After a great deal of hard work, I completed my translation of the Hermetic history of the Giants given in Alfonso X of Castile’s General Estoria, composed in the late 1200s. This undertaking was more involved than I expected, both because I had to learn a new language—medieval Castilian, also known as Old Spanish—in order to read it, and because Alfonso’s writers used complex grammar, pointless repetition, and ambiguous vocabulary that made it difficult to understand exactly what was being said in some places. A few of the words used can’t be found in dictionaries of Old Spanish and only rarely appear in other medieval documents, making them quite challenging to decipher. As a result, I am a little less certain about the particulars of this translation than I am for most, but the overall meaning is clear.
As many of you know, I have been researching the survival of Hellenistic and Late Antique myths and legends in medieval Islamic literature, particularly how this literature preserved and extrapolated on Late Antique Christian myths about antediluvian times. To that end, I’ve been working on reading King Alfonso X of Castile’s sections in his General Estoria about Hermes Trismegistus and the Giants that survived the Great Flood (2.34-39). It’s a bizarre and very interesting story that seems to incorporate Arabic material alongside narratives paralleling those of Late Antiquity—Pseudo-Eupolemus and Pseudo-Sibyl among them—but I am having a bit of difficulty with the material because (a) it has never been translated into English, nor to the best of my knowledge any other modern language (except for a few paragraphs in modern Spanish) and (b) I have not mastered medieval Castilian. I can read it clearly enough to get the sense, but the exact wording escapes me in places. I am plugging my way through translating it, but I am somewhat annoyed that in almost 800 years nobody seems to have thought that maybe it would be helpful to make this material available in more modern languages.
How Abu Ma'shar Accidentally Inspired "Hamlet's Mill" and the Modern Myth of the Amazing Science of a Lost Civilization
My research over the past couple of weeks in to Islamic treatises on antediluvian times and Hermetic lore has yielded an unexpected revelation. It came to me because the libraries around me don’t have what I need. In 1968, David Pingree published his important study of astrologer Abu Ma‘shar’s The Thousands, an influential but lost book that established (indirectly) the myth, so popular in fringe history, that the pyramids were built in antediluvian times to preserve science from the Flood, typically identified today with the end of the last Ice Age. As Edward Sachau noted in 1875, scholars had all but ignored both Abu Ma‘shar and the Thousands, meaning that until Pingree that was very little written about either. But Pingree’s book is a bit of a specialty item, especially since it is 50 years old, and WorldCat says that there isn’t a copy within nearly 100 miles of me. One of these days I should probably request an interlibrary loan, but it has literally two minor references to the Egyptian pyramids in it that I have not already read and otherwise is a massive study of astrology that I do not care about.
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.
Before I begin today, I want to follow up with and crow about something I guessed correctly! Last week, I wrote about the astrological calculation of the Flood and the End Times in medieval literature, and I guessed that the planetary alignments given for the Flood in the Akhbar al-zaman for the time of the Flood had to have been borrowed from Abu Ma‘shar’s lost book The Thousands. I discovered this weekend that I was right! I learned that A. Fodor confirmed that the astrological data given in the Akhbar al-zaman are a match for calculations that the medieval writer al-Biruni gave on the authority of Abu Ma‘shar. It all comes together eventually, and it’s a great feeling to make a prediction about what must have happened only to have completely independent evidence confirm it. Of course, if I had remembered that the text was already on my website, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble. It’s hard to remember everything ever written.
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.
Recently, I completed a translation of some lengthy excerpts from the Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature (Kitāb sirr al-ḫalīqa), an Arabic-language treatise on Hermetic philosophy and cosmology attributed to Apollonius of Tyana (Balīnūs). It takes the form of a multi-book disquisition on the secret of creation, which is that all things are made from differing ratios of hot, cold, wet, and dry. (It was, in the end, a disappointing secret, not dissimilar to the harmony of the elements in Macrobius.) Several of the books pose questions about the natural world and explain them in tedious detail about the evaporation and condensation of primaeval fluids. The volume is famous as the oldest extant source for the famed Emerald Tablet, which became better known in the West from a Latin translation of a separate recension of the tablet’s text from a different and later Arabic source. Perhaps more interesting is the frame story attached to it, telling of how Apollonius discovered ancient wisdom in books held by a statue of Hermes Trismegistus in an underground chamber in Tyana, in modern Turkey:
Thursday Odds and Ends: History Channel Ratings, Dating the Thera Volcanic Eruption, and Hermes' Receipt of Angelic Knowledge
Today I have a few brief topics to discuss as we await tonight’s broadcast of Ancient Aliens. The first is an update on the ratings for Ancient Aliens and its lead-out, In Search Of. According to figures released by Nielsen, Ancient Aliens is trending downward, sinking since the start of the current run of episodes to just 1.075 million viewers, a loss of about 10 percent of its audience from the start of the current half-season. I wonder if the new, slower format and primary focus on one ancient astronaut theorist and one location or “quest” per show is boring some of the audience. Meanwhile In Search Of pulled a surprising reversal. While it has not improved its ratings over its run, it did outdraw Ancient Aliens—just barely—this past week, bringing in 1.090 million viewers. A modestly larger number of men and older people watched In Search Of than Ancient Aliens. The two shows are now running neck-and-neck, but largely due to Ancient Aliens’ declining ratings than any particular momentum behind In Search Of.
Editor's Note: I am taking today off to work on projects other than my blog. Please enjoy a repeat of a classic blog post from my archive. This piece originally ran in July 2012.
In Twelfth Planet (1976), Zecharia Sitchin first proposed his theory that there was a wandering planet named Nibiru. He seems to have based this entirely on a pair of weird misconceptions. The first was the translation of the word nibir or nibiru, which meant either "wandering stars" or "planets," not "wandering planet." This is because the ancients did not understand that the planets were distinct in substance from the stars, only that they were lights in the sky like the stars but which moved differently (i.e. wandered). George Smith understood this distinction as far back as 1876 in his Chaldean Account of Genesis:
In medieval alchemy, the Emerald Tablet of Hermes took pride of place, allegedly an ancient distillation of wisdom discovered by Alexander the Great. Albertus Magnus, in a book on the secrets of chemistry written around 1200, gives the story: “Alexander the Great discovered the sepulchre of Hermes, in one of his journeys, full of all treasures, not metallic, but golden, written on a table of zatadi, which others call emerald” (trans. Thomas Thomson). This story, in turn, is a corruption or adaptation of an earlier Islamic myth, in two variants. One held that Sarah, the wife of Abraham, found the emerald tablet (written in Phoenician) held in the hands of a statue of Hermes at his tomb in Hebron, and the other than the honor fell to Balinas, who accomplished the same feat in Tyana, taking the Syriac-language tablet from the hands of Hermes’ corpse: “After my entrance into the chamber, where the talisman was set up, I came up to an old man sitting on a golden throne, who was holding an emerald table in one hand” (anonymous 1985 trans.). Another Arabic treatise, translated into Latin in the twelfth century, replaces Balinas with Galienus (an obvious misreading): “When I entered into the cave, I received from between the hands of Hermes the inscribed Table of Zaradi, on which I found these words” (trans. Steele and Singer).
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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