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Book 5. Persian Propaganda

Esther and Crucification


Purim and the Book of Esther


Esther is a novella set in the reign and court at Susa of Xerxes (Ahasuerus), the Persian king who succeeded Darius (486-465 BC). (The Septuagint and Josephus agree that the king was Artaxerxes I not Xerxes.) Fortunately, no one, even Jews and Christians, except total fundamentalist loonies, will deny that it is a Hellenistic romance rather than real history. It is full of fairy-tale improbabilities, and J C H How, in Peake’s Commentary describes its ambience as that of the Arabian Nights. Though it is set in distinct historical place and time, it has been impossible to find any historical events that could match the far-fetched events of Esther, though the persecution of Jews as a religious caste in the Empire, a feature of the romance, might have been based upon the persecution of the religious caste of the Magi by Darius after the sedition of Smerdis had been brutally suppressed.

Its purpose seems to be a mythical justification of the Jewish feast of Lots or Purim, which occurs in the last month of the Jewish year, most often in March. In Babylon, the New year had long been the time when fate was determined for the coming year. It was determined by drawing lots. “Purim” is the plural of “Pur,” which is neither a Semitic nor a Persian word. The Assyrians, however, did have a word “Puru” meaning a stone that could be used like a dice for casting lots, and its use in such a sense has been found on Assyrian tablets. Presumably because of the chance element in casting lots, “puru” also meant “fate,” the Rabbis tell us, a point that will be significant.

Purim is a curiosity in Judaism because it does not appear in the law of Moses. Purim is not mentioned anywhere in the Jewish scriptures except in Esther and, as the Day of Mordecai, in 2 Maccabees. In external sources, there is no mention of it until Josephus (90 AD). Moreover, it is not found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the only scriptural book not present in that collection, though some fragments are thought to be fragments of a proto-Esther.

In a Greek version, the book is identified as having been presented to one of the Ptolemies and his queen, Cleopatra, dating it to about 114 BC or about 78 BC. Since Jewish heroes are listed in Ecclessiasticus, a book recognized as being no earlier than about 150 BC, and the heroes of Esther do not appear in the list, it seems clear that the book was written around 100 BC, give or take a decade or two. It was therefore Hasmonaean and was possibly offered as an excuse for the celebrations inaugurated for the victory of the Maccabees (161 BC) known as the Day of Nicanor on the 13 Adar. It was plainly a late adaptation to the New Year festival celebrated in the Persian empire, and proves the syncretistic tendencies at work therein.

The mythical event it celebrates is a deliverance of the Jews by their leaders, Mordecai and Esther, from a massacre planned by their enemies. Instead, their arch-enemy, Haman, was crucified in the place of Mordecai, for whom Haman had originally planned the fate. This storyline fits well with the national feeling of the Jews in their fight with the Greeks from 167 BC that led to the first Jewish free state in 142 BC.

The setting is convincingly Persian, a fact that suggests a Persian or late Babylonian original. The real king Xerxes, often thought of as incompetent because of his astonishing defeats by the Greeks, was actually no bad king. Inscriptions found at Persepolis prove that he was not just a restorer of religions but a man with the missionary spirit of the official brand of Zoroastrianism. Herodotus tells us that the wife of Xerxes was Amestris whereas here we find him with a wife called Vashti and then one called Esther.

The Story Behind the Book of Esther

It is quite impossible in any story with boundless Mesopotamian references to find as its twin heroes a Mordecai and an Esther and not wonder how similar these names are to Marduk and Ishtar, the pre-eminent Babylonian deities. This suggests that the story is based on a Babylonian religious myth, and few people will nowadays disagree. Yet for long, Christian commentators, while observing on the “coincidence,” stated that stronger associations remained “entirely in the realm of theory.” While there is much to be said for scholarly caution, to ignore such evident clues borders on dishonesty. Christians, on negligible evidence, will believe that once a man was restored from death to life, but will say that here Esther is only theoretically similar to Ishtar.

