Commanders and Kings in Antiquity

Spanish cave painting of bulls.

In these egalitarian times, it may be unfashionable to say so, but Nature which is the driving force behind life on Earth, has never worked on the basis of equality.

The lottery of the gene pool from which individuals take their abilities has always ensured that some are better endowed than others. Extraordinary people have always been required to solve problems, provide inspiration and, when life is under threat, devise ways of enabling it to survive.

The Influence of Ancient Magicians

The medicine man of antiquity, with his ritual dances, exotic gestures and magic potions exerted a strong influence over his tribe who looked to him to cure their ills, or banish bad luck from their lives. Shamans were able to make rain or drive the Moon from the face of the Sun during total solar eclipses. Sorcerers could curse and kill from a distance.

All this was power and power where it most mattered. It not only raised these “magicians” to special positions in society, but raised their families as well. In time, magic became a family business and a family secret. Their skills ensured their dominance, the dependence of the tribe ensured their continuity.

The Power of Cave Paintings

Another form of power was exploited by cave painters in Lascaux in France, Altamira in Spain or Panchmarhi in India where they made images of animals they hunted for food.

Some of these animals were shown pierced with spears. Other paintings were effectively X-ray images, showing the animals’ insides. From this and other evidence, paleontologists developed the theory that cave paintings were part of a system of sympathetic magic designed to promote success in the hunt.

The caves, infused with mystery and an eerie, frightening atmosphere, were the perfect stage for wizardry. The small oil lamps that passed for illumination flickered among the pools of darkness. Shadows moved over the walls. In this setting, the paintings took on a dreamlike air of virtual reality.

Afterwards, the hunters set out, spiritually fortified by the ceremonies. If the hunt was successful, it was easy to ascribe that success to the rituals, and the images painted on the walls.

Rivalry and War

Prehistoric cave dwellings were not isolated, Where the hunting grounds were fruitful, they attracted numerous families and the crowding, inevitably, led to rivalries.

Just as inevitably, rivalries led to war. Most early conflicts arose over food and water resources or the invasion of territory by neighboring tribes. The weapons – stakes, axes, bows and arrows – were already to hand: the tools that could kill animals could also be turned on enemies. So could the skills already developed for the hunt – strategy, tactics or the nerve to stage ambushes or apply the element of surprise.

In these circumstances, the most fearless warriors would naturally rise to positions of command. They knew by instinct how and where to attack the enemy, defend a position, work out a plan of action or inspire trust and confidence in others. How they knew, where their abilities came from, were part of the mystery that made them superior.

Warrior General, Warrior King, Warrior God

Wars and winning wars was so vital to the survival of the tribe that the warrior general soon became the warrior chief. In larger groupings, he would become the paramount chief or the warrior king. In addition, his rise to the pinnacle of power connected him to religion and the idea that monarchs enjoyed a line to the gods not given to other, more ordinary, mortals.

From there, it was easy to see kings as the earthly representative of the gods, and finally as gods themselves. These transitions were hardly difficult. Kings were an élite. The gods “spoke” to them, and only to them, after which they conveyed the divine pronouncements to the people.

In a superstitious age, the most obvious explanation was that successful commanders and kings were personally guided by the gods or spirits. Ultimately, all the most vital elements in life were claimed by, or accorded to, the king.

The Rights and Powers of Kings

One was the fertility of the soil. Another was the direction of religious ceremonies, on the principle that if the gods were present in the form of their earthly representatives, then prayers would be more efficacious. Yet another was the right of kings to choose their own successors.

Successors usually descended from former monarchs: they became kings in their own right on the premise that heredity had given them the same leadership qualities as their forebears.

Dynasties and Deference

In this way, dynasties, the greatest of all monopolies, were established and perpetuated. So was the veneration given to monarchs and the awe with which they were regarded. In time, these developments were exploited as policies designed to buttress royal or military eminence.

From around 4000BC, Sumerian leaders in Mesopotamia laid claim to divinity for precisely this purpose. Their powers, they asserted, came to them at birth from the deities who were their parents.


  1. Rudgeley, Richard: The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age (Pontypool, Wales, UK: Free Press, 2000)ISBN-10: 0684862700/ISBN-13: 978-0684862705 Pontypool, Wales, UK
  2. Jamison, Richard and Linda: Primitive Skills and Crafts: An Outdoorsman’s Guide to Shelters, Tools, Weapons, Tracking, Survival, and More New York, NY: (Skyhorse Publishing, 2007)ISBN-10: 1602391483/ISBN-13: 978-1602391482