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The Golden Bough

Chapter 6. Magicians as Kings
THE FOREGOING evidence may satisfy us that in many lands and many races magic
has claimed to control the great forces of nature for the good of man. If that has been so,
the practitioners of the art must necessarily be personages of importance and influence in
any society which puts faith in their extravagant pretensions, and it would be no matter
for surprise if, by virtue of the reputation which they enjoy and of the awe which they
inspire, some of them should attain to the highest position of authority over their
credulous fellows. In point of fact magicians appear to have often developed into chiefs
and kings.
Let us begin by looking at the lowest race of men as to whom we possess comparatively
full and accurate information, the aborigines of Australia. These savages are ruled neither
by chiefs nor kings. So far as their tribes can be said to have a political constitution, it is a
democracy or rather an oligarchy of old and influential men, who meet in council and
decide on all measures of importance to the practical exclusion of the younger men. Their
deliberative assembly answers to the senate of later times: if we had to coin a word for
such a government of elders we might call it a gerontocracy. The elders who in aboriginal
Australia thus meet and direct the affairs of their tribe appear to be for the most part the
headmen of their respective totem clans. Now in Central Australia, where the desert
nature of the country and the almost complete isolation from foreign influences have
retarded progress and preserved the natives on the whole in their most primitive state, the
headmen of the various totem clans are charged with the important task of performing
magical ceremonies for the multiplication of the totems, and as the great majority of the
totems are edible animals or plants, it follows that these men are commonly expected to
provide the people with food by means of magic. Others have to make the rain to fall or
to render other services to the community. In short, among the tribes of Central Australia
the headmen are public magicians. Further, their most important function is to take
charge of the sacred storehouse, usually a cleft in the rocks or a hole in the ground, where
are kept the holy stones and sticks (churinga) with which the souls of all the people, both
living and dead, are apparently supposed to be in a manner bound up. Thus while the
headmen have certainly to perform what we should call civil duties, such as to inflict
punishment for breaches of tribal custom, their principal functions are sacred or magical.
When we pass from Australia to New Guinea we find that, though the natives stand at a
far higher level of culture than the Australian aborigines, the constitution of society
among them is still essentially democratic or oligarchic, and chieftainship exists only in
embryo. Thus Sir William MacGregor tells us that in British New Guinea no one has ever
arisen wise enough, bold enough, and strong enough to become the despot even of a
single district. The nearest approach to this has been the very distant one of some person
becoming a renowned wizard; but that has only resulted in levying a certain amount of
According to a native account, the origin of the power of Melanesian chiefs lies entirely
in the belief that they have communication with mighty ghosts, and wield that