I’d like to start today with a few words about MTV’s new series Scream. I had low expectations, and the show failed to meet even these. I was 15 when the first Scream movie was in theaters, and I love it. But it was very much a product of its time, a clever and ironic love letter to the slasher films of the 1970s and the 1980s. Scream the TV series is more of a plagiarized high school essay on the first Scream movie, borrowing incidents and archetypes without originality, wit, or soul. It’s a faded copy of a movie that was itself a recreation of a dying original. The new series lacks a tone; it is not horror, or even, as it tries to assert, Gothic. Instead, it is a hodgepodge of homages to 1990s relics--Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Dawson’s Creek (all by Scream movie writer and show “story” creator Kevin Williamson, no less!)—but reanimated incompletely, and with no new energy propelling the shambling mess. I can’t blame Williamson here since he isn’t actively involved in the series, but his works tend to have purpose behind the horror: Scream (the movie) was a twisted murder-mystery beneath the genre trappings. I Know was, beneath the slasher trappings, a suspense thriller and roman a clef. The pilot for the Scream series lacks the extra layer that would make it watchable.
Well, enough of that.
Over the past weeks, I’ve been exploring the question of how the character of Hermes Trismegistus—the late version of the Egyptian god Thoth, conflated at times with the deified pyramid architect, priest, and physician Imhotep—came to be associated with antediluvian knowledge, pyramids, and other historical bric-a-brac. This can (and is) extremely confusing material simply because of its sheer volume, particularly given all the permutations that grew out of the equation of Hermes with the Hebrew Enoch and the Arabic Idris. Rather than make this even more confusing (and it would take a book to sort out), I’d like to share a simple but interesting illustration of the process of myth-making at work.
Here is a little more evidence that the stories originally told of Hermes Trismegistus regarding the Flood and antediluvian wisdom changed over time in surprising ways. Compare the following passages, one told of Hermes and the other of the Egyptian king ’Ankam, as given in the Akhbar al-zaman, a book I am increasingly convinced is based on if not actually the lost History of Egypt and Its Wonders of Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah referred to in the famous historian Al-Maqrizi’s Al-Khitat as his main source for pyramid lore. (Every passage from ibn Wasif Shah I’ve searched for has appeared in the Akhbar al-zaman.)
First, let’s look at how Al-Maqrizi gives the story in relating it of Hermes in his Khitat. The story, which I translate from 1.15, picks up after a devastating Nile flood has left Egypt in ruins in the time of the legendary antediluvian Egyptian king Budasheer:
At that time, says Master Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah, there reigned Budasheer, a mighty king, who was the first to employ enchantments and magic, and could make himself invisible. His uncles, Ashmun, Atrib, and Sa each reigned in his province, but Budasheer subdued them by his bravery and his courage, and, like his father, his fame surpassed that of the kings who preceded him; thus he was more powerful than his uncles and they had to submit to him. It is said that he sent the Egyptian priest Hermes to Mt. Qumr (the Mountain of the Moon), at the foot of which is the source of the Nile. Hermes’ mission was to raise (at the source of the river) bronze statues and to restore the lake from which the river’s waters flow. It was, they say, this priest who restored the two banks of the Nile, whose waters had been lost in the ground and whose course was sometimes interrupted. The palace where the statues were erected contained eighty-five figures built by Hermes to bring Nile water through pipes and hoses through which the water flowed. On leaving Mt. Qumr, water entered a statue and came out through its mouth. Hermes then established a carefully graduated scale of known cubits. All the water was thus brought down to the various beds of the river which led to two lakes from which it emerged to enter into another lake which gathered together all of the output of water at the foot of the mountain. Through these statues, Hermes regularized the river that was to bring to Egypt fertility and well-being, and thus what had been harmful now became useful.
Here Hermes is not the divine sage Hermes Trismegistus but a priest of that name, who used the title of Hermes. Now, to make matters a bit more confusing, this story actually has a kernel of truth in it. Classical sources, particularly Ptolemy, citing Marinus of Tyre, inform us that the Greeks believe that the source of the Nile was two great lakes (perhaps correctly identified as Lake Nyassa and Lake Victoria). Marinus, in turn, cited Diogenes, a trader, who had seen snow-capped mountains near these lakes, which he called the Mountains of the Moon, perhaps from a misunderstanding of the local name of the mountains of Lake Tana, the Simian Mountains, which could sound something like Selenian (Lunar) Mountains to a Greek. (The Arabs disagreed and said the name came from the gleaming snows, which looked white as the full moon.) These leftover bits of Classical learning aren’t important to our story, but do show the persistence of myth.
