The Lion King, Sacral Kingship, and Why Presidents Get Blamed for the Economy

Toward the end of the Lion King, Simba returns from his self-imposed exile and walks through his devastated and barren homeland.  There has obviously been a drought.  We know from earlier dialogue that the lions have no food.  Something has gone terribly wrong.  Is it just Scar’s bad luck?  If so, why does it start to rain as soon as Simba has defeated Scar and reclaimed his rightful place on pride rock?  Is that just a coincidence?

Seems doubtful to me. 

Rather, it seems pretty clear that we are meant to understand that the weather just won’t cooperate for the usurper Scar the way it does for the rightful kings.  Why?  Well, one way to look at it is to say that the lions in the Disney universe are examples of what James Frazier, in his landmark study of comparative primitive religion, would have called sacral kings.  They have semi-divine status. And as rulers with semi-divine status, what happens to them has the potential to disturb the natural order of the world. 

In Frazier’s Golden Bough, he writes:

AT A CERTAIN stage of early society the king or priest is often thought to be endowed with supernatural powers or to be an incarnation of a deity, and consistently with this belief the course of nature is supposed to be more or less under his control, and he is held responsible for bad weather, failure of the crops, and similar calamities. To some extent it appears to be assumed that the king’s power over nature, like that over his subjects and slaves, is exerted through definite acts of will; and therefore if drought, famine, pestilence, or storms arise, the people attribute the misfortune to the negligence or guilt of their king, and punish him accordingly with stripes and bonds, or, if he remains obdurate, with deposition and death. Sometimes, however, the course of nature, while regarded as dependent on the king, is supposed to be partly independent of his will. His person is considered, if we may express it so, as the dynamical centre of the universe, from which lines of force radiate to all quarters of the heaven; so that any motion of his—the turning of his head, the lifting of his hand—instantaneously affects and may seriously disturb some part of nature. He is the point of support on which hangs the balance of the world, and the slightest irregularity on his part may overthrow the delicate equipoise. The greatest care must, therefore, be taken both by and of him; and his whole life, down to its minutest details, must be so regulated that no act of his, voluntary or involuntary, may disarrange or upset the established order of nature.

In many instances of sacral kingship, the ruler’s whole person and regime was hedged about by all sorts of taboos, the breaking of which could harm the kingdom’s food supply, cause defeat in war, or otherwise disturb the kingdom’s peace.  Sometimes, these taboos were exceedingly silly, like one Puerto Rican prohibition on the king looking at the sea or an Indian one prohibiting him from cutting his fingernails.  In other cases, the ruler’s taboo seem like the sort of sensible prohibition that any people should expect from their ruler.  In Mexican myth for instance, the legendary Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzcoatl gave up his throne in shame after having gotten drunk on pulque and broken the incest taboo by sleeping with his sister.[1] 


The opening of Sophocles’ Oedipal cycle is another great example of the outsized influence a king’s behavior could have on the land.  At the opening of Oedipus Rex, the Greek city of Thebes is in the same state as the Pride Lands were under Scar.   Oedipus, the king, happens to be reigning over a terrible famine.  As in The Lion King, this seems to be because someone has committed a terrible crime.  As in The Lion King, the crime in question seems to be the murder of the previous king.  As in The Lion King, it is isn’t entirely clear to the protagonist who is most at fault for it.  But whereas Simba mistakenly blames himself for Mufasa’s death, Oedipus wrongly thinks he is in the clear, so he vows to enact vengeance on the accurst criminal responsible for the drought at the first chance he gets.   Too late, Oedipus discovers that the murderer he is looking for is himself.  Earlier in his life, he had unwittingly killed a man on the road, and the man he had killed unfortunately just happened to be the king of Thebes  and spoiler alert even more unfortunately happened to be Oedipus’ true father (unbeknownst to him). 

Whoops, again!

 To add insult to injury, Oedipus had taken the place of the deceased king and married his father’s widow, which unwittingly involved him in an incest taboo with his own mother in the bargain.  

