I finally have the last piece of the puzzle that explains how the Arab pyramid myth developed from pagan antecedents, and it seems to be a piece that wasn’t known to earlier investigators of the legend like A. Fodor. The final puzzle piece was referenced in Kevin van Bladel’s Arabic Hermes (2009), where he used it for a slightly different purpose in establishing the sources of ninth century astrologer Abu Ma‘shar’s account of Hermes, the first and most important source for the Arabic pyramid myths. (He is more concerned with the biography of Hermes than Hermes’ actions.) But with just a tiny shift in focus it also explains a lot about how Enoch’s Pillars of Wisdom became associated with Hermes Trismegistus and the pyramids.
This is a little complicated, so forgive me if I oversimplify a little bit. (You will laugh when you see what “simple” means in this context.) In The Thousands, Abu Ma‘shar gave an account of Hermes’ activities before the Flood, namely that he built pyramids and temples, and that he hid antediluvian wisdom in the Temple of Akhmim to keep it safe from either flood or fire, the destructions prophesied in the Enochian tradition. The trouble is that The Thousands doesn’t survive, and all of the accounts we have of this passage are based on the summary of Ibn Juljul, Tabaqat al-atibbaʾ 5-10 (987 CE). Ibn Juljul didn’t approve of Abu Ma‘shar’s account, though, and he rather bluntly asserts that “Abu Ma‘shar told some absurd reports about him [Hermes], of which I related the most true and most likely” (trans. van Bladel). So what was in this maddening lacuna? Only the origins of the pyramid myth. (Well, maybe not in that specific spot—another author, Ibn Nabāta, says that paragraph was taken up with tales of Balinus—but somewhere in the general vicinity.)
While Abu Ma‘shar was happy to include wacky and heterodox ideas in his books, Ibn Juljul apparently was not. Islam did not preserve a tradition of the Fallen Angels or Giants, and it tends to show up only occasionally in Islamic works based on Christian sources. That’s why I was surprised to find it in a summary of Abu Ma‘shar preserved in a quotation from Qānūn-al-mas‘ūdī of al-Bīrūnī, found, of all places, in a Persian manuscript of al-Juzjānī’s Tabaqat-i-Nasiri 1 (c. 1259-1260 CE). I give the full account below, slightly adapted from the published translation of Major H. G. Raverty and with some explanatory notes added:
In Unnush’s [Enosh’s] time a son of Adam named Nabaṭī (sic for al-Yaqza, the Watchers), with his children, retired to the mountains of Jarmūn [Hermon], and devoted themselves to religion, and many others joined him. From the death of Adam to this period, according to Abū-l-Ma’shar-i-Munajjim, [quoted] in the Qānūn-al-mas‘ūdī [of al-Bīrūnī], was 432 years. After some time elapsed, Nabaṭī and his descendants came down from the mountains and joined the descendants of Ḳābīl [Cain], who had taken possession of the hills of Shām, and parts around, who had increased beyond computation. Iblīs [the Devil] had taught them the worship of fire; and drunkenness, and all sorts of other grievous sins prevailed among them. A thousand years had elapsed since Adam’s death, and the rebellious sons of Ḳābīl and Nabaṭī began to act tyrannically. They chose one of their number to rule over them, who was named Sāmīārush [Semjaza]; and between them and the other descendants of Adam, who were just persons, hostility and enmity arose.
(It is only by fortunate chance that these two paragraphs were translated for us; Major H. G. Raverty chose only to excerpt and summarize the first six books of the manuscript in a translation beginning with Book Seven, but for some reason these passages caught his eye, and he gave them in full.)
Weirdly, this account is much more developed than that in the extant al-Bīrūnī, which preserves only a schematic summary and the Babylonian king list from Berossus, probably from Eusebius; presumably, the medieval encyclopedia was once much longer and has been abbreviated. Our author here has also clearly added some extra Persian flavor of the original text to fit it into his plan to give the history of Persians in India—though Abu Ma‘shar had reported a Persian element to the story, even according to Ibn Juljul.
