The substitute king ritual in Ancient Mesopotamia: an elegant solution to inevitable fate Hadar Rubin The Skeptic

According to the Greek playwright Sophocles, when king Laius and queen Jocasta of Thebes finally had a son, it was prophesied that he will kill his father. The child was abandoned, exposed to the elements, in an attempt to prevent the prophecy from being fulfilled. However, the child did not die and ended up being adopted by a different royal couple, not knowing they were not his biological parents. When the adopted prince learned of a prophecy according to which he will kill his father and marry his mother, he decided never to return to those he thought were his parents – and thus keep the prophecy from being fulfilled.

As many of us know, this scheme did not work: the child, named Oedipus, did indeed end up killing his biological father and marrying his biological mother. The prophecy was unavoidable, no matter the efforts made to divert it.

In many ancient societies, what we call “religion” was intertwined with daily life to the point of not being a category of its own; in some cases, the word itself did not exist. The basic cosmological and societal understandings were inseparable from invisible powers (sometimes, but not always, deities); the oracle in Delphi, which provided the prophecy to Oedipus and his parents, was a mouthpiece for the god Apollo; later, the worship of the gods in Ancient Rome was a part of civil life to the point that refusal to worship was considered a treasonous act.

The fulfillment or nonfulfillment of prophecies could have had a wider effect than simply on a person or persons; Oedipus shows us that there is never a way to prevent a prophecy from being fulfilled. It was said; it will happen. A fulfilled prophecy, even a bad one, is in line with the basic notions of society and its understanding of the world, while an unfulfilled prophecy may cause upset. By way of a crude metaphor, an unfulfilled prophecy can be equated with waking up one morning to discover that Pi = 3. The whole understanding of the world and of reality as we know them will be turned on its head.

The omen of the eclipse, and prophecised death

In Ancient Mesopotamia, when certain conditions were met during a celestial eclipse, they portended a threat to the ruler. Different indicators, such as the quadrant of the moon being hidden or the visibility of certain planets, were indicators of the geographical region under threat; after being identified, precautionary measures were taken.

The Ritual of the Substitute King is designed to protect the person of the king who sits on the throne, and involves temporarily enthroning a king who will take upon himself the evil or danger predicted for the king. This distinction is very important: the omen of the eclipse was considered to be pertaining to whomever sits on the throne; they were not threats to a specific person. For this reason, a substitute king was enthroned. He did not rule as the rightful king did, but his sitting on the throne caused the harms to befall him and not the true king. When the ritual was complete (usually after 100 days) and the danger was deemed to have passed, a great harm befell the substitute king – it was made sure that he will die. In this way a king was on the throne, and a king has died. The prophecy is fulfilled, but with no harm to the rightful king.

Rituals of status change

In chapter five of his book The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (1969), Victor Turner deals with the subject of liminality in rituals of status elevation and reversal. These are rituals in which the social or religious status of a person (or a group of persons) changes, permanently or temporarily.

An example for the first is the election of a new king in Gaboon [sic]. While the elect is not yet aware of his election, he is “attacked” by the whole village: he is cursed and abused, and sometimes even beaten. After this humiliation, he is crowned, and all his abusers show deference and pledge fealty. An example for the second is the Holi celebration is a specific village in India, when subordinates (workers, women, the marginalised) take the place of their superiors (bosses, husbands, the rich) for a few days. In the former case, the status change is permanent – the king serves until he dies. In the latter case, the status reversal is temporary – at the end of the holiday everyone returns to their previous positions in society.

Turner’s starting point is two sets of terms presented by Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957). In ritual, those terms are “separation”, “margin”, and “reaggregation”. In spatial dimensions, those terms are “preliminal” [sic], “liminal”, and “postliminal”. These two sets of terms are complimentary, and mostly align with each other. The margin is liminal; what comes before it is preliminal – the process of separation/disassociation with the previous (or “regular”) status/state of affairs; and the final stage is the postliminal, the reaggregation into the community with a changed status (the chosen king in Gaboon) or back to the “regular” state of affairs (the Holi celebration in India).

It is important to note that despite some of the prejudice in, and the age of the texts, principles and theories developed by these two giants of anthropology, ethnology and folklore are still very much relevant to our world and to the study of human cultures and religions. They are also very readable, even today – reading them (while remembering the context of their writing) can be very illuminating.

According to Turner, rituals of status reversal have, in fact, “the long-term effect of emphasising all the more trenchantly the social definitions of the group”. This is to mean that as soon as the social roles and statuses are back in place, they are more apparent (and might even be more forcefully enforced) than before. The completed ritual has the effect of stressing, not overthrowing, the principles of society’s hierarchy. At the end of the Ritual of the Substitute King, the king returns to his throne with no harm to his status – rather, in some ways he returns “victorious”, safe and relived, ready to take on his responsibilities anew. The social order is not harmed by having a substitute sit on the throne – in actuality, it is kept.

