The Empire of the Sun: a Commentary on the Founding Myth of Macedon

The following is a commentary on the founding myth of Macedon as told by Herodotus. The commentary relies heavily on typology.

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The following is a commentary on the founding myth of Macedon as told by Herodotus. The commentary relies heavily on typology. Typology is a method of analysis whereby one contrasts the story in question with another one that shares the same narrative pattern. From this you can gain unique insight into both pieces of literature. The commentary is not an “objective” commentary in that the goal of this is not to reconstruct the meaning of the myth as would be taken by Herodotus’ audience. The purpose of this commentary is to bring it into the Western tradition and to “chew it up” so that we can draw insight from this ancient text. The commentary is presented as a line of loosely following meditations that are all tied up together at the end.  First I give the full translated text, then I summarize it, and then discuss the varied parts of it in a vaguely chronological order, bringing up things by association. The whole work is in imitation of the Greek monk St. Maximus’ ‘Ambigua’ and also takes inspiration from Daniel Sanderson’s ‘Figures of Speech’ series on planksip. At last, I recognized that there are plenty of unexplored avenues through which to take this myth further. There’s gold in the connection between Perdiccas in sunlight garb fording the river and Elijah parting the waters of the Jordan with his garment; I just do not understand clothing symbolism well enough. The myth beckons for someone to fully contextualize it within the whole history of Macedon and of Greece. Alas yet again, I am stunted by my lack of knowledge.

The Unabridged Text as Translated by Alfred D. Godley

This Alexander was seventh in descent from Perdiccas, who got for himself the tyranny of Macedonia in the way that I will show. Three brothers of the lineage of Temenus came as banished men from Argos to Illyria, Gauanes and Aeropus and Perdiccas; and from Illyria they crossed over into the highlands of Macedonia till they came to the town Lebaea. There they served for wages as thetes in the king's household, one tending horses and another oxen. Perdiccas, who was the youngest, tended the lesser flocks. Now the king's wife cooked their food for them, for in old times the ruling houses among men, and not the common people alone, were lacking in wealth. Whenever she baked bread, the loaf of the thete Perdiccas grew double in size. Seeing that this kept happening, she told her husband, and it seemed to him when he heard it that this was a portent signifying some great matter. So he sent for his thetes and bade them depart from his territory. They said it was only just that they should have their wages before they departed. When they spoke of wages, the king was moved to foolishness and said, “That is the wage you merit, and it is that I give you,” pointing to the sunlight that shone down the smoke vent into the house. Gauanes and Aeropus, who were the elder, stood astonished when they heard that, but the boy said, “We accept what you give, O king,” and with that he took a knife which he had with him and drew a line with it on the floor of the house round the sunlight. When he had done this, he three times gathered up the sunlight into the fold of his garment and went his way with his companions.
So they departed, but one of those who sat nearby declared to the king what this was that the boy had done and how it was of set purpose that the youngest of them had accepted the gift offered. When the king heard this, he was angered, and sent riders after them to slay them. There is, however, in that land a river, to which the descendants from Argos of these men offer sacrifice as their deliverer. This river, when the sons of Temenus had crossed it, rose in such flood that the riders could not cross. So the brothers came to another part of Macedonia and settled near the place called the garden of Midas son of Gordias, where roses grow of themselves, each bearing sixty blossoms and of surpassing fragrance. In this garden, according to the Macedonian story, Silenus was taken captive. Above it rises the mountain called Bermius, which none can ascend for the wintry cold. From there they issued forth when they had won that country and presently subdued also the rest of Macedonia.

