Saving or Sacrificing the Substitute King

In and around Mesopotamia, from maybe 1900 to 300 B.C. (off and on), priests practiced a particular brand of human sacrifice meant to keep their kings safe. When omens and auguries predicted the death of the king, priests would swap the real king out for a fake – a substitute king – then kill the substitute to fulfill the prophecy without harming the real king. Saving a substitute king or being selected as one is a fabulous adventure hook, particularly if you lean into the consequences of upsetting the ritual. Let’s take a look!

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Image credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg). Released under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

The substitute king ritual pops up in the lands in and around Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). The earliest mention we have dates back to the 1800s B.C., but it might be fictional. Our best documentation of the practice comes from the kings of the Neo-Assyrian empire (600s-900s B.C.), so most of what we know about the ritual is the Neo-Assyrian version of it. The last gasp of the practice may have been during the reign of Alexander the Great (300s B.C.). While finer points of ritual varied, the core seems to have remained recognizable: identify that the king has received a dangerous destiny, appoint a substitute to take that destiny upon himself, and kill him to fulfill the destiny and save the real king.

The proper reading of omens was a big deal in ancient Mesopotamia. Kings employed diviners, astrologers, haruspices (who read the future in the entrails of sacrificed animals), and teratomancers (who read the future in the shapes of the deformed offspring of humans and animals). These predictions often conflicted with one another, which permitted diviners to create multifaceted, complex predictions: this part of the future will go well, but that part will go badly. Omens could be appealed. Each represented a judgement by the gods, but these judgements could be overturned by later rulings following new actions by mortals.

The most dangerous omens were eclipses – both lunar and solar – which foretold dooms and the deaths of kings and crown princes. Depending on when and where in the sky eclipses occurred, they could foretell dooms for different places. This kind of eclipse meant bad news for Babylon, but that kind meant bad news for Akkad, and the Babylonians had nothing to worry about. Lunar eclipses are common: on average, any one spot on Earth will see a full lunar eclipse from beginning to end once every five years or so, and partial eclipses more often. And Mesopotamian astronomers could calculate and predict eclipses well in advance. This meant that kings had forewarning of their dooms and could take action – and had to do so often.

Transferring dangerous fates in Mesopotamia was not unique to kings and eclipses. Animals could be substituted for people in ordinary matters of destiny. If you slept with a goat (literally, not euphemistically), that would bind it to you. Then if you held a dual funeral for you and the goat, you could sacrifice the animal while pretending to die yourself and thereby transfer the evil outcome to the goat. Alas, this exorcism of an evil destiny was not potent enough to handle the truly grave portents that afflicted kings: only human sacrifice would do.

Image credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg). Released under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

The first step of the substitute king ritual was to select the substitute. The court’s diviners, priests, and exorcists were responsible for finding just the right person. Soothsayers (a separate group) got a veto, and could always declare a certain selection dangerous or invalid. Usually, the choice was someone no one powerful would miss: a beggar, a peasant, or a disabled person. Then you had to promote them. The gulf between a goat and a man may be small enough for the gods to accept they’re the same person. But the gulf between a peasant and a king is much wider. So the substitute would first have to be given a position of importance, like that of an official or a priest.

Next the substitute took the king’s evil destiny upon himself. He might recite something, have the words attached to the fringes of his clothes, or even eat the written words. He might not understand what he was doing. In one case, written words to the effect of “I am the king, so give me the king’s deadly fate” were mixed into the substitute’s food. In another, the substitute only learned after the fact that he’d assumed the king’s evil destiny and became distraught.

Once appointed, the substitute lived either in the king’s palace or in a secondary residence outside the capital. He was seated upon the throne, dressed in the royal regalia, given all the accoutrements of power, and might even sleep in the king’s bed. He appeared in public as the king and probably enjoyed a pretty lavish standard of living. Nonetheless, the substitute wielded no power whatsoever. He was barred from making royal decisions. He only got to play-act at being the king; actual authority remained with the original monarch. The substitute remained in this role for anywhere from 24 hours to 100 days.

During this time, the real king lived somewhere the substitute wasn’t. For them to stay too close together was to invite trouble. In some sources, the king remained in a special building called a qersu, surrounded by a fence of reeds and magic spells to keep evil away – just in case the substitute didn’t absorb all of the evil fate. In his retreat, the king continued to receive letters about goings-on in his kingdom (indeed, many such letters have survived) and continued making decisions. Sometimes, the letters reinforced the charade by being addressed not to “your royal highness” but to “the farmer”.

When the time was up, the substitute died. We don’t know who carried out the execution or what method they used. The execution fulfilled the deadly prophecy, thereby sparing the king. We might expect these Mesopotamian courts to wait for the evil destiny to catch up to the substitute king in its own time, but I suppose there was a risk the destiny might get lost and catch the real king on accident. Plus, it’s a lot faster if you fulfill the prophecy yourself. The substitute might get a kingly funeral, just to make sure the gods understood that the king was dead and there was no further need for any king-killing. Then everything the substitute wore was set on fire to cleanse it of spiritual pollution, the whole palace got a spiritual deep-clean, and the real king was invited home.

