Throughout history, men, often inadvertently, proved remarkably susceptible to deification by others. So common was this occurrence that it has rarely received sustained attention as a phenomenon sui generis. In her sweeping essay, Anna Della Subin breaks new ground by investigating the making of such Accidental Gods.
From the early modern period to the late Prince Philipp’s sojourns in the South Pacific, Della Subin tracks the emergence of unlikely deities. Her case studies range across the globe, including the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I, who found himself sainted by Rastafarians in faraway Jamaica, and US General MacArthur, who became the subject of worship not just in one particular place, but in four different countries: Japan, Panama, New Guinea and South Korea.
Della Subin untangles the complex web of motives and circumstances that conspired in the creation of such improbable gods. In this story, deification was a profoundly ambiguous process. To be sure, in many ways it mirrored and reinforced existing power relations in the age of colonialism. Yet upon closer inspection, veneration of foreign European arrivals, far from consecrating white ascendancy, could also be a vector of anti-imperial defiance. Appropriating the power of oppressors was a way of turning it against them. Exalting mere mortals as supranatural cult figures in many instances channelled emancipatory impulses. Accidental Gods not only provides novel insights into the long history of colonialism but also into the unforeseeable dynamics of cultural misunderstandings and the myth-making surrounding past constructions of whiteness and masculinity.
ANNA DELLA SUBIN is a writer, critic, and independent scholar born in New York. Her essays have appeared in the New York Review of Books, Harper’s, the New York Times, and the London Review of Books. A senior editor at Bidoun, she studied the history of religion at Harvard Divinity School. Accidental Gods is her first book.