In December 1885, the Occult Magazine, the house organ of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, published an intriguing letter from a self-described Freemason and occultist attempting to explicate the myth that Hermes had buried sacred scientific writings in the pyramids of Egypt. It is an unusual combination of Masonic and Hermetic versions of the medieval pyramid myth:
There has existed from time immemorial, in the country of Mizraim, Egypt, amongst the Priests of Moph (which the Greeks call Memphis), and their successors, the tradition of a book composed of 78 movable plates, upon which its author, Hermes-Thoth, has engraved certain mysterious characters. This souvenir of Hermes lies buried in one of the Pyramids, being as mysterious as their shadow, and as mute as their granite walls. Those grand old monuments of the past leave for posterity neither name nor date of this forgotten work. Each plate of gold, comprising a leaf of this Hermetic book, contains a scale of numbers and letters in Occult relationship with man, and of the Universe of which he is a part, and constitutes an Arcanum, or Secret, designated a Key. Between every letter and number, the sacred artist has traced a combination of symbolic figures, relating to the visible and invisible things of heaven and earth. The “Ineffable Name,” or “Omnific Word,” traced by Enoch on the two deltas of purest gold, may perhaps be also found in the land of Mizraim, to which the grandson of Ham is supposed to have carried them.
The claim can be found in early form in Ammianus Marcellinus’ Roman History 22.15.30, lacking Hermes and pyramids, but it is developed most thoroughly among the Arabic language historians of the Middle Ages, following a Late Antique Hermetic tradition whereby Hermes Trismegistus built the pyramids for such a purpose. The story derives from the twin claims that Hermes recorded books of knowledge which were hidden away (Diodorus, Library 5.67; Kore Kosmou, part 1; Iambilichus, Theurgia 8.16; Syncellus, Chronicle 41; Elmacin, chapter on Alexander; etc.) and that the builder of the Great Pyramid was also the author of one such book (Syncellus, Chronicle 63), making it easy to fold the two together when Hermes became associated with Enoch and thus with the Pillars of Wisdom, identified in turn with the pyramids.
But our author is here relying on a very late development of the Enochian Two Pillars story from Flavius Josephus (Antiquities 1.68-71), which Masons inherited from a corrupt version reported in Petrus Comestor’s Historia Scholastica 28 in which Tubal Cain built pillars of wisdom. It becomes overly complex to rehearse the whole history, but suffice it to say that George Oliver, writing in the Antiquities of Masonry (1823) took the Masonic tradition and fed back into it the Emerald Tablet of Hermes story from Arabian Hermeticism (in which a tablet of wisdom was found in Hermes’ tomb—a claim dating back to an eighth century text by Jabir ibn Hayyan) and, following the Arabian identification of Hermes with Enoch, made Enoch the savior of antediluvian wisdom in an underground temple. In this temple he placed a golden triangle (shades of Pythagoras) inscribed with divine characters. (Most of the texts referenced are excerpted here.)
Our author has taken this a step further and prioritized the Hermetic accents on the story, but in decidedly modern form. The 78 golden plates, each with an “Arcanum,” seem to suggest the 78 cards of the modern tarot and their “arcana,” while in other respects they more closely resemble to the claims made for the Emerald Tablet. Such stories were long part of Arabian lore. Al-Maqrizi records that in Menkaure’s pyramid “they laid the bodies of priests locked in coffins of black granite, and with each priest was a book that traced the wonders of his art that he had exercised in his actions and his life, that which had been done in his time, and all that was from the beginning and will be until the end of time” (my trans.). Tales of lost books and hidden wisdom were part and parcel of medieval lore across Europe and the Near East.
However, the direct origins of our author’s claim are to be found in tarot mysticism, specifically the work of Court de Gébelin and the Comte de Mellet in 1781, where the latter identified the tarot as “the science of Hermes” and implied that it was coded to a Kabbalistic interpretation of the mystical meaning of Hebrew letters. This directly inspired Jean François Alliette, writing under the name Etteilla, to imagine the tarot as a golden encyclopedia of antediluvian wisdom, as well as a system for foretelling the future. (We know this because he said so.) In Manière de se ré créer avec le Jeu de Cartes nommées Tarots (1783), he wrote of how Hermes Trismegistus (following the early Christian and medieval Arabic claim that there were three heroes named Hermes; cf. Cicero’s five Mercuries in De Natura Deorum 3.22) and sixteen other magicians worked to inscribe golden tablets at the Temple in Memphis and how these became the tarot deck, which he called the Book of Thoth, one that he was able to decode from Egyptian symbols (“hieroglyphs”—in reality mostly Hellenistic Greek symbols, though) using Kabbala.
This book was written by seventeen Magi, including the second generation descendant of Mercury-Athotis, who in turn was a grandson of Ham, and great-grandson of Noah. This was Tri-Mercury, or the third of that name, who organized the Book of Thoth, according to the knowledge and wisdom of the ancestors. This book was written in the Temple of Heat, or of Fire, which was built in a place of solitude, in the east, about three leagues from Memphis. Nothing is easier to prove than that the Mercury who produced and redacted this work is the fourth descendant of Zoroaster; the fourth folio of the Book of Thoth proves this obviously, and it relates to that which is said by Gregory of Tours, and many others. (my trans.)
Alliette provides a note that Zoroaster was actually Noah’s son Ham. If I read this correctly, then Ham (Zoroaster) had a grandson, Mercury I or II, whose own grandson was Mercury III, the author of the book. That is certainly a complex origin story. The final line refers to Gregory’s claim in History of the Franks 1.5 that Zoroaster was really Cush, son of Ham, and the inventor of fire worship and idolatry. The origin of that claim is worthy of its own blog post, convoluted as it is. I hope you will take my word for it that it derives from medieval confusion (exemplified by Vincent of Beauvais in the Speculum Maius) among various references to the origins of magic as belonging variously to Ham and Zoroaster (Augustine, City of God 21.14; Cassian, Collations 8.21; Petrus Comestor, Historia Scholastica 1.38; etc.).
And thus did magical lore and Arab pyramid myths contribute to the development of modern occult tarot.
Even though the “Egyptian” tarot myth exploded a few years later when hieroglyphics were deciphered, our author has nonetheless retained this bit of made up occult lore. It’s a bit interesting that our author has folded Alliette’s 78 golden plates into the tomb of Hermes Emerald Tablet story and also into the claim that the Pyramids were the tomb of Hermes to produce his Masonic-Hermetic composite claim.
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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