Today I’d like to talk about something that interested me as I was reading through medieval texts. It’s a little dry, so if you make it through, I’ll finish up with what I believe to be the only ancient text to record an “alien” anal probing. And yes, I found it before Ancient Aliens, because they don’t bother with primary source research anymore.
In the stories I’ve covered this past week about various zany ideas about the Nephilim, one of the recurring themes is that fringe authors are big fans of secondary sources, and they have trouble recognizing that ancient people tended to have different ideas about the same myths and legends, many of which were contradictory. It must be nice to not really concern yourself with the niceties of historiography when making world-historical claims about how all of history is wrong and only they have the right answer. But it did make me think about an issue I noticed as I was working on preparing the material I’ve translated from the medieval Akhbar al-zaman for publication in my Library.
If you read most of the secondary sources on medieval lore, you’ll likely read, as I have many times, that the Arabic language authors repeated each other relentlessly and that most of the books about antediluvian times are nearly word-for-word plagiarisms of one another. At the macro level this is certainly true, but the claim hides some interesting problems that so far as I can tell no one has explored in any great depth.
Now let me walk that back a smidge: Historians of Islamic historiography note that there were two competing versions of Egyptian history in medieval times. The first is the Hermetic history, which treats of Hermes Trismegistus and focuses on the antediluvian period. The second is the traditionalist history, which is based, in a corrupt way, on Manetho with a heavy dose of folklore and focuses mostly on post-diluvian doings, from Mizraim on down. Much less investigated is how the traditionalists reacted to the Hermetic writers in recreating antediluvian history. The long and short of it is that Hermes ended up assimilated with Surid, the traditionalists’ candidate for the builder of the pyramids.
The Akhbar al-zaman has a reputation as a collection of wacky tall tales about the world before the Flood, and it certainly has its fair share of wonder stories that are utterly unbelievable. But what is interesting is that the author (here I am going to refer to the book’s claims as those of the author for clarity, though he likely copied them from an earlier source) has an agenda behind his discussion, and it only becomes obvious when reading the text against its parallels. Our author wants to try to minimize or otherwise entirely eliminate Hermes Trismegistus.
This is clearest when he describes the antediluvian priest Shāon (a.k.a. Sawan or Savan), whom he equates with Hermes:
They say he was the first Hermes, the one who built the palace of statues, which measured the volume of water of the Nile and is located in the Mountains of the Moon. He also built a temple to the Sun. On this subject, the Copts relate many extraordinary traditions, which boggle the mind. He became invisible to men, being in the midst of them. He built Ashmun… etc. etc.
This doesn’t seem very revelatory at first, but when we look at the parallel text of Murtada ibn al-‘Afif, we see that there is no reference to mind-boggling claims, only a recitation of the same list of wonders given in the Akhbar. Our author is interested in casting Hermes in a bit of doubt, as we can see from the very few other references to him in the text—or rather the lack thereof. He appears only in references to the 85 statues built at the source of the Nile, a story that our author has tried to minimize by altering it from its apparently traditional form. In one reference, the author reassigns Hermes’ invisibility to the priest-king al-Budasheer and makes Hermes nothing but a sub-contractor for al-Budasheer in building the 85 statues beside a palace at the source of the Nile. In a third reference, he attributes the building of the palace (and by implication its associated statues) to demons (probably modeled on Solomon’s Temple-building demons in the apocryphal Testament of Solomon) in the service of ’Ankam (= Murtadi’s Gancam), a different priest-king, whom the Akhbar author describes as having stories told of him that boggle the mind, a description that Murtada once again omits while otherwise copying verbatim. Both authors describe this priest as the author of the Coptic books of wisdom, which in other contexts is the role given to Hermes II, a mythical variant of Hermes Trismegistus, or to Hermes II’s son Agathodaemon (cf. Pseudo-Manetho in Syncellus, Chronicle 41). Indeed, the fifteenth century Persian writer Khwandamir would specify that ’Ankam was king when Enoch-Idris-Hermes was taken to heaven, at least according to John Greaves (I have not seen the original), as did the medieval or early modern writer Achmed ibn Ti Farshi, as quoted in a seventeenth century compilation called The Explorer’s Desire.