Herodotus, Histories, Book VIII, 137-138

Summary of the Events

Gauanes, Aeropus, and Perdiccas, three brothers of the clan of Temenus, were exiled from Argos and worked for the king of Lebaea in Macedon keeping livestock. The king heard that when his wife baked the bread, Perdiccas’ loaf would rise twice as much as everyone else’s. He took that as an omen and told them to leave without their wages, saying that the sunlight that beamed through the smoke vent was their wages. Perdiccas the youngest of the brothers accepted it and cut around the sunlight on the floor and stuffed it in his clothes. Once the king realized what he did, he sent after to kill them but a river that the Temenids had been sacrificing to flooded after the brothers crossed so that the king could not follow. The brothers settled in a lush land near Midas’ garden whereafter they seized all of the land of Macedon and Perdiccas the youngest ascended to become their first king.

On the Brothers' Ancestry

The three brothers were descendants of Temenus who was a Heraclid. The Heracleidae were the offspring of Herakles who, according to Will Durant, were exiled to the north of Hellas once the Kings of Mycenaean Greece saw them as a threat, but the Heracleidae promised that the next generation would surely return and seize their thrones. Fifty years later, the Heracleidae swept through Greece, establishing themselves as the rulers of all the cities. Temenus became the king of Argos, and they say that he made the polis exceptionally wealthy and well, drawing all of Argolis into its orbit. The three Temenid brothers were therefore exiled back to an ancestral homeland, be it a liminal one.

When the brothers were being pursued by the king’s riders, they crossed a river that the Temenids sacrificed to as their saviour. That river then delivered them once more by flooding to stop the king’s men. So the Temenids were saved by their historical ties to the land.

It is likely that many Temenids would have been pilgrimaging to that river if they were continuing making sacrifices to it. They would have been to the natives foreigners like tourists and wanderers. A land to which the ancestors of these brothers had been foreigners and exiles, and their children continued to be as pilgrims, later became these three’s inheritance.

On the Patriarchs

The Jews also began as foreigners in their homeland. When the Lord God of the Hebrews called Abraham to be the inheritor of Palestine, he made him and his sons the Patriarchs to sojourn in the land as restless herdsmen. They made landmarks and holy places as they went by erecting altars and excavating wells then bestowing each with a name. So Jesus the son of God tells Israel of how the least of seeds grows to become a place that can host heaven:

The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air can come and make nest in its branches.

The altars and holy places which Abraham and Isaac and Israel named were the seeds of holiness that later grew to become God’s holy nation, and thereamongst, the creator of heaven and earth would dwell. It was only after the Hebrews had sowed these seeds in Palestine, left, and come back could they have inherited the holy land of Israel.

On the Light from the Smoke Vent

After being set up by the Heraclids who had planted the seeds of Macedon as exiles, the three exiled brothers of Argos came to reap their future inheritance not triumphantly on horseback, but as servants to a foreign king. The brothers tended and kept the livestock of the king of Lebaea for wages; the elder tending the horses and oxen, while Perdiccas the youngest tended the “lesser flocks.” The king interpreted a worrying omen and told the brothers to leave. When they asked about their wages, the king tried to cheat them and denied their wages, but foolishly he told them that the light that beamed through the smoke vent of his roof was their wages. The two elder brothers were dumbfounded by all this, but Perdiccas, the youngest brother, accepted cheerfully and cut around the sunlight on the floor with a knife then stuffed it in his pocket.

This is by far the most interesting imagery of the legend and it is somewhat cryptic as to what the significance of this is. The legend says the king was “move to foolishness” and that someone told the king that “it was of set purpose that the youngest of them had accepted the gift offered.” The household that the brothers served in was a pagan one, so they would have been sacrificing burnt offerings to the household gods on the fire under the smoke vent. They burnt the food, thereby sending the aromas heavenwards, so as to include them in communion with their meals and with the household. When the king offers Perdiccas the sunlight shining from his smoke vent, he is giving up the graces bestowed by the gods in reciprocity to his sacrifices; he gives up his covenant with heaven. Perdiccas, after the king tries to cheat him, turns it around on the king and tricks him out of his divine right to kingship.

