While I was on the press site trying to find out about Ancient Aliens, I also sent a note to A+E Networks’ publicity department to see if I can get a press release about Scott Wolter’s new show, which is also notable in its absence from all of History’s publicity materials. But if you ever wanted to know anything about the various swamp people on the network, that can be arranged.
While I’m waiting for the next tsunami of stupid to descend on us from Ancient Aliens, I’ve also been trying to do some more productive research. I’ve been in contact with one of the world’s leading experts on Islamic intellectual history in the medieval period, and he has generously agreed to help me figure out which medieval writers really said what about the mythic antediluvian pyramid builder Surid and his activities before the Flood. If we are lucky, this may solve questions of chronology and determine when the Surid myth emerged. If we are not lucky, it will prove that the state of the scholarly work on early Islamic historical manuscripts makes a clear chronology impossible.
As most readers remember, a few days ago I discovered that Murtada ibn al-‘Afif, writing the thirteenth century, had noted that the ninth century astrologer Abu Ma‘shar had made reference to Surid in his book The Thousands, which would put the story as much as 100 years earlier than modern scholars assume. But here’s a weird detail I had overlooked. Murtada says that in a different book Abu Ma‘shar claimed that Surid had a dream of “the descent of the moon upon earth in the form of a woman; of the over-turning of the Earth with its inhabitants, and of the total eclipse of the Sun” (trans. J. Davies). This is unusual because no other version of the story that I knew said that the moon took a woman’s form to descend to earth. It’s probably a reference to the Greek misconception that Isis was a moon goddess.
At first I put it down to corruption in the text, or some other mistake. But then I found inexplicable confirmation in what previously had seemed like a garbled mistake in the Akhbar al-zaman, a text compiled from older material sometime between 904 and 1140 CE, and the most important early source for pyramid legends. This text gives the story of Surid’s vision in its standard form, but later on, in recapping it from a different source, says this: “He sent for his priests and astronomers and told them how he saw the sphere had descended to him in the guise of a woman, how the land with all its inhabitants had been overturned, and how the sun had been eclipsed” (my trans.). I’ll be damned but it’s the same text. This clearly points to an older source, such as Abu Ma‘shar, who is cited only a sentence earlier in the Akhbar al-zaman, that differs in its details from the other versions of the Surid story, and which the author of the Akhbar used without realizing there were differences with the source he followed elsewhere.
What’s interesting is that this version seems a lot closer to Greek Hermetic ideas, particularly if the moon woman is conceded to be the Greek interpretation of Isis. It’s a shame that not enough survives to see if this was the original form of the Surid legend.