If Achashverosh Is Xerxes, Is Esther His Wife Amestris?
List of Persian Kings from the Relevant Biblical Period
The Megillah does not mention the names of the kings who preceded or followed Achashverosh. This deprives us of a context for his reign. But an Achashverosh is mentioned one time in the fourth chapter of the book of Ezra in the context of other Persian kings. The chapter discusses the permission Koresh (Cyrus) gives to rebuild the Temple (Ezra 4:4-7).
ד וַֽיְהִי֙ עַם־הָאָ֔רֶץ מְרַפִּ֖ים יְדֵ֣י עַם־יְהוּדָ֑ה ומבלהים (וּֽמְבַהֲלִ֥ים) אוֹתָ֖ם לִבְנֽוֹת׃
4 Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and harried them while they were building.
ה וְסֹֽכְרִ֧ים עֲלֵיהֶ֛ם יֽוֹעֲצִ֖ים לְהָפֵ֣ר עֲצָתָ֑ם כָּל־יְמֵ֗י כּ֚וֹרֶשׁ מֶ֣לֶךְ פָּרַ֔ס וְעַד־מַלְכ֖וּת דָּֽרְיָ֥וֶשׁ מֶֽלֶךְ־פָּרָֽס׃
5 They hired counsellors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Koresh, king of Persia, even until the reign of Daryavesh, king of Persia.
ו וּבְמַלְכוּת֙ אֲחַשְׁוֵר֔וֹשׁ בִּתְחִלַּ֖ת מַלְכוּת֑וֹ כָּֽתְב֣וּ שִׂטְנָ֔ה עַל־יֹֽשְׁבֵ֥י יְהוּדָ֖ה וִירֽוּשָׁלִָֽם׃
6 In the reign of Achashverosh, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.
ז וּבִימֵ֣י אַרְתַּחְשַׁ֗שְׂתָּא כָּתַ֨ב בִּשְׁלָ֜ם מִתְרְדָ֤ת טָֽבְאֵל֙ וּשְׁאָ֣ר כְּנָֽוֹתָ֔ו…
7 In the days of Artachshasta, wrote Bishlam, Mitredat, Tavel and the rest of his companions…
According to this, Achashverosh reigned between Daryavesh (=Darius I), during whose reign the Temple was rebuilt (see Ezra 6:15), and Artachshasta (=Artaxerxes I). This suggests that Achashverosh is to be identified with Xerxes.
The Linguistic Connection between Xerxes and Achashverosh
But why would Achashverosh be referred to by the Greeks as Xerxes? The answer to this question had to wait until the nineteenth century, when scholars first deciphered Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions from the ancient Persian palaces, and the Old Persian form of his name was revealed to be “Khshayarsha.”
Explaining the Hebrew
Khshayarsha is very close to the Hebrew “Achashverosh.” In their consonantal structure, the two names are identical. Both center on the consonantal sounds “ch,” “sh,” “r,” and “sh.” The Hebrew added an initial aleph, referred to by linguists as a “prosthetic aleph,” a frequent occurrence when foreign words with two initial consonants are recorded in Hebrew. The Hebrew also exchanged the “y” sound for a vav.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Aramaic documents from Elephantine in Egypt, dating to the 5th century B.C.E., came to light. In these documents, this king’s name was spelled in Aramaic as חשירש, חשיארש and אחשירש, forms very close to the Hebrew אחשורוש.
Explaining the Greek
But how did Khshayarsha (consonants: KH, SH, R, SH) come to be referred to by the Greeks as Xerxes?
- The Greek language does not have a letter to represent the “sh” sound. (Greek usually transliterates this sound as S.)
- The initial “KH SH” sounds of the Persian name were collapsed into one Greek letter that makes the “KS” sound. A tendency to assimilation probably led to the second “SH” also becoming “KS,” even though “S” would have been more appropriate. Hence, the consonants became KS, R, KS (=X, R, X).
- The “es” at the end typifies a foreign name in proper Greek grammatical form. (For this same reason, the Hebrew משה became “Moses” in Greek.)
Thus, linguistically speaking, identifying Khshayarsha with the Greek Xerxes and the Hebrew Achashverosh is accepted by contemporary scholars. Whether Khshayarsha did all the things attributed to him in the Megillah—or in Herodotus for that matter—is a different question.
In the Megillah, Achashverosh marries Vashti and then Esther. Unfortunately, we have no Persian inscriptions with the queen’s name, as we do for the king, so we are limited to information (accurate or not) from Greek historians.
Amestris and Esther – Variants of the Same Name
The Greek historians Herodotus and Ctesias refer to Xerxes’ wife as Amestris. Although some slight linguistic connection between the name Amestris and the name Vashti (Persian “sht” to Greek “st”) seems possible, a stronger connection exists between the Greek Amestris and the Hebrew Esther:
- The “is” at the end is just a Greek suffix added to turn the foreign name into proper Greek grammatical form (just as “es” was added at the end of “Xerxes”).
- The name Amestris is based around the consonants M, S, T, and R, and the name as recorded in the Megillah is based around the consonants S, T, and R.
Very likely, this is not coincidence; perhaps her Persian name was composed of the consonants M, S, T, and R, and the M was not preserved in the Hebrew.
Assuming that Esther is to be identified with Amestris, what do the sources tell us about this person?
