Esther: The Myth Behind the Legend
Shortly Jews everywhere will be celebrating the farcical, ferocious festival of Purim.
Built entirely around that acute and absurdist meditation on antisemitism, the Book of Esther, we Jews have serious fun, ridiculing authority, laughing at a sacred text, hiding our identity behind costumes and masks, even as we reveal another side of ourselves through our riotous behavior and the very personas we choose to disguise ourselves.
Scholars have long been aware that the author of Esther did some pointed borrowing from mythology in telling his story. Esther and Mordecai, the "Persian" names of the Jewish heroine and hero, are seemingly derived from the Ancient Near Eastern deities, Ishtar and Marduk (alternatively, in the case of Mordecai, the Sages think it may be derived from mor dror, "dripping myrrh" [Megillah 10b], see below for how that factors in).
But there is more. Esther's Hebrew name is Hadassah, "myrtle," a tree used medicinally in the ancient world for its contraceptive effect, offering a possible parallel to Mordecai's name, which the Rabbis connected to myrrh, another popular contraceptive substance.
In fact, the Book of Esther reminds the mytholically minded of the myth of Myrrha, the woman miserably married off in an incestuous-rape relationship to her father the king, where she suffers drunken sexual assaults until the gods take pity on her, transubstantiating her into the myrrh tree. The tree's oil, which drips from the branches like tears, was also a prime contraceptive substance (Notice the six-month treatment of the virgins with myrrh prior to their night with the king in Esther 2:12).
Joseph Prouser points out parallels between the myth and the book of Esther:
1) Incest - What was Esther and Mordecai's relationship? The Rabbis suspected it was more than "Uncle" and "ward" (B.T. Megillah 13a-13b)
2) Transgressive marriage - in Esther, both she and the king are forbidden to each other by both Jewish law and Persian royal taboos.
3) A drunkard king (Esther 1:10)
4) Rape (Esther 7:8)
5) Death and salvation through a tree (Esther 7:9-10)[translated as "stake," or "gallow," in Hebrew execution device is consistently called an eitz, "tree," in the four places it is mentioned].
All of which suggests that the story of Esther may have as much basis in myth, the deliberate Judaic reworking of pagan mythology, as it does in any historical event.
Zal g’mor: To learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism:http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050
1. Prouser, Joseph, "As the Practice of Women," Conservative Judaism, Winter 2001.