Over the last few weeks, I’ve explored how medieval legends that the pyramids date back before Noah’s Flood stem, in part, from a ninth century work by the Persian astrology Abu Ma‘shar, who in turn was repeating what he learned about the antediluvian activities of Hermes Trismegistus from the fourth century Christian chronicler Annianus. Now that I’ve solved most of the issues with the development of the Arab pyramid myth, there are a few sidelights left to clean up, notably the question of the Classical and Judeo-Christian antecedents for specific parts of the story of Hermes Trismegistus. Some are fairly easy to sort out, others a little more confusing. But overall, it is clear just from a few Greek sources that all of the material later appearing in the medieval pyramid legends was available in some form to the Christian Greek chronographers who mixed and matched freely in creating the story before the Arabs took it and developed it into ever more baroque incarnations.
In the West this is a bit obscured because of the texts we inherited. Eusebius, for example, in his Chronicle put all of Egyptian history after the flood, but by his own testimony there were many others who disagreed, and he felt the need to explain why he had decided that multiple kings reigned at the same time. George Syncellus, though rejecting antediluvian listings of the Ancient Chronicle, a Hermetic forgery, noted that most in Egypt believed its account of gods and demigods who reigned before the Flood and king Mizraim, son of Ham, though he himself considered it blasphemous. Nevertheless, as Syncellus testifies, the two chronographers used by the Arabs, Panodorus and Annianus, rejected this view and accepted the reality of antediluvian kings. We’ll return to this later, but for now what is important is that the West inherited the more circumscribed chronologies and lost those that told of antediluvian wonders.
You’ll remember that I presented several Arabic sources that claimed that Hermes excavated two lakes and a canal and erected statues to feed water into them to control the Nile floods, a story later amended to refer to the Noachian deluge. This story’s antecedent seems pretty clear: In Diodorus’ Library 1.52, written between 60 and 30 BCE, he discusses the achievements of the most ancient King Moeris, who long before the Trojan War, excavated Lake Moeris near Memphis and a canal and used them to regulate the Nile. (This is mostly true, done by Amenemhat III, also known as Moeris.) Beside it he built the Two Pyramids and topped them with great statues. (This was not true, but the statues atop the pyramids show up still other in Arabic legends.) The Arabic story merely relocates the tale to the more logical source of the Nile, probably after the historical basis of the original tale was lost following the abandonment of the waterworks in 230 BCE. The Arabic account adds further details about the source of the Nile drawn from Ptolemy’s geography.
Similarly, the boast of the primordial pyramid-builder Surid challenging any to surpass the pyramids, allegedly inscribed on the Great Pyramid’s façade, is clearly modeled on that of Ozymandias, whom Diodorus quotes thusly from an inscription on the Colossi of Menmnon at the Ramesseum: “I am Ozymandias, king of kings; if any would know how great I am, and where I lie, let him excel me in any of my works” (1.47.4; all Diodorus translations are from G. Booth). Could Surid’s words be closer? “I, Surid, the king, built these pyramids at such and such a time. I completed the building in six years. Let anyone who would come after me and believe himself a king as great as I destroy them in six years, for all know that it is easier to destroy than to build. I also covered the pyramids in silk: Let those who come after me cover them in turn” (Akhbar al-zaman 2, my trans.). The silk line was added later, in imitation of the Kaaba in Mecca, covered in silk. Indeed, the description of Surid’s furnishings of the pyramids, from the astrological inscriptions to their library of science books to their ancestral statues, matches fairly well with Diodorus’ description of Ozymandias’ (Ramesses’) tomb in 1.49, with a little medieval exaggeration.
Even the story I discussed yesterday of the pyramids serving as high ground against the Flood has precedent in Diodorus’ primeval history of Egypt. In 1.57.1, Diodorus describes the semi-fictional pharaoh Sesostris doing something very similar for the regular Nile flood: “Sesostris moreover raised many mounds and banks of earth, to which he removed all the cities that lay now in the plain, that both man and beast might be safe and secure at the time of the inundation of the river.” It doesn’t take much to weave that into the pyramids as refuges from Noah’s Flood, just as the regulation of the Nile became preparations for Noah’s Flood as well.
