Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine

Book review: Anna Della Subin’s investigation into ‘man-gods’ such as Gandhi is fascinating

For the island of Tanna Prince Philip’s divinity brings international recognition, visitors and film crews, and interest in the kastom way of life. Photograph: Torsten Blackwood/AFP via Getty

For the island of Tanna Prince Philip’s divinity brings international recognition, visitors and film crews, and interest in the kastom way of life. Photograph: Torsten Blackwood/AFP via Getty

“Do objects have souls?” wrote the writer and critic Anna Della Subin in a recent essay for Frieze magazine. The question emerged out of her decade-long investigation into the modern history of man-gods, those politicians, military officers, royals and explorers who found themselves unexpectedly deified – a piece of research that takes shape as a hefty work of literature spanning the globe and five centuries.

The issue of mundane objects such as scissors, clocks or agricultural implements being imbued with divinity forms only a small part of the book. However, Della Subin’s discussion of what Europeans from the late 15th century onwards dismissively referred to as “African” practices of worship is a key part of her argument, which is that colonialists used such practices as a “weapon against Africans”, as well as other populaces, to sanction their subjugation. Hegel, for example, pointed to “reports of fetishism and spirit possession to argue that the enslavement of Africans was part of the natural order of things”.

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