In case you’re interested in Mormon archaeology, I discovered that I’m not the only one to have noticed the FIRM Foundation’s efforts to claim Scott Wolter as having proved the veracity of the Book of Mormon. Apparently FIRM’s Rodney Meldrum sent out a newsletter that “loudly trumpets” America Unearthed as verifying the existence of Paleo-Hebrew in America. You can read more discussion of this at the Mormon Heretic website, itself run by a devout Mormon.
Now on to today’s topic…
As I’ve mentioned, I’m reading Irving Finkel’s new book on The Ark before Noah, and he makes an interesting offhand reference to a topic of interest to me. He describes a tablet found in the library of Assurbanipal that details the king’s many accomplishments. Among them, he translates (well, maybe; the text appears in several books by different authors) two of particular interest to us, though noting only that the colophon is repeated across many of Assurbanipal’s tablets, rather than citing a specific tablet:
I learnt the lore of the wise sage Adapa, the hidden secret, the whole of the scribal craft. I can discern celestial and terrestrial portents and deliberate in the assembly of the experts. I am able to discuss the series ‘If the Liver is the Mirror Image of the Sky’ with capable scholars. I can solve convoluted reciprocals and calculations that do not come out evenly. I have read cunningly written text in Sumerian, dark Akkadian, the interpretation of which is difficult. I have examined stone inscriptions from before the flood, which are sealed, stopped up, mixed up.
Did you catch them? Adapa is of course Oannes, the ancient sage who bequeathed knowledge and wisdom before the Flood. The more important part is the last line, which claims that there were hidden stone inscriptions from the time before the Flood. This, of course, immediately recalls what Berossus, the Hellenized Babylonian priest, wrote at least three hundred years later:
[Kronos] therefore enjoined [Xisuthrus] to write a history of the beginning, procedure, and conclusion of all things; and to bury it in the city of the Sun at Sippara… [After the Flood, Xisuthrus told his family], that they should return to Babylonia; and, as it was ordained, search for the writings at Sippara, which they were to make known to all mankind […]. And when they returned to Babylon, and had found the writings at Sippara, they built cities, and erected temples: and Babylon was thus inhabited again. (Syncellus, Chronicle 28; Eusebius, Chronicle 7)
Despite many claims in the academic literature that the buried pre-Flood writings are first seen in Berossus, we can now see that the myth of pre-Flood writings dates back centuries before Berossus. When Assurbanipal states that the writings were in “difficult” Sumerian and Akkadian, he is almost certainly obliquely confirming that the actual writings in question were early Sumerian and Akkadian texts from the first centuries of cuneiform, which by the seventh century BCE were difficult to read. That such writings were inscribed on stones is evident from Hammurabi’s Code, the stone stele containing this being more than a thousand years older than Assurbanipal. Writings like this, unearthed from earlier occupations of the great cities, could easily be mistaken for writings buried beneath the mud and silt layered atop the “first” Babylon during the Flood.
Is this the ultimate origin of the myth of the Watchers’ secret stelae and prehistoric wisdom? Probably not. If this is why people thought there were pre-Flood writings, it is not when people thought these writings first existed.
It is well known that the Mesopotamians believed that wisdom survived the Flood. In the Epic of Gilgamesh 1.6 and 1.9 Gilgamesh “has brought knowledge from farther back than the Deluge… and has engraved on stone stelae all of his labors.” While these stelae are, strictly speaking, post-Flood constructions, the thought is rather the same since presumably some of what he wrote was the antediluvian knowledge he had gained from his visions.
We know from the Enochian literature that the authors of the Watchers myth were inverting and diabolizing Mesopotamian beliefs, rendering their heroes into monsters (e.g. Gilgamesh in the Book of the Giants) and their sciences into the false knowledge of fallen angels (1 Enoch 8). But I came across an interesting variant that I had never seen before. I found it, of all places, while researching some unrelated material in the works of Sir Walter Raleigh, who referred to the passage below and provided a partial translation along with enough of the original Latin for me to find it in full.
The passage is found in the works of John Cassianus, in Collationes 8.21. Cassianus, a fifth century Christian writer, is here reporting what he heard from the Egyptian Christian abbot Serenus, who had definite views on the Watchers and their evil wisdom:
The ancient traditions speak much of how Ham, the son of Noah, who was infected with these superstitious and sacrilegious arts, knowing he would not be able to bring such books of records up into the ark, in which he was to enter with his righteous father and pious brothers, had these wicked and profane devices inscribed on sheets of metal and hard stones that they might not be destroyed by the waters of the Flood. When the Flood had reached its end, with eagerness for knowledge he searched everywhere for these same, which he had concealed; thus, he transmitted to future generations the seedbed of impiety and everlasting iniquity. (my trans.)
Serenus went on to tell Cassianus that this wicked wisdom emerged when the sons of God, who were the pious offspring of Seth, were corrupted by the feminine wiles of Cain’s sinful daughters and allowed their astronomy to curdle into astrology. He concluded that this was the origin of the “popular belief that angels taught men sinful practices and profane arts,” for humans attributed to ancient men the properties of the divine and diabolical.
What is astounding is how closely this passage tracks that of Berosus describing the burial of the tablets of wisdom and their recovery at the hands of his offspring. This is unlikely to be a coincidence.
Cassianus’ passage had a brief heyday in the nineteenth century when scholars speculated that it provided testimony that the Book of Enoch was known in Egypt and thus passed through their en route to its resting place in Ethiopia, since Serenus seems quite familiar with the idea of the fallen angels, if only to dismiss it, just as Augustine, Athanasius, and Jerome had done. Identifying the Sons of God with the offspring of Seth was a longstanding Judeo-Christian rationalization, albeit one not shared by the majority of believers, particularly the uneducated.
More interesting, though, is the reconstruction of the myth with Ham in the role of anti-hero in place of Enoch or Seth. As the son whose progeny were later cursed, he was the obvious choice among Noah and his sons. According to pseudo-Clement, writing two centuries earlier in Recognitions 4.27, Ham wasn’t just the first evil magician, he was also the same as Zoroaster. Some have speculated that the Greeks saw Ham, transliterated in Greek as Cham, as a pun on “chemistry” (i.e. alchemy) and thus the recipient of evil knowledge beloved of the pagans.
Thomas More used the tablets of Ham in preference to the pillars of Seth from Josephus in his poem “The Loves of the Angels” because he thought they were two different things and that Seth’s pillars were restricted only to astronomy.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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