National Geographic : 1951 Jan
A Mock King-for-a-Day Stays On to Rule for aLifetime IN DESCRIBING an earlier plate (page 72), we mentioned that one possible explanation of the so-called Royal Tombs at Ur was that those mass burials were due to awe some rites connected with the death of a substitute king. At any rate, there is no doubt that Babylonia and Assyria, the twin heirs to the Mesopotamian civilization of the third millennium B. C., knew the institution of a substitute ruler. The practice was designed to weather particularly acute periods of crisis. And since each New Year was regarded as a fateful period, the crowning of such a king-for-a-day appears to have been also an annual occasion. The Mesopotamian New Year, which was normally cele brated in the spring, was a highly dramatic festival reflecting man's constant dependence upon unpredictable Nature. Anxiety over the disposition of the gods gave way at long last to uninhibited joy (page 104). The substitute king seems to have been a feature of the concluding celebration. The person selected for the un wanted privilege of appeasing the gods while amusing the uproarious populace, by paying with his life for his brief occupancy of the throne, may have been a prisoner, political or otherwise, who had already run afoul of the laws. A Babylonian chronicle states laconically that King Erra Imitti of Issin, member of an early second millennium royal family which followed the Third Dynasty of Ur but preceded the First Dynasty of Babylon, set up the gardener Enlil-Bani as substitute ruler. Things did not go off at all according to plan, however. The all too brief statement goes on to say that, after the crown of royalty had beenplaced onthesubstitute's head, "Erra-Imitti died in his palace while sipping ahot brew. Enlil-Bani, he who was onthe throne, did not arise [from it] but was himself installed asking." In other words, the victim who had been setupasa mocking stock seized uponarare prank offate and went on to rule, very capably,asweknow from independent sources, for no less than 24years. The scene takes place infront oftheroyal palace. A ziggurat, or stage tower, modeled after the nearly contempo rary structure of the Third Dynasty ofUr, isseen inthe background. The victim, decked in royal garb, isseated upon athrone which has been placed in the center ofthesquare. An offi cial bows before him in mock adoration, while others inthe riotous gathering give ventinvarious ways totheir long pent-up emotions. Dancing and singing girls-note thetwo with hand on throat to obtain the desired effect--dressed incolors pre served on an Egyptian painting which depicts contemporary Asiatics, do their best tofollow themusic; andapair of boxers has attracted a masculine group ofspectators toan other section of the square. Enlil-Bani has just removed themask which was given him for the occasion, to glanceanxiously atthenoose that an attendant is fastening to the top ofthepalace wall. Atthat moment a servant bursts out of thepalace with thestartling and sobering news that thelegitimate king has died. Enlil Bani's resolve will not befound wanting atthisjuncture.