Heck, Diodorus might even provide the link that tied Hermes to Khufu, for he attributes the Great Pyramid to the king Chemmis (Χέμμις) (1.63.2), which is also the Greek transliteration of Akhmim (Coptic: Khmin), the very temple said to have been where Hermes Trismegistus carved the antediluvian wisdom. To recognize Chemmis as Manetho’s Suphis would give us a pretty direct link between Hermes and Suphis, and it is a short step to corrupt Suphis into Surid. (The name may have some relationship to Chemia, the Greek name for Egypt that around 300 CE Zosimus of Panoplis equated with what became alchemy, attributing the name to both the Watchers and Hermes.)
The question of how Enochian wisdom ended up associated with Egyptian lore can also be clarified with recourse to Diodorus’ information about the Egyptians’ beliefs about primordial times, which we can likely take as a fair account of how the Hellenistic Greeks viewed Egyptian mysteries, regardless of their literal truth. According to Diodorus in 1.27, Hermes taught the gods the mysteries of the world, and they inscribed them on stelae, which they set up in the deserts of Arabia, at Nyssa, across the Red Sea from Egypt. More importantly, these stelae were grave markers and revealed an important truth, that Hermes and the Egyptian gods were mortal men. The priests, he said, feared “the punishments that such were liable to, who revealed the secrets of the gods” to the laity (1.27.6). This could hardly be closer to the new doctrine forming around the same time among the Jews that the Sons of God from Genesis 6:1-4 were not fallen angels but really the Sons of Seth, mortal men who had inscribed the secrets of the world on rocks (Jubilees 8:3 read in light of Josephus, Antiquities 1.68-72 and Africanus, quoted in Syncellus, Chronicle 19-20). Indeed, the very knowledge so inscribed—astrology—was that of the Sons of Seth and of Hermes. Diodorus adds that the most ancient kings of Egypt were chosen based on their ability to pursue the sciences, just as later Arabic myth attributes magical and scientific advancements to the ancient kings.
The Arabs inherited a version of the chronology of Egypt, undoubtedly promulgated in Egypt, that followed this line of Greek argument and turned the gods and demigods into the mortal antediluvian kings, whose biographies were apparently concocted from pieces of later pharaohs’ legends. The promulgators of this version of events seem to be the Alexandrian Christian chronographers Panodorus and Annianus, writing in opposition to Eusebius. Annianus, specifically, favored the antediluvian Egyptian information, and his was the version used by the Arabic writers, particularly Abu Ma‘shar. But Panodorus gives us the information we need, for he writes: “From the creation of Adam (up to) Enoch, that is 1282, neither the numbering of a year nor a month was known to humanity. But the Watchers descended in AM [Anno Mundi, the year of the world] 1000, and after having intercourse with human beings, taught them that the revolutions of the two luminaries through the twelve signs of the zodiac consist of 360 degrees” (Syncellus, Chronicle 42, trans. Adler and Tuffin). Thus, Panodorus dated the beginning of Egypt to AM 1059. In short, the Egyptian Christians considered the Watchers’ descent to be one of the most important inflection points in history, along with Creation, the Flood, and the Incarnation.
If you were a Christian writer of that time, further confirmation of the harmony of Christian and Egyptian pagan sources awaited. Diodorus, writing in Library 1.26.6, describes the Egyptian temples as containing representations of the Egyptians defeating the Giants:
6 The Egyptians moreover among their fables report, that in the time of Isis, there were men of vast bodies, whom the Greeks call Giants, and whom they represent in their temples in prodigious shapes, who are whipt and scourged by them that sacrifice to Osiris. 7 Some idly give forth, that they sprang from the earth, when at first it gave being to living creatures. Others report, that from many extraordinary things done by men of strong bodies, the fables and stories of giants arose. 8 But in this most agree, that for the war they raised against the gods Zeus and Osiris, they were all destroyed. (trans. adapted)
Such stories, current in Late Antique Egypt, must have commended themselves to the Christian Greek chronographers as representations of God’s judgment on the Giants in the Book of Enoch. Indeed, to a Christian of that era, sentence 7 would seem to confirm Genesis 6:4, and echo it nearly verbatim, and in the Sons of Seth version they preferred. It surely called to mind the idea that the wisdom of the Watchers had been inscribed on the temple walls, not just images of them and their children.
That leaves one big piece of the puzzle left: The legend that the chief priest Philemon counseled Surid about the coming Flood, warned his distant successor Far‘an to prepare for the Flood, and sought refuge with Noah in the Ark. I have some thoughts on this story, but that will wait for another day.
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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