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An Imperial cult is a form of state religion in which an emperor, or a dynasty of emperors (or rulers of another title), are worshiped as messiahs, demigods or deities. "Cult" here is used to mean "worship," not in the modern pejorative sense. The cult may be one of personality in the case of a newly arisen Euhemerus figure or one of national identity (e.g., Ethiopian Empire or Empire of Japan) or supranational identity in the case of a multi-ethnic state (e.g., Imperial Era China, Roman Empire). A divine king is a monarch who is held in a special religious significance by his subjects, and serves as both head of state and a deity or head religious figure.


Ancient Egypt

The Ancient Egyptian male pharaohs were believed to be incarnations of the god Horus, derived by being the son of the sun deity, Hathor (or later, Isis), or the sky deity, Nut. Pharaohs, both female and male, traced their lineage directly through the matrilineality (a minority, and mostly debunked theory) of the royal women. Some women who were pharaohs, such as Hatshepsut, went to great lengths to trace their lineage to the most ancient of goddesses, such as Mut. Egyptian pharaohs were considered deified only upon their death.

Ancient China

In ancient China, an emperor was considered the Son of Heaven. The scion and representative of heaven on earth, he was the ruler of all under heaven, the bearer of the Mandate of Heaven, his commands considered sacred edicts. A number of legendary figures preceding the proper imperial age of China also hold the honorific title of emperor, such as the Yellow Emperor and the Jade Emperor.

Ancient Rome

In the Roman Empire the Imperial cult was the worship of the Roman emperor as a god. This practice began at the start of the Empire under Augustus, and became a prominent element of Roman religion.

The cult spread over the whole Empire within a few decades, more strongly in the east than in the west. Emperor Diocletian further reinforced it when he demanded the proskynesis and adopted the adjective sacrum for all things pertaining to the imperial person.

The deification of emperors was gradually abandoned after the emperor Constantine I started supporting Christianity. However, the concept of the imperial person as "sacred" carried over, in a Christianized form, into the Byzantine Empire: in the context of Caesaropapism, the Byzantine emperor was considered "God-crowned", was called Isapotoles, "Equal-to-the-Apostles", and regarded as God's vicegerent on Earth.


In ancient Japan, it was customary for every clan to claim descendancy from gods (ujigami), and the royal family or clan tended to define their ancestor as the dominant, or most important kami of the time. Later in history, this was considered common practice by noble families, and the head members of the family, including that of the imperial family, were not seen to be divine. It was not until the Meiji period, that the Japanese Emperor began to be venerated under a system of State Shinto, along with a growing sense of nationalism.


Tibetan Buddhism uses the so-called "tulku"-system, an ancient way of finding the reincarnation of a previous deceased lama: they are usually young boys, sometimes of wealthy and influential families and sometimes of peasant families like the current 14th Dalai Lama, that are "found" and enthroned as the reincarnation of an 'enlightened', usually male, person that has already deceased. Every "tulku" is still called by the title of "Rinpoche" and is given as much respect as his previous incarnation. Complying with each and every wish of a child- or adult tulku is not unusual. "Tulkus" lead responsible lives because of their status as a bodhisattva. While most "tulkus" are monks, some tulkus choose to lead normal lives with families of their own.

Examples of divine kings in history

Some examples of historic leaders who are often considered divine kings are:

  • Asia
    • Chinese pseudo-Christian leader Hong Xiuquan, leader of the Taiping Rebellion, claimed to be Christ's younger brother, and attempted to establish rule as a divine king.
    • Korean Buddhist monk Gung-ye, King of Taebong.
    • The Japanese emperor Hirohito up to the end of World War II.
    • Javanese Kings during the Hindu-Buddhist era (4th century – 15th century CE) such as the Sailendra dynasty, the Kediri, the Singhasari, and the Majapahit empire.
    • Kings of Khmer Empire, Cambodia.
    • Srivijaya emperors.
    • The Dalai Lamas of Tibet.
  • Americas
    • Kings of the Mayan city-states of the Classical period
    • Inca Emperors in Pre-Columbian
    • Kings of the Hawaiian Islands before 1839
  • Europe
    • Many Roman emperors were declared gods by the Roman Senate (generally after their death).

See also

Further reading

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Imperial cult. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.