored by crew members aboard the Resolution, Cook first reached Hawaii in 1778, whereas looking out for the Northwest Passage. When he returned, a 12 months later, circling the islands for just a few weeks earlier than making landfall, the Hawaiians have been celebrating Makahiki, a months-long harvest pageant that honors Lono, a god who brings rain, peace, and prosperity. Like Cook, Lono travelled by crusing vessel and, earlier than touchdown, circled Kealakekua—a coincidence that, the sailors later concluded, led the Hawaiians to name the Captain by the god’s title, take him into Lono’s temple, carve a ceremonial idol of him, and serve the crew feasts daily for almost three weeks.

By the finish of their keep, nevertheless, Cook and his males had worn out their divine welcome, spreading venereal illnesses amongst the Indigenous inhabitants, quarrelling about ships and provides, and destroying half of a burial floor. When they tried to depart, a storm pressured the Resolution again into Kealakekua Bay, and the Hawaiians attacked. Later, some mentioned {that a} chief named Nuaa stabbed Cook with a knife in the chest, or possibly in the again; others mentioned {that a} chief known as Kana‘ina struck him in the head with a shark-toothed club; and still others claimed that attendants of King Kalani‘ōpu‘u killed him with stones that they picked up along the beach. The story among Christian missionaries, meanwhile, was that Jehovah dealt the fatal blow, punishing Cook for allowing the Hawaiians to worship him.

But whether anyone actually worshipped the explorer is unclear. Was Cook killed because the Hawaiians finally concluded that he was not really Lono, or because they’d identified that each one alongside and determined that the reappearing international chief was a mortal nuisance who would by no means return to his personal kingdom? For each artist who engraved a picture of Cook in the empyrean or playwright who staged a pantomime of him ascending from Polynesia into Heaven, there may be another person who insists that the English merely imagined that the Hawaiians deified Cook, a fiction that functioned as propaganda for a self-mythologizing empire that portrayed its brokers as gods and its distant topics as simpletons.

Who could make a god is as fascinating a query as who can kill one, and Anna Della Subin tries to reply each in her new e-book, “Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine” (Macmillan). Setting Cook alongside the likes of Haile Selassie, Hernán Cortés, Prince Philip, General Douglas MacArthur, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and even President Donald Trump, she considers why some males are made into gods, by whom, and—the most fascinating of the mysteries about Cook and all of his putatively divine kin—to what ends.

“Accidental Gods” isn’t a lot a chronology as an atlas of deification, however Subin nonetheless begins by tracing a historical past of the thought of apotheosis. In historic Greece, solely gods made different gods, principally via procreation, however typically mortals have been deified, too, in a sort of social climbing that could possibly be achieved via luck (e.g., Glaucus), feats of power (e.g., Herakles), or marriage (e.g., Ariadne, Psyche, et al.). Shintoists as soon as believed that the emperors of Japan have been divine, and Confucianists in China regarded their rulers as sons of Heaven; Egyptians worshipped the pharaohs as gods. Apotheosis was simple, if bureaucratic, in historic Rome (the Senate made Julius Caesar a god just by passing a collection of legal guidelines) however miraculous in Judea, the place a prophet named John baptized a person named Jesus on the banks of the Jordan River, whereupon a voice from Heaven declared him the son of God.

The earliest of Subin’s man-god case research arrives fourteen centuries later, saying his personal divinity. “They threw themselves into the sea swimming and came to us,” Christopher Columbus wrote of the Taíno women and men he encountered on the island of Guanahani, “and we understood that they asked us if we had come from heaven.” He recorded the identical factor in his journal mainly all over the place he landed, sure that any hand gesture conveyed worship, that each present was supposed as a spiritual providing, and that speech in languages he couldn’t perceive proclaimed his godliness.

In the age of exploration, sailors and missionaries trailed such self-justifying tales of divinity wherever they went. Although Cortés by no means claimed to have been mistaken for a god, his secretary made the case on his behalf, writing about how the conquistador was seen as a “white god” by the Mexica. With no Indigenous accounts to contradict it, the delusion metastasized; the model handed all the way down to schoolchildren at this time has Montezuma quivering earlier than a person he has mistaken for the feathered god Quetzalcoatl and surrendering his total empire to some hundred Spaniards. Similarly, the Spanish insisted that Francisco Pizarro was heralded by the Incas as the second coming of the bearded, fair-skinned god Viracocha; the English maintained that Francis Drake was perceived as a god by the Miwoks in San Francisco Bay and Walter Raleigh by the Algonquians who met him on Roanoke Island; and the Dutch swore that Henry Hudson, who sailed for the East India Company, was taken for the nice Mannitto by the Lenape who lived on the island of Mannahatta.

