Aspects of History and Epic in Ancient Iran: From Gaumāta to Wahnām

  Shayegan, M. Rahim. 2012. Aspects of History and Epic in Ancient Iran: From Gaumāta to Wahnām. Hellenic Studies Series 52. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

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

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

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).