Queen Vashti (Hebrew: ושתי, Koine Greek: Αστιν Astin) is the first wife of King Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther, a book included in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and read on the Jewish holiday of Purim. She is banished for her refusal to appear at the king's banquet, and Esther is chosen to succeed her as queen. In the Midrash, Vashti is described as wicked and vain. She is viewed as an independent-minded heroine in feminist interpretations of the Purim story.
In the Book of Esther
In the Book of Esther, Vashti is the wife of King Ahasuerus. While the king holds a magnificent banquet for his princes, nobles and servants, she holds a separate banquet for the women. On the seventh day of the banquet, when the king's heart was "merry with wine," the king orders his seven chamberlains to summon Vashti to come before him and his guests wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty. Vashti refuses to come, and the king becomes angry. He asks his advisers how Vashti should be punished for her disobedience. His adviser Memucan tells him that Vashti has wronged not only the king, but also all of the husbands of Persia, whose wives may be encouraged by Vashti's actions to disobey. Memucan encourages Ahasuerus to dismiss Vashti and find another queen. Ahasuerus takes Memucan's advice, and sends letters to all of the provinces that men should dominate in their households. Ahasuerus subsequently chooses Esther as his queen to replace Vashti.
King Ahaseurus's command for the appearance of Queen Vashti is interpreted by several midrashic sources as an order to appear unclothed for the attendees of the king's banquet. Though it was common in the culture for dancers to entertain the king's guests, this interpretation is inconsistent with Persian customs that "the queen, even more than the wives of other men, was secluded from the public gaze".
Identification in history
In the 19th and early 20th century, Bible commentators attempted to identify Vashti with Persian queens mentioned by the Greek historians. Upon the discovery of the equivalence of the names Ahasuerus and Xerxes, Bible commentators attempted to identify Ahasuerus with Xerxes I of Persia and Vashti with a wife named Amestris mentioned by Herodotus. Traditional sources, however, identify Ahasuerus with Artaxerxes II. Jacob Hoschander supporting the traditional identification suggested that Vashti may be identical to a wife of Artaxerxes mentioned by Plutarch, named Stateira. These identifications are problematic however. Amestris remained in power well into the reign of her son Artaxerxes I and moreover the identification of Ahasuerus with Xerxes was rejected by later scholars. Similarly details of Stateira do not accord with Vashti as Stateira was an early wife murdered by Artaxerxes II's mother while the events of Purim occur late in his reign. (Artaxerxes II is said to have had 350 wives.)
Persian tradition recorded by Al-Tabari regards Vashti as a distinct historical figure.
Meaning of the name
The meaning of the name Vashti is uncertain. As a modern Persian name it is understood to mean "beauty" or "goodness". It may have originated from the reconstructed Old Persian *vaištī, related to the superlative adjective vahišta- "best, excellent" found in the Avesta, with the feminine termination -ī; hence "excellent woman, best of women".
Hoschander proposed that it originated as a shortening of an unattested vashtateira which he also proposed as the origin of the name "Stateira".
Hitchcock' Bible Names Dictionary of the 19th century, attempting to interpret the name as Hebrew, suggested the meanings "that drinks" or "thread". Critics of the historicity of the book of Esther proposed that the name may have originated from a conjectured Elamite goddess whom they called "Mashti."
Vashti is one of a very few proper names in the Tanakh that begins with the letter waw, and by far the most prominently mentioned of them. Hebrew names that begin with waw are rare because of the etymological tendency for word-initial waw to become yodh.
In the Midrash
According to the Midrash, Vashti was the great-granddaughter of King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon, the granddaughter of King Amel-Marduk and the daughter of King Belshazzar. During Vashti's father's rule, mobs of Medes and Persians attacked. They murdered Belshazzar that night. Vashti, unknowing of her father's death, ran to her father's quarters. There she was kidnapped by King Darius of Persia. But Darius took pity on her and gave her to his son, Ahasuerus, to marry.
Based on Vashti's descent from a king who was responsible for the destruction of the temple as well as on her unhappy fate, the Midrash presents Vashti as wicked and vain. Since Vashti is ordered to appear before the king on the seventh day of the feast, the rabbis argued that Vashti enslaved Jewish women and forced them to work on the Sabbath. They attribute her unwillingness to appear before the king and his drinking partners not to modesty, but rather to an affliction with a disfiguring illness. One account relates that she suffered from leprosy, while another states that the angel Gabriel came and "fixed a tail on her." The latter possibility is often interpreted as "a euphemism for a miraculous transformation to male anatomy."
According to the Midrashic account, Vashti was a savvy politician, and the ladies' banquet that she held in parallel to Ahasuerus' banquet represented an astute political maneuver. Since the noble women of the kingdom would be present at her banquet, she would have control of a valuable group of hostages in case a coup occurred during the king's feast.
