A very long time ago there lived a rich and powerful king (1). His name was Ahashverosh, but no-one could pronounce it. Even his friends found it difficult to say. They called him Harry. All his servants called him the PM - standing for Persian Monarch. He ruled over 127 provinces.
Harry lived in Shushan and mostly ignored the provinces, except when he wanted something from them (2). Mostly it was taxes. Occasionally he collected a concubine or two, but generally he preferred good solid gold. He taxed everything from resources to higher education, although during election time he claimed it was someone else doing the taxing (3).
The reason he ignored the provinces was because he was too busy spending the taxes on feasts. Tea-breaks just weren't good enough for someone in his line of work, he decided. It was a hard job, ruling. The PM got rid of the tea-ladies and brought in banquet-management. His imperial servants organised the feasts, or delegated them to someone else to organise, who brought in contractors to do the job. Harry never remembered to invite them. They weren't too happy about this, but there wasn't much they could do except grumble, pay more taxes or give the job to someone even further down the hierarchy the next time. They couldn't even vote for the Opposition, since there wasn't one. Eventually a lowly branch of servants called D.o.P.E. came to exist, standing for Department of Private Entertainment (4).
Harry mostly wasn't worried that he didn't pay for the feasts himself, or even organise them. After all, he was king and he had dreadful insomnia. He also poisoned lots of enemies. A small banquet here and another there were but tiny reward for the dreadful impositions of duty.
Archaeologists were never invited to the feasts either. They weren't worried by this (5). For one thing, they were too poor to pay taxes. For another, they had a dreadful habit of waiting till any big event had been over for a thousand years or so and then digging it all up again (6). Whenever Harry threw a feast, the archaeologists threw a sort of pre-university academic gathering, where they would get drunk and tell everyone else exactly how they would go about the excavation for this particular dig the moment funding was found.
They were always writing letters to American universities asking for sponsorship and proposing conference papers. Each of these letters was carefully written on clay tablets and passed from hand to hand until it was so smudged with corrections that they had to start all over again. Sometimes someone got sick of this and they tried sending a tablet after only five or so drafts. There was never any answer anyway. Ancient Persian archaeologists thought too much about the big picture and forgot local chronology. Local sailors had no idea where America was, or even where it would be. When no-one answered their letters the scholars became huffy and pretended they didn't really need the funding anyway and the conferences were poor excuses for true Old World academic meetings.
One day Harry decided to throw a drunken orgy along with one of his banquets. He carefully staged it just like a real media event. The archaeologists used this as an excuse for yet another boring academic gathering. They were discussing the possibility of resequencing recent events to see if they made more sense. Someone suggested replacing Ahashverosh's ancestors with Arthur and Woden to improve his lineage, but that had been done three times already and it never worked. The servants (other than the DoPEs) had a stop-work meeting to discuss conditions and ended up giving each other seminars on how to organise demonstrations (7).
This feast was to be Harry's best yet: it made the third page of the pre-Murdoch press. It even beat the coverage of Abbott's bathing suit (8).
Vashti, Harry's queen, also gave a feast. It was much more sedate. Pottery was used so the archaeologists dismissed the midden-heap as boring. Ancient Persian archaeologists preferred crumpled gold to shards of pottery: no-one has ever been able to work out why.
The king got pretty drunk at this feast. He'd killed all his enemies so there was no poison floating around. This meant he could drink lots of wine. Ancient Persian wine was pretty potent. After two glasses he sung a little song he made up for himself. He flattered himself it had a nice little melody, might have won a Grammy if someone had remembered to invent them. This song has fortunately lost itself in the mists of time, possibly due to its strong sense of embarrassment at having ever been sung at all. The king has recently however been brought back to life and is currently a contestant on American Idol. He’s the first confirmed re-animated corpse to reach the top twenty.
After everyone had applauded him (back in the days when he was alive) and he'd had a few more goblets of strong liquor and he'd been encouraged to sing his shy, lilting melody a few more times, he was very drunk indeed. He looked for his queen and couldn't find her. He looked under his throne, which was a stupid thing to do since it was solid. He looked everywhere. He even asked a DoPE if he had seen her. Finally he thought she must have gone to sleep after her own banquet. He had forgotten she had a banquet. He wondered who she had invited. He decided to ask her. He sent the chief eunuch to wake her up. After he found out her guest list, he thought, he could get all the gentlemen of his court to tell him how lovely she was and how good he was at choosing a bride.
