Joseph Scaliger, Samuel Purchas, and the Renaissance Encounter with the Watchers and the Book of Enoch
In all of the time we have spoken of the Book of Enoch and the Watchers and their ilk, I hadn’t quite gotten around to discussing the reactions to this myth across Europe. As you know, in the East, the story was adapted into Byzantine Christian and Islamic mythology by equating the Watchers with the Sons of Seth and making them human. In the West, scholars had a much more limited version of events, inherited almost entirely from Josephus and Methodius, that knew of the sons of Seth but attributed all of the sin to “excessive fornications” rather than the forbidden knowledge of the Watchers myth. Therefore, when Joseph Justus Scaliger started working on an edition of Jerome’s Latin translation of Eusebius’ Chronicle around 1600, he was in for quite a surprise.
In attempting to trace Eusebius’ sources, Scaliger used the newly discovered work of Cedrenus, a Byzantine historian, who in turn made reference to his main source, George Syncellus. Scalinger was intrigued and sent his friend, Isaac Casaubon, to the library of Catherine de Medici, where a medieval copy of Syncellus had been found. Casaubon copied out the sections on the Book of Enoch, and he sent them to Scaliger, who was shocked at what he read. Having no framework for understanding the elaborate Enochian mythology, when he published the fragments in his Thesaurus temporum, he had this to say about the story of the Watchers. It manages to be dismissive, more than a little racist, and misguided all at once:
So much for the forged first book of Enoch. I cannot decide whether it took the Jews more spare time to write all of this, or me more patience to copy it out. It contains so many loathsome and shameful things that I would not think it worth reading if I did not know that Jews make a habit of lying, and that even now they cannot stop producing such rubbish. But because it is translated from the Hebrew ... and the book is very old, and Tertullian cites from it ... I preferred to swallow the tedium of copying it out rather than bear the blame for continuing to deprive my kind readers of it. (trans. Nicholas Keene)
However, Scalinger’s readers did not share the same low opinion of the book. Samuel Purchas, in his Pilgrimage, read the excerpts from Enoch in Scalinger and, despite thinking the book to be fictitious, nevertheless though there was enough merit in it (from citation in Scripture) to incorporate an English translation into his discussion of the world before the Flood:
Howsoeuer, it is more then apparant, that the booke bearing Enochs name, is very fabulous, which, because the tables therein professe antiquitie (although they were later dreames) I thought it not vnfit to borrow out of Scaliger somewhat of that which he hath inserted, in his notes vpon Eusebius, the Greeke copie being as the phrase testifieth, translated out of Hebrew, which had been the worke of some Iew: the antiquitie appeareth in that Tertullian citeth it. And it came to passe when the sonnes of men were multiplied, there were borne to them faire daughters, and the Watch-men (so he calleth the Angels, out of Dan.) lusted and went astray after them: and they said One to another, Let vs chuse vs wiues of the daughters of men of the earth. And Semixas their Prince said vnto them, I feare vie you will not do this thing, and I alone shall be debter of a great sinne. And they all answered him and said: We will all sweare with an oath, and will Anathematise or Curse our selues not to alter this our mind till we haue fulfilled it. and they all sware together. These came downe in the dayes of lared to the top of the hill, Hermon. And they called the hill, Hermon, because they sware and Anathematised on it. These were the names of their Rulers, Semixas, Atarcuph, Arachiel, Chabahiel, Orammame, Ramiel, Sapsich, Zakiel, Balkiel, Azalzel, Pharmaros, Samiel. &c.
And thus did the Book of Enoch end up woven into Western lore a thousand years after it had been a regular part of Eastern discourse.
If you’re interested, I have placed the full text of Purchas’s chapter on giants and Watchers, with all of his English translation of the Syncellus fragments, in my Library. It is an interesting look at how the myth of the Watchers crashed into traditional Western readings of Genesis 6:4 in the Renaissance and ended up offering a bit of a challenge to the received theology.
It’s hard to overestimate how important Western scholars found this text to be, not least because the Church Fathers had quoted from it. These texts also sparked a global search for a copy of the full text of the Book of Enoch, in the hope of finding more Enochian secrets about antediluvian history. These quotations from Enoch might have been all that was known to the West until the recovery of the Ethiopic translation of the complete book of Enoch, but that was enough. It set the stage for the occult use of Enoch in the Western tradition.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.