‘First Kings’ Myths From Around the World: How Do They Compare?
Monarchs have always played a very important role in how their subjects form their cultural identity. Egypt, China, and the Sumerian city-states are examples of some of the oldest monarchies. The Egyptian monarchy began around 3100 BC.
The historical monarchs usually fall short of their mythical counterparts. Real monarchs were real human beings with real flaws and as well as strengths.
The kings of mythology had impossibly long lifespans and were often morally perfect lawgivers and sages. These stories also follow a pattern. The earliest kings tend to be near-godlike with immense lifespans and superhuman powers and they gradually become more human as time passes.
The First King of Egypt
Egypt is certainly one of the world’s oldest monarchies if not the oldest. According to the historian and Egyptian priest Manetho, the first king of Egypt was a man named Menes. Menes is said to have unified upper and lower Egypt. He also is said to have founded the city of Memphis.
The cartouche of Menes on the Abydos King List. (JMCC1 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Furthermore, he is credited with having built other cities, constructing dykes, and having introduced writing. In one myth, he was taken away by a hippopotamus at the end of his life. Menes began the first dynasty of Egypt. Manetho said that Menes’ dynasty consisted of eight kings, but he does not seem to say anything about these kings. They may have been legendary or proto-historical.
The Long Rein of the Kings of Sumer
The Sumerian city-states represent the first truly urban civilization. They flourished from about 2750 BC to about 2000 BC. Sumerian records are known for their extensive list of kings. The king list resembles the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11:10-32 since it starts out with eight kings with incredibly long lifespans followed by a great flood. After the flood, the ages taper off going from 900 to 1200 years to about 300 to 500 years and finally to more typical human lifespans.
- Twins, Kings and Horses: Symbols of the Divine Twins in Ancient Mythology
- The Rich Mythology and Megalithic Culture of the Ancient Berbers, Lords of the Desert
- Journey to Hell, Featuring Torture and Never-ending Bureaucracy: Understanding the Underworld in Chinese Mythology
Stone tablet inscribed with the Sumerian King List. (Gts-tg / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The first king in the Sumerian King List is Alulim, the king of Eridu, the first city according to the ancient Sumerians. Alulim reigned for 28,800 years. His successor, Alalgar, reigned for even longer, 36,000 years. After the reign of Alalgar, the city of Eridu lost kingship and capital city was moved to Bad-tibira.
The first king of Bad-tibira was Enmen-lu-ana who reigned for 43,200 years. Three kings ruled in this city, the last of which was the famous shepherd king Dumuzi who was later worshiped as a god. He ruled for 36,000 years. The total amount of time that the kings ruled in Bad-tibira was 108,000 years.
Following the reign of Dumuzi, the city of Bad-tibira fell and kingship went to another city. This pattern continued until the great flood. The total time from the beginning of the reign of the pre-flood kings to the flood is about 385,000 years, more than a bit longer than the time between creation and the flood in the Biblical chronology.
After the flood, the same pattern continued as different cities rose to power and gained the kingship only to eventually lose it. The difference is that the oldest kings lived no longer than 1200 years, much shorter than those before the flood. The ages drop off until the king list reaches kings that historians and archaeologists consider to be historical, after which the lifespans are closer to the average human lifespan that would be expected at the time.
The Deity Sovereigns of China
The oldest Chinese dynasty considered to be historical by most archaeologists and historians is the Shang Dynasty which lasted from 1600 BC to 1046 BC. Two semi-mythical dynasties are said to have preceded the Shang Dynasty. The first dynasty is that of the Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors.
The Three Sovereigns were god-like figures that are believed to have been the earliest rulers of China. They are believed to have introduced the basics of civilization. Like the Sumerian pre-flood kings, they had enormously long lifespans.
The first of the Three Sovereigns was Fu Xi. After a great flood devastated the world, Fu Xi and his wife were chosen by the Emperor of Heaven to repopulate the earth.
Painting of the mythological sage-ruler Fu Xi. (Cold Season / Public Domain)
While doing this, Fu Xi also is said to have introduced writing, fishing, and animal trapping to mankind. He is also credited with establishing the institution of marriage. He ruled for 18,000 years and is called the Heavenly Sovereign.
Fu Xi was succeeded by Nuwa, a being with a half-human, half-snake body. Nuwa is said to have tried to curb the tide of the flood by using her snake-like body to block the opening in the heavens from which the flood waters were coming.
