Today I thought I would introduce you to Leon of Pella, a shadowy figure who played an outsized role in spreading the doctrine of euhemerism from the Hellenistic era down to Late Antiquity. For a writer of outsize influence, what is most interesting about him is that we don’t really know anything about Leon at all, and that includes even his name. Nevertheless, whoever Leon was, he helped contribute to a number of controversial views about Egyptian history and the ancient past.
In the Hellenistic period, a book called On the Gods in Egypt was attributed to a Leon or Leo, but the sources relating information about him differ markedly on who he was. This is because the nature of his book is also in dispute. Everyone agrees that the volume contained a letter allegedly written by Alexander the Great to his mother Olympias, and that this letter—which was a forgery, by the way—conveyed the supposed deepest secret of the Egyptian priesthood, that the “gods” were actually human beings who were promoted to divinity by ignorance and tradition. However, the ancients were markedly unclear about how this letter was presented in the book. Some imply that the letter was the book, with commentary from Leon. Others suggest that the letter was contained within a broader book that covered the history of Egypt entire. Worse, the ancients were also unclear about who wrote the book. In some cases, Leon is identified as the Egyptian priest who confessed the secret of the gods to Alexander, but in other cases he is identified as the author of the book relating the priest’s testimony. Just to make things more unclear, Arnobius (Against the Heathens 4.29) is the only author to identify Leon not as an Egyptian but rather as a resident of Pella, the Macedonian capital. This, in turn, led F. Pfister to suggest, somewhat implausibly, that the name referred to the “Lion of Pella,” meaning Alexander the Great. However, the traditional reading identified the adjective Pellaeus as referring to Egypt via Pellaeus Canopus, which was an ancient name (Virgil, Georgics 4.287) for “Macedonian Egypt,” i.e. Alexander’s conquest, from Macedonia’s capital (Pella) and Egypt’s most important city for Greek trade before the founding of Alexandria (Canopus).
Such a confusing set of contradictory material has made it difficult for scholars to produce a coherent picture of who Leon was. The most plausible reading is that Leon was a Macedonian Greek who studied in Egypt and wrote a book in which he delivered a commentary on a forged letter of Alexander to Olympias as part of a philosophical argument for atheism. This reading assumes that St. Augustine’s very late references to Leon as the priest Alexander met are the result of secondhand information or a corrupt text; Pfister took the opposite view, that the early authors never read the book but that Augustine got the right information from Varro.
I have provided the fragments of Leon of Pella in my Library, and they are worth a read.
None of this would be particularly important if it weren’t for the fact that his book helped reinforce Euhemerus’ view that the gods were once men, and this supposed secret gave warrant to a number of unusual hypotheses. The euhemerist view of history shows up in many fringe books as a way to expand the timeline of history deep into the past. Through it, Ignatius Donnelly was able to make the Greek gods into the kings of Atlantis, and Christian Charles Josias von Bunsen was able to deliver an influential assessment in his Egypt’s Place in Universal History (1845-1857) that because the gods were once men, Manetho’s chronology of Egyptian history was correct even for the period of the gods and demigods, and therefore dynastic Egypt stretches back 10,000 years or more BCE. It was Bunsen who wove together such claims with Hermetic fictions and the Enochian Pillars of Wisdom as evidence of the antiquity of Egypt far beyond the conventional. He placed the Great Pyramid around 20,000 BCE. It is from his book the Helena Blavatsky gained her view of the deep antiquity of Egypt, and from her came a raft of claims for the high antiquity and Atlantean connections of Egypt. While Bunsen, so far as I know (I have not read all five volumes), did not cite Leon by name, Leon’s work stands behind the sources he did know and cite, and helped shape the alternative history of Egypt.
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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