|Map of Mesopotamia around 1800 BC|
If the king died, the priests feared chaos would break out on earth. There must always be a king. Kingship descended from heaven and must be preserved at all costs. So, the contingency plan was set in motion. In the past the priests had attempted to alter destiny to preserve their kings. They would ritually strip the king of his kingship, send him into hiding, crown a new king chosen from the commoners, wait until the heavenly sign had passed and then kill the substitute king. This would fulfill the prophecy but keep the real king, who was subsequently re-crowned, alive.
|A Mesopotamian King|
The days passed and Enlil-Bani’s fate approached, until a very prosaic event provided an extraordinary rescue. The king (a man known to us as Erra-Imitti, who was then in hiding) apparently and improbably choked to death while eating (according to the tale it was a bowl of porridge, which would be quite difficult to choke on). The ruling classes were in a quandary but the gardener seized the moment and refused to step down from the kingship. He had been crowned and he presumably argued that the events had been ordained by the gods. The prophecy had been fulfilled and the king was dead. Long live the king.
|Cuneiform writing used for records|
Now that I am older and more cynical I sometimes view the tale differently. The city of Isin was in trouble at the time. Neighbouring cities had been threatening their water supply and the old dynasty had been unable to preserve Isin’s power. The old dynasty itself was failing. The previous kings had had very short reigns and Erra-Imitti himself may not have been from the direct regal line. Perhaps the priests used the opportunity presented to them to murder the previous king. Perhaps Enlil-Bani realised the situation and persuaded them to murder Erra-Imitti instead of himself. Possibly, in what must surely count as one of the most audacious coups in history he had been in contact with the astronomers and planned it all from the beginning!
There is also the possibility that the entire tale is much later. An Assyrian king from the 7th century BC named Esarhaddon, had a tendency to use this ritual quite frequently and it is possible that the story of Enlil-bani and the death of the original king was a way of protesting the practices of Esarhaddon. I am quite sceptical of this interpretation, but I have heard it mentioned.
|A Ziggurat: A temple that was also used for astronomy|