The Ascent of Alexander the Great (Transcript)
This post is a transcript of a video from January 2020.
Thanks to Heather Lee for the transcription and JP Marceau for the edition.
In 2019, just before the end of the year, in November and the beginning of December, I went on this strange binge of creating different products. People had complained that the t-shirts and products that I had put out were of bad quality. And so, I fell into this zone of creating different images to put out there. And one of the images that I put out was a drawing of Alexander the Great. He’s sitting in a chariot and he’s being carried by two griffins up into the sky. He’s holding these two sticks, and at the end of the sticks are bait. As the griffins try to eat the bait above them, they go up into the sky, carrying Alexander with them.
Quite a few people liked the image, but wondered, what does this have to do with anything? What does this have to do with symbolism? So, I thought that I would take some time to explore this story. I’ve been wanting to talk about Alexander for quite a while. I’ve mentioned him in passing; how his legends are extremely important in storytelling, because they span from Mongolia through all of Islam and Christianity and Judaism. Even in India there are versions of his stories… So, when you look at those stories, you can really get this traditional pattern of storytelling that crosses different cultures. This will be an opportunity to look at some of these stories; this ascent of Alexander into the sky.
Quickly after the death of Alexander the Great, there started to accumulate around him a bunch of legends. It happened almost right away. Right after his funeral, already stories started to circulate. The modern historical approach and the modern historian will want to try to dismiss these legends. That’s possibly one of the reasons why they seem to have been forgotten in the West and in modern culture, but the question that I want to ask is: what is it about a figure that makes legends accumulate around them? What is it about a character that does that? And when they accumulate around these figures, these legends really do tend to take on this storytelling pattern. They really do tend to take on very archetypal language and very archetypal structures.
The legend of Alexander the Great particularly exemplifies this. In the Middle Ages, it was called the romance of all chivalry. It’s almost as if Alexander’s romance, which precedes even Christianity, is the basis for the chivalric code, the chivalric thinking and the chivalric attitude. I think there is much to say about that. There is this connection between the way Alexander conducted himself in his campaigns and how knights saw themselves. Especially as Alexander’s legends took shape in different cultures, they also came to be modified to fit into those cultures. And thus, the Christian Alexander is very particular and can help us understand not only what the ancient world can look like in the eyes of Christianity, but also how the stories can be flipped and be changed in order to serve another purpose while having the same patterns and even. As we’ll see, this flip can even, to a certain extent, refine the original patterns to make them fit even better than they did before.
The story of the ascent of Alexander the Great is based on very, very old stories. There are stories going back even to the time of Gilgamesh. There are ancient Babylonian stories of a figure that gathers four eagles or four birds or four creatures and uses those four creatures to ascend up into the sky and see the world. In the version of Alexander, he builds this chariot or this throne and he assembles these four griffins to carry him up into the sky. When he goes up into the sky, he sees the different heavens, and when he looks back down upon the Earth, he sees the Earth as this island, and he sees the ocean as this coiled snake around the Earth.
So, already, you can start to understand what this could mean for us, namely that Alexander was able to rise up above phenomena and was able to perceive the pattern of the world. He was able to get to a state where he was capable of seeing the structure of the world. Now, we can understand it in a very common way – almost like a scientist would, but we could also understand it more symbolically, especially considering that he saw this snake around the world, and he saw these patterns of the heavens from close up.
What is dangerous about the story is that, on the one hand, it could seem like a tale of hubris – like Nimrod who built the Tower of Babel, or like the modern scientists who think that they can figure everything out. Alexander takes the meat, takes this flesh, puts it up and uses these monsters to raise him up into the sky to be able to master the entire world. But, what’s interesting in the story is that, in the Christian version (and I think probably in the Muslim and Jewish version; though I haven’t read them so I’m not sure), something happens as he ascends. He ascends to a certain level, and then as he’s approaching the highest heavens, he hears a voice which tells him that he has to stop there; that he can’t ascend any higher. He now has to come back down to the world. Having that little change in the story does two things. On the one hand, it tells you that we do have access to the patterns of reality, via our own reason, via own mind, via our own God-given capacities. We have the capacity to rise up and to see the patterns of the world. But we also have to be careful, because there is a limit that we cannot go beyond. By those means – by this kind of forceful reason or the means of our own efforts – we cannot reach the highest patterns. We cannot reach that which is beyond all patterns.
