Over the past few weeks, I’ve been examining the fragments of Abenephius, a largely unknown figure said to have been a medieval rabbi from Egypt. The fragments preserved by Renaissance polymath Athanasius Kircher represent an otherwise unattested Jewish treatise on the mysteries of ancient Egypt, but no one knows whether the text is authentic or something Kircher made up.
A little while ago, I discovered that two of the fragments contained what seemed to be paraphrases from an inferior manuscript of Pliny the Elder (Nat. Hist. 36.14). One fragment wrongly identified the (fictitious) pharaoh Mesphres as Mithras, because some medieval manuscripts of Pliny gave the name as “Mitres.” A second identified the pharaoh Suphis, from Manetho, as Sothis, and stated that he built obelisks rather than pyramids. In this case, the author has followed an inferior reading, again in Pliny, which gave the second builder obelisks, Sesothes, as Sothis. This would be interesting evidence for Abenephius’ sources if not for the fact that Kircher’s copy of Pliny contained the same errors. On the other hand, the Akhbar al-zaman contains material on Egypt that seems to be derived and exaggerated from Diodorus Siculus, so anything is possible.
But I did wonder if there was any evidence for Jewish interest in Egyptian mysteries in the period when Abenephius, if he existed, wrote. He must have written sometime after knowledge of hieroglyphics died out in the 300s and sometime before Kircher wrote in the 1600s. It’s a broad swath, and we can narrow it down some by noting that the fragments betray knowledge of Islam and are written in Arabic (though perhaps in translation), placing them after the conquest of Egypt in the 600s. I’m not sure we can really be much more specific, though the lack of Arabic writings on Egypt before 800 or so would suggest that the later medieval period would be more likely.
Anyway, I realized that while there weren’t any comparable sources in terms of medieval historiography, what if the reason that Kircher was cagey about letting people see the manuscript of Abenephius—which he kept hidden his whole life—is that it was actually a magical or mystical text and he didn’t want to have a key source exposed as a wacky bit of Eastern magic, or more specifically, that he was relying on a grimoire for his historical evidence. This is, of course, merely a hypothesis, but it is one that I think has a few points in its favor.
First and foremost, Kircher was on record vigorously opposing black magic, alchemy, necromancy, soothsaying, popular (but not Christian) astrology, and kabbala-based magic (but not the kabbala), as any good Jesuit would be. He apparently wanted to separate out historical material from magical, and Peiresc, the French scholar who tried to see the Abenephius manuscript, wrote in a letter that he suspected that the full text was full of “idolatrous superstitions” but that it might have value anyway. Kircher tried to stay in good Catholic standing by suggesting that most magic was false or diabolical, but that there was a secret wisdom tradition passed through the line of Adam to Hermes. Perhaps Abenephius didn’t entirely correspond to his ideas of “natural magic,” especially since the two types of magic Kircher most despised were alchemy and “astral” magic, exactly the Hermetic material that finds reflection in the fragments.
Beyond this, the extant fragments explicitly state that the author plans to discuss Egyptian magic, even beyond that which is allowed to good Jews. They also give what we might interpret as mystical explanations of the hieroglyphs in the manner that the alchemists imagined that hieroglyphs could be used to effect magical spells. It would be fascinating to discover whether our author created a grimoire that attempted to use quasi-Egyptian magical rituals in the style of, say, the Kabbala, which modeled its magic on Hebraic religious rituals.
To that end, I wondered if extant grimoires from the period might offer some support for this. I found in the Book of Abramelin, a fourteenth century grimoire allegedly recording a Jew’s adventures learning magic from a sage named Abramelin in Egypt, a tantalizing suggestion (if the book is true and not just a fantasy) that the kind of text I have suggested Abenephius wrote might have been one like those that Abramelin might have used. Here is how S. L. MacGregor Mathers translates the relevant passage:
In Egypt the first time I found five persons who were esteemed and reputed as wise men, among whom were four, namely, Horay, Abimech, Alcaon, and Orilach, who performed their operations by the means of the course of the Stars and of the Constellations, adding many Diabolical Conjurations and impious and profane prayers, and performing the whole with great difficulty. The fifth, named Abimelu, operated by the means and aid of Demons, to whom he prepared statues, and sacrificed, and thus they served him with their abominable arts. (1.5)
The astrological magic immediately recalls Abenephius’ adoption of heavenly names for the pharaohs (Mithras, Sothis) and the implication that the gods and the stars had magical powers for the Egyptians. Abraham of Worms, the author of the Book of Abramelin, recorded a second instance, from Mainz, of a Jewish rabbi claiming to have secret Egyptian magical wisdom, an oddity given the historical opposition between the Jews and the country from which they believed they had escaped in an exodus. Anyway, here is the relevant passage:
I learned that at Mayence there was a Rabbi who was a notable Sage, and the report went that he possessed in full the Divine Wisdom. The great desire which I had to study induced me to go to seek him in order to learn from him. But this man also bad not received from the Lord the Gift, and a perfect grace; because, although he forced himself to manifest unto me certain deep Mysteries of the Holy Qabalah, he by no means arrived at the goal; and in his Magic he did not in any way make use of the Wisdom of the Lord, but instead availed himself of certain arts and superstitions of infidel and idolatrous nations, in part derived from the Egyptians, together with images of the Medes and of the Persians, with herbs of the Arabians, together with the power of the Stars and Constellations; and, finally, he had drawn from every people and nation, and even from the Christians, some diabolical Art. And in everything the Spirits blinded him to such an extent, even while obeying him in some ridiculous and inconsequent matter, that he actually believed that his blindness and error were the Veritable Magic, and he therefore pushed no further his research into the True and Sacred Magic. (1.2)
If this weren’t interesting enough, archaeologists and historians report that the Jews of medieval Cairo produced vast numbers of magical amulets and grimoires, part of the Islamic elite’s patronage of Jewish magical practitioners for the “forbidden” arts. In that context, and given that amulets are explicitly discussed in the opening of Abenephius’ book as a major focus of its discussion, Abenephius’ treatise looks less like a history of Egypt and more like a guide for how to carve (fake) hieroglyphs on amulets for fun and profit—exactly the kind of bad magic Kircher disapproved of. It’s interesting that Kircher identified Abenephius as an Egyptian most of the time and in the earliest accounts as a Jew of “Babylon,” the old name for Cairo, after the famous Antique fort of that name.
I want to caution you again that this is nothing but speculation. I have no evidence to substantiate the idea. Circumstantially, however, I do wonder if Kircher was trying to hide the fact that he was getting his history from an Egyptian Jewish grimoire on ancient Egyptian themes.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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