Chapter 3. The Concept and Reality of the Substitute Kingin Mesopotamia and Iran

Having made a case for the historicity of both Bardiya and Gaumāta, and their presumed functions of “kingmaker” and “puppet-king,” in the classical sources, there remains the necessity of revealing the historical prece-dents, or literary patterns, upon which Darius’ fabricated chronicle—as put forth in the Bisotun inscription—rested. The first of these forms the main component of Darius’ story: the successful substitution of Prince Bardiya by Gaumāta, a theme that to my knowledge is not to be found in the Iranian epic tradition. However, the concept and ritual of the substitute or surrogate king is well attested in Mesopotamia and Anatolia, and especially in the Late Assyrian empire. [1]

The Origins and Importance of the Substitute King Phenomenon

The principles of the substitute kingship are simple: at times, when the life of the rightful sovereign was deemed to be threatened by an evil omen, especially an eclipse, a surrogate king (šar pūḫi)—most likely an individual of no social consequence (saklu), a prisoner, criminal, or opponent (dābibu) [2] —could be chosen by the king’s counselors to replace him for the period during which the surrogate would be exposed to the danger of the bad omen. [3] The substitution, which was always suggested to the king either by the chief exorcist or by a council of high-ranking scholars, was intended to deflect the repercussions of the portent away from the king and disburden them upon the surrogate, who, as the ephemeral regal replacement, was often bestowed with the paraphernalia of sovereignty—clad in the royal robe and given a diadem.
While the rightful sovereign was required to keep a low profile (and was often addressed as ikkāru “farmer” during this period [4] ), relinquish his throne to the surrogate, and stay in the palace, the surrogate king was allowed some liberties intended to emphasize his impersonation of the king during his pseudo-rule: he could be accompanied by a surrogate queen, [5] was permitted modest travel, and could entertain a small court with some pomp.
Immediately after his enthronement, the surrogate would take the evil omens in all their diverse expressions upon himself by reciting in front of Šamaš—the sun god of the Babylonian and Assyrian pantheon—the evil portents (originally intended for the king), which had been written down for him (and his substitute queen): [6]
To the “farmer,” my lord: your servant Nabû-zeru-lešir. Good health to my lord! May Nabû and Marduk bless my lord for many years!
I wrote down whatever signs there were, be they celestial, terrestrial or of malformed births, and had them recited in front of Šamaš, one after the other. They [the substitute king and queen] were treated with wine, washed with water and anointed with oil; I had those birds cooked and made them eat them. The substitute king of the land of Akkad took the signs on himself [usakkilšunu šar pūḫi māti Akkadi ittātī/idātī].
LABS no. 2 obv. 1–13
[Concerning the s]igns [about which my lord w]rote to me, [after] we had enthroned him [= substitute king], we had him hear them in front of Šamaš. Furthermore, yesterday I had him hear them again, and I bent down and bound them in his hem.
I [= chief exorcist] made him [= substitute] recite the omen litanies before Šamaš; he took all the celestial and terrestrial portents on himself, and ruled all the country.
LABS no. 351 obv. 11–14
However, at no time did the surrogate hold any power of governance, which was exclusively exercised by the king; it was upon the king’s express permission that any recommendation for substitution by the chief exorcist was under-taken:
To the king, my lord: your servant Adad-šumu-uṣur. Good health to the king, my lord! May Nabû and Marduk bless the king, my lord!
Concerning the substitute king of Akkad, the order should be given to enthrone (him) [ina muḫḫi šarri pūḫi ša Akkadi ana šešubi ṭēmu liškunu].
LABS no. 189 obv. 1–8
Nonetheless, the fact that more than one-third of the substitute’s entourage could consist of bodyguards (ša qurbūti) [7] indicates that despite the illusory nature of his power, the substitute was watched closely. [8]
Once the danger had passed, the surrogate was put to death—or as it was called: ana šimtīšu (alāku), “to go to his fate”—together with his short-lived consort: [9]
[To the king], my [lord]: your servant [Mar-Issar]. [Good health] to the king, my lord! May [Nabû and Mardukk] bless [the king], my lord! May [the great gods] bestow [long days], well-being and joy upon the king, my lord!
[Damqî], the son of the prelate of Akka[d], who had ru[led] Assyria, Babylon(ia) [and] all the countries, [di]ed with his queen on the night o[f xth day as] a substitute for the king, my lord, [and for the sake of the li]fe of Šama-šumu-uki[n]. He went to his fate [ina šamši ittalak] for their redemption.
We prepared the burial chamber. He and his queen were decorated, treated, displayed, buried and wailed over. The burnt-offering was made, all portents were cancelled. And numerous apotropaic rituals, Bīt rimki and Bīt salā’ mê ceremonies, exorcistic rites, penitential psalms and omen litanies were performed to perfection. The king, my lord, should know (this).
LABS no. 352 obv. 1–21
Putting to death a surrogate was not always without danger, as clearly attested in a letter sent by the above Mar Issar, Esarhaddon’s representative in Babylonia, to the king. He reports some unrest following the death of the surrogate Damqî, who apparently was not an insignificant personality, but rather the son of the šatammu of Esagila in Babylon:
The inhabitants of Akkad got scared, (but) we gave them heart and they calmed down. Moreover, I have heard that the prelates and delegates of Babylonia got scared, too.
Bel and Nabû and all the gods have lengthened the days of the king, my lord; still, during the (validity) period of the eclipse and the approach of the gods he may not go into open country.
If it suits the king a common man should, as before, be appointed to the office of the prelate, to present the regular offering in front of the dais and, on the day of the eššešu-festival and at the “Greeting of the temple” ceremony, to strew (the incense) for the Lady of Akkad on the censer.
When [an eclipse] afflicting Babylonia takes place, [he] may serve as a substitute for the king, my lord, would succeed, […….] the people would be calm.
Let the king, my king, appoint in his place anyone [……] who is acceptable to the k[ing, my lord, among] his […]s, brothers, [and …s].
LABS no. 352 rev. 7–26e

