The King’s Fragmented Body: A Girardian Reading of the Origins of St Oswald’s Cult
Damon, John Edward
The Heroic Age, Issue 9 (Oct 2006)
The cult of King Oswald of Northumbria links the roles of king and sacrificial victim. By joining the terrestrial power of the state and the celestial power of religion, his cult attempted to halt an otherwise unending cycle of mimetic rivalry and reciprocal violence.
In his book Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, René Girard discusses the similarity, indeed the identity, between the role of king and that of sacrificial victim. ‘The symbolic link between sovereignty and sacrifice exists everywhere,’ he asserts (Girard 1987, 55). This linkage is particularly noticeable in the early English cults of martyred warrior-kings, and most clearly embodied in the person of St Oswald of Northumbria. Oswald’s world was dominated by mimetic rivalry, a process Girard describes as underlying many aspects and forms of religion. Through the sanctification of King Oswald, who became for the Church in Northumbria both a holy Christian king and a martyr for the faith, the first generations of Northumbrian practitioners of the new faith mythologized the death of their king, making it what Girard terms a “founding murder” or “founding violence” that would elevate their dynastic leaders into symbolic representations of the conjunction of the terrestrial power of the state and the heavenly power of religion, thereby seeking to end the seemingly uncontrollable cycle of mimetic rivalry and reciprocal violence (Girard 1987, 166-7, 203; Girard 2001, 82-94, 98-99).