Monday, November 22, 2010

A Griffin Tale Followup

Summary: Something I should have posted a year ago, tracing the Alexander ascends by griffin to Heaven story, found in Yerushalmi.

Post: In this post I am not going to rehash everything I posted in my previous post on the subject, about Alexander's Ascent, Via Griffin or Griffin-Vulture. Read that other post first. This post is a followup.

Briefly, however, the Yerushalmi (Avodah Zarah 18b) states:
א"ר יונה אלכסנדרוס מוקדון כד בעא מיסק לעיל והוה סלק וסלק סלק עד שראה את העולם ככדור ואת הים כקערה בגין כן ציירין לה בכדורא בידה. ויצורינה קערה בידה
Pnei Moshe refers us to the parallel Greek (hi)story about Alexander the Great doing this, and brings in the aspect of the story, unmentioned by the Yerushalmi, that it was by griffin.

Well, I tracked down this Greek story, and a new point I did not mention in the past is that the Greek story explicitly makes reference to these points mentioned by Rabbi Yona, that וסלק סלק עד שראה את העולם ככדור ואת הים כקערה. It was obvious before that this was a case of borrowing, or rather referencing this famous story, but that it accords in even this precise detail is even greater confirmation.

There appears to be a connection between the way the earth and water is described from on high, even in the Greek legend. It appears first in Pseudo-Calisthenes, but what I am citing here is from "The Wars of Alexander, An Alliterative Romance", written in Middle English and translated from Historia Alexandi Magni

From the summary:

And then, from the actual text:

I don't know how many of my readers speak Middle-English, so I will point out the relevant quote. The summaries, in modern English, are on the side. He ascends to heaven and looks down.
"So hige to heuen thai him hale in a hand-quile,
Midil-erth bot as a mylnestane, na mere to him semed,
And all the watir of the werd, bot as wrethen neddire."

To translate:
"So high to heaven they him held in a hand-quile {Joe In Australia: =in an instant},
Middle-earth but as a millstone, no more to him seemed,
And all the water of the world, but as a coiled snake."

As far as I understand it, Middle Earth is not a reference to the setting for Lord of the Rings, but rather the Earth. Though now that I've pointed this out, others can explore this further. Thus, from the Ormulum, a work of Biblical exegesis:

þatt ure Drihhtin wollde / ben borenn i þiss middellærd
that our Lord wanted / be born in this middle-earth.
It is used in Old High German to refer to "the world" as opposed to the seas or the heavens:

muor varsuuilhit sih, suilizot lougiu der himil,
mano uallit, prinnit mittilagart
Sea is swallowed, flaming burn the heavens,
Moon falls, Midgard burns
When speaking about the world, ocean, and coiled snake, I should also refer to the following, from Norse mythology:
Midgard is a realm in Norse mythology. Pictured as placed somewhere in the middle of Yggdrasil, Midgard is surrounded by a world of water, or ocean, that is impassable. The ocean is inhabited by the great sea serpent Jörmungandr (Miðgarðsormr), who is so huge that he encircles the world entirely, grasping his own tail. The concept is similar to that of the Ouroboros.
This great sea serpent grasping his own tail, in the water, is reminiscent of this reference to all the waters of the world being likened to a coiled snake.

I would note that when we compare the Yerushalmi and the Greek legend, at least as encoded in this later, Middle-English source, there are some differences:

Yerushalmi: He saw the World like a Ball and the Sea like a Plate
Historia Alexandi Magni: He saw Middle-Earth like a Millstone and the Waters of the World like a coiled snake.

These different similes might represent different conceptions of the structure of the universe. A millstone is flat and round, and might accord with a belief that the world is flat, but with a dome of the firmament on top of it. The waters of the world might be a reference to rivers like snakes, or else of water encircling the land-portions of the world, somewhat like in Norse mythology.

But I think it might be safe to use this parallel to determine that when speaking of the Olam (World / Universe?), what was intended by the Yerushalmi was the Earth, and that the Sea is part of that Earth.

If anybody wants to find me the original legend, in Pseudo-Calisthenes, I would greatly appreciate it. I'd like to know how early this comparison was made, and whether the same comparison was made throughout the lifetime of this legend. Was it always a millstone, or was it as some point a ball?

Update: Found it! A new post is in the works.


Joe in Australia said...

"Hand-quile" means a short span of time; an instant.

The "quile" bit is equivalent to the modern English word "while"; its unusual spelling hints at the convulsive changes this word has experienced since its origin in Old English - the initial consonant has been variously H, HW, Q, QW, V, VH, W, and WH.

joshwaxman said...

thanks! I fixed the text, adding that meaning.



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