Another thing which makes this image very powerful is that there seems to be an analogy – you can understand it as an analogy at a lower level – between this image of the chariot with the four griffins and the divine chariot, which has four cherubim. Some people have suggested that even the word “griffin” and the word “cherubim” are actually cognates; that they have some long-distant common source. As this hybrid figure that has different heads of different animals or different body parts of different animals, depending on the description, we find in Scripture that this description of a cherub is similar to a sphynx or to a griffin. For example, some Byzantine churches would have griffins on the outside and cherubs on the inside – on the veil or on different church cloths or on the icons.
You can see it at different levels. You can imagine the griffin as being this guardian, but on the outside – something like a guardian in the sense of a king or of an army. And then the inner guardian – who is the guardian of the secrets, of the mysteries – is the spiritual guardian, which in on the inside and guards the mysteries from profanation. So there is an analogy, and in the analogy there is also the separation: although we can see the analogy between Alexander going up into the sky and seeing the patterns, this is obviously at a lower level than the actual divine chariot which took Elijah and brought him up all the way into the highest heavens. One is through the effort of man to raise himself up, and the other is a movement from above to bring Elijah up into the highest heavens. Nonetheless, there is still an analogy between the two.
What I like about that story is that it gives value to human capacity. It gives value to human effort. But in the context of the Christian version, it also shows the limit of human value and of human capacity. This legend of Alexander became very famous in the Middle Ages. You can see it all over the place. You can see it on Byzantine ornaments, you can see it on buildings, you see it in Venice on St. Mark’s Cathedral, you also see it in churches all the way to England and you can see it on ornaments all the way in Persia. So, you can see it as this celebration of human capacity and also the value of the city; the value of the Roman Empire or the vision of the human capacity to raise itself up and to become something coherent. But it also tells you the limit; it shows you that if you go too high then you risk what happened at the Tower of Babel. You risk breakdown. And if you look at the modern world, as we notice the fragmentation at the edges, as we see a brittle Western culture starting to break apart, what we can surmise is the very fact that the modern approach thought that it could gather everything into itself. It thought that it could reach the highest, that it could either reach God or get rid of God so that it could encapsulate the entire world.
Well, in the story of Alexander, we see that we don’t have to go to extremes. We can celebrate the capacity that humans have to participate in the patterns and to see the patterns, but we also have to know that there is a limit to the degree to which we can access them. For myself, it acts as a warning not to fall into hubris and not to think that my own mind is going to be able to master everything; that I’m going to be able to understand everything. Because, obviously, that is sometimes a secret temptation that we have: “Alright, I’ve reached it; I’ve figured it out.” But an image like that, for me at least, is both the celebration and the warning that I need in order to advance into this world of understanding symbolism.
Because the tale of Alexander has in it an aspect of hubris at the same time, it also has something which precedes what Christianity would become. It has a kind of glimmer of the possibility of Christianity. There’s also something in the story of Alexander that is a warning. You have different commentators in the story of Christianity who will warn us that the figure of the Anti-Christ is related to the figure of Alexander. And we see this in the figure of Julian the Apostate, for example. Julian the Apostate is a Christian emperor who, during his life at some point, switched. He was raised as a Christian – this was at the early stages of the Christian Church – and he reverted back to Paganism. His form of Paganism was a kind of strange, fake Paganism; a kind of pluralism where he wanted to open up to all different faiths. He also said that he wanted to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. He did all these moves of opening up culture to all kinds of things, but secretly, it was driven, it seems, by an animosity towards his own Christian upbringing and his own Christian way of seeing. Julian saw himself as a new Alexander.
So, we have to be able to hold the figure of Alexander on these two sides. We need to not be afraid of it, because it has very powerful storytelling in it, but we also have to see it as a warning in different ways. In the story itself – in the Christian version of the legend – is a warning not to go up too high. But the figure himself is a warning of the danger of a kind of all-encompassing empire that would subsume the entire world and would want to destroy the particular story by giving access to all these different stories at the same time.
Let me conclude by saying that, hopefully, the image of Alexander going up on his griffins is something that will be a source of meditation for you. I hope to get back to the story of Alexander – to go into other versions; other aspects of it. Maybe in the comments, tell me if that’s something that interests you. If you know some of the story of Alexander, maybe tell me which aspect of his story you would like me to interpret, because it’s such a big tapestry of storytelling. So, thanks, everybody, and I will see you soon.