Purim, the most joyous of Jewish holidays is celebrated every year, on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar, which occurs in the month of February or March in the Gregorian calendar, by mutual gifts of food and drink, of charity to the poor, and a celebratory meal. Other customs include drinking wine, eat special pastries called hamantashen, dressing up in masks and costumes and organize carnivals and festivals.
Purim is not a religious holiday. However, it is not conceivable without the calendar of liturgical celebrations. Therefore, a reflection of its origin and its meaning can also be useful to understand the faith. All these ancient meanings with their beliefs and their associations have been lost long ago. Despite its importance within the Bible, Esther is a pagan name. The spring festival of Purim originated from different pagan traditions.
From the first century, the Purim sustained a series of repressive attacks by the moralizing of the time. In fact, they judged pagan rituals, celebrations and banquets that were held at that time as regressive.
The book of Esther has come to us in a Hebrew and a Greek version, which is more extensive because it contains long added. These additions are considered inspired by the Catholic Church. This explains the unusual numbering of some chapters, to distinguish the Greek version of the Hebrew. While narrating events from the first half of the fifth century BC, it is believed that it was written by the Jews of the Diaspora in the second century BC.
The historical accuracy of the Book of Esther is controversial. In the last hundred and fifty years, scholars interpret it as a work of fiction. It is recognized that the name Ahasuerus is based on that of Xerxes but are not narrated the enterprises of real Persian king in the Book of Esther, which is a tale of palace intrigue, attempted genocide and a brave Jewish queen. They also note that none of the events narrated in the Book of Esther is attested by other sources.
Some have read the story as a parable that tells of fundamentally assimilated Jews who discover that they are the subject of anti-Semitism, but also to be in a position to save themselves and their fellow Jews. The Hebrew version of the Book of Esther would belong to the literary genre of farce. The book would be a kind of comedy made to provoke the public with a simple, dispassionate laugh that does that using types of characters greatly exaggerated or caricatured, puts them in impossible and ridiculous situations and makes extensive use of physical and verbal humor jokes
Since the eighteenth century, the lack of correspondence between the details of the story told in this book and what was known by the classical sources of Persian history, has led some scholars to doubt that this book was historically accurate. It was noted that the structure of the story is approaching that of the novel rather than to that of a historical work, and that many of the events are not plausible.
This book looks more like an exemplary story perfectly constructed, than historical events. Suffice it to recall the incredible misconception that falls towards Haman, when he suggests the king to honor those who are worthy of praise with a public triumph, thinking that this is him and not Mortdecai.
More historical inconsistency of the book is to be found right at the beginning, when it say that Mordecai came from the group of exiles that Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon had carried away from Jerusalem with Jechonias king of Judea. But this deportation took place in 597 BC. How is it that, 110 years later, Mordecai is at Xerxes service?
Mordecai is also mentioned in the book of Nehemiah, among those who had returned with Zerubbabel to Jerusalem in the time of Cyrus the Great (539 BC), so it is possible that the biblical author reuses the name of a character already known in his day as the protagonist of his book. Relations between Persia and Macedonia were always very difficult, until the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander. Therefore it is logical to pass Haman as not an evil.
The fact that the events of the Book of Esther give rise to the spring festival of Purim was the reason why some scholars have argued that this story comes from a myth that face to the explanation of the renewal of the cycles of nature in spring and the ouster of the goat atoning early next year. According to this interpretation, the story tells of the triumph of the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar of the Elam gods.
It is to be noted that, if the name of Esther may recall that of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, Mordecai recalls that of the Marduk. This made me think of some that this is an adaptation of a Babylonian myth. The English word Easter and the German Ostern derive from the name of Eostre, the ancient Nordic pagan goddess who gave birth to many current spring traditions.
The goddess is called in various ways depending on the region where she is revered, and is also known by the names of Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, idstra, Eastur, Austron and Ausos. In Babylon is worshiped as the goddess Ishtar, in Phoenicia as Astarte, in Egypt as Isis and much better known in Greece as the famous Aphrodite. A great many pagan customs to celebrate the return of Spring gravitated on Easter.
