Between 1805 and 1799 B.C. (according to short chronology) or 1868 and 1861 B.C. (according to medium chronology) King Erra-Imitti ruled in the Sumerian city-state of Isin in present-day Iraq (about 20 miles south of Nippur).

His name comes to mean something as a follower of Erra, who was a god of war, riots and political chaos that Babylonians called the plague god.

After eight years of reign, one day the priests announced that an eclipse was coming. So Erra-Imitti, as usual, sought who could occupy his throne while the phenomenon lasted, otherwise it would mean his death. He found one of his gardeners called Enlil-bani.

Isin Archaeological Site / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

On the appointed day Enlil-bani was crowned king and sat on the throne awaiting his fate, which was none other than to be sacrificed at the end of the eclipse. But something unexpected happened. While taking Erra-Imitti’s place, the king waited patiently eating a hot oatmeal broth. And suddenly he fell dead. Perhaps because of a heart attack, perhaps for another reason.

The eclipse was over and the priests ordered Enlil-bani to leave the throne, as it was mandatory. He refused, claiming that a king had already been sacrificed and, since he had been officially crowned for the occasion, he was the legitimate monarch. The priests agreed with him, and he reigned for 24 years.

The story, which is only known from very later Babylonian copies, may not have been exactly like that. In fact, it is a legend, perhaps apocryphal, but whose background reveals a very ancient practice, that of the ritual of the substitute king, a custom reflected in numerous Sumerian texts. One of them is found on three cuneiform tablets now in the British Museum, published in 1958 in the article A part of the Ritual for the Substitute King by the Assyrian scholar Wilfred G. Lambert.

Cuneiform inscriptions on this founding cone mention the construction of the temple of the god Numushda in the city of Kiritab by Enlil-Bani, king of Isin / photo Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) on Wikimedia Commons

Because, as we said before, Assyrians and Babylonians thought that if an evil omen threatened the king, another (usually a person of low origin, a prisoner or a slave) should sit on the throne to receive that evil, leaving the true king safe.

During the time that the substitution lasted, the new king was granted some liberties, in order to emphasize his impersonation, although not effective government power. He could be accompanied by a substitute queen and have a small court to entertain himself, and the real king was called, in the meantime, a farmer (ikkaru).

We find again the documented use of a substitute king between 681 and 669 B.C. During this period, Neoasirian Asarhaddon, the father of the last great king of Assyria, Assurbanipal, reigned in the Empire. As told by the prominent British Egyptologist I.E.S. Edwards in his Cambridge Ancient History, several letters of the time mention that Asarhaddon had to resort to a substitute king at least three times during the last years of his reign.

King Asarhaddon of Assyria and his mother Naqi’a-Zakutu in the temple of Marduk. Relief commemorating the restoration of Babylon by Asarhaddon. Bronze (originally gold-plated), ca. 681-669 B.C. Louvre Museum / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Curiously, not only for the length of time of an eclipse, but the replacement was extended for short periods of time, with express mention in the tablets of one that lasted 100 days.

One of these cases took place on the occasion of the lunar eclipse on the 15th of Tebetu (month equivalent to December-January) in 671 B.C. The tablets also contain the protocol instructions to be followed, as well as a description of eclipses of various planets and stars that could cause the need for a substitute, and an allusion to the existence of this institution since very ancient times.

One of the tablets also contains a letter sent by the royal representative in Babylon, informing of the disturbances that occurred after the sacrifice of the substitute king and his queen consort. On that occasion it seems that the substitute, called Damqî, was not someone insignificant, but the son of the main priest of Esagila, the temple of Marduk in Babylon. He had been chosen to replace Shamash-shum-ukin, son of Asarhaddon who ruled Babylon, and the election must have been a means to sow panic among the Babylonians, who were resisting the Assyrian rule.

Almost two centuries later, it seems that Persians kept the custom, since Herodotus tells how Xerxes, before invading Greece in 480 b.C. and harassed by terrible dreams, resorted to the same trick, sitting his uncle Artabanus on the throne. Curiously, another Artabanus, commander of the royal guard, was the one who ended Xerxes’ life.