Certain facts stand out immediately: This text gives us a euhemerized account of the Watchers and Giants, and it is dependent on Enochian lore, where the Watcher Semjaza has become king of the Cainites and the antediluvian kings of Babylon the righteous kings of the Sethites. We can see that the underlying text is Greek, and that it matches nearly verbatim the account of the same actions given by the Syrian Christian Bar Hebraeus in 1286, quite obviously from the same original sources—in this case, Abu Ma‘shar and his source, the fifth century Christian chronographer Annianus of Alexandria. Bar Hebraeus preserves a little fuller discussion still, and this text lets us link it to Abu Ma‘shar and Annianus when Bar Hebraeus tells us Hermes and Enoch were the same person. He attributes this fact, significantly, to “the ancient Greeks,” meaning Annianus and the other chronographers. (Weirdly, Bar Hebraeus wrote two different versions of his account, one in Arabic and edited for Islamic sensibilities, and the other in Syriac for Christians, which left out much of Abu Ma‘shar.)
According to van Bladel, Abu Ma‘shar argued in the Thousands that the Flood was the single most important event in human history, and it was the demarcation point for all his astrological calculations. That is why, he said, he studied Hebrew and Greek accounts of the Flood. Therefore, it becomes obvious that he took a great interest in the antediluvian run-up to the Flood, and thus with Enoch and Hermes, the antediluvians whose knowledge of astrology served as predecessor to his own.
As van Bladel explained, Annianus is also the likely source for information attributed to Panodorus in George Syncellus’ eighth-century Christian account (Chronicle 42) of this material. Syncellus gives us information said to come from the imperial-era forgery of Pseudo-Manetho’s Book of Sothis, which tells of Hermes inscribing wisdom on stellae in Egypt to preserve it from the Flood. That account, obviously enough, though beyond van Bladel’s scope, is exactly parallel to Enoch (or whoever in his lineage) inscribing wisdom on the Two Pillars in Egypt to preserve it from the Flood, a story already old in the time of Flavius Josephus. Van Bladel notes that both Annianus and Panodorus used the Book of Enoch in their chronicles (the latter approvingly, and the former apparently with disdain), and therefore were a likely source of transmission of the claim that Hermes and Enoch were one and the same.
In sum, the Christian chronographers of Late Antiquity seem to be to blame because their polemical desire to show that Christian tradition, traced through Judaism, predated pagan wisdom all but required them to embrace Hermes Trismegistus as one of their own in order to account for the widespread belief that Hermes antedated the Flood, and thus the Scriptures themselves. Some Christians argued Hermes was a prophet predicting Christianity, some that he had a distorted reflection of Judaism, and others, apparently, that he was a mistaken reflection of a patriarch—Enoch. (The Arabs also said he was the Buddha, so go figure.) It is right there in that moment of identification that Enoch’s pillars or tablets begin to become conflated with the books, later tablets, of Thoth-Hermes, starting their long path toward becoming first temples and then pyramids built before the Flood. The exact year this occurred is unclear; Zosimus of Panoplis’s citation of the Watchers myth in conjunction with Hermes (but not associated directly with him) around 300 CE implies that it happened very early, first in Egypt before spreading outward from Alexandria to other centers of learning. Panodorus of Alexandria had a version of the story by 400, as Syncellus testifies (likely from a third or fourth century source), and part of the third century Asclepius might reflect this doctrine, too, though this is less clear and its reference to a prophecy of fire and flood might have other antecedents.
Oh, and van Bladel also lets us know the source of the claim that Hermes and Enoch were also Idris: Wahb ibn Munabbih (died c. 730 CE). But by then, the damage had already been done, and this was simply a bit of Islamic color on a Byzantine Christian legend soon lost to the West when Islam swept through the lands where the story of Hermes-Enoch was current.
But this leaves me with one big problem: Now that this problem is solved, what will I write about? This was a really fun puzzle, and one that exposed the deep influence of the Watchers myth in virtually every aspect of fringe history. I guess I’ll have to research some other thing the Watchers got up to besides building pyramids.
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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