Sometimes man-gods protested such adulation, as the East India Company officer John Nicholson did when just a few hundred Sikh sepoys started following him round Punjab. Nicholson had distinguished himself as a soldier in the First Afghan War, however, in the twenty years earlier than his demise, in 1857, he turned a derring-do deity for males who known as themselves Nikalsainis. They prayed at his toes and chanted adoring hymns; they have been undeterred when he whipped them together with his using crop or cursed them for their devotions. Nicholson led the invasion of Delhi throughout the Indian Mutiny and died eight days later from a gunshot wound, however his cult survived his demise, and a few Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus recognized as Nikalsainis properly into the twentieth century.

Nicholson apparently tried to influence his followers to worship Christ as a substitute, however different man-gods weren’t positive what to do when supplied veneration. During the Second World War and in the years after the armistice, General Douglas MacArthur was deified throughout three continents: by the Guna individuals on the island of Ailigandi, close to the Panama Canal; by some Shintoists in postwar Japan, who noticed him as the substitute for Emperor Hirohito or the reincarnation of the nation’s very first emperor; by varied Hwanghae-do shamans in South Korea, who claimed to channel his spirit whereas ingesting whiskey, chain-smoking, and carrying American navy uniforms; and by villagers on the island of Biak, off the coast of New Guinea, who believed he was the scabby outdated god Manarmakeri, who may slough off his pores and skin to develop into the Manseren Mangundi—the Lord Himself. For his half, MacArthur may need wanted his troopers to worship him, however he admonished the nations whose armies he defeated to worship democracy.

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, took a distinct tack when he was instructed that villagers on the South Pacific island of Tanna, in Vanuatu, believed he was the Messiah. With steering from anthropologists, he despatched the villagers autographed photos, accepted their ceremonial presents, and finally helped fulfill one of their prophecies by welcoming a delegation of 5 Tanna males to Buckingham Palace. Subin observes how collaborative the Duke’s divine standing at all times was, with the Tannese inspired by the British: “The religion of Philip is real because it has been told and retold, by South Pacific priests and BBC storytellers, by journalists and palace press officers, in a continuous, mutual myth-making over the course of forty years.”

There are man-gods who aren’t white, of course. Subin recounts how a sixty-eight-page characteristic in National Geographic on the coronation of Tafari Makonnen as His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, King of Kings, Elect of God, and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, turned sacred scripture for 1000’s of Rastafarians. And she explores the worship of Gandhi by some of those that opposed the British Raj, noting that it was supposedly the theosophist Annie Besant who first known as Gandhi “Mahatma,” from the Sanskrit for “great soul,” although he hated the title. Both Gandhi and Selassie denied their divinity—their insistent refrains of “I am not God” are two of the epigraphs for Subin’s e-book—however every impressed colonial independence actions in his lifetime and posthumously in communities round the world.

If Subin’s e-book consisted of nothing besides these and different biographical sketches, “Accidental Gods” would nonetheless be fascinating. But Subin additionally argues that these deifications got here in waves, ushered in by civil wars, conquests, and revolutions, and she or he observes that some of these males have been deified at the identical time that the very concepts of faith and race have been being reified. Imperialism despatched travellers and missionaries into the wider world, they usually in flip despatched again travelogues, cultural stories, and international relics and manuscripts, from which students started formulating new theories, usually of their very own superiority. Other nations and races have been considered much less developed than white Europeans, and Christianity was seen as the rational religion towards which the rising science of faith measured all different beliefs and practices.

“O.K., how about this: instead of assassinating her straight out, we subject her to steam heat all winter, so her skin gets really dry and she’s prone to nosebleeds and her eyes itch and she’s just a little bit uncomfortable at all times for months on end?”

Cartoon by Sofia Warren

Take the German philologist Friedrich Max Müller. He was heralded as an skilled on India regardless of by no means having been there, Subin factors out, and he helped create the self-discipline of non secular research, in the late nineteenth century. Previously, Europeans had divided the world into 4 religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Paganism. Müller added others, amongst them Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. He may make a faith out of “anything that sufficiently resembled Christianity,” Subin writes, whether or not or not the tradition it got here from regarded it as one religion or, for that matter, as a spiritual religion in any respect.

