Folk-Lore/Volume 29/A Mediaeval Legend of the Terrestrial Paradise

Folk-Lore. Volume 29
Number 1 (September)
A Mediaeval Legend of the Terrestrial Paradise



(Read before the Society, 15th May, 1918.)


"Of Paradise I cannot speak properly, for I was not there; and I repent not going there, but I was not worthy." Such is the admission of that most notorious liar usually spoken of as "Sir John Mandeville,"[1] and we may rest assured that for once in a way he had so far forgotten himself as to lapse into the truth.

What was denied even to "Mandeville" had, however, been granted to another and (if possible) more illustrious personage. "Paludanus," writes Mr. S. Baring-Gould,[2] "in his Thesaurus Novus[3] relates, of course on incontrovertible authority, that Alexander the Great was full of desire to see the terrestrial Paradise, and that he undertook his wars in the East for the express purpose of reaching it, and obtaining admission into it. He states that on his nearing Eden an old man was captured in a ravine by some of Alexander's soldiers, and they were about to conduct him to their monarch, when the venerable man said, 'Go and announce to Alexander that it is in vain he seeks Paradise; his efforts will be perfectly fruitless, for the way of Paradise is the way of humility, a way of which he knows nothing. Take this stone and give it to Alexander and say to him, "From this stone learn what you must think of yourself."' Now this stone was of great value and excessively heavy, outweighing and excelling in value all other gems, but when reduced to powder it was as light as a tuft of hay, and as worthless. By which token the mysterious old man meant, that Alexander dead would be a thing of nought."

Mr. Baring-Gould has not attempted to trace the "incontrovertible authority" on which Paludanus related this curious story. Let us endeavour to do so here.

In the Middle Ages there were two Alexanders, the Alexander of history and the Alexander of legend. Needless to say, the latter was far better known and appreciated than the former, and almost every literature possesses its version or versions of the Alexander-Romance. The most widely diffused of these versions were naturally the Latin ones, which with very few exceptions can be ultimately traced to a Greek original dating back to the third century. It is in one of these exceptions of non-Greek origin that we find the theme of the story told by Paludanus. This is the little tract usually known as the Iter ad Paradisum,[4] an edition of which was published by the present writer some few years ago.[5] Its contents may be summarized thus:

Alexander, having conquered India, comes to a very broad river, which he learns to be the "Ganges or Phison whose source is the Paradise of Pleasure." Having selected five hundred of his bravest companions, he embarks on a vessel which he finds ready prepared and sails up the river. After thirty-four days of terribly difficult and dangerous navigation against enormous waves, they arrive before a vast city surrounded by an impenetrable wall,[6] so covered over with moss that no trace of opening nor even of the stones could anywhere be seen. For three days they sail along the wall in the vain hope of finding some entrance. At last, on the third, a small window is discerned, at which some of Alexander's companions putting off in a light bark proceed to knock loudly. The window is soon opened, and an inhabitant blandly inquires who they are and what is the purpose of such an unexpected visit. "We are," say they, "the envoys of no ordinary king, but of Alexander who rules the world. His lordship desires to know of what race and laws you are, what are your forces and who is your king? He orders you, if you wish to preserve your peace and safety, to make no show of ambition, but to do as all other races and pay him a tribute."

To this speech the inhabitant, in no way perturbed, replied, "Cease to worry me with your threats, but patiently await my return." After two hours he re-appeared, and handing the envoys a gem of wonderful brilliance and colour, which in size and shape exactly reproduced the human eye, said, "The inhabitants of this place send to Alexander this stone which will put an end to his desires, for once he learns its virtue and nature he shall lay aside all ambition. Nor is it prudent for you to remain any longer in these regions, for should even a slight breeze arise you will without doubt be shipwrecked and destroyed. Wherefore return to your companions and give thanks to the God of gods for the good fortune granted you."

Alexander returns to Susa and consults in secret all the wisest of the Jews and Greeks as to the meaning of these mysterious events, but receives no suitable explanation. At last he meets with an aged Jew named Papas,[7] who, hearing of his successful voyage, exclaims, "O King, fail not to repay to the God of Heaven what you owe him, for never before has anything similar been conceded to a mortal. Frequently in the past have adventurous youths essayed to navigate that river, but all in vain. You, however, have been permitted by divine grace to reach that city and receive replies denied to all others."

