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Babylonian Origins of Jewish Purim

We have already questioned whether the Scripture story of Esther is in some manner connected with the goddess Ishtar. Writing of the Jewish feast of Purim, Sir James Frazer says (Golden Bough, vol. iii, p. 153):

“ From the absence of all notice of Purim in the older books of the Bible, we may fairly conclude that the festival was instituted or imported at a comparatively late date among the Jews. The same conclusion is supported by the Book of Esther itself, which was manifestly written to explain the origin of the feast and to suggest motives for its observance.

For, according to the author of the book, the festival was established to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews from a great danger which threatened them in Persia under the reign of King Xerxes. Thus the opinion of modern scholars that the feast of Purim, as celebrated by the Jews, was of late date and Oriental origin, is borne out by the tradition of the Jews themselves.

An examination of that tradition and of the mode of celebrating the feast renders it probable that Purim is nothing but a more or less disguised form of the Babylonian festival of the Sacaea or Zakmuk. . . .

But further, when we examine the narrative which professes to account for the institution of Purim, we discover in it not only the strongest traces of Babylonian origin, but also certain singular analogies to those very features of the Sacaean festival with which we are here more immediately concerned.

The Book of Esther turns upon the fortunes of two men, the vizier Haman and the despised Jew Mordecai, at the court of a Persian king. Mordecai, we are told, had given mortal offence to the vizier, who accordingly prepares a tall gallows on which he hopes to see his enemy hanged, while he himself expects to receive the highest mark of the King’s favour by being allowed to wear the royal crown and the royal robes, and thus attired to parade the streets, mounted on the King’s own horse and attended by one of the noblest princes, who should proclaim to the multitude his temporary exaltation and glory.

But the artful intrigues of the wicked vizier miscarried and resulted in precisely the opposite of what he had hoped and expected; for the royal honours which he had looked for fell to his rival Mordecai, and he himself was hanged on the gallows which he had made ready for his foe.

In this story we seem to detect a reminiscence, more or less confused, of the Zoganes of the Sacaea, in other words, of the custom of investing a private man with the insignia of royalty for a few days, and then putting him to death on the gallows or the cross. . . .

“A strong confirmation of this view is furnished by a philological analysis of the names of the four personages. It seems to be now generally recognised by Biblical scholars that the name Mordecai, which has no meaning in Hebrew, is nothing but a slightly altered form of Marduk or Merodach, the name of the chief god of Babylon, whose great festival was the Zakmuk; and further, it is generally admitted that Esther in like manner is equivalent to Ishtar, the great Babylonian goddess whom the Greeks called Astarte, and who is more familiar to English readers as Ashtaroth.

The derivation of the names of Haman and Vashti is less certain, but some high authorities are disposed to accept the view of Jensen that Haman is identical with Humman or Homman, the national god of the Elamites, and that Vashti is in like manner an Elamite deity, probably a goddess whose name appears in inscriptions.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 140-2.

Lady Ishtar, Goddess

Ishtar was undoubtedly a goddess of Semitic origin and symbolized the fertility of the earth. She was the great mother’ who fostered all vegetation and agriculture.

It is probable that her cult originated at Erech, and in the course of centuries and under many nominal changes dispersed itself throughout the length and breadth of western Asia and even into Greece and Egypt. It is probable that a number of lesser goddesses, such as Nana and Anunit, may have become merged in the conception of this divinity, and that lesser local deities of the same character as herself may have taken her name and assisted to swell her reputation.

She is frequently addressed as ‘mother of the gods,’ and indeed the name ‘Ishtar’ became a generic designation for ‘goddess.’ But these were later honours. When her cult centred at Erech, it appears to have speedily blossomed out in many directions, and, as has been said, lesser cults probably eagerly identified themselves with that of the great earth-mother, so that in time her worship became more than a Babylonian cult.

Indeed, wherever people of Semitic speech were to be found, there was the worship of Ishtar. As Ashteroth, or Astarte, she was known to Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Greeks, and there is some likelihood that the cult of Aphrodite had also its beginnings in that of Ishtar. We shall enquire later whether she can be the Esther of the Scriptures.

Astrologically she was identified with the planet Venus, but so numerous were the attributes surrounding her taken from other goddesses with which she had become identified that they threatened to overshadow her real character, which was that of the great and fertile mother. More especially did her identification with Nin-lil, the consort of En-lil, the storm-god, threaten to alter her real nature, as in this guise she was regarded as a goddess of war.

It is seldom that a goddess of fertility or love achieves such a distinction. Gods possessing an agricultural significance are nearly always war-gods, but that is because they bring the fertilizing thunder-clouds and therefore possess the lightning arrow or spear. But Ishtar is specifically a goddess of the class of Persephone or Isis, and her identification with battle must be regarded as purely accidental.

In later times in Assyria she was conceived as the consort of Asshur, head of the Assyrian pantheon, in days when a god or goddess who did not breathe war was of little use to a people like the Assyrians, who were constantly employed in hostilities, and this circumstance naturally heightened her reputation as a warlike divinity.

But it is at present her original character with which we are occupied, indeed in some texts we find that, so far from being able to protect herself, Ishtar and her property are made the prey of the savage En-lil, the storm-god.

“His word sent me forth,” she complains; “as often as it comes to me it casts me prostrate upon my face. The unconsecrated foe entered my courts, placed his unwashed hands upon me, and caused me to tremble. Putting forth his hand he smote me with fear. He tore away my robe and clothed his wife therein : he stripped off my jewels and placed them upon his daughter. Like a quivering dove upon a beam I sat. Like a fleeing bird from my cranny swiftly I passed. From my temple like a bird they caused me to fly.”

Such is the plaint of Ishtar, who in this case appears to be quite helpless before the enemy.”

Lewis Spence, Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria, 1917, pp. 123-5.

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