Things I've Learned About The Sacred Kingship Path
For those of you who don't know me, and who are blinking your eyes in confusion, let me explain how I came to be the King of Asphodel.
I wasn't trained to be a King. I come from a long line of the rankest peasantry, and my parents didn't have much money. I grew up understanding that I probably couldn't have whatever it was that I wanted, unless I was willing to work like hell for it. Aside from being white, there wasn't much privilege in my life. I spent a lot of time in nonhierarchical movements - nonviolence, feminist, eco- activist, etc. Lots of consensus and facilitation. I was sure that I was beyond all that hierarchy and tyrant stuff. After all, all power corrupts, right?
Then one day, the Goddess who owns my ass - and I do mean owns me - informed me that I was to be a King. It sent me into a total tailspin. But kings are evil! After all, Starhawk said so, right? (I was much younger and more impressionable then.) The idea horrified me, for a lot of reasons. Certainly it felt alien. So I did what any scared kid does: I ran like hell.
Only after years of running, one near-death experience, one shamanic rebirth, one child, several relocations, one failed marriage and a new wedding, and a complete life revamping, She came back and reminded me that She had given me an assignment....and that I Was Going To Do It. I was to be a pagan king, a king in the old ancient earth-centered style. Whatever that was.
Of course, she didn't just hand me a manual and tell me to follow the instructions. The path of spiritual kingship has been something that I've had to strain for - reading book after book on archetypes and myths of the King, praying, meditating, and being hypervigilant about the subtle clues that I am being given. Sometimes another aspect of this complicated path is suddenly revealed to me, and I know that I am actually on the right track. Other times I feel as if I'm blindly groping my way, and I could be entirely wrong and not even know it. And yet, and yet....When I'm up there, being King, people respond. Something in them reacts intensely to the expression of that pagan archetype.
I knew that Her assignment did not mean that I would be an actual mundane-world political leader. That was pretty clear. I figured that I would be a symbolic King, in private, perhaps never telling anyone about my path. There would be no literal kingdom, of course, because this is America in the 21st century and we don't do those kinds of things. Except that I told this one woman friend about it, and she confessed that the spirits had told her that she was to follow a path of knighthood, and before I knew it she was requesting to swear fealty to me. And, of course, when I told my wife about my assignment, she stepped right in took over the role of Queen....warrior queen, that is. We aren't gender-stereotypical in any way. I now have two knights and about thirty subjects. So much for merely symbolic.
This is a current listing of what I've learned so far about what it is to be a pagan king, to hold kingship as a holy and spiritual path rather than merely as a secular leadership role. When I took it on, I had no real idea what was supposed to happen. I mean, no bloody idea. I was clueless....and that was pretty frightening. After all, how was I supposed to know if I was doing it right or wrong? It wasn't at all like being a shaman (something that had already been thrust upon me) - that's documented, however badly, in the oral traditions of hundreds of cultures. But being a king? Most people just did it badly. What would it be like to do it Right?
Somewhere just before my coronation I stumbled across an old Irish myth. In it, there are four men hunting together; they've been at it all day and they're tired and hungry and thirsty. They come upon a well in a clearing, with an old woman standing in front of it. She has a well and a dipper in her hand. The first young man approaches - his companions are still back there crashing through the woods - and asks her for some water. She smiles an ugly, ancient, hideous snaggle-toothed smile and says that the price for water is a kiss on the lips. He flinches, curses, and backs off. His second companion comes up, asks the same question, gets the same answer, and has the same reaction. Likewise the third companion.
Then the fourth man approaches. "Woman, give me water! I am thirsty!" he cries. "The price for water is a kiss on the lips," she says. ""A kiss? Is that all you want? Why, for a dipperful I'll not only give you a kiss, but I'll give you a hug as well!" And he does just that. And no, the old woman does not turn into a fair young maiden, although she does give him water. But she says that her name is Royal Rule, and that he has been the only one courageous enough to embrace her, and thus he will someday be king. And then she vanishes.