On Jacob’s Refuge with Laban

Jacob, named Israel, was also the youngest of his father’s sons. Isaac’s wife Rebecca bore him twins: Jacob left the womb second clutching his brother’s heel. Jacob cheated his elder brother out of his birthright for a bowl of soup and tricked him out of his father’s blessing, so his brother wanted to kill him. Jacob escaped to work as a keeper of his uncle Laban’s livestock in northern Mesopotamia. Thereafter, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying his eldest daughter as well as his younger one. Then, when Jacob was about to part ways, Laban offered him compensation for his many years by allotting him all the speckled and spotted animals, but Laban tried to cheat him by putting away most of the spotted livestock, so Jacob used cunning eugenics to give himself a massive allotment. Laban tried to trick his servant Jacob but in turn, Jacob ended up cheating him. “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.”

On the Discriminating River

After Perdiccas had tricked back the king of Lebaea out of his divine covenant, someone explained to the king what he did. The king gathered his wrath and sent them after the brothers to kill them. The brothers crossed the river that they had ancestral ties with but when the riders came upon it, the river flooded so that they could not follow the Temenids.

After the Jews had left Israel and seeded it with the numerous wells and holy places, they worked in servitude to the Mizraimites for four centuries. When the Jews tried to leave, Pharaoh sent his men after them and they only shook them when, as they passed through the parted sea, the waters fell on the Egyptians and drowned them.

Both the Macedonians and the Israelites were delivered by the water which allowed them to pass but discriminated against their ex-masters. The reason that the king’s men were flooded out but the Macedonians were not was because the brothers were in a covenant with the divine: not only the deliverer river their clan made pilgrimage to, but also the covenant Perdiccas took from the king’s household gods. The fate of the king’s men is the fate of what the Apostle Paul warned about so rigorously in his letters: those who believe that they are justified by good works and have no need for divine grace. The legend shows that in a covenant with heaven, the shifty turbulence of reality can be managed enough to ford, but for those who have no ark, they shall succumb to the flood.

Perdiccas like David

Perdiccas, although he was the youngest of his kin, proved the prophecy that, “the older shall serve the younger.” David, although he was the youngest of the sons of the poor shepherd Jesse, became the beloved king of all Israel and the root of the Messiah. When Saul the king had tried assuming the role of Samuel the high priest, the Lord told Saul that he had fallen out of His divine favor. Samuel found Jesse, as the Lord told him to, and anointed his son David as the rightful king of Israel. Anointing with oil is a ritual that is symbolically synonymous with Perdiccas receiving the sunlight from the gods.

David was the forefather of Jesus so Alexander the Great can therefore be thought of as the “Greek Messiah” (lit. “anointed one” in Hebrew). In the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, after Alexander conquered the entire world, he encountered the sons of Japheth who immigrated to the far east and saw how they were perverted and degenerate. He worried lest the unclean nations spread their evil practices to the civilized realm, so he gathered up all the Japhethites and led them to the furthest reaches of the north. The Lord crowded together the mountains around them so that there was neither a way in nor a way out except for a narrow pass which Alexander barricaded with a brazen gate coated in a secret substance. The locked-up peoples could use not iron nor fire nor any demonic magic to break open these gates. According to Jewish historian Josephus, when Alexander was in the midst of besieging the cities of Judea, he reportedly worshipped the Name inscribed on the High Priest of Jerusalem’s garbs before his army. The High Priest showed Alexander the Book of Daniel and the prophecies of his empire therein; to this, he was pleased and promised the Jews the right to practice their laws. Jesus Christ was prefigured by the character of Alexander the Great, the Lion of Macedon, who delivered the Greeks from the terror of the Persian Empire establishing a heavenly kingdom across the whole earth, cast out the wicked, and exalted the holy people of God.

