Guy Stagg

What is it like to be worshipped as a god in one’s lifetime?

Haile Selassie and Prince Philip were two well-known members of the modern pantheon, but being venerated is not to be wished for, says Anna Della Subin

The young Emperor Haile Selassie. [Alamy]

In January 1780 the news reached London that Captain Cook had been killed and eaten in Hawaii. The story of his death was met with morbid fascination by the general public, inspiring paintings, poems and even a ballet. This ballet was so violent that one of the dancers accidentally stabbed another during the scene of the attack, yet it was also a fantastic success, touring the theatres of Europe and America. Soon aristocratic women were wearing dresses modelled on the natives who killed Cook, and interest in the explorer’s death continued into the 19th century, until one wit noted that every museum in the world contained a copy of the club that killed him. So, who was it that really deified Cook: the Hawaiians who murdered him or the Europeans who made a martyr of his memory?

Anna Della Subin’s Accidental Gods is filled with soldiers and sailors, rulers and royals, who found themselves worshipped in their own lifetimes. Some of these are well known, such as the Emperor Haile Selassie, appointed by the Rastafari religion as its saviour; or Prince Philip, anointed as their messiah by the Melanesian islanders in Vanuatu. Other cults are more obscure, such as the four different ones that emerged around the figure of General Stanley MacArthur — in Panama and Korea, New Guinea and Japan — or the more recent religion devoted to Donald Trump, which boasts just a single member. Taken together, they offer a fascinating tour through the endless diversity of the divine.

The book is divided into three parts. The first looks at a scattering of 20th-century gods; the second focuses largely on India and the age of empire; the third on the Americas and the age of exploration. Each chapter takes a new deity as its subject, while drawing together a vast range of sources — the high and the low, the sacred and the profane — to create beautiful passages of rhythmical prose.

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