So it was that one of the world’s oldest, most diverse methods of thought turned “Bramanismo” and “Gentooism” and “Banian Religion,” then lastly the exonym Hinduism, a single label utilized to the various beliefs of all the individuals residing round the Indus River, who have been then declared with Procrustean zeal to have a trinity and to be in want of a pope. “African” faith was lowered to fetishism, with allegedly arbitrary objects deemed sacred by believers who have been seen as superstitious somewhat than religious. Any sort of ritual observance in any half of the world was made to adapt to perception of the creedal sort, and each pantheon was contorted to suit classes like prophet or saint, with inflexible distinctions like deity and mortal imposed the place they’d by no means existed earlier than.

The identical topics who knelt earlier than their kings and sang hymns of reward to their queens regarded elsewhere and identified all ritual follow as worship, lowering each occasion of veneration to deification. The very students who have been doing that diagnosing have been additionally drawing new distinctions between the non secular and the secular, justifying political adoration whereas judging non secular zealotry. Post-Reformation Europe had pressured Catholicism and Protestantism into an unsure truce, with Enlightenment concepts of tolerance banishing non secular beliefs to the non-public sphere whereas public life focussed on politics.

In this new order, Subin argues, deification would develop into, at finest, heretical and, at worst, nonsensical. “With the rise of nationalism and liberation movements in the twentieth century come the politicians and activists, secularists and modernists, who were dismayed to learn of their own apotheoses, as tales of their miracles contradicted their political agendas,” she writes. Such individuals anticipated political fealty, not non secular religion. Their discomfort was born partly of expertise: Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Narendra Modi have been worshipped as Vishnu, however so was Adolf Hitler. Leadership cults have been each brokers of empire and brokers of its destruction, they usually have been perceived as harmful by these for whom the most popular objects of devotion have been entities like the state or concepts like human rights. It is on this identical spirit that present-day political commentators argue that Americans ought to exalt the Presidency, not the President.

Yet even when these abstractions do encourage devotion, they usually take human kind. Thus was “The Apotheosis of Washington” fresco added to the Capitol dome at the finish of the Civil War, that includes the American Cincinnatus being carried as much as Heaven by the goddesses Liberty and Victory, surrounded by allegorical figures, together with Freedom trampling Discord and Anger, who seem in the kind of Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, the defeated Confederate leaders. Likewise, after the Partition of India, in 1948, when tens of millions of individuals had been displaced and greater than one million had died in bursts of sectarian violence, Gandhi’s cremated stays have been scattered like these of the Sacred Man of the Rig Veda, with separate urns going to each area of the nation, in an effort to advertise peace.

But have been any of these fashionable leaders actually worshipped? Venerated by their fellow-citizens, sure, and in addition revered throughout the globe, honored with namesakes and nationwide shrines, mythologized in tales of advantage and heroism, and commemorated with nationwide holidays. But have been they thought-about literal gods or merely figurative ones? Put in another way, what separates Bussa Krishna, who constructed a temple in honor of Donald Trump outdoors Hyderabad, from the American partisans who await the former President’s each transfer and eagerly anticipate his return to energy? One is perhaps tempted to treat this query as purely semantic—the phrase for “god” exists in some languages however not in others—however Subin means that it’s an epistemological and ontological query, too, about what a god is and the way a lot we will ever learn about one of them.

If a god is just somebody we like and whose each want we serve, then infants would possibly depend, and if he’s somebody to whom we pay allegiance and make choices, then any politician supported by our tax {dollars} would possibly qualify, and if he’s a personage who fills us with worry and dread, then we may embody dentists and home terrorists. But once we name somebody a god, as with Zeus or Jesus or Shiva, we imply that he has a wholly separate existential standing from us, and powers—omnipotence, immortality—which are superior to our personal.

Yet that is exactly the distinction that may be erased, or, at any price, eroded, in cross-cultural comparisons. Consider Captain Cook, and whether or not he was actually heralded by the Hawaiians as Lono or whether or not his crew and his countrymen selected to consider as a lot with the intention to justify colonialism. This single cultural collision has been the topic of an prolonged debate in anthropology, fostering a decades-long division between two faculties. One is represented by the Princeton professor Gananath Obeyesekere, whose “The Apotheosis of Captain Cook” (1997) claims that it’s illogical to consider the natives ever mistook a white colonizer for one of their gods, and that the fantasy wasn’t nearly Cook’s heroism but in addition about the legitimacy of imperial rule over allegedly primitive individuals. The different college is exemplified by the late University of Chicago professor Marshall Sahlins, whose “How ‘Natives’ Think: About Captain Cook, for Example” (1995) argues that additionally it is an act of cultural imperialism to silence Hawaiians in the telling of their very own historical past, which incorporates, nevertheless inconveniently for some students, attestations of the confusion of Cook with Lono.