Traces of the Substitute King Ritual in Achaemenid Iran

Before we discuss the connections of the “substitute king” ritual to Darius’ story in the Bisotun inscription—with which it does not seem at first glance to share much in common—the few and discrete attestations of its presence in Achaemenid Iran will be briefly reviewed. Indeed, in addition to the testimony of the Alexander historians as to the endurance of the “substitute king” rites in Mesopotamia during the Macedonian invasion, [10] Herodotus also knows of a most intriguing and well-known episode already under Xerxes’ rule, pertaining to his campaign in Greece.
Herodotus reports that King Xerxes, having determined not to invade Hellas, [11] had on two consecutive nights a vision (ὄψσις) wherein an apparition warned him of the dire personal consequences to the king were he to refrain from campaigning against Hellas. [12] In order to ascertain the divine origin of his dream, Xerxes ordered his uncle Artabanus to put on the sovereign’s robe, take his seat upon the royal throne, and sleep in the king’s own bed, to establish whether the same vision with the selfsame behest would also appear to Artabanus.
Although this episode does not represent a genuine instance of the “substitute king” ritual, numerous elements in it—such as (1) the occurrence of a life-threatening portent for the king; (2) the ephemeral bestowal of the insignia of regal power upon an individual; and (3) a request for the latter to represent or substitute for the king in order to experience the tenor of the king’s dream/omen—all undoubtedly point to a variation on that theme. [13]

