I recently translated (from the French edition) the sections of the anonymous Arabic Book of Marvels dealing with the antediluvian history of the Giza pyramids. This book contains nothing other sources didn’t already provide, but it was an interesting exercise. I posted the results on my Medieval Pyramid Lore page. The Book of Marvels is an odd but entertaining work. It’s a collection of what we might describe as medieval Forteana arranged along a framework of world history, and this was a fairly common medieval practice. This particular volume was traditionally ascribed to the hand of the historian Al-Mas‘udi on the strength of the attribution on one manuscript of it, but this is almost certainly incorrect. Its date of composition is also unclear, with scholars estimating it as having been written anywhere from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries.
I did not translate a long list of wonder stories about people who entered the pyramid after it was opened in the ninth century, but I thought I’d share two of them here. As background, I’ll point out that medieval pyramid lore claimed that the structures were guarded by beautiful naked ghosts who, like sirens, lured horny travelers to their doom. Similarly, the following stories from Book 2, chapter 2 seem also to reflect an attempt to work the pyramids into Christian and Islamic moral universes by moralizing the pagan structures:
It is said that some men entered the pyramids with a young boy to use him for sex. They saw [the spirit of] a black slave armed with a cane coming at them, and he began to give them terrible blows. They fled immediately, leaving behind their food, their drinks, and some of their clothes. The same thing happened, it is said, to other men in the temple at Akhmim.
Given the amount of space—more than 5,000 words in English translation—that the author devoted to pyramid lore, I had hoped that he would have had something to say about the antediluvian giants, the fallen angels, and the pillars of wisdom. Sadly, though, our author, being Islamic, has inherited the late form of the Watchers myth that cut out most of the supernatural elements. In his telling, Enoch is responsible for the discovery of the arts of civilization, which he wrote in books of wisdom dictated to him by the angel Darabil. The mating of the sons of God and daughters of men has become a war between the progeny of “Seth and Enoch” and that of Cain, and Sethites’s shining faces (from their nearness to God) from Jewish lore has degenerated into the first appearance of a white beard, which astounded the people.
More interesting is another medieval text I came across yesterday, the Chronography of Gregory Bar Hebraeus, a Syrian Orthodox bishop who wrote a Syriac history of the world from the dawn of time to the year of his death, 1286. It is not particularly interesting on its own merits when it comes to the Watchers myth, for it identifies the sons of God with progeny of Seth, who were hornier than their father preferred, leading them to look for better sex outside their mountain home: “And because of this they (i.e. the men from HERMON) went to the children of CAIN, and took wives, and begat mighty men of names, that is to say, men notorious for murders and robberies” (trans. E. A. Wallis-Budge). Here, Bar Hebraeus has even eliminated the giants, euhemerizing them as merely notorious criminals. (The full passage is on my Watchers page.)
No, what is interesting is how Bar Hebraeaus folded the Babylonian history of Berossus and the Watchers myth of 1 Enoch into his antediluvian history. I’ll quote the relevant lines in full:
Moreover, they [the sons of Cain] set up over them the first king, a man whose name was SAMYAZOS, and when they began to quarrel with their brethren the children of SETH, they forced them also to set up a king over them, and they set up a king.
Do you recognize those names? The first king of the Cainites was Samjaza, the Watcher from 1 Enoch 6:3-5 who induces the other fallen angels to bind themselves to an oath. The clear implication is that the Watchers were, in Bar Hebraeus’ view, evil humans from the line of Cain.
The Sethite kings are still more interesting, for our author has adopted Berossus’ list of the ten antediluvian kings of Babylon wholesale. Berossus gives them thus (Eusebius, Chronicon 3 [quoting Alexander Polyhistor]; Syncellus, Chronicon 39 [quoting Abydenus] and 40 [quoting Apollodorus]):
The identification of ’Aonos (Daonus) as a shepherd and Ksisothros (Xisuthrus) as the king at the time of the flood seems to come from Polyhistor’s version of Berossus’ king list, or Apollodorus’ version, both of which give those particular details.
It’s rather astonishing to see Bar Hebraeus appropriating Babylonian kings to rule over the Sethites, who of course were also godly Syrians, but doubly so when we see the Fallen Angels as kings of the Cainites!
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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