Spirit-lands and tyrant-kings: differing tales of statehood

Land is the silent, steady, partner in the messy realm of politics and national divides.

Mount Bromo (Gunung Bromo) seen at dawn on 11th June 2018, East Java, Indonesia. The active volcano is park of the Bromo Tengger National Park, sitting on a plain called the sea of sand, it is possible to look into the crater of the volcano to see the smoke and steam emerging from it, lava is not visible. (photo by Phil Clarke Hill/In Pictures via Getty Images)
Mount Bromo (Gunung Bromo) seen at dawn on 11th June 2018, East Java, Indonesia. The active volcano is park of the Bromo Tengger National Park, sitting on a plain called the sea of sand, it is possible to look into the crater of the volcano to see the smoke and steam emerging from it, lava is not visible. (photo by Phil Clarke Hill/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Nations, states and empires are usually seen as man-made shapes on a map, lines imposed on to a living landscape that knows nothing of them. Ripped out of the imagination and projected on to the map, most nations are like those portrayed in the political scientist Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, or in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan – they are states with an ‘artificial soul’ made of ‘pacts and covenants’. Sometimes we build nations with straight lines – look at the artificial angles of southern Morocco/Mauritania’s contested territories, or the lines dividing the vast island of Papua; these reflect the conceptual geometry of human statecraft. Other borders are organically curved and convoluted, where they have respected the land itself; we see this in Nepal’s discrete outlining of the highest Himalayas, Chile’s vertical outlining of the Andes, or Lesotho’s curious ring around the South African highlands. As often as not, the nation vies with the inner logic of the landscape itself, trying to keep the territory silent and docile. Politics is, after all, a strictly human affair.

But many parts of the world enjoy an alternative form of nationhood in which the land is seen as a rightful participant in the political sphere. Land can even be a living sovereign or deity. In Eastern Java, for instance, it is possible to go for a walk on the body of a god.

The directions are simple: you set off up the vast limbs of the deity called Gunung Bromo on a motorbike. After a day of ascending the god’s cloud- bound flank, you will descend almost vertically down switch-back roads into a vast ring of cliffs. Slip and slide your bike across the ‘sea of sand’ lining the basin’s floor, until you reach the centre where a line of horses stand near a temple of ziggurats and stone demons. Park there. A short hike up deep igneous furrows will bring you close to the mouth of the god, a blackened caldera where – growing in volume, the closer you approach – the obscure rumble of divine life can be heard. Above you, a column of steam billows upward, and worshippers can sometimes be seen nearby; they pray, pause, and then toss fresh sweetcorn, cut grasses, and bright jasmine blossom over Gunung Bromo’s lip.

The deity revered as Gunung Bromo is also, as you have guessed, a volcano – and these same worshippers are his residents. They live on his flesh, sharing in the metabolism of his ecosystem. Bromo very occasionally tests them with eruptions – the last, in 2011, sent a plume of smoke into the sky, and a thin pall of ash over the fields. But generally, he blesses them with the fertility of his volcanic soil. Indeed, the agrarian demands of this soil shape the collaborative structures of the local community. With this unique brand of ‘soft power’, Bromo enforces his own kind of governance on the people living there.

In the UN’s corridors of power, it would sound like a fairy tale: nations are supposed to be made by humans who draw lines on a map in order to claim the distant living territory it represents. But this portion of the Tengger Semeru volcanic region in Javanese Indonesia is unofficially ruled by a god who is the very environment in which his citizens live. Bromo is also an interesting case study in citizenship: although Indonesia is a Muslim country, the Mount Bromo region is a discretely Hindu territory. This is largely because Mount Bromo himself is a Balinese god, and Bali is legally recognised as a Hindu island within Muslim Indonesia. Hindu gateways frame the roads into the territory, marking the space as sacred to those who live there, and shrines to lesser Hindu spirits dot the slopes, marking out the extended family of deities who live near their powerful relative. This is an extraordinary sacred ‘sub-nation’ of humans and spirits. Muslims from the Middle-East, the Maghreb or Europe do not tend to understand this strange phenomenon, but local Muslims do: they see that this isn’t a matter of administrating Islamic territory. The volcano is a sacred being, a Hindu one – and one would not be so arrogant as to try to control a volcano.

