For several decades, the Russian government, and the Soviet one before it, have used the official organs of state to promote a series of bizarre pseudoscientific claims, ranging from the ancient astronaut theory to Kirlian photography, for reasons that have never been entirely clear but seem tied to efforts to sow dissent in the West by undermining the pillars of Western society, including faith in science. A new study coming out of ITMO University, a Russian state university, alleges that the Great Pyramid contains mysterious magnetic forces that it concentrates in the subterranean chamber due to its bulk. The researchers did not actually study the pyramid, nor did they measure electromagnetic forces therein, but instead made a model of it in a computer, using a number of assumptions that are untrue (e.g., that the pyramid contains no unexplored cavities) and then reported the results without testing whether other large piles of stone might have similar properties without any intention on the part of the builder or of nature. Naturally, the Daily Mail picked up the Russian claims, and other papers copied their story.
The claim is suspiciously similar to one made on Ancient Aliens that the bulk of the pyramid focuses earth energies into the subterranean chamber to turn the pyramid into a piezoelectric power plant.
Look for the Russian claim to show up on Ancient Aliens in four to six months’ time.
However, this latest claim about the supposedly miraculous powers of the pyramid recalled to mind the longstanding fantasy about the pyramids as repositories of antediluvian science, a claim made in the Middle Ages from earlier Late Antique Christian legends that the temples and tombs of Egypt had served a similar purpose. Weirdly enough, before then the only real legend about the pyramids was that they were granaries of Joseph. Fascination with the pyramids only really begins among the Arabs in the Middle Ages and in Europe after the publication of Pyramidographia in the 1600s. It can be surprising to us that the great works of Christian scholarship didn’t pay any mind to the pyramids. Athanasius Kircher wrote an entire book, for example, about obelisks, but showed only passing interest in the pyramids. The Christian chroniclers similarly tended to minimize the structures.
They were, however, quite interested in the history of the Egyptian dynasties as related by the priest Manetho. As most readers know, the current system identifying the dynasties of Egypt derives from the Aegyptiaca, a book that Manetho wrote in the age of the Ptolemies to explain Egyptian history to a Greek readership. His multivolume account of Egyptian history does not survive, but descriptions of it exist in the works of Flavius Josephus, Eusebius, George Syncellus, the Excerpta Latina Barbari, and other sources. Many of these are hard to reconcile with one another because they are rather different and often contradictory. This has led to the conclusion that the original account of Manetho had Christian competitors, forgeries that revised Manetho’s lists of kings to conform to various Christian chronological schemes. We know this because, for example, the excerpts of the Book of Sothis, said to be written by Manetho, preserved in Syncellus contain references to the Bible and biblical events, which the real Manetho would not have used.
Well, last week I mentioned some Egyptian material that appeared in the oldest surviving Byzantine chronicle, that of John Malalas, who wrote around 570 CE, give or take. His work was ignored for a long time because Victorian scholars used to think he lived around 900 CE and had merely copied George Syncellus. But since he is the older author, his work is more interesting than once assumed. To the best of my knowledge, no one has really examined his primordial history to explore whether it contains material from the pseudo-Manetho of the Book of Sothis, which is a shame because I think it does, at least indirectly.
John’s work was translated into English in the 1980s by a team of Australian researchers. (I translated the Egyptian section here.) The accompanying notes, published as Studies in John Malalas, are thematic and don’t cover all of the material. They do discuss John’s use of Manetho, but only to compare his list of kings with the parallel list in the Excerpta, a Latin copy of a Greek chronicle written in the century after John. I won’t bore you with the details. The short version is that John Malalas took Manetho’s dynasty of gods and prefaced it with two figures out of sequence: Mestram (Mizraim), the first (human) king of Egypt in the Christian scheme and Hermes Trismegistus, a key figure in the Hermetic sources John used as references.
But I was particularly struck by a passage that has attracted rather little attention. After reporting a Christian legend that an oracle spoke of the Trinity to an ancient king, John says:
Manetho recorded these accounts of the most ancient and archaic kings of Egypt; and from his writings it appears that the five planets once had other names. For the other name of Kronos, they once called it the Shining One; Zeus was the Torch (Phaethon); Ares was the Fiery; Aphrodite the Fairest; and Hermes the Brilliant. The most learned Sotates explicated these names in later times.
I trust you recognize the Greek names of the planets—Kronos is Saturn, Zeus is Jupiter, Ares is Mars, Aphrodite is Venus, and Hermes is Mercury. The old Latin translation of this passage in the Niehbur edition of Malalas—which I scanned first because I read Latin better—contains an error; Neihbur makes the sentence say that “Manetho transmitted these accounts of the kings of Egypt from the most ancient monuments,” but the Greek text manifestly does not say that.
