Today I thought it might be interesting to profile the ancient city of Akhmim, also known as Chemmis, and Panopolis, mostly on account of the fact that this now-obscure outpost of Egyptian culture has been revealed as the secret source of the collection of Hermetic myths that would give rise to many of the ideas we collectively know today as fringe history. That’s because the stories told at Akhmim about Hermes building great buildings to save knowledge from the Flood transferred over into medieval stories about the scientific wonders of the pyramids of Giza and their supposed antediluvian age, stories that ended up in Victorian pseudoscience and modern fringe history books, like those of Erich von Däniken and Graham Hancock. At least, that’s where I started. I ended up getting side-tracked into a weird, but ultimately quite interesting, discussion of the development of the myth of Hermes Trismegistus from Late Antique syncretism.
The upper Egyptian city of Akhmim was known to the ancient Egyptians as Apu or Khent-min, the latter name corrupting into the Greek Chemmis (Χέμμις). The city was the capital of the ninth nome (province) of the country, and it was home to a cult of the god Min, or Khem, the deity of raging boners. He was a fertility god whose cult was celebrated with sexual rites and whose followers depicted him as a man with an engorged phallus. His sacred vegetable was the Egyptian lettuce, whose tall, straight heads emitted a milky substance when stimulated, like Khem’s penis.
Naturally, the Greeks went bonkers for Khem and his cultic center. They first identified Min / Khem with the great god Pan, on account of the orgiastic sexuality associated with both. That gave the city its second Greek name, Panopolis. But in time, it seems that the penis-worship at Chemmis suggested a closer connection to Hermes, who was worshipped as an erect penis in parts of Greece, the herm. Herodotus visited Chemmis and described it in completely different terms, as a cult center of Perseus:
… there is a large city named Chemmis in the Theban district near Neapolis, and in this city there is a temple of Perseus the son of Danae which is of a square shape, and round it grow date-palms: the gateway of the temple is built of stone and of very great size, and at the entrance of it stand two great statues of stone. Within this enclosure is a temple-house and in it stands an image of Perseus. These people of Chemmis say that Perseus is wont often to appear in their land and often within the temple, and that a sandal which has been worn by him is found sometimes, being in length two cubits, and whenever this appears all Egypt prospers. This they say, and they do in honour of Perseus after Hellenic fashion thus,--they hold an athletic contest, which includes the whole list of games, and they offer in prizes cattle and cloaks and skins: and when I inquired why to them alone Perseus was wont to appear, and wherefore they were separated from all the other Egyptians in that they held an athletic contest, they said that Perseus had been born of their city, for Danaos and Lynkeus were men of Chemmis and had sailed to Hellas, and from them they traced a descent and came down to Perseus: and they told me that he had come to Egypt for the reason which the Hellenes also say, namely to bring from Libya the Gorgon's head, and had then visited them also and recognised all his kinsfolk, and they said that he had well learnt the name of Chemmis before he came to Egypt, since he had heard it from his mother, and that they celebrated an athletic contest for him by his own command. (Histories 2.91, trans. Macaulay)
We know from Herodotus’s naming of the place as Chemmis that this was Akhmim, known to later centuries as a “veritable mountain” and the hall of records of the antediluvian world. But Herodotus knows nothing of these later stories, for good reason. Hermeticism hadn’t been invented yet. Instead, he knows only ancient Chemmis as the home of Min, and Neapolis, the new city, the Greek quarter founded near to the old city.
The Greeks had long associated Perseus with Egypt—his mother was a descendant of Aegyptus, the legendary founder of Egypt—and the association can be traced back likely to the Greek Dark Ages, and perhaps as far back as the Mycenaean period. For our purposes, it isn’t important except to note that many scholars have concluded that Perseus was identified with Min at Akhmim, though A. B. Lloyd argued more persuasively in 1969 that Akhmim’s Perseos Ouranion (Perseus of the sky) was the Greek interpretation of Horus at Akhmim. A legend from the next major city over, Antaeopolis, even identified sandals as the spoils of Horus’s fight with Seth, accounting for Herodotus’s reference. Lloyd also concluded, probably correctly, that already at this early date, the people of Chemmis were heavily Hellenized, in all probability due to intermarriage with the Greek colonists of Neapolis. This identification of Horus with Perseus is unorthodox, as the standard interpretatio graeca identifies Apollo with Horus, but that didn’t occur until around the fifth century, and the Greek community in Akhmim was decades or even a century older than that.
This doesn’t really make much difference except to show that Hermes wasn’t a part of the legends of Akhmim in the 400s BCE, but that a Greek presence was long associated with the site. (An alternative explanation identifies Neapolis with Cenae and holds that Herodotus confused Chemmis with Coptos.)
