The Egyptian king, or pharaoh, was considered to be semi-divine. While the office of kingship was divine, having been established by the gods, the king himself was human, but was lifted to an exalted, divine-like status by the gods. The king was regarded as the earthly incarnation of the god Horus, and several of the king’s ceremonial names refer to that god. When the king died, he was thought to become the god Osiris, the father of Horus. But the king was associated with other deities as well. One of his ceremonial names calls him the “Son of Re” (a sun-god), and in the New Kingdom, the king was ritually associated with the god Amun. The king was conceived as omniscient and the link between the divine and mortal worlds.
In contrast to Egypt, the notion of divine kingship in Mesopotamia was introduced at a specific point in time and was fraught with controversy. The king was not considered all powerful—that was limited to the realm of the true gods. From early on the ruler was considered to be the steward of the gods, and this idea persisted throughout Mesopotamian history. As attested by a Sumerian text which scholars call the "Sumerian King List," rulers were chosen by the gods to govern and protect the people. Thus, similar to the Egyptian tradition, rulership was considered to have been lowered from heaven to earth.
The first king to deify himself was Naram-Sin, the grandson of Sargon the Great, in the mid-third millennium BCE. Naram-Sin called himself "God of Agade," that is, the god of his city, the capital of Akkad. Perhaps because the notion of the ruler as patron deity of a city clashed with the existing order of the pantheon, later tradition blamed the hubris of Naram-Sin in deifying himself for the destruction of the city Agade by the Gutians (a group of people from the Zagros Mountains). The succeeding dynasty followed the tradition of divine kingship, but they redefined the concept. Shulgi, the second king of the Ur III Dynasty, designated himself as "God of the Land," a role which did not encroach on any existing god’s sphere of power.
As a god, the king commissioned statues of himself to be placed in a sanctuary where people would bring offerings as they would for any other god. After the Ur III Dynasty, the tradition of divine kingship appears to have waned in popularity. Later, in the second millennium, although Hammurabi cast himself in the image of Shamash, the god of justice, he never actually called himself a god, and he clearly distinguished himself from Shamash in his depiction of himself, on the top of the stela on which his laws were written, receiving the emblems of rulership from the sun-god. The idea of being chosen for rulership by the gods was so strong a tradition that it persisted down until native rule in Mesopotamia came to an end under Cyrus the Great.
Classroom TUTorials: Kingship in Ancient Egypt. Emory: Michael C. Carlos Museum. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
“Horus.” The Ancient Egypt Site. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
"Naram-Suen of Akkad." Wikipedia. Link to Resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
"Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond." Oriental Institute. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
"Sacred Kingship." Encyclopedia Britannica. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
Research Associate, University of Chicago
1. How did the notion of divine kingship differ between Egypt and Mesopotamia? What was a similarity they shared?
2. What problems did Mesopotamian rulers encounter in deifying themselves?
3. How do modern rulers claim legitimacy?