The Coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930

If you haven’t yet seen this delightful account from Evelyn Waugh, here it is. It takes place in Ethiopia in 1930, as Ras Tafari is crowned emperor under the name of Haile Selassie. Waugh seems to have confused Coptic and Ethiopic traditions, but never mind. His account pokes fun at scholarly pretensions, but also at impenetrable (unreformed) ceremonies.

The ceremony was immensely long, even according to the original schedule, and the clergy succeeded in prolonging it by at least an hour and a half beyond the allotted time. The six succeeding days of celebration were to be predominantly military, but the coronation day itself was to be in the hands of the Church, and they were going to make the most of it. Psalms, canticles, and prayers succeeded each other, long passages of Scripture were read, all in the extinct ecclesiastical tongue, Ghiz. Candles were lit one by one; the coronation oaths were proposed and sworn; the diplomats shifted uncomfortably in their gilt chairs, noisy squabbles broke out round the entrance between the imperial guard and the retainers of the local chiefs. Professor W., who was an expert of high transatlantic reputation on Coptic ritual, occasionally remarked, “They are beginning the Mass now,” “That was the offertory,” No, I was wrong; it was the consecration,” “No I was wrong; I think it is the secret Gospel,” “No, I think it must be the Epistle,” “How very curious; I don’t believe it was Mass at all,” Now they are beginning the Mass…” and so on.

Presently the bishop began to fumble among the handboxes, and investiture began. At long intervals the emperor was presented with robe, orb, spurs, spear, and finally with the crown. A salute of guns was fired, and the crowds outside, scattered all over the surrounding waste spaces, began to cheer; the imperial horses reared up, plunged on top of each other, kicked the gilding off the front of the coach and broke their traces. The coachman sprang from the box and whipped them from a safe distance. Inside the pavilion there was a general sense of relief; it had all been very fine and impressive, now for a cigarette, a drink, and a change into less formal costume. Not a bit of it. The next thing was to crown the empress and the heir apparent; another salvo of guns followed, during which an Abyssinian groom had two ribs broken in an attempt to unharness a pair of the imperial horses. Again we felt for our hats and gloves. But the Coptic choir still sang; the bishops then proceeded to take back the regalia with the proper prayers, lections, and canticles.

I have noticed some very curious variations in the Canon of the Mass,” remarked the professor, “particularly with regard to the kiss of peace.”

Then the Mass began.

6 comments

  1. Poor Evelyn, blathering about “unreformed” services in Ethopia–if he only knew then what was coming in his own recently accquired ecclesial community! We know how that turned out for him. 🙂

    1. Except that I would doubt the Egyptian Copts on their own had a liturgy of coronation for an emperor, since Egypt was not ruled by a native local Christian emperor, ever.

  2. Waugh was an amazing writer. And the author of the best Catholics novel of the 20th century, whose relevance only continues to grow.

  3. A fascinating account of the coronation liturgy. The locals have their own way of conducting the coronation of their supremos in whose hands they entrust the governmentality of the flock.

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