The Bearing of the Substitute King Concept on the Bisotun Narrative

While the Bisotun inscription reports neither on any omen threatening Cam-byses nor on Gaumāta’s substituting for the king, it remains to ask how the “substitute king” ritual relates to this plot. Again Herodotus narrates a relevant story, of Cambyses ordering the assassination of Bardiya/Smerdis, for he had had a vision in which Bardiya had left him bereft of his kingdom and then sat on his throne.
ἐνθαῦτα ἀκούσαντα Καμβύσεα τὸ Σμέρδιος οὔνομα ἔτυψε ἡ ἀληθείη τῶν τε λόγων καί τοῦ ἐνυπνίου· ὃς ἐδόκεε ἐν τῷ ὓπνῳ ἀππαγγεῖλαι τινά οἱ ὡς Σμέρδις ἱζόμενος ἐς τὸν βασιλήιον θρόνον ψαύσειε τῇ κεφαλῇ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ. μαθὼν δὲ ὡς μάτην ἀπολωλεκὼς εἴη τὸν ἀδελφέον ἀπέκλαιε Σμέρδιν.
The truth of the words and of the dream struck Cambyses upon hearing the name of Smerdis; for he had seen in a dream a message announcing to him how Smerdis seated on the royal throne touched heaven with his head. And perceiving how he had killed his brother in vain, he wept loudly for Smerdis.
Herodotus 3.64
Thus, in Herodotus’ narrative, Cambyses, in order to escape the fate portended in his vision, seems to have tried to alter the omen itself by eliminating the source of the danger, namely, Bardiya. This is indeed different from the underlying principles guiding the substitute king ritual, wherein on account of the irrevocability of the omen, efforts are aimed at deflecting the evil fate away from the king and redirecting it toward another recipient, rather than countering the omen itself. In this context, a clue as to what could have constituted the underlying a priori assumption of Herodotus’ story—which would have been evident and self-explanatory to his Iranian and Mesopotamian audience, but required elaboration when addressed to a Greek audience—is provided by Ctesias.
Ctesias also reports that the magus Sphendadatēs, who, having been ill-treated in the past by Prince Bardiya (called Tanyoxarkēs in Ctesias), exacted revenge upon the latter by denouncing him as a plotter against the king; since he happened to resemble Prince Tanyoxarkēs, he devised a plan for Cambyses on how to assassinate his suspect bother, so that the crime might remain undiscovered:
ὁ γάρ τοι μάγος βουλῆς τῷ βασιλεῖ κοινωνῶν βουλεύει τοιοῦτον· ὅμοιος ἦν αὐτὸς ὁ μάγος κάρτα τῷ Τανυοξάρκῃ· βουλεύει τοιγαροῦν αὐτὸν μὲν ἐν τῷ φανερῷ ὡς δῆθεν ἀδελφοῦ βασιλέως κατειπόντα τὴν κεφαλὴν προστάξαι ἀποτμηθῆναι ἐν δὲ τῷ κρυπτῷ ἀναιρεθῆναι Τανυο-ξάρκην καὶ τὴν ἐκείνου στολὴν ἀμφιασθῆναι τὸν μάγον ὥστε καὶ τῷ ἀμφιάσματι νομίζεσθαι Τανυοξάρκην.
The magus in concert with the king devised the following plan. This magus very much resembled Tanyoxarkēs. For that very reason, he proposed that an order be given publically to cut off his [the magus’] head, for having denounced the king’s brother, but (in reality) Tanyoxarkēs would be killed in secret, and the magus be clad in his robe, so that he would be considered to be Tanyoxarkēs on account of the garment .
Ctesias F13.12
In the light of this information, the relevance of the substitute king ritual for Darius’ literary subterfuge, which was intended to mask the reality of his own coup d’état against Bardiya and Gaumāta, becomes apparent. In Darius’ account it is presumed that Cambyses, threatened by an omen predicting the loss of his sovereignty to his brother, ordered his assassination and replaced him with a substitute, who by assuming power indeed fulfilled the promise of the omen. Thus, in our context, far from deflecting the omen from himself, Cambyses is accused of countering it by replacing the hostile Bardiya with a friendly substitute, a substitute who, following the death of Cambyses, became sole ruler of the Persian empire.