What is interesting about this passage is that it looks a lot like it is from some sort of pseudo-Manetho text like the Book of Sothis, which would be in keeping with the Christian tone of the anecdotes about the kings reported by John, similar in content to the Christian anecdotes about later kings given in Syncellus’s account of the Book of Sothis. (For example, one of the Ramesses is described this way: “He is the first Pharaoh mentioned in the Holy Scriptures. In his reign the patriarch Abraham went down into Egypt.”)
But Classical scholars haven’t seen it that way.
W. G. Waddell edited the fragments of Manetho for the Loeb Classical Library, and his version is usually taken as definitive. He translated the same passage and assigned it as Fragment 5 of Book 1 of the genuine work of Manetho. He, however, omitted all of the other material that John attributes to Manetho, including oracles (though Elizabeth Jeffries believes the oracles to be from a work by an otherwise unknown Timotheos cited elsewhere in the text) and the deaths of various kings, and their weird obsession with chastity laws. But I’m not sure why.
The list of planets is not Egyptian and seems, manifestly, not to be that of the real Manetho. According to Achilles Taitus, writing in the third century CE (give or take) his Isagoge, a commentary on Aratos’ Astronomikon, the Egyptians had different names for the planets from the Greeks: “It is by euphemism that the Egyptians call Saturn Phainon, apparent, seeing it is the most obscure of the planets; the Egyptians also call it Nemesis. The second planet is Jupiter, which the Greeks call Phaethon, and the Egyptians Osiris. The third is Mars, which among the Greeks is Puroeis [Fiery], and among the Egyptians the star of Hercules. The fourth is Mercury, Stilbon [Brilliant] among the Greeks, and the star of Apollo among the Egyptians. The fifth is the planet Venus, which the Greeks call Heosphorus [Light-Bearer]” (trans. Frances Rolleston). As you can see, the names John Malalas gives are those of the Greeks, not the late period Egyptians. The same list of Greek planetary names can be found in Pseudo-Aristotle's De Mundo 2 (= Aristotle 392a32-392b4) around 250 BCE, meaning that this list was no late innovation.
So why would the real Manetho pretend that the Egyptians called the planets by Greek names? If we can rely on the reports of what fragments we have, he didn’t. Whatever text stands behind John Malalas, it is one of two things: (a) a Greek forgery that attributes the first Greek planetary names to the Egyptians to associate them with the grandeur of Egypt or (b) an Egyptian text that tried to lay claim to originating the oldest Greek names for the planets. Elizabeth Jeffries, one of the Australian translators, suggested that he odd name “Sotades” (clearly not the poet of the same name) was a corruption of the Book of Sothis, perhaps conflated with the Alexandrian poet Sotades whom Ptolemy II killed, but in any case, a Hermetic or Hellenistic book of star lore is indicated.
What is interesting is that this fragment is embedded in material that is quite obviously from Christian forgeries of Manetho or other Egyptian histories—since, as I mentioned, the preceding anecdote refers to the Trinity, as do the alleged pagan oracles of the Tübingen Theosophy, a fifth century Christian compilation of supposed testimonia by the oracles to the truth of Christianity. We can also see fairly clearly that the source John used for this section had to have followed the original account of Manetho—which began with Hephaestus, not Mestram—fairly closely. Consider this anecdote which John gives:
Hephaistos, by a mystical prayer, received tongs from the air to be used in the manufacture of iron implements. This gave him overwhelming power in war. They raised him up to be a god, since he had promulgated the law on chastity, had acquired food for men by the manufacturer of implements, and had provided safety and power in war; for before his time, men fought one another with clubs and stones.
It seems like just a weird story about the invention of metal tools, marrying the Greek story of Hephaestus as blacksmith with Manetho’s Egyptian chronology. But remember that John Malalas was a Christian, so for him the first blacksmith was Tubal-Cain (Genesis 4:22), so metal instruments were already in existence when Hephaestus invented them. The contradiction seems to arise because John is copying a Greek forgery passing under Manetho’s name, or a Greek interpretation of Manetho (such as he attributes to Palaephatus, whose history of Egypt does not survive) and has moved stories that belonged the antediluvian period to after the Flood and after Mestrem because, like Eusebius, he didn’t believe that civilization existed before the Flood.