By the time of the Ptolemies, the association with Hermes had begun. The Greek quarter, Neapolis, gave way to a new Ptolemaic settlement, Ptolemais Hermiou around 312 BCE, founded five miles from Akhmim as the new capital of the nome, and as large as Memphis (Strabo 17.1.42). By this point, the Greek rulers of Egypt had identified the wisdom god Thoth with the messenger god Hermes, and a bewildering variety of legends emerged to account for the contradictions and confusions that resulted from tying the two closely together, notably the multiplication of men and gods named Hermes (Cicero, De natura deorum 3.22). But according to Cicero, the various divine Hermes characters shared elements in common with Min: one had a constant raging hard-on like Min; another is chthonic like Min; another had a sacred unspeakable name among the Egyptians. Diodorus (Library 1.27) similarly identifies Hermes as a human mistaken for a god, the author of primordial stelae, and a master of science.
Hermes Trismegistus has an obscure origin. He is a combination of Thoth the wisdom god and Imhotep the deified architect and polymath, assimilated to the Greek Hermes as psychopomp. Cicero testifies that a figure very much like him had formed by the last century BCE (“…the fifth is the one worshipped by the Pheneatæ, who is said to have slain Argus, and on that account to have fled to Egypt, where he taught the inhabitants laws and letters. The Egyptians call him Theuth…”), and the records of the Ibis Cult from 172 BCE speak of him by name. The Kore Kosmou, an early Hermetic text of the first century CE, testifies to the existence of Hermes Trismegistus as a syncretic philosopher who allegedly possessed the wisdom of the ancient and had inscribed it on pillars of stone. In both cases, the character is more Thoth than the alchemical philosopher of later centuries, but the core is recognizable. His name comes from Ptolemaic usage, where Thoth was dubbed “megistos kai megistos theos megas,” or the greatest and greatest great god,” and as “thrice-greatest Hermes” took on the added descriptor to distinguish the Egyptian version from the Greek messenger god. The Church Fathers refer to Hermes Trismegistus in the early centuries CE, and by the third century CE, a papyrus identifies “trismegistos Hermes” as the god of Hermopolis, succeeding the original Hermes as the Greek version of Thoth.
The actual identification of Min with Hermes is obscure, but it may be related to a late collapse of distinctions between characters in the Egyptian and Greek versions of the myth of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. In the Egyptian sources, Min plays almost no role. Plutarch (Isis and Osiris 14) assigns Pan, i.e. Min, the role of having first learned of Osiris’ death at the hands of Set and reporting the news to Isis. Hyginus (Fabula 196) gives Pan the role of providing the gods with a clever ruse to hide themselves from Set. In some places, Min and Thoth shared some titles. A third century votive inscription at Akhmim from a soldier “to the great god Hermes Trismegistus” is one of the earliest records of the god’s name.
If we are to accept the rather unusual and highly syncretic word of John Malalas (Chronicle 1.13), a sixth century Greek chronicler living in Syria, the reason for the identification is rather obscure and complex: The (fictitious) Assyrian king Ninus had a brother named Picus Zeus—this is a rationalization of the old Latin god Picus, the son of Saturn—who reigned in Italy and was, basically, one of the Enochian Watchers, an astrologer and magician who seduced women into believing he was a god by using machinery to simulate magic. He had a son named Faunus whom he nicknamed Hermes after the planet Mercury (Hermes in Greek). His brothers conspired to kill him, so he decamped to Egypt, having raided the Italian treasury, and set himself up in Egypt where he acted arrogantly, practiced philosophy and reason, foretold the future, and was worshiped as a god. He was companion of Misraim, the first king of Egypt after the Flood, and ruled Egypt after Misraim’s death.
This story is obscure and weird and contaminated heavily with Christian material (some seemingly derived, in a corrupt way from Annianus and/or Panodorus), but the key element is this: Hermes was, in some traditions, identified with Faunus, who is the Latin version of Pan. It’s hard to judge how much of this late, confused mess dates back significantly, but John’s text contains clear traces of arguments taken over from Eusebius and the Egyptian Christian chroniclers—he notably repeats (1.5 and 2.1) arguments from the Alexandrian chroniclers that the Egyptian chronicles computed years incorrectly by confounding them with days and months. Since our material appears in the midst of a corrupt discussion derived in some way from the Alexandrian records, it is not impossible that the connection between Min and Hermes, or Pan/Faunus and Hermes, had a genuine Coptic Egyptian syncretic origin. The hypothesis that Annianus stands behind the early chapters of John’s chronicle was put forward by Heinrich Gelzer in his classic study of Sextus Julius Africanus in the nineteenth century, but has, so far as I know, never been superseded by a better one and is still accepted in modern literature. My own reading of John suggests a clear similarity, and this is confirmed by a somewhat more logical version of the story appearing in George Syncellus (Chronicle 200), where the identification with Hermes is confirmed and attributed to anonymous “some,” who are probably Annianus and Panodorus, Syncellus’s main sources. An earlier version of the story, recorded by Eusebius (Chronicle 1.106) makes no mention of Hermes, but Diodorus’s brief account in the fragments of Book 6 (chapter 5) do identify Faunus with Hermes (the planet Mercury, not the god), but without discussing a trip to Egypt. the Excerpta Barbari Latina, a poor Latin translation of an eighth century Greek chronicle based ultimately on Annianus, gives the same story as Malalas, in virtually the same (bizarre) words but which specifically identifies Faunus not just as Hermes but as Hermes “terbeatissimum”—“Thrice Most-Blessed,” an obvious misreading of Trismegistus.
