This month, 2537 years ago

The trilingual cuneiform inscription by Darius the Great. Photo - Aryobazan, cc-by-sa.
The trilingual cuneiform inscription by Darius the Great. Photo – Aryobazan, cc-by-sa.

On the 10th of Tishrei 522 BCE, Darius the Achaemenid – later to be known as Darius the Great – killed the impostor king Gaumata/Bardiya/Smerdis and ascended to the throne. We know the basics of the story from Darius’ own account, a trilingual cuneiform inscription in Behistun, Iran, and more details from Herodotus’ account, some 100 years later. So what’s the story?

According to Dārayavahuš (Darius) himself, after the death of Kurauš (Cyrus) the great, the founder of the great Achaemenid (Persian) empire, Cyrus’ son Kambujiya (Cambyses) ascended to the throne. He killed his brother and heir, Bardiya (Smerdis), but nobody knew that. Then he went to Egypt. A man by the name Gaumata the Magu* lied to the people saying he was Bardiya, and took the kingdom from Kambujiya. Then Kambujiya died by his own hand. Most people didn’t know that the king is an impostor, and he killed everyone who might have told.

Dārayavahuš describes him as an awful king, full of lies, who did horrible things and was greatly feared. Then, on the 10th of Bagayadi (Tishrei)**, Dārayavahuš, who shared common ancestry with Cyrus, with the help of six other Persians, slew Gaumata and returned the empire to its legitimate rulers – the Achaemenids.

Some 100 years later, Herodotus elaborates and gives us some more juicy details. Note that 100 years are enough time for myths to develop (Hey, with the internet today we see even 100 hours are more than enough for hoax to become fact), and that the distance is not only in time but also in space (Greece vs. Persia), culture and sides (Herodotus wasn’t very fond of us, Persians).

Herodotus doesn’t give different names to Bardiya and Gaumata, but calls them both Smerdis. He tells us the reason Cambyses slew Smerdis is a dream that warned him about Smerdis usurping the throne. Then Cambyses went to Egypt to smash a rebellion, and when the false Smerdis took over, he realized his mistake – the dream had warned him of Smerdis the Magus, a Mede*! He wanted to go back to Susa right away to re-seize the kingship, but in Syria he had an accident: when he mounted his horse, his sword wounded his thigh and the wound was severely infected. When he realized he was dying, he gathered the Persian nobles who were with him, and told them that a Mede named Smerdis usurped the throne and pretends to be Smerdis the Achaemenid. This means the Medes are taking over again, putting the Persian’s sovereignty and freedom in grave danger. Cambyses died, the servant who did the actual slaying denied it – he had no one to back him up now – and the nobles were not sure what was now true and what was false.

Then one of the Persian nobles, namely Otanes (Persian Hutāna), tried to find out the truth: He noticed the present Smerdis never goes out in public or invites people over to his palace, two things which Achaemenid kings did on a daily basis. Maybe he didn’t want anyone to see him and realize he’s not the real Smerdis? Otanes’ daughter (we only have her Greek name – Phaedyme) was married to Cambyses, and when Smerdis usurped the throne, he also usurped Cambyses’ wives. So Otanes had someone in the king’s harem whom he could ask! Of course, he couldn’t talk to her directly, so he sent her message from the city gates through a eunuch. He told her that he suspects Smerdis is not the son of Cyrus but a Mede with the same name.

He asked her: Is the man you’re sleeping with Smerdis the son of Cyrus or another man?

She said – I can’t tell the difference, I’ve never seen the son of Cyrus (or maybe I’ve only seen him).

He said: Atossa (Persian Hutausa), Cyrus’ daughter, is also one of the wives whom Smerdis usurped (or inherited) from Cambyses. Ask her, she surely knows what her brother looks like!

Phaedyme replied: But he separated us! We no longer live in one house, each of us has her separate quarters!

This, of course, gets Otanes even more suspicious. Now, Smerdis the Mede had no ears, because Cyrus had cut them off as punishment for some offense. So Otanes tells his daughter: When your turn comes to sleep with the king, wait until he falls asleep and feel for his ears. If he has ears – all is well. If he has no ears – well, we know who he is. And he shouldn’t get away with usurping the throne and sleeping with a noble girl such as youself. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.

The girl says: It’s very dangerous! If he wakes up and realizes I was feeling for his ears, he’ll understand what I’m up to and kill me! But I will do it nevertheless, and if I perish, I perish.

Learning that the present Smerdis has no ears, Otanes gathers six other Persian nobles, the last one to join was Darius the Achaemenid, and they kill Smerdis. And his men. And all the other Medes they could get their hands on. And they run in the streets with the Mede’s heads in their hands calling for all Persians to kill Medes. This event was celebrated at least until the 4th century CE, as a holiday called in Greek Magophonia (the Persian name is not known). The only custom we know of this holiday, is that Medes should not get out of their homes on that holiday.

The seven then decide a monarchy would be the best way to rule, choose Darius as the next king (it was a contest and he cheated), and agree that the other six would have the privilege of free access to the king, and their families would only marry one another. Darius marries Atossa (Hutausa), the daughter of Cyrus, and together they are the proud parents of Xerxes, Persian Xšayārša, Hebrew Achashverosh (Ahasuerus). He, in turn, marries Otanes’ daughter Amestris. Some identify her with Queen Esther, but she’s definitely not Jewish and not chosen in any way similar to that described in the Scroll of Esther.

However, if this story reminds you of that of Esther – a girl talks to her older relative through a eunuch, risks herself and saves her people and then there’s a great massacre and the false king dies (Haman has the signet ring, that’s king-like) – that’s no coincidence. If you happen to be Shiite, you may associate the tenth day of the year with another great massacre – that of Karbala – where a representative of God – Imam Hossein – was slain. All these holidays draw on the same Near Eastern New Year myths and customs, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

* MAGU is a religious title, but it doesn’t seem to mean this here. Herodotus says the impostor Smerdis was a Mede – from Media. Media was the empire that preceded the Persian one, and the Achaemenid kings always mention “Persia, Media and the other provinces”. In fact, Cyrus’ mother was a Median princess, but that should be a separate post.

** BAGAYADI is the month parallel to Tishrei. The meaning of the name is “worshipping God”. Apparently, other nations also had High Holidays during this month, because it’s a proper time to ask God, or the gods, for a prosperous year, i.e. good rain. Baga, “God” or “god” shares common roots with Russian BOG, “God”. This is the first element in the name of the city BAGA-DĀTA, the city given, laid or created (dāta, cp. Latin data “givens”) by God. This city is known to-day by the name Baghdad, and hopefully if and when peace is achieved in our area, it could be a twin city of Netanya in Israel, with the same meaning.

(adapted from The Book of Esther Unmasked. Now crowdfunding the English and Persian versions. Help Iranians get their free PDF and get your own copy in English, Hebrew or Persian!)

Photograph of the Behistun Inscription (Darius treading on
Gaumata’s corpse) – Aryobarzan, CC BY-SA 3

I first published this article on the Book’s Facebook page last Yom Kippur.

About the Author
Thamar E. Gindin holds a Ph.D. in Iranian Linguistics. She is a lecturer, teacher and researcher, and author of The good, the Bad and the World, a Journey to Pre-Islamic Iran (Hebrew), and The Book of Esther Unmasked (Hebrew, soon English and Persian). Photo: Tom Langford
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