Appointing a sacrificial Substitute King

In the Ritual of the Substitute King, the rightful ruler separates himself from his status symbols as he leaves his role and his physical place (he no longer resides in his palace); his societal status is changed and he is even separated from his title, as he is now being referred to as “the farmer” (out of abundance of caution). He is in a marginal place – not the king, but not actually a farmer, and still in some kind of danger.

The substitute, customarily chosen from among criminals destined for capital punishment, also takes a marginal place and status: he is not truly the ruler, but he is also no longer a condemned person. In a letter written to King Esarhaddon from Mār-Ištar, his special agent in Babylonia, the latter writes about the death of a substitute. The substitute king and his wife were “decorated, treated, displayed, buried, and wailed over” – meaning they received all of the proper rites for a dead king (and queen – though the identity of the “wife” is unknown to us).

This is the end of the marginality for both king and substitute: the former returns to his rightful place, and the latter is put to death. While it may seem as if the status change was temporary for the king (who is being reaggregated into society) and permanent for the substitute (who dies), I wish to suggest that the executed substitute is also being reaggregated into society at the end of the ritual.

While imprisonment and execution are both ways to eliminate a person from society, dying in place of the king provides a valuable service; it is no longer a punishment for concrete or perceived crimes. Not only does the substitute live his last days in opulence, he also receives a royal funeral instead of a criminal’s. While crimes brought the substitute to his current position, he is, in a way, absolved of them as he provides such a great service “for king and country”. By dying in place of the king the substitute can change the context of his death in a very positive way – he turns it from elimination to reaggregation.

This can be seen in a very special occurrence: the substitute king spoke while on the throne. This is very unusual – and verboten; Plutarch describes a substitute not even replying when asked who he is. It seems that this specific substitute spoke in order to warn from a conspiracy to keep him on the throne (that it, a rebellion or a coup d’état were in the works). This substitute broke protocol and spoke up despite knowing that by so doing he condemned himself to certain death. When considered only through the lens of bodily self-preservation, this might seem like shooting oneself in the foot. However, some other points must be taken into consideration.

When analysing distant (in time, place, or both) aspects of life, one must put aside one’s own notions of “right”, “wrong”, “sensible”, or other value-based judgements. When remembering this key point, together with viewing the matter via the lens offered by Turner, the apparent loyalty of the substitute is not simple, and is not simply to the king. When we consider the three stages of a ritual (separation, margin, reaggregation) we can see that by keeping himself in the margin (a substitute, not a king), the substitute guarantees his reaggregation into society. Unlike other condemned criminals, the substitute is absolved of his crimes by providing a great service. Warning the relevant persons of a possible coup d’état is not only loyalty to the king – it is also loyalty to oneself, or at least to one’s memory. The dice was cast, the chosen substitute will die. But he can now die in an honourable way; not preserving his life, but changing the context of his death in a very positive way.

Social stability through fate and prophetic inevitability

And then there’s another aspect. As Oedipus shows us, prophecies’ fulfillment is unavoidable. A predicted event may or may not come true; a prophecy must come true. And this is a problem. If a predicted, possible disaster does not come to pass, it could be seen as a relief: no king is harmed and life goes on as before. But if a prophecy is unfulfilled, something must be wrong with the world – or with our perception of it. An unharmed king might turn from a blessing to a crisis – a world shaking crisis of faith, which can affect every aspect of life.

A sudden death of a ruler is dangerous: it often causes political upheaval and instability. But a prophesied death, even if sudden, will not change the basic fabric of society. Like the Chinese “Mandate of Heaven”, the replacing of the head does not change the body of life – only its current circumstances.

The Ritual of the Substitute King creates a situation in which a king will die by way of status change and a period of liminality. By creating a situation which enforces the fulfillment of a prophecy, society preserves a primal aspect of life: the system of beliefs and worldview. The basis of the societal structure is “proven”, and thus preserved and strengthened. Even the person put to death in place of the king earns something in return for his life.

The Ritual of the Substitute King succeeds where Oedipus failed: the people of Ancient Mesopotamia found a way to let a prophecy come true without being harmed by it. Instead of running away like Oedipus did, the people of Mesopotamia confronted their problem and found a creative solution: by making sure the prophecy will come true they prevented the harm it would have brought to them.


Ambos, Claus. “Rites of Passage in Ancient Mesopotamia: Changing Status by Moving Through Space: Bit Rimki and the Ritual of the Substitute King”, in Approaching Rituals In Ancient Cultures. Rome: Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2013, pp. 39-54.

Parpola, Simo. Letters from Assyrian Scholars to Kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Kevelaer, Butzon & Bercker, 1970-1983.

Turner, Victor. “Humility and Hierarchy: The Liminality of Status Elevation and Reversal”. Chapter in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1969, pp. 166-203.

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When the death of the king was prophecised in Ancient Mesopotamia, the solution was to substitute in a regal stand in – and then kill him
The post The substitute king ritual in Ancient Mesopotamia: an elegant solution to inevitable fate appeared first on The Skeptic.