Of Liminal Periods & Charismatic Saints

What do saints and warlords have in common, according to Graeber and Wengrow in Dawn of Everything? And how come we don’t “see” them in history?

Continuing with chapter 10 of Dawn of Everything…

Yesterday the topic was the three political forms that have to amalgamate or converge to form recognizable “states”; and how small-scale bureaucracies, as they spread village by village over a large geographic area with cultural uniformity, are really pre-city, pre-state civilizations.

The two political forms that most often converge to form a recognized state are sovereignty and bureaucracy. But what about the third possibility, charismatic or heroic leaders who occupy a competitive field? Today I want to consider two sections of ch. 10 (pp 414-418 and pp 427-431) and think about liminal periods, charismatic or heroic leaders, seasonality, and ritual vs monumentality.


In the first section under consideration, Graeber and Wengrow revisit the case of Egypt according to their three principles, this time contrasting the absolute sovereignty and administrative bureaucracy of pharaohs during the Old Kingdom with the charismatic or heroic character of local governors or warlords during the “dark ages” of the First Intermediate period, during which centralized authority broke down.

Local potentates

represent themselves as something closer to popular heroes, even saints. Neither was this always just idle boasting; some were indeed revered as saints for centuries to come. No doubt charismatic local leaders had always existed in Egypt; but with the breakdown of the patrimonial state, such figures could begin to make open claims of authority based on their personal achievements and attributes… skills, public service and piety to the gods… (p. 417)

One of these nomarchs celebrates his achievements in terms reminiscent of the Jesus’ words in the New Testament (!) — as a liminal, charismatic, pious, and powerful figure if ever there was one.

“I gave bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked; I anointed those who had no cosmetic oil; I gave sandals to the barefooted; I gave a wife to him who had no wife… I took care… in every [crisis]… and I did not allow anybody to die of hunger… I am the hero without equal.” (p. 417)

The transition between the Old Kingdom in Egypt and the First Intermediate period, say Graeber and Wengrow, “was not so much as shift from ‘order’ to ‘chaos’ — as Egyptological orthodoxy once had it — as a swing from ‘sovereignty’ to ‘charismatic politics’ as different ways of framing the exercise of power.” (p. 418)


Is “Late Antiquity” (cf Peter Brown who defined the age, and field of study, against similarly “orthodox” historians who saw only chaos and decline) similarly a move from sovereignty to the charismatic? The challenge at hand for this era seems to be how to explain the Roman Empire becoming Christianized. How did an expanding Jesus movement, follower their charismatic hero, stack up against the Roman caesars as the barbarians came knocking at the gate?

The “shift in emphasis” Graeber and Wengrow notice in the case of early Egypt is “from the people’s care of god-like rulers to the [charismatic leader’s] care of the people as a legitimate path to authority.” (p. 418) Which rulers make demands for popular service to their own increasingly false or petty divinity; and which become increasingly recognized as Lord with a promise of salvation, a gospel? To ask what kind of era one is in, one can ask: in which direction is “care” flowing?

Finally, Graeber and Wengrow (again, treating the Egyptian case) consider the presence of “grandiose monuments.” Compare traditional historians, who take monumentality as prime indicator of a “great civilization.”

Monuments like the Egyptian pyramids… were attempts to make a certain kind of power seem eternal… Inscriptions or objects designed to project an image of cosmic power — palaces, mausoleums, lavish stelae with godlike figures announcing laws or boasting of their conquests — are precisely the ones most likely to endure, thereby forming the core of the world’s major heritage sites and museum collections today. Such is their power that even now we risk falling under their spell. (p. 430)

(Cf also at p. 378 the magnificent Classic Maya artistic tradition, “one of the greatest the world has ever seen.”)

I’m reminded of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias.

As monumentality fades, it’s not that a genuine civilization is lost. — It depends what you mean by civilization! What, instead, might be “seen” in a charismatic and liminal era?