Similarly, one other strange anecdote points us toward an unusual source. In the following section, John tells us about the reign of Helios, the successor of Hephaestus, which is in keeping with Manetho’s chronology. He then relates what he says is an anecdote from Palaephatus:
He[lios] was informed by someone that some Egyptian woman, one abounding in wealth and merit, had fallen in love with someone and had begun committing adultery with him. When he (Helios) heard, he wanted to catch her, so that the law of his father should stand unbroken. Having made certain that the time of their congress was drawing nigh, he took soldiers. Her coupling took place at night. He burst in on her when her husband was absent, found her with her lover, and removed her. He ordered her to be paraded around the whole of Egypt, after having pronounced severe judgment on her. He punished the adulterer with death, and he received grateful thanks for it, and all of Egypt adopted chastity. Of this, the poet Homer, in his (poetic) manner, tells this story when he says Helios condemned Aphrodite for coupling with Ares at night. By “Aphrodite” the libidinal force is to be understood, which King Helios had condemned. The truth, as it has been explained to us, was recorded by the most learned chronicler Palaiphatos.
I don’t believe anyone has ever really looked into this passage, and those who treat Palaephatus assume he was making up his rationalizations. I wonder, though, if there was an actual Egyptian story he tried to graft the Homeric account onto. A startlingly similar story appears in the Arabic pseudo-histories of Egypt several centuries later. In Akhbar al-zaman (2.3), the story is said to have happened in the reign of ‘Adim, fifth king after the Flood:
Adīm invented the punishment of the gibbet. A woman was found guilty of adultery with a craftsman, so the king had them both crucified, back to back, and wrote above them their name and crime, with the date of their execution. This punishment frightened men and turned them away from adultery.
Al-Maqrizi, in repeating the story from his version of the text, attributed to Ibrahim ibn Wasif-Shah al-Ustad, specifically identifies the woman as a member of the king’s court. What is interesting is that in both cases the story involves an Egyptian king killing adulterers in order to end sexual impropriety in Egypt. Two facts are probably salient: First, that the Arabic account of Egyptian history is built on a framework derived, in a corrupt and indirect way, from Manetho, probably the pseudo-Manetho of Christian lore. Second, the Arabic texts seem to lift certain incidents and ideas from early Alexandrian world chronicles of the 300s, so far as the evidence allows us to know, but they display no knowledge of Byzantine chronicles like those of John Malalas, John of Antioch, and George Cedrenus, the latter two copying John Malalas quite closely.
That said, the stories might actually have independent origins. According to the extant evidence, this exact situation was considered a capital offense under ancient Egyptian law. According to documents from the Third Intermediate Period, adultery was a “great crime that is found in a woman” (others translate the phrase in a less misogynistic way) and the Instruction of Ani warns men that married women want to trick them into illicit sex—just as Malalas suggested in blaming the woman. Egyptian records suggest that someone caught committing adultery was punished with death, something that tended to be honored more in the breach, as Egyptologist C. J. Eyre reported in 1984. Eyre believed that the evidence showed that death was the “ideal” punishment, but that in reality most cases were settled with financial payments or less stringent punishments.
Does this mean that a genuine Egyptian or Greco-Egyptian text stands behind these stories, one that recorded an etiological myth about the divine origins of the prohibition on adultery? I wish it was easy to say yes. But the Greeks had a similar law, promulgated by Draco in Athens, and many ancient cultures specified death as punishment. It’s interesting that two stories both seem to be rationalized versions of the divine prohibition on adultery—already prohibited in Christianity and Islam—embedded in similar places in their narratives of the fantastical history of ancient Egypt.
So where did Malalas get his information? Directly citing Manetho seems to be out since the material is corrupt and bears Christian contamination. Scholars are divided, and I admit that thanks to pay walls behind which even my local university’s library cannot penetrate, I have not read all of the relevant literature. Recent studies from the past five years have suggested that the stories came from Palaephatus (as Malalas cites), Euhemerus’ Sacred History (doubtful due to the Christian material), Diodorus Siculus’ lost sixth book (only John of Antioch suggests that one story in Malalas’s material parallels that of Diodorus), or the lost historian Bouttios, who is suspected of writing the original Picus Zeus narrative that is found both in Malalas and the Excerpta Latina Barbari. This narrative serves as the introduction to Egyptian history in both books. The last claim is the most interesting but suffers from the obvious: Malalas doesn’t attribute the text to Bouttios.
The final answer eludes us, but the general thread is clear: A Christian source revised and edited Manetho’s account of Egyptian history to make it conform to Christian beliefs and morals, and this fabrication—like the fake Christianized Pseudo-Sybelline Oracles—passed on strange legends to the Middle Ages.
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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