Has the state been cleansed of the exciting but freakish-looking cosmic mythology we find in the ancient Near East? Drastic shifts in form and political economy, intertwined with critiques such as those of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Spinoza, seem to have left this gory political theology far behind. But there is something to Schmitt’s leering suggestion that Hobbes did nothing but reanimate the Leviathan and give it a new role.
Today, states can now seem more human than actual people. Logistically, it is easier for mass media to portray a state as a person than to portray groups of actual stateless people this way. After all, they can communicate, spend, save, and fight on far larger scales than, say, refugees. This explains much of the struggle to mediate pictures of victims; the injuries and deaths of the stateless become harder to believe since they lack a home address.
But if states are cast in daily news dramas as unassuming persons with a natural, even God-given set of rights, a look at the history of this figure can disrupt the naturalness of such assumptions. Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies shows that in the European Middle Ages, states were very different kinds of persons, providing a powerful contrast as well as analogy to ancient and modern notions. The king was thought of as two entirely different kinds of persons that met temporarily in any specific king: he had a human body but like Jesus Christ he embodied something that was in reality entirely nonhuman and eternal. The medieval political theology of Christendom flowed from Christology. Unlike modern idealizations of the state, the king’s eternal body did not, for example, include the people, and was perfectly capable of being opposed to his physical body, as in the famous case when Parliament, acting on behalf of the eternal royal body, convicted the physical instance of the king of treason and sentenced his body to death (a moment of acute interest to Hobbes).
Personification of the state as a body–with its purest example in fascism’s unity of people as hierarchically placed organs and limbs– is very old. There seems to be an Indo-European myth of the ordered world as sacrificed body, which needs a priest to repeat the killing. But this state was only personified as an agent–it did not feel or hurt; it only took victims.
A set of new myths and practices around the individual, no less than developments in technology and the social organization of media, suggests a great modern innovation. This is the state as patient: feeling, sensitive, even hurt., The State That Takes Selfies.
An old story in anthropology has it that in the 20s’ a Native Canadian went knocking door-to-door in Ottowa because he wanted to meet the State, who he’d heard so much about. The personhood of states is probably the most powerful modern myth. It’s not just that it lets the different groups using the state as a forwarding address (as it were) get away with so much, as that it encourages everyone to act as if they really live there.
Naturally hypersensitive to the mythology of state power, Carl Schmitt put the problem succinctly: is it any accident that Hobbes chose the giant monster God created and defeated, the Leviathan, as his personification of the state?
Alex Golub conceptualizes the historical arc of this myth succinctly: in the famous old political myths of dragonslaying, God’s defeat of the enemy Leviathan is the original act of sovereignty, allowing him to found his kingdom. After the early modern dethronement of God’s monopoly over the right to violence, the state itself becomes Leviathan.
In Iron Age and later Near Eastern myths, God gained the right to rule by defeating the cosmic dragon and sacrificially carving her body–logic that interestingly correlates with cross-cultural patterns of hierarchy and sacrifice. But the myth’s political meaning lay in God’s conferring his powers of sovereignty and violence on his microcosmic correlate, the king. Different versions of this act are narrated in the Babylonian Enūma Elish epic and Psalms 74 and 89. But Aaron Tugendhaft shows that earlier versions–in the diplomatic correspondence of Old Babylonian Mari and the Ugaritic Baal epic–already manipulate or question the neat correspondence between God and his mortal mini-me.
It is this logic that explains a series of strange biblical texts. In both Exodus 32 and the archaic poetry of Psalm 68, a remarkable level of violence is directed at a calf. It is defeated in some of the same ways the war-goddess Anat triumphs against cosmic enemies like Death and the “divine young bull” in Ugaritic myth. Cristiano Grotanelli’s “The Enemy King is a Monster: A Biblical Equation” showed that each is an instance of a larger mythic motif, in which a monstrous non-human creature must be dismembered to protect the cosmos.
Most striking was Grotanelli’s demonstration of how this old myth was transferred to human enemies: in both Judges 3 and 1 Samuel 15 a human king–Eglon of Moab and Agag, King of Amalek, are dismembered with similar cosmic significance. As Dumézil writes, explaining the absence of myths about gods and the presence in early Roman historical writing of themes typical of Indo-European myth,
The myths have been transferred from that great (macrocosmic or divine) world to this (Roman) world, and the protagonists are no longer the gods but great men of Rome who have taken on their characteristic traits.