Alexander replies that clearly the Scripture was right in asserting that wisdom was the property of the ancient,[8] and producing the gem given him by the inhabitant of the mysterious city asks for an explanation of its meaning. The Jew thereupon calls for a balance and weights of gold. The stone is placed in one pan and the weights added by degrees to the other. Each time, however, the stone draws up the weights. The largest balance in the town is now sent for and loaded with beams and as much gold as possible. On placing the stone in the opposite pan it immediately descends as if it were only drawing down the lightest feather. Reverting to the smaller balance, the Jew places in one pan the gem and covers it with a small quantity of dust; it is now easily drawn up by the smallest weight. On taking out the weight and throwing in the lightest feather in its place the result is the same.

Alexander, amazed beyond description at these experiments, begs the Jew to clear up the mystery of the stone and hidden city.

"O King," replies the aged man, "the city you saw is the abode of souls freed from their bodies, placed by the Creator in an inaccessible position on the confines of the world.[9] Here they await in peace and quiet the day of their judgment and resurrection, after which they shall reign for ever with their Creator. These spirits, anxious for the salvation of humanity, and wishing to preserve your happiness, have destined this stone as a warning to you to curb the unseemly desires of your ambition. Remember that such insatiable desires merely end by enslaving a man, consuming him with cares and depriving him of all peace. Had you remained contented with the inheritance of your own kingdom you would have reigned in peace and tranquillity, but now, not even yet satisfied with the conquest of enormous foreign possessions and wealth, you are weighed down with cares and danger. This stone by its nature is symbolical of your condition. In shape and appearance it resembles the human eye, which, as long as it is possessed of vital spark, seethes with desires growing more and more insatiable in accordance as they are satisfied, as we saw in the first experiments with the balance. Once, however, the vital spark is removed, and the eye is consigned to the earth, it ceases to desire or require anything and is good for nothing. Wherefore the lightest feather, which is of some small use, was easily able to outweigh this stone when covered with dust. Therefore, O King, lord of the world, this stone warns you to renounce the pursuit of your ambitious designs and to harbour thoughts of prudence."

Alexander dismisses the old man with rewards, and casting aside his former ambition returns slowly to Babylon, where he meets his fate, poisoned by a retainer, after the fashion foretold to him in India by the trees of the sun and moon.

This interesting Latin story was, as we shall presently see, translated or rather adapted from a Jewish original of much earlier date. Linguistic considerations lead us to assign the Latin text to the earlier part of the twelfth century.[10] The name of the compiler is not known with certainty. Several of the later manuscripts[11] preface the tract with the words, "Solomon, teacher of the Jews, relates the following story," but it is not clear whether this Solomon is intended as the author of the original Hebrew romance, or merely designates the Latin translator.

In its Latin form the story, which shows evident traces of having been revised by a Christian, achieved a considerable popularity, and we find it worked into a number of Latin and vernacular compilations,[12] in certain cases with considerable variations, which show that some other recension of it was also current with which we are not now acquainted. Thus in French literature it appears in several metrical versions of the Roman d' Alexandre,[13] and in a prose compilation of the thirteenth century known as Les Fails des Romains. In the latter version the deviation is particularly marked:[14]

Alexander journeys so far east that he reaches the spot where the sun rises. There he finds a vast river, the Ganges, identified with the Gyon, one of the four rivers of the terrestrial Paradise. By order of the king two knights, Mitone and Aristeus, sail up the river till they come to a castle situated on the bank. On the opposite bank is a lofty mountain, and between the mountain and the castle is stretched a chain, in such a fashion as to render further progress impossible. In despair our two knights agitate the chain violently. Soon an old man, whose garments emanate a delicious perfume, appears at one of the windows of the castle. They beg him to raise or lower the chain that they may continue their exploration, but the old man refuses and tells them that he is the servant of a far greater Lord than Alexander, and warns them against prying into the secrets of the Ruler of the World. "For more than three thousand years," he says, "have I guarded this chain, and in all that time but two men have passed,[15] one before the Deluge and one after, and they dwell over beyond in the garden where is the tree of immortality. Nor will I stir from here until the day of Judgment." Finally he urges them to return and presents Mitone with a stone for Alexander. On this stone is engraved a human eye, and its meaning is afterwards explained to the king by Aristotle, who takes the place of the Jew in the Iter ad Paradisum.

In German poetry the episode of the Iter was related by the priest Lamprecht[16] (about 1150), by John Enenkel[17] (1250), and by Ulrich von Eschenbach[18] (1290).