Vashti as a feminist icon
Vashti's refusal to obey the summons of her drunken husband has been admired as heroic in many feminist interpretations of the Book of Esther. Early feminists admired Vashti's principle and courage. Harriet Beecher Stowe called Vashti's disobedience the "first stand for woman's rights." Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote that Vashti "added new glory to [her] day and generation...by her disobedience; for "Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God."
Some more recent feminist interpreters of the Book of Esther compare Vashti's character and actions favorably to those of her successor, Esther, who is traditionally viewed as the heroine of the Purim story. Michelle Landsberg, a Canadian Jewish feminist, writes: "Saving the Jewish people was important, but at the same time [Esther's] whole submissive, secretive way of being was the absolute archetype of 1950's womanhood. It repelled me. I thought, 'Hey, what's wrong with Vashti? She had dignity. She had self-respect. She said: 'I'm not going to dance for you and your pals.'"
- Vashti is the name of one of the principal characters in E. M. Forster's prophetic science fiction piece "The Machine Stops".
- In Charlotte Brontë's novel Villette, the protagonist Lucy Snowe calls an actress she admires Vashti. A chapter of this novel is called Vashti.
- A reference to Vashti's dethronement by Esther also appears in the short story "A Strayed Allegiance" by Lucy Maud Montgomery.
- Vashti is the name of a character in Karen Hesse's 1997 book "A Time of Angels", set during the influenza epidemic of 1918 in Boston. Vashti is a stern, stubborn, complex woman with great gifts of healing.
- Jane Withers played a character named Vashti Snythe in the 1956 James Dean-Elizabeth Taylor-Rock Hudson epic film Giant.
- The African-American actress Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy in "Gone With The Wind", portrayed a servant girl named Vashti in the 1946 David O. Selznick film "Duel in the Sun".
- Vashti (1894) is the name of a poem by Anglo-American poet, lawyer and politician John Brayshaw Kaye. Kaye portrays Vashti as a wise and virtuous woman who finds herself exiled because of court politics; she adopts an orphan girl, Meta, and takes care of her, and lives out her life after the palace in solitude, but also close to nature and beauty, and loved by her adopted daughter.
- The African American poet Frances E.W. Harper wrote an admiring poem about Vashti ("Vashti," 1895) in which she found self-respect to be Vashti's motivating force in her decision not to appear when the drunken king called her to show herself to his courtiers; in the last lines of the poem, she calls Vashti "A woman who could bend to grief, /But would not bow to shame."
- James Weldon Johnson's poem "Vashti" (published in Fifty Years & Other Poems, 1863-1913) is a meditation in the voice of an enamored male servant of a princess whom he meets later, in exile, finding a greater gulf between them than before, even. Names are not used within the poem itself; the name "Vashti" appears only in the title.
- Lascelles Abercrombie (1881–1938), a British poet also known as "The Georgian Laureate," wrote a 40-page poem entitled "Vashti" which contains the famous lines, spoken by Ahasuerus to Vashti, on women's beauty:
What beauty is there, but thou makest it? How is earth good to look on, woods and fields, The season's garden, and the courageous hills, All this green raft of earth moored in the seas? The manner of the sun to ride the air, The stars God has imagined for the night? What's this behind them, that we cannot near, Secret still on the point of being blabbed, The ghost in the world that flies from being named? Where do they get their beauty from, all these? They do but glaze a lantern lit for man, And woman's beauty is the flame therein.
- Yalkut Shimoni Esther 1049, Esther Rabbah 4, Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer 48
- Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
- Jacob Hoschander, The Book of Esther in the Light of History, Oxford University Press, 1923
- History of Iran
- Segal, Eliezer (2000). Holidays, history, and halakhah. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-7657-6151-4. Retrieved Feb 27,2009.
- Stowe, Harriet Beecher (1878). Bible heroines: being narrative biographies of prominent Hebrew women in the patriarchal, national, and Christian eras, giving views of women in sacred history, as revealed in the light of the present day. Fords, Howard, & Hulbert. Retrieved Feb 27,2009.
- Stanton, Elizabeth (1895). The woman's Bible: a classic feminist perspective. European Pub Co. ISBN 978-0-486-42491-0. Retrieved Feb 27,2009.
- Horowitz, Elliott (2006). Reckless rites: Purim and the legacy of Jewish violence. Princeton University Press. Retrieved Feb 27,2009.
- Dianne Tidball, Esther: A True First Lady. Christian Focus Publications, 2001.
- The Machine Stops, The Oxford and Cambridge Review (November 1909)
- The Oxford Bible Commentary (edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001, pages 326-327, written by Carol Meyers)
- Asimov's Guide to the Bible, Random House, 1969