Before God-Kings, there were Sovereign Gods

Bromo calls the modern Western secular mind back to an ancient form of ‘divine kingship’ that is long forgotten today: the phenomenon of spirit-kings. Ancient history reminds us that divine kingship can be a nasty game; even the Judeo-Christian God knew it. In Samuel 1:8 he warns the Hebrews against seeking a divinely-appointed human king, for:

He will take your sons and make you run in front of his chariots, some he will assign to be soldiers and others to plough his ground… he will take your daughters to become servants, and he will take the best of your fields, and you yourselves will become his slaves. You will cry out for relief from your King, but I will not answer you.

The whole political tragedy of corrupt tribal elders, mafioso mayors, entrepreneur presidents, and the long expense accounts of British peers of the realm is played out here in ancient miniature. Despite our cherished tales of King Arthur, Charlemagne, Elizabeth I and the Blessed Virgin, the truth is that the divine right of sovereignty rarely works out well. At its biblical point of origin, even God was dubious about the idea of giving sovereign power to any frailty-and-foible-filled human. In the West, it traditionally meant a feudal contract at best, and out-and-out slavery at worst. Sometimes the feudal lord prioritised the natural balance of resources, and was a good and caring governor – it is perhaps for this reason that some branches of Hinduism recommended religious devotion to god in the mood of a servant who loves his master. But sometimes the lord pushed the balance as far as possible toward his own profit, keeping the system teetering on the edge of viability. Then the king-citizen relationship became nothing more than a legal one – a mere social contract resented by the losing side, rather than an organic relationship born of shared life.

Seen in the longer-term history of the world, such contractual models of divine kingship actually seem to be a curious aberration from the general pattern. In much of the world, the land was not loaned by the godsbut inhabited by them. They were called the deva, djinn, kami, anima, apu etc, and could be encountered bodily as trees and stones, streams and soil, wind and stars. Male gods often took forms as phallic mountains, and female gods as vulvic caves or life-giving lakes, springs, rivers, and seas. Such natural features were the earthly flesh of the gods, the incarnate body of the divine.

The past tense here makes all of this sound quaint and fantastic, but it is important to understand that this is a powerful modern reality, lived as true by people on almost every continent. Yet it is shockingly little comprehended, and accounts for many destructive political judgements that attempt to apply the Western nation state model to cultures on every continent – to Shinto Japan and Navajo Americans, Australian Aborigines and Indonesian, Papuan, New Zealand, Amazonian, Taiwanese, and innumerable other peoples. The expectations of secular modernity make it unfashionable to admit that you live upon, and dig your daily dinner out of, the earthly body of a god. But the beliefs are there: in Peru, I was once invited to climb the mountain opposite famed Macchu Picchu’s tourist-covered slopes. There the mountain sits on Google Maps, and is visible in the corner of many tourist advertisements: Mount Putuq k’usi (westernised to Putucusi). One climbs up long ladders bolted to the rock, winding up to dizzying views over the Andean slopes of the outer Amazon – a velvet covering of green disappearing into turquoise distance. But climb it respectfully, the locals told me. ‘The mountain, well,’ the local Quechua bartender blushed, ‘really it is an apu [a protective god]. Everyone knows it.’ But nowhere is it written.

The Bible tells us that Yahweh dwelt on Mount Sinai, but Mount Fuji is itself a god, a kami, surveying the central regions of Honshu with its far-reaching gaze; that is partly why Hokusai and Hiroshige made dozens of prints of it watching over the lives of those who lived nearby. The Ganges too is not an ‘it’, but a ‘she’ – flowing out of the Himalayas to bless the dry expanse of northern India. To pollute the river is to pollute her, Goddess Ganga herself – something that environmental campaigns have made the most of, arguing that environmental pollution is tantamount to domestic abuse.

