I’m sure many of you remember the flap that emerged in 2013 when researchers claimed to have found Ciudad Blanca, a legendary lost city in Honduras known only from modern myths of twentieth century vintage. I wrote about the long and convoluted process that led to the development of the legend of Ciudad Blanca back in 2013. Well, the story is back again, and many popular archaeology and science publications, particularly National Geographic’s online news service, have proclaimed that the legendary city has been found. The Geographic article, by New Yorker archaeology correspondent Douglas Preston declined to note that the legend of Ciudad Blanca is of modern vintage and has little do with the genuine ancient history of Honduras. However, Rosemary Joyce has a terrific piece over on the UC Berkeley Blog in which she deconstructs the hype over the latest Ciudad Blanca claims. It’s well worth a read.
You might also be interested in the latest crazy claim, this time that the childhood home of Jesus has been uncovered in Nazareth. The evidence, presented by archaeologist Ken Dark, is that the house resembles one described in a seventh-century travelogue. This, logically, ought not to prove that it was the actual home of Jesus; at best, it proves that it was considered to be such in the 600s CE, which counts for pretty much nothing.
I’d like to discuss some interesting bit of euhemerism I came across in researching ancient astronaut claims. One of the themes I’ve noted over time is that ancient astronaut authors don’t seem to know the material they try to discuss, and the same goes for other writers of fringe history. Regular readers will remember that Alexander the Great is sometimes credited with unearthing the body of Hermes Trismegistus and finding his emerald tablet of wisdom, as Albertus Magnus wrote in De secretic chemicis: “Alexander the Great discovered the sepulchre of Hermes, in one of his journeys, full of all treasures, not metallic, but golden, written on a table of zatadi, which others call emerald” (trans. Thomas Thomson). Now, while this is a medieval legend, much corrupt (originally told of Apollonius of Tyana, also called Balinus), I was fascinated to discover that there was a genuine ancient tradition that Alexander had special access to ancient wisdom—and had learned the greatest secret of the pagan priests, that the gods were mere mortals.
[Update: The following discussion grows out of a tradition recorded by Plutarch in the first century CE in his Life of Alexander 27.3 that "Alexander himself, in a letter to his mother, says that he received certain secret responses, which he would tell to her, and to her alone, on his return" (trans. Bernadotte Perrin). The contents of this letter, almost certainly a forgery, were apparently well known.]
Here is Cyprian describing it in Treatise VI, “On the Vanity of Idols,” sec. 3 (247 CE):
… Alexander the Great writes in the remarkable volume addressed to his mother, that through fear of his power the doctrine of the gods being men, which was kept secret, had been disclosed to him by a priest, that it was the memory of ancestors and kings that was (really) kept up, and that from this the rites of worship and sacrifice have grown up. (trans. Ernest Wallis)
Somewhere around the same time, perhaps between 150 and 270 CE, Marcus Minucius Felix, another Christian apologist, wrote of the same book in Octavius 21:
Alexander the Great, the celebrated Macedonian, wrote in a remarkable document addressed to his mother, that under fear of his power there had been betrayed to him by the priest the secret of the gods having been men: to her he makes Vulcan the original of all, then the race of Jupiter. (trans. Ernest Wallis)
Even earlier, we find a reference to the same account in the work of the Christian apologist Athenagoras, writing in the Embassy for the Christians 28 around 176 or 177 CE:
Herodotus, then, and Alexander the son of Philip, in his letter to his mother (and each of them is said to have conversed with the priests at Heliopolis, and Memphis, and Thebes), affirm that they learned from them that the gods had been men. […] But as Alexander and Hermes surnamed Trismegistus, who shares with them (the gods) in the attribute of eternity, and innumerable others, not to name them individually, [declare the same], no room is left even for doubt that they, being kings, were esteemed gods. (trans. B. P. Pratten)
However, the longest surviving account of Alexander’s letter occurs in scattered passages in Augustine’s City of God, several centuries later:
28.5 …And, to treat Numa with all honor, let us mention as belonging to the same rank as these writings that which Alexander of Macedon wrote to his mother as communicated to him by Leo, an Egyptian high priest. In this letter not only Picus and Faunus, and Æneas and Romulus or even Hercules, and Æsculapius and Liber, born of Semele, and the twin sons of Tyndareus, or any other mortals who have been deified, but even the principal gods themselves, to whom Cicero, in his Tusculan questions, alludes without mentioning their names, Jupiter, Juno, Saturn, Vulcan, Vesta, and many others whom Varro attempts to identify with the parts or the elements of the world, are shown to have been men. There is, as we have said, a similarity between this case and that of Numa; for the priest being afraid because he had revealed a mystery, earnestly begged of Alexander to command his mother to burn the letter which conveyed these communications to her.
Whether or not the original of all these summaries was a genuine missive of Alexander or one of the countless forgeries that passed under his name isn’t really relevant. Alexander lived after Euhemerus, the great rationalizer. The contents of his letter seem to quite clearly reflect what we know of Euhemerus’s Sacred History, which “revealed” that the Olympians were simply human kings who had been deified through the great respect afforded their names (Diodorus, Library 5.41-67; Plutarch, Moralia 5.26.23; Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 1.42; etc.).
But if you’re an ancient astronaut theorist looking for proof that the “gods” were flesh and blood creatures, you’d think you’d do more with these kind of passages, especially when you have a celebrity like Alexander the Great endorsing your idea and finding alien “secrets” in Hermes’ tomb!
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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