Pious Jews and Christians are surprised that a scriptural book has no mention of Yehouah, or God in any form, prayer, worship or the law of Moses, though the Jews are spoken of as having their own law. Mordecai seems to be a personification of the Jewish God, but he is significantly not the absolute god, the Most High God—that is the role of the king, Xerxes. In Deuteronomy 32:9, the scriptures accept that Yehouah, the Jewish God, is not the Most High God. All nations had their own god—equal in rank and powers as sons of the Most High—and Yehouah happened to be the one for the Jews. By this token, Marduk, the national god of Babylon was the local equivalent of Yehouah. All of this was acceptable to the Persian kings as long as everyone recognized that the Most High God corresponded in heaven to the Persian king on earth. The Most High God of the Persians was Ahura Mazda (Ormuzd).

With this background and some knowledge of Mazdayasnaism (Ormuzd worship), the story behind Esther does not become difficult to discern. Ahasuerus is Ahura Mazda the Most High God, Mordecai is Marduk the Good Spirit, Esther is Ishtar the mediating goddess. Note also that in Babylonian mythology, Marduk and Ishtar were cousins just as Mordecai and Esther are cousins.

Haman (Aman) is Ahriman the Evil Spirit, the son of Hammadathus (Amadathus; Asmodeus?). There was an Elamite god called Humman, whom the Babylonians might well have demonized, just as Christians demonized the northern European horned god, among many others. Hammadathus is described as the Agagite, apparently a reference to Agag, the Amalekite. Amalekites were the traditional enemies of the Jews, the Chosen People of God—identified in the story of Esther with the Good Creation in Zoroastrian tradition. The Amalekites as their enemies were demons of the Evil One’s Bad Creation, and would be fought by the High God and his Good Spirit “from generation to generation.” Ultimately they would be blotted out as all evil things would be when the world was renovated at the End Time.


Haman, the Evil Spirit, tried to stand between Mordecai, the Good Spirit, and the king (Ormuzd). Here we have a trinity consisting of the king, Mordecai and Esther, comparable with the Father, the Son and the Mother, opposed by the Evil Spirit. The change in role of the goddess from the Mother (Mother Earth, Aramaiti) to an intermediary between Mordecai and the Most High illustrates a stage of the neutering of the goddess into the Holy Spirit, considered by Christians as God or the son, but not a goddess, in another form. Zoroaster had no place in his religious scheme, to judge by the Gathas, for a son and a goddess, roles probably played in the old Aryan religion by Mithras and Aramaiti.

Mithras never disappeared but merely was reduced for awhile but Aramaiti was converted into one of the Amesha Spentas, or worthy aspects of God. So, she had disappeared as a goddess and remained merely as a quality. When the later Achemaenian kings, perhaps initiated by the missionary zeal of Xerxes, wanted to restore the goddess, they did not have one to restore and had to seek a suitable candidate elsewhere. The goddess they selected was Ishtar under tha name of Anahita.

So, a foreign goddess was introduced into the Zoroastrian religious scheme. All of this appears in the text of the Esther myth. Vashti was the original consort of the king but she is cast aside for no good reason. She refuses to be paraded like an exhibit. Since such a parade, like the parade of Salome before Herod, was unlikely to have been seemly, her decision makes her noble in our eyes. It will stand for the reason why Zoroaster wanted to be shot of the goddess—she might have been the excuse for the Aryans to be licentious, and Zoroaster was prudish in his sexual morality.

Doubtless beautiful peasant girls selected for royal harems had to be scrubbed and scented thoroughly before they were admitted to the royal bedchamber, as Esther was, but here the long period of purification, scenting and cleansing possibly symbolized the adaptation of the foreign goddess to the Persian cosmogony which doubtless was not sudden.