Nuwa is also believed to be the creator of humanity as well as animals. In one legend, she was present when the world was created. She was lonely, so she decided to create animals and humans.
During the Deluge, when the water god smashed his head against the pillar holding up the sky, she worked tirelessly to repair the cosmos and fix the damage. Nuwa played many roles such as a wife, sister, tribal leader, and even a man at one point. She is called the Earthly Sovereign and she ruled for 11,000 years.
Sovereign Nuwa repairing the pillar of heaven. (Rephinx / Public Domain)
The last of the Three Sovereigns was Shennong. He ruled for 45,600 years and is said to have taught agriculture to humanity. He is also considered to be very important in the development of traditional Chinese medicine.
The Five Emperors are also semi-mythical emperors who may have also been deities at one point. They still had unusually long lifespans but nowhere near the length of the lifespan of the god-like Three Sovereigns.
The first emperor was Huangdi, or the Yellow Emperor. He ruled for 100 years. The Yellow Emperor is credited with founding Chinese civilization and advancing Chinese medicine.
The second was Zhuanxu. Emperor Zhuanxu is credited with having made reforms to the calendar, making contributions to Chinese astrology, opposing shamanism, and founding the Chinese tradition of patriarchy. According to later Chinese historians, Chinese society was originally matriarchal because people did not understand the important role that the man played in reproduction. Emperor Zhuanxu ruled for about 78 years.
Emperor Ku was the next emperor. He ruled for about 70 years and was known for his prowess with musical instruments. He also apparently rode a dragon.
- The Longest Poem Ever Written: Shahnameh – The Epic Book of Kings
- The Extensive and Sometimes Mythical History of the Chola Empire
- Nammu: A Forgotten Tale of the Sumerian Mother of Gods
Emperor Ku, one of the mythical Five Sovereigns. The inscription reads: 'The God Ku, Gao Xin, was the great grandson of the Yellow Emperor’. (Guss / Public Domain)
The next emperor was Emperor Yao who is considered to have been a morally perfect sage-king. Yao ruled for 99 years. The last of The Five Emperors, Emperor Shun, was also considered to be a morally perfect sage-king. He ruled for 50 years.
Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun are both considered by historians to have possibly been a cultural memory of early chieftains from that period. As a result, they are not considered to be entirely mythical or legendary.
The Emperors of China
The Xia Dynasty is said to have been established by Emperor Yu the Great who, along with Yao and Shun, was considered to be a glittering example of what an emperor should be like by later Confucian philosophers. Originally, the Xia Dynasty was thought to be mythical, but archaeological evidence of an urban civilization in China between 2100 BC and 1600 BC is believed to be evidence of the historicity of the Xia Dynasty. The Xia Dynasty is said to have been established after a flood devastated the Yellow River valley.
In Chinese tradition, the Xia emperors are credited with making the position of emperor hereditary, developing the idea that the emperor has obligations to be just to his people which would later evolve into idea of the mandate from heaven and ancestor worship. Ancestor worship enabled a connection between earthly events and the approval of ancestral spirits. The Xia emperors, despite their seminal accomplishments, had normal lifespans, likely representing the shift in the Chinese tradition where myth transforms into history.
The Legendary Rulers of the Aztecs
The Americas also had illustrious monarchies that traced their heritage back to mythical figures. One example of this among the Aztecs is Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl.
Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, according to Aztec legend, was a Toltec priest-king. He was a very pious king who did well in performing rituals of penance for his people, allowing them to prosper. He also opposed human sacrifice, saying that the people should sacrifice birds, snakes, and butterflies instead.
Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, a Toltec priest-king, depicted in a mural in Mexico City. (O.Mustafin / Public Domain)
This placed Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl in opposition to the gods, namely Tezcatlipoca. The priest-king was pious, and his soul was pure. Tezcatlipoca, disguised as an old man, requested audience with the king. Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl’s courtiers advised against it, but the king granted audience with the old man, who showed the king his body in a mirror.
Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl had not thought of his body, only of his spirit. Now that he saw his blemished self, he was ashamed. The old man gave the king something which the he claimed would make the king feel better. Tezcatlipoca gave him cactus wine causing the king to become drunk and make a fool of himself.
After this, the king was no longer worthy of his position and fled to the east. It was believed that he would return in the year 'One Reed' of the 52-year calendar cycle. By an eerie coincidence, in 1519, a ‘One Reed’ year on the Aztec calendar, Hernan Cortez arrived in Mexico from the east.