His eunuch took about three hours to find the Queen. When he eventually crawled back into the King's presence, his face was miserable. He grovelled just as hard as he could (9). With his head so far into the floor his voice couldn't be heard, he excused himself as the bringer of bad tidings. The king made him grovel in apology for mumbling. Then he got him to tell the message all over again. The eunuch was terrified and purple splotches began to cover his face. Harry was fascinated by this phenomenon. It didn't help him find the Queen, though. "She refused to come," muttered the eunuch, and grovelled himself out of sight before the king could come to his senses and have him killed.
The next day Vashti did come. She walked up the 953 purple and red plush steps to the gracious throne and had a private interview with the King. The King was livid. Vashti walked gracefully back down those 953 steps, a slight smile on her face.
Harry sent out decrees to all parts of his kingdom in all the languages of his realms. They stressed the need for wifely obedience. More than one hundred and seventy-five clay tablets were used for the various drafts. It went up and down the Persian hierarchy no fewer than thirty-one times in its search for perfect wording.
Wherever the decrees were understood, an awful lot of wives walked down the steps of the house with slight smiles on their faces. Fortunately, the wording of the decree was obscure, obtuse and largely incomprehensible. Nineteenth century historians were very angry when they discovered this. The Persian Empire would have fallen at least 200 years earlier, Toynbee calculated, if there had been a complete breakdown of all marriages at the time.
The king was pretty pleased with himself after this, and he threw a party. The archaeologists waited anxiously in the rubbish dump, ready to examine the tailings. The tailings never arrived.
What had happened was the king had looked around for Vashti and found she wasn't there. The PM, being a King and no ordinary mortal, got sick of his 861 concubines fairly quickly. Then it dawned on him, he needed a replacement. He set up a Royal Commission to investigate the matter. The Royal Commission acted with extraordinary speed for a Royal Commission due to the king's temper.
They were too slow.
After their untimely demise, the PM was forced to try other measures. He got in touch with his Chief of Protocol, who referred him to the Military Chief of Staff, who referred him to the Taxation Branch. The Taxation Branch could not be found. So the PM asked his personal valet, who referred him to the advertising manager who decided to set up a complete list of all applicants, and then to hold a beauty parade. The PM was to choose his own bride.
The plan was modest. To gather together the largest array of beautiful virgins ever seen, and to sell the leftovers as slaves. The list was entitled Virgins and Maidens of Persian Satrapies, or VAMPS. The advertising manager sent for his favourite consultants, whose normal work was in the Ancient Persian equivalent of King's Cross. The list of VAMPS was considerably shorter by the time the King discovered that they couldn't be trusted. So the eunuch found a florid young man who had migrated to Persia from the ancient equivalent of California. He had degrees in pre-Keynesian macro-economics, technology transfer and advanced sandwich making. He was massively enthusiastic about wife-hunting and set up a huge media-campaign. It worked so well, this campaign, that, over two thousand years later, the Australian Greens used carrier pigeons, runners, and clay tablets for their election campaign. After all, they were environmentally sound. Unfortunately carrier pigeons were nearly extinct by then, and the climate wasn't suitable for clay tablets. The campaign worked anyway. Back in Ancient Persia, the consultant managed to amass a vast number of Ancient Persian virgins for the king to consider.
To cope with the sudden onslaught of data, the archaeologists set up a research group to keep American academics informed of the King's affairs. This was known as TIMEWARP, or Transatlantic Information on the Monarchical Eastern Women's Affairs Research Program. The Americans took 2,500 years to find out about it.
The shyest and most demure girl in Shushan at this time was the niece of a man called Mordechai, who was Minister for Security (or Persio (11), as it was known). Mordechai had taken care of his timid relative since the death of her parents, many years before. Now that she was adult, he had great plans for her. Hollywood! The other choice was The Guild. Either way, lasting fame and glory, and her virtuous modesty untouched. His first worry had been her taste in clothes. If only she could be persuaded to wear a little less basic black. Let her eyes show, or something. Hard to have a career, even on The Guild, if no-one could see you. All these fond dreams were rudely shattered when Esther became a VAMP.
Hege rather liked Esther. He didn't know she was related to Mordechai. Mordechai couldn't tell him of the link, or stop Esther from being rounded up with the other virgins, because he had a dreadful sore throat. It was thought that his Secretary had put something in his mid-morning cup of wine. As everyone knows, all Ancient Persians sang at every opportunity. What not many people are aware of is that Mordechai sang rather like a dying chain-saw, and that was on a good day. So the hero of this tale was sulking in his office when Esther was taken to the palace. He couldn't sing, so he was teaching himself how to mutter. A useful and pleasant past-time.
