Last year I discussed the Masonic Matthew Cooke manuscript, written around 1450, and one of the oldest of the Masons’ early documents. The text, which purports to describe the craft of stonemasonry from the dawn of time down to the Middle Ages, contains a strange variant of the legend of the two Pillars of Wisdom famous from Jewish lore. These pillars, first mentioned by Flavius Josephus, were supposedly erected before the Flood by (take your pick) Hermes Trismegistus, Watchers, Nephilim, Seth, Enoch, Enosh, etc. in order to preserve either divine science or the secret teachings of the Fallen Angels or the industrial arts from potential destruction by flood or flame. As Josephus put it in describing the astrological knowledge of the progeny of Seth in Book 1 of his Antiquities:
70 And that their inventions might not be lost before they were sufficiently known, upon Adam’s prediction that the world was to be destroyed at one time by the force of fire, and at another time by the violence and quantity of water, they made two pillars, the one of brick, the other of stone: they inscribed their discoveries on them both, 71 that in case the pillar of brick should be destroyed by the flood, the pillar of stone might remain, and exhibit those discoveries to mankind; and also inform them that there was another pillar of brick erected by them. Now this remains in the land of Siriad [i.e. Egypt] to this day. (trans. William Whiston)
Ye shall understand that this son Tubal Cain was [the] founder of smiths’ craft, and of other crafts of metal… [He and his siblings] had knowledge that God would take vengeance for sin, either by fire, or water, and they had greater care how they might do to save the sciences that they [had] found, and they took their counsel together and, by all their witts, they said that [there] were 2 manner of stone[s] of such virtue that the one would never burn, and that stone is called marble, and that the other stone that will not sink in water and that stone is named latres, and so they devised to write all the sciences that they had found in these 2 stones, [so that] if that God would take vengeance, by fire, that the marble should not burn. […] And after this flood many years, as the chronicle telleth, these 2 pillars were found, and as the Polychronicon saith, that a great clerk that [was] called Pythagoras found that one, and Hermes, the philosopher, found that other, and they taught forth the sciences that they found therein written.
That’s why I was so surprised to find the actual source, the medieval author Petrus Comestor (Peter the Eater), whose Historia Scholastica (c. 1173) long served as the medieval popular Bible, for it paraphrased the Vulgate and supplemented it with what he knew of Greco-Roman literature. Petrus was also a named source used by Higden, suggesting that the Cooke author either confused the two texts or else had a manuscript of Higden that had been supplemented with more of Petrus. Anyway, here is (some) of what Petrus says:
28 … And because he (Tubal Cain) had heard Adam prophesy of the two judgments, that the arts he invented should not perish, he inscribed them on two columns, the whole of it on each. According to Josephus, one was of marble, the other of brick, so that one would not be dissolved by the Flood, and the other would not be incinerated by the flames. Josephus says the marble one was yet in the land of Syria. […] Tubal Cain, who was the first to invent the art of blacksmithing, […] delighted in the sounds of metals, [and invented musical tones], which discovery the Greeks attribute to Pythagoras. (my trans.)
However Petrus Comestor and Isidore have made an error derived from faulty Latin. The Old Latin translation of Flavius Josephus from around 350-400 CE, the source that stands behind Petrus and probably Isidore, mistakenly gives “Tubal” instead of “Jubal” from Genesis 4:21 as the inventor of music, and later authors repeat the error. This error probably comes from misreading the Septuagint, where Tubal Cain is shortened to just Tubal, making confusion easier. The Old Latin is also the source for the reference to latres as the building material for one of the pillars; it is the Latin word for brick (later), either untranslated or unrecognized by the Cooke author. Petrus also follows the Old Latin misreading (in some but not all manuscripts) of “Siriad” (Greek: Σειρίδα, an obsolete term for Egypt as the land of Sirius) as Syria (“in terra Syria”). Thus, many of the peculiarities of the text can be attributed to the mistakes and word choices of the fourth century Latin translators of Josephus.
By the fifteenth century, when the Cooke manuscript was composed, there was a popular story—attested in an anonymous music manual—that Pythagoras (under the name Pictagoras) visited Tubal to learn about music before Tubal created two pillars containing the science of music to save the science from the Flood. The jump from this story to the one given in Cooke is a small one, requiring only the knowledge the Pythagoras lived after the Flood and therefore must have gotten his knowledge from Tubal Cain indirectly. The whole legend, in all its various forms, derives in all likelihood from Isidore’s brief observation that the Greeks and the Scriptures ascribe two different origins to music. To the medieval mind, such contradictions had to be reconciled, no matter how convoluted the results.
The remaining question, for which I have no good answer, is how Petrus Comestor came to ascribe the Pillars of Wisdom to Tubal Cain of the sinful line of Cain rather than to the godly sons of Seth as Josephus gave it. One answer I’ve seen proposed is that Petrus was influenced by the contemporary Chronicles of Jerahmeel (the version extant in those days, anyway; our surviving text is later), where in chapter 24 (and repeated verbatim in 26) the Pillars of Wisdom are attributed to Jubal (not Tubal) as a repository for music:
6 At this time the inhabitants of the earth began to commit violence, to defile each other, and kindle the anger of the Lord. They began to sing with the harp and the reed-pipe, and to sport with all kinds of song corrupting the earth. This Jubal discovered the science of music, whence arose all the tunes for the above two instruments. This art is very great. 7 And it came to pass, when he heard of the judgments which Adam prophesied concerning the two trials to come upon his descendants by the flood, the dispersion and fire, he wrote down the science of music upon two pillars, one of white marble, and the other of brick, so that if one would melt and crumble away on account of the water, the other would be saved. (trans. Moses Gaster)
That, finally, is the biggest mystery: How did Josephus’ account become corrupted to the point that Tubal Cain ended up the creator of the pillars?