Growing up in Israel, Purim, similar to Halloween here in the US, was an opportunity to break some social conventions, play outside the usual boundaries of self expression, reclaim the word slut, and dress up as a sexy bee or an indecent ladybug. For many femmes, Purim is a call to unleash the inner goddess, and let her roam the streets.
I was 12 when I decided to be Jessica Rabbit for Purim. Then at 13 I was a sexy spider. And a slutty banana at 14. I wasn’t very sexy that year… battling anorexia, I weighed 85 pounds and thought I looked fat in that costume.
You might be thinking; “what’s a Jewish holiday doing roaming the streets with a costume like that?” Maybe ultra orthodox teenage girls won’t dress as Jessica Rabbit for Purim, and maybe their parents blame secular sirens for the delay in the messiah’s arrival, but if you look into the story of Purim, you might be surprised to find that the sexy goddess you thought you were liberating, has been at the core of the origin of the story all along.
It begins before Esther joins the beauty contest, in which King Achashverosh is planning to choose his new wife. It begins with his previous wife. Vashti was sexy, sultry, and spicy, and was willing to take no shit from nobody.
Esther was beautiful. She was young. Probably naive. Possibly insecure. Some think she was pure. Until she found her power, and became the Purim queen.
Achashverosh was hosting a drinking feast that lasted 180 days and nights. It was Game Of Thrones level of debauchery. And the king was drunk. He was telling his drooling buddies about the bootylicious body of his babelicious wife. “Summon her up!” He said to his servant. “Tell her to come dance for us in her crown!” He slurred. (and what he meant was; make sure she wears nothing but her crown).
When the servant showed up at her court, Vashti laughed. “Tell him I’m busy!” she hissed. “Picking my toenails!” Dancing naked in front of his majesty and his men was not on her to do list for the day.
Vashti was fired.
The next day she was sent to exile, and no one heard of her again. But the story of Esther, and of how she risked her life, saved her people, found her strength in the crevices of her vulnerability, and discovered that the danger of having a vagina was also the source of her heroism, begins with the brave boundary of Vashti.
It might not be common knowledge, but the mythology of Purim takes us all the way to ancient goddesses of sacred sexuality.
Our story takes place in old Persia, 5th century BCE or so. Judaism has been going on for a couple of thousands of years at that point. Stories have been circulating all throughout the Middle East, cultures sharing characters, names of deities maintained or slightly altered, and archetypes shaping up and shapeshifting, merging and multiplying.
Esther is summoned, among all the beautiful women of the kingdom, to show up at the king’s court, so that he can choose his new wife. Her sweetness, softness, and innocence catch the eyes of Achashverosh, and he makes her his bride. He’s done with powerful women who have strong opinions under their luscious hair. He’s gonna go for a girl with shy eyes behind batting lashes.
Esther embodies the archetype of the virgin, as the word transmutes, and shifts from one meaning to another. We know the word virgin’s meaning as someone who hasn’t had sex, someone who is inexperienced, hasn’t been touched, someone who is pure, and chaste. But the word virgin used to refer to an independent, free, autonomous woman, “A woman whose power is onto herself.” It mostly used to mean an unmarried woman, often a maiden. Sometimes virgins were priestesses in goddess temples, and part of their holy work was to transmit the grace and power of the Great Goddess through sex.
Esther is the Hebrew version of the name Ishtar – the Akkedian goddess of love, fertility, sex, and war – and the Babylonian Astarte – one of the oldest forms of the Great Goddess in the Middle East, who was both creator and destroyer, an all preserving presence of life’s power, including sex, birth, and death. She was Ishtar, Ashtoreth, and Asherah – different names of the same goddess who was worshiped all throughout the Middle East. She was The Queen Of The Stars. And she was also The Great Whore. Yep! You read correctly! The Great Goddess is the Great Holy Whore!
According to Barbara Walker, Babylonian scriptures called Ishtar, among other things; The Light Of The World, Leader Of Hosts, and Opener Of Wombs. According to her, there were versions of Ishtar-Astarte named Miriam, Mari, or Mary.
And get this; when priestesses at Great Goddess temples became pregnant, their children were called Benhur or Bathur, which commonly translates as “virgin born” (the direct translation from Hebrew, means daughter or son of freedom). Early Christians wanted their own version of a Virgin Birth for their own savior, as the whole area was full of them, so, you know, they made up the whole Jesus thing.
The virgin was a priestess and a prostitute.
Interesting to note that Purim is celebrated on the Full moon in Virgo (only rarely does it fall on the full moon in Libra).