On the Vergina Sun

In Vergina, a small town in northern Greece that once was the capital of ancient Macedon, archaeologists unearthed a buried tomb wherein there lay a small chest made of solid gold. The chest hosted the bones of King Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great together with a delicate laurel wreath crafted of pure gold. On the top of the chest, there was a symbol of a sun; it was a small encircled flower out of which sixteen rays of sunlight extended in the outline of a circle. Thereafter, the symbol was named the Vergina Sun and became the recognizable symbol of ancient Macedonia.

Sun on Philip's Larnax

The association with Macedon seems to be a recent development in that the symbol and similar symbols were widespread throughout ancient Greece. But even more, this sun figure is not merely pan-Hellenic but pan-anthropic, a token of man from Ethiopia to Hibernia. The sixteen-rayed sun is really only a flourished form of the four-rayed sun. This is seen very often on compasses where the four rays represent the four cardinal directions. Although this symbol is a star not a sun, it conveys the same idea of ordered space. Likewise sixteen, I am told, is a common number in native measuring units around the world. Sixteen is halvable to the fourth degree which makes exact division easier with the naked eye. The sun is a source of light. This light begets life which is emphasized by the flower in the centre. The light also makes known what is in the darkness. Helios’ role in many Greek myths is to expose the debauchery and affairs that the gods engage in. The sixteen-rayed sun is an intuitive and universal symbol of divinely legitimized kingship that establishes structure and stability in the world so that justice is brought on the wicked and that life may flourish.

On the Macedonians and the Solar Cycle

The Greek sun god Helios, after traveling from the far east to the far west, would come down from the sky. Then, Helios would stow himself in a gigantic golden cup fashioned by Hephaestus and sail from back to the far east and begin the next day’s procession through the heavens. As the brothers fled the king, the sunlight that Perdiccas harboured was hidden from the world until after settling in the east, Perdiccas was raised up as king, and with his sunlight propped up before all the peoples, he marched the light of the Macedonians westward. As Perdiccas measured the land of Macedon from mountain to mountain, so did his seed the Great Alexander measure ends of the Earth, and so will our Lord Christ Jesus measure the depths of the seas.

On Idolatry

The reason that the Jews did not have to sacrifice to the Red Sea as well as their Lord is the virtue of monotheism. Among the pagans (and admitted by so-called “neopagans” today) is that by worshipping one god, you are simultaneously ignoring all the other gods. So as a pagan, you must cast a wide net so that you do not earn the wrath of an unattended deity. Still though, this makes you vulnerable to when you leave your habit and you encounter alien divinities with which you have no relationship. So the solution of the Jews is that you instead offer your sacrifices to the God of gods. It is often said by scholars that the authors of most of the Pentateuch thought of the Lord as just another god among the pantheon to which the Jews paid sole devotion. This could not be more false. Just by examining the scene of the escape from Egypt from the Book of Exodus, we see that the Lord God is a “god” on an utterly different plane than the other “gods.” The Lord is the God of the Nile, of the wind, of plagues, of the sea, and of frogs. There is no longer a need to frantically give homage to each god of the pantheon anymore, because with the God of gods, everything good can be done in prayerful worship; in the Spirit of God, all existence is a temple to the Lord.

It is with this fact that we encounter the ceiling of Alexander’s empire. Macedon is the kingdom of the sun: everything that the sunlight covers became the domain of the empire. It began with the young King Perdiccas. He rolled the sunlight into his garment and so his royal line wore the dominion of the sun. First the sun rose on Macedon, then on all of Greece, then under Alexander, the sun rose on the whole world. But the limit of the sun’s domain is the limit of heliolatry. Helios “saw everything” except when it was night. The depraved and unclean nations still remain at the corners of the earth. The Leviathan still broods in the dark of the deep. In the siege of Tyre, necessity demanded that Alexander’s men make a glass barrel wherein Alexander was sealed and lowered into the depths of the sea. Upon coming up, Alexander cried, “the world is damned and lost.” Alexander the Great marked the height attainable by a gentile. He was the head of the empire of the sun, so his limit was the solar sphere.

Riley E. Sanderson

Published a month ago