So, effectively the story recognizes the rejection of the original wife of the king as a noble act of the original goddess in voluntarily standing down for the good cause in a principled manner. Vashti might be from the same root (from which we have “vision”) as Avesta, the name of the Zoroastrian Holy Book, and mean fore-knowledge. However, there was an Elamite goddess called Mashti who might have been derogated by the Babylonians and appears here slightly misnamed.

Marduk and Ahriman

Mordecai or Marduk also begins the story in an impoverished position, obviously in some minor role in the king’s service but scarcely better than a beggar waiting by the palace gate. He stands for Mithras in the reduced role he had under the Zoroastrian reforms. Later, however, he is established once more as the practical representative of the remote king, the Most High God. The underlying myth of Esther therefore seems to show how the two reduced or rejected deities under Zoroaster returned to favour.

Mordecai as the Good Spirit, a god of the world’s righteous people, here taken by the Jewish revizer of this myth to be Jews, but presumably in its original context, Babylonian worshippers of Marduk, will not kow tow to the temporarily influential Evil Spirit, Haman. In revenge, Haman plots to destroy all righteous people, in other words all of the Good Creation but here again specified by the editor as the Jews.

In Zoroastrian cosmogony, the Evil Spirit, Ahriman, tries to destroy or negate everything good that was created. This is Haman’s role in the novella. The lots spoken of in the title of the feast are the way the augurs, certainly Magi, decided favourable moments. In the first month of the year (Nisan), Haman consults the Magi and they cast dice for each day of the year. They came up with the decision of which day would be most propitious for Haman’s plan—it was almost a year on, on 14 Adar.

Haman’s plot is to “hang” Mordecai, but the plot backfires and in the end Haman himself, is crucified. Hanging to Persians and therefore here means crucifixion. Both Josephus (90 AD) and Jerome (400 AD) knew that Haman was crucified. The feast of Purim is held on 14 and 15 Adar, the last month in the Jewish year, which ends when the first new moon is seen to rise after the vernal equinox. On average, this will be about the start of April in our calendar. Purim is therefore held about two weeks before at the spring equinox. The New Year in Persian and Babylonian societies was considered to start when the days became longer than the nights, in other words, at the vernal equinox, so Purim is plainly a New Year celebration in fact.

The celestial event that marks this occasion is the passing of the sun travelling along the ecliptic across the celestial equator. This is the origin of the crucifixion myth. The gallows erected by Haman in his “house” are 80 feet high, an absurd height, but the point will be that the crucifixion takes place in the heavens and is notionally seen by looking upwards. The word “house” is another absurdity if the tale is thought to be history, but in myth it is not. “House” here means “domain,” the domain of the wicked, where horrid acts like crucifixions can only be carried out.

Book of Life

Mordecai saves the king from a plot and, as fate would have it, the king decides one sleepless night to look in his Book of Chronicles, in which the events of his reign are recorded. This is the “Book of Life” that the Jews and then the Christians took from the Zoroastrian faith. In Zoroastrianism, all of the deeds of a person’s life are inscribed in the Book of Life. At the Day of Judgement, the book is consulted and the balance of anyone’s good and evil deeds is calculated. The destiny of the soul depends on the sum total of good and bad deeds in anyone���s life. Judaism has the same idea because it was given to them by their Persian overlords, and Christianity took it from the Jews, but in Christianity it serves no purpose because the fate of the soul depends, not on deeds, but on the gift of god, and then only for faithful Christians.

The king’s sleepless night here is a plain literary device to disguise the fact that in the original the High God was consulting the book knowing the intended fate of Mordecai—crucifixion—and was purposely seeking to judge him. The High God in his role as king finds out that Mordecai has not been honoured for his good deed, though in the original, it would probably have been that he found Mordecai to be an exemplary person who was being wronged. None other than Haman, the Evil Spirit, as vizier has to lead about his enemy to honour him. Thus the Evil Spirit is humbled while the Good Spirit for the first time is magnified.