Divine territory of this kind can also be thoroughly urban. In central Bangkok there is a small shrine in which city-dwellers clasp their palms before their hearts to revere the spirit who lives in a pillar at the centre of the building. This spirit is not merely the Spirit of Bangkok – a Batman-like supernatural overseer of the metropolitan administrative region marked on to maps. It is Bangkok itself, with its canals and high-rises, its derelict land still discretely farmed as commons for saleable produce by the urban poor who pile pineapple, mango, cherry tomatoes and sweetcorn into ice-filled trolleys that serve as street-side stalls. Local businessmen don’t need a wholefoods supermarket nearby to find the freshest fruit: there is a smooth transition from land to lunch. The spirit provides through the city.

Interestingly, the late king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, supported this process. Rather than emphasising the kind of luxury imports industry that is currently pumping dollars into China and India, he is credited with developing, in 1974, the ‘Sufficiency Economy Philosophy’ aimed at developing ‘a foundation with the majority of the people having enough to live on’. When economic crisis came in the 1990s, and countries like Malaysia streaked ahead in economic terms (but also in terms of economic inequality), he argued that ‘being an [economic] tiger is not important. The important thing for us is to have a sufficient economy.’ Bhumibol’s philosophy emphasised the use of land, rather than the rhetoric of corporate capital or military strength. In doing so it recognised the visceral truth of the relative fertility of the region; the indigenous name for Thailand is Suvarnabhumi (‘golden earth’). Promotional films seen in every cinema showed the king testing the soil, walking with farmers, releasing silvery fish into the rivers, comforting the poor with his hands wrapped around theirs. Interestingly, too, Bhumibol was widely considered to be a divine-king of the spirit-type – the spirit of Thailand in human form. Symbolically, he was, perhaps, the last of the true king-gods.

The Sufficiency Economy Philosophy has since influenced UN thinking about supporting developing nations and protecting them from the ravages of trade empires. It certainly has its weaknesses, not least in failing to ensure the wealthy fulfil their responsibilities, and discouraging the poor from seeking greater support from internal or external sources. Nevertheless, what is at issue here is whether land dictates law, or humans do. This is a philosophy that recognises that, at some level, the system of life on a given piece of territory is self-governing: land has its own ideas about the organisation of society and enforces them with a soft, but irresistible power. Human ideas appear flimsy and tenuous in comparison. In his political masterpiece Leviathan, with its famous frontispiece image of a vast god-like king striding across the landscape, Thomas Hobbes recommended that political sovereigns be accorded absolute power. This was because the machinery of nationhood needs a controller whose intercession is strong enough to avert the sordid, brutal state of nature that lurks beneath the veneer of society. But this goes to the heart of the difference between human sovereignty and ‘spirit sovereignty’; human sovereignty is conceived as something imposed from above on to a chaotic state of nature that is to be avoided at all costs. But the forms of spirit sovereignty affirm the state of nature as something with its own inner force of regulation: hunger, harvest, procreation, space, animal life, ecosystem, are all quickly shown to be interdependent.

Consider Gunung Bromo: its extremely steep upper-volcanic slopes resist animal husbandry, but its volcanic soil encourages a strong agrarian base which itself dictates the organisation of labour. The radical changes in altitude facilitate different terraced crops at different levels, and that in turn encourages local trade between mountain communities at different altitudes to produce a rich and varied diet and a multi-staged mercantile community – the same principle, in fact, that united the Andean regions of ancient Peru into a functioning altitude-based trade network. Perhaps sacred land, with its own quiet form of administration, has something to teach the modern patchwork of tenuous nation states and contested manifestos?

Living Community versus Dead Territory

Rather like Hobbes’ imagined king-made-of-the-people, a land-spirit is ‘alive’: its metabolism arises naturally out of the exchanges that make the land work. These exchanges are chemical, encompassing the biosphere and the geography of water and rock, rain and stone. They are biological, comprising creatures who teem on its surface engaged in a system of energy transfers, and of course, they are cultural, including the different clans and settlements, classes and cultural styles that must negotiate a viable ongoing social system among themselves. These many relationships weave what the philosopher-anthropologist Bruno Latour calls an ‘actor-network’ of vibrant agencies that are highly sensitised to each other. Spirit-governed space tends to seek self-sufficiency unto its own land, creating independent systems, for spirits rarely do trade deals. Perhaps this is why they have been so widely supplanted by human rulers, from the age of empires onwards.