Esther had weeks of being bathed in myrrh and other exotic scents to ponder upon the advice Hege kept on giving her. Hege's most useful piece of advice to Esther was simple: to have a bath before the presentation. That way the king might stop and speak with her. It was traditional that the king walked down the line of beauties as quickly as possible, you see, just to get away from the smell.
On the day of the parade, Esther adorned herself simply, as befits a young maid. When the king stopped in front of her as Hege had predicted, demure little Esther shyly raised her long lashed eyes, and sang her tiny song straight from her heart.
(Tune: "Big Spender")
The minute you walked in the joint
I could see you were a man of distinction
A Real True Royal,
Wouldn't you like to know what's going on in my mind?
Now let me get right to the point,
I don't dress like this for every king I see.
Hey big kingy!
Give a little crown to me.
Harry was enchanted.
Factionalism was particularly rife in the Persian government. Hege was Centre-Left, and very powerful. Mordechai's power was mostly personal. This was a shame, because very few people really got on with him. Though he had an older brother with a great deal of charm, and a young sister who was as sweet as they came, he couldn't sing, and, when they'd taken care of that, the man insisted on muttering. But he was clever, and had managed to find out about a plot against the PM's life. Mordechai and his intrepid band of Persio men foiled this plot, without much fuss or bother (as one does). The matter was written up in a Departmental Minute and it was sent to the King. It unfortunately went to the Taxation Department instead, and was filed under Shushan region 15, section 9501, subsection 33.56392 by mistake. Life went on as usual.
Haman, who was of the extreme right, found great favour with Harry at this time. He was a notable person in many ways. Even before he entered the Megillat Esther, he was responsible for a variety of noxious conditions. They included ads on cable TV, indigestion, frakking, Twitter, and tourists who persist in telling you how to find your way home. He also invented iOUphones, Judge Judy and Mitt Romney.
He was promoted to chief minister. He used his newfound power constructively. First he ground people's faces into the dust. Then he laughed at them for having dusty faces. Also, he offered people flat rate taxes. When they enthusiastically agreed to it, he raised all taxes to 99% of income.
He liked giving banquets in honour of himself. Only the archaeologists and the DoPEs were pleased. He made everyone bow to him, but Mordechai wouldn't. Mordechai muttered to himself and claimed that his sore throat and a stiff neck had given him a very rigid spinal column.
Haman didn't do things by half. When he planned his revenge on Mordechai for his disrespect, he didn't just plan to unstiffen his neck (12). First, Mordechai's mother would die, Haman decided. Then his brother was added to the list. He tried to poison them with a cunningly ethnic food fair.
When this didn't work, his ambitions grew. He added Mordechai's sisters and his cousins and his aunts and even his mother-in-law to the list for slaughter. Then he went around trying to find a tune for the words, "If sometime it must happen that a victim must be found; I've got a little list, I've got a little list, of Mordechai's relations who should all be underground. They never will be missed, no never will be missed..."
Haman looked at this list for a couple of days and decided it was very unsatisfying. Mordechai was Jewish, so Haman decided to kill all Jews. It was much easier to include everyone than to risk offending someone by leaving them off. He invented a couple of useful acronyms to cope with the problem. Both of them later became very popular. The first acronym was YIDs, standing for Yucky and Irreverent Dissidents, and the other was SDI, or Sudden Death Initiative. This latter was Haman's name for his special technique of ridding the world of his enemies. It went at the top of every list he made. It used the latest technology - the drawing of lots and the sending of fast couriers - enabling him to co-ordinate his effort in a way previously unheard of. Because the couriers reached every corner of the immense Persian realm, it was also called Far Wars (14).
His advisors wrote SDI on their lists, as Haman told them to, but in their minds it stood for Some Damn Idiocy. They grumbled to themselves that there was no-one to fight against any more, and envisaged thousands of shiny pebbles in space raining down on anyone who dared to claim that there was no-one to fight. At the bottom of every list Haman wrote in the biggest, boldest letters he could get his scribe to muster up, "NB gallows for Mordechai to be particularly high." Then he went to bed, perfectly happy.
