…the Purim story represents the annual struggle to end the harsh reign of winter. The original characters appear to have been Babylonian gods: Ishtar, the goddess of fertility; Marduk, the chief guardian of the heavens; and Haman, the underworld devil. Ishtar and Haman, life and death, vie with each other for supremacy. Ishtar triumphs; spring returns; and life is renewed. Yahveh, the Hebrew God, played no part in the celebration, which was filled with theatrical renditions of the contest. Noisemaking and masquerading were necessary to trick the evil gods and to aid the good ones. Sexual orgies promoted fertility. Merriment was the order of the day.
The Megilla, or biblical Book of Esther, replaced Ishtar and Marduk with Jewish mortals (Esther and Mordecai); Haman became a Persian “devil.” The holiday’s name, “Purim,” meaning “lots” or “dice,” is meant to remind us of how the evil character Haman drew lots to determine the fate of the Jews of Persia. According to the Book of Esther, were it not for the goodness and intervention of Esther and her uncle Mordecai in the court of King Ahasuerus, the Jews certainly would have been exterminated by the king’s vizier Haman. Purim became the joyous celebration of an epic Jewish victory over anti-Semitism and threatened annihilation – an enactment of the hopes of persecuted Jews throughout the centuries.
At first, because of the Book of Esther’s secular nature – it is the only book in the Bible that does not mention God – it was excluded from the sacred canon. It is likely that political conflict between the rabbis and the Maccabees brought the Book of Esther into the Bible and Purim into the official Jewish calendar. Uncomfortable with Purim but faced with a festival that the people would not abandon, the rabbinic leaders found a way to suit it to their purposes. On the thirteenth of Adar, the day before Purim, Jews celebrated Nicanor’s Day, commemorating a major Maccabean victory over a Greek general named Nicanor. The rabbis, to minimize the influence of their rivals, the Maccabees, turned Nicanor’s Day into the Fast of Esther, immediately preceding Purim, and gave the playful folk holiday their grudging blessing. Nicanor’s Day disappeared and Purim grew more popular. Purim shpiels (plays) and satires allowed ordinary people to “sass” their “betters” and voice grievances that remained unuttered throughout the year. Purim balls and carnivals encouraged revelry and drunkenness.