The Mythical Kings of Athens
Although Athens is more commonly associated with democracy, Athens was ruled by kings before it was ruled by a democratic system. The kings of Athens ruled during the Bronze Age and most were probably mythical. The very first king of Athens was Cecrops.
Cecrops was half-man, half-serpent. During the founding of the city over which he would rule, Poseidon and Athena are said to have had a contest over who would be the patron deity of the city of Athens.
Poseidon created a well on the acropolis to woo the Athenians while Athena provided an olive tree. Cecrops ended up siding with Athena and she became the patron goddess. During his reign, Cecrops is said to have established Athenian marriage and divided Attica into 12 settlements among other accomplishments.
Another famous king of Athens was Theseus, the king famous for having slain the Minotaur in Crete. The prehistoric kings of Athens, unlike those of China and Sumer, lived normal human lifespans.
King Theseus slaying the Minotaur in Crete. (Chhe / Public Domain)
The last king of Athens was Codrus who is said to have reigned sometime in the 11th century BC. Codrus is said to have been a noble example of patriotism and self-sacrifice who gave his life to ensure peace for the city of Athens. According to the legend, the Athenians believed that no one other than Codrus could be worthy of the title of king so they replaced the title of king with the office of archon.
Comparisons and Conclusion
All the cultures examined have stories about prehistoric dynasties. These dynasties differ in many ways but are also similar. Some have kings with extraordinary lifespans while others don’t.
Many prehistoric kings had special connections with the divine and had powers and wisdom beyond that of an ordinary human being. They laid the foundations of civilization, cooperated with the gods, and in some cases were gods.
Another pattern that is apparent is that, as the dynastic lines get closer in time to the present day, the kings become more and more ordinary. The first kings are semi-divine, if not actually divine, and, in some cases, participated in the creation of the universe. The later kings are more ordinary and, in some cases, may even have been historical figures as is the case with the later Sumerian, Chinese, and Athenian kings.
The idea of kings being able to do things above the abilities of ordinary people such as invent new technologies, live for thousands of years, and be morally perfect, reflects the common belief across cultures that kings were gifted and ruled because they had been given special power to do so by the divine. They were the rulers because they had abilities and capacities beyond the ordinary person enabling them to govern.
Even in modern constitutional monarchies, the monarch still has a mystique. He or she is usually not considered semi-divine, but modern heads of state are supposed to represent the best of a nation. Even today, we want our kings and heads of state to be individuals that we can look up to and see as role models, even if they don’t live for thousands of years or have divine powers.
Top image: Were the first rulers deities, mythical, or appointed by the gods? Source: tomertu / Adobe Stock.
By Caleb Strom
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Date Unknow. Codrus. Encyclopaedia Britannica. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Codrus
Gill, N. 2019. Menes – First King of Egypt. ThoughtCo. [Online] Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/menes-first-king-of-egypt-119800
Greene, A. 2009. Theseus, Hero of Athens. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. [Online] Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/thes/hd_thes.htm
Livius.org. 2019. Predynastic Egypt. [Online ] Available at: https://www.livius.org/articles/concept/egypt/predynastic-egypt/
Livius.org. 2016. The Sumerian King List. [Online] Available at: https://www.livius.org/sources/content/anet/266-the-sumerian-king-list/
Mesoweb Encyclopedia. Date Unknown. Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl. [Online] Available at: http://mesoweb.com/encyc/index.asp?passcall=rightframeexact&rightframeexact=http%3A//mesoweb.com/encyc/view.asp%3Fact%3Dviewexact%26view%3Dnormal%26word%3DQuetzalcoatl%26wordAND%3DTopiltzin
New World Encyclopedia. 2008. Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. [Online] Available at: https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Three_Sovereigns_and_Five_Emperors
New World Encyclopedia. 2013. Xia Dynasty. [Online] Available at: https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Xia_Dynasty
The Week Staff. 2019. How the world's monarchs are adapting to modern times. The Week. [Online] Available at: https://theweek.com/articles/847076/how-worlds-monarchs-are-adapting-modern-times
Theoi.com. Date Unknown. Kekrops. [Online] Available at: https://www.theoi.com/Heros/Kekrops.html
Szczepanski, K. 2018. China’s 3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors. [Online ] Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/chinas-three-sovereigns-and-five-emperors-195258