At the beginning of November, in Dallas, hundreds of supporters of former president Donald Trump converged on Dealey Plaza, the site of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. They were there to await the imminent return of the late John F. Kennedy Jr.—a flock of right-wingers convinced that the long-dead, jet-setting, magazine-publisher scion of the most mythologized Democratic political family was about to emerge from hiding, join forces with Trump, and sweep their enemies from power.
It was all paradoxical and absurd, from a rational point of view. It was also an extremely ordinary sort of event. The writer Anna Della Subin does not cover the John-John phase—or any of the QAnon conspiracy cult—in Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine, but she doesn’t need to. From Jamaica to Japan, from cosmopolitan centers to remote islands, she recounts the repeated emergence of the unlikeliest messiahs, intercessors, and other holy and unholy figures—a continual insurgency of the irrational throughout the creation of our supposedly disenchanted present-day world. Their stories trace a history of what Subin calls mythopolitics—“how politics takes place in the dreamworlds of the popular.”
“The accidental god haunts modernity,” Subin writes. Against the background of wars, uprisings, ideological awakenings, and the rise and fall of colonial empires, divinities and demons have kept claiming the most improbable of vessels. A harsh administrator in French Niger locks up restive people, and his own disembodied spirit possesses them and breaks them out of jail. A Japanese dissident religion, caught up in the spirit of universalism, decides to deify Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto.
Anthropologists set out to study people’s beliefs, only to discover those people choose to believe in the anthropologists. Four separate cultures, finding themselves in four separate footprints of American military empire, each respond by investing General Douglas MacArthur with some form of godhood.
A Japanese dissident religion, caught up in the spirit of universalism, decides to deify Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto.
What these new gods may have wanted has little or nothing to do with it. While the young Haile Selassie was focused on securing his newly acquired throne in Addis Ababa, an assortment of prophecy-minded Jamaicans—without anyone thinking to consult the Ethiopian monarch—read the coverage of his coronation and “had the same idea almost simultaneously,” that the emperor of Ethiopia, with the white rulers of Europe paying him homage, must be ex officio the holy redeemer of the world’s Black people. Even as the new ruler set aside his birth name, Tafari Makonnen, what would eventually become nearly a million people were gathering to the worship of Ras Tafari.
Countless people have embraced, and acted on, premises at least as strange as the ones swirling around American politics today. In 1921, a tale spread through India that Gandhi had walked unscathed through fire to win independence from the British in a wager, and “huge crowds assembled in triumph, believing that India was free.” A year later, convinced Gandhi’s spirit turned bullets to water, protesters swarmed a police station, were shot, and retaliated with arson, killing 23 officers and sparking an uprising. “Gandhi had become a dark double of himself, a divine twin who undermined his own message of nonviolence by igniting an incendiary love,” Subin writes.
Nor did these events move only from the bottom of empire upward. The Suez Canal, Subin recounts, was begun by “an eccentric group of pilgrim-engineers,” as a spiritually masculine construction project to complement their quest in Egypt for a female messiah.
The whole history of first contact, in which explorers and conquistadors were received as gods, was told by the explorers and conquistadors themselves, entangling barely understood indigenous words for strangeness with their own imported concepts of holiness. Under this reversal, Subin writes, “[a]potheosis was the natives’ mistake, and so Europeans could claim no responsibility for it.” From this myth of themselves as visibly separate and divine, she argues, the colonizers would develop their belief in racial distinction. “With the arrival of the new deities, the modern concept of race had come into the New World.”
Subin writes about these concepts and events essayistically, flowing from historical narratives and case studies to flashes of epigrammatic insight. What seems like a symbolic resonance often enough turns out to be literal (“This will show the world / That we are / Male,” a leader of the Suez project wrote in a poem), and what sound like distant spiritual curiosities turn out to be disconcertingly close.
Thus we get the case of Prince Philip, the late consort of Queen Elizabeth II, known in the popular press as a sort of boorish caricature of useless aristocracy but worshipped in certain villages in the Pacific archipelago nation of Vanuatu as “the son of the volcano god Kalbaben.” Abroad, this was taken as a comical footnote to Philip’s career, but Subin—without sacrificing the inherent humor—grounds it in the history of a colonized land ravaged by “the chaos and dysfunction of the Anglo-French Condominium, or Pandemonium, as it was known,” and suffering from the suppression of its folk traditions by missionaries.
Prince Philip was worshipped in certain villages in the Pacific archipelago nation of Vanuatu as “the son of the volcano god Kalbaben.”
Philip, sailing past the island of Tanna in the early 1970s on the royal yacht Britannia without stopping there, was drawn into a political and theological clash among splinter cults devoted to “an enigmatic deity” called “John Frum, possibly a derivation of ‘John from America.’” The prince, whose tangled and migratory family background left him “seeming to originate from nowhere on earth,” slotted into the cosmology of the volcano god’s scattered family.
Subin notes, in a deft pivot, that the silly primitive belief that the power of God would be invested in a member of the British royal family was the premise behind the British monarchy. And the various surrounding rituals wrapped up in the Western idea of the “cargo cult”—postwar islanders building fake airstrips and parading in ersatz U.S. military uniforms with wooden guns—are no more novel and artificial than the wedding and coronation spectacles concocted by the House of Windsor to shore up its image in the mass-media age. Whose strange belief systems are imposed on whom?
Subin tells how the British writer Matthew Baylis brought collected examples of the Philip mythology to Vanuatu in 2005, to check them against the local folklore, only to have his guide pilfer the papers and read them to villagers in advance, priming them with the legends. She quotes Baylis quoting a local chief about the pointlessness of his mission: “If you’d understood anything, I don’t think you’d have come here with stories on pieces of paper, because you’d have known that our thing isn’t like that, it’s alive and it’s moving.”
The Philip stories, the chief says, are like “a stone thrown into a pond… in the end you can only see the last of the ripples and not the stone or the place where the stone went in.” Ripples are spreading around all of us, from Dealey Plaza or from Capitol Hill. Subin writes, of the Philip cult, “It doesn’t matter whether anyone believes it or not; belief is not the right question to ask. As [Thomas] Merton wrote, ‘When a myth-dream is constantly in the papers and on TV, it seems pretty real!’”
Tom Scocca is the politics editor of Slate and the editor of Hmm Weekly