Now if this dream is sent to me from God, and if it is indeed his will that our troops should march against Greece, thou too wilt have the same dream come to thee and receive the same commands as myself. And this will be most sure to happen, I think, if thou puttest on the dress which I am wont to wear, and then, after taking thy seat upon my throne, liest down to sleep on my bed

Herdotus, History VII-15
Xerxes at Hellespont, painting by Adrien Guignet / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Although reluctant, let us remember what it meant to be a substitute king, Artabanus agreed to Xerxes’ wishes and occupied the throne, as Herodotus continues to say:

Thus spake Artabanus; and when he had so said, thinking to show Xerxes that his words were nought, he did according to his orders. Having put on the garments which Xerxes was wont to wear and taken his seat upon the royal throne, he lay down to sleep upon the king’s own bed. As he slept, there appeared to him the very same dream which had been seen by Xerxes; it came and stood over Artabanus, and said: -“Thou art the man, then, who, feigning to be tender of Xerxes, seekest to dissuade him from leading his armies against the Greeks! But thou shalt not escape scathless, either now or in time to come, because thou hast sought to prevent that which is fated to happen. As for Xerxes, it has been plainly told to himself what will befall him, if he refuses to perform my bidding

Herodotus, History VII-17

Although this episode does not represent a genuine example of the ritual, it does contain elements that make one think that it may be a variation of the same custom.

And even in the time of Alexander the Great an absolutely exceptional event occurred for the Greeks. It is told by the Greek historian of the second century A.D. Arrian of Nicomedia in his Anabasis of Alexander:

But Alexander’s own end was now near. Aristobulus says that the following occurrence was a prognostication of what was about to happen. He was distributing the army which came with Peucestas from Persia, and that which came with Philoxenus and Menander from the sea, among the Macedonian lines, and becoming thirsty he retired from his seat and thus left the royal throne empty. On each side of the throne were couches with silver feet, upon which his personal Companions were sitting. A certain man of obscure condition (some say that he was even one of the men kept under guard without being in chains), seeing the throne and the couches empty, and the eunuchs standing round the throne (for the Companions also rose up from their seats with the king when he retired), walked through the line of eunuchs, ascended the throne, and sat down upon it. According to a Persian law, they did not make hira rise from the throne; but rent their garments and beat their breasts and faces as if on account of a great evil. When Alexander was informed of this, he ordered the man who had sat upon his throne to be put to the torture, with the view of discovering whether he had done this according to a plan concerted by a conspiracy. But the man confessed nothing, except that it came into his mind at the time to act thus. Even more for this reason the diviners explained that this occurrence boded no good to him

Arrian of Nicomedia, Anabasis of Alexander VII-24
Dario’s family before Alexander (Charles le Brun)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

It occurred on May 323 B.C., shortly before Alexander left Babylon for Arabia. The Greeks did not understand what had happened, but the explanation is simple: that man was not trying to usurp Alexander’s throne, on the contrary. Following the ancestral custom of the substitute king, he tried to attract upon himself any evil that could stalk the Macedonian.

Probably the Babylonian astrologers had announced an eclipse, making necessary the figure of the substitute king. Eunuchs were aware of it, knew what had to be done, and therefore did not throw the usurper from the throne. However, the Greeks had no idea what was happening.

Finally, Old Testament scholar and Wheaton College professor John H. Walton, whose functional interpretation of Genesis is controversial among creationists, also addressed the issue of the substitute king ritual in an article published in 2003 on the Journal of Biblical Literature. In it he asserts that the Servant Songs, a set of texts present in the Bible in the Book of Isaiah that speak of a suffering servant with a redemptive character, can be interpreted in the light of the ancient Mesopotamian tradition:

It is my thesis that the imagery, background and ambiguities of the fourth canto can be adequately resolved when the passage is read in the light of the theme of the substitute king ritual, known since Mesopotamia as early as the beginning of the second millennium BC.

If we consider that in the Servant Songs this character is called the Servant of Yahweh, and that the traditionally accepted Christian interpretation applies this set of prophecies to Jesus of Nazareth, Walton’s theory, if correct, could have implications that go far beyond the Old Testament. But that is another matter.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on May 18, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cómo los sumerios nombraban reyes sustitutos durante los eclipses y la costumbre pervivía incluso en tiempos de Alejandro


The Concept and Reality of the Substitute King in Mesopotamia and Iran en Aspects of History and Epic in Ancient Iran (M. Rahim Shayegan, Universidad de Harvard) / The Solar Eclipse and the Substitute King (Sarah Graff, Metropolitan Museum) / Cambridge Ancient History (I.E.S. Edwards) / W.G. Lambert, A part of the Ritual for the Substitute, Archiv für Orientforschung, 18 (1957-1958), pp.109-112, / John H. Walton, The Imagery of the Substitute King Ritual in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song, Journal of Biblical Literature vol.122, No.4 (Winter 2003), pp.734-743, doi:10.2307/3268075 / The Assyrian Substitute King Ritual (Biblical Scholar) / Anábasis de Alejandro Magno (Flavio Arriano) / Livius.

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