What does it mean, that Royal Rule is an ancient ugly creature whom so many shy away from? After all, people have been fighting over crowns for centuries. Huge amounts of blood have been shed because someone who didn't have a crown wanted one. You'd think she'd be the most desirable maiden of all, right? There has to be something else going on there.
I think it's something to do with the fact that just being a leader - a dictator, a CIC, a Grand Poobah - does not mean that you activate the spiritual archetype of the King. You can be a good leader, a beneficent leader, even, and yet that spiritual crown does not descend on you. You might not, of course, care or even notice. Yet people don't give you that Look, the one of worship. They may respect you for your role, but they do not look to you as a carrier of Solar energy.
The actual mantle of sacred kingship is a lot more difficult, I am finding out every day. So much so that the average world leader would probably run far away from it. Royal Rule, in the true pagan- spiritual sense, is an ugly old harridan whom few would have the courage to embrace. In Lloyd Alexander's Taran books, when Taran asks Gwydion the hero what it means that the king's sword can only be drawn by one of royal blood, he tells him that it is not meant to be literally about blood. "Say not so much ‘royal blood' as ‘noble worth'", he says, and that rings truly in me, the one descended from a long line of peasantry.
There may not be any single way to hold sacred kingship, but there seem to be a few absolutes that fall upon you when you don the mantle. These qualities....and I'm sure more will reveal themselves to me.....came quietly, almost subtly; they crept into my life and entrenched themselves before I noticed. Afterwards, I realized that they were part of a great, complex, multilayered geas that is what spiritual kingship is all about. Far from giving one more freedom, it gives one far less. Add to this the limitations placed on me by my shamanic rebirth, and I find myself walking a very, very narrow path with regard to what I may and may not do. There are places where it narrows to a tightrope, and I must move carefully in order to pass by without dire consequence.
1) It's about creativity. This one goes for queens too. The king and queen are supposed to be the embodiments of fertility in the land. I knew this from studying mythology, but I pushed it aside as irrelevant - after all, my Queen and I were both sterile and were not having any children together. Clearly we were not going to be any kind of example of physical fertility, nor did we feel the need to. However, we were both creative people in other ways - I'm an artist, a musician, an artisan, a writer, a poet, an organizer of events, and much more. I'd always paid homage to the Muse, but the kingship path made it mandatory. I must create, event when it's inconvenient. The moment that one project is finished, I get the driving urge to start the next one. This is symbolic fertility, pouring out of me without cease. I inspire others to creativity as well, or so they've told me, which is that fertility of mind pouring into the parched spirits of those who look on.
2) It's about honesty. I was always a fairly honest person, but now I find it impossible to tell a public lie. By this I mean that my throat literally closes up and I choke. I can keep my mouth shut - lies of omission are apparently not forbidden to me - but I cannot state an untruth in public, and public now consists of anywhere there are other human beings. When this first happened to me, I panicked. How does one go through life without the little soothing untruths that keep others from crying or being hurt or getting angry? Apparently it's my job to find out how to do that, since this geas seems to grab my larynx if I even try to go for diplomatic manipulation over bald, painful truth. No more of that for me, I guess. A real King must speak the truth. My senior knight once told me about a Chinese hell where lying public figures go, where they hammer a big spike right through the tongue of an offender. It means that I measure my words much more carefully than I used to...what will get the point across and still be entirely true? It's a hard thing.
3) It's about a connection to the earth. My wife and I own a farm, which has become the living heart of the kingdom. The two of us have made a commitment to this tiny piece of land, and to its attendant land-wight. The land-spirit seemed eager, almost wistfully so, to work with us. It protects my land, puts up shields around it, and keeps us informed as the what's going on inside its boundaries. In exchange for these services, we are bound here. If we leave for more than a few days, we become antsy and agitated and have to return home. We can't ever pack up and move to California or Canada. In a very real sense, it owns part of us. We are bound here, securely tethered to this piece of dirt - and that's part of pagan kingship too. In a truly earth-centered spiritual kingship or queenship, being the ruler of the land means being the servant of the land, and not just its human attendants. There's a reason why the would-be king had to mate with a priestess who represented the Earth.....I have to have a relationship to that Earth, that ground and dirt and all that is on it, that is solid and permanent. In effect, we are wedded to this land.
