As most of you have probably figures out, I’m very interested in the development of the medieval legend of the antediluvian origin of the pyramids of Giza. I find it interesting both for its own inherent merit as a cross-cultural quasi-epic myth, but also because fringe historians have cited it as “true” history, so if the pieces of the story can be separated and traced back to their sources, it undermines any claim—however tenuous—that the story is literally “true.” Anyway, I was very pleased to have finally found the connecting tissue that explains how the Jewish apocalyptic legend of Pillars of Wisdom became attached to the Egyptian pyramids.
This weekend I read at long last A. Fodor’s “The Origins of the Arabic Legends of the Pyramids” from the Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientarium Hungaricae 23, no. 3 (1970), an article I’ve been trying to read for quite a while now but was unable to get through any database I have access to. JSTOR has recently made its contents available through a MyJSTOR account, so even though the library where I typically access JSTOR doesn’t subscribe to the part of the database where this journal article is stored (and I never got around to requesting an interlibrary loan), MyJSTOR gave it to me for free. Go figure.
Fodor rehearses the history of the Arabic legends of Hermes, Surid, and Shaddad ibn ’Ad building the pyramids, and his conclusions are pretty much identical to those I came to on my own through reading far too many versions of these stories. The long and short of it is that the story of Enoch and Seth constructing two pillars to preserve wisdom before the Flood became visited on the pyramids when Enoch was identified with Hermes, who was later substituted with Surid or Shaddad in an effort to historicize a semi-supernatural narrative. This much I knew.
But the question of why was the harder one to answer. Here, I think, Fodor’s answer is not entirely satisfactory though his evidence gives us the answer. Fodor’s claim is that the character of Surid was created (from the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu, Manetho’s Suphis) by Egyptian Christians from stories told of Hermes Trismegistus as a local analogue for Noah and the Ark. His story was composed in Greek and later translated into Arabic after the Islamic conquest.
The character of Hermes Trismegistus was long associated with books of wisdom, and in the Christian-influenced Hermetic literature, this knowledge was hidden and kept only for initiates. In part 1 of the Kore Kosmou, written between around 100 CE, for example, says that “instructed by Hermes, they engraved upon secret stellae that the air is filled with genii.” More relevant, though, is the third century or later dialogue Asclepius, preserved only in Latin translation, which shows that the Coptic Christians of Egypt had conflated the ancient Hermes with Jewish apocalyptic literature, particularly the story of Adam’s prophecy of the coming flood. You will recall that the Jews had a myth that writing was essential to preserve knowledge from the prophesied catastrophe in the days when the Fallen Angels had corrupted the earth. Josephus, writing around 94 CE, testifies that it was already well known in those days that pillars of wisdom were needed because of “Adam’s prediction that the world was to be destroyed at one time by the force of fire, and at another time by the violence and quantity of water” (Antiquities 1.70, trans. Whiston). The Asclepius makes Hermes refer to this same prophecy, as well as to the Enochian Watchers, and the need for inscriptions to withstand it. It is very long, so I will shorten some, and bold the important words. The full text is on my Watchers page.
The time will come when Egypt will appear to have in vain served the Divinity with pious mind and constant worship; and all its holy cult will fall to nothingness and be in vain. For that Divinity is now about to hasten back from Earth to Heaven, and Egypt shall be left; and Earth, which was the seat of pious cults, shall be bereft and widowed of the presence of the Gods. And foreigners shall fill this region and this land; and there shall be not only the neglect of pious cults, but—what is still more painful,—as though enacted by the laws, a penalty shall be decreed against the practice of [our] pious cults and worship of the Gods—[entire] proscription of them.
Fodor would like to connect this directly to Berossus’s discussion of the twin destructions of fire and water in Babylonian cosmology (preserved in Seneca’s Natural Questions), but my guess is that it comes more directly from the Enochian prophecy of Adam, which in turn likely has a Near Eastern origin, but that’s another story. The reference to the evil angels corrupting the earth seems to clearly connect this back to the Enochian material rather than the Babylonian, which lacks evil angels. We know this isn’t the only piece to make such a connection either since Lactantius in the Divine Institutes 2.15 (c. 311 CE) similarly asserts that Trismegistus knew that the demons were ἀγγέλους πονηροὺς, or evil angels, so the connection had to have been well enough established that his readers wouldn’t question it.
Things get interesting when we compare the prophecy of Hermes in the Asclepius to the prophecy given to Surid by the priest Philemon (in turn identified with Imhotep and Thoth, i.e. Hermes) in the Arabic pyramid myth. I’ve collected a number of different versions of it, and they aren’t entirely consistent. They are, however, too long to recount here. You can read them on my Medieval Pyramid Lore and Maqrizi pages. What’s important to note is that the vision contains the same elements as that of Hermes: Egypt will be destroyed and invaded by foreigners, a flood and fire will occur, and the land will be restored. What’s missing is equally interesting: The evil angels are gone, entirely in keeping with the new theology that had taken over in Late Antique Egypt that there were no fallen angels mating with human women but rather only the lineage of Seth, the godly son of Adam, mating with the evil daughters of Cain (Cassian, Collationes 8.21).
That the underlying text of the Arabic pyramid myths is Greek, and likely of Coptic origin, is shown not just in the Arabic historians’ attribution of it to the Copts but also in textual evidence. The astrological coordinates of the Flood, for example, are given in Greek in the Book of Marvels“narrators” and in the passage from Al-Qudai that Al-Maqrizi cites: “Zaus, that is to say, Jupiter, would be at 29° of Pisces.” In Maqrizi this is corrupted to the nonsensical Rawis (“narrators”), but we can recognize from the Book of Marvels that the word is the Greek name for Jupiter: Zeus. Some older Arabic source has transliterated a Greek text without entirely understanding it.
Fodor assumes that the underlying text of the Surid story was written around the fourth century CE by Coptic Christians, based on a somewhat older Gnostic or Sabean original featuring Hermes. He speculates that Late Antique Heremticism and Gnosticism, under pressure from Orthodox Christianity, developed the myth as a way of explaining how their ancient wisdom could be coequal in antiquity or even older than the Judeo-Christian scriptures and have survived the Flood that otherwise destroyed everything. The apocalyptic writings of Enoch and/or the Watchers, preserved in legend on pillars and tablets, provided the answer once Enoch could be identified with Hermes Trismegistus. The connection to Hermes was never wholly forgotten; the Surid version of the story claims that documents detailing Philemon’s prophecy were found at Abu Hirmis (or Hormeis, or some variation thereon) at Saqqara—the Monastery (House) of Jeremias, which had been corrupted into what Arabic speakers thought was the House of Hermes because of its close proximity to an old temple of Imhotep, remembered as a pyramid builder and identified since Late Antiquity with Hermes Trismegistus. Imhotep’s statues served as the model for the figure of Hermes in the Hermetica.
The long and short of it is that the Asclepius provides the missing piece showing how medieval pyramid lore developed out of a stew of Jewish apocalyptic literature, Hermeticism, and pseudo-historical claims drawn from half-remembered Egyptian history and legendry.
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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