The Assyrian Substitute King Ritual
excerpted from Ezekiel to Jesus by Preston Kavanagh & Simo Parpola
What follows is the most important chapter of this book. It sets forth the writing Excursus: The Substitute King Ritual, by Simo Parpola, who held the title of Professor Extraordinary of Assyriology at the University of Helsinki. Portions of his seminal translation of Letters from Assyrian Scholars to the Kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal (Volume 1), as well as his comments (in Volume 2) about the numerous cuneiform letters that discussed substitute kings, are included in chapter 8 of this book. Letters is a two-volume work based on the doctoral dissertation that Professor Parpola completed over forty-five years ago, and the Excursus was omitted when the two volumes were subsequently re-printed in 1993. This Excursus shows that in the late seventh century BCE, Assyrian kings were enthroning substitutes at Nineveh and in neighboring Babylonia, which they then controlled. These letters, thoughtfully read and matched with Scripture, allow one to conclude that the prophet Ezekiel died as a Babylonian substitute king.
For some years, there has been the danger that biblical scholars would overlook or lose entirely the information Parpola has given us about ancient substitute kings. But by placing this Excursus in print once again, we do everything we can to keep alive this precious knowledge about Assyrian and Babylonian sub-stitutes. One hopes that, after considering this Excursus and the actual letters to Assyrian kings that follow, readers will reach the conclusion that the Suffering Servant was a substitute king. It follows that Ezekiel, the first Son of Man, died as a Babylonian substitute.
Excursus: The Substitute King Ritual
by Simo Parpola
By the substitute king ritual is understood an arrangement in which, briefly put, the ruling king temporarily abdicates his throne for a surrogate who, having ruled his predetermined period, is put to death, after which the king reascends his throne and continues ruling as if nothing had happened. This rite forms the subject of one of the most familiar tales in the Arabian Nights, and from incidental and garbled statements made by ancient historiographers (see below, pp. 70–79) it has long been known (or suspected) that the ritual was from time to time actually practiced in ancient oriental courts. The historicity of these more or less anecdotal reminiscences was put beyond all doubt by the discovery of the Nineveh letter archives, which contain numerous references to a substitute king (šar pūḫi) ruling in the king’s place, and above all by the publication in 1957 and 1967 of two sets of ritual texts (Akkadian and Hittite) showing that the rite was known and practiced all over the ancient Near East, not just in Sargonid Assyria. These texts revealed many previously unknown facts about the ritual and its function, but they also presented many problems, some of which have prov-ed very difficult to solve. Despite much discussion (see Bibliography under Bottéro 1978, Böhl 1953, Dhorme 1941, Kümmel 1967, Labat 1957/58 and 1959/60, Landsberger 1965, Parpola 1971, Schott 1941–42, von Soden 1936 and 1956), there still exists much unclarity about the exact circumstances calling for the performance of the ritual, about the frequency at which it was performed, and—since the ritual instructions are badly broken—even about the general course of the ritual. This underlines the importance of a thorough and systematic analysis of the information provided by the LAS corpus—for the 30 letters of the corpus pertaining to the ritual (LAS 25–28, 30–32, 77, 134–139, 166–167, 179,185, 205, 232, 235–6, 249, 257, 278–80, 292, 298–99, 317 and 334) not only are (along with ABL 735 and a few administrative documents from Calah, see below, pp. 71–73) the only as yet available direct documentation of the performance of the ritual; they also contain a wealth of information furnishing, when properly organized, an answer to all the puzzles it initially presents.
The individual šar pūḫi letters are thoroughly analyzed and discussed in the commentary. The present chapter provides, by way of a synthesis, a discussion of the ritual as a whole, and a catalogue of all attested instances of its performance—including ones recorded in non-cuneiform sources. The numbers in square brackets in the following discussion refer to entries in this catalogue. No systematic stand is taken on the research hitherto done (cf. above), which is taken as the point of departure to the present study.
The ritual: description and discussion
The need for a substitute king was created by evil omens, specifically eclipses, portending the death of the king. This is made quite clear by the ritual tablet , which defines the cause of the ritual as “the evil portent of evil and unlucky signs, eclipses of the moon, the sun, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury and Saturn, [and Mars]” (A 9–13). In fact, every single performance of the ritual featured in the LAS correspondence can be traced back to an eclipse, either a lunar or [11, 13] a solar one. And while no “planetary eclipses” (i.e., occultations of planets behind the moon) can as yet be shown to have triggered the ritual, there is no reason to doubt that they may occasionally have done so (cf. discussion sub LAS 14).
