Thursday, February 18, 2021

Purim, Magic, Demons and More


From left to right: firecrackers for Chinese New Year; Isabella and Pantalone, two Commedia dell'arte stock characters; Nuo "exorcism" masks; a 9000 year old prehistoric stone mask.  

 Masks have always been a part of human culture.

One use of masks is to scare away bad spirits.

Making noise is another universal way to drive out evil spirits. 

Pagan Europe, East Asia, Christianity and of course Judaism all have celebrations and ceremonies using masks and noise as well as indulging in food and drink to clear out bad spirits before a period of cleansing to enter the new year “clean.” 

Among these, the Commedia dell’arte masked plays, associated with the Christian springtime ritual of Carnival, may have influenced the sorts of costumes we wear, see the chaste maiden and the scheming villain above. 

The new year was traditionally marked in the spring as a time of rebirth after winter.  The Chinese New Year is like this as is Nowruz the Persian New Year.  Notably, (the Islamic calendar, which is entirely a lunar calendar, does not have a fixed season for the new year).  Throughout Western history, the new year began on March 25th.  Even after the introduction of the Gregorian calendar when January 1st became the new year, the spring date remained in use.  The American colonies continued to observe March 25th as the new year until 1752! 

Rosh Hashanah marks the change in years on the Jewish calendar, the first month on the calendar is Nissan (Passover).  Purim is compared to Yom Kippur and further supports the idea of Purim as a new year holiday. 

As in all the other cultures with a spring new year, Purim is a time to use up and chase out the bad and the unwanted to prepare for the spring.  This is one reason why we drink liquor on Purim as much of it will not be acceptable for Passover in another month.  It also explains the connection to demons and evil spirits in Purim!

Further comparisons with Yom Kippur reveal the demonic nature of our Purim antagonists:

The Yom Kippur ritual of the scapegoat was also a lottery, goral, like Haman casting lots pur, to determine the day to attack the Jews.  Putting lots into a container, the high priest would shake them [a noisemaker!] and one goat would go to God, the other to Azazel. 

Azazel probably referred to a place of wilderness, but came to be a name for Samael, the chief demon in Jewish lore.  Samael is the most like the Christian Satan, and among other things, was the guardian spirit of Esau and Esau’s descendants, including Amalek and Haman.  (Mishnah Yoma 3 & 4, Yalkut I:110)

The two goats are twins, like Jacob and Esau, and just like the two of them, represent the struggle between good and evil. 

But Haman isn’t just evil like his forebears Amalek and Esau.  According to the Talmud (Chullin 139b) he is the Serpent of Eden, "And God said: Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten of the tree, ha-min ha-etz, from which I commanded you not to eat?" (Gen. 3:11) In the same place we are told how Esther is in the Torah when God is referred to as hiding God’s face haster astir (Dt. 31:17)

Regarding Esther, we find a shedim, demons, helping her out, not just fighting with her:  “[Lest you think Esther cohabitated with him] the Shekhinah hid Esther from Ahasuerus and gave him a [shapeshifting] shedah instead while she returned to Mordecai.”  While demons are bad, unlike in other traditions, for us, nothing is outside God’s ultimate control. 


·        Around the world, springtime marks the start of a new year and rebirth after winter. 

·        Festivals for “finishing off” the evil spirits of winter, food “leftover” at the end of the outgoing year, and releasing pent up energy from being stuck inside, take place before the start of the spring new year (Nuo before the Lunar New Year, Mardi Gras/Carnival before Lent and Easter, Purim before Passover). 

·        These festivals involve making noise to scare off the evil and demonic, masking oneself to hide from the evil, as well as to “get the jump” on nefarious forces which may seek to destroy us.

·        It is possible that some of the sumptuary queues Purim offers as well as the notion of putting on a shpiel, were borrowed from stock characters in the Commedia dell’arte performance tradition.  

·        Rather than see these similarities as taking away from our Jewish practices and beliefs, they should reinforce the “truth” of these rituals as somehow essential to humanity – historically, culturally, and psychologically if not literally.

·        The Rabbis have long remarked on the connection between Yom Kippur and Purim.  We can see why this is so given the themes of leaving behind the evil of the old year and cleansing oneself, revealing what is hidden, in both holidays. 

·        The connection between the scapegoat, the demon Azazel/Samael, the Serpent, Esau, Amalek, and Haman, vs. the sacrificial goat, God, Jacob, Esther and Mordecai speak to Purim as being a cataclysmic clash between the forces of good and evil.

·        Humans must themselves struggle to defeat God’s adversaries and prepare the way for the coming redemption, which we experience at Passover. 

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