In a piece just published at Tablet Magazine, I briefly discuss the Purim Triumph panel at the famous synagogue in Dura Europos. The art at the Dura synagogue is significant for many reasons, one of which is the way it echoes extra-biblical Jewish traditions – aka midrash. There seems to be a bit of this in the Purim fresco: In the left side of the panel, Haman is dressed something like an Iranian stable-boy leading a royally garbed Mordecai on a white horse. It is possible that Haman’s attire points to the lowly position of stable-boys in Iranian life and particularly in epic literature. Jews apparently adapted this motif elsewhere, as it shows up in the Babylonian Esther Midrash‘s explanation of the real reason for Ahaseurus’ burning anger at Vashti: She claimed that he was a stableboy in grandfather Belshazzar’s stable. Here it is in the panel, visually illustrated:
One of the reasons that the Purim Panel is so compelling (and prominently displayed at the front of the synagogue) may have to do with the basic satisfaction most humans experience when evil is reversed and trumped. Indeed, the Esther Midrash goes to great lengths to highlight Haman’s debasement. Not only did he have to publicly honor and proclaim the greatness of his arch enemy, but he had to literally do the dirty work himself (b. Megillah 16a):
אמר ליה: קום לבוש הני מאני ,ורכוב האי סוסיא, דבעי לך מלכא. אמר ליה: לא יכילנא עד דעיילנא לבי בני ואשקול למזייא, דלאו אורח ארעא לאשתמושי במאני דמלכא הכי. שדרה אסתר ואסרתינהו לכולהו בי בני ,ולכולהו אומני. עייליה איהו לבי בני, ואסחיה, ואזיל ואייתי זוזא מביתיה, וקא שקיל ביה מזייה. בהדי דקא שקיל ליה אינגד ואיתנח. אמר ליה: אמאי קא מיתנחת? אמר ליה: גברא דהוה חשיב ליה למלכא מכולהו רברבנוהי, השתא לישוייה בלאני וספר? אמר ליה: רשע! ולאו ספר של כפר קרצום היית? תנא :המן ספר של כפר קרצום היה עשרים ושתים שנה. בתר דשקלינהו למזייה לבשינהו למאניה.
Haman said to him: Stand up, put on these garments and ride on this horse, for the king requested you. Mordechai said to him: I cannot do so until I enter the bathhouse and trim my hair, for it would not be proper to use the kings garments in the state that I am in now. In the meantime Esther sent messengers and closed all the bathhouses and all the shops of the craftsmen, i.e., the bloodletters and barbers. When Haman saw that there was nobody else to do the work, he himself took Mordechai into the bathhouse and washed him, and then he went and brought scissors from his house and trimmed his hair. While he was trimming his hair he injured himself and sighed. Mordechai said to him: Why do you sigh? Haman said to him: The man whom the king had once regarded above all his other ministers is now made a bathhouse attendant and a barber! Mordechai said to him: Wicked man, were you not once the barber of Kefar Kartzum? If so, why do you sigh? Surely, you have returned to your younger days and your previous occupation. A Sage taught in a baraita: “Haman was the barber of Kefar Kartzum for twenty two years.” After Haman trimmed his hair, Mordechai put on the royal garments….
As any Jewish schoolchild knows, things for Haman then went from bad to worse, climaxing with a pile of something terrible on his head and a daughter leaping to her death. Eliezer Segal argued that the Midrash is simply having fun here, enjoying the sweetness of revenge. This may be true, but as Arkadi Kovelman suggested, there’s art at work here; a poetics of farce.
One of the images that always struck me in this midrashic retelling was the pathetic image of Haman, cutting Mordecai’s hair. Clearly, barbers were as lowly as stable-boys in the world of the Talmudic storyteller, but what else might be at work here? The other day I had the pleasure of hearing a brilliant lecture by a good friend who works on Persian miniatures. He discussed an intricate painting that depicts a scene from the great medieval Persian poet Nezami‘s Treasury of Mysteries. The story illustrated (in a number of miniatures) is about the Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid, and a midnight run to the bathhouse.
Expecting to receive good service and honor in the hamam, the caliph is instead outraged at the behavior of the bathhouse barber, who while snipping away has the gall to ask for the princess’ hand in marriage. Al-Rashid is deeply troubled by this inexplicable role reversal, and turns to his minister for advice. The minister correctly guesses that a hidden treasure beneath the barber’s feet is causing this bizarre behavior. Indeed, as soon as the barber changes his position, he turns “dumb and speechless; his eyes and his tongue taught courtesy.”
This lovely little tale is not what one would call a “direct hit.” And yet it does suggestively parallel the midrashic retelling, where serving as a barber in the bathhouse for an important official enacts a profound role reversal. There are reasons for this – some having to do with the vulnerability of haircutting and the liminality of the space.
Of course there are many centuries separating the Talmudic story from the poem. Yet like many classical Persian bards, Nezami drew his sources from ancient traditions. (There may be a hint of this in the present case, since in time barbers and their guild actually became an elevated class in Iranian bathhouse culture.) Regardless, even if the parallel Nezami does not “solve” the meaning of how Haman came to be a barber in the midrash, it is tantalizing. At the very least, its pretty to look at.