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.
In my last blog post, I explained that the astrological calculations of the time of the Flood given in the Hermetic history, as recorded by the Akhbar al-zaman, Murtada ibn al-Afif, al-Maqrizi (via al-Qudai), and more, were taken from Persian astrologer Abu Ma‘shar’s Book of Thousands. (The date he chose, by the way, was selected to coincide with the Persian myth of Yima, who built the vara to preserved animals from the gods’ destructive winter.) But this presents a bit of a problem because Abu Ma‘shar did not record the legend of Surid and Philemon but rather said that the first Hermes foresaw the Flood and inscribed knowledge on upper Egyptian temples to protect it.
This problem is further exacerbated by a statement that Murtada ibn al-Afif made in in his History of Egypt around 1200, a book that Murtada admitted to copying from an old manuscript, presumably of the Akhbar al-zaman or its predecessor. He wrote,
Abu Ma‘shar the astrologer, in his Book of Thousands, says that the reason for the building of the Pyramids was the dream which Surid ibn Sahluq saw. He confirms it in his Book of Miraculous Dreams, where he adds that he sent for the priests and soothsayers of his time, and the astrologers, and related to them what he had seen of the descent of the Moon upon Earth in the form of a woman; of the overturning of the Earth with its inhabitants, and of the total eclipse of the Sun; and the dream he had after that: and that the Priests declared to him the coming of the Deluge, whereof mention is made in the Book of the Annals… (adapted from John Davies’ translation)
This statement simply cannot be true as written because the myth of Surid and the pyramids does not exist before it appears in the Akbar al-zaman a century after Abu Ma‘shar lived, and every version thereafter is more or less clearly derived from that version.
This seemingly irreconcilable problem hasn’t received a lot of scholarly attention. I asked Michael Cook, one of the great experts, about it a couple of years ago, but he had no idea and suggested that the reference was in error. Two other experts declined to answer my question.
But I think there is a solution.
Ibn Wahshiyya wrote around the same time as Abu Ma‘shar, and he is the only apparently independent witness to the existence of Surid as a mythic figure before the Akhbar al-zaman. Some modern scholars have suggested that his book Ancient Alphabets (Kitab Shawq al-Mustaham) is a Renaissance fraud concocted based on the work of Athanasius Kircher (who was also accused of faking Abenephius’ fragments!), but most believe that it is a genuine medieval text composed around 863 CE. After reading it all the way through, I have to agree that it contains references that don’t match the later works that would have been available in the Renaissance but it does agree with Late Antique material that wasn’t known in the West at the time.
Anyway, Ibn Wahshiyya gives us essentially the same story about Hermes that Abu Ma‘shar does, but which the censorious Akhbar al-zaman does not: “Hermes Abū Tat the philosopher … wrote on the noble art (of philosophical secrets.) He constructed in upper Egypt treasure chambers, and set up stones containing magic inscriptions, which he locked, and guarded by the charm of this alphabet, extracted from the regions of darkness” (4.12, trans. Joseph Hammer). At this early date he also, like Abu Ma‘shar, identifies Hermes with Enoch and Idris, and he alleges that “Hermes the Great”—which he implies is Hermes Trismegistus, the Second Hermes of Late Antique lore (in a confused way—whether he believed in one Hermes or two isn’t clear)—was a king of Egypt and founder of its first post-Flood dynasty. He also speaks of Hermes’ successor Asclepius and the college he founded, just as the Greeks did. This much is the shared Hermetic history of the Byzantine writers and the early Islamic writers, and his Classical learning is also on display when he refers to “King Kimas” as the author of two hundred Hermetic books of alchemy. While this is the Greek word for alchemy, it was also the name assigned to Khufu by Diodorus Siculus, the same pharaoh alleged by the Christians, and based on Late Antique Egyptian lore, to have composed sacred books of wisdom.
But Ibn Wahshiyya also knows something of Surid and Philemon, but not as we know them. His Surid and Philemon are different. He speaks only briefly of Surid, calling him a “philosopher” and attributing to him an alphabet found in the birba, or temples, of Egypt (4.2). He speaks of the pyramids in a bit more depth, writing of “the alphabet of Philaos the philosopher. He invented miraculous fumigations, marvellous compounds, talismans, and astrological tables. He constructed the treasure-chambers in the pyramids, and guarded them with the charm of wonderful alarm-posts” (4.15). That story looks a lot like the one attributed to Philemon, the executor of Surid’s plans, and the name “Philaos” seems just close enough to Philemon that the characters could be one and the same.
