Now on to today’s more sober look at ancient Egyptian mysteries.
When I discussed Arab pyramid lore on Monday, I left out an important part of the story, not because I didn’t want to talk about but because the discussion had already grown way too long. Careful readers probably noticed that I did not fully explain how a myth originally told of Hermes became visited on a human king named Surid. There actually is an answer to this question, but it is so insanely complicated that it would have nearly doubled the length of the original post.
To begin with, we need a little grounding. Most fringe authors copy their information about Arab pyramid myths from Aloys Sprenger’s partial translations in the second volume of Col. Vyse’s Operations Carried on at the Pyramids of Gizeh (1840), because this is the only readily accessible English translation of most of this material. Sprenger, however, made a number of errors, which the fringe authors copy slavishly. He accepted as genuine, for example, an alleged papyrus from the reign of Diocletian found, the Arab writers said, in what Sprenger translated as the “Monastery of Abou Hormeis.” The papyrus almost certainly never existed—and was a medieval literary myth, as we shall see—but fringe writers down to the present (notably Frank Joseph) not only accept it as real but also attribute it to the so-called Abou Hormeis. This, however, turns out to be the key to unraveling how Hermes turned into Surid.
In the earliest stories, the two pyramids of Giza were ascribed to Hermes and his brother Agathodaemon, a story attributed to the (pagan) Sabeans of Yemen. Al-Maqrizi gives the standard form of the story in quoting from an unnamed earlier writer:
One of these pyramids is the tomb of A‘adimun (Agathodaemon) and the other of Hermes. Between these two figures there are nearly a thousand years, A‘adimun being the older of the two. The inhabitants of Egypt, that is to say the Copts, argue that these two characters were two prophets who appeared before the coming of Christianity. This view is consistent with that professed by the Sabeans about prophets, but not with the regard that one must have for the great prophets. But for the Copts, the two prophets in question were pure souls, holy, free from corruption, and equipped with heavenly and terrestrial inspiration. They also knew events before they had occurred and knew of the secrets of the world.
As I’ve shown before, this comes from the Arabic adoption of the Jewish myth that the children of Seth built a “pillar” in Egypt to preserve knowledge from the Flood (Josephus, Antiquities 1.2.3). I learned yesterday that the Byzantine monk George Kedrenos (or Cedrenus) specifically identified this knowledge with the astrological wisdom the Arabs would attribute to Hermes. This becomes a bit confusing because Kedrenos, writing around 1050, said that an angel gave Seth knowledge of the sins of the Watchers and that he was the first to learn astrology. This is almost certainly a mistake for Enoch, who is given this same information in the Book of Enoch a thousand years earlier. But note that the eleventh-century scholar Al-Shahrastani says in the Kitab al–Milal wa al-Nihal that “They (the Sabeans) say that Adsimun (Agathodaemon) and Hermes were Seth and Enoch respectively” (2.1.1; my trans. from the German edition). The Arabs identified Enoch with the Qur’an prophet Idris, and also with Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth, both patrons of writing and astrology. Thus, the Jewish myth of the Watchers and coming of the Flood filtered down into the Arab pyramid lore.
Thus, in Arabic, the two pyramids became known as Abu Hermes. This literally means “Father of Hermes,” but figuratively referred to the protector and therefore the tomb of the body of Hermes. I’m sure you’ve already noticed the similarity to Abou Hormeis, which would more accurately be transliterated as Abu Hermes, as indeed al-Maqrizi gives the name.
But how did this turn into a claim that the human king Surid did all the things first attributed to Hermes?
To understand this requires a small geography lesson. There were several places known in Arabic as Abu Hermes in the land of Egypt. A monastery of that name stood in the nomes of Memphis and was apparently of some renown. (It is mentioned in a surviving papyrus work permit.) Additionally, the Roman emperor Hadrian founded a city named Antinopolis (also called Antinoë) on the east bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt to commemorate the spot where his young lover, Antinous, drowned in 130 CE. Near Antinopolis were the abandoned labyrinth of limestone quarries which the Christians took over and used as a monastic retreat, creating the famous rock church dedicated to St. John the Baptist. This area is today known as Dayr Abu Hinnis bur is sometimes called Abu Hermes. This would be because the area was located directly opposite the ancient center of Thoth-worship known in Greek as the Great City of Hermes, or Hermopolis Magna, today near the Egyptian town of El Ashmunein. This area was known as a center of Coptic learning, and it was famous in the early Arabic period for preserving ancient wisdom and recopying it in beautiful illuminated manuscripts.