Amestris: Wife of Xerxes – Herodotus
The 5th century BCE Greek historian, Herodotus, refers to Xerxes’ wife Amestris in three contexts:
- In his detailed account of Xerxes’ invasion force against Greece, the Persian contingent of the army was commanded by Otanes, who was the father of Xerxes’ wife Amestris (VII:61).
- After mentioning that Xerxes’ invasion force entered a town called Nine Ways, he writes:
There, learning that Nine Ways was the name of the place, they [=the Persians] buried alive that number of boys and maidens, children of the people of the country. To bury alive is a Persian custom; I have heard that when Xerxes’ wife Amestris attained to old age she buried fourteen sons of notable Persians, as a thanks-offering on her own behalf to the fabled god of the nether world (VII:114).
- He tells a story depicting the cruelty of Amestris. The following is a brief outline of the story:
While at Sardis, Xerxes fell in love with the wife of his brother Masistes. (Sardis was where Xerxes resided temporarily after he began his retreat from his invasion of Greece but before he returned to Susa.) The wife of Masistes rejects his advances. Xerxes then arranges a marriage between his son Darius and the daughter of Masistes, thinking that this would eventually help him seduce the mother. The story continues at Susa, with the exact time of the continuation unspecified. In the continuation, Amestris gives Xerxes a beautiful robe that wove with her own hands. By this time, Xerxes had transferred his affections to the daughter, now married to his son Darius, and Xerxes had an affair with her. Xerxes ends up giving the daughter the robe.
When Amestris finds out, she takes revenge on the mother.She sends for the soldiers of the royal bodyguard and has the mother mutilated. Many of her body parts are ordered cut off and are thrown to the dogs. When Masistes sees what was done to his wife, he decides to stir up a revolt against Xerxes. In the end, Xerxes’ forces kill Masistes, his sons, and all the men under his command (IX:108-113).
Amestris: Wife of Xerxes – Ctesias
A later Greek historian, Ctesias (writing shortly after 400 B.C.E.) who served as a physician to Artaxerxes II also writes about Amestris. From him, we learn the following.
- Amestris outlives Xerxes and dies after she has “grown very old.”
- After years of pestering, Amestris is finally able to convince her son Artaxerxes to let her avenge the death of another son Achaemenides. She is able to have fifty Greeks decapitated and their leader Inarus impaled, in revenge for Inarus and his men having slain Achaemenides five years earlier, when Inarus had led a revolt.
- She is given the authority by Artaxerxes to punish a physician who deceived her daughter Amytis into having sexual relations with him; she orders him kept in chains and tortured for two months, and eventually buried alive.
- She was frequently intimate with men and is depicted either as licentious or perhaps even as a nymphomaniac.
- She orders the murderer of her grandchild impaled.
- She is able to convince Artaxerxes to forgive Amytis’ husband Megabyzus on various occasions.
The Cruel Amestris and the Pious Esther?
Clearly, Herodotus and Ctesias depict Amestris as cruel. It should be noted, however, that many scholars today doubt the stories told by the Greek historians about their enemies the Persians; those concerning royal Persian women are particularly suspect.
The biblical and Greek accounts differ with regard to the identity of the queen’s father. In Herodotus, she is the daughter of a military commander named Otanes. In the Megillah, she is the daughter of a Jewish man named Avichayil. These names cannot be connected phonologically, yet it is striking that the name Avichayil contains the element “ח-י-ל,” which has a military connotation and means “strength” or “soldier.”
In an introductory statement about the reign of Xerxes, after mentioning two of Xerxes’ influential advisors, Ctesias writes that “among the eunuchs, Natacas (Nατακας) exercised the greatest influence.” A few lines later, he refers to a eunuch of Xerxes named Matacas (Ματακας). These two names likely reflect the same person.
The “as” at the end of either name is almost certainly a Greek addition. Thus, “Matacas” suggests a Persian name with the consonants MTC, which would be very close to the consonants of the name Mordechai, MRDC. Even the name “Natacas” is not significantly different. “N” and “M” are related consonants, both being nasal stops; it is not unusual for one to transform into the other.
With either form of the name, the information provided by Ctesias, that he was a high-ranking official in Xerxes court, bears a strong resemblance to the last verse in the Megillah, which records that by the end of the story, Mordechai wasmishneh (=second) to the king. Thus, the Matacas of Ctesias and the Mordechai of the Megillah may refer to the same historical person.
Finding Correlations When History Is Lost
We have no evidence in Greek or Persian sources for the main plot of the Purim story, the threat to destroy the Jews in the 12th year (3:7), although this is to be expected. No works from any Persian historians from this period have survived, and our main source among the Greek historians for the events of the reign of Xerxes is Herodotus, but his narrative ends in the 7thyear of Xerxes. So we are in the dark about virtually everything that happened in Xerxes’ reign after year 7 until his assassination in his 21st year.
Nevertheless, it is fascinating that we can identify certainly one, likely two, and perhaps even three of the characters of the Megillah with historical personalities!
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March 17, 2016
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Mitchell First is an attorney, with an M.A. in Jewish History from the Bernard Revel Graduate School. He is the author of Roots and Rituals: Insights into Hebrew, Holidays, and History, as well as Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy and Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy Between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology, and Links to Our Legacy: Insights into Hebrew, History, and Liturgy, and Words for the Wise: Sixty-Two Insights on Hebrew, Holidays, History and Liturgy. His website is www.rootsandrituals.org.
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