Barbara Walker writes that Esther was probably a name given to priestesses chosen to represent the goddess in marriage to a king. Esther’s birth name was Haddasah.
While we’ve been chatting about goddesses and priestesses, prostitutes and virgins, Esther’s uncle has been hanging out at the gate of the palace. Mordecai was a good Jewish guy who raised Esther, and he wanted to make sure she was safe. He told her not to tell the king, or anyone in the palace, about her Jewish identity, because why risk it?! He saves the king’s life, because he hears a conversation between two of the king’s guards, who plot to kill him, and informs the king of their plan.
The king has a power hungry egomaniac hand named Haman, who orders all the people in the kingdom to bow to him. Mordecai, still hanging out around the gate, was not willing to do that. Jewish faith prohibits Jews to bow to anyone but God. Haman is infuriated, and orders to not only kill Mordecai, but to kill all the Jews in the kingdom.
Haman gets permission from Achashverosh to move forward with the plan to kill all the Jews in the empire. He randomly picks a date by casting a lot (which is the meaning of the word Purim).
When Mordecai finds out, he wears a sack and covers himself with ashes, symbolizing mourning, and he laments and weeps publically, inspiring many other Jews in Shushan (the city) and beyond to do the same. They fast and pray and practice penance, and spread the word among all Jews all over the empire.
Esther finds out about Haman’s plan and she is horrified. Her and Mordecai try to figure out what to do. Mordecai begs her to do something, and Esther’s fear puts her nervous system in freeze mode. She knows that the only way into Achesverhosh’s heart is through his loins.
What Esther also knows is that anyone who arrives at the king’s chambers without an invitation receives a death penalty. Yes, even his own wife. She’s been warned.
Maybe Mordecai reminds her that if she doesn’t try to convince the king to stop Haman, she will die anyway. She’s not safe, and her silence will not protect her. She’s gotta speak up. Taking this risk is the only way to possible salvation. Staying silent is not an option. She was made queen for this very reason, and for this very moment, so that she can rise to the occasion and use her power. She’s trembling, but she knows that the lives of all the Jews in the Persian empire depend on her art of sacred seduction.
Is Mordecai pimping his niece? Is it fair to do that to her? Is it messed up that she has to carry the weight of her people’s survival all the way to the king’s bed? Is it fucked up that women, all throughout the history of patriarchy, have had to sell their bodies in order to survive, in order to save their children, in order to help family and friends? Is Mordecai an ally, reminding Esther that she has great power, and pushing her to step into it, for the sake of herself and more than herself? Is this world messed up? YES!
She calms her nervous system down with a bunch of belly breaths. She gathers her wits and perks her tits and heads over to the king’s chamber.
Esther invites Ahashverosh and Haman to a feast, in which she summons up her courage and tells them that she’s Jewish, revealing Haman’s plan. Achashverosh is enraged.
Haman, who has prepared a gallows to hang Mordecai from, ends up hanging from it himself.
Purim is a celebration of victory over antisemitism, but the end of the story isn’t talked about much. Achashverosh hands Mordecai the position of Haman, and asks him to write a new decree. Destroying Haman isn’t enough for him, and with the power in his hand, Mordecai seeks greater revenge. He leads the Jews into uproaring violence against anyone who has sided with Haman. Tens of thousands of people are murdered throughout the empire.
It’s uncomfortable to grapple with it, but it is important to take an honest look at this part of the story. As we reclaim the wildness of the goddess, we have an opportunity to consider where and when our own wildness could lead us to become the violence we protest against. As we weave ourselves back into relationship with our primal nature, the forces that pull us into our ferocity could also invite us into a fierce contemplation about the need to be not only wild, but also civilized.
While religious people might not dress up as slutty nurses, orthodox Jews do break social conventions on this holiday. Drunkenness, dancing, singing, masking, and making noise are all part of the party. We celebrate overcoming something horrible by connecting to an untamed part of ourselves, but we must not forget our own dangerous nature. We have to face the complexity of our histories, and look at a bigger picture of our stories, even when it’s not comfortable.
The traditional food of Purim is a sweet, triangular shaped pastry called Hamantaschen. In Hebrew it is called “Haman’s Ears,” but then we look at the mythology layered within this story, and we find out that there used to be a goddess cult dedicated to Ishtar, and that she had a spouse named Morduk, and that they sacrificed a demon named Hammon, and you ask yourself, what else have I missed? What else don’t I know?
It seems unsurprising to find out that those triangular cookies are not symbols of Haman’s ears, but in fact, they are a representation of something else, something that belongs to the body of the goddess. Goddess knows what those sweet triangles may be…
Happy Purim! And happy full moon in Virgo!