Yesterday I briefly mentioned the medieval claim that Zoroaster was actually Noah’s son Ham, as well as the evil inventor of black magic. But did you also know that late legends also made him the builder of not two but fourteen pillars of wisdom? There are entirely too many of these pillars now, and it’s rather amazing how many different permutations one story can have.
The outlines of the myth are simple enough: In Near Eastern tradition, there had been ancient writings left on stones before the Great Flood. The Mesopotamians attributed these to Ziuthustra (Xisuthrus), the Flood hero, who buried a history of the universe at Sippara, where his family uncovered it after the Flood. This version survived in Judeo-Christian lore with Ziuthustra’s role taken over by Ham (St. John Cassian, Collationes 8.21) or a combination of Fallen Angels and Cainan (Jubilees 8:1-3). In Jewish tradition, the story became progressively more complex, growing into a bewildering number of permutations centering on the idea that there were two pillars containing the world’s wisdom, one of brick to withstand a divine judgment of fire and one of stone to withstand a divine judgment of water (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities 1.68-71).
Along the way, medieval people got the bright idea that Zoroaster, credited in Greco-Roman literature as the inventor of magic, was therefore also Ham, credited in Jewish lore with inventing magic. They didn’t invent this on their own; Didymus the Blind (c. 313-398 CE) said almost as much in his Commentary on Genesis: “Zoroaster is no other than Ham, the son of Noah.” This tradition could be found wherever Hellenistic learning spread. Rabbi Barachias Nephi (Abenephius) said (insofar as his Arabic manuscript can be taken for a genuine historical document and not Athanasius Kircher’s invention) that “Ham was the first who introduced the worship of idols and magical arts into the world, and that he was called Zoroaster, the second Idris.” Zoroaster was credited with possessing pillars and with writing books of wisdom, so it stood to reason that he should therefore be assimilated to the whole “pillars of wisdom” story. The trouble is that if you doubt that Zoroaster was Ham, then Zoroaster didn’t live before the Flood, so when the medieval authors tried to make sense of mess of legends they inherited, they had a problem. Careful medieval historians quickly realized the Ham and Zoroaster couldn’t be the same guy if they were to keep all of the biblical and Greco-Roman timelines of history in order, particularly given the growing belief that Zoroaster had been a student of Abraham, from whom he learned astrology. According to Marsilio Ficino, writing in the Renaissance in De Christiana religione 26 but citing pseudo-Eupolemus, the old Enochian wisdom passed through Abraham to Zoroaster.
At the same time, medieval people loathed rejecting any legend, so we end up with this unlovely mess, given in Petrus Comestor’s Historia Scholastica (c. 1173 CE) at Liber Genesis 38: “Ninus conquered Ham, who was still living at this time, and reigned in Thrace, and they say that Zoroaster invented the magical arts, and inscribed the seven liberal arts on fourteen pillars, seven of bronze and seven of brick, against the aforementioned judgments (of Adam). Verily, Ninus burned all of his books” (my trans.). (The roughly contemporary Jewish Chronicles of Jerhameel has the same story almost verbatim.) Comestor’s story would be repeated by a number of medieval authors, including Gervase of Tillbury in the Otia Imperiala 1.20 (1211 CE) and Aegidius of Zamora in the Ars Musica 2 (1300 CE), as well as in Renaissance-era rabbinical literature.
Manifestly, the story is ridiculous. To Jews and Christians, the judgment of the Flood had already come and gone, and God promised that there would never be another (Genesis 9:11). Zoroaster’s actions are illogical in terms of chronology, and it seems to represent a translation of the original pillars of wisdom to a new figure, and for a new purpose. The “fourteen” pillars are obviously meant to correlate with the seven liberal arts, one pillar of each material for each art.
Somehow, though, this whole sorry mess ended up enshrined in Hermetic and alchemical doctrine when Athanasius Kircher thought it the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs and thus releasing the wisdom of Hermes. In his book on Egyptian mysteries, Egyptian Oedipus (1655), Kircher wrote that Adam passed to Enoch and Seth a line of pure wisdom, while Cain passed to his progeny black magic and idolatry. (Surid, the builder of the pyramids in Arab lore, was of the line of Cain.) Ham (who was Zoroaster) combined the pure and the impure and thus delivered a faulty revelation after the Flood. Hermes Trismegistus, he said, had been Enoch or Idris and also Osiris, and had built pillars of wisdom as a safeguard for knowledge after the Flood, but a second Hermes Trismegistus arose after the Flood from the line of Cainam (famous in Jubilees for having been corrupted by the Watchers writings—not that Kircher knew that) and restored the pure teaching from the ancient hieroglyphics. The obelisks of Egypt were the pillars of wisdom, preserving Adam’s pure teachings. Needless to say, Kircher’s method for interpreting hieroglyphs, derived from his translation of the alleged Barachias Nephi manuscript, failed to yield an accurate revelation of Egyptian wisdom, which of course in reality made no mention of Adam, Seth, or any other of the cast Biblical characters, despite Kircher’s belief that pagan religions were all corruptions of pure Judeo-Christian monotheism.
But in short, there was practically no one in Europe or the Islamic world, from Late Antiquity down to the Enlightenment, who wasn’t convinced that secret wisdom was etched on pillars all over the place—and they kept inventing new pillars!
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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