Next day he cast lots, or Purim, and settled on the 13th of Adar as a suitable day. He told Ahashverosh that all the Jews were breaking the laws and ought to be punished. It was necessary, Haman claimed, to make sure the bringer of justice was a disinterested and upright man, such as himself, for example. The King, deceived, handed over Haman his ring, which meant Haman could do what he liked in the matter.
On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, ran the decrees, all Jews in the realm were to be killed and their possessions were to be given to Haman. It was a very tidy, simple little decree.
The scribe who worked on it was a Persio agent. Mordechai was not very happy to get the news. He suggested that it would be a good idea for the Jews to stage a protest. The Society Contrary to the Abolition of Residents of Eastern Demesnes, or SCARED (15), had a meeting to discuss the matter. They contemplated a stop-work, a strike, a street-march, and a sit in, but eventually settled for sackcloth and ashes and wandering through the streets of Shushan, groaning loudly.
Esther was very embarrassed to hear that her uncle was roaming the streets, looking like a fool. It was bad enough that he was a Public Servant, but to wear such stupid clothes! She sent him linen and silk and cloth of gold. He sent back a message saying he'd rather die than wear such things. It took Esther a while to penetrate this deep and meaningful statement. In fact, it took a leak from Tax, which asked if she wanted any of the loot.
Esther was tempted by the gold, of course, but nobly put her life above such wordly considerations. Esther looked her very best: modest, timid and demure. Harry was so impressed that he granted her a favour. Vashti hadn't even been able to get him to pay the food bills. Esther knew the PM very well. So did the archaeologists. They held their collective breaths. All their hopes were realised - Esther invited the King and Haman to a banquet.
Banquets don't just happen overnight, even when you are the Queen of Persia and have a whole army of DoPEs to do the work for you. The weather was hot and sticky. Summer seemed to go on forever(16). The king's insomnia was getting worse and worse. He began to get bad headaches from all the filing he had to do. He'd have to invent a new government department to cope with it all, he thought. In the meantime, he spent long, sleepless nights dreaming of filing cabinets. Finally, at three o'clock in the morning, he sent for someone to read to him. Harry was torn between having something read to him that was interesting, or something that was so boring that it would put him to sleep. He compromised. One of his secretaries started reading him the tax returns for Shushan region 15, section 9501, subsection 33.56392.
It wasn't what he thought it would be. When he found out that no-one had bothered to reward Mordechai for saving his life, he waxed exceeding wrath. In fact, he called Haman out of bed. Haman was puzzled, but hopeful.
The PM led into his subject indirectly. The filing cabinets walking beside his bed when he had dozed off three nights before, had inspired him. He commanded Haman to spend 50,000 shekels of the enormous bribe which had got him the use of the signet ring, to set up a bureau to take care of the filing. He called it the Cabinet Office. Then he tackled the more important issue.
"What would you give someone deserving of the highest honour, if you were the King of Persia?" Harry asked. This looked promising. Haman listened for the sounds of the gallows-builders doing overtime and rubbed his hands with glee. He listed everything he could think of (17), but the centrepiece of the honour was to have "this worthy individual" astride the king's mount, adorned with cloth of gold, and wearing a crown.
Haman was not at all pleased to find himself, the next day, leading the King's horse. On it was Mordechai. On Mordechai's head was the king's own crown. To add insult to injury, Mordechai muttered the whole time and Haman had to pretend he was listening. The only good thing in Haman's whole day was the sight of the gallows, reaching higher and higher. He consoled himself with the thought of a private banquet with their Majesties, that evening.
The banquet wasn't really worthy of the name. It had only forty courses, and so few guests that Haman was able to monopolise the conversation. However, even the garbage bags were made of cloth of gold. The archaeologist wept tears of joy. Haman, while he was chatting away, managed to put a couple in his pocket to spend later.
Esther was in despair as the evening progressed. She had planned to reveal Haman's plot and the threat to her own life, and to allow the PM to see the villain's guilt written all over his face. If only that villain would stop talking long enough to let her get a word in edgewise! She sat back and listened to Haman talking for another hour or two or three.
Then the Queen whispered quietly to the King that she was doomed.
Harry's face paled and he demanded an explanation. Esther told the King that she was Jewish, and that the crimes Haman had accused her people of were pure fabrication. She petitioned her husband for her very life.
Harry was bewildered. He went into the garden to think. What to do? His chief advisor, a murderer? While he was thinking, he sang an ancient song to himself, a song of puzzlement and betrayal, a song so old that not even the people of that time knew from whence the tune had come.