Not every eclipse, however, called for the performance of the ritual. One important restriction derived from an omen included in Tablet XX of Enūma Anu Enlil: “If an eclipse (of the moon) takes place and the planet Jupiter is present in that eclipse, the king is safe; a noble dignitary will die in his stead.” (ACh 2 Spl. 29:14)
This omen implied, as pointed out in three messages to the king where it is quoted (LAS 298, ABL 1006 and RMA 272), that there was no need to enthrone a substitute if Jupiter had been visible during the eclipse since the god’s presence indicated that the sign did not, as usual, concern the king but one of his magnates. A similar restriction also applied to solar eclipses: “If an eclipse (of the sun) takes place and Venus and Jupiter are visible, the king is safe, but the country will be attacked by an enemy.” (ACh Šamaš 8:6, see App. F 4.5)
A further restriction resulted from the analysis of the eclipses themselves. While every eclipse (excepting the cases just mentioned) in principle signified that a powerful king was to die (cf., e.g., ACh Spl. 22 ii 4’, “If the moon is eclipsed on the 14th of Simānu, a famous king will die”, and ibid.iii 12’, “If an eclipse occurs from the 1st to the 30th of Du’ūzu, . . . a great king will die”), the identity of the king and the land in question had in each case to be established separately by taking into consideration the month, day, and hour of the eclipse, the area of the moon’s or the sun’s disc affected by the eclipse, and the direction in which the eclipse shifted (see App. F 4). Of overriding importance was the message sent by the eclipsed disc, which was divided into four quadrants, each corresponding to a specific quarter of the world (Amurru, Elam, Subartu, Akkad); the other factors were of subordinate interest. The darkening of a quadrant implied a threat to the relevant country. Thus, a total eclipse spelled danger to all kings of the world, while e.g. an eclipse touching only the upper part of the moon or the sun signified that a king of the West (Amurru) was going to die. The kings of Assyria were in danger whenever the lowermost quadrant (Subartu/Assyria) was eclipsed. For Esarhaddon, who was the king of both Assyria and Babylonia, even eclipses with darkened right-hand quadrant (Akkad/Babylonia) posed a mortal danger.
Accordingly, the need for a substitute king theoretically arose in Assyria whenever the portion of the lunar or solar disc representing Subartu (in the case of Esarhaddon: Subartu and Akkad) was eclipsed and the planet Jupiter was not simultaneously visible. How this theory was converted into practice can be seen from the following analysis of 16 consecutive eclipses in the reigns of Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal.
As can be seen, of these 16 eclipses, eight (exactly one half) called for the enthronement of a substitute king in Assyria. In all these cases (insofar as our evidence goes), a substitute was actually enthroned. Conversely, excepting one case explicitly labelled a mistake (LAS 298), eclipses interpreted as harmless according to the above principles never triggered the ritual. This veritably perfect fit between theory and praxis proves that the factors considered really played the central role in deciding whether the king needed a substitute or not.
As soon as the need for a substitute had been established, the king was notified. In LAS 185 and 134, this was done by the chief exorcist alone, and in LAS 28, and 31, by a group of several high-ranking scholars, including the chief exorcist, the chief scribe and the chief chanter. The latter probably was the normal practice. Note that LAS 185 represents a special case, in which the suggestion to enthrone a substitute was exceptionally presented to the king already before the eclipse had actually taken place. Normally the need for the substitute could only be determined post eventum. In any case, the idea of enthroning a substitute never came from the king himself but from his counselors, even in the abnormal case of (see discussion sub LAS 298). And while the king was formally given the option to decide whether the ritual would be performed or not (cf. LAS 185 r.17), it was surely taken for granted that the answer was always in the affirmative.
Having gotten the go-ahead signal, the chief exorcist picked up a suitable substitute—a prisoner of war, a prisoner, a criminal condemned to death, a political enemy of the king, a gardener, or a simpleton (LAS 280 r.13ff)—in a word, a person whose life did not matter much or who would have deserved death anyway. The man was taken to the palace (LAS 279:7), treated with wine, washed and anointed, clad in the king’s robes, furnished with the diadem and other royal insignia, and eventually seated on the royal throne; cf. LAS 134 and Ritual Tablet, B 5–6, and see note on LAS 185 r.18). A “girl” (LAS 139) or “virgin” (Ritual Tablet, Col. A 20) was at the same time seated at his side as his “queen” (LAS 30 and 280), and a statuette was presented as a substitute to the Netherworld gods.
