I’ve been reading an old article by Hayrettin Yücesoy with the lengthy title of “Translation as Self-Consciousness: Ancient Sciences, Antediluvian Wisdom, and the ‘Abbāsid Translation Movement,” published in the Journal of World History back in 2009. I had originally downloaded the article in the hope of finding some specific information about Arabic translations from Greek in order to investigate questions I had about the Greek material underlying some of the Arabic stories of the pyramids and Hermes Trismegistus, but in reading the article, the “antediluvian” section ended up offering an interesting perspective that is worth sharing.
For the past week or so, I’ve been working on an interesting project that turned out to be much larger than I intended it to be. One of the unsolved questions surrounding the compendium of medieval legends about Egypt known variously as the Akhbar al-zaman (History of Time) and the Digest of Wonders is the question of who wrote it. The manuscripts of the book give two different authors with no great certainty that either is the actual author. The first attribution is to al-Mas‘udi, an early medieval historian who wrote a book called the Akhbar al-zaman, but which appears to have had almost completely different content. The second is Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah, also known as al-Wasifi or in the West as Alguazif, about whom almost nothing is known except that he lived two centuries too late to have written the book that otherwise passes under his name. The situation has not changed since Baron Bernard Carra de Vaux translated the Akhbar al-zaman into French in 1898 and found himself unable to name an author:
Last Friday, Brent Swancer of Mysterious Universe posted an article discussing the famed Emerald Tablet, a medieval Arabic Hermetic text, perhaps of Late Antique origin, that gained fame in the West as a distillation of the secrets of Hermeticism and alchemy. But it was also pretty clear that he hadn’t done much research beyond Wikipedia for the Emerald Tablet, since his article betrayed little understanding of the text or its transmission across the centuries. He even refers to the extant text as a “section,” as though there were much more. It also doesn’t help that in places he conflates the medieval Emerald Tablet with the twentieth century “Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean,” a set of modern fakes cribbed from H. P. Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long, and other weird fiction writers by Maurice Doreal. He also writes that the object is “referred to variously as the Smaragdine Table, Tabula Smaragdina, or more commonly simply the Emerald Tablet,” apparently without knowing that smaragdus is the Latin word for “emerald” (Greek: σμάραγδος) and the three titles of the tablet are simply the Latin original, an anglicization of the Latin, and an English translation of the Latin.
After a great deal of hard work, I completed my translation of the Hermetic history of the Giants given in Alfonso X of Castile’s General Estoria, composed in the late 1200s. This undertaking was more involved than I expected, both because I had to learn a new language—medieval Castilian, also known as Old Spanish—in order to read it, and because Alfonso’s writers used complex grammar, pointless repetition, and ambiguous vocabulary that made it difficult to understand exactly what was being said in some places. A few of the words used can’t be found in dictionaries of Old Spanish and only rarely appear in other medieval documents, making them quite challenging to decipher. As a result, I am a little less certain about the particulars of this translation than I am for most, but the overall meaning is clear.
As many of you know, I have been researching the survival of Hellenistic and Late Antique myths and legends in medieval Islamic literature, particularly how this literature preserved and extrapolated on Late Antique Christian myths about antediluvian times. To that end, I’ve been working on reading King Alfonso X of Castile’s sections in his General Estoria about Hermes Trismegistus and the Giants that survived the Great Flood (2.34-39). It’s a bizarre and very interesting story that seems to incorporate Arabic material alongside narratives paralleling those of Late Antiquity—Pseudo-Eupolemus and Pseudo-Sibyl among them—but I am having a bit of difficulty with the material because (a) it has never been translated into English, nor to the best of my knowledge any other modern language (except for a few paragraphs in modern Spanish) and (b) I have not mastered medieval Castilian. I can read it clearly enough to get the sense, but the exact wording escapes me in places. I am plugging my way through translating it, but I am somewhat annoyed that in almost 800 years nobody seems to have thought that maybe it would be helpful to make this material available in more modern languages.