There’s also a big difference between what a powerful king claims he can do, what his monuments claim and proclaim, and “what [he is] actually able to do.” (p. 430) Just as (proverbially) laws tend to be made precisely because people are not behaving as desired (so laws are hardly good evidence for the behavioral norms of any period), so perhaps, the more monumental is the “show” a sovereign power puts on, the more likely it may be that the power is nothing but a show! — And destined for nothing but decay.


Whence: liminal periods and charismatics.

But not all show is monumental and eternal. Charismatic princes also perform on a competitive field. This is part of their political form. This kind of performance is theatrical rather than monumental, ephemeral rather than eternal. Roles tend to be part-time, and the “state” is only seasonal.

Many early “states” were thus “largely seasonal phenomena” (p. 429).

At least as far back as the Ice Age, seasonal gatherings could be stages for the performance of something that looks to us a bit like kingship; rulers held court only during certain periods… police powers… warfare, the business of government [all] tended to concentrate strongly upon certain times of year: there were months full of building projects, pageants, festivals, census-taking, oaths of allegiance, trials and spectacular executions…

Correspondingly, there were other times when the people “and sometimes even the king himself” simply went back to attend to the planting, harvesting, and pasturage.

So “it doesn’t mean these kingdoms weren’t real: they were capable of mobilizing, or for that matter killing and maiming, thousands… It just means that their reality was, in effect, sporadic” (p. 429).

Seasonal activities “on a stage” are show, theater, spectacle — but unlike monuments, they are sporadically so. They may even be — as Graeber and Wengrow, in previous chapters, describe seasonal experimentation in agriculture — “play” however deadly.

It’s when spectacular and theater activities become “serious” that “play kingdoms began to take on more substance.” In other words, they seek to become permanently (eternally) sovereign, not only administrative but institutionalized, and written-in-stone monumental in their “civilizational” art.

Making Ritual Last

How does the transition this way happen?

Graeber and Wengrow consider that

Ethnography also teaches us that kings are rarely content with the idea of being a sporadic presence in most of their subjects’ lives… [they] try to insert themselves into the rhythms of ordinary social life by insisting that no one can swear an oath, or marry, or even greet one another without invoking their name. (p. 429)

Much as later heads of state put their face on coinage, a charismatic king may seek permanent (earthly!) power when he wants to become “the necessary means” by which people relate to each other and run their daily lives. His “portrait” wants to be everywhere, his “name” everywhere, his presence everywhere, vicariously or through representation.

Jesus’ admonishments in the Beatitudes and elsewhere (especially in Matthew’s Gospel) come to mind. Old practices have become rigidly and improperly institutionalized: oath-taking, the invocation of God’s name, the parable of the coin. Given the gospel contexts of the discussions, t’s not just wannabe kings who desire a godlike, cosmic presence to be established in ordinary people’s lives. It’s the scribes and Pharisees.

Incipient sovereigns, that is, charismatic chiefs who come to power during liminal periods who don’t want to remain as liminal figures, come to desire the status of “real kings.” They come to make “cosmic claims in royal ritual.”

If ‘the state’ means anything, say Graeber and Wengrow,

it refers to precisely the totalitarian impulse that lies behind all such [cosmic] claims, the desire effectively to make the ritual last forever. (p. 430)

No more play, no more seasonality, no more performative stage.

The irony, however, is that as the liminal charismatic seeks eternal sovereignty, complete with a bureaucratic infiltration of the everyday, “their grandeur seems to bear almost no relation to [their] actual power.” The show grows at the expense of saintly reality.

Sovereigns who are propped up in “everlasting rituals” can’t actually make anybody do anything. Graeber and Wengrow’s second basic freedom is: to refuse to obey. At the very least, they can’t make anybody do anything who is at the slightest remove from an immediate coercive presence, who refuses to be coerced. The first basic freedom is: to move away.

Monumentality ends (erstwhile “civilization” ends), ironically, in becoming a ruin in the sand, or a museum piece.