At this moment, the substitute and the real king formally reversed their roles. The changed status of the latter is reflected in the fact that after the enthronement of the substitute, he was no more to be addressed as “king” but as “Peasant” or “Farmer” (LÚ.ENGAR, cf. App. L 1 and 6) or simply as “my lord” (LAS 26–28). And while relevant evidence is lacking, it seems reasonable to assume that he did not wear any external marks of kingship or go near the throne as long as the substitute was occupying it, and otherwise, too, kept a low profile. It goes without saying, of course, that this reversal of the roles was only symbolic. In the eyes of his aides, the king was still very much the real king, as indicated by several letters (LAS 134–136, 249, 278–79 and 292) written while a substitute king was on the throne but nevertheless (inadvertently) addressed to the king, not the “farmer”.
That the “reversal of roles” was only partial is also indicated by the fact that merely putting a substitute king on the throne was just not enough. One had also to make sure that the fate portended by the eclipse really was to befall him and not the real king, under whose rule the portent had occurred. To this end, the eclipse omens, along with other recently observed evil portents, were written down and (immediately after the enthronement) recited to the substitute king and his queen, who had to repeat them “in front” of Šamaš, the celestial judge (LAS 26, 30 and 279). The importance of the recitation ceremony (supervised by the chief scribe and complemented with exorcistic rites) is borne out by the fact that it had to be performed even in the (rare) case when the substitute had been enthroned before the eclipse had actually taken place (LAS 279). It made the substitute . . . “accept” from the officiating scholar the signs that had been originally sent to the king (LAS 30). To make sure that the omens would irrevocably remain affecting the substitute, the document where they were written was physically attached to his garments (LAS 26).
The ceremony just described reveals an important thing about the rationale behind the whole ritual. The danger looming before the king, as portended by the eclipse, was not just something that would befall any king [of Assyria]; it was the fate decreed by the gods to the ruling king personally as a punishment for his conduct as king. This fate could not be evaded by just suddenly abdicating the throne; it could only be evaded by having somebody . . . take upon himself the signs sent to the king, to accept responsibility for the king’s sins, to be atoned only by death. Thus the function of the substitute king was basically that of a scapegoat, the innocent sufferer, not that of a puppet king. He had to be a king, because otherwise the Scriptures would not come true, but otherwise the aspect of kingship was secondary. The whole ritual was functionally equivalent to the pūḫi amēli (“man’s substitute”) ritual described in commentary to LAS 140, in which a virgin kid was sacrificed to save a deadly sick patient. For the aspect of “sin” associated with the ritual cf. discussion sub LAS 35 (and 321).
The fate portended by the eclipse was to befall the king within 100 days from the occurrence of the eclipse (see note on LAS 135 r.6). Accordingly, the “reign” of the substitute king theoretically could, and in certain cases certainly did last for as long as a hundred days. It could, however, and probably often did end considerably earlier. It certainly lasted less than a hundred days, for 47 days, for 20 days, the case planned in LAS 205 for only 7 days, and (if the tradition is correct) for only 3 days. This variation in the duration of the ritual shows that the length of the substitute’s reign was of no great importance in itself, and depended in each case on external circumstances. For instance, if other eclipses were liable to occur after the eclipse, the reign was certain to last for at least a month, so that the “evil” of all potential eclipses would befall the same substitute. If, on the other hand, no eclipses or other unlucky celestial portents were to be expected within a hundred days from the initial eclipse, there was no pressing need to extend the substitute’s reign to its theoretical maximum; it was left to the king to decide whether he should “go to his fate” early or “complete his 100 days” (cf. LAS 135).
A special case was constituted by eclipses calling for repetition of the enthronement rites. According to LAS 298:11f and 9ff., the substitute had to be enthroned in the residence of the ruler. For Esarhaddon (and other Assyrian kings who also held the kingship of Babylon), this meant that each time the lunar quadrant corresponding to Babylonia was eclipsed, a substitute had to be placed on the throne in Babylon as well. And if the quadrants of both Assyria and Babylonia were eclipsed, as actually happened three times in Esarhaddon’s reign, the same substitute had to be enthroned both in Nineveh and in Babylon. Since the latter city was in ruins and thus not yet suited for a royal residence city in Esarhaddon’s reign, the scene of the enthronement rites in Babylonia was in this reign the ancient capital of the Sargonic empire, Akkad (cf. LAS 134, 249, 279, 280, 298 and CT 53 206; it is uncertain whether Akkad was already the scene of the ritual in LAS 30). It seems that in the case of such double enthronements, the reign of the substitute was preferred to extend to its full length. LAS 26 indicates that the re-enthronement of the substitute in Akkad took place 50 days after the first enthronement in Nineveh, and LAS 292 shows that it ended after the full 100 days, so that the substitute came to spend exactly the same number of days both in Assyria and Babylonia. This appears to have been the case in LAS 30, too. On the other hand, in LAS 279 the substitute was transferred to Akkad immediately after his enthronement in Nineveh. This may well have been due to the inflamed political situation in Assyria at the moment (cf. commentary on LAS 247, and also LAS 185 r.25 and 280 r.7ff.).
