In the Q&C section of the January/February 2014 issue of BAR, reader Judah Landa questioned the meaning of a lotus in the left hand in a Persian relief in Irit Ziffer’s article “Portraits of Ancient Israelite Kings?” in the September/October 2013 issue of BAR. Read Landa’s question along with Irit Ziffer’s illuminating response below.
What a Lotus in the Left Hand Means
Re: “Portraits of Ancient Israelite Kings?” by Irit Ziffer (September/October 2013).On page 51 is a reproduction of “A Ruler on His Throne” from the Apadana at Persepolis. After doing some sleuthing, I ascertained that that ruler is Darius. That makes the gentleman standing behind the throne, identified by author Ziffer as the crown prince, none other than Xerxes I, the monarch who marries Esther in the Book of Esther (2:16–17).
Darius holds a staff (scepter). This fits quite well with his son Xerxes later extending “the gold scepter that was in his hand” to his queen in Esther 5:2. Author Ziffer surmises that extending the staff like this “seem to be gestures of protection.” This was certainly the intent of Xerxes when he extended his gold scepter to Esther and expressed a willingness to grant her “up to half the kingdom” (Esther 5:3).
But a question arises: Both Darius and Xerxes hold lotus blossoms in their left hands (so do Tiglath-Pileser and other Assyrian kings pictured in this article when indicating protection). So why does the Book of Esther not indicate that Xerxes extended “the gold scepter and the lotus blossom that were in his hands”?
Could it be that the Xerxes-Esther interaction occurred when lotus blossoms were out of season? What did these ancient kings put in the left hands when lotus was not in bloom? Something tells me those hands were filled with something equally symbolic.
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Regarding the identities of the figures in the Apadana Audience scene
Irit ZifferExtensively borrowing from the iconographies of their predecessors the Assyrians and Egyptians, the Persians thoughtfully formulated their royal art to articulate Achaemenid ideas of kingship. The royal figures in the Apadana Audience Relief are commonly identified as Darius I and Xerxes I or as Xerxes and his crown prince Darius, who was later accused of assassinating his father. However, the renowned scholars Pierre Briant and Amelie Kuhrt1 have pointed out that these are not individual portraits, and it is preferable to see the figures as generic representations of the king and his successor. Likewise, Achaemenid coins, first struck by Darius I and continued by his successors, show the king as an archer. Again, this is not the likeness of a specific king but his official image in the office of king.2
Concerning the audience scene in the book of Esther 5:1–2: The Book of Esther, focusing on the salvation of the Jews in the Persian Diaspora from their archenemy, provides the reason for the holiday of Purim, a feast not mentioned in the Pentateuch. A romanticized story describes how the king procured his wives (a method which, as Briant has shown, may have been possible3). It embellishes the story with the king’s sexual life and drinking habits. It incorporates themes of court plots and assassinations, which were a favorite topic with the Greek and Classical writers, and the favor bestowed upon the denouncer, Esther’s cousin Mordecai (Esther 2:21–23; 6:1–11). The author of Esther relates that when the enthroned king gave audience in his throne room, he saw Esther standing in the inner court of the palace. He extended to her his golden scepter, gesturing her to enter. Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter (Hebrew: sharbit), which is understood as staff. No other emblem of kingship in the king’s hand is mentioned. The lotus flower, a regular royal accessory in the court art of Persepolis,4 was omitted. Turning to art, variations in the audience scene may be pointed out: the following examples come from western satrapies of the Achaemenid Empire, indicating the dissemination and adaptation of this important theme. The audience scene reconstructed from the Daskyleion sealings (dated to the time of Xerxes I), shows a servant holding a fly whisk instead of the crown prince standing behind the throne. The enthroned king grasps a lotus flower in his right hand, while his left hand is raised in greeting.5 The scene was adapted from the western doorway of the throne hall in Persepolis, where the enthroned king is depicted holding lotus flower and staff. The Alexander Sarcophagus, which was carved by a Greek sculptor in the fourth century B.C.E., displays a similar case. Here an audience scene—a reduced form of the same audience scene with a servant holding a fly whisk—was painted on the shield of a Persian soldier.6 It shows the enthroned king holding a staff in his left hand, while his right hand is raised as if in a Greek greeting gesture instead of holding the lotus flower. Common to both examples is the right hand raised in greeting. The royal emblems seem to interchange, suggesting that the artists in the western satrapies, who worked according to the Persepolis model, were ignorant of their meanings or misunderstood them.7Much of our knowledge about the Persian court comes from contemporary Greek and later Classical sources, whose writings were concerned with the relations between Persia and the Greek states. In these writings, luxury, pomp, decadence and court assassinations were emphasized. The Book of Esther deploys the same themes viewed through a Jewish lens. The Greek and Classical sources should be used critically, and the Book of Esther, composed sometime in the Hellenistic period, should not be read as a historical source. The Jewish Study Bible states that “Esther is best read as a comedy.” As for Ahasuerus, usually identified with Xerxes I—although the Septuagint and the Peshitta read Artaxerxes—he is but a fictional character.8
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1. Pierre Briant, Darius les Perses et l’Empire (Découvertes Gallimard: Histoire), éditions Gallimard, 1992 (revised edition 2001), pp. 40-41; Amelie Kuhrt, “Achaemenid Images of Royalty and Empire,” G.B. Lafranchi and R. Rollinger, eds., Concepts of Kingship in Antiquity (Proceedings of the European Science Foundation Exploratory Workshop Padova 2007), Padova 2010, p. 94, n. 51.
2. Briant Darius les Perses et l’Empire, p. 124; Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander: a History of the Persian Empire (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2002), p. 214.
3. Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander, pp. 279–280.
4. Erich F. Schmidt, Persepolis I. Structures. Reliefs. Inscriptions, Oriental Institute Publications 68, (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1953), passim.
5. Deniz Kaptan, “The Great King’s Audience,” in F. Blakolme, K.R. Krierer, F. Krinzinger, A. Landskron-Dinstl, H.D. Szemethy and K. Zhuber-Okrog, eds., Fremde Zeiten: Festschrift Jürgen Borchardt (Vienna, 1996), pp. 259–271.
6. Margaret Cool Root, “The Parthenon Frieze and the Apadana Reliefs at Persepolis: Reassessing a Programmatic Relationship,” American Journal of Archaeology 89, no. 1, pp. 103–120.
7. Margaret C. Miller, Athens and Persia in the Fifth century: a Study in Cultural Receptivity (Cambridge, 2004; first published 1997), p. 122.
8. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible: Featuring the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation, (Oxford Univ. Press 2004), pp. 1623–1626. The protagonists’ Esther and Mordecai are mutations of the names of the Mesopotamian divinities Ishtar and Marduk. Stephanie Dalley, Esther’s Revenge at Susa. From Sennacherib to Ahasuerus, Oxford 2007 argues that although set in the Achaemenid capital of Susa, the narrative and participants of Esther have good antecedents in Assyrian history, literature and festivals of the seventh century B.C.E., which were known to the Jews residing in the Diaspora. Haman would be a transformation of the Elamite god Humban, whose defeat by the Mesopotamian gods as related in the myth then Ordeal of Marduk Dalley connects with the sack of Susa by Ashurbanipal in 647 B.C.E.