The Vagaries of God-Making

‘Accidental Gods’
Hand-colored copperplate of Captain James Cook and Hawaiian natives engraved by Sasso, 1844 (Florilegius/Alamy Stock Photo)

“A poem containing history,” Ezra Pound called his unfinished magnum opus. Accidental Gods is a book of history that sometimes reads like a poem, a rangy modernist one, with that tradition’s eye for imagery, juxtaposition, and paradox. Unlike the modernist poets, however, Anna Della Subin writes from an anticolonial perspective as she traces the ways that deification has revealed and responded to power all over the globe. Accidental Gods begins in Ethiopia, where Ras Tafari Makonnen, known from then on as Haile Selassie, was crowned emperor in 1930. Almost eight thousand miles away in Jamaica, prophecies had been spreading about a Black divinity who would arise from that singular African nation, the only country on the continent not to be colonized. (Psalm 68:31 provided a biblical foundation for Ethiopianism, which fed into many Black nationalist movements of the time.) Over the next several decades, despite the best efforts of Jamaica’s British occupiers and ultimately Selassie himself, Rastafarianism (“Ras” means “head” in Amharic) gained hundreds of thousands of followers.

Selassie’s deification functioned as an act of resistance against colonization, a “way to insist against the white supremacist that black people were human,” Subin writes. By the 1972 elections in Jamaica, the opposition party candidate, Michael Manley, was playing to the “dread” movement during his speeches, wielding an ivory-tipped scepter gifted to him by Selassie. The country elected Manley in a large majority, and his three terms introduced progressive measures such as free education and maternity leave. So it was that “the adoration of a distant Ethiopian autocrat had served, in a concrete and effectual way, as a democratizing force” for a decolonizing island in a different hemisphere.

That’s one way to tell the story of Selassie’s apotheosis, but with any god there is never just one story to tell. Another history of the Rastafari movement might zero in on the fact that Selassie would at times disclaim his Blackness and adopt a strictly “Semitic” racial identity. Determining that Selassie was “decidedly Semitic,” National Geographic, a racist and imperialist publication in the 1930s, commissioned an extravagant story that celebrated his coronation as an exotic continuation of biblical lineage, “descended from the dynasty of Menelik the First, who was born of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.” But the magazine’s Selassie issue circulated, and to the Jamaican readership who took the emperor’s Blackness for granted, the lavish sixty-eight-page spread became sacred scripture: “By the 1950s, men in Kingston were preaching with the Bible in one hand and a copy of National Geographic in the other.” Selassie tried to disabuse his followers in person, but his presence only fanned the flames of their devotion. At Selassie’s invitation, two thousand Rastafarians from Jamaica eventually immigrated to Ethiopia. Granted land allotments, they settled in a place called Shashame, where they displaced some of the native Oromo people. “For the pilgrims, there was only space for one struggle, only one map of redemption for their own centuries of loss,” Subin writes, nodding toward other settlements of our past and present. Thousands of Ethiopians starved to death in famines during Selassie’s divine tenure.

 

Somewhat abruptly, Subin’s narrative shifts from Selassie to the deification of the British Prince Phillip (in the South Pacific) and the American General Douglas MacArthur (in Panama, Japan, and elsewhere). The middle chapters of Accidental Gods visit India, where imperialists like the Irish Protestant soldier John Nicholson (a candidate for the most horrifying deity in the book, though it’s not easy to choose) share space with liberators like Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The book’s final section, “White Gods,” focuses on the Americas. Unraveling the deifications of Hernán Cortés and Francis Drake, and, in a vivid chapter, detailing the Hawaiians’ worship and subsequent murder of Captain James Cook, Subin presents the “origin story of how whiteness became divine.”

It’s understandable that Gandhi might be deified. But why would anyone worship her oppressor? For communities in India, accustomed to a pantheon of deities and unconcerned with a strict division between human and divine, “the deification of a British officer was proof of the daily terrors of colonial life,” Subin writes. “Colonialism was so inhumane it could only be understood by the colonized as something supernatural.” To venerate such an oppressor was to arrogate his power. For the Hauka mediums of Niger, who would become involuntarily possessed by spirits of the French generals who terrorized their land, “deification was a means of dissidence…. It was painful and unwilled—but it was precisely in the fact of its unwantedness that its power lay.”

The complex circuitry of such god-making strewed confusion among the colonial authorities, one sign of the practices’ effectiveness.

