Elizabeth as a Totem?

Kwakiutl gathering to worship totem

I found Dr. Mackey’s comparison of the Queen’s significance to that of a totemic symbol an interesting concept relevant to our discussions on what can be defined as religion. The concept and characteristics of totemic religions were heavily influenced by the work of Emile Durkheim, who we briefly passed over in class. The key idea is that each member of the community, though not related through blood, are bound in a symbolic kinship personified by a totem—an otherwise common object (usually a wild animal or plant) separated from its material form and sanctified as a emblem for the clan. Because the totem is essentially a projection of society in sacred form, reverence for the totem is simply reverence for the society itself.

1.5 million Brits gathering to see the Queen appear on the Buckingham Palace balcony during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

On the surface, there are problems translating the concept of the totem onto the Queen, who is a person rather than a wild animal or plant. But I think the concept of totemism is an interesting way to view the role of the monarchy in British society. The Queen is symbolically set apart from all other humans as a divinely sanctioned ruler, one to which all the British people share a common bond. Indeed, in order to become a legally recognized British citizen, this bond must be formalized through an oath of allegiance to the Queen. This is all consistent with a totemic figure. If this is true and the monarch is treated like a totem, such a distinction should be evident during specific, organized expressions of reverence towards the Queen. Civic rituals, specifically the coronation ceremony, offer this opportunity to examine how the Queen functions as a totem for the British people. The coronation ritual affirms the sacredness of the totem while reaffirming social bonds through powerful emotional communion. Understanding the monarchy through this lens seems useful in understanding how the redundant institution has persisted.

The official function of the coronation is to formalize the ascension of a normal individual to a divinely sanctioned King/Queen elevated above all others except God. The ceremony is therefore a highly religious ritual that incorporates a number of symbols to represent the sacred nature of the monarch. The most explicit statement of this is the anointing of the hands, head, and heart with consecrated oil. Alluding to the anointing of ancient kings of Israel, the Archbishop of Canterbury then recites:

And as Solomon was anointed king
by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet,
so be thou anointed, blessed, and consecrated King/Queen
over the Peoples, whom the Lord thy God
hath given thee to rule and govern,
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The monarch is then presented with a number of symbolic Crown Jewels. This includes the Scepters of the Cross and the Dove (spiritual authority under God), the Sovereign Orb (Defender of Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England), and a number of swords representing the duties of the monarch to the people. Finally, the monarch is crowned by the Archbishop, who asks God, “Bless we beseech thee this Crown, and so sanctify thy servant.” Every element of the ritual from before to after the crowning constructs an image of the sacred monarch, set apart from all. In many ways, a taboo develops around this figure. A commoner cannot just go up and shake the hand of the Queen or high five her (or if when given the chance, jeeelly fish, jeelly fish, jelly fish). There is an understood wall that divides the normal from the “sacred.”

While these rituals serve the formal function of sanctifying a new monarch, the event also creates a moment of intense emotional experience when the bonds of the society to the totem (which is simply society itself) are reexperienced and reinforced. It is thus a communal event that produces and maintains the group identity. Part of the ritual is the reaffirmation of the values that underlie and maintain social relations. These are recited when the Queen is presented with the Sword of the State:

With this sword do justice,
stop the growth of iniquity,
protect the holy Church of God,
help and defend widows and orphans,
restore the things that are gone to decay,
maintain the things that are restored,
punish and reform what is amiss,
and confirm what is in good order:
that doing these things you may be glorious in all virtue

Durkheim has an interesting quote  relating to this role of civic rituals: “there can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and collective ideas which make its unity and its personality.” The coronation is one example of this expression of collective ideas and identity. For us, the Fourth of July, President(s) Days, and other holidays serve a similar purpose.

A vaild question  for discussion is whether these more theoretical functions of the coronation (sanctifying the totem and reaffirming communal bonds) are actually relevant to modern day Britain. Since the last coronation in 1953, British society has certainly changed. Faith in religious institution has weakened significantly, posing the question of whether the population can be equally moved by the sacred elements of the ritual. Then there are completely different approaches than the functional view presented. A conflict perspective would see the ritual as one culture or social group asserting its dominance over all others. Instead of the coronation functioning to bring society into a communal celebration of its identity, it is simply the legitimation of the existing social power structure. There is a lot of room for debate.

My information on Durkheim is from: http://durkheim.uchicago.edu/Summaries/forms.html#pgfId=5290

The entire liturgy of the coronation ceremony can be viewed here: http://www.oremus.org/liturgy/coronation/cor1953b.html

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