In the story, the goddess has to fast for three days before she can act to save Mordecai and the Jews. In Persian mythology, the soul remains with the body for three days after death, so the constant motif of the three days and nights in these ancient Near Eastern stories symbolizes death. The three day fast of the goddess is therefore a symbolic death. In Babylonian myth, Ishtar descends into Hades to find the vegetative god, Tammuz, who was apparently crucified at the autumn equinox and restored to life at the vernal equinox. Marduk took on some of the characteristics of Tammuz, and here it seems the three day fast symbolizes the goddess’s death (visit to Hades) in seeking to restore the god so that he could “save” the world by stimulating the growth of vegetation. Later, more sophisticated urbanites forgot that the salvation was in the fields and thought it was of their souls.

So, the goddess in the role of Esther, tells the king at one of her special banquets that the Evil Spirit plotted to destroy the Good Creation (the Jews). The king is aghast but realizes that the wickedness has been done in his own name. Meanwhile the vain Haman is distraught and throws himself across the goddess’s sofa in supplication to the king, thereby polluting the king’s property (his concubine as well as his sofa) and leaving himself open to the death sentence, which the Most High proclaims.

The banquets that queen Esther prepares for the king and Haman seem like a literary device to build up tension but are surely related to the Jewish idea of a Messianic meal—the origin of the Eucharist. The Most High is told that the gallows are prepared in Haman’s own “house,” the realm of Evil and he is duly crucified there.

Only now does Esther reveal her nationality. The secret is yet another literary device because a Persian king would not seek a wife from among people who were not Zoroastrian. The wife of Xerxes according to Herodotus was Amestris, his cousin to whom he had been married before he gained the throne. The latter part of Amestris looks like a form of Ishtar and so could match Esther, but, if Esther is meant to be Amestris, her history in the Book of Esther is wrong, and Judaism must have been accepted as a legitimate variety of Zoroastrianism. “Jew” was therefore not a national identity as modern Jews and Christians always claim, but a religious identity—a worshipper of Yehouah, one of the acceptable forms of the Persian Lord of Heaven, Ahura Mazda. Though the king has now been told the queen is not a worshipper of Ormuzd, he does not divorce her. Indeed, the myth ends in fairy-tale fashion with Jews running the Persian Empire.

Duality, Dialectics and Eschatology

In Zoroastrianism, the God of Heaven, Ormuzd, makes everything happen, so the Evil Spirit of the myth has to achieve his evil ways by tricking the High God. Haman does not tell the king that he intended to murder all the Jews and did not put their name on the decree that he wrote out and sealed with the king’s seal. When the tables are turned on the wicked Haman, the High God cannot repeal his previous decree but he permits the Jews to kill their enemies, and so they do.

This is not the sort of story to tell children, if it is told as history to be celebrated. Of course, it is not history. Jews and Christians alike see no further than a struggle of an oppressed people, the Jews, against their oppressors, the Persians. Yet the Persian king shows no personal malice to the Jews, nor does he show any favour to his own race! Indeed, he turns against them to favour the Jews, who he places in charge of the kingdom. This is so patently absurd, it is astonishing that intelligent people can believe it. It proves that the story is allegorical and that the king is not merely a king but the Most High god.

The Jews as the nation of Mordecai stand for the Good Creation of God, and their enemies are the Evil Creation of Ahriman. Daniel F Polish (JSOT, 85, 1999) has realized that the structure of the book reflects the dualistic nature of reality. Everything exists in relation to its opposite and events turn out to be the opposite of what was expected. This dialectical approach is the very essence of Zoroastrian religion.

The story of Esther is clearly eschatological and only A Lacocque, according to Lillian R Klein (Currents in Research, Biblical Studies, 5 1997) seems to have noticed. No one objects to the concept of the destruction of all Evil, including evil people, at the Judgement Day—that is what the story of Esther is relating. It is all fated by God’s will, which is why the king is depicted as being unable to repeal any decree that he has issued. The same is true of all thoughts, words and deeds in Zoroastrian theology. Misdeeds could not be erased by forgiveness, they could only be atoned for by greater good deeds.

