cover image Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine

Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine

Anna Della Subin. Metropolitan, $32 (480p) ISBN 978-1-250-29687-0

Bidoun editor Subin examines in this thought-provoking if overstuffed study instances in which earthly men have been worshipped as gods. Documenting the relationship between such cases of “accidental divinity” and “something else we mistake for eternal: the modern concept of race,” Subin starts with 20th-century examples including Rastafarianism, which saw several spontaneous and distinct strands of thought identifying the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I as a Black messiah in the 1930s, and the deification of England’s Prince Philip by some inhabitants of the island of Tanna in the South Pacific. Subin also explores the interplay between deification and politics in India, where “the act of defining religion was also an act of justifying colonialism,” and notes that Annie Besant, a British Theosophist and advocate for Indian self-governance, was the first person to call Gandhi “Mahatma,” or “great soul,” an “epithet he would come to loathe.” Turning to the Americas, Subin argues that European explorers’ accounts of being confused for gods by Indigenous peoples were used “to justify conquest and maintain European supremacy in the fragile settlements.” Subin draws intriguing and illuminating connections between race and religion, but the book’s various strands don’t quite cohere as convincingly as she suggests. Still, this is a stimulating and challenging look at a fascinating historical phenomenon. (Dec.)