Thrones of Gods and Kings: Symbols of Power through History
The Iron Throne from the Game of Thrones is perhaps one of the most iconic objects in 21st century pop culture. The concept of the throne, as many already know, has been in existence for a much longer period of time. The origins of this symbol of power and some famous historical thrones will be examined in this article.
The Origins of a Powerful Symbol
Etymologically speaking, this word has its origins in the Greek language. ‘Thronos’ means an “elevated seat or chair,” and was transmitted into the English language via Latin and Old French. As an ‘elevated chair,’ the throne is commonly understood to be the seat occupied by a reigning monarch. In metonymy (when a word is called by another word associated with it), the word ‘throne’ has also taken on the meaning of the monarchy or the Crown itself.
In the beginning, thrones were associated with the gods. But it did not take long for humans to decide the status symbol of a throne was also an appropriate choice for the highest ranking officials of politics and religion. To “elevate” the rulers from the commoners became a theme and thrones took on more elaborate styles as time passed. Usually the key was to make the throne so magnificent that in itself it became a symbol of power.
The Babylonian sun god Shamash sits on his throne while meeting with a king and two deities. (9th Century BC). British Library room 55. ( Prioryman/Wikimedia Commons )
However, this is not necessarily true for all thrones. It has also been argued by many scholars that thrones are not only a symbol of authority, but also a unifying object for the nation or people. The idea being that the nation/people and their monarch/ruler as well as their predecessors are all connected. In this case, the throne takes on a particular ideological or philosophical role through the use of materials chosen and decoration, etc. Following this idea, the throne becomes important for the whole land it belongs to.
The Throne of the Achaemenid Kings: Blow the King a Kiss
Few thrones have survived from the ancient world. Nevertheless, thrones have been represented in the royal art of these ancient civilizations. One example is the throne of the Achaemenid kings. The ancient city of Persepolis (in modern day Fars Province, Iran) was one of the capitals of the Achaemenid Empire, and was founded by Darius I in 518 BC. The oldest building phase of the palace complex contains a section known as the apadana, or ‘Audience Hall’.
It is on the eastern stairs of the apadana that a magnificent relief can be found. This relief depicts representatives from all the nations under the rule of the Achaemenid Empire. These figures, shown wearing their traditional costumes, are bringing tribute to the Achaemenid king. In the center part of the stairs is a relief showing the Achaemenid king himself, often thought to be Darius I. The king is shown seated on a throne, with his feet on a footstool, so that they do not touch the earth. Behind him is his heir, and before him is a courtier performing the proskynesis, a ritual greeting in the Achaemenid court. Depending on the inferior’s rank, he may be required to prostrate himself, kneel in front of, or blow a kiss before the king.
An Achaemenid king (possibly Darius I) seated on his throne, relief from Persepolis, Iran. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Greeting Rituals in Imperial Courts – How to Stand (or Kneel) Before the Throne
Such ritual greetings can also be found in other imperial courts. One example is that of the Chinese court. A description of this ritual can be found in a translated account of the coronation of the Daoguang Emperor in 1820:
“He (the Master of the Ceremonies) shall say “Kneel:” then the kings, and all the ranks downwards kneel. When he says, “Bow your heads to the ground,” and “Rise,” then the kings, and all the ranks downwards, shall kneel thrice, bow the head to the ground nine times, and rise accordingly.”
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In this account, the throne of the Chinese emperor is known as the famous ‘Dragon Throne.’ Following the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, Western troops pushed their way into the Forbidden City in Beijing, and became the first Westerners to come before the Dragon Throne since the 18th century. One observer describes the throne as such:
“There was the throne itself, a great three-leaved affair. Over the ample seat in the center, with a high reredos, two great wings spread off from the central division. All was white marble and jade, liberally sculptured according to the canons of Chinese art. Along the top lay and leered dragons, each one “swinging the scaly horror of his folded tail" toward the central seat, his head projecting outward in the air. Below the throne were the three steps, on the broad second one of which the suppliant performed the nine prostrations or knocks of the head.”
The Dragon Throne of the Emperor of China now stands vacant in the Forbidden City. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Since the abolition of the Chinese monarchy at the beginning of the 20th century, the Dragon Throne has been vacant.
A Throne Used 38 Times and Counting: The Coronation Chair
Whilst the Chinese monarchy may have ended over a century ago, there are still a considerable amount of monarchies in the world today. One of the most well-known monarchs today is perhaps Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. The monarchs of the United Kingdom also have a special throne used for coronation ceremonies.
This throne is known as the Coronation Chair, or King Edward’s Chair, and was commissioned by Edward I in 1296 to contain the Stone of Scone, the coronation stone of Scotland. Today, this throne can still be found in Westminster Abbey, though the Stone of Scone is now kept in Edinburgh Castle, as it was returned to Scotland in 1996. Since the Coronation Chair was made in the 13th century, it has witnessed 38 coronation ceremonies of reigning monarchs.
King Edward’s Chair (the Coronation Chair) as it now stands in Westminster Abbey without the Stone of Scone under the seat. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Religious Thrones: Solomon and St. Peter Take a Seat
It cannot be forgotten that thrones are not just for monarchs. Solomon’s Throne is a famous throne that is mentioned in the Bible. This great throne was so elaborate that it inspired future Byzantine Emperors’ thrones. As it is described in II Chron. 9:
“The king also made a great ivory throne, and overlaid it with pure gold. The throne had six steps and a footstool of gold, and on each side of the seats were arm rests and two lions standing beside the arm rests, while twelve lions stood there, one on each end of a step on the six steps. The like of it was never made in any kingdom.”
Illustration depicting King Solomon on his extravagant throne. ( Public Domain )
Throughout history, cardinals, bishops, and abbots all had rights to their own thrones. In the early days, many of these thrones were built into the stonework of the church. Nevertheless, the oldest throne of the papacy – the Throne of St. Peter (from the 4th Century AD), was built of ivory and oak and is complete with iron carrying rings.
The Throne of St. Peter, a medieval relic housed in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City ( Dnalor_01/CC-BY-SA 3.0 )
Whether they are meant to unite or divide, the authoritative and dignifying symbol of thrones thus continues to reign over and create a feeling of awe for many people that are presented before them.
Featured image: Painting of the second Peacock Throne from the Red Fort in Delhi, India. (1850) The first Peacock Throne was taken as a war trophy by the Persian King Nader Shah in 1739 and has been lost ever since. ( Wikimedia Commons )
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