The snake’s name was … Sabbatai Zevi. He really did exist–in history.
This “snake” is the one who, in the Zohar, bites the “Doe of the Dawn” on her vulva, producing first blood and then healing, saving water. I’ll get back to this mythical snake in a minute. But first–the historical Sabbatai Zevi.
He was born to a Jewish family in Izmir, on the western coast of Turkey, in 1626. In 1665, when he was 39 years old, he became an international celebrity, setting the Jewish world wild with his claim to be the Messiah. Most Jews believed in him. Some Christians half-believed, and, like the English diarist Samuel Pepys, looked nervously toward what the year 1666 might bring.
On September 16, 1666, Sabbatai Zevi converted to Islam. He took the Muslim name Mehmed Effendi. He became a minor official in the palace of the Turkish sultan.
When his followers heard the news, most gave up believing in him. But a hard core remained faithful. These stubborn “Sabbatians” insisted that, by leaving Judaism for Islam, Sabbatai hadn’t betrayed his messianic destiny. Rather, he’d fulfilled it.
In an act of extraordinary heroism–so they said–the Messiah had plunged into the inky depths of an alien faith in order to rescue those sparks of divinity trapped inside. In particular, to raise up a very special Lady who’d become entangled in the nether darkness. This was the Shechinah, the Bride of God, or more exactly God’s female element. (In the Kabbalistic mystical tradition, out of which Sabbatai emerged, God is an androgyne, as hinted in Genesis 1:27.) She whom Leonard Nimoy, known to “Star Trek” fans as Spock, celebrated a few years ago in a volume of scorchingly erotic photographs of which the goddess Ishtar might have been proud.
To save the Shechinah, Sabbatai had to enter the “Mountains of Darkness” of the Zohar’s myth. In the form of a serpent. Where he encountered her in the form of a Doe.
The serpentine shape well suited him. Since the beginning of his messianic career, Sabbatai Zevi had conceived himself the “Holy Serpent,” and could invoke the sacred Hebrew language in his support. In Hebrew, the letters can serve also as numerals; and the word nachash, “snake,” has the same numerical value as mashiach, “Messiah.”
The serpent holy???!! Isn’t it demonic, evil, from the Bible story of Eden onward? Well, it is. Welcome to the world of Kabbalah, which is also the world of myth, where opposites fuse into a single potent image. Where the snake’s bite on the Doe’s tenderest part is also a kiss, an act of love that releases the healing juices locked up within her.
Where is Queen Esther in all this? She’s the Doe, remember; and to the Kabbalists she’s an embodiment of the Shechinah, in both her human and her animal form. She’s also Sabbatai Zevi, or more exactly a prophetic foreshadowing of Sabbatai Zevi, much the way the early Christians found foreshadowings (“types”) of Jesus throughout the Old Testament. Like Sabbatai she entered an alien palace, took a new and alien name (Esther 2:7), observed alien practices–all for the sake of redeeming her people. True, she’s a woman, Sabbatai was a man. But myth, which can sanctify a serpent, doesn’t balk at transgendering a Messiah.
The premise of Sabbatai’s heroic plunge into alien darkness is that the Shechinah has earlier made the same descent. Its a descent that the Goddess has made from time immemorial:
“She set her heart from highest heaven
on earth’s deepest ground,
the goddess set her heart from highest heaven
on earth’s deepest ground,
Inanna set her heart from highest heaven
on earth’s deepest ground,
milady abandoned heaven, abandoned earth,
went down to Hades,
Inanna abandoned heaven, abandoned earth,
went down to Hades.”
(“The Descent of Inanna,” translated by Thorkild Jacobsen)
This is Ishtar before she was named Ishtar, when she was still the Sumerian Inanna, “Inanna towards the place of sunrise” as the descent story calls her. In other words: Venus, the Morning Star.
Like the Shechinah, Ishtar/Inanna becomes trapped in the darkness she’s entered. She escapes by sending her lover Dumuzi–he of “Plow my vulva, man of my heart! Plow my vulva!”–to suffer in her place. (Sabbatai Zevi died in 1676, in lonely Albanian exile.)
Does the Goddess’s return bring salvation to those who believe in her? The ancient myth is unclear on this point. The Zoharic myth of the Doe is far more explicit. (” … water comes out, and all the animals in the mountains drink it.”) So is the Book of Esther:
“The Jews had light and gladness, joy and honor” (Esther 8:17).
A happy ending indeed, for a troubled, turbulent story. Imagine expanding it from “the Jews” to all the dwellers in this troubled, turbulent world–the Hamans and their offspring included. Imagine the Goddess shining forth in the sunrise, as I suspect She did in the mythic layers beneath the surface of the Biblical book, to all the thirsty ones languishing in darkness, bringing “light and gladness, joy and honor.”
Now that’s a Purim worth celebrating.
For a more technical version of these ideas, with sources and argumentation, click here. This is a paper I delivered in December 2008 before a conference of the Association of Jewish Studies.
To read an ancient Jewish-Greek source that closes the circle, bringing it all back to Esther, click here for a postscript to this series.