We’ll need to consider the purpose of the Babylonian New Year’s (Akitu) ritual, in order to understand why the king was slapped twice in the course of it. We can then think about relating this to Trump.
There’s no doubt that one of the prime reasons for the Akitu rite was to validate the monarchical form of government and ensure the success of the incumbent monarch during the coming year. There was nothing subversive about this ceremonial; it was a time-honored institution of the society. The Babylonian Creation Epic, the Enuma Elish, presents Marduk, King of the Gods, as the Divine Archetype of royal excellence – both all-powerful and all-wise. Until Marduk came along, the other Deities were disorderly, noisy, and quite ineffective, as the people of Babylon would be, if they didn’t have the guidance of their sagacious sovereign. The recitation of the Epic during Akitu served to remind the onlookers that human monarchs are the earthly embodiments of Marduk’s spirit – or, at least, that’s what they ought to be.
The Babylonian kings were not, themselves, Gods. In this, they differed from, say, the Egyptian Pharaohs, whose Divine status exempted them (in theory) from the criticism of mortals. In Babylon, the rulers could go wrong. They could fail to live up to Marduk’s Godly example. Their exalted standing could even blind them to their own limitations, which others might hesitate to point out to them. They might forget that a monarch’s position isn’t a glorious sinecure, not a privilege simply to be enjoyed, but a heavy responsibility, beset with dangers open and concealed. Rulers clearly would benefit from being reminded of their human fallibility and their vulnerability, but how could this be achieved? How can a message the king won’t want to hear, be delivered in an emphatic way the king can’t ignore or brush off?
The monarch’s prominent role in the Akitu ceremonial served to emphasize the importance of kingship in Babylonian society, thereby presumably rendering the people more obedient. But the ritual was also designed to render the monarch worthier of the people’s loyalty, by puncturing any over-inflation of the royal ego. That’s why the king was gradually stripped of the symbols of authority – crown, scepter, etc. – in the course of the ritual, and then slapped on the face by the high priest. How better to convey to a ruler the hard fact that, without those artificial signs of supremacy – which can be taken away – a mortal is a frail thing and can be hurt. And the king was slapped again, after resuming all the royal paraphernalia, to underscore that those shiny objects really don’t make any essential difference. A human monarch might be elevated over other human beings, but even so, the king isn’t Divine.
The slaps are an essential part of the message. To simply lecture the ruler likely would be fruitless. Plato tried that method with the Syracusan tyrants, to no avail. The Babylonians made kings feel their limitations, and their empire lasted for thousands of years. They must have been doing something right.
Let’s relate this to Trump.
Yes, I think it would be highly amusing, and very gratifying, if we had this ritual in the United States. All presidents, as a condition of being president, would have to undergo it. Every year, on the 4th of July, Donald Trump would have to present himself at some sacred location – say, the Lincoln Memorial – in his expensive, tailored suit and tie. He’d then be disrobed, and stand bare-chested in his oversized boxer shorts before the assembled throng. Some high official would be assigned to administer the requisite slaps. The chief justice of the United States could be an appropriate choice. And if you fear that Chief Justice Roberts, being Republican, might go easy on the Don, remember that this is a sacred rite, in which all the participants are honor bound to play their parts zealously. If it’s the chief justice’s responsibility to put some hurt on the president, he’s a conscientious man, and I’m sure he’ll do his duty. Trump will be slapped, hard. He’ll put his clothes back on. He’ll get slapped again. It’ll all be televised. Everyone will be watching, and most of us will be entertained.
The question is whether Trump would benefit from this. The Babylonians didn’t intend the Akitu ritual to undermine the ruler’s authority in any way. Indeed, the very fact that Trump is taking part in the ceremonial is, in itself, a signification of his position as our supreme leader. He’s the president, like it or not. The purpose of slapping him is not to call his legitimacy into question, but rather to help him be a better president, by forcing him to recognize his own weaknesses. If the high priest – beg pardon, the chief justice – certainly not the youngest or strongest person in the land, can bring tears to the ruler’s eyes and a welt to his cheek, then the ruler obviously isn’t a God, and shouldn’t behave like one. A very useful lesson. Unfortunately, I suspect Trump isn’t capable of learning anything. His ignorance is so deep, his ego so gigantic, and his insecurities so crippling, that he simply can’t process new information.
The ritual would be wasted on him. The rest of us would enjoy it, however.
It’s Summer; time for a vacation. This blog will be taking July off. My next offering will come Monday, August 7, 2017. Blessed be.
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