The complex circuitry of such god-making strewed confusion among the colonial authorities, one sign of the practices’ effectiveness. “The worst part of the matter,” bemoaned one British magistrate in India, “is that there is no official controller of the right to deification.” Through these paradoxical rituals, colonized groups could convert their extreme experiences into a kind of “equipment for living,” to borrow a term that critic Kenneth Burke uses for poetry. (“Poetry…is undertaken as equipment for living, as a ritualistic way of arming us to confront perplexities and risks. It would protect us,” Burke writes.)

While attesting to the empowering effects of these deifications, Subin also highlights the material events that validated the communities’ worldviews, without which her account would risk condescension. On Tanna in the South Pacific, for example, the islanders had been weathering European invasion and enslavement for half a century since the 1870s, and their population had fallen by half. A prophecy arose about a god arriving from the newly powerful land of America. In 1942, with World War II in full swing elsewhere, the U.S. army suddenly appeared out of the sea, with its “endless quantities of Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and chocolate.” How better to respond to the ongoing shift in the structure of experience than through an invocation of the supernatural?

Subin’s tone of suspended disbelief leaves room for humor and humility, acknowledging that no spiritual practice can be fully understood by someone outside it. Even a sympathetic account of the way a deification functioned as an act of anticolonial resistance might veer into cross-cultural misreading. Unlike religions whose practices are prescribed by fixed texts, in primarily oral cultures, as one Tanna chief puts it, “our thing…is alive and it’s moving.” Different strands of Nikalsainism—the worship of John Nicholson—eventually merged with both Hinduism and Islam in South Asia, and one movement in Abbottabad only recently seems to have died out.

 

Like a collection of poems, Accidental Gods is a book to jump around in, savoring Subin’s irreverent turns of phrase (a character in a Kipling story “godsplains”) and set pieces (the occultist Aleister Crowley baptizes, then eats, a frog) that are worth the hardcover price alone. Uncaptioned images, like the disturbing sculptures of “Young Europe” and “Grace” by Nazi artist Arno Breker, haunt the text as in a contemporary novel. But beneath these surfaces, and alongside her tour of unwitting deities, Subin constructs two metanarratives more deliberately.

The first is the origin myth of “religion” itself, which, as Subin demonstrates, arose out of the administrative anxieties of colonialism. Remember the magistrate’s complaint that he couldn’t manage the way his Indian subjects picked their gods? On a larger scale, the study of “world religions” that emerged in nineteenth-century Europe was an attempt to do just that. For the German philologist Max Müller and other early theorists, “a religion was essentially anything that sufficiently resembled Christianity.” With the presumptuousness of gods, these scholars couldn’t help but see their own ideas and practices mirrored in other cultures, and they compiled their classifications for the sake of control.

Of course, Müller’s idea of Christianity was itself very partial. His was a Christianity that had turned inward with the advent of Protestantism and the truces achieved after the Reformation, placing priority on “an inner state of mind, in the sense of belief.” What arrived as a crucial insight for Martin Luther in sixteenth-century Germany—that God was alive in his conscience, apart from Church mediation—made no sense when applied to the ancient communal spiritualities of people living along the Indus River. But comparative religionists like Müller (who never set foot in India but became an “expert” on the region nonetheless) began seeing versions of their own “belief” elsewhere, translating it for the Vedic practice of sraddha. Subin points out that, in its own context, sraddha didn’t refer to “some interior conviction, but rather was an empirical observable exchange.” Out of such mistranslations, Hinduism emerged, compressing millennia of diverse traditions into staticky paraphrase.

As its stories of white deities pile up, Accidental Gods becomes more and more concerned with the theological construction of race itself. Unlike the gods of earlier chapters who often resisted deification, the explorers who occupy Subin’s last section, “White Gods,” hustled along their own apotheoses. Here Subin relinquishes the imaginative sympathy of her earlier style to demonstrate how the deification of European explorers sanctioned their arrival in America, while seeming to confirm their assumption that the indigenous populations required theological intervention. God was speaking through their idolatry. In 1493, the pope decreed that, in Subin’s words, “the right to annex territory in the New World rested upon the conversion of its natives to the Catholic faith.” An estimated fifty-six million indigenous people in the Americas would be killed over the next century.

