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.
Here is al-Biruni in his Chronology of Ancient Nations (p. 25):
This was the era which ’Abu-Ma‘shar Albalkhi wanted, upon which to base his statements regarding the mean places of the stars in his Canon. Now he supposed that the Deluge had taken place at the conjunction of the stars in the last part of Pisces, and the first part of Aries, and he tried to compute their places for that time. Then he found, that they—all of them—stood in conjunction in the space between the twenty-seventh degree of Pisces, and the end of the first degree of Aries. (trans. C. Edward Sachau)
And the Akhbar said 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. (my trans.)
Al-Biruni had no need to be terribly specific, so the Akhbar accidentally preserves the more accurate account, but the calculations are demonstrably the same. Ergo, my supposition that around 1200 CE, Murtada ibn al-Afif, in claiming his account of Surid’s pyramid scheme to derive from Abu Ma‘shar, wasn’t wrong as most modern authorities suggest but rather his citation is slightly misplaced in his copy of the text and belongs to the calculations, not to the frame story.
So, yay, me! I’ve internalized this material enough that I can guess the missing pieces.
I’m sure it must seem as though I have developed quite the interest in medieval Arabic literature, but it was never my intention to spend so much time on Eastern texts. But I learned that it isn’t possible to understand the fringe view of ancient history without these texts. Too many would-be debunkers have tried and failed to draw a straight line between ancient Egyptian and Classical Greco-Roman texts and the phantasmagorical visions of ancient history found in popular fantasies about ancient astronauts, antediluvian civilizations, and similar alternatives to fact-based history. Even the great archaeologists and historians of the past, like Gaston Maspero, have fallen prey to this tendency and ended up with flawed analyses because of their desire to root out survivals of the ancient past in the medieval and early modern accounts on which modern fringe history is ultimately based.
Instead, the line is curved and broken and sometimes tied into a knot. It starts in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece, but it doesn’t proceed directly to modern times. Instead, it is the explosion of syncretic ideas at the end of Antiquity that gave birth to so many of the ideas that modern writers try to pretend go back to primeval times. Late Antiquity developed a bewildering variety of, frankly, quite bonkers ideas that the medieval people inherited. Just as the Holy Roman Empire looked back on the Roman Empire it remembered best—the late period after Constantine, not the long-forgotten Principate of Augustus—because it was closest in time, so too did the historians of medieval times take their cues from the texts they had at hand, primarily those confused accounts left from Late Antiquity.
But the Late Antique texts passed first through Arabic hands before returning, in altered, expanded, or redacted form, to the Latin West. The changes were often so great that they formed a different and rival tradition, and one that became the basis for occult beliefs in the West. This, for example, is how the Egyptian Christian tradition that Enoch’s antediluvian pillars of wisdom were the temples of Egypt passed into Arabic hands and became the legend that the Pyramids of Giza had been built before Noah’s Flood to preserve scientific knowledge, and thus, after the reintroduction of the story to the West, became the modern pseudoscientific belief that the pyramids antedate the end of the last Ice Age and were built with impossible scientific and technical accuracy. We needn’t speculate on this point. Writers as diverse as Charles Piazzi Smyth and Erich von Däniken openly admitted to basing their pyramid ideas on the Arabic sources, which they held to reflect primordial truths rather than Late Antique syncretic efforts to blend together diverse cultural traditions.
For this reason, I was particularly intrigued to find a story in al-Nadīm’s Kitab al-Fihirst of 987 CE that seems to be both important and also somewhat difficult to know quite what to do with. The story concerns the ancient Persian demon-king Dahak, son of Kay (Arabic: Al-Ḍaḥḥāk ibn Qayy], who assembled a college of sages at Babylon in order to preserve knowledge for all time. Al-Nadīm takes the story from Abū Sahl al-Faḍl ibn Nawbakhtī, a Persian court astrologer to the caliph in the late 700s CE. His account, written in Arabic, is the oldest Arabic text about Hermes and secret knowledge:
[Al-Ḍaḥḥāk] ibn Qayy during the season [share] of Jupiter and his period, turn, dominion, and power in controlling the years, built a city in al-Sawād, the name of which [Babylon] was derived from Jupiter. He gathered into it the science of the scholars and built there twelve palaces, according to the number of the signs of the zodiac, calling them by the names [of those signs]. He stored the scholars’ books in them and caused the scholars themselves to live in them. […]
This situation persisted until the time of Alexander, who conquered Babylon. According to Ibn Nawbakhtī, the city’s walls had been built by the antediluvian giants, and he said that Alexander had the books of wisdom copied into Egyptian and Greek and then destroyed. Only centuries later was the ancient wisdom restored under the caliphs.
What is astonishing about this story is the diverse blend of cultural influences represented in it. Obviously, it represents a Persian cultural tradition since its writer was Persian. The story is set in Babylon because Babylon was part of the old Persian Empire and the most ancient part of it. The general story of the lost ancient Hermetic wisdom and its recovery is modeled on a pre-Islamic Persian legend that Alexander had destroyed the Persian copies of the Zoroastrian holy book, the Avesta, and the Zend commentary on it, scattering their parts to the ends of his empire. According to this story, only under the Sasanids in the early centuries CE was it supposedly restored. This tale appears in the Denkard and the Greater Bundhasin, based on Sasanid sources, and a number of Islamic-era histories as well. Ibn Nawbakhtī alone rejiggers the story to make the ancient wisdom acceptable to Islam, changing it from Zoroastrian scripture to Hermetic books of science.