We find it also in an interesting Italian poem discovered by Arturo Graf,[19] which recounts the journey of Ugo d'Alvernia (Huon d'Auvergne) to the regions of the Under World, but I have failed entirely to find any trace of it in English literature. Nor does it appear in the Scotch or Irish versions of the Alexander-Romance.[20]


One of the most striking features of the scholarship of the present day is the care with which editors seek to unravel the sources of the documents they are investigating. Many a scholar of sixty or seventy years past would be sorely disconcerted could he but see the manner in which works edited by him as original compositions of this or that ancient author have now come to be analyzed and set down as mere compilations from previously existing materials. Such is emphatically the case with the mediaeval Alexander literature.

When thirty years ago Professor Wesselofsky[21] came to study the version of the Alexander-Romance current among the Slavonic nations and the Rumanians, which he calls the Serbian version, he was easily able to establish the fact that many of the incidents in the journey of Alexander to the land of the Blessed or his intercourse with the Brahmans and their king Dindimus or Dandamis, as well as his journey to the fount of life, occur already in Christian legends of the second and third centuries, in the lives of Zosimos and in the apocryphal account of Macarius of Rome and his three companions.[22] Others, too, have succeeded in tracing certain details to a Chaldaean source, the Babylonian history of Gilgames.[23]

As for the story narrated in the Iter ad Paradisum, it is also to be sought for in oriental literature. A remarkable parallel may be traced to an episode in the Talmud,[24] but undoubtedly the direct source is to be found in the Hebrew version of the Alexander-Legend. A manuscript of this version was unearthed at Damascus by Professor Harkavy, who has published a most valuable Russian dissertation on the subject.[25] Subsequently the Hebrew text was translated into English by M. Gaster,[26] a Rumanian scholar, to whose researches the study of Hebrew and Slavonic literature is much indebted. Gaster was fortunate enough to discover a manuscript as old as the twelfth century, but the version itself is much more ancient—probably even earlier than the seventh, as he suggests.

That we have in this version the original of our legend will be evident from the following extract:[27]

Alexander and his companions come to the land of Ofrat, where they find a large river. The entire host cross the river and arrive before a very large gate about thirty cubits high. The king goes from that place and wanders among the hills with all his army for fully six months, till the hills come to an end and they emerge in a plain, where stands another immense and beautiful gate, whose height the eye of no man can reach. Upon it there is an inscription. Menahem,[28] chief of the scribes, reads the inscription, which says: "This is the gate of the Lord, through which the righteous shall enter."

Menahem explains the letters and the words to the king, who exclaims: "This certainly is the Garden of Eden!" The king then cries out: "Who is there upon this gate?" and a voice answers: "This is the gate of the Garden of Eden, and no uncircumcised man may enter it." Accordingly, in the night-time, Alexander circumcises the flesh of his foreskin, and his physicians cure him immediately by means of herbs.

On the morrow the king says unto the gate-keepers: "Give me a token and I shall go on my way." They then give him a box in which was something like a piece of the eye. The king stretches forth his hand to lift it from the ground, but is unable to do so. He then cries out and says: "What have you given me?" They reply: "This is an eye." "What is the use of it to me?" the king says. "This is the sign," say they, "that thine eye is not satisfied with riches, nor will thy desire be satisfied by thy roaming over the earth." "But how," said Alexander, "can I lift it from the earth?" "Place," say they, "some dust upon the eye, and then thou canst do what thou wilt with it, and this is a sign that thine eye will not be satisfied with riches until thou return to the earth from which thou wast taken."

The king does so: he scatters some dust on the eye, and, lifting it from the ground, places it in his treasure-house, to be a remembrance of his having obtained a token from the Garden of Eden.

The substance of the foregoing narrative is identical with that of the Iter ad Paradisum.[29] There are, of course, differences of detail due to the necessity of the translator or adapter conforming to the tastes and ideas of his Western readers.