Once the edict against the Good Creation had been issued under God’s seal, it became fate. It could not be cancelled but at best countered by an edict allowing the Good Creation to fight back—though this effectvely guaranteed defeat for the Wicked Creation which is not God’s own. The righteous are assured that, though Evil seems to be favoured in the world, everything will be all right in the end! The goddess’s banquets for the king and the Evil Principle, Haman, can be seen as symbolic of the way in which Evil seems to be favoured even by the goddess The tale assures the righteous that it is her way of waiting for the best moment while allowing the Evil Spirit to hoist himself on his own petard.

The Evil Spirit, Haman, has the royal seal at the beginning but the Good Spirit, Mordecai, has it at the end. With the destruction of the Evil Spirit, the Good Spirit, Morecai and the mediating goddess are given all power under the auspices of the Most High, and the Wicked must convert or die an everlasting death. The apparent reign of wickedness in the world is merely temporary and will be succeeded by the victory of righteousness, to re-establish the Good Creation of the Beginning of Time. The story opens with extensive festivities that might be meant to depict the joy of Ormuzd’s original Good Creation.


The idea that Persian laws were unalterable, a belief also contained in Daniel, is a misunderstanding. There is no evidence that this was true in Persia, and it would have been impossible if it were. Persians were competent administrators, and held together the world’s greatest empire for 300 years. However, the religious laws of Zoroaster, like the law of Moses, were God’s laws and so were considered unalterable. The author, not happy to acknowledge that there were laws other than the law of Moses elsewhere, also supposedly handed down by God, pretends that the Persian laws that were unalterable were the edicts of the king.

This might be a deliberate feature of the underlying myth, however, intended to show that God’s decisions were permanent, just as Yehouah does not “repent” of what he does. Despite this, the goddess asks the Most High to “repent” of his decree to harm the Jews. He does not, suggesting that God does not “repent” of his actions, but he decrees that the Jews can defend themselves, as noted above, tantamount to giving the Jews victory, for they are God’s Good Creation in this allegory and the Good will triumph in the battle of Good and Evil! No king could tolerate whole groups of his subjects hacking each other into pieces, more proof that the story is parabolic.

The goddess, Esther, is initially somewhat aloof from the struggle between Morcedai, supposedly her cousin, and Haman, being more concerned not to offend the High God at any risk to herself. Mordecai tells her that she too will die if the Evil Spirit succeeds. Now this occurs in Esther 4:13-15, a mysterious little speech in which desperate commentators, shocked that God never appears in the Hebrew version, thinks that Mordecai is making a veiled reference to Yehouah when he says:

For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?


They think “another place” means Yehouah in heaven. It is quite desperate for who is meant by her “father’s house” but the Jews anyway.

The answer is in the original myth because Esther represents a goddess with a mediating role. (Judaism and Christianity abolish the goddess in favour of the Holy Spirit.) If she choses not to support the Good Creation she is supporting the Evil Creation and will die with them (“thy father’s house”) when they are destroyed as they will be at the End of Time. Mordecai expresses confidence that Haman’s plotting will be wasted whatever Esther does in this instance, because the Good Creation is fated to be victorious. At this point the Good Creation are asked to fast for three days and nights in the symbolic death from which they will rise triumphant when Esther intercedes with the Most High to reveal the trickery of Haman, the Evil One.

The New Year and Crucifixion

So, the Good will triumph over the Wicked at the End of Time. Now recollect that this all happens at the end of the year, though Haman made the plot at the beginning of it—at the creation, so to speak. So, the year is serving as a measure of the extent of the world in time. M Eliade says:

Every New Year is a resumption of time from the beginning. ((M Eliade, Cosmos and History).