Double Whoops!

Anyways. The whole takeaway from all this is that the famine, which affected everyone, was really only Oedipus’ fault. That is, when a sacral king does bad things, everyone might suffer.

On the other hand, if the king’s ritual and moral behavior was flawless, he could ensure fertility for the land and his people.  For instance, in the upper Nile and Abyssinia (both exceedingly dry parts of the world), the only man given the title of king was the magician whose rituals brought about the seasonal rains.  When he was successful he could take one cow from each household as a tax.  When he failed, his subjects might stone him to death.  

So that’s a bit weird.

It gets weirder.

The medieval chronicler Gerald of Wales famously recounted a kingly inauguration ceremony in use among a certain medieval Irish tribe, in which the future chief would have ritualistic sex with a white mare, publicly, I take it.  The mare was then slaughtered, and a broth made out of the carcass.  The chief would then strip down naked in front of everyone and take a bath in it. 

How to explain this bizarre ritual?

Well, it might well just be one of those things that people liked to make up about the Irish.  On the other hand, one historical anthropologists sees it as a ritualized sacral marriage between the king and the goddess of the land, designed to ensure fecundity and fertility on the land and its peoples.[2]

When Christianity replaced paganism in various parts of Europe and the new world, it didn’t demolish this conceit so much as give it Christian forms, ones with quite a bit less horse-humping.   Medieval and Christian kings were still quasi-magical beings.  They were intentionally represented as Gods on earth.[3]  Some of them even had magical powers: both the French and English kings were thought to be able to heal scrofula simply by touching the patient.  Many of them continued to be praised or blamed for the weather.  In the 16th century King Gustavus Vasa of Sweden remarked about his people: “If they get no rain, they blame me; if they get no sunshine, the do likewise.  If hard times befall them—whether hunger, or pestilence, or whatever it may be—I always have to take the blame for it.  It is as if they did not realize that I am a human being, and no god.”[4] So that was a hard gig, I guess.

To summarize then.  The moral and ritual behavior of a sacral king has long been thought to have real consequences for the kingdom, not just because he or she might make good or bad decision, but because the whole order of the cosmos and the great circle of life itself is tied to his person.  

Which brings us full circle to Scar.  No doubt he broke a taboo. Actually, he broke three of them.  For starters, he killed his brother, so he broke the taboo on fratricide, and that’s no good.  Second, he killed the rightful king, so he committed a taboo on regicide, and that’s no good either.  Finally, he transgressed the natural order, by which I mean the order of first born succession, by usurping the throne from Simba. In the framework of sacral kingship, the natural world would surely have punished the land for these kingly transgressions by withholding its fecundity.   On the African Serengeti, this would mean the withholding of the rains, the desiccation of the land, and the departure of the herds.  Only by overthrowing Scar and taking his ritualistic and rightful place on Pride Rock could Simba restore the relationship between kingdom and nature, thus ushering back in the rains and the food supply.  

Thus, The Lion King is actually quite an old story about kingship, which is that the ruler’s legitimacy, and thus his popularity, can be measured by the degree to which his reign coincides with the material well-being of the people, even when that material well-being is caused by things that the king, in respect to material causality, had literally nothing to do with. 

In other words.  It’s the economy, stupid.

It is possible that the persistence of these deeply engrained habits of thought helps to explain why even though our modern presidents usually do very little that affects the economy either for better or for worse in the short term, they almost always get either the praise or blame for its ups and downs.

[1] Meyer, Michael and William Sherman.  The Course of Mexican History.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

[2] Bernard Maier, “Sacral Kingship in Pre-Christian Ireland.”  Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte vol 41 no 1 (1989).

[3] Paul Monod.  The Power of Kings.

[4] Rory McTurk, ”Sacral Kingship in Ancient Scandanavia: a review of some recent literature,” Saga-Book: Viking Society for Northern Research 19 (1975), 139.