Myths and legends that have withstood the test of time did not sprout out of barren grounds overnight. Some have roots in mankind's fears and hopes, some in misinterpreted observations and some are created out of longing to fulfill unrequited desires.
Some legends, such as the Sasquatch, Loch Ness Monster, or alien abductions can be quite entertaining while harmless or benign. Others, such as the exploits of the gods of the Greek pantheon or the adventures of the Iranian hero, Rustam, or the master archer, Arash, who demarcated ancient Iran's eastern boundaries by shooting his arrow hundreds of miles in the direction of the rising sun, are folkloric tales that have been woven into a people's cultural fabric to embellish and enrich its heritage.
These are still harmless and entertaining stories for the most part. It would stop being entertaining if, for example, the Iranians today would claim Central Asian countries as far eastward as Western China, where Arash's arrow had hit the ground, as belonging to Iran, or when the Zionist founders of Israel use the Biblical narratives to claim Palestine as their heavenly ordained realm, an endowment by their God.
Some legends or folkloric tales have lost any connection to their origins, and are marked and celebrated with no regard to the stories or histories that generated those myths. Among these we can name the Passover. What this religious holiday celebrates is a nation's escape, through Divine intervention, from certain annihilation by an evil power. God's "Chosen People" were not to be messed with; the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition constantly reminds us of that.
But by reading the Biblical accounts, a somewhat different picture emerges. Needless to say, there is no historicity to this legend in the first place. Exodus, at least in the way described in the Bible, never happened, the Sea of Reeds never parted and there is even quite a bit of doubt that the Israelites were ever kept in bondage for generations to build the pyramids of Egypt.
Historical inconsistencies aside, let us see what the legend or story as depicted in the Bible, or as retold through Hollywood movies, tells us.
To summarize, God (Yahweh) becomes angered by the Egyptian pharaoh's refusal to free His people. After several unsuccessful attempts to convince the pharaoh, Ramses, to obey God's commands, the enraged Ramses decides to have the firstborn sons of Israel killed as punishment for their defiance. God reveals to Moses that He will turn the table around and have all the firstborn sons of Egypt, including Ramses' own son, killed that night, and directs Moses to have the Israelites pack their bags and leave that night. And, naturally, the Chosen People do escape to safety, against all odds.
The story is beautiful and self redeeming in itself, until one begins to bore a little deeper.
First of all, why was the all-powerful and all-knowing God unable to convince a mere mortal, the Egyptian pharaoh, to abide by His command? Well, let's just say that we do not understand the ways of the Divine. Maybe He was testing whether mankind would be worthy of being granted free will, or some such concocted excuse. But how do we rationalize the merciless killing of all the firstborn sons of a nation for absolutely no fault of their own? Is such a barbaric act, massacring innocent people, young and old, to teach a disobedient pharaoh a lesson, anything to celebrate? Just think for a second about the implications of this legend.
Thank God - or Yahweh - nobody remembers the whole story while celebrating the Passover these days!
A very similar myth was created centuries later, which continues to be celebrated to this day. This is the upcoming Festival of Purim.
The story unfolds as Emperor Ahasuerus of Persia throws a party for all his vassals and kinglets of his vast empire at his palace in Shushan. Having heard about the talented and beautiful Queen, Vashti, his guests ask the Emperor to invite the Queen to dance for them. The Queen refuses and the leader of the mightiest empire on earth is embarrassed.
Some among the guests suggest that Ahasuerus should demote Vashti and, instead, choose another queen. Ahasuerus orders the fairest of all women from each region of his empire to be brought to the capital so that, after proper training and preparation, one would be chosen by him as the new queen of Persia.
Now, a Jewish man by the name of Mordakhai, who belonged to one the tribes of Jews brought to Iran by a former emperor, Cyrus, after their liberation from Babylonian captivity, had a niece by the name of Esther. Mordakhai had earned the Emperor's attention by exposing a plot by two courtiers who had plotted to assassinate him, but had never been amply rewarded for that service.
Mordakhai manages to shuffle Esther into the group of fair maidens who were to be trained as candidates. Needless to say, being the most beautiful and the most talented of the lot, Emperor Ahasuerus chooses Esther as the Queen.
The main plot begins when a general by the name of Haman gains the Emperor's favor and is honored at the palace. Upon departing, Haman notices that one man, Mordakhai, has not bowed to him as was customary when his entourage came out of the palace gates. That really angers Haman, especially when he is told that Jews do not bow to anybody other than their own Lord. Now, an enraged genocidal anti-Semitic maniac, Haman decides to exterminate all the Jews from the face of the Persian Empire!
Haman manages to convince Ahasuerus to allow him, using the royal seal, to send orders to kill all the Jews in the Empire on a certain day chosen by lots, hence the name Purim meaning lots.
Mordakhai finds out about this plot and begs Esther to intercede with her husband on behalf of the Jewish people as best she can.
Haman is shrewdly conned by Esther to attend a banquet supposedly to honor him. After she tells the Emperor of Haman's evil plot, she reveals her own identity as a Jew, as well as her relation to Mordakhai. The king is upset beyond words and leaves the chamber.
In a truly cinematic plot, as Haman prostrates himself to Esther asking for forgiveness and begging for his life, she tricks him into a compromising position just as the Emperor walks back into the room! She then accuses Haman of attempting to molest the Queen of Persia. The Emperor orders the execution of Haman and his sons, and gives Haman's wealth all to Mordakhai as a belated reward for his services.