Until quite recently, nothing certain was known about the status of the substitute king during his “reign”. The allegations of the Greek and Persian historians and the tradition of the Arabian Nights that he enjoyed full royal powers is now to some extent confirmed by the Nimrud wine lists published by Kinnier Wilson. These show that the substitute king had a sizeable entourage, about 1/10 the size of the royal court, which included musicians, cooks, confectioners and other personnel designed to entertain the body and soul of the mock king. The lists also show that a sumptuous banquet (naptunu) was a regular feature of the substitute king’s day, and that he was (at least in certain measure) able to travel around.
But they also reveal something that could not be a priority expected, viz. that as much as 1/3 of the substitute’s “entourage” (about 100 men) consisted of bodyguards. Since the real king was certainly not in the least concerned about keeping his surrogate alive, this large number of armed attendants can only have served the function of keeping the surrogate under close surveillance, to prevent any attempt to perpetuate the example set by Illilbāni. It is hence clear that whatever “royal power” the substitute king possessed was only illusory; he seems to have been permitted to display a considerable amount of royal pomp in public, and to enjoy a comfortable life, but the real power stayed with the king.
The king himself was certainly, to some extent, inconvenienced by the substitute’s reign. Not only was he forced to maintain a costly mock court for the substitute king and to withdraw from public life, but he was also strongly advised to stay within the confines of the palace and not to leave for the open country until the 100-day term of the eclipse was over (LAS 280 r.13, 299 r.7). The same injunction also concerned the other members of the royal family (cf. LAS 249). Otherwise, however, at least the private life of the monarch seems to have continued as usual. He kept receiving letters and even conducting administrative business with his officials (cf., e.g., LAS 278 and 292).
When the time came to terminate the ritual, both the substitute king and his queen were put to death. The ritual tablet prescribes this explicitly (“The man given as substitute for the king will die, and the king and his country will be well”, Col. A 6’f.), and all sources attesting to the performance of the ritual imply the same. Exactly how the substitute met his death is unclear in most instances, and may have varied depending on the case. It is suggested in the commentary to LAS 280 that the method preferred in Sargonid Assyria was an overdose of “soporific”; but suggests that harsher methods were normally resorted to, and this may well have been the case. The expression “to go to one’s fate” used when referring to the substitute king’s death (LAS 135, 166, 249, 280 and 292) does not imply that the event itself was a matter which one preferred not to talk about directly, but rather that it was regarded as something decreed by fate and thus not to be avoided. The manner of death did not matter greatly.
The only extant description of the burial of a substitute king is provided by Mār-Ištar in LAS 280. This letter tells that the substitute was buried with royal honors. He and his queen were balsamized, bewailed and publicly displayed just like any royal dead (cf. commentary on LAS 4 and 195), and their corpses were deposited in a mausoleum (KI.MAḪ) specifically built for the occasion. A tomb (lit. a “resting place”, maṣallu) of the substitute king is also mentioned in LAS 32. It may be, of course, that the publicity given to the burial of the substitute in LAS 280 was exceptional and dictated by the political necessities of the day (cf. ibid., r.8); but the possibility that the burial of the substitute king was a public event comparable to that of the king cannot be excluded for the present (however unlikely it may appear).
At the time of and following the burial many magical rites were performed. The ritual tablet (Col. A 18f.) prescribes the preparation of a figurine of “everything that is evil” ṣalam mimma lemnu) which the substitute was supposed to take with himself to the Netherworld. LAS 280 states that “all kinds of exorcistic rites, including the elaborate rituals of bīt rimki and bīt salā mȇ” (actually prophylactic rites performed on the occasion of an eclipse) were performed at the burial. This may be exaggeration, but both the ritual tablet (Col. B 9ff.) and LAS 179 make it clear that the royal exorcists had a lot to do after the substitute’s death. The palace of the king had to be surrounded with all kinds of prophylactic figures designed to drive off evil forces threatening the king’s peace of mind, and the king himself was to be cleansed immediately after the substitute king had “gone to his fate” (ritual tablet, col. B 8’; LAS 166:11). We do not know how this purification was effected (it may have involved a shaving ritual, a bath in the Tigris, the donning of new garments, and a lot of incense burning, or a com-bination of all these cleansing methods), but it may be assumed that it was at least as much intended to clean the king’s conscience as his (probably very little stained) body. One may speculate that the performance of the ritual, which indeed, as often emphasized (cf., e.g., von Soden, 1954, p. 125), came close to a human sacrifice, was bound to leave an undeletable impression on the king’s psyche—cf. the testimony of the Alexander biographers, below.