In the fourth century, when Christians identified the exact place in Jerusalem, where had been located the empty tomb of Jesus, they selected the spot where once stood a temple of Aphrodite and in its place built the holiest church.
In particular, these scholars have compared the characters in the Book of Esther with divinity, witness or alleged Babylonian and Elamite:
Esther has been identified with Ishtar. Her original Hebrew name, Adassa, has been linked with the Akkadian term hadashah, which means bride, used as a title of Ishtar. The custom of preparing hamantaschen during the feast of Purim commemorates the description of Ishtar that is given in the Book of Jeremiah, where it is said that they used to make cakes for the queen of heaven.
Mordecai was identified with Marduk. In Chaldean mythology Marduk is a cousin of Ishtar, and likewise Mordecai's cousin was Esther. Aman has been returned to a Elamite god named Uman or Human or, alternatively, to a Babylonian demon. Vashti has been traced back to a Elamite deity called Mashti.
The feast of Purim was identified with various pagan festivals, real or conjectural, including an alleged Babylonian and Elamite feast celebrating the victory of Ishtar and Marduk over Uman and Mashti, in the same way in which we celebrate the victory of Esther and Mordecai over their rivals Haman and Vashti.
The feast of Purim can be traced back to the Persian party call Farvardigan, or the Greek festival of Pithoi Gia, the opening of bottles of wine. So this is a feast tied to spring equinox. All the pagan people of the Roman Empire, but not only them already knew this festival, which was nothing more than a spring festival with the budding trees, the first flowers blooming in the meadows and then the nature, after the cold winter.
The celebration of Purim have origins in ancient festivals, such as the Anthesteria, a festival in honour of Dionysus, the wine god or Saturnalia by the Romans. During the seven-day celebration in honor of Saturn were conducted for the city festive carts strangely caparisoned animals and the people gathered in large tables. There attended people of different social conditions free from barriers and ate between jokes and dances. The unbridled joy was the means used to encourage a good harvest and a period of prosperity and happiness.
During Anthesteria wine had a central role. Precisely in this festival people tasted for the first time the wine prepared in autumn. All the people were involved, and even the women and children were allowed to actively participate in the celebrations. Parole was granted to slaves and prisoners, and they were treated like any other citizens.
During the Saturnalia and Dionysian festivals was realized a temporary dissolution from social obligations and hierarchies to make way for the subversion, the joke and also to charity. Masks were worn by the celebrants in parades and marches. The party then concluded the evening with a solemn celebration in the temple of Dionysus. A priestess, chosen among 14 venerable women, was married symbolically with God himself. Therefore, the sacred, religious and the bizarre aspects were closely related and often the same priests led the masked parades or organized orgiastic banquets.
The use of masks and grotesque parades could also be found in other Roman festivals, such as those related to the goddess Isis. The worship of the Egyptian goddess, imported to Rome and especially popular among the aristocracy, was to use different masks and disguises.
Purim, therefore, from a historical and religious point of view represented, therefore, a period of party but mostly symbolic renewal, during which the chaos replaced the established order, but once out of the holiday season, reemerged new or refurbished and guaranteed to a valid cycle until the next one. The cycle taken into consideration is, in practice, that of the solar.
In the ancient world, the festival celebrated was in honor of the Egyptian goddess Isis, that involved the presence of masked groups. In Babylon shortly after the spring equinox was reactivated the original process of the foundation of the cosmos, described mythically from the struggle of the savior god Marduk with the dragon Tiamat, which ended with the victory of spring.
The celebration fell shortly after the spring equinox, and the Babylonians organized a massive march in masks, in which the deeds of Marduk were represented.Many extras, dressed as grotesque figures, impersonated the forces of chaos led by Tiamat. Their task was to subvert the established order, and all citizens of Babylon was granted total and unbridled freedom.
