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.
I thought it might be interesting to ask today why it is that the modern fringe/occult movement has inherited a relatively wackadoodle conception of ancient Egypt and the pyramids as antediluvian repositories of scientific super-knowledge when there were, in days of yore, a plethora of bizarre ideas to choose from. As many of you know, the ancients didn’t think much about the pyramids other than that they were very large and represented a tremendous expenditure of economic, political, and human capital. Herodotus didn’t think that the Giza pyramids were all that old, and later Greco-Roman writers were more concerned about how many vegetables were needed to feed the workmen than the supposed mysteries of the pyramids. Herodotus, Diodorus, and many others all agreed that the pyramids were the tombs of the Egyptian kings.
Note: A publisher has expressed interest in my book about the history of the Mound Builder myth and has asked for the full manuscript. However, in order to get the manuscript ready for review, I have to do some work with formatting, especially converting the footnotes into a bibliography, so I will be taking the day off of writing the blog while I work on this. In the meantime, please enjoy this rerun post from November 2012.
One weird claim from Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods has always bothered me, and I’ve never been able to figure out just where it came from. In the book, von Däniken claims that Egypt’s Great Pyramid lies at the “center of gravity” for all earth’s land:
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.
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.
For several decades, the Russian government, and the Soviet one before it, have used the official organs of state to promote a series of bizarre pseudoscientific claims, ranging from the ancient astronaut theory to Kirlian photography, for reasons that have never been entirely clear but seem tied to efforts to sow dissent in the West by undermining the pillars of Western society, including faith in science. A new study coming out of ITMO University, a Russian state university, alleges that the Great Pyramid contains mysterious magnetic forces that it concentrates in the subterranean chamber due to its bulk. The researchers did not actually study the pyramid, nor did they measure electromagnetic forces therein, but instead made a model of it in a computer, using a number of assumptions that are untrue (e.g., that the pyramid contains no unexplored cavities) and then reported the results without testing whether other large piles of stone might have similar properties without any intention on the part of the builder or of nature. Naturally, the Daily Mail picked up the Russian claims, and other papers copied their story.
As most readers know, I have collected what is probably the most voluminous compendium of medieval myths about the pyramids of Egypt available in English. There are a few texts, however, that even I had not yet read and translated. One of them belonged to the Syrian cosmographer al-Dimashqui, who died in 1327. His Cosmography is quite similar to the Akhbar al-zaman, though tending toward the geographical rather than the historical, and with much less interest in Egypt. Nevertheless, it contains an interesting section on the pyramids of Giza that is clearly a derivative of the earlier pyramid stories known from the Akhbar on down.
Last year I translated the fragments of Abenephius, an otherwise unknown figure quoted in the works of Athanasius Kircher. As I discussed at the time, he was claimed to be a Jewish author resident near Cairo during the early Middle Ages, but no evidence of his existence or proof of the authenticity of his writings exists. Nevertheless, some of the fragments are clearly derivative of Classical sources, and it is to one of these that I’d like to return today to point out something I didn’t highlight very well last year but returned to my attention while doing some research this week.
Over the past few months, ufologists linked to billionaire UFO nut Robert Bigelow have promoted a growing number of claims that they are investigating debris from flying saucers containing chemical properties never before seen on this Earth. Jacques Vallée, Tom DeLonge, and a former Pentagon official now employed by DeLonge have all made these claims, and journalist George Knapp even provided a sample of such a substance to a UFO exhibit at a Smithsonian-backed museum a few years ago. According to media accounts the Pentagon official, who oversaw Bigelow’s government contract to investigate UFOs, claims that Bigelow has buildings in Las Vegas to store such material
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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