Later tonight is the two-hour season finale of Ancient Aliens, but in the meantime, I have an interesting medieval text to share with you. If you are a fan of ancient mysteries, you’ve probably encountered at least one variation on the theme that when the stars come around to a particular position in their 26,000-year cycle around the heavens, the end of the world is at hand. It’s become a staple of the genre over the past several decades, led in large measure by alternative history writers who have used the precession of the equinoxes—the slow movement of the stars through the zodiac over 26,000 years—to claim that the Sphinx was built during the Age of Leo, or that religious beliefs change every 2,160 years when the sun enters into a new house of the zodiac.
In doing some reading this week, I discovered that there was apparently a medieval writer who transmitted this idea to the West, where it continues to bounce around among those who dissent from mainstream historiography. It’s sort of an interesting story, one that begins in Babylon.
According to the Babylonian priest Berossus, writing around 290 BCE, the alignment of the planets determined the forthcoming destruction of the world by fire or flood. Seneca preserves the claims in his Natural Questions 3.29: “He maintains that all terrestrial things will be consumed when the planets, which now are traversing their different courses, shall all coincide in the sign of Cancer, and be so placed, that a straight line could pass directly through all their orbs. But the Flood will take place (he says) when the same conjunction of the planets shall take place in the constellation Capricorn.”
At roughly the same time in Greece, Plato developed the concept of the Great Year (Timaeus 39D), which was originally devised as the time when all of the planets and stars returned to their first positions, a period that Macrobius, in his commentary on the Somnium Scipionis of Cicero (2.11.8-17), said that Greco-Roman philosophers calculated this period at 15,000 years. It was only long after Plato that the original concept of the return of all the heavenly bodies gave way to the idea that the movement of the eighth sphere—the fixed stars—in precession through the zodiac should define the Great Year. Hipparchus, c. 150 BCE, calculated the cycle at 36,000 years. Ptolemy, c. 150 CE, agreed with Hipparchus and said that the Great Year of precession was a perfect 36,000 years, a figure that passed into Late Antique and medieval astrology and astronomy.
In the 300s CE, the Christian chronologists Panodorus and Annianus of Alexandria incorporated some of this material into their chronicles, particularly fragments of Berossus, to judge from later citations in subsequent writers. It is likely, though difficult to prove, that one or both of these authors asserted that the ancient Egyptians had used astrological calculations to predict the coming of Noah’s Flood, a fact suggested by their known use of the Hebraic legend that Enoch used astrology to predict the Flood and erect pillars of wisdom, a story that the pagan writers recorded in parallel in Late Antique Egypt in association with the temples and tombs (Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History 22.15.30). Enochian literature is known to have circulated widely in ancient Egypt.
But after these writers, most of this literature was lost to the Latin West for many centuries when the Roman Empire’s western half collapsed. In the east, however, these fragments of learning remained in circulation, often in Arabic translations commissioned by the Abassid caliphs. Around 850 CE, the Persian polymath Abu Ma‘shar used information from Annianus, including fragments of Berossus—for his discussion of Hermes Trismegistus contains material from the Babylonian priest—and he carried over from Ptolemy the 36,000-year Great Year and from Berossus the idea that astrology could predict the future events of the world. This he wrote about in his Book of Thousands (Kitāb al-Ulūf), a volume now lost. Hermann of Carinthia, writing in the De Essentiis in 1143, confirms this, speaking of “those people who measure the Great Year at 36,000 solar years, which is the third of the four orbits of the universe which Abu Ma’shar measures for the purpose of predicting mundane events in the Kitāb al-Ulūf” (trans. Charles S. F. Burnett).
But Hermann apparently introduced an innovation, according to Charles S. F. Burnett, not found in Abu Ma‘shar. Hermann tied the Great Year to the end of the world. “For if the revolutions of the planets, even when taken individually, measure out certain differences of time, how much more will a necessary radical change to the whole universe follow one complete general revolution of all the planets and stars! From this scientists derive the floods and conflagrations of the universe” (trans. Burnett). According to Hermann, Abu Ma‘shar calculated four different periods of astrological power, periods of 360 years, 3,600 years, 36,000 years, and 360,000 years. Hermann differed from Abu Ma‘shar by arguing that only 36,000 should be considered the only “necessary” period, a technical astrological term referring to the movement of the fixed stars and the planets. In short, he believed that the Great Year should be applied as the governing concept in astrology, and that its cycle could be used to predict the disasters indicated by Berossus.