Alas Haman you do me wrong
To treat me thus discourteously
For I have honoured you so long
Delighting in your company
Haman was all my sooth
Haman source of wisdom clear
Haman, you played me false
When you tried to kill my Esther dear
While the PM was in the moonlit garden, Haman had tried to get out of his dilemma. He had seen his life was threatened, and had come close to where the Queen was sitting, meaning to throw himself upon her mercy.
The King re-entered and didn't realise that it was upon her mercy that Haman was advancing to throw himself. He vaguely remembered seeing a nice new gallows, fifty cubits high, in the very best part of town. Haman was sent to these gallows at once. He said nothing, for he was gagged until he was out of the King's presence.
It was Purim. Haman died bitter, but, being Ancient Persian, he couldn't resist writing his own funeral dirge. Very original, he thought, as he waited for the hangman.
I was a crooked man
I walked a crooked mile
I made some crooked sixpence
Into a crooked pile
And with my crooked dough
I led my crooked life
Which now must finish
Due to Kingy's crooked wife.
(1) Not of the family Baratheon. This is a shame, for he would entirely have enjoyed Sean Bean as an offsider. Mind you, if he had Sean Bean as an offsider, this story would never have happened, for Haman couldn’t have the King’s ring if Mr Bean held it. And now I’ve jumped ahead in the story. Also, if this narrative were really Game of Thrones, I would have to give you a description of stunning armour and spectacular sable in the next sentence. And I refuse to.
(2) I need advice. I don’t think this bit fits Westeros at all, but does it fit Hollywood?
(3) Elections are themselves taxing. May I suggest Harry as a candidate for the forthcoming papal elections and for Australian Prime Minister? The two have never been held by the same person, which is an entire shame.
(4) I once worked on licit opiates in a federal government department called DoPIE. Alas, this was far more respectable than it sounds.
(5) What archaeologists ought to be worried about is me and my short stories. Or one short story. I made a Richard III joke in it, by mistake. The mistake was that it didn’t mention the word ‘carpark.’ As bad jokes go, it was woeful. And this footnote is the third in a row that doesn’t mention Game of Thrones. I shall make amends.
(6) Once one of them wrote a fictionalised version of events. George RR Martin found a translation of it and was inspired to invent the Dothraki. This must be a true fact, for it is stated clearly in a footnote. Everyone knows that neither footnotes nor historians lie.
(7) Their very successful technique is currently being used at one of my old universities. Or is that at two of my old universities? Good things have their own momentum.
(8) It didn’t beat the weather report, which announced “Winter is Coming” because the temperature dropped to an icy 30 degrees Celsius.
(9) I’m torn between a Game of Thrones reference here (for there is an obvious one) or a British Government one (for there is an even more obvious one). I shall let you add the reference yourself and am leaving sufficient space:
(10) Of course, everyone claimed (as the good folks in Martin’s world did) that they were not slaves. I’ve always thought that if human rights were so hard to achieve for free people in Ancient Persia (this story acts as witness to that) how very tough it must have been for the enslaved. And that’s the subtext of Purim – human rights are essential, but we don’t have to address them in a serious manner. This note is for those of you who wonder what this festival is actually about, besides drinking.
(11) Because the CIA and MI666 are not nearly as funny. Also, if I’m being rude to everyone else, I need to be rude to Australians, in the interest of equity.
(12) The sound effects here ought to be an evil laugh, but all that Haman could manage was a rather woeful cackle, so all evil laughs have been edited out.
(13) This footnote doesn’t exist, just as the thirteenth floor doesn’t exist in some hotels.
(14) At this point I am in an urgent state of NMDA (Needing More Damn Acronyms) – all submissions will be thoughtfully considered. Any that make me laugh aloud will be included in next year’s version.
(15) OK, now I really am out of acronyms. My life is officially an acronym-free wasteland. There's a lost TS Eliot poem about this, actually.
(16) All events in the Jewish year are measured according to the southern seasons. Christianity measures events using the northern seasons. This is the equivalent of Spain and Portugal dividing the world ie no-one pays attention to it except certain individuals who use it for mind games and certain scholars who analyse it in depth. I am of course in the latter group, for I never play mind games (and footnotes cannot lie).
(17) He at no stage thought about sitting on an Iron Throne. Haman was mostly not stupid. He just had the occasional blind spot. His greed and bigotry were flaws independent of these blind spots.