Just to be clear, the Akhbar al-zaman, which is an incoherent and repetitive text collecting myths and legends with little sense of consistency, contains the same material in its section on Budasheer, but in this version, Hermes is clearly Hermes Trismegistus, not a mere priest, as Al-Maqrizi has euhemerized him:
Koftarim was succeeded by his son al-Budasheer. This prince swelled with pride, devoted himself to magic, and could hide himself from the eyes of men. His uncles Ashmun, Sa, and Atrib reigned in their provinces, but he was more powerful than them, which is why he was acknowledged (as king). They say he gave Hermes the Egyptian the mission to go to the Mountain of the Moon, under which is the source of the Nile, to build a temple with copper statues, and to excavate lakes into which the water of the Nile could pour itself. It is also said that he channeled the Nile, for previously the river had flowed in various places and was divided into many branches.
The author goes on to tell the full story as given in Maqrizi in a different passage, because this author is maddeningly horrible as a writer and seems at times to have taken his manuscript, torn it to pieces, an threw it in the air and then reassembled it by the first word of each paragraph.
Walid, it is said, found the palace where the copper statues were erected by the first Hermes in the time of the first Budasheer, son of Koftarim, son of Misraim, son of Ham, son of Noah. These statues numbered eighty-five, arranged to receive all the waters that come down from the mountain; a system of pipes equipped with rounded mouths brought water into their bodies, which then went up into their throats, in a fixed quantity and measured by graduated cubits. Water gushed from the mouths of the statues and formed many rivers that flowed into two lakes, which then flowed together, as we have said, to meet altogether in a great lake. Hermes arranged everything with geometric precision, and he regulated the amount of water that poured through each statue so that it was sufficient for the country’s prosperity and should meet the needs of its inhabitants, but never flow in excess. This quantity was measured in this place to a height of eighteen cubits, the cubit being thirty-two fingers. When this limit was reached, all the water that still poured out was rejected to the right of the statues; it entered conduits that led it to the right of the palace, where it emptied into the marshes and into uninhabited sandy plains.
Now, let’s look at another passage on ’Ankam from the Akhbar al-zaman, quite obviously based on the same source myth, where Hermes has been diabolized rather than euhemerized, and the Nile flood has taken on a new form, the Noachian deluge. Again, this is my translation:
There was in old Misr, whose name was then Amsus, a priest-king named ’Ankam, son of Arab, son of Adam. The Egyptians have for him many traditions that astound the mind. This king lived before the flood and his science had caused him to predict its coming. He ordered the Satans who obeyed him to build him a palace across the equator where no damage could reach it. They built the palace which is at the foot of the Mountain of the Moon. This is a copper palace where stand copper statues in the number of eighty-five; Nile water comes out of their throats and flows into the lakes of Egypt. When this palace was completed, the king wanted to see it before taking up residence therein. He sat in a dome and the Satans carried him on their necks to the palace...
It think it’s rather obvious that Hermes and these devils are the same, and that one version of the story has diabolized the other, perhaps in a moralization of a tale that seemed too pagan. For what it’s worth, the “dome” seems to be a reference to a dome Idris was said to have built on the Mountain of the Moon in some other versions of the story.
But just to have fun, Henry Stanley, in his book In Darkest Africa, provides a translation of manuscript from 1686 by an unknown Egyptian writer called The Explorer’s Desire in which all of these actions were attributed not to demons or to Hermes but to the prophet Idris (Enoch), and made Idris the owner of the palace and the prophet of the Flood. (I have standardized the spelling of names below.) This version is quoted by our author from some guy named “Achmed, son of Ti Farshi,” whose identity I do not know. This and the subsequent translations are by a Mr. Vandyck:
It is said that in the days of ’Ankam, one of the Kings of Egypt, Idris was taken up to Heaven, and he prophesied the coming of the flood, so he remained the other side of the equator and there built a palace on the slopes of Mount Qumr. He built it of copper, and made eighty-five statues of copper, the waters of the Nile flowing out through the mouths of these statues and then flowing into a great lake and thence to Egypt.
Now would you like to have your mind blown by another version that combines all of the above? This one comes from our 1686 author himself, so far as I can tell, and combines material he read in earlier sources, including Al-Maqrizi:
King ’Ankam, mentioned above, is Hermes I. The devils carried him to this mountain, which is called Qumr, and there he saw how the Nile flows out of the Black Sea and enters into the mountain of Qumr. King ’Ankam built on the slopes of the mountain a palace having eighty-five statues, to which he collected all the water that flows from this mountain, conducting it in vaulted conduits until the water reaches the statues and flows out of their mouths in measured quantities and calculated cubic contents.
You can take your pick on whom you’d like to have built this palace: Hermes, Idris, Budasheer, devils, ’Ankam. It’s all good!
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the original version of the story might have been one told of Imhotep, the priest-god identified in Late Antiquity with Hermes Trismegistus. The Famine Stela, for example, tells of how the pharaoh Djoser sent Imhotep, described as a god, to make the Nile flood regularly by traveling upstream to find the god of the Nile, who meets with Imhotep in a dream and promises to send the flood, along with giving Imhotep stones to refurbish the temples. This seems like a reasonable place to develop the later stories given above in their most baroque form.
So far as I know, no one writing in English has examined these stories or offered much of an explanation on their growth and development.
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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