March 12

The Banquet of Esther and Ahasuerus
Jan Victors (1619-1676)
472 BCE, 1602 CE

Purim, which takes place on the 14th of the month of Adar in the Jewish world, and is the celebration of two Jews who refused to collaborate in their own victimhood when confronted by anti-Semitism, can fall anywhere between the beginning of February and the end of March, depending on the point of the 19-year lunar-solar calendric cycle that it happens to have reached in any given year, so I am unable to set Purim on a fixed date in the universal calendar; I have chosen this date for the very simple reason that this was the one, in 1998 as it happens, on which I wrote the original of this piece in my diary (the personal calendar; so much more appropriate for a personal history anyway).

So much for the day. What about the year? This will depend on whether you regard the Book of Esther as a work of authentic history, or a work of fiction. The latter is sadly the more likely, and what almost certainly happened was... 

that the Jews exiled in Persia (in Babylon, but now under the rule of the Medean Persians) in the 6th century BCE, simply adored the Persian spring festival rites and ceremonies, the eating of triangular poppy-seed cakes, the dressing up in fancy clothes that represented the fertility gods and goddesses, the beauty pageant from which that year's May Queen, the earthly surrogate for Ishtar the mother-goddess, would win the prize of becoming consort to the May-King, the Shah himself, earthly surrogate for Marduk the father-god, and all would bow down before the Haman, the stone ikon carved to represent the deity... 

that they loved this festival so much they decided to take it back to Yehudah with them when they were set free, and then to draw lots (the meaning of Purim) to choose their own Ishtar, who they pronounced Esther though the one in the story was actually named Hadassah like the hospital, and their own Marduk, who became Mordechai in the Hebrew language, and not so sure about the Haman, though it's there in the Bible, in Leviticus 26:30, but prohibited, so maybe somebody could make a Jewish version and...

But maybe it was genuinely history, and Artaxerxes I, the king who sent Ezra and Nehemiah to half-rebuilt Yehudah to repair the walls of Jerusalem and erect the Second Temple, maybe 
Achashverosh is just a mispronunciation of Artaxerxes (Ahasuerus in the English mispronunciation), and if so, then he reigned at almost the right time, because we are told that the Beney Yisra-El went into captivity in 586 BCE, and that the Esther story took place 124 years later, which would be 472 BCE, and Artaxerxes reigned from 465–424... then maybe it was his father, Xerxes I, who reigned from 486 to 465...

Achashverosh - one of the great names, don't you think? One has to presume the man's parents must have had, one of them a terrible stammer and the other a sneezing fit, when they gave the details to the registrar. But I'm thinking of a different Achashverosh now, the one they also called "The Wandering Jew", the one who is alleged to have taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was condemned in punishment to roam the earth until the second coming, wandering in the land of Nod like Cain his precursor, the one who John says dared to strike Jesus (John 18:20–22) during his arraignment before Annas, the one who Roger of Wendover in his "Flores Historiarum" said had turned up in Armenia, renamed Cartaphilus, but who then turned up again in Italy, and said his name was Giovanni Buttadeo (John the god-hitter), and then turned up again (as regular as the Blood Libel) in Hamburg in 1542, where he told Paulus von Eitzen, the Lutheran bishop of Schleswig, that his real name was... Ahasverus, at least, according to a best-selling pamphlet of the time, "Kurze Beschreibung und Erzählung von einem Juden mit namen Ahasverus" ("A Brief Description and Narration Regarding a Jew Named Ahasverus"). Quite probably the advanced messenger of the anti-Christ, who was due to appear in either 1600 or 1666, though he failed to make that appearance anywhere in Europe (he was last seen in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1868, and definitely with a "u" not a "v" on that occasion. Funny how a tale about a victory against anti-Semitism turns into a thousand-year unbroken saga of tales and more tales to encourage still more anti-Semitism. Has it ever occurred to anyone that maybe there's an International anti-Zionist Conspiracy as well?

Back in Europe in the late Middle Ages, the intended name was probably Asverus (a tes souhaits), a Latinisation of the Biblical name such as was common among the nouveau riche of four hundred years ago, when knowing Latin had a certain ego non scio qua - only it came out wrong. Achashverosh. Gesundheit. The English call him Ahasuerus - bless you - as insipid as you would expect, by contrast. A good mediaeval sound though, requiring hyphenation. A-has-u-e-rus? A-no-I-haven't. Fol de rol a rol de rol, bow down before the god-stone. And then the ullulating trill of the bass violin before you repeat the chorus.

There were still other names too, less troubling to the nose. Juan Esperata en Dios (John hope-in-god, a pleasing antonym for Giovanni Buttadeo). Isaac Laquedem - Alexandre Dumas wrote an entire novel about him, "Et celui qui mène la danse, Isaac Laquedem, le Juif errant en personne. Dont le destin est de marcher sans jamais s'arrêter jusqu'au moment où le Christ ..."; and more prosaically Die Ewige Jude (a rat maybe, but surely not an earwig?), le Juif Errant, The Eternally Expelled, Ostracised, Ghettoised, the we-don't-want-you-in-Palestine-either, the get out of here before we make another pogrom, the one-and-endlessly-repeated Wandering Jew (la bri'ut - לבריאות - as we say in Hebrew).

What kind of a parent gives a child that name anyway, whether in memory of the king of Persia or otherwise. Achashverosh - bless you my son. I must stop making that joke, if only because it really isn't a joke. Christian superstition holds that, when you sneeze, it's the inner spirit casting the devil out. To say "bless you" is to confirm his expulsion from your body. But for the sneezer to say "thank you" invites him in again.


No comments:

Post a Comment