My son was particularly fussy last night, and I am currently operating on only two hours’ sleep. I am too tired to do much writing this morning, so I will keep this brief. Since I heard from a few of you that you find the material about the fragments of the lost treatise on Egyptian mysteries by the (presumed) Egyptian Jewish author Abenephius to be interesting, I wanted to call your attention to a particularly unusual fragment from the supposedly medieval author, in which the author provides one of the more bizarre mythological identifications that I have come across: “Mithras was the first king of Egypt, and he was said to be Misraim, the son of Ham, the son of Noah, the first of all mankind who carved on stone pillars the sacred mysteries of nature” (quoted in Kircher, Historia Obelisci Pamphilii 2.10, my trans.). That’s a new one on me!
The identification of a pagan god with a Biblical figure is par for the course with Late Antique and medieval efforts to syncretize pagan and Abrahamic chronologies. There is some evidence that at some periods it was believed that there had been a king of Egypt named Mithras. There was much confusion in this regard, and it turns out that our Abenephius is pretty directly following Classical precedent, as filtered through Late Antique syncretism.
The idea of Mithras as a king of Egypt is an old one. Statius, in the Thebiad (1.717), identifies Apollo with both Osiris and Mithras, while Servius, in his commentary on the Aeneid, states that he is the same as the Greek mythological character Belus (the younger), possibly having split from Belus (the elder), the father of Aegyptus, the founder of Egypt. The specific passage from Abenephius is a close paraphrase of one appearing in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (36.14) on the subject of Egyptian obelisks:
Mesphres, who reigned in the City of the Sun, was the first who erected one of these obelisks, being warned to do so in a dream: indeed, there is an inscription upon the obelisk to this effect; for the sculptures and figures which we still see engraved thereon are no other than Egyptian letters. (trans. Bostock and Riley)
The name “Mesphres” is apparently corrupt, and editors of Pliny have offered different readings, including Mestres, Mitres, and Miphre, which apparently led to assimilation between this name and that of Mithras. This identification persisted into the nineteenth century among, frankly, looney tunes who tried to erect elaborate theories of solar worship atop such verbal sophistry.
The most interesting thing, I think, is the consistency in the Abenephius fragments. You will recall that this is not the first time we have seen the name of a god substituted for the Classical rendering of a pharaoh in a reworked paraphrase of a well-known text. Previously, we saw Abenephius paraphrase the famous passage from Manetho identifying Suphis as the builder of the Great Pyramid and the writer of a book of sacred mysteries, but Abenephius substituted the divine name Sothis (the Greek version of Sopdet) for Suphis. In Late Antiquity, Sopdet, originally female, had been given a gender reassignment and was identified with Anubis. In today’s passage, we see Abenephius replacing Mesphres with the (presumed) solar deity Mithras and also with Misraim. In both cases we see a similar effort at work, to identify the pharaohs with the gods and therefore (by implication) to assert that the Egyptian (or Greco-Egyptian) gods were really human beings, a classic euhemerist argument popular among writers of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. This echoes, also, his identification of Osiris with Hermes Trismegistus and Enoch. We seem to be dealing with Jewish euhemerism, which is interesting all on its own.
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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