If you read most of the secondary sources on medieval lore, you’ll likely read, as I have many times, that the Arabic language authors repeated each other relentlessly and that most of the books about antediluvian times are nearly word-for-word plagiarisms of one another. At the macro level this is certainly true, but the claim hides some interesting problems that so far as I can tell no one has explored in any great depth.
Now let me walk that back a smidge: Historians of Islamic historiography note that there were two competing versions of Egyptian history in medieval times. The first is the Hermetic history, which treats of Hermes Trismegistus and focuses on the antediluvian period. The second is the traditionalist history, which is based, in a corrupt way, on Manetho with a heavy dose of folklore and focuses mostly on post-diluvian doings, from Mizraim on down. Much less investigated is how the traditionalists reacted to the Hermetic writers in recreating antediluvian history. The long and short of it is that Hermes ended up assimilated with Surid, the traditionalists’ candidate for the builder of the pyramids.
The Akhbar al-zaman has a reputation as a collection of wacky tall tales about the world before the Flood, and it certainly has its fair share of wonder stories that are utterly unbelievable. But what is interesting is that the author (here I am going to refer to the book’s claims as those of the author for clarity, though he likely copied them from an earlier source) has an agenda behind his discussion, and it only becomes obvious when reading the text against its parallels. Our author wants to try to minimize or otherwise entirely eliminate Hermes Trismegistus.
This is clearest when he describes the antediluvian priest Shāon (a.k.a. Sawan or Savan), whom he equates with Hermes:
They say he was the first Hermes, the one who built the palace of statues, which measured the volume of water of the Nile and is located in the Mountains of the Moon. He also built a temple to the Sun. On this subject, the Copts relate many extraordinary traditions, which boggle the mind. He became invisible to men, being in the midst of them. He built Ashmun… etc. etc.
What’s doubly interesting is that these snubs of Hermes had to have occurred on purpose, since the author of the Akhbar admits to having access to the Hermetic history. He cites Abu Ma‘shar’s The Thousands, where Hermes’ various antics before the Flood and after (as Hermes II and III) are reported. Yet our author is not the only one to want to censor traditionally wacky claims about Hermes. Ibn Julul, the author through whom we know what Abu Ma‘shar said in the Thousands, himself engaged in similar censorship: “Abū Ma‘šar told some absurd reports about him, of which I related the most true and most likely” (trans. Kevin van Bladel). In other words, everyone more or less agreed that the Hermetic history was incredible, but they disagreed on what parts to throw out.
Our Akhbar author (or, more likely, his sources), though, didn’t simply revise the Hermetic history when it came to Hermes; he also did so when it came to the Watchers and the Nephilim, who are part and parcel of the package associated with Hermes-Enoch-Idris. It is no surprise, for example, that he has adopted the interpretation of Genesis 6:4 that makes the Sons of God and daughters of men into warring groups of Sethites and Cainites, which by his day was the universally accepted version of the story in the Judeo-Christian world, as well as the standard Islamic account. But what is interesting is that he has preserved a chunk of the old Enochian Watchers myth but reassigned the Sons of God/Watchers to the djinn, seeming to equate Biblical fallen angels (an impossibility in Islam) with Arabian djinn.
I won’t bore you with the whole chain of logic explaining this, but the two passages below are quoting Abu Ma‘shar, though only one of the two specifies this explicitly, and in turn the Greek underlying the text, along with an embedded chunk of Berossus, shows that it derives from Annianus’s World Chronicle, which was based on, among other things, the Book of Enoch. The overlap in the text, and the fact that Bar Hebraeus elsewhere cites Abu Ma‘shar makes the identity of these texts quite plain:
Al-Juzjani, Tabaqat-i-Naziri 1
A thousand years had elapsed since Adam’s death, and the rebellious sons of Ḳābīl and Nabaṭī began to act tyrannically. They chose one of their number to rule over them, who was named Sāmīārush; and between them and the other descendants of Adam, who were just persons, hostility and enmity arose. (trans. Major H. G. Raverty)
Bar Hebraeus, Chronography 1
And because of this they (i.e. the men from HERMON) went to the children of CAIN, and took wives, and begat mighty men of names, that is to say, men notorious for murders and robberies. Moreover, they set up over them the first king, a man whose name was SAMYAZOS, and when they began to quarrel with their brethren the children of SETH, they forced them also to set up a king over them, and they set up a king. (trans. E. A. Wallis Budge)
The Indians, the Persians, and the Greeks treated the genealogy and tribes of the djinn and gave the names of their kings, and they believed they were divided into twenty-one tribes. When their empire had lasted five thousand years, they appointed a king from among themselves called Shāma’īl, son of Aras. Then they divided and named five kings, and they stayed a long time in this state. At the end, some of the djinn attacked each other, and there were a great number of battles and terrible wars.
This might seem a bit esoteric, but at least it’s more interesting than the claim Christopher Fredrickson made in his undated, self-published A Study on the Book of the Watchers, 1 Enoch 1-36, in which he argued that (a) one of the Watchers is named Barak’el, (b) the current U.S. president is Barack Obama, and (c) barak means “blessed” in Arabic, so therefore Obama is a Satan-worshipper and Muslims worship the devil and his fallen angels.
Since this was such a dull slog, let me finish with something weird. I mentioned earlier that the myth that demons built the copper palace for ’Anak probably derives from Solomon’s use of demons to build the First Temple in the apocryphal Testament of Solomon, where our friends the Watchers appears as fallen angels and demons, including Azazel. The fallen angels are less than fearsome in this book; one is Sphendonaêl, the inflamer of tonsils. Another seems to be in charge of painful gas. One unnamed Fallen Angel gave Solomon this account of his role in the universe, in chapter 14, one so obscene that the Victorian translator rendered parts of it in Latin out of horror. I’ll translate them into English where the translator gave Latin:
2. … This is the first time I have stood before thee, O King Solomon. I am a spirit made into a god among men, but now brought to naught by the ring and wisdom vouchsafed to thee by God. 3. Now I am the so-called Winged Dragon, and I chamber not with many women, but only with a few that are of fair shape, which possess the name of xuli, of this star. 4. And I mate with them in the guise of a spirit winged in form, copulating with them in their buttocks. And she on whom I have leapt goes heavy with child, and that which is born of her becomes Eros. But since such offspring cannot be carried by men, the woman in question breaks wind. Such is my role. (14:2-4; adapted from the trans. of F. C. Conybeare)
So there you have it, ancient astronaut theorists: Alien anal probing is real! Ancient texts say so!