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Richard Cole

When Gods Become Bureaucrats

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Even gods are not always above bureaucracy. Societies very different from each other have entertained the idea that the heavens might be arranged much like an earthly bureaucracy, or that mythological beings might exercise their power in a way that makes them resembles bureaucrats. The best-known case is the Chinese “celestial bureaucracy,” but the idea is also found in (to take nearly random examples) Ancient Near Eastern cosmology, the Hebrew Bible, Late Antiquity, and modern popular culture. The primary sources discussed in this essay pertain to an area of history where bureaucracy was historically underdeveloped, namely medieval Scandinavia. Beginning with the Glavendrup runestone from the 900s, I examine a way of thinking about divine power that seems blissfully bureaucracy-free. Moving forwards in time to Adam of Bremen’s description of the temple at Uppsala (1040s–1070s), I find traces of a tentative, half-formed bureaucracy in the fading embers of Scandinavian paganism. In the 1220s, well into the Christian era, I find Snorri Sturluson concocting a version of Old Norse myth which proposes a novel resolution between the non-bureaucratic origins of his mythological corpus and the burgeoning bureacratization of High Medieval Norway. Although my focus is on medieval Scandinavia, transhistorical comparisons are frequently drawn with mythological bureaucrats from other times and places. In closing, I synthesise this comparative material with historical and anthropological theories of the relationship between bureaucracy and the divine.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHarvard Theological Review
Pages (from-to)186-209
Number of pages24
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2020

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