We all knew him. Some of us were him. He was not always the smartest, the tallest, or even the strongest kid on the playground; nevertheless, he was the one who got to play the Lone Ranger, while the rest were relegated to the roles of Tonto and the bad guys. Courted and sometimes feared, encircled by loyal henchmen and watched closely by little girls, he was the first encounter for most of us with the archetypal character known as the “Big Man”.
In common parlance, “Big Men” are simply those individuals who stand head and shoulders above the rest, displaying leadership qualities, greater influence, or even just more money than the surrounding hoi polloi—as in “Big Man on Campus”—but the term has a special usage in anthropology. The anthropological Big Man is, strictly speaking, a phenomenon associated with simple societies comprised of relatively small groups: bands and tribes, where power structures are fluid and informal, as opposed to the more formal and hierarchical chiefdoms and states. A defining characteristic of this kind of Big Man is that authority is bestowed on him by the consent of his group, based on his achievements, charisma, prowess, negotiating talents, and recognized leadership abilities. He does not become a Big Man because his daddy was a Big Man before him; his status is achieved rather than ascribed. When his prestige falters, or if his charisma is overshadowed by that of another contender, he may lose his status and vanish back into obscurity. As we shall see, there is a strong resemblance between the role of an anthropological Big Man and that of, say, a CEO, a community leader, the dominant kid on the playground, or, for that matter, the alpha male in a troop of chimpanzees. To anthropologists, the Big Man is generally a positive figure, with benign effects even where his agenda may be self-interested.
Among sociologists and political scientists, there is a usage that is more specialized and considerably less benign. To them, the “African Big Man Syndrome” denotes a swollen, brutal dictator-for-life with a chestful of self-awarded medals, a string of grandiose titles, and an ego massive enough to match his Swiss bank account and his catalogue of crimes. The examples, sadly, are numerous and familiar. The late Idi Amin – rather, His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular – was archetypal, even faintly comic, but he and his fellow dictators are no laughing matter. Neither are they limited to Africa, nor to modern times.
The role of Big Man, in both of the above senses, tends to have military, political, or secular connotations. It is, however, surprisingly similar in practice to roles that are generally considered to exist in a separate and privileged space, the bailiwick of the mystical, the religious and the transcendant: the roles of prophet and messiah. These terms, though often used interchangeably, have a few fine distinctions that are worth keeping in mind. A messiah is frequently also a prophet, but a prophet is not always a messiah.
In modern Western culture, “prophet” has the connotation of one who can foresee the future: a soothsayer, a Nostradamus, a fortune-teller, somebody with psychic powers or a really reliable crystal ball. But that is not exactly how the term has been used in the past, nor is it how we shall use it in this series. More strictly and biblically speaking, a “prophet” is one through whom God or the gods are speaking – a conduit for the expression of divine will. Thus, a prophet’s words will often include predictions about future events, especially doom-laden ones, but those can be secondary. Mainly, a prophet will report God’s views on some issue of mutual interest, what He (or She, or They) wants the people to do about it, and what will happen to the people if they don’t oblige. In an important related sense, a prophet may be the chief spokesperson for a movement, the one who prepares the way, and acts as liaison, for a god or a messiah. To repeat, a messiah is frequently also a prophet by this definition, but a prophet is not always a messiah. A messiah is something more.
Dictionaries define several usages of “messiah”: as the promised and long-awaited king of the Jews, as Jesus Christ, and as a great leader sent to liberate his people. But the bare definitions do not convey the full richness of the term’s connotations in its modern usage, and it is worth tracking how that usage has changed over the millennia.
The term “messiah” is derived from the Semitic mashiah – “anointed” – referring to the ancient custom of anointing with oil an individual who has been divinely chosen for a special or holy task, such as an Israelite priest or king. As originally used, the term had no special overtones of charisma, influence or personal qualities; the anointing was part of a consecration or coronation procedure. But after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in the 6th century BC, and the captivity of the Judean elite in Babylon, the term was applied in a different and quite specific sense, referring to the anointed personage who would free the exiles and enable them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. This personage was named, and he was not even Judean. He was the Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great, who conquered Babylon and kindly allowed all the exiles—not just the Hebrews—to go home, on condition they become loyal subjects of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. This, they happily did. For this act of restoration, Cyrus the Great was duly recognized as the Judean Messiah.
Judah then carried on reasonably prosperously for a couple of centuries, until around 330 BC, when Alexander the Great conquered the Persians and just about everybody else within reach in the known world. After his early death in 323 BC, his conquests were divided up among his generals, and the future Holy Land ended up in the slice claimed by Seleucus Nicator – that is, it became part of the Seleucid Empire. In the centuries that followed, under strong pressure to Hellenize, the Judahists responded by reviving the concept of the Messiah—this time, as a nostalgic wish for a king like the kings in the good old days, the semi-mythic times of David and Solomon, an anointed one who would free God’s people from oppression and safeguard the true old-time religion.
As time went on and the Judahists cycled through one oppressor after another, this messianic concept shifted further towards the mystical, towards the perceived promise of a liberator, a great king sent by God to reconstitute the line of David and revive the glory of Israel. Hence, we arrive at the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim concept of “messiah” as a divinely mandated liberator and saviour of nations, promised and imminently expected – though, as we shall see, the same kind of messianic idea cropped up well before the Children of Israel, and in many parts of the world. At any rate, this is the definition some modern religious communities have in mind when they predict the second coming of Christ, or the first coming of the Jewish Messiah, or of the Islamic Mahdi. But common usage goes beyond those specific messianic hopes.
Nowadays, when we think of a “messiah” or a messianic individual, we think primarily of a charismatic leader—not one who has been sent by God, necessarily, but one who has arisen with the power to engage and influence masses of people, a Big Man on steroids; and particularly one who leads a movement offering hope of, say, spiritual enlightenment, or political empowerment, or liberation, or a better world, or salvation from the apocalyptic events that are for ever lurking just around the corner, a prophet doing PR on his own account. Both history and the present are bursting with messiahs of this type.
But who are these people? Where do messiahs come from? Many of them come from obscurity, and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Many are most unlikely candidates for a leadership position. Few of them show any tendency to strangle serpents in their cradles, as Hercules did in the heroic myth—though many of them, in the course of their messiahship, do accrue legends of a miraculous birth and portentous childhood. But still, there does not appear to be any obvious recipe for growing a messianic character, in terms of early influences, traumas, or backgrounds. Different messiahs appear to have arrived at their exalted status by very different routes. To illustrate that point, we’ll play a little game called “Mystery Messiahs” in the next installment of this series.