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

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

    Inspiring info! thank you

  2. MICHAEL THOMAS April 5, 2018 at 10:09 am #

    This was very informative. I noticed that while the Greek edition/translation of Esther places the events in the time of Artaxerxes (although we are not told which one), the Hebrew edition places them in the time of Ahasuerus (NOT Xerxes, as some wrongly assume). Daniel identifies Ahasuerus as the father of Darius the Mede (not to be confused with Darius the Persian). Unless the passage in Daniel possibly originally read that Darius was the father of Ahasuerus, rather than the son, thebn we have a clear anachronism. I pointed this out in my book, JESUS 100 B.C. But BOTH the Hebrew and Greed editions of Esther read “chronicles of the Medes & Persians” towards the end, so the short Hebrew version MUST be the original, unlike what I had supposed in my book. So this lends credence to the story really being as you said, a pure invention.

  3. Tammy April 19, 2019 at 10:56 am #

    When I read this book last year. I had so many questions. There was no mention of God, there was deceit by Esther to the King as she kept inviting him to dinner, and all the death and vigilance to me seemed utterly barbaric. I’ve been searching for answers over the course of nearly a year and have come to the conclusion that you truly can trust no man. Take everything to the Lord in prayer. Get in your closet, close the door and weep your heart out if you need to. I’ve been doing this daily. I think my gut instinct was right about Esther. She beguiled the King. The massacre that followed was nearly unreadable. And Purim. How could you eat after such bloodshed. To me they were animals. But I am learning everyday and don’t mind being corrected if I’m wrong.

    • Martha Shelley April 19, 2019 at 6:30 pm #

      If you read the Bible in its entirety, it’s full of bloodshed. God is always telling people to kill–kill all the Amalekites, stone this or that person to death, etc. And many nations have holidays and songs that celebrate victory over some enemy or praises the nation’s fallen soldiers. Read the verses to the Star Spangled Banner, the Marseillaise, the anthems of China, Russia, Iran, etc.


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