This testimony could solve our problem. If we accept that Ibn Wahshiyya is correct in reporting that Surid and Philemon were known in Late Antique and early medieval times as legendary philosophers or priests of the Egyptians, then things start to come together. Abu Ma‘shar might well have reported in the Thousands--which al-Mas‘udi said listed the great temples and buildings of each millennium—that the priest Surid had foretold the Flood, just as Enoch had done, and he might even have interpreted his dream in a book about dreams, presumably his lost Kitāb tafsīr al-manṣmṣt min al-nujūm (“Book of the Explanation of Dreams from the Stars”)—though there was another dream book that passed falsely under his name. And he would not have needed to have known the myth of Surid as a pharaoh building the pyramids—which, a careful reading of Murtada shows was not actually attributed to Abu Ma‘shar, only the dream.
A final bit of confirmation comes from, of all places, the Akhbar al-zaman itself. It says two things of note. First, in a discussion of Surid and his dream, it says that “Abu Ma‘shar reported this opinion in his Book of Thousands,” though the citation seems slightly out of place and appears wrongly attached to the preceding sentence, about the Copts denying they had been invaded, rather than the next one about Surid’s dream. This seems most likely to be an artifact of the Akhbar author breaking up Surid’s story into two parts and moving only some of the text to a different chapter, or the French translator picking the wrong place for a paragraph break. The parallel, but uninterrupted, text from Murtada places the same citation in the same spot, almost verbatim, except that he explicitly connects the citation to the dream. Absent the paragraph break, the Akhbar text would be the same: “Abu Ma‘shar reported this opinion in his Book of Thousands: the reason Sūrīd built the pyramids was the vision that we have reported in its proper place.” This makes two witnesses to the same story, but the Akhbar seems to acknowledge that there was a preceding version. The dream story has been extracted from the account of the pyramids and placed in a different chapter, on priests, where Surid is listed first under the heading of priests before later being reintroduced as king. Moving Abu Ma‘shar’s discussion of the dream to another part of the book interrupted the sentence citing him and left a lacuna in the paragraph that can only be understood by reading it against Murtada.
Interestingly, the version of the same story that al-Maqrizi attributes to Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah, and which is often assumed to be a copy of the Akhbar because it is nearly verbatim identical, is missing two things: (a) the reference to Abu Ma‘shar right before Surid’s dream and (b) Abu Ma‘shar’s calculations of the planetary positions during the Flood. It is otherwise exactly the same. The implication, therefore, is that the version known to ibn Wasif Shah preserves a story which later writers “improved” with material drawn from Abu Ma‘shar.
Beyond this, at-Ta‘alibi (d. 1038 CE), in his Book of Curious and Entertaining Information, suggests that Abu Ma‘shar may have had more than one story of antediluvians building pyramids, not just the Hermes story known from later citations: “According to Abū Ma'shar al-Munajim (‘the Astrologer’), the ancient peoples living before the Flood, when they had foreknowledge that some calamity from heaven, such as an inundation or a fire, was about to overwhelm all things living on the earth and growing there, used to build massive stone pyramids in upper Egypt on the hilltops and uplands in order to be secure there from fire and water” (trans. C. E. Bosworth). This, too, agrees with the Akhbar and Murtada and implies that Abu Ma‘shar spoke of repeated premonitions of the Flood and recurring catastrophes, similar to what al-Mas‘udi wrote about not long after.
Therefore, taken altogether, the earliest witnesses seem to imply that the first version of the story involved Surid as a priest or prophet (not unlike Idris and Enoch) who (again like Enoch) had a vision of the coming of the Flood. Perhaps Surid and Philaos/Philemon were imagined as two in a series of Egyptian prophets who predicted the coming of the Flood. In this respect, this myth—whatever its origin—found its way into Abu Ma‘shar’s Thousands, where it became evidence for a new story a century later that promoted Surid to a pyramid-building king in place of the original Hermes, perhaps due to changing attitudes toward Hermeticism and the need to craft a more distinctly Islamic history of Egypt.
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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