[ back ] 1. On the substitute king ritual in Mesopotamia, see Bottéro 1978; Bottéro 1992:138–155; Parpola 1983:xxii–xxxii; more recently, see Lenfant 1996:371–373; Lenfant 2004:lxxiii–lxxix; Tourraix 2001; Huber 2005a; and Huber 2005b:156–166.
[ back ] 2. Occurs in plural as dābibānu (with the particularizing suffix -ān-) in the meaning of “plotter(s)” to dabābu “talk; plot”; see Parpola 1993: no. 240 rev. 21–25 (= 191–192); and Parpola 1983:179 for a discussion of dābib-u/-ānu; also Huber 2005a:345–346n16.
[ back ] 3. Parpola 1983:xxiv.
[ back ] 4. Bottéro 1992:149: “Another prudent measure of deception consisted of changing the ‘official name,’ the ‘title’ of the king. He was called the farmer (ikkaru) [emphasis Bottéro] perhaps in opposition to the shepherd, which was a common epithet in Mesopotamia.”
[ back ] 5. Bottéro 1992:149–150.
[ back ] 6. Parpola 1983:xxiv; Bottéro 1992:147; and Parpola 1993: no. 2 obv. 1–13 (= 4).
[ back ] 7. Parpola 1983:xxv; also Huber 2005b:157n84.
[ back ] 8. Parpola 1983:xxiv.
[ back ] 9. Parpola 1993: no. 220 rev. 2–3 (= 174); no. 221 obv. 8–9 (= 174); no. 352 obv. 12–13 (= 288).
[ back ] 10. More recently, see Abramenko 2000; and Huber 2005a:368–80. See also, for examples in the Hittite empire, Taracha 2000 and Kümmel 1967.
[ back ] 11. Herodotus 7.12–17.
[ back ] 12. On this episode, see more recently Huber 2005a:357–362; early on, Germain (1956:306) fittingly interpreted this passage: “L’interprétation est simple. Quand Xerxès remet à son oncle les vêtements royaux, l’intronise, enfin le met à sa place dans son propre lit, il l’élève symboliquement à la nature royale (plutôt qu’aux pouvoirs royaux au sens politique du mot). Pour la durée de la nuit, en face de cet être inquiétant, le roi désormais c’est Artabanos, qui sera exposé aux mêmes objurgations et, le cas échéant, aux mêmes dangers. Rien n’est plus logique, dès l’instant que l’on a reconnu un rite de substitution, qui identifie Artabanos et le roi.” Compare also Bichler 1985:140–145, who sees in this episode, as well as in other instances of the so-called Reichsträume, narratives that owe their existence to the creative mind of Herodotus, and hence fully subscribe both in structure and content to Greek thought: “Die ganze Geschichte ist griechisch, ist wohl eine Schöpfung Herodots selbst. Zu sehr ist sie seiner Gedankenwelt verpflichtet, zu sehr von Redeszenen und Details beherrscht, die seine gestaltende Hand verraten. Besonders schwer wiegt die enge Verbundenheit von Xerxes’ Traumerprobung mit der Orakelerprobung des Aristodikos und mit anderen Geschichten in seinem Werk.” See also Evans 1961. On the use of figurines in dream rituals and the substitute king ritual, see Butler 1998:195–204.
[ back ] 13. Although not directly related to the world of Achaemenid Iran, the testimony of Sir John Malcolm from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, on the practice of the substitute king ritual under the Safavid rulers, may support the ritual’s past enactment in pre-Islamic Iran as well: “While engaged in preventing the inroads of the Usgebs … he [Shah Abbas the Great] was suddenly called from all considerations of foreign policy, by a prediction of his astrologers; who, from the aspect of the heavenly bodies, had discovered that a most serious danger impended over the sovereign of Persia. Abbas was not exempt from the superstition of the age in which he lived, and did not hesitate to adopt the strange expedient by which his counselors proposed to avert the dreaded omen. He abdicated the throne; and a person of the name of Yusoofee, whom Persian authors take care to tell us was an unbeliever, was crowned; and for three days, if we are to believe these historians, he enjoyed not only the name and state, but also the power of the king. The cruel farce ended as was to be expected. Yusoofee was put to death; the decree of the stars was fulfilled by this sacrifice; and Abbas, who re-ascended his throne in a most propitious hour, was promised by his astrologers a long and glorious reign” (see Sir John Malcolm 1829:346).