History is shaped by legend and myth. Is this a distortion of the truth or does it reflect our need for storytellers who can fire the human imagination? It depends on who you ask.

Mesopotamian kingship could appear, on the surface, to have its origins in war. When an enemy appeared to threaten a city, a young and promising man emerges out of oblivion to lead the city and the community in battle. Upon victory, he emerges as a resolute figure of authority.

By temporarily managing to lead a city through a difficult time, a temporary monarch’s reign was lengthened beyond the battle that was fought. The mythical and archetypal hero figure was born. Except he wasn’t a myth.

Sumerian cities had all been built up and around the temple as a nucleus. With the exception of Naramsin of Akkad, no king had ever dared to be deified. Despite the king’s role as a custodian of a city, his role was largely secular. Sargon, the grandfather of Naramsin, was the first to promote the idea of a mythical and heroic ruler. He claimed that he had the special favour of Ishtar who had protected him in battle and ensured his extraordinary success.

It thus seems fair to conclude that it was military rule–and not kingship, per se–that led to the self-deification of kings. Scholars have theorised that self-deification was born out of fear of assassination; as military rulers may have believed that becoming ‘a living god’ in the eyes of the people would function as a shield against future retaliation.

This act of self-deification would perish after Naramsin; and would not make a come back till Alexander the Great–yet another military ruler. Could the connection then be made that the ability to recklessly take life and decide who lived and who died; is what defined the self-deification? The answer must be yes.

Self-deification was posthumously seen as sacrilegious; an act that would later bring about the eventual downfall of Akkad. In the end, the priests would compose a cautionary tale known as The Curse of Akkad. It was to warn future kings not to cross into the territory of the divine.

With time, kings abandoned military rule and chose instead to establish themselves as ‘just’ kings. To do this, they began to draw upon the metaphor of the Sun as the illuminator of the darkest corners of society. At the stop of the stele of The Code of Hammurabi, the Sun beams his approval upon the Babylonian king’s wisdom.

Kings started to embody the role of the protector of the people–an epithet that would survive for a long time to come.

The Code of Hammurabi. Image Credit: Theachernar

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