The end of the year is the End of Time when the Good will triumph, and the Persian New Year celebrations were seen as the triumph of Good over Evil. There is a hope and an exhortation here to moral improvement year by year, perhaps the source of our New Year resolutions to be kind to cats and to drink less. Good would be ultimately victorious and everyone should try to help achieve it.

Past time, the year gone is crucified as the Evil Spirit and the New Year is born as the Good Spirit raised up from his neglected position and placed in power through the intercession of the goddess. This role reversal is an extremely old motif of the New Year celebrations seen in the Roman Saturnalia, which itself came from the Babylonian Sacaea. Sir James Frazer tells us that masters and slaves changed places and the masters served the slaves.

Meanwhile, the king temporarily abdicated while a mock king reigned only to be crucified like Haman at the end. According to Eliade, the king’s duty was to regenerate time, and this he did by killing the false king representing the Old Year, whereupon he himself, the true king, stepped up as if renovated as the New Year. The king is crucified and is resurrected. Remember this all happens at Easter!

Another practical result hoped of the myth is found in Esther 8:16-17 where the thought of being destroyed by the Good Creation (the Jews) persuades others (sinners, the Bad Creation) to join them—become proselytes—while they yet lived. That this policy was put into effect by the Hasmoneans around 100 BC when John Hyrcanus and his son, Aristobulus, forcibly converted the Samaritans, the Galilaeans and the Idumaeans to save their souls, points to this period as Esther’s date of composition as a Jewish work.

Though Christians base their religion on a crucifixion, they have, churlishly criticized Jews for having a jolly, indeed drunken, festival to commemorate a different crucifixion. The difference is, Christians say, that Jesus was unjustly crucified by the Jews who they categorized as the Evil Creation and his fate is a reminder of human wickedness and a call to be righteous. Haman however was gladly crucified by this same Evil Creation of Jews, and they mock him and swing rattles at his name, celebrating and encouraging human wickedness with their gleeful festivities.

The forgotten truth is that both myths celebrate the triumph of Good over Evil and promise an eschatological salvation. In the Persian myth adapted to Judaism, it is the Wicked Spirit that is crucified to signify the triumph of Good, whereas in the Christian myth it is the Good Spirit that is crucified to signify the triumph of Good! Which is more logical? This has proved an important reason why Jews resisted conversion to Christianity. Crucifixion was the proper fate of the Wicked not the Good.

The Jewish customs of Purim include offering “choice portions to each other” and offering “gifts for the poor.” These are not actions that might signify a bloody victory over enemies but the actions symbolic of God’s Good Creation, righteous people. Meanwhile, they are to get drunk enough to damage their judgement, so that they cannot distinguish between Haman and Mordecai. The point is that in the real world neither can we poor mortals distinguish between Good and Evil. That is why evil persists. We had better sober up and begin to make the correct choces becasue the Good will succeed!

The King

The king has been described as a powerful fool, and as a king so he would have been. But he is an allegory for the Most High God, who trusts everyone in good faith, just as he expects others to do. The king’s viziers, wife and courtiers are the intermediary gods of Ormuzd, Mithras and Ahriman, Anahita and the lesser spirits known to Jews and Christians as angels and demons.

The Persian God expected all of creation, mortal and immortal to obey his laws, those handed down to Zoroaster. He trusts his supporting gods to be giving him sound advice and he acts on it. These are the reasons that the king seems to be guileless and manipulated, but he has no other aim but good and that is the outcome.

He is depicted as being rather vacant or more correctly, remote. That is, of course, how the Most High god is often seen and the reason why, in these so-called monotheistic religions, lesser gods breed as mediators between the mortal world and the High God. That is what has happened in Catholic Christianity, where various saints and demons take on the roles of Mordecai and Haman, and the Virgin Mary remains as the mediating goddess, just like Esther.


Continue: Book 6. Dating



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