The king himself could be deposed and humiliated publicly. This chaos, however, had the end with the conclusion of the festivities, symbolized by the ritual representation of Marduk's victory. God, winning the dragon Tiamat, reported the order and stability.
All of these occurrences were also strongly related to mark the seasons and months often falling at the turn of winter and spring, as well as symbolize the clash between chaos and order became therefore also an allegory of the end of winter and the beginning of the warm and suitable for cultivation.
The carnivals, spread among the Indo-European, Mesopotamian, as well as of other civilizations. They have therefore also a purifying value and show the profound need to regenerate periodically by abolishing the time spent. The orgy is also a regression in dark, a restoration of the primordial chaos, as such, it precedes all creation, all manifestations of organized forms.
But the carnival origins lie further back in ancient rites related to the relationship between man and the earth, in the period in which the works of the earth suffered a crash and social life intensified. The first manifestations of the carnival in the world date back to 4000 years ago. The Egyptians were the first to formalize a carnival tradition, with festivals, rituals and public events in honor of the goddess Isis, who presided over the fertility of the fields and symbolized the perpetual renewal of life.
Even earlier, according to some scholars, in certain rural rituals of antiquity, 10,000 years BC, men and women used to paint their face and body, drifting from the dance and festivities. The use of the mask that ride was linked to the belief that laughter, although not real, move away evil spirits and with their faces covered man, no longer tied to their humanity, could indulge in acts and usually unusual behaviors or poorly tolerated.
The surrender to extreme sexual license could be restored to its ancient rites that involved the union of bodies on the bare ground in homage to Mother Earth, rituals rooted especially among the Celts peoples.
The presence of the orgy in ceremonies marking periodic divisions of time betrays a desire for total abolition of the past through the abolition of creation. The confusion of the forms is illustrated by the upheaval of social conditions as in Saturnalia the slave was promoted as landlord and the landlord served the slaves. In Mesopotamia the King was deposed and humiliated, along with the suspension of all standards , unleashing violation of all prohibitions, the coincidence of all opposites, that has no other aim than to the dissolution of the world and to the restoration of primordial moment of the chaos.
At the end of the carnival, involved the burning of Carnival King represented by a puppet. It is also interesting to note that various cosmological Carnival meanings were also present in the Celtic Samhain.There were organized large masked calls on wagons accompanied by carnival songs and dances.
In conclusion, the Purim and its pagan ancestors have been for a long time an outlet for ordinary people, as well as an important religious festival. People were allowed to subvert the social order, to criticize the hierarchy or break laws for a limited period of time. This probably made more bearable the rest of the year.
It emerges also a conciliatory attitude, almost paternalistic by those in power. It allowed the people the chance to enjoy the total freedom to be daring and get on the same plane of who is more important. However, as the party ended, everyone got back to their place and return the established order.
Purim is at the crossroads between the sacred and the profane, between ancient and modern, between noble and commoner, in which the one encroaches another and one mocks the other. A party that captures the popular Jewish humus, the ironic and comic character of the Jews, the strong sense of caricature and grotesque. But also familiarity with the eternal and with history, the intertwining of religious and irreverent, the ritual celebration of the body, sex and food.
And the endless toasts drunk to death, in the hope that altered by libations, even death loses lucidity and carries out its fatal task. An ancient footprint of Dionysian, that in Rome became Liber, Pater and Bacchus, inspired by the origins of the Saturnalia, with its first transgressions and the first mask. Then the soul transgressive and orgiastic origins is gradually metabolized in Christianity, and sprat, does not abolish the pagan festivals, but rather tends to convert them into its sphere for monitoring their effects.
At Purim was given free but limited access to the madness and chaos, reversal of social, personal and even sexual roles. The principle that supports it is the exception that is to confirm the rule, allowing an outlet for strengthening the order, hierarchy and restore transgression of relations in the observance of civil and religious practices and duties, even the purely recreational and festive look, fun and carnival gaiety. The soul of a nation needs its Purim, as the truth needs a mask to reveal itself.