Anyway, after reading Scott Creighton’s book about ancient Egypt last week and learning that it was based on medieval pyramid myths, I became interested in these medieval stories. As best I can tell, the majority of fringe history writers know these medieval stories from the collection of them appearing in Col. Vyse’s Operations Carried Out at the Great Pyramid, which until quite recently was the most detailed presentation of medieval pyramid legends. These are presented as a series of translations from the Arabic by Aloys Sprenger, but upon investigation it turns out that vast majority aren’t translations at all but very compressed summaries, with occasional translation, and it is never clear who is responsible for what parts of the text. Worse, the author or translator has frequently mistaken or confused authors, and pieces of various stories were “restored” from parallel passages in other authors. It’s all a mess.
As you know, I had previously published a translation of Al-Maqrizi’s medieval account of the various myths and legends then current about the Egyptian pyramids. But this time I’ve tried collecting what I can find of other authors’ versions of the stories. It’s not particularly easy since so many of the texts involved have never been translated, and Sprenger’s versions of those that have are a bit misleading. I am most disappointed that the first half of George Elmacin’s world history has never been translated, and thus his account of the pyramids is available only to those who speak Arabic.
Anyway, you can read the texts of the legends I’ve collected so far here. They are by no means complete or comprehensive. However, there are a few interesting things to point out. The most interesting is the division between Western Europe and the Arab and Coptic world. The Western Europeans viewed the pyramids as the granaries of Joseph, from the Book of Genesis. Gregory of Tours, writing around 594, said that the pyramids “are wide at the base and narrow at the top in order that the wheat might be cast into them through a tiny opening” (1.10, trans. Earnest Brehaut). In this, he was supported by the monk Dicuil, the (fictional) John Mandeville, and Benjamin of Tudela. On the other hand, the Copts and Arabs had an elaborate and overlapping set of myths, which I’ve discussed many times, that placed the pyramids before the Flood and ascribed them variously to Hermes Trismegistus, Shaddad, or Surid as a storehouse for ancient wisdom. The story is familiar to many of you from the several versions of it in Al-Maqrizi, but I’ve collected a bunch more from other authors. One quaint detail you might find amusing is that the traveler Ibn Battuta, in telling the Surid story around 1356, made clear that he didn’t actually see the pyramids: He described them as cones with a circular base!
One of the odder legends about the pyramids I’ve come across was written down by Abu al-Makarim, a medieval Coptic priest, in his thirteenth-century History of Churches and Monasteries, referring to an unnamed author whose treatise he is summarizing:
In these high towers, which are the two great landmarks, [these kings] placed their treasures and their tombs. The riches contained in one of them were extracted by one of the emperors of the Romans, named Severus, or the Great; and he extracted [it], after four hundred courses, during his whole reign, until he died, in the time of the author of the treatise. (trans. B. T. A. Evetts)
It seems like Abu al-Makarim confused Severus with the Caliph al-Mamun, who in widespread contemporary legend, was alleged to have found fabulous treasure within the Great Pyramid.
The Arabic writers were divided over whether the pyramids were built before the Flood by Hermes Trismegistus or Surid bin ’Ad. The Hermes version of the story is interesting. Many authors assert that the Great Pyramid, or else one of the pyramids at Dashur or Saqqara, was the tomb of Hermes (Sa‘id Al-Andalusi, Al-tarif 39.7-16; Al-Baghdadi, Account of Egypt; Al-Makarim, folio 64b; Ibn Battuta, The Journey; Al-Maqrizi, Al-Khitat 1.40; etc.). Now, because it was already an ancient story that Hermes had inscribed or written down wisdom for posterity (Diodorus, Library 5.67; Kore Kosmou, part 1; Iambilichus, Theurgia 8.16; Syncellus, Chronicle 41; Elmacin, chapter on Alexander; etc.) and that the builder of the Great Pyramid had also written a sacred book of wisdom (Syncellus, Chronicle 63), it was easy enough to conflate the stories, especially when Hermes became associated with the pyramids. Thus, we find legends that those who entered the tomb of Hermes found his sacred books. An eighth century text by Jabir ibn Hayyan mentions that Balinus (Apollonius of Tyana) discovered the Emerald Tablet in the hand of the mummified Hermes at Tyana. Later, in a treatise attributed to Albertus Magnus, De secretis chemicis, this is transformed into Alexander the Great finding this tablet in Hermes’ hand at Hebron: “Alexander the Great discovered the sepulchre of Hermes, in one of his journeys, full of all treasures, not metallic, but golden, written on a table of zatadi, which others call emerald” (trans. Thomas Thomson). Hebron was the traditional burial place of Adam, so in stories in this tradition (and there are several), the Pyramids’ antediluvian role in Arabic lore is taken over by that of the pre-Flood Pillars of Stone and the Prophecy of Adam from the Fallen Angels tradition (of which I have written entirely too much in the past), perhaps because Western Europeans considered the pyramids to be Joseph’s Granaries and thus not pre-Flood. The early modern De secretissimo philosophorum opere chemico explicitly claims that the tablet of Hermes was found among pre-Flood pillars of wisdom at Adam’s tomb.