During the Inquisition, Spain began to require proof of Christian ancestry, which it called limpieza de sangre (“cleanliness of blood”). In a New World that was minority Spanish and majority indigenous and Black, a different version of this test evolved. As Subin writes, “Limpieza de sangre shifted in meaning from a conception of purity of blood based on theological lineage to a biological concept,” as the one true race came to replace the one true religion. Of course, indigenous populations had to adjust to this newly invented category. Originally, the Lenape on the island of Manhattan referred to European settlers as Shuwanakuw, or “people who had come from the sea.” But the modern Delaware-English dictionary defines Shuwanakuw as “white person.” The victims of racial oppression had to be trained to recognize race.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, whiteness had come to supersede Christianity as the basis of the European settlers’ superiority. The nineteenth century saw clergymen and biologists competing to construct the most outlandish etiology of white supremacy. (A Confederate doctor speculated that the snake in Genesis was actually Eve’s “negro gardener.”) “The scholars of empire had classified and reified sets of beliefs and ritual,” Subin writes, “but these divisions, in turn, could be seen as reflecting the racial essence of people, as the deeper truth.” As the Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite remarked bitterly about Shakespeare’s Caliban, “He chose the wrong people to make God.”

What began as a book about the eccentric relationship between spirituality and power ends by illuminating a new way to understand the original—and ongoing—sin of whiteness in the Americas.

What began as a book about the eccentric relationship between spirituality and power ends by illuminating a new way to understand the original—and ongoing—sin of whiteness in the Americas. In a coda called “Liberation (Last Rites),” Subin recounts the work of the “Cercle Harmonique,” an Afro-Creole community in New Orleans that practiced seances for twenty years during the Civil War and Reconstruction. According to records of this group’s “over seven thousand pages of messages from the dead,” the undiscovered country contains no heaven or hell and no racial categories whatsoever. George Washington no longer considers himself American, a French slaver has renounced white supremacy, and John Brown is flourishing “free from your atrocities.” (Where, we ask for the umpteenth time, are the women?) The spirits relate an existence “perfect and delicious,” where “each receives that which is due him.” It’s a surprisingly uplifting way to end a book in which atrocity usually precedes or follows religious enthusiasm.

 

Subin’s decision to conclude with the Cercle Harmonique, coupled with her playful openness to metaphysical possibility through most of Accidental Gods, suggests that she remains invested in what the poet Robert Duncan called the “truth and life of myth.” Duncan loved to cite Jesus’ remark from the gnostic gospel of John: “If you have not entered the dance, you mistake the event.” One way that Subin wiggles outside the dispassionate “religious studies” framework is by including a chapter about her own friendship with an accidental god, the poet and anthropologist Nathaniel Tarn, who found himself deified in 1952 during his field work in the highlands of Guatemala. Traveling together in Morocco while revisiting his earlier apotheosis, Tarn and Subin argue about belief. Tarn thinks the world is divided into two kinds of people, “those who believe in some sort of transcendent, divine power…and those who don’t.” Subin disagrees: “Perhaps belief is just as much a set of relationships between people as it is an absolute state of mind…. Perhaps transcendence is all around us, and so the sacred stays within reach for us to grasp when we need it.”

After reading Accidental Gods, one is tempted to predict that god-making, near and far, isn’t going anywhere. At one point, Subin offers a quote from Ashis Nandy about the development of democracy in India, and Nandy’s words apply to the United States in 2022 as well: “The distinction of religion versus politics was not working well.” In a Bay Area neighborhood where I lived around the time of Trump’s election, yard signs began appearing that proclaimed, “In This House, We Believe…” followed by a series of affirmations that ranged from the topical (“Black Lives Matter”) to the self-satisfied (“Science is Real”). These signs felt more like markers of social location than creeds or ritual practices, but Subin reminds us how permeable the boundary is between the political and religious. Even in a heartland of secular modernity, people still reached for language of belonging and belief when responding to an unnerving shift in power.

History wants to record the facts, and we need to come face to face with them. But as Mahmoud Darwish argues in a poem called “Don’t Write History as Poetry,” “History / has no compassion that we can long for our / beginning, and no intention that we can know what’s ahead /… it has no rest stops / by the railroad tracks for us to bury the dead, for us to look / toward what time has done to us over there, and what / we’ve done to time” (translation by Fady Joudah). The human inclination to ritual, magic, and belief in all their forms remains one way of knowing among others, and sometimes it is the one that responds to events most convincingly.

Accidental Gods
On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine

Anna Della Subin
Metropolitan Books
$35 | 480 pp.

Published in the June 2022 issue: 
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Nate Klug is a poet and essayist. His most recent book is Hosts and Guests (Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, 2020).

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