This is important – theories of contemporary community tend to wonder in desultory fashion how we came to have such empty societies. Neighbourly feeling is at a low. Communal events like festivals or fairs are rare and often invented for commercial gain – levels of transient residence are high, investment in local projects is low. The idea of community has become something of a mythic ideal associated with imaginary villages and distant tribes. The sociologist and philosopher, Zygmunt Bauman, in his work Liquid Modernity published in 2000, portrays the current system as a kind of rootless postmodern social state of transitory being, full of sound and fury, but with no real goal. It never pauses for thought in its constant drive toward modernisation. Bauman suggests that modernity is conducive of a sort of nostalgia for the solidity of territory. Indeed, this is a major feeder of the modern forms of nationalism that prize not an intimate, lived community such as we see in spirit-states, functioning tribes, or city-states, but an abstract flag-and-map driven idea of nation. We see this in the America that is identified with fantasies of small-town life, the Dar al-Islam identified with a medieval image of colonising caliphates, the Europe of golden-haired wholesome peasants or nobles in marble palaces, and the India that imagines itself a gurukula of wise Brahmins and noble yogis. Territory divested of any actual content tends to become the ideological fuel for what Bauman calls ‘explosive communities’ driven by political nationalism that is in fact empty of ideas. Those who support nationalisms are often (though not always) the least mobile members of the nation, who know least about any piece of it beyond their backyard or private account.

Trade empires have nevertheless taken to vying with localised regional ‘unions’ – such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Arab League, African League, and the beleaguered EU. Trade is the new territory-making, life-shaping god – and often it has positive consequences of many kinds, facilitating media empires and ‘imagined communities’ that spread across vast territorial distances. But trade economy is also a volatile ruler. History has shown that colonialism’s initial pumping-in of foreign resources to a region is often followed by a tendency to overextend a colony’s reliance on the likes of produce, oil, and arms.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm’s classic analysis of modern statehood pointed an accusatory finger at the lack of a deep economy, showing how it had been supplanted by a transnational elite economy that tends to cannibalise the interests of the people. Oil shapes the nation of Saudi Arabia, for instance, but has little to do with the economy of everyday life – of specialised farming in an arid landscape, dependent on patterns of rainfall, growth and migration, supported by highly cooperative structures of labour that keep villages alive and eating, elevated by small-scale trade and the relations of teaching, healthcare, sheltering through building and repair, and that most local form of ‘media’ that is constituted not by television, radio or Facebook, but by actual face-to-face conversation between neighbours. Politics no longer knows how to deal with such intimacies – it can only fake it, constructing inauthentic visions of ‘home’, in the place of real relationships. The spirit-sovereignty that we still see in animist cultures offers a reminder of a world in which the many-faceted environment of interactions quietly builds community from the ground up.

Strong, Silent, Spirit Leadership

But spirit land has another, more political advantage. Who makes a better leader? A human or a spirit-mountain? A mountain would appear to be a bad choice: silent and immobile, shy of the microphone, low on rhetoric – it is the almost-comic epitome of the laissez-faire leader. But on closer inspection it is responsive – showing by its provision of resources what is and is not possible. It does inspire unity, for the aesthetic of the landscape and the way it shepherds human dwelling and movement. It does arbitrate conflicts, if only by an unbending ruling on what kinds of life can function under its auspices. It does of course have weaknesses: it does not know how to deal with human hierarchy and corruption, and although its natural need to be cooperatively cultivated eventually imposes a kind of balance, nevertheless generations may be crushed beneath the wheel before that balance is achieved. But there is a practical wisdom embedded in this practice.

Spirit-land can also be appropriated by the concept of birthright, and used to lock down its territory against migrants into the region. As Hindu nationalism has advanced, a new goddess has emerged, Bharat Mata or ‘Mother India’, a resplendent queenly deity who is superimposed on to a map of the subcontinent. Some claim that she favours her Hindu subjects, and is uncomfortable about the foreigners on her flanks; in a study of the evolution of Indian religious mappings of its territory, the historian Sumathi Ramaswamy has noted that Mother India’s sari has a habit of spreading out to subsume the contested states of the eastern and western subcontinent. One wonders how non-Hindus of those regions feel about the figurative pall of silk over their heads. In some cases, spirits can be used to claim the land for the increased worldly glory of their priests and devotees. A spirit-landlord who silently nurtures all of its inhabitants with luscious fruit grown in volcanic soil is one thing; one who issues orders via a politically astute mouthpiece seeking to consolidate its power is quite another. In short, the question is – how does spirit-power translate into human-power?

