(The king of Persia in the book of Esther, the legend of The Wandering Jew, and entomology; February 2010)
Readers who are familiar with the book of Esther and the holiday of Purim are also acquainted with the figure of Achashverosh (or Ahasverus), the king of Persia who is manipulated by his ambitious courtier Haman into approving a plan for the annihilation of the Jewish people. Several views of Ahasverus appear in the Midrashim (collections of homiletical readings) and later Bible commentaries, Some describe him as a foolish drunkard manipulated by others. Others view him as a decent, if gullible ruler who rises to the occasion once the danger of the situation is revealed. There is even a reading in which Ahasverus, under the advice and tutelage of Esther and Mordechai, sees the hand of God in the miraculous rescue of the Jews and converts to Judaism. But none of these interpretations suggest that Ahasverus was in reality a fungus-eating beetle.
In 1832, the German biologist Joseph Waltl published a description and scientific classification of a small beetle, assigning it the scientific name Ahasuerus advena. This insect is known in English by the common name ‘foreign grain beetle’. This name reflects a widespread practice of naming agricultural and household animal pests after enemy countries, especially during wartime. (For example, the insect Mayetiola destructor, which damages wheat plants, acquired its American common name, ‘Hessian fly,’ during the American revolution. Similar stories account for the name ‘Hanover rat’ formerly used for the brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, and the German cockroach, Blattella germanica.) Insects, rodents, molds, and other species that attack stored grain are probably responsible for more human starvation and misery than all the Hamans in history. Ironically, despite its name, the foreign grain beetle is not really a stored grain pest. It feeds primarily on fungi. Because it is often found nibbling the fungus on moldy grain, it was once erroneously thought to feed on grain. This is how it received its English name. Photos of the tiny beetles on a penny (to show their size) can be seen at
Why was the foreign grain beetle given the scientific name of an ancient Persian king who is mentioned in the book of Esther? The answer to this question is rooted in the history of Christian antisemitism. An early account from 1228 describes an incident in which a Jew who refused to allow Jesus to rest against his house was punished by being denied the chance to rest or die until the Second Coming. In European folklore, this man was given various names and referred to as the Wandering Jew, a term that was also used to refer to the exiled Jewish people as collectively responsible for denying comfort (and divinity) to Jesus.
During the Middle Ages, the legend of the Wandering Jew took a new turn when largely illiterate peasants attended the ‘Purim spiels’ or plays performed by their Jewish neighbors. Some of these plays were dramatizations of the book of Esther in Hebrew, Yiddish. or other languages that were unfamiliar to the non-Jewish spectators. As a result, some of them mistook the character of Ahasverus for a “king of the Jews.” (In some versions of the play, Ahasverus does convert to Judaism.) In this way, ‘Ahasverus’ became a common name for the Wandering Jew and a slang epithet for Jews generally.
Because the foreign grain beetle feeds on fungus, it often attacks construction lumber that has been left outdoors and allowed to become wet. When the construction is finished and the owners move into their new home, they may be upset to discover an infestation of small brown beetles emerging from the walls where they have been feeding on the moldy wood inside the walls. Although the beetles are harmless, their size and color have often led homeowners to confuse them with fleas. The problem is easily solved by adequate ventilation that enables the mold-infested wood to dry. However, the anger, fear, and disgust that the residents experienced on discovering that their home had been invaded by these insects apparently reminded some anti-Semitic people of their similar feelings on learning that unwelcome Jews had appeared in their district. This experience may have led Waltl to propose the name Ahasuerus for this beetle.
Purim is the model for a whole class of Jewish holidays that celebrate days of national salvation from danger and near-disaster. Many Jewish communities celebrate a ‘Purim katan’ (“little Purim”) on the anniversary of a local threat that was averted. Similarly, we can understand the story of Ahasuerus advena in a positive way that takes it out of the dark history of antisemitism. The foreign grain beetle, after all, is merely a minor annoyance, not a threat to stored food, a bloodsucker, or a disease carrier. Just as we were saved from the decree of the ineffectual king Achashverosh, so too are we safe from the imagined dangers of a small brown beetle or any of the other threats from which we are protected by Divine assurance. So this Purim, let’s celebrate!