Neither, however, appears to be the Abu Hermes of Arab legend. That one is still another, derived from a corruption of names. Near the necropolis of Saqqara, there once stood a monastery of the Coptic St. Jeremiah. This monastery fell into ruins in the ninth century, right around the time that the pyramid legend emerged. It was known as Aba Jeremias, which is linguistically the parent of the corrupt forms Dayr Abi Hirmis and Dayr Abu Hermes, possibly due to transcription errors or else oral/aural confusion. Some also believe that the Arabs identified images of St. Jeremias holding a book with those of Imhotep as Saqqara, also holding a book, which they mistook for Hermes Trismegistus as priest or monk, as A. Fodor wrote in “The Origins of the Arabic Legends of the Pyramids” in 1970. We can identify this site as the Abu Hermes in question because Arabic authors describe the ruins as standing beside the famous step pyramid of Djoser. Maqrizi, for example, notes that the monastery stood beside a pyramid belonging to a famous horseman, almost certainly one of the Saqqara structures.
This monastery of Abu Hermes took over in myth from the earlier form of the legend mostly likely due to the influence of Islam. The Hermetic version of the pyramid myth emerged in the early medieval period, before Islam had taken recognizable shape and when the Arabs were not yet wholly Islamic. In the late 600s and the 700s CE, Islam was in its formative period, and there were still many pagan holdovers, as well as Jewish and Christian folklore among the Arabs. But you’ll note that not long after there was a creeping sense that it was improper to consider pagan gods like Hermes and Agathodaemon as Islamic prophets, or as entirely free from sin—it violated the “regard that one must have for the great prophets,” as al-Maqrizi, writing around 1400 quoted from a much older source. How could such stories be made religiously acceptable?
At the same time, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when the myth began to change the Arabs entered into a golden age of historiography, producing some of the most important works of Arab history of the medieval period. This involved the wholesale adoption of Greco-Roman material taken over from Byzantine areas falling to Islam. Among the texts that the Arabs acquired was, according to scholars of Arab historical writing, a Syriac version of Manetho, who had written that the Great Pyramid had been built by Suphis, who had conceived a contempt for the gods and, in penitence, wrote the Sacred Book. Since the pyramids were the House of Hermes but Manetho said that they were built by Suphis, then it stood to reason that this Hermes must actually have been Suphis, which in Syriac might (we don’t know) have been transliterated incorrectly as Suphid or Suris, or Surid. Since both figures wrote books and built pyramids, so they had to be the same.
So far so good. But how to justify this? Here, the historians seem to have transferred the legend’s location at Abu Hermes (i.e. Giza) to a different Abu Hermes (i.e. Aba Jeremias), a now-defunct monastery in an area known to have been used by the Greeks and Romans prior to the Christians. Someone—and we don’t know who—constructed an elaborate frame story to surround the Surid tale, incorporate Hermes, and explain how the story survived the Flood—all while making the story (more) compatible with Islam.
Here is how the eleventh-century cadi Al-Kodhai (whoever he was—I have no idea) presented the frame story, as quoted in Maqrizi:
A villager from Qoft, well versed in business and the history of Egypt, and who took care of old books and ruins, told me he found in an ancient volume a text about the pyramids: People who excavated a tomb in the monastery of Abu Hermes found there a dead man wrapped in his shroud and on his chest a piece of paper rolled into a fabric. Having unwound it, they looked at the writing but could not understand anything, for the paper was written in the ancient language of the Egyptians. They sought someone who could read it to them, but in vain. They said that at the convent of Al-Qalmun in Fayum there lived a monk who knew this kind of writing. They went in search of the monk, doubting strongly that he could explain it to them, but he read it and this is what the text meant: ‘This book was written in the first year of the Emperor Diocletian and was copied from a book copied itself in the first year of Emperor Philip. This emperor had made this copy from a gold tablet, written letter by letter. This translation was made from the original book for Philip by the Coptic brothers Ilwa and Yertsa. The emperor having asked them how they could read things that others could not, they said that they were descendants of one of the ancient Egyptians, who alone had not been drowned by the Flood. He owed his salvation to the fact that, alone among the Egyptians, he went to Noah and believed in him, and Noah took him with him in the Ark. The Flood waters having receded, he returned to Egypt with some of the descendants of Ham, son of Noah, and he remained there until his death. His son inherited his knowledge of the Egyptian language, and they had inherited the same, for this science was transmitted in the family generation to generation. The length of time that had elapsed before Philip’s copy was made was 2,372 years. As to him who made the copy on gold leaf writing separately letter by letter such as Philip found, his time was separated from the original manuscript by 1,785 years. (my trans.)
It must be nice to be like Erich von Däniken or Frank Joseph and simply wave your hands over the texts, pronounce them literally true, and not have to deal with any of this.