In the rhetorical whirl of words that shapes the political media in the modern world, it can be helpful for the land to play the role of a third party: silent, but present. Spirit-sovereigns cannot claim power for themselves, or be swayed toward any interest group – they simply wait and see whether the balance of the ecosystem tallies at the end of the day. An interesting example of this principle is an event that took place in 1992, again in Thailand. As an intensifying political crisis between rioting political factions peaked, the king made a rare public intervention into politics. He summoned the leaders of the two main political parties into his presence to discuss the situation. What captured the imagination of the people was the silent visual image of the two leaders kneeling like schoolboys before the calm King Bhumibol, who was dressed in a crisp cream-coloured suit, with a stern black handkerchief peaking from his pocket. It is not what was done or said, but something about the presence of a symbol of the country itself, of shared wellbeing, had an impact that no wordy spin-doctor could match. The staged negotiation succeeded: crowds dispersed and the political crisis was averted. One wonders what such an image might look like for Israel and Palestine, for the United States and Mexico, for the Middle East and the West.

Sacred-Sovereign Lands in Global Politics

It’s not that we should or can go back to an animist conception of land and its politics: one cannot simply invent gods to serve political ends. Installing spirit-pillars in Stockholm’s Vasteras, London’s Finsbury Park, or LA’s Compton in order to generate an artificial sense of community seems unlikely to work, although the novelty value might have some positive effects. But even a greater focus on land might now fail to connect with a world where white-collar jobs predominate and trade disrupts the significance of location. This is partly why, in Thomas Hardy’s 19th century novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, the tale of responsible farming is ultimately a comedy, while in his Jude the Obscure, the story of urban life is a tragedy through and through. The eponymous Tess (of the d’Urbervilles) thrives as a milkmaid, but not as a servant or a mistress. Catherine Earnshaw loses her grasp on the good when she gives up the moors for the fine parlours of the Linton family in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. The lesson of these works is that we have not yet figured out how to be organisms living on the land in a global-capitalist world of trade empires and states that are governed through the fine strings of the media. We no longer know where the strong, silent ‘ground beneath us’ lies.

But the dynamics of spirit-space should give us pause in the melee of schemes and plots that we have come to think of as the fabric of political life. There is a metabolism that accompanies every physical community. It constitutes its life, encompassing every person who dwells in that space. It is egalitarian and meritocratic. All dwellers have an equal right to participation in spirit-space, and spirits themselves accept whoever is on the land and can negotiate it without damage, coaxing out its gifts.

Perhaps this is why it can be such a visceral relief to walk on the slopes of a god that lives through the soil underfoot in its chemical reactions, energy-exchanges, human collaborations and conversations that take place within the territory. It has integrity, it cannot lie. And it is natural not in the sense that expensive hipster coconut oil shampoos sealed in recyclable plastic containers are ‘all-natural’, but in the specific technical sense that it transparently arises from a communal rationale of cooperation and shared resources.

What is the take-home message of this brief tour around animist ideologies of divine sovereignty? Land is not a two-dimensional space it is a network of causal relations, raw resources and their continual transformation which brings possibilities into being at every turn. Land makes us feel this logic, even when all our modern ideals of community have begun to sound hollow. How absurd to imagine Gunung Bromo, the Ganges, or the eastern Mediterranean’s contested fertile bank, sitting alongside the UN heads of state, silently observing the proceedings – but there is also power in according agency to these silent partners. When land is brought by the vigorous imagination of religious reason into the messy matrix of politics, it can give us a better sense of a living network of relationships, visceral and organic, that politics is really supposed to be serving in the first place.

This essay originally appeared under the title Fairy Tales of Statehood:
the politics of sacred land and divine-kings in Nation, State and Empire: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2017.


Jessica Frazier