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Love Goddess Stories – Esther, Ishtar, and the “Doe of the Dawn” (Part 2)

This is the second installment of a three-part post. For parts 1 and 3, and a postscript to the series, click here, here, and here.

Once upon a time, maybe 1800 years ago, two rabbis went traveling in the Galilee.  It must have been a long journey.  They took care to get an early start.

Rabbi Hiyya the Elder and Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta were walking early in the valley of Arbel.  They saw the light of the Doe of the Dawn break forth.  Rabbi Hiyya the Elder said to Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta:  “This is what the redemption of Israel will be like–bit by bit, continually growing greater. … At first, ‘Mordecai was sitting in the king’s gate’ [Esther 2:21].  Later on, ‘Haman took the robe and the horse and arrayed Mordecai’ [6:11] … and still later, ‘Mordecai went forth from the presence of the king in royal apparel’ [8:15].  And finally, ‘the Jews had light and gladness, joy and honor’ [8:16].” (From the Palestinian Talmud, Berakhot 1:1.)

Venus, the Morning-Star, the Doe of the Dawn

The "Doe of the Dawn" in astral form, come from the Mountains of Darkness

What was this “Doe of the Dawn” that the two rabbis saw?  A third rabbi, who lived long after these two, wants to make sure we don’t imagine it was the Morning Star.  “If anybody tries to tell you that the Morning Star is the Doe of the Dawn, he’s a liar.”  But with all due respect to the distinguished scholar, that’s exactly what I think the Doe of the Dawn was.  What else could it have been–that light that’s seen before sunrise?

The phrase “Doe of the Dawn,” ayelet ha-shachar, is taken from the Bible, from a title given to the 22nd Psalm.  “For the Choirmaster; concerning the Doe of the Dawn; a psalm of David.” This is odd, because the psalm that follows doesn’t seem to say anything about any “doe” or any “dawn.”  Instead it laments the writer’s sufferings, begs God to come and help.  “My God, my God,” it begins, “why hast Thou forsaken me?” Which, if we’re to trust Matthew and Mark, were  Jesus’s last words on the cross.

So is the psalm about the Messiah?  And is the Messiah the mysterious “Doe of Dawn” of the title?  But then why a “doe”?  Surely the Messiah can’t be female, can she?

Unless she’s a goddess.

Here let’s pause and catch our breath.  Think back to what I suggested in last week’s post–that hiding somewhere behind the beautiful Queen Esther of the Purim story is a queen just as beautiful and vastly more powerful–the lubricious Ishtar, love-and-war goddess of the ancient Near East.  And that Ishtar’s representative in the sky was the planet Venus, the Morning Star, shining before the dawn.

Rabbi Hiyya catches sight of this “Doe of the Dawn” as he hikes with his friend Rabbi Simeon, and thinks … of the Book of Esther.

A different Talmudic passage helps us understand how the “Doe” and Esther are connected:

“How was Esther like a doe?  Just as a doe has a narrow vagina, and gives her mate as much pleasure each time as she did the first, so Esther gave Ahasuerus as much pleasure each time as she did the first. … How was Esther like the dawn?  Just as the dawn is the culmination of the night, so Esther was the culmination of miracles.” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 29a)

So the pearly beauty in the eastern sky is none other than Esther, mistress of miracle.  Lady of erotic delight.

Did I say, “none other than”?  Scratch those words; they don’t apply to myth.  Myth doesn’t deal in nothing-buts and either-ors.  It’s inclusive, not exclusive.  Its net is spread to encompass all the world and all the ages–which is to say, the human unconscious, that universe we carry with us inside the few cubic inches of our skulls.

If Esther’s a part of the myth of Ishtar, Ishtar herself is part of a vaster web, stretching from the dawn of history in the Near East to Spain in the 13th century.  And beyond.

It was in 13th-century Spain that the Jewish mystics we call “Kabbalists” wrote their classic text, the Zohar.  It’s in the Zohar that the new-old myth of the “Doe of the Dawn” bursts forth.  This myth shows the goddess in animal form–and in a kindlier, more nurturing and redemptive light than Esther’s manipulative scheming,  or the sexual rapacity and cruelty of Ishtar.  If you don’t believe the myth’s essentials are truly ancient, open the New Testament.  Read chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation.  Marvel at the similarities.

Zohar, vol. 3 of the standard edition, pages 249a-b.  My translation:

“What is the ‘Doe of the Dawn’?  A creature whose mercy is unparalleled among all the animals.  When she realizes there is a state of emergency, and she needs food for herself and all the animals, she goes far off and brings back food. … When does she distribute food?  When the morning is about to come, when it is still night and the darkness starts to brighten. …

“Where does she travel to?  She goes 60 parasangs from the place she departed from, and enters the Mountain of Darkness.  As she travels in the Mountain of Darkness, a certain crooked snake appears at her feet and travels at her feet.  She goes from there to the Mountain of Light.  When she gets there, the Blessed Holy One prepares for her another snake; he incites the two snakes against each other and she is saved.  From there she gets her food. … When the darkness of the morning lifts away and the day brightens, she departs and is no longer seen.”

Just like Venus.  But the myth goes on:

“When the world needs rain, all the other animals gather to her.  She goes up to the top of a high mountain, enwraps her head between her knees, and moans over and over again.  The Blessed Holy One hears her voice and is filled with mercy, and takes pity on the world.  She comes down from the mountaintop and runs away to hide herself.  All the other animals run after her, but they cannot find her. …

William Blake, "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun"

The pregnant Doe in human form, encountering her "snake" (William Blake, "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun," 1805)

“When she becomes pregnant, she is closed up.  When the time comes for her to give birth, she moans and emits cry after cry. … The Blessed Holy One hears her and appears beside her.  He then brings forth a great snake from the midst of the Mountains of Darkness.  It goes between the mountains, its mouth licking dust, until it reaches that doe.  It comes and bites her twice on her genital.  The first time blood comes out, and [the snake? or the Doe?] licks it up.  The second time water comes out, and all the animals in the mountains drink it.  This is what is indicated by the Scripture: ‘And Moses lifted up his hand, and smote the rock with his rod twice, and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle’ [Numbers 20:11].”

Plenty of snakes here.  At first, it seems, they’re out to get the Doe, like the Great Red Dragon of Revelation 12:3.  But then the snake turns into something more ambiguous, more mysterious, symbolized in the Bible by Moses’s rod (which has a certain tendency to turn into a snake).  Its sexual “bite” frees the Doe’s healing energies.  Water gushes forth from her to a thirsty world.

What is that snake?  A devil?  A god?  A Messiah?

All three?

I’ll post about the snake next week, in my third installment.

Purim begins this Saturday evening.  For those who do celebrate it–have a very happy one!  In next week’s post, I’ll suggest a perspective from which Purim can be a holiday for us all, religiously observant or not, Jewish or non-Jewish.

Also next week, I’ll put up a P.S. to these posts, describing a piece of evidence I’d forgotten about when I planned the series, which to my mind conclusively ties the “Doe of the Dawn” myth to Esther.  (It’s in the Greek version of the Book of Esther.)  More next week!

And I’m always eager to hear your responses.  Post them here or on my Fan Page,

2 Responses to “Love Goddess Stories – Esther, Ishtar, and the “Doe of the Dawn” (Part 2)”

  • Kate Dircksen:

    I’m doing exploration on snakes, do you know the biggest snake?

    • David Halperin:

      Kate, I’m afraid my knowledge of snakes is mostly Biblical/mythological/Kabbalistic. (Though I did have a couple of garter snakes as pets when I was a kid.) I always thought the python was the biggest snake–is that wrong?

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