Pagan Origins of Purim, the Jewish Carnival

Ishtar, the Babylonian Queen of Heaven

Today is Purim, a good day to forget the troubles of the world and party down. If you’re Orthodox, all the books of the Bible are a true record of events. But non-Orthodox Jewish scholars, who study archaeological evidence and ancient documents, say that the Book of Esther has no historical basis. It appears to be a literary invention, but for what purpose? I did my own research. IMO, it was how our ancestors dealt with living in captivity in a pagan society.

A Feminist Megillah

She was Isis in Mizraim, and we brought her to the hills of Canaan. We came to her in every leafy grove, danced with her on every high hill. She was Asherah, Queen of Heaven, and in her honor we burned incense, we poured libations, we made yoni cakes bursting with seed, with the intoxicating poppy.

She was Asherah and we adored her flowing breasts, her blissful smile; we created a mirror of divine woman in wood and in clay. For generation after generation the patriarchs denounced her.  They cut down her sacred groves; they named our carvings images of shame and burned them; they massacred those who dared to worship her; in Samaria they made her temple a public urinal. Still the people yearned for her.  She was Asherah and her son was Baal.

By the waters of Babylon she was Ishtar, and Marduk was her son. Her holiday was a carnival, a week of riot among the first scarlet flowers that which appear in Nisan—a month whose name means “sprout,” and is related to the Hebrew nitzan, “flower bud.” The ancient traditions have been lost, but we do know that the Babylonians celebrated their New Year on the first of Nisan, two weeks after Purim, two weeks before Pesach. On this holiday the king of Babylon was stripped of his insignia, beaten and humiliated, to remind him that he ruled by Ishtar’s grace; then he was restored to the throne, returned to the sacred union with Ishtar’s priestess. We don’t know her priestess, but we know his queen was chosen, by Persian law, from one of seven noble families.

When we were brought into Babylon, our people turned to the goddess. Here the patriarchs dared not slay her worshippers, nor trample the gods of their captors. They learned the first lesson of Exile: to win by yielding.

They gave us a taste of carnival, but reduced it to two days. To diminish the power of women, they began their Megillah with a queen dethroned for disobedience, for refusing to humiliate herself at her husband’s command. They gave us a clown of a king, told us he set aside a Persian queen and set a foreigner on her throne. They gave us Esther instead of Ishtar, Mordechai instead of Marduk. They allowed us to drink, but not to pour libations; to eat triangular cakes stuffed with seeds, but to call them pieces of the evil one, not vulva of the goddess.

The patriarchs triumphed. By the rivers of Babylon we learned Exile and became Jews. We gave up the Great Mother and century after century, our grandmothers were driven deeper into submission and mourning. Did they ever ask why a Persian woman was punished for refusing to strip for her husband’s friends, why they honored a Jewish woman who won a beauty pageant, yet they themselves had to shave their heads and cover their shameful flesh?

Tonight we reclaim our carnival, our carnal feast, our fleshly joy. Tonight we delight in illusion, intoxication.  Tonight we dare to awaken that ecstatic yearning, reborn with the nitzanim. Tonight I invoke You, oh Isis, Ishtar, Asherah, Malkat Shemayim.


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