4) It's about noblesse oblige. In a sense, this is the path of anyone who considers themselves nobility....if you really are noble, you need to act that way all the time, being a role model for the peasants. You don't get to act arrogant or haughty or snooty or superior in public, because that's unworthy. If you're truly superior, you don't ever need to go out of your way to prove it, you just act nobly and chivalrously and with integrity, in a quiet way, and do your best, and don't ever lower yourself to their level of bad behavior....because you are being held to a higher standard than they are. You do not have the freedom to be an asshole. They do. (Whose path is luckier is up for discussion.) Anyone who takes on the archetype of noble leadership gets stuck with this geas. For royalty, it's just more severe and more full-time, and your peers - the people you can lower your guard and bitch to - are fewer and further between.
5) It's about inspiring others to better behavior. This one came after I'd already been struggling for a year or so, and I didn't notice it myself so much as others commented on it. In general, unless they are suffering form some sort of mental illness (and the gods of madness do not bow to kings), people behave better in my presence. It's as if some of my discipline of noblesse oblige rubs off on them, a little. It's not out of fear. It just feels right for them to do it, at that moment. It does not, however, last while out of my presence....but the immediate change in everyone when I put on my "king hat" is amazing. It means that I'm doing it right, that it's working.
A further part of this aspect of the geas - which I only occasionally see as yet - is that I can, once in a while, inspire people to be greater than they are even after they've left. That's a wonderful feeling - seeing the "if he can do this, then I can do that!" realization bloom on their faces. The King inspires others because they watch him aspire to his position. The King says, "Yes, you can do that, you have the strength and the ability," and people believe him, because he is the King and he speaks the truth, and they go off and do what needs to be done, even if they were convinced yesterday that it was impossible. When the King says, "Don't fail me," you desperately do not want to fail him, and you will make yourself a better person in order not to fail him. That's a kingship magic that I am only just beginning to understand and utilize, but it is vitally important... and equally important that it not be abused.
6) It's about accepting service gracefully. Because there are people out there for whom service is a spiritual path, who feel fulfilled when they serve something bigger or greater than themselves, and some of those people are going to be drawn to you like flies to honey. To treat them badly is a terribly dishonorable thing. It does not aid them on their path to be abused by you, or treated like dirt, or taken for granted.....or to have their gift rejected. This one is especially hard for me, raised in America in a low-income home with no servants in sight, expected to do everything myself, and then ensconced for years in nonhierarchical communities where the idea of serving a specific person - rather than just facelessly serving a cause as part of a group - was anathema. (In astrological terms, it's a Leo-Virgo way to serve rather than an Aquarius-Pisces way.) It's hard to sit by and let someone wait on me, because I always feel guilty, like I should be doing it myself. I have two good hands, after all. Why should they suffer for me?
The problem is that in this culture, service is seen as something degrading, because most servants are forced into it for economic reasons. They're treated as lesser creatures, and they'd rather not be doing it if they had a choice. In contrast, someone whose spiritual path is to serve another human being usually has a good sense of themselves as competent and worthy (or they should!), and of their skill as a gift to be appreciated. They don't want to be freed from serving. They want to be treated well and appreciated as they do it. Little by little, I'm learning to sit still and graciously accept what's being given to me. I am an important and necessary component of their path, and I'd better get my part right if they are to get further on theirs.
7) It's about being a fair judge. Once you take on this mantle, people will suddenly start coming to you to mediate their problems. I've found that they don't expect compassion and warmth and therapeutic positive regard from someone being King so much as they expect the fairest possible decision, and some indication that the King is as unbiased as possible, even if bias towards them would have helped their case. To call upon the King's Justice is a compelling thing.