As for Abu Ma‘shar, he had apparently associated the Great Flood with a fixed astrological period. In the genuine fragments of The Thousands, he says that Hermes predicted the destruction of the world by fire or flood in anticipation of Noah’s Deluge. The earliest citations don’t mention how, but later copies specify that he used astrology. In the parallel sections of the Akhbar al-zaman, written a century later, which around 1200 Murtada ibn al-Afif, in a somewhat confused way, says were derived from Abu Ma‘shar, the text associates this prediction more explicitly with astrological calculations. According to the Akhbar al-zaman, the Flood would occur “when the heart of the Lion would be in the first minute of the head of Cancer, with the planets occupying the following positions: the moon in conjunction with the sun would be in the first minute of Aries; Zaus [Zeus], that is to say, Jupiter, would be at 29° of Pisces; Mars 28° 5′ of the same constellation; Aphrodite or Venus at 29° 3′; Hermes or Mercury at 27°; Saturn in Libra; and the apogee of the moon at 5° and a few minutes of Leo.”
In the Akhbar, a story originally told of Hermes has been reassigned to Surid, an antediluvian king, but much of the material was carried over unchanged. Murtada, alone, attributes the account of Surid and the Flood to Abu Ma‘shar, and I spoke with leading authorities on medieval Arabic literature, none of whom had any idea why, since every other source suggests it is wrong. But the attribution comes right before the astrological calculations, copied from a manuscript that Murtada admits was corrupt and full of holes. Given the context, I wonder if along the way a copyist erred and it wasn’t Surid who was from Abu Ma‘shar’s Thousands but the astrological calculation of the Flood. It doesn’t really matter all that much, since Murtada testifies that regardless of the truth, by the High Middle Ages, Abu Ma‘shar’s astrological method for predicting world history was associated with calculating the astrological coordinates of the main events in the Abrahamic view of human history—the Flood and the End Times.
My suggestion has some merit. Consider, for example the copyist errors that have transformed the calculations I have above for the Flood from the oldest source. Here is Murtada giving different values for what is quite clearly otherwise the exact same text: “When the heart of the Lion shall come to the first Minute of Cancer’s head, and the Planets shall be in their Houses, in those places of the Sphere, the Sun and Moon in the first minute of Aries; Pharouis, who is Saturn, in the first degree; Raouis, which is Jupiter in Pisces at 27 degrees 3 minutes; Mars in Libra, and Venus in Leo at 5 degrees and some minutes.” And here is al-Maqrizi dissenting yet again from a different copy: “The arrival of the calamity which threatened the earth would take place when the heart of the Lion would be in the first minute of the Crab's head, while the planets find the following points of heaven: the Sun and the Moon in the first minute of the head of Aries; Quris (Saturn) at 1° 28’ of Aries, Rawis (Jupiter) at 29° 28’ of Pisces; Auis at 29° 3' of Pisces; Afrad Batn at 28° and a few minutes beyond Pisces, Mercury at 27° and a few minutes of Pisces, and Al-Guzhar in Libra; the apogee of the Moon at 5° and a few minutes of the Lion.”
Al-Maqrizi, for what it is worth, is the only one to offer the calculation for the End Times base on the same system, which he got from al-Qadi al-Quda‘i, who died in 1062 and who claimed, in turn, to have had it from a chain of scholars stretching back three generations, at least to the early 800s when ’Uthman bin Salah al-Sahmi died. While the earlier attributions are probably at least partly fictional, there is no reason to doubt that the original text used for the Akhbar al-zaman and its derivatives would have included this prophecy of the future, which unfortunately survives only in corrupt form:
This scourge of fire would burn the four corners of the earth. Seeking the time when the disaster would occur, we found that this would happen when the heart of the Lion would be in the last minute of 15° of the Lion and that Eilis would be in the same minute, followed by Quris in the triangle of Sagittarius. Jupiter-Rawis would be at the beginning of the Lion at the end of its evolution, and Auis with him in the same minute as Salis is in Aquarius facing Eilis-Sun and the tail with him at 22° [text corrupt].
Abu Ma‘shar’s calculations were neither the first nor the last to try to guess the date of the End Times, but through medieval European Latin texts, his astrology, combined with the Platonic Great Year, ended up influencing the development of the idea that the cycle of the stars brings disaster with its completion—an astounding feat since he was also the same guy who accidentally inspired the idea that the pyramids were built by a lost civilization before the Flood.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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