16 February 2023
Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door
The British Library’s major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, showcases how stories about this ancient ruler were transformed and spread across centuries, cultures and languages. Some of these legends take Alexander to the unknown realms of the world, to face fantastic beasts, amazing people and terrifying monsters. But one story takes him even further — to the gates of Paradise.
Alexander’s army at the gates of Paradise, in Voyage au paradis terrestre, interpolated in the Roman d’Alexandre (Tournai, 1344): The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Bodley MS 264, f. 185v (detail).
Put together around AD 500 by the most eminent Jewish scholars of the time, the Babylonian Talmud is the most important source of rabbinic code in Judaism. It collects the replies and statements of prominent Jewish rabbis about various issues and questions. One of these (Tractate Tamid 32b) records the following story.
In the course of his adventures in the mythical East, Alexander reached the entrance of the Garden of Eden and raised a loud voice, calling out: “Open the gate for me!” The sentry of the Garden of Eden said to him: “This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter into it. Since you are not righteous, you may not enter.” He said to them: "If I will not be admitted, at least give me something from inside." They gave him one eyeball. He brought it and he weighed all the gold and silver that he had against the eyeball, and yet the riches did not balance against the eyeball’s greater weight. He said to his philosophers: "What is this? Why does this eyeball outweigh everything?" They said: "It is the eyeball of a mortal person of flesh and blood, which is not satisfied ever." He said to them: "From where do you know that this is the reason for the unbalanced scale?" The philosophers answered him: "Take a small amount of dirt and cover the eye." He did so, and it was immediately balanced by its proper counterweight. The eye is never satisfied while it can see.
This allegorical story of human greed, first recorded in the Talmud, became very popular in Jewish culture and started a life of its own, spreading even beyond Judaism. In the 12th century, it appears in an interesting Latin narrative which, according to its title, was translated from Hebrew by a certain Rabbi Salomon and spread quickly in medieval western Europe. During the translation process, the original concept of an eyeball given to Alexander was transformed into a miraculous stone that outweighed everything but, if covered with dust, was lighter than anything else. The general morale of the Hebrew story also became simple and clearer. In Alexandri Magni iter ad Paradisum (Alexander’s journey to Paradise) the philosophers simply tell Alexander, “The stone is you, your majesty”.
Turned into another gloomy premonition of Alexander’s upcoming death and the collapse of his empire, the Latin story was soon incorporated into various medieval versions of the Alexander Romance. It appears in one of the most famous medieval manuscripts of the Alexander Romance in the Bodleian Library, incorporated in the French Roman d’Alexandre, with exquisite illustrations depicting Alexander’s army in front of the gates of Paradise and the measure and assessment of the wondrous stone.
The guardian of paradise gifts the wonderstone to Alexander’s army (left); Alexander and his philosophers assess it (right): Bodley MS 264, f. 186r (detail)
Transmitted in the French Roman d’Alexandre, the story was further adapted in other prose and poetic retellings of Alexander’s legends. In the 16th-century Scots version of the Alexander Romance by Gilbert Hay, the mysterious gift Alexander receives from Paradise is transformed into a miraculous apple that changes colour and outweighs everything else, but becomes incredibly light-weighted when covered in clay. The changing colour of the apple and the shifting of its weight are both premonitions to Alexander that he should “think that þow has schorte tyme for to liff…”
Alexander receives the miraculous apple from Paradise, in tGilbert Hay, The Buike off King Allexander the Conqueroure (Scotland, 16th century): Add MS 40732, f. 228r
The incredible journey of the story of Alexander’s failed attempt to visit Paradise from 6th-century Hebrew sources through Latin adaptations and medieval vernacular legends is just one of the many legends are featured in Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. You can visit in person until 19th February 2023 or explore more online at bl.uk/alexander-the-great.
We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.
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