It is indeed singular to observe how the personality of Alexander has been metamorphosed in its successive passage from the literature of one nation to that of another. In general, the Alexander of Romance has become a religious hero.[30] We have seen how in the Hebrew version he readily embraces Judaism when forced by circumstances to do so, and no doubt his mild treatment of the inhabitants of the Holy City gave rise to the belief that he might worship the God of Israel. To that of Christianity there was but one step, and in the Syriac, Ethiopic, and Western versions he appears as a convert and quotes the Bible. Alberic of Besançon, Lambert le Tort and other vernacular poets have invested him with all the attributes of a mediaeval knight, and Persian writers such as Firdusi or Nizami have not hesitated to paint him as a follower of Mahomet.[31]

As a rule, it may be said that whereas the Western nations were more attracted by the stories of Alexander's bravery and liberality, what appealed most to the Eastern imagination was, in the words of Professor Wesselofsky, "the mystery of the greatness and power of the man, helpless before death." This latter conception appears once only in Western versions—in the legend we have been studying in these pages.

Although this legend enjoyed but a limited popularity compared with other branches of the Alexander-Romance, we cannot deny the wide diffusion of a belief that the Macedonian hero had undertaken a voyage to Paradise. A charming example of this belief occurs in a Russian folk-tale rescued from oblivion by Professor Wesselofsky, and buried away by him in the pages of a learned Russian review.[32] He relates it on the authority of an old gardener dwelling in the village of Goosefka in the Government of Saratov:

When Alexander of Macedon conquered the whole world he decided to visit Paradise. To find his way to it he procured a Bible in his own kingdom. It was not a Bible as we have them now, but an old one as they had them in the days of Adam, and in it was described the way to reach Paradise. He took all his army and started on his way according to this Bible. Now he was getting quite near when the angel who guards Paradise runs to God and says: "O God! Alexander of Macedon is coming to our Paradise." Then God causes wide rivers to flow across Alexander's path, but the warrior builds ships and bridges, crosses the rivers and advances to Paradise. Again the angel runs to God: "O God! Alexander is coming." Then God puts in his way thick forests filled with huge fierce beasts. Alexander catches the beasts, feeds his army with them, cuts down the forests and comes nearer. Once more the angel runs to God and says: "Alexander is coming." Then God raises in front of the king impassable mountains, but Alexander takes pick-axes, hammers and shovels, and breaks a passage through the mountains; one sees no one, but one hears a great noise as of thunder under ground.

The angel tells this to God, who only now guesses that Alexander must have a Bible to help him. He commands the angel to get possession of it.

Alexander lies down to sleep, but he does not let go the Bible and holds it tightly by one corner. The angel arrives and seizes the book. Alexander wakes up and squeezes his fingers more tightly round the corner. The angel gives a strong pull and draws the Bible out of Alexander's hand, all except the two corners, which remained between his fingers.

However, the king does not grieve long over his loss, but orders a new Bible to be made to fit the remaining corners. It was soon ready, but it was not the same Bible. It leads Alexander round and round but not a step nearer.

When Alexander sees that he cannot reach Paradise he says to his army: "Why should we go and look for Paradise when we can make one of our own?" And so he started to plant trees, and everybody followed his example. And this was the origin of all our fruit trees.

Are we to see in this tale a far-off reminiscence of the Jewish Romance or of the Iter ad Paradisum? That is what Professor Wesselofsky does not tell us, and what we may well be content to leave undecided.

