The King of the Solar Eclipse

Today, people in North America will be treated to a solar eclipse. (Here’s a map of when, and where, you can best experience it.) It’s a rare event and the last one we’ll experience in this part of the world until the year 2044. And if you’re in the zone of totality, you’ll experience something weird — darkness during the middle of the day, as the sun all but disappears from the sky, as seen above (from Australia in 2023). Today, our understanding of the Earth and Moon’s orbits makes this phenomenon a very cool thing, but if we didn’t, darkness during the day could be taken as a sign that something evil was afoot. 

And that’s how a gardener named Enlil-bani became the King of the Sumerians.

Eclipses can be scary, particularly if you’re unaware of the science behind it (or are willfully ignorant). They feel supernatural and dangerous, and that’s a bad combination — it suggests that a higher power is angry. And if you’re a king — a mortal, earthly power that, relative to a god, isn’t actually all that powerful — you have every reason to be afraid.

So, ancient kings took precautions. As the Met Museum notes, they studied eclipses, hoping to predict when they’d occur, and were actually very good at it — “ancient Mesopotamian astronomers had developed the knowledge to accurately predict eclipses with a high degree of precision.” But that didn’t mean these civilizations weren’t afraid of these heavenly bodies coming together — hardly. The fear was real, and the Sumerians and other Mesopotamian civilizations wanted to protect their leaders during such troubling times. So, they put substitute kings in power during an eclipse, in hopes that the evil spirits attacked the fake king instead of the real one. The Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard explains:

The principles of the substitute kingship are simple: at times, when the life of the rightful sovereign was deemed to be threatened by an evil omen, especially an eclipse, a surrogate king (šar pūḫi)—most likely an individual of no social consequence (saklu), a prisoner, criminal, or opponent (dābibu) —could be chosen by the king’s counselors to replace him for the period during which the surrogate would be exposed to the danger of the bad omen. The substitution, which was always suggested to the king either by the chief exorcist or by a council of high-ranking scholars, was intended to deflect the repercussions of the portent away from the king and disburden them upon the surrogate, who, as the ephemeral regal replacement, was often bestowed with the paraphernalia of sovereignty—clad in the royal robe and given a diadem.

Whether this ruse fooled the evil spirits is anyone’s guess, but one thing is for sure: the substitute king was considered damaged goods. As the Met Museum summarizes, “Once the dangerous time had passed, the substitute king and queen were killed, the true king re-emerged, and the ritual was complete.”

With one exception.

From 1868 to 1871 BCE, a guy named Erra-Imitti was the king of Isin, a Sumerian city-state located in present-day Iraq. And, as the customs of the time demanded, his advisors found him a substitute king that would make Samwise Gamgee proud, a gardener named Enlil-bani. What happened next is unclear — ancient history can be a bit dodgy — but per one story, Enlil-bani took to the throne for the day, knowing that he’d be put to death once the moon had transited safely past the sun. But, as LBV Magazine retells, per one leading story, “something unexpected happened. While taking Erra-Imitti’s place, the king waited patiently eating a hot oatmeal broth. And suddenly he fell dead. Perhaps because of a heart attack, perhaps for another reason.”

That left Isin without a king — except, that is, for the gardener who was wearing the king’s clothes and sitting on the king’s throne and, generally speaking, doing all of the kingly things kings normally do. LBV continues: “the eclipse was over and the priests ordered Enlil-bani to leave the throne, as it was mandatory. He refused, claiming that a king had already been sacrificed and, since he had been officially crowned for the occasion, he was the legitimate monarch. The priests agreed with him.”

Enlil-bani, according to the Met, remained in power until 1837 BCE, a reign of 24 years — nine times longer than his predecessor who had effectively sentenced him to death.

Bonus fact: Well, actually, a long read — I probably should have shared this Friday, but I only discovered it Saturday! “When Astronomers Chased a Total Eclipse in a Concorde” (Vice, 14 minutes, March 2016). There was a solar eclipse on June 30, 1973, that passed over Africa, and in most places, it was viewable only for a few minutes (just like today’s). A group of scientists came up with a crazy idea — get into a very fast plane and mimic the path of the eclipse. The article sums it up: “in [a] Concorde, they could follow the shadow of the moon as it raced across the planet. In theory, a supersonic transport (SST) could give them over 70 minutes to watch the eclipse, ten times more observation time than they’d get on the ground, and high above any potential clouds and water vapor.” That’s what they did, and this is their story.

From the Archives: When Christopher Columbus Made the Moon Disappear: A story of Colombus, a lunar eclipse, and trickery.