Yesterday I discussed the story of how Zoroaster, identified with Ham, carved the seven liberal arts on fourteen pillars, seven of bronze and seven of brick, in order to preserve them from flood and fire just before the fictitious Assyrian king Ninus defeated him in battle. I thought that for the sake of completeness I should offer a couple of more pieces of information. Most importantly, I discovered that Petrus Comestor was not the first to report the story. Instead, it appears a few decades before his influential medieval text in Hugh of St. Victor, Adnotationes Elucidatoriae in Pentateuchon at Gen. 11 (c. 1130), which I give here in my translation: “Cham [...] king of Bactria was conquered by Ninus and called Zoroaster, the inventor and creator of the evil mathematical arts (i.e. astrology). He inscribed the seven liberal arts on fourteen pillars, seven bronze and seven brick, against the possibility of a flood, in order to provide usefulness to posterity. His books on mathematics Ninus, having gained victory, had burned.”
Hugh of St. Victor was not a particularly original thinker, and the fact that his version of the story is somewhat less polished that that of Petrus (who included fire alongside flood) suggests that Hugh was not the originator of the story either. I do not know exactly where it came from, but quite clearly grows out of the account in St. John Cassian at the end of Antiquity that “Ham the son of Noah, … knew that he could not possibly bring any handbook on these subjects into the ark, [so he] inscribed these nefarious arts and profane devices on plates of various metals which could not be destroyed by the flood of waters, and on hard rocks…” (Collationes 8.21, trans. C. S. Gibson).
For whatever reason, this became conflated with the Antique story of Ninus’ conquest of Zoroaster. As Abraham Valentine Williams Jackson discussed in his study of ancient sources on Zoroaster’s life, Eusebius indicates that the two were contemporaries in Praeparatio Evangelica 10.9.10: “in his (Ninus’) time Zoroastres the Magian reigned over the Bactrians.” Paulus Orosius, a contemporary of Augustine, in his History against the Pagans 1.4.3 had it that Ninus was the killer of Zoroaster, king of Bactria. Augustine said in City of God 21.14 that Ninus conquered Zoroaster. Isidore of Seville follows suit in Etymologies 8.9 and in his Chronicle. The whole sorry mess derives from a misreading of Ctesias, who wrote that Ninus battled Oxyartes (Diodorus, Library 2.6), which was misread as Xaortes or Zaortes. Thus Justin, in his epitome of Trogus, said that Zoroaster, inventor of magic, had a war with Ninus in which Ninus killed him (1.1.9-10), as did Arnobius a century later in the Adversus Gentes 1.5, speaking of “a war between the Assyrians and Bactrians, under the leadership of Ninus and Zoroaster respectively.”
As should be clear, the mistaken Late Antique identification of Ham with Zoroaster led to the transfer of the Pillars of Wisdom from Ham to Zoroaster, now a king of ancient Iran. But who first multiplied the pillars to fourteen I know not… It may be lost to history.
One thing that is not, however, is one of the most popular forms of the story, given in the Ovide moralisé 1.2405-2423 (composed c. 1317-1328), a 72,000-line Christian retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and to the best of my knowledge never translated from Old French into English. In this passage, the author has moved the whole event before the Flood and recombined Zoroaster’s fourteen pillars with the standard two pillars (of marble and brick) described by Flavius Josephus. I give here the lines, in which I have tried to give the sense of meaning rather than always follow the poetical form:
Cham made seven pillars of marble
Isn’t it interesting the way a legend is composed of so many discrete parts, each twisted, confused, conflated, and recombined into something new?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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