King Esarhaddon of Assyria
Image credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg). Released under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Three examples of the substitute king ritual show how flexible it could be.

In the mid-600s, the representative in Babylon of the King of Assyria conducted the substitute king ritual with a Babylonian potentate as the sacrifice. An eclipse predicted the death of the king of Babylon – a problem for the Assyrian king Esarhaddon, who also ruled Babylon. Ordinarily the ritual’s victim would be a nobody, but the Babylonians had grown restive. So the representative selected a man named Damqi, the son of the chief administrator of the temples of Babylon. Killing Damqi in the ritual thus served two purposes. It was a religious sacrifice that protected Esarhaddon, but it was also a political assassination intended to cow Babylon and quash its dreams of independence. It’s worth noting that Esarhaddon and his successor Ashurbanipal are our most-documented users of the substitute king ritual because archaeologists uncovered Ashurbanipal’s library – and all the clay tablets inside it – in 1849.

Multiple sources attest to a version of the substitute king ritual occurring during the reign of Alexander the Great in 324/323 B.C., though they differ in their details. In Plutarch’s version, Alexander – who was soon to die – was plagued by bad omens. One of his donkeys kicked one of his lions to death. Ravens killed one another in front of him. A sacrificial animal had no lobe in its liver. And when he went to play ball, he found a stranger seated on his throne, wearing the royal diadem and robes. The stranger explained that he was a criminal from Greece. The god Serapis had freed him from captivity and ordered him to come here and impersonate Alexander. On the advice of his Mesopotamian seers, Alexander had the self-appointed substitute put to death. I guess Serapis tried his best, but Alexander still died in 323.

That was the most recent surviving example of the ritual; the oldest surviving is weird too – and possibly fictional. In 1861 B.C., Erra-imitti, king of Isin (east of modern Najaf, Iraq) appointed a gardener named Enlil-bani to be his substitute. Erra-imitti did not quit the palace – perhaps a fatal mistake, given that he didn’t suitably distance himself from the substitute. Erra-imitti sipped a broth or porridge while it was still too hot and died. Enlil-bani, the gardener, was already king (albeit a substitute) and thus instead of being executed became the actual king of Isin and succeeded Erra-imitti.

This ‘clay nail’ dedicates a temple to its god and mentions Enlil-bani.
Image credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg). Released under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

If your PCs encounter a monarch using this substitute ritual, they will need to decide whether to save the substitute or allow them to be sacrificed. Modeling the scenario on the Damqi/Esarhaddon substitution can be a great springboard to a political adventure. Maybe the anti-monarchical element approaches the party and asks them to free the substitute. If they refuse, have the king get wind of it. He asks the PCs to pretend to change their minds, go undercover, and expose the rebels. It’s a pretty straightforward adventure, but it’s got clear political consequences. Honestly, if you’ve been wanting to try a political adventure, this is a great way to get your feet wet!

If you want to encourage the party to rescue the substitute, have her be an NPC they already know and care about, or a relative of such an NPC. If you do this, you can lean harder into interesting consequences of success. Does the ritual actually protect the monarch, and does disrupting it endanger her? Even if it doesn’t, how seriously does everyone take the ritual? If the ritual is interrupted, will the monarch refuse to come out of hiding, with dangerous consequences for the realm? Might it trigger conspirators to rise up? Are the conspirators justified in doing so?

Alternately, maybe the party is collectively identified as the appropriate substitute. If so, the PCs had better devise a way to escape the palace and flee the country, or they will definitely be executed! You can even have an NPC tempt them with a story based on that of Enlil-bani, the gardener who became king. Maybe the PCs can arrange for the death of the monarch they’re replacing and become the new royal family!

Another possibility is using this ritual as a way to complicate an adventure you were already going to run. The party needs to talk to the monarch about something, but just when they reach the capital, she goes into hiding so a substitution ritual can begin. How are they to reach the monarch now? They might schmooze with a royal advisor to bring the monarch a letter (which the advisor might not do), or they can wait for the monarch to come back out of hiding (which might be too late). And as always, the substitution ritual is abhorrent human sacrifice – do the PCs really need a favor more than they need to rescue the substitute?

Check out my book Making History: Three One-Session RPGs! Three awesome historical one-shots with pregenerated characters and a very simple rules system designed specifically for that story. Norse Ivory is a game about heritage and faith in the Viking Age. A Killing in Cahokia is a murder mystery in the Native American temple-city of Cahokia. And Darken Ship is a horror-adventure starring junior sailors on a U.S. Navy warship who wake up one morning to discover they’re alone on a ship that should carry three thousand.

Source: Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods by Jean Bottéro (1992)

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