Friday, July 18, 2014

Reflections on "Rex"

It is a rare July day; I have woken up to a chilly 55 degrees that is more characteristic of Fall than Summer. The cooler air tends to set my mind working, which is how I came to meditate on the notion of "Rex" over a cup of coffee at a country cafe this morning.

I have been reading Denis Guenoun's "About Europe", which discusses Europe not as a continent, but as a universal process of returning, and Europe is a process, not an origin. Guenoun defines universality also as a process of becoming--there is always an eternal return in which something is left behind or rejected, perhaps to be revisited in the next cycle. In a discussion of Europe's rather ambiguous borders and divisions, he talks about the word "rex", which is the Latin word for "king", and the notion of a "kingdom".

The word "rex" has its roots in "regere", which means "to trace out the limits". If we think of the word "ruler", it refers to an instrument used to measure things. Therefore, one who "rules" measures out the limits--the "rex" is the one who sets limits or boundaries. Guenoun quotes Beneviste: "Regere fines means literally 'trace out the limits by straight lines'. This is the operation carried out by the high priest before a temple or a town is built and it consists in the delimitation on a given terrain of a sacred plot of ground ... The tracing of these limits is carried out by the person invested with the highest powers, the rex" (Guenoun 63).

This immediately calls to mind the ancient role of the King in fertility rituals and cycles--he is wooed in the Spring, crowned in the Summer, cut down in the Fall. A new King is born in the Winter, and the process starts again. Besides the obvious relationship to the cycle of the sun, the seasons and the harvests, could this not also be a metaphor for tearing down boundaries by killing the boundary-maker? The Celts marked their new year on Samhain, which we now think of as Halloween. For them, it was the end of Fall and the beginning of Winter. So, not only is this the death of the King, it is the time when the boundaries between the worlds are thin, and the ancestors return. Does the boundary leave with the boundary-maker?

It may be possible to extend this metaphor to Christianity. The old "dying and resurrecting vegetation god", the old "King", is replaced by Christ, who is indeed a mythological "King", and is cut down and reborn. The liturgical cycle places the death of Christ at another boundary point--the beginning of Spring, close to Beltane. It is as though the Christ image mirrors that of the mythical Sun King. This is in many ways deliberate, as the new religion conquered the European continent by assimilation. Most Christian holidays and traditions are Christianized versions of earlier pagan ones. It is much easier to convert someone when you claim to believe the same thing, just with different names. And in many ways--for all the differences and divisions that Christianity has brought, it still has an element of the ancient world and its beliefs. These are archetypal, and do not go away with new ideologies or prophets. The pagan ways become a mirror "Shadow" of the God King.

This idea of "rex" as boundary-maker makes me think immediately of the Greek god Hermes, whose very nature is associated with boundaries. The rather graphic property markers used by the ancient Greeks, which consisted of a slab of stone with a male head carved at the top, and explicit genitals carved at the bottom, were known as "herma".

The Greek word for Hermes is Ἑρμῆς, and its etymology is unknown. The word "rex" is Indo-European in its roots, and bears similarities to the Gaulish rig and rix, and also to the Sanskrit raja. According to the OED, there is a second obscure definition of the word "rex" that is related to reaks, and it means to be capricious or to play pranks or tricks. This is striking, because cunning and trickery are also attributes of the god Hermes. This may be an etymological coincidence, but interesting nonetheless.

Hermes is also connected with the underworld, and frequently crosses the boundaries between the chthonic and the celestial. The King is one who is a keeper of boundaries, and this would likely include upholding tradition. However, if the King is thought of as the High Priest, then he is the one who has access to the sacred, and indeed in many cultures, is sacred himself. This would give him similar characteristics to the shaman, who is taboo to general society, but whose role is critical in the survival of the tribe. The shaman's chief characteristic is his ability to travel between this world and the "other" one, however that is defined. There is a common boundary in these roles between the sacred and the profane. I would argue that the King is more limited in his ability to cross these boundaries--he is there to uphold the "law", not abolish it.

For all that he has in common with the role of "Rex", Hermes is never seen in the role of a King. Hermes is the god of thieves and merchants. He identifies more with the common people. In this way, he may be a mirror image of the "Rex"--they are two sides of the same coin. Guenoun talks about the role of the sovereign state and the church in European history. It was often true that the Pope wanted to be King, and the King wanted to be Pope. In the development of a state with a King, there ends up being three divisions--the royal families and aristocracy (who hold political power), the Church and its officials (who are a spiritual mirror image of the State power), and then there is a third category--a blank space, the rest of society that has no influence on the theological-political sphere whatsoever. This is the general "society", and both the government and the church are generally removed from it. In such a system, the only way to gain anything is to know how to bend the rules without breaking them, or breaking them without being detected. This is the domain of Hermes.

Hermes is also a Trickster figure, so in this way he may be the mocking shadow of the King, more like the fool or court jester. Psychologically, it is the influence that breaks our internal boundaries--those life events that trash our five-year-plans and our sense of control over our environment. But, like the King and the Fool, they are likely two sides of the same coin, and the Trickster is internal rather than external. In the Tarot, the Fool has the number 0, which makes it nothing and absolute at the same time. The trump King in the deck is the Emperor, and he rests at the 4th trump position--between the Emperor and the Fool are the Magician, the High Priestess, and the Empress. The order is also something to reflect on, as both the Magician and the High Priestess are sacred boundary crossers themselves, and the Empress represents creative possibility. The Emperor is followed by the Hierophant or Pope, who represents the spiritual kingship of the Church. So, the Emperor has tradition over him, and risk and possibility beneath him. He takes control and draws the line.

I don't know that I have any particular place to "get" to with these reflections, except that they are another metaphorical way of looking at how ideas about social boundaries reflect psychological ones. Myth and metaphor are not one-dimensional, and they certainly aren't literal. They help express the structures and symbols that we have created for ourselves to interpret the world as we experience it.