Esther = Ishtar: the Pagan Origins of Purim

hamantaschenCakes for Purim

Purim has been called “the Jewish Halloween.” In its origins, however, I’d say it was more like Carnival. On Purim Jews in various countries dress up in costumes, get drunk, put on plays, sing, parade, burn effigies of Haman (the traditional enemy), and eat little triangular filled cakes.

Central to the holiday is a reading of the Book of Esther. Many scholars believe this book is a fable rather than a recounting of actual events. The details really make no historical sense. So what did happen? Why is there a Book of Esther?

That was the 6th Century BCE, when the Hebrews were captive in Babylon. The Hebrews, naturally, adopted many Babylonian customs. The Babylonian calendar was easily accepted and is still used for religious observances. Their New Year celebration was more of a threat, for the Hebrew priests. It consisted of a ten-day carnival, during which the people drank, feasted, staged processions, and had sex with people other than their spouses. The king, during this festival, was stripped of his insignia and humiliated, to remind him that he ruled by the grace of Ishtar, the Great Goddess.

Some of the exiles must have joined the party and assimilated. Eventually, I believe, the Hebrew priests came up with a solution: they gave us a two-day holiday in place of a ten-day carnival; they gave us the human Queen Esther instead of Ishtar, her uncle Mordechai instead of the Babylonian god Marduk. They commanded the people to drink themselves silly, but not pour libations to foreign gods. Fornication remained a no-no. And we got those little cakes filled with poppy seeds or fruit preserves. Little vulva-shaped cakes.

I believe the cakes go back much further than the Babylonian captivity, to pagan times when the Hebrews worshipped a goddess, Asherah. They burned incense to her, danced in her sacred groves, and poured libations. And baked cakes: in that same 6th Century BCE, the prophet Jeremiah denounces the women for pouring drink offerings to the Queen of Heaven, and baking cakes in her image. The women retort that they and their husbands would continue to do so, just as their ancestors had.

Nowadays we are taught to call those cakes hamantaschen (Yiddish, Haman’s pockets) or oznei Haman (Hebrew, Haman’s ears). But they don’t look like pockets or ears to me. They’re still goddess images, stuffed with symbols of fertility and fruitfulness.

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2 Responses to Esther = Ishtar: the Pagan Origins of Purim

  1. Katie Newman November 14, 2017 at 7:38 pm #

    Inspiring info! thank you

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