The discussion of Hermes has a polemical purpose, too, to make the sage into a Babylonian and thus a subject of the Persian Empire, therefore making Persia the origin and elder font of Egyptian wisdom. And yet it bears an almost uncanny resemblance to the story told more than a century earlier in Byzantium, recorded by John Malalas and the Excerpta Latina Barbari from the sixth century. The Excerpta gives the story most succinctly: “After [Picus Zeus’s] death, his son Faunus reigned in Italy for thirty-five years. This made him into an impious and very busy man. Then he went down into Egypt and remained in that place and assumed the imperial robes. And he was seen to be wise by the Egyptians, and he deceived them through magic and frauds” (my trans.). The direction of travel and the attitude toward Hermes are completely opposite, but the story is the same.
Both the Byzantines and Ibn Nawbakhtī had access to Greek and Syriac Christian chronographic works, particularly the fourth-century world history of Annianus, so there is likely a common source. Annianus is known to have quoted from the Book of Sothis, in which the second Hermes (or his son) is said to have brought ancient knowledge to Egypt, and Diodorus gives in two separate passages (1.27 and the fragments of 6) the account of Hermes as a human mistaken for a god, the author of books of wisdom, and a master of science, as well as an account of Faunus being named Hermes. Another early Alexandrian writer popular among the Persians, Dorotheus of Sidon, recorded in his first-century CE Pentateuch (Carmen Astrologicum) 2.20 that Hermes Trismegistus had been a king of Egypt, not just a sage. Annianus put all those parts together to create a biography of the human Hermes, so this section of the story is Alexandrian in origin.
The first section, however, is the most difficult. The story of the seven sages looks for all the world like the ancient Babylonian myth of the Apkallu, the seven sages of Babylon who were credited with advising the antediluvian kings and teaching mankind the arts of civilization. In the Epic of Erra, Marduk banished the apkallu to the underworld sea, the Abzu, only to recall them later. In the Epic of Gilgamesh and other texts, the sages are imagined to have scattered and founded seven ancient cities of Mesopotamia. Ibn Nawbakhtī’s account looks suspiciously similar, with seven sages banished from Babylon and going off to civilize seven cities, though the breadth of the imagined world had grown in the intervening centuries.
Against this reading, however, is the obvious: The seven sages represent the seven ancient planets (the five visible planets plus the sun and moon), so a direct connection isn’t necessary. But something of ancient Mesopotamian mythology may have survived into the Islamic era, albeit in heavily distorted form and perhaps from Greek accounts. The same book, the al-Fihirst, reported that Adam wrote all of his ancient wisdom on clay tablets and baked them so that they would be safe from the Flood. This clearly refers to Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets, and the story is quite similar to that of Xisuthrus as reported by Berossus, who buried tablets containing wisdom to preserve them from the Flood. It might have been based on first-hand observation of tablets rather than ancient myths, but that it was decidedly Mesopotamian can be seen from the parallel Hebrew stories which speak of Egyptian-style pillars or stelae, and talk of the clay being let raw to bake in the End Times fires.
This isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. Symbolic depictions of the planets in Arabic literature have long been argued to have closer affinities to the Babylonian mythology associated with astrology than to Greco-Roman star lore. However, much of the original work establishing this was from Germany in the early twentieth century, during the height of the mania for seeing Babylon as the origin of world history. The Arab geographers recorded local lore about place names in Mesopotamia that can be shown to be medieval reflexes of Mesopotamian originals, as found in cuneiform texts. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that in Ibn Wasihyya’s Ancient Alphabets, written perhaps at the same time as Abu Ma‘shar, or slightly later, knows of Surid, but not as the builder of the pyramids as the Akhbar al-zaman has it. In his book (p. 24), Surid is a “philosopher” on the order of Balinus (Apollonius of Tyana) and Hermes, the father of Tat, who are both named in the same section. Later, he speaks of a second Hermes who was a king, showing that he was familiar with Late Antique Greek or Christian sources. Ibn Wasihyya already knew of Hermes having constructed vaults of knowledge in upper Egypt, and since he also knew of Surid… Well, that gets back to where I started this post, and isn’t particularly relevant here. Instead, let’s note that ibn Wasihyya also knows of seven sages, whom he literally calls the “Hermetic kings of Egypt,” rendering Hermes the first king of the first dynasty of Egyptians. But more importantly, in both his book on alphabets and in his Nabataean Agriculture, he made use of material of Babylonian origin, sometimes from Greek sources and other times from genuine, if distorted, sources. So, a Babylonian origin is not impossible for the seven sages story.
However it came about, this last major attempt to invent a history for Hermes Trismegistus before the story settled into its final form is fascinating for the mixture of many cultural influences that how a myth could be built from spare parts and then believed nevertheless to be true.
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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