M. Esposito.

  1. Wright, Early Travels in Palestine, 1848, p. 276.
  2. In his interesting, if somewhat superficial, essay on the Terrestrial Paradise (Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, First Series, 2nd ed., 1868, p. 254).
  3. Mr. Baring-Gould is apparently quoting from the collection of Sermons of Pierre de la Palud (d. 1342). I have looked through the Lyons edition (3 vols. 1571-76), but without finding the passage in question.
  4. Cf. the articles of W. Hertz (Abhl. der philos. CI. der K. B. Akad. in München, 19, 1891, pp. 51-89), and Friedlander (Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, 13, 1910, pp. 199-202).
  5. Hermathena, xv. 1909, pp. 368-382. My edition is based on the oldest and best MS. (Oxford, Corpus Christi College, 82), which can with certainty be assigned to the twelfth century. I have also collated Trinity College, Dublin, E.5.20 (of cent. XV.). Both these MSS. appear to have been executed in England. A few other copies are extant: Cambridge, St. John's College, 184; Auxerre, 7; Paris, 8519; Madrid, Ee. 103; Pavia, University Library, cxxx.D.22; Wolfenbüttel; Munich, 9529 and 11029; British Museum, Royal 12.E.i. (of cent. XIV.).
  6. This notion of Paradise as a town surrounded by a wall occurs also in the Ethiopic and Serbian versions of the Alexander-Legend.
  7. Papias according to the Dublin MS.
  8. Alexander is here made to quote the Book of Job (xii. 12).
  9. In the Syriac version it is said that God had made Paradise inaccessible, so that men could not satisfy their curiosity by getting there. This is in opposition to a Talmudic story, but it is not known whether the notion that Alexander had actually reached the confines of Paradise is of Hebrew or Christian origin (cf. Nöldeke, Wiener Akad. Denkschriften, 1890, 38, v. p. 29).
  10. Paul Meyer (Alexandre le Grand, ii. p. 49).
  11. Those at Dublin, Munich, and Pavia.
  12. The impostor "Mandeville" borrowed some details from it, as I have pointed out in a communication to Notes and Queries (December 26, 1914, p. 505). It was used also by the author of the Speculum Laicorum, written about 1272, and by Robert Holcot (d. 1349).
  13. P. Meyer (Romania, xi. 1882, pp. 219-247; Alexandre, ii. pp. 201, 221).
  14. Paul Meyer (Romania, xiv. 1885, p. 14; Alexandre, ii. pp. 356-361). The story as told in the Faits was reproduced about 1261 in another French compilation, the anonymous continuation of the History of William of Tyre (Receuil des Historiens des Croisades; Historiens Occidentaux, ii. 1859, pp. 586-589).
  15. Probably Elijah and Enoch are intended. In the "Christian" Ethiopic version Alexander actually holds converse with them (Budge, Life and Exploits of Alexander the Great, ii. 1896, p. 477).
  16. Alexander, verses 6571-7126, ed. H. Weismann, i. pp. 368-399.
  17. Toischer (Sitzb. der P.-H. Cl. der Wiener Akad. 97, 1881, p. 389).
  18. Toischer, ibid. pp. 382-387.
  19. Giornale di Filologia Roumanza, i. 1878, p. 92.
  20. Going further afield, we find it in the Serbian version (ed. Istrin, Moscow, 1893); see Wesselofsky in Vizantiiskii Vremennik, iv. 1897, pp. 545, 553.
  21. In his Izǔ istorii romana i povêsti, Petrograd, 1886, i. pp. 129-51 1. Most valuable too is his study in the Vizantiiskii Vremennik, iv. Petrograd, 1897, pp. 533-587.
  22. See on this point Gaster (Journ. R. Asiatic Soc. of Gr. Britain, 1897, p 487).
  23. Bruno Meissner (Alexander und Gilgamos, Diss., Halle, 1894); Darmesteier Zendavesta, iii. 37-39); Friedländer, Die Chadhirlegende und der Alexander-roman, Leipzig, 19 13.
  24. G. Levi (Parabole, leggende e pensieri raccolti da libri talmudici, Firenze, 1861, p. 218); Carraroli (La Leggenda di Alessandro Magno, 1892, pp. 125-129).
  25. Neizdannaya Versiya romana obǔ Alexandrê, Petrograd, 1892.
  26. Article cited above, pp. 485-549.
  27. I cite almost textually Gaster's excellent translation (chapters 37-38 of the Romance, pp. 530-531).
  28. With this name compare those of Rahámán in the Ethiopia; Simon, Solomon and Papias, in the French poetical versions and Iter (Meyer, Alexandre, ii. pp. 105, 247). Harkavy suggests a reminiscence of "Eumenes" (cf. Wesselofsky, Vizantiiskii Vremennik, iv. p. 549).
  29. It may also be remarked that the story of the stone is introduced into the Ethiopia and Arabic versions, both of unknown date (Budge, Life and Exploits of Alexander the Great., ii. 1896, p. 271). It comes from the Talmud (Tamid, 32b), which with the Midrash has supplied many episodes to the Jewish Romance (Gaster, loc. cit. p. 489)
  30. Cf. Gaster, p. 487.
  31. See Gaster (loc. cit. p. 488).
  32. Vizantiiskii Vremennik, iv. Petrograd, 1897, p. 559. It is much to be regretted that so few Western scholars are able to avail themselves of the writings of Russian historians and philologists, who are by no means so rare as is usually imagined. For a valuable study of Russian folk-mythology see Dragomanov (Mélusine, iii. 1887, cols. 171-175). The so-called Breton "Alexander," published by Luzel (Mélusine, iii. 1887, cols. 487-496) is a commonplace tale, and has little or no affinity with the real Alexander-Romance.