Just for kicks, since it is amusing, here are the relevant sections of John Malala at left from the 1986 translation of Elizabeth Jeffreys, Brian Croke, and Roger Scott and the Excerpta, in my translation, at right picking up at the death of Picus Zeus. I have truncated the quotation from John because he went on a long digression about Herakles not relevant here.
It is interesting that Hermes is cast in such a negative light here, something we also see in the diabolizing of Hermes in some later Arabic texts where he is replaced by djinn and demons. John Malalas uses almost the same words but doesn’t call Hermes’ actions or magic evil, though he does refer to arrogance several times, so it appears to be an editorial choice of the later writer, but of the Greek or Latin one I cannot say.
Min held an interesting title for those of an Enochian bent, like Annianus and the Greco-Egyptians. He was called Wrš, “The Watcher.” It is not hard to see how a believer in the Book of Enoch might see the Temple at Akhmim as a temple of the Watchers, or their keeper, Enoch. After all, the Church Fathers tell us that they believed that the images of gods and monsters on the walls of Egyptian temples were illustrations of the Nephilim from Genesis.
Akhmim was long a center of Hermeticism, but also of the Enochian apocalyptic version of Christianity. The alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis, who probably spent part of his life in Alexandria, testifies in Imouth 9 (in Syncellus, Chronicle 14), around 300 CE, that Hermetic belief was already contaminated with Enochian lore, for he records that the Hermetic alchemists of the region asserted that Hermes had written of the fall of the Watchers and their transmission of alchemical knowledge from the celestial realm in his sacred books. It is consequently significant that some of the longest Greek-language fragments of the Book of Enoch to survive from Antiquity were found in Akhmim, from which Zosimus originally hailed.
However it happened, the decline of hieroglyphic knowledge and the suppression of paganism at the end of Antiquity allowed for the Gnostic cult of the “Hermaoi” and other Hermetic believers to subsume the old power and authority of Egyptian magic and religion under the Greco-Egyptian cover of Hermes Trismegistus. According to Ibn Duqmaq, who died in 1407 CE, a long tradition alleged that the Great Temple at Akhmim had been built by Hermes “several years before the Flood,” and we find the same claim in the work of Abu Ma‘shar, writing around 850 CE, in the quoted fragments of his Thousands (Ibn Juljul, Tabaqat al-atibbaʾ 5-10), itself built atop the work of Annianus, the Alexandrian chronicler. While these are only suggestive literary accounts, between them and the votive inscription to Hermes Trismegistus at Akhmim, there seems to be good evidence that Akhmim had become a cult center of Hermes at the end of Antiquity. Diodorus took the Greek name of Akhmim—Chemmis—for the name of the builder of the Great Pyramid, implying that some sort of Hermetic myth about ancient wonders might have existed even that early. Or else that Diodorus was hopelessly confused.
By the middle of the ninth century both Abu Ma‘shar and al-Mas‘udi (Meadows of Gold 31) testify that the temple at Akhmim had become identified both with Hermes’ sacred writings and the Pillars of Wisdom inscribed by Enoch with the antediluvian knowledge of the angels. Al-Mas‘udi specifically says that the temples were built of stone or of clay, just like Enoch’s pillars, to protect against fire and flood, while Abu Ma‘shar applies the story specifically to the temple of Min at Akhmim. Later writers, including al-Dimashqi in the thirteenth century (Cosmography) and al-Maqrizi in the fourteenth (Al-Khitat 2.80) spoke in glowing terms about the amazing preservation of the Akhmim temple, whose paintings were so colorful that they appeared to have been painted yesterday.
By the end of the 900s, declining fortunes of Islamic Akhmim, now home, as Al-Mas‘udi already reported in the 800s, to fortune-tellers and alchemists squatting in the abandoned temple, made the city less impressive as the antediluvian repository of all knowledge, and as the center of power in Islamic Egypt coalesced around Cairo, the story of Hermes and the ancient angelic wisdom transferred to the capital of Islamic Egypt, to the monuments closest to Arab power in Cairo, the Giza Pyramids. Memories of the old story remained, though Hermes Trismegistus faded from memory. The story of the temple preserving knowledge remained, however. Copyists dutifully recorded it in their books when repeating older material, but in the physical world, a new story took hold, that the post-diluvian queen Dalukah, the imaginary successor of the Pharaoh of Moses, built the temple to preserve all of Egypt’s knowledge lest God’s wrath fall on Egypt after the Exodus.
It was the final reflex of the old story before the Muslim authorities dismantled the great temple and used its stones to build a madrassa.
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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