As I mentioned the other day, during the slow season in the world of fringe history I’m doing some more work on the preservation of Late Antique legends in medieval Arabic material, and I’m putting together an edition of Murtada ibn al-‘Afif’s History of Egypt (before 1237 CE) from the first (and only) English translation. This seemed like it would be an easy task, but as always there are complications. The English translation was made in the seventeenth century from a French translation, and I discovered that both of them used a particularly insensitive word to describe a certain highly recognizable religious figure, because in the years between the translation and today the word has changed its connotation. This creates a problem: Is the right choice to preserve the integrity of the original text at the risk of some extremist acting out as a result, or adulterate the translation? The word came from a verse in the Quran, so I looked up the modern translation and substituted the more recent interpretation, but I’m not sure how I feel about it. No wonder so little work gets done on this material.
In his History of Egypt, Murtada relates the standard account of the Flood familiar from both the Quran, the earliest Quranic commentaries, and from early collections of Arabic legends. During the period of the war between the Sethites and the Cainites (i.e. the rampage of the Giants from Genesis 6:4), God warns Noah of the coming Flood. The people of Chaldea doubted Noah and denied the coming of the Flood, while Noah preached the true faith of the one true God and built the Ark. As the Quran (11:40) tells us, Noah asked God to destroy the unbelievers (cf. Quran 71:26-28), and God tells him to take only the few true believers of the world aboard the Ark. In medieval lore, this warrant allowed for some extra people not found in Genesis, specifically the Egyptian priest Philemon and his family, for his daughter married Noah’s son, Ham. Thus was Egyptian knowledge saved. This story is standard and appears in many medieval compilations.
Murtada, though, said that he found a different account in an old book, most of whose pages had been torn out. He found himself shocked that it told such a longer and more involved story of the Flood, and one missing its Egyptian elements (barring one reference to Philemon). It is extremely surprising to see that the account is a very close parallel to the story of Philemon and Surid, familiar from pyramid legends, with their parts replaced by new figures. To briefly recap, the legend of Surid states that the antediluvian king of Egypt had disturbing dreams of earthquakes and birds, which led him to seek out the advice of Philemon and the priests of Egypt, who warned him of the twin judgments of Flood and Fire. As a result, he built the pyramids to safeguard himself, his family, and the sciences. A second version of the same story gives similar dreams to Philemon, who then contrives to escape to Babylon as a double agent secretly trying to undermine the pharaoh’s plot to destroy Noah. (Full translations are here and here.)
Compare this to the story Murtada reports about Lamech, father of Noah, and Mechavel and Darmasel, kings of Babylon:
… the Patriarch, the Father of Noah, (Gods peace be with him) dreamt that he saw issuing out of his Mouth a fire, which burnt the whole Terrestrial World. He thereupon awaked much astonished. Some days after he dreamt again, that he was upon a Tree in the midst of a great Sea without Shores, which also astonish’d him very much. After that there being born to him a Son, the Prophet of God Noah, the good tidings of it spread over the whole Earth; and the Priest Galoumas related it immediately to Mechavel the Son of Darmasel, assuring him further that the Terrestrial world should perish in his time, that is, in the time of Noah, whose life was to be very long. The Priests knew also by their Sciences, that there would happen a Deluge, which should drown the Earth and its Inhabitants; but they always hoped to secure themselves from what should happen with King Darmasel. The King therefore commanded that there should be strong Castles built on the tops of the Mountains, that they might retire thither and be safe as they imagined. They built seven Castles of that kind, according to the number of their Idols, whereof they gave them the names, and graved thereon their Sciences. (trans. J. Davies)
I don’t know about you, but this looks very similar to the story of Surid, though the people and events have been reshuffled. So far as I can find, no one has remarked on this passage, and I have no way of knowing whether it predates or postdates the version featuring Surid and Philemon. If I had to guess, I’d put this one first because it is more coherent and makes more sense than the version that has Surid relating pointless dreams that tell the priests only what they already knew. It’s also less complex than the second version, in which Philemon has the dream and an evil pharaoh sends him to Babylon as part of an elaborate (and confusing) plot to get the king of Babylon to burn up the ark. On the other hand, the totality of the tale of Noah given there is much embroidered from the standard legend, which would imply a later date. I am not expert enough to have any idea how to begin investigating that, but it would be a very interesting question to have answered.
The seven idols are pretty clearly meant to be the seven planets known to the ancients (the sun, the moon, and the five visible planets). However, this doesn’t tell us much since the Philemon version contains seven ranks of priests for the same seven planets; all it suggests is that there is a Late Antique undercurrent to this story. However, nothing like it shows up in any source I’m familiar with. The detail about burning the ark has a parallel in the Egyptian Nag Hammadi corpus, where in Hypostasis of the Archons we read that a daughter of Adam named “Norea came to him [Noah], wanting to board the ark. And when he would not let her, she blew upon the ark and caused it to be consumed by fire. Again he made the ark, for a second time” (trans. Bentley Layton), but what connection if any I could not say.
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
7/14/2015 07:05:10 am
What was the insensitive word?
7/14/2015 10:26:56 am
The French translation, repeated by the English translator, renders the Quranic epithet "al-nabiyyi al-ummiyyi" ("the unlettered prophet") as "prophète-idiot," from the older meaning of "idiot" as "ignorant" or "uneducated." I trust you can see how that would be read in a bad light today.
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
7/14/2015 10:36:45 am
7/14/2015 10:43:58 am
For what it's worth: I'd stick as close to the original text as possible and if it could be read as controversial in today's language leave a footnote explaining just what you did here. They aren't, after all, your own words. They're the words of a person long since dead and can only be rendered as such to make clear the intent as it was at the time of the writing.
7/15/2015 01:39:47 am
Did you ever see this 18th-century attempt to summarise "Oriental" writings on the ancient history of Egypt?
7/15/2015 03:34:30 am
I did. Despite its tone of contempt, it's rather a handy summary of the medieval Egyptian pseudo-histories.
7/15/2015 02:56:25 am
Thank you, David Bradbury, for that link. The preface, kissing the ass of the Duke of Marlborough is hilarious.
Day Late and Dollar Short
7/15/2015 03:43:00 am
Questions of ethics in translation of Medieval texts, who knew? Fascinating stuff.
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