These two camps are finally arguing about their area extra broadly, and particularly about the chance that somebody from one tradition can perceive the interior life of anybody from one other. For her half, Subin writes that “one can never truly know” what another person “really believed,” mainly shrugging off the job. Yet she writes fantastically of the non secular life of marginalized individuals, taking their devotions critically and revealing the subversive function and energy of the beliefs and practices that their oppressors so usually misunderstood. She describes in convincing and compassionate element the pejoratively named “cargo cults” of the Pacific, which flourished throughout the Second World War, when airplane runways, navy provides, and industrial items have been included into extant mythologies, not as objects to be worshipped or cultures to be imitated however as half of colonial resistance actions. The John Frum cult on Tanna, for occasion, regarded the American G.I.s as servants of the Apocalypse. Equally compelling is her description of the Hauka on the Gold Coast, whose shamans have been typically possessed by the spirits of colonial bureaucrats and troopers—not as a result of the shamans believed the outsiders to be demons or gods however as a result of they have been making an attempt to manage them, and to control their conduct.

Such accounts belie the salacious protection that so usually characterizes tales of “man worshippers” from round the world. Yet they’re typically introduced right here in ways in which overlook their atavistic nature and their historic origins. Where Western figures have been deified, or allegedly deified, they weren’t worshipped as new gods or seen as godlike on their very own deserves; somewhat, they have been drafted into preëxisting cosmologies, much like the method the Aztecs consolidated imperial energy by changing Mixcoatl, a Toltec man-god, with Huitzilopochtli. Subin is a delicate thinker and a trendy author, however her account overlooks precolonial historical past like this, and right here and there may be cluttered with bric-a-brac as a substitute: an incomplete abecedarian poem of lesser gods, occasional lurches into the current tense and the first particular person, an orphaned appendix that clouds somewhat than clarifies an earlier chapter. The most attempting of these is an interlude that she calls “The Apotheosis of Nathaniel Tarn,” a travelogue of kinds—set not in Santiago Atitlán, the place Tarn says he was deified by the Tz’utujil Maya, however in Morocco, the place Subin was residing when Tarn, whom she had met a number of years earlier, paid her a go to. Tarn is an anthropologist by coaching; in the nineteen-fifties, his graduate supervisor despatched him to the highlands of Guatemala, the place the villagers mistook him for the reincarnation of a radical shaman who was mentioned to have changed into a rain angel after his demise, controlling storms from his throne atop the bushes, someplace between Earth and Heaven.

This is all in response to Tarn, whose story Subin relates credulously regardless of in any other case establishing her e-book round canny critiques of claims of this very nature from others. Cook, Cortés, Columbus: their alleged deification was solely ever colonial propaganda, she argues. But when the “accidental god” is a pal his apotheosis is introduced as believable, even interesting: “On Nathaniel’s last morning in Morocco, it was still pouring with rain, appropriately enough for a former rain god.” At the finish of her theogony, Subin writes, “If the world we inhabit is disenchanted,” maybe we will nonetheless “find enchantment in one another,” a cheery if condescending evaluation of an existence that billions of individuals—colonized, colonizer, and decolonized alike—nonetheless discover full of precise gods and actual miracles.

What’s telling about this lapse isn’t that Subin validates her pal’s perception that he was deified; it’s that doing so requires her to simply accept that at the very least some of the Tz’utujil Maya sincerely worshipped him as a rain god. And why shouldn’t they? This is the deep psychological thriller underlying the theological and political issues that animate “Accidental Gods.” No one can cease us from worshipping anybody else, whether or not politician, explorer, prince, or poet, or, for that matter, from devoting ourselves to different residing issues or inanimate objects, whether or not crocodiles, meteorites, or cash. One of the most extraordinary issues about apotheosis is how peculiar it’s, how actually democratic it may be: anybody can develop into a god, and we will every have our personal. ♦

New Yorker Favorites

  • How we turned contaminated by chain e-mail.
  • Twelve basic films to observe along with your children.
  • The secret lives of fungi.
  • The photographer who claimed to seize the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.
  • Why are Americans nonetheless uncomfortable with atheism?
  • The enduring romance of the night time practice.
  • Sign up for our day by day publication to obtain the finest tales from The New Yorker.


Related posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.