How Abu Ma'shar Accidentally Inspired "Hamlet's Mill" and the Modern Myth of the Amazing Science of a Lost Civilization
My research over the past couple of weeks in to Islamic treatises on antediluvian times and Hermetic lore has yielded an unexpected revelation. It came to me because the libraries around me don’t have what I need. In 1968, David Pingree published his important study of astrologer Abu Ma‘shar’s The Thousands, an influential but lost book that established (indirectly) the myth, so popular in fringe history, that the pyramids were built in antediluvian times to preserve science from the Flood, typically identified today with the end of the last Ice Age. As Edward Sachau noted in 1875, scholars had all but ignored both Abu Ma‘shar and the Thousands, meaning that until Pingree that was very little written about either. But Pingree’s book is a bit of a specialty item, especially since it is 50 years old, and WorldCat says that there isn’t a copy within nearly 100 miles of me. One of these days I should probably request an interlibrary loan, but it has literally two minor references to the Egyptian pyramids in it that I have not already read and otherwise is a massive study of astrology that I do not care about.
Yesterday, I discussed some of the cross-cultural currents that fed into the myth of Hermes Trismegistus, and since the world of fringe history has been a bit quiet, I thought that today I’d pick up on yesterday’s discussion by examining how the Ancient Alphabets of Ibn Wahshiyya might actually solve a nagging problem in understanding the development of the legend of the pyramids known to Arabic-speaking Muslims of the middle ages. For convenience’s sake, I’ll follow Michael Cook and call this the “Hermetic history” of the pyramids. I’ve discussed this story many times—how before the Flood a fictitious king named Surid had a dream of the coming disaster, and how his priest Philemon calculated the time of the Flood, and how Surid built the Giza pyramids to preserve knowledge from the Flood. It is the story that inspired basically the whole lost civilization pre-Ice Age pyramids genre when Victorian writers picked it up for their occult texts. An overview of the development of the myth can be found here.
Before I begin today, I want to follow up with and crow about something I guessed correctly! Last week, I wrote about the astrological calculation of the Flood and the End Times in medieval literature, and I guessed that the planetary alignments given for the Flood in the Akhbar al-zaman for the time of the Flood had to have been borrowed from Abu Ma‘shar’s lost book The Thousands. I discovered this weekend that I was right! I learned that A. Fodor confirmed that the astrological data given in the Akhbar al-zaman are a match for calculations that the medieval writer al-Biruni gave on the authority of Abu Ma‘shar. It all comes together eventually, and it’s a great feeling to make a prediction about what must have happened only to have completely independent evidence confirm it. Of course, if I had remembered that the text was already on my website, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble. It’s hard to remember everything ever written.
Later tonight is the two-hour season finale of Ancient Aliens, but in the meantime, I have an interesting medieval text to share with you. If you are a fan of ancient mysteries, you’ve probably encountered at least one variation on the theme that when the stars come around to a particular position in their 26,000-year cycle around the heavens, the end of the world is at hand. It’s become a staple of the genre over the past several decades, led in large measure by alternative history writers who have used the precession of the equinoxes—the slow movement of the stars through the zodiac over 26,000 years—to claim that the Sphinx was built during the Age of Leo, or that religious beliefs change every 2,160 years when the sun enters into a new house of the zodiac.
Recently, I completed a translation of some lengthy excerpts from the Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature (Kitāb sirr al-ḫalīqa), an Arabic-language treatise on Hermetic philosophy and cosmology attributed to Apollonius of Tyana (Balīnūs). It takes the form of a multi-book disquisition on the secret of creation, which is that all things are made from differing ratios of hot, cold, wet, and dry. (It was, in the end, a disappointing secret, not dissimilar to the harmony of the elements in Macrobius.) Several of the books pose questions about the natural world and explain them in tedious detail about the evaporation and condensation of primaeval fluids. The volume is famous as the oldest extant source for the famed Emerald Tablet, which became better known in the West from a Latin translation of a separate recension of the tablet’s text from a different and later Arabic source. Perhaps more interesting is the frame story attached to it, telling of how Apollonius discovered ancient wisdom in books held by a statue of Hermes Trismegistus in an underground chamber in Tyana, in modern Turkey:
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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