The Jewish holiday of Purim is based upon the biblical Book of Esther. It tells of the story of Esther, a Jewish-Persian queen who prevents a massacre of the Jewish people. Below are brief bios for each of the two main female characters in the story.
Vashti was the wife of King Ahasuerus (sometimes called by the Greek name Xerxes). She lost her position as queen when she refused her husband’s drunken order to appear before him and his banquet guests:
On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him...to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at." (Esther 1:10)
Though it is unclear exactly how Vashti is commanded to appear before the king, it has long been assumed that he wanted her to appear in the nude. This interpretation is based upon three factors: his inebriated state, that she is specifically told to wear her royal crown and the fact that she refused his request. It is thought that her crown is mentioned in order to indicate that she was told to wear only her crown and nothing else. If this was the case, then her refusal makes a great deal of sense.
When King Ahasuerus learns of Vashti’s disobedience he is enraged and asks the men at his banquet how he should deal with his wife. One man suggests that Vashti should be made an example lest other women in the kingdom learn of her refusal and think that they too can disobey their husbands. He advises the king to depose his wife and give her position to “one better than she” (Esther 1:19). King Ahasuerus likes this idea and revokes Vashti’s crown. Soon afterwards he hosts a kingdom-wide beauty contest in order to find his new queen. This is where Esther comes in.
You can learn more about Queen Vashti’s story in: Who Was Vashti?
According to the biblical Book of Esther, Esther was a Jewish girl who became queen when she won a beauty contest designed by King Ahasuerus to find the new Queen of Persia. She then went on to save the Jewish people from being massacred as part of a plot led by Haman, the king's adviser and an anti-Semite.
Following the removal of Queen Vashti (see above) King Ahasuerus decides to host a beauty contest that will allow him to select a bride from all the women in his kingdom. Esther is one of the women brought before him and he chooses her without knowing that she is Jewish. Following the advice of her cousin and guardian, Mordecai, Esther kept both her people and her religion a secret.
Soon after Esther becomes queen a plot emerges where the king’s adviser, Haman, convinces Ahasuerus to murder all Jews in the kingdom. Mordecai learns of Haman’s plans and asks Esther to intercede with the king on behalf of her people. She agrees and hosts a banquet for Haman and her husband, during which she asks the king to spare her life. He is outraged to learn that anyone has threatened his queen, at which point Esther reveals that she is Jewish and condemned to die because of Haman’s plot.
Because Persian law prevented the king from annulling a decree that has already been issued, Ahasuerus gives Esther control of Haman’s estate and tells her to issue another edict. The new edict should give Jews permission to arm and defend themselves from attacks -which they do with resounding success.
You can read about Esther and the Purim story in more detail in: The Purim Story.
References: Biblical Literacy – The Most Important People, Events and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. William Morrow: New York, 1997.