Esther then appeals to her husband to nullify Haman's plot to exterminate the Jews and, instead, to turn the table around and have the military help the Jews, in a preemptive strike, defend their lives and kill all those who were prepared to harm them on that same prescribed day.
New orders are dispatched throughout the empire and, on the day of reckoning, the Jews, with the help of the royal troops, begin the killing.
At the end of the day, Ahasuerus asks Esther if she had accomplished her objectives to her satisfaction. She was not quite satisfied as yet. She asks the Emperor for one more day of carnage, and is granted her wish. At the end of the second day, Esther reports that they have killed some 75,000 of their detractors, and that she is now satisfied.
As her final wish, she asks the Emperor to designate that day as an annual day of celebration throughout the empire; and thus was born the Festival of Purim, the Megillah, which happens to fall just before the Spring equinox each year. The Spring equinox also happens to mark the traditional New Year Day among the Indo-Aryans (Iranians) in that part of the world, going back to prehistoric times.
Of course, it matters not that "Ahasuerus" could have referred to Xerxes (Khashayarsha), Artaxerxes (Artakhshatra or Ardeshir - and there were more than a couple of them), Howakhshatra of Media, or even some Semitic monarch by the name of George, pronounced Jerjes in Arabic, which sounds very much like the Greek Xerxes (pronounces Kherkhes in Greek). And it is really not relevant that Esther could be Astarte, Ishtar, or Hadassah; or that Mordakhai is really an adulteration of Marduk, as is Murdock. The name Haman was probably adopted from the older Babylonian name for the devil, Uman or Houman. And, the entire story seems to be an adaptation of very similar festivities practiced in ancient Babylon and the neighboring Elam, honoring god and goddess Marduk and Ishtar for defeating the demon, Uman!
In short, there is absolutely no historical validation for the legend of Esther, even though there is a monument in the city of Hamadan in northwestern Iran that is supposedly marking the graves of Mordakhai and her niece, Esther.
In the story thus created, the emperor Ahasuerus, supposedly the ruler of the greatest empire of the times, is depicted as a buffoon who is easily swayed by his party guests, his vizier or general, or by his young wife. He seems to be clueless as to what is going on in his empire.
Haman, the evil general, casts lots to choose a date for the extermination of all the Jewish populations of the Persian empire, simply because one man, Mordakhai, exhibited his Jewish pride by not bowing as Haman strode by.
Esther, of course, was not only the most beautiful and talented in all the realm, she was also a brave sole to risk her own life to save her people by rushing to the presence of the Emperor without prior permission, an act supposedly punishable by death.
And, finally, the story clearly reflects the anguish of an oppressed people under Roman occupation, aspiring to regenerate the lost pride and grandeur of a dampened tradition, not the least in the minds of their young ones for whom myths and legends impart a more profound influence.
Now let us spring forward two millennia and revisit the legend of Esther and examine its parallels with today's politics in the same region.
The evil Haman of the Biblical tale became a genocidal anti-Semite because one Jewish man would not bow at his presence. Because of that, Haman decides to wipe all the Jewish people off the face of the Persian empire. This maniac had at least a reason, however trivial, for his hatred of a people.
What about today's Iranian President Ahmadinejad who, as we have been told over and over again, is attempting to wipe the state of Israel off the face of the map? He doesn't even have any reason other than a profound hatred of the Jews for doing so, and would supposedly attempt this genocide even at the cost of having his own nation devastated in the process.
Once again, it matters not that there is absolutely no evidence that the man ever made such a declaration, despite the fact that, just like the myth about the tombs of Esther and Mordakhai in Hamadan, the American media has been saturated with fabulous reinterpretations of what he had actually said!
Regardless, in order to stop this mad man from carrying out his evil mission, some Estheresque maneuvering is necessary to justify a preemptive strike.
Esther staged a theatrical scenario and falsely accused Haman of attempting to molest her when the Emperor walked into the room, resulting in Haman's execution. Similarly, Ahmadinejad's utterances have been deliberately distorted to make him sound like a Holocaust-denying nut-case in pursuit of nuclear weapons to destroy the state of Israel.
Esther had the support of the forces of the mighty Persian empire to help her people "defend their lives". Today, the support and involvement of the mighty global powerhouse, the United States of America, would serve that purpose.
Esther had an easier time convincing her benefactor to unleash his might to assist the innocent Jews to defend their lives by killing 75,000 of their Iranian detractors. She was a pretty woman and the mighty emperor of Persia was obviously a mere fool! However, Israel and its influential lobby in Washington, even with the help and cooperation of the American mass media, spearheaded by Rupert Murdock's (Mordakhai!) Fox network, have had to work hard to portray Iran as the world's most active supporter of international terrorism, bent on the destruction of Israel.
It's been said that history repeats itself. I hope mythology does not.
Kam Zarrabi is the author of In Zarathushtra's Shadow and Necessary Illusion. He is available to conduct lectures and seminars on international affairs, particularly in relation to , with focus on US/Iran issues, at formal and informal gatherings or academic centers anywhere in the country. To make the necessary arrangements, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about Mr. Zarrabi and his work is available at: www.intellectualdiscourse.com.
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