Some years back, a group of pagans who worked with the ancient Greek mysteries camped on my land and did a festival of Apollo. Part of their main ritual was an archaic ceremony whereby two people were selected to be the scapegoats on whom all the sins of the community were heaped, and who were given bags of gold and then chased out of the town, never to return. Rather than lay this fate on any living member of their group, they made two human figures out of stuffed clothing on poles, and flung them out beyond the ritual field with curses and pelting. As King of the land, I inquired with some worry what was to be done with them....after all, I didn't want magical golems abandoned on my property. One of their number was also quite upset with the ritual, and wanted us to allow them to symbolically sneak back in the back door, in the name of solidarity with other outcasts.
The dissidents of their group, along with myself and the Queen, met at the border of the land in front of their fallen, pathetic figures. There was some argument as to what should be done...a good hour of it, in fact. Cards were hauled out of sleeves and divination was cast, and the only thing that could be ascertained was that Apollo had demanded the sacrifice, been given it, and would be angered if it was reneged. On the other hand, to disassemble them would be to kill them, and they didn't deserve that, did they? On the other hand, it wasn't fair to just leave them there, rotting in my woods, while the rituallers blithely went home. We could hear the happy singing and chanting of the rest of the group while we stood there pondering, and we all felt very much like outcasts, including me.
Suddenly one of the members - a Celtic bard who had earned his title the hard way - pointed at me and cried out, "I call upon the King's Justice! You must decide! Any man can call for the King's Justice, and it must be given. I do so call now." And I felt that mantle fall upon me like the weight of thousands of years as he spoke. It was the first time that I had felt the kingship path so strongly, so certainly, so terribly heavy. I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that he was right. Any man could cry out for the King's Justice, and the King was obligated to give it. There would be no hiding behind a group decision, no comfortable consensus. It was my job, and I had better do it. The Buck - as in the one with the horns - had just stopped here.
For a minute, I floundered. I opened my mouth to speak, and none of the things that I wanted to say would come out.....which probably meant that they weren't the right things. Then, slowly, it unfolded in my mind like the unrolling of an old and musty scroll, and I knew exactly what must be done. I took a deep breath, and spoke.
"The couple took the gold, and thus accepted the sacrifice of Apollo, and that offering to the God cannot be taken back. Thus they cannot return to the place of their birth." There was a collective sigh, and the people moved forward, ready to take the giant poppets apart and end this, but I stopped them. "However, we will not send them forth with curses and threats. We will send them forth with our good wishes, with our gifts, with whatever we can give them to aid them on their path. And their disassembly will not be death, but a shamanic rebirth, from which they will become something greater, and go on to greater things." I then asked everyone to stand forth and give them some advice, or some gift, or something they could use.
Their faces lit up. Each person stepped forward and spoke to the puppets, enthusiastically. The dissident who had started the whole issue told them that somewhere they would find a place full of people who would love and accept them, and wished for them to find that home. Bella and the bard gave them the names of imaginary people who would help them if they got to this city or that. Others wished them courage, or tossed them coins, or gave them food. Then we carefully took them apart, threw the stick skeletons into the woods, and burned the clothes in the fire.
Afterwards, the bard faced me and said, with wonder in his voice, "I called upon the King's justice, and I expected that there would be no mercy. I expected that you would turn them away.....but you brought mercy into even that fate. You found a mercy that even I had not thought of." He thanked me, and I felt like the light of the Sun was shining through me. That time, at least, I had gotten it Right.
The path of sacred pagan kingship is, ironically, incredibly humbling. To rule is, in the end, to serve.....the Land, the People, the Gods. It's the biggest service job of all, and one that dare not be shirked. It gives far more responsibility than privilege, far more jobs than perks. You are at the mercy of any who demand your judgment. Why do it? Because She assigned me to it, of course. That's probably the only reason it ever gets done. At least, I wouldn't be surprised if that was the Truth.....because it feels so right on my tongue.
By my hand this day of November,
Raven Kaldera Regis
King of the Pagan Kingdom of Asphodel