What’s doubly interesting is that these snubs of Hermes had to have occurred on purpose, since the author of the Akhbar admits to having access to the Hermetic history. He cites Abu Ma‘shar’s The Thousands, where Hermes’ various antics before the Flood and after (as Hermes II and III) are reported. Yet our author is not the only one to want to censor traditionally wacky claims about Hermes. Ibn Julul, the author through whom we know what Abu Ma‘shar said in the Thousands, himself engaged in similar censorship: “Abū Ma‘šar told some absurd reports about him, of which I related the most true and most likely” (trans. Kevin van Bladel). In other words, everyone more or less agreed that the Hermetic history was incredible, but they disagreed on what parts to throw out.
Our Akhbar author (or, more likely, his sources), though, didn’t simply revise the Hermetic history when it came to Hermes; he also did so when it came to the Watchers and the Nephilim, who are part and parcel of the package associated with Hermes-Enoch-Idris. It is no surprise, for example, that he has adopted the interpretation of Genesis 6:4 that makes the Sons of God and daughters of men into warring groups of Sethites and Cainites, which by his day was the universally accepted version of the story in the Judeo-Christian world, as well as the standard Islamic account. But what is interesting is that he has preserved a chunk of the old Enochian Watchers myth but reassigned the Sons of God/Watchers to the djinn, seeming to equate Biblical fallen angels (an impossibility in Islam) with Arabian djinn.
I won’t bore you with the whole chain of logic explaining this, but the two passages below are quoting Abu Ma‘shar, though only one of the two specifies this explicitly, and in turn the Greek underlying the text, along with an embedded chunk of Berossus, shows that it derives from Annianus’s World Chronicle, which was based on, among other things, the Book of Enoch. The overlap in the text, and the fact that Bar Hebraeus elsewhere cites Abu Ma‘shar makes the identity of these texts quite plain:
Al-Juzjani, Tabaqat-i-Naziri 1
Now look at what our Akhbar author has done (well, appears to have done, in my admittedly speculative analysis) with the inherited Enochian text, which he seems to have known in a version closer to that of the Book of Enoch, possibly from a medieval Jewish midrash:
The Indians, the Persians, and the Greeks treated the genealogy and tribes of the djinn and gave the names of their kings, and they believed they were divided into twenty-one tribes. When their empire had lasted five thousand years, they appointed a king from among themselves called Shāma’īl, son of Aras. Then they divided and named five kings, and they stayed a long time in this state. At the end, some of the djinn attacked each other, and there were a great number of battles and terrible wars.
The structural similarity in the stories suggests that Shāma’īl, Sāmīārush, and Samyazos are all the same person: Samyaza (medieval: Shemhazai), the king of the Watchers in 1 Enoch. Samyazos needs no explanation; Sāmīārush is the same name with a Persian ending. Shāma’īl looks to me—though I am no philologist—like the same name back-formed to parallel the names of the Islamic archangels, Israfil (Raphael); Mikhail (Michael), Jibrail (Gabriel), etc. This is actually quite clever because it allows the author to slide the Watchers into the Quranic account of Iblis’s (the Devil’s) rebellion against God, combining the Watchers and the Luciferian falls from grace within an Islamic context. On the other hand, it might be a variant of Shamhurish, one of the seven traditional kings of the djinn, or Samhal, one of the djinn appearing in a late Moorish magico-medical document in Spain around 1400. The similarity of the story construction, though, leads me to suspect a connection to Samyaza.
This might seem a bit esoteric, but at least it’s more interesting than the claim Christopher Fredrickson made in his undated, self-published A Study on the Book of the Watchers, 1 Enoch 1-36, in which he argued that (a) one of the Watchers is named Barak’el, (b) the current U.S. president is Barack Obama, and (c) barak means “blessed” in Arabic, so therefore Obama is a Satan-worshipper and Muslims worship the devil and his fallen angels.
Since this was such a dull slog, let me finish with something weird. I mentioned earlier that the myth that demons built the copper palace for ’Anak probably derives from Solomon’s use of demons to build the First Temple in the apocryphal Testament of Solomon, where our friends the Watchers appears as fallen angels and demons, including Azazel. The fallen angels are less than fearsome in this book; one is Sphendonaêl, the inflamer of tonsils. Another seems to be in charge of painful gas. One unnamed Fallen Angel gave Solomon this account of his role in the universe, in chapter 14, one so obscene that the Victorian translator rendered parts of it in Latin out of horror. I’ll translate them into English where the translator gave Latin:
2. … This is the first time I have stood before thee, O King Solomon. I am a spirit made into a god among men, but now brought to naught by the ring and wisdom vouchsafed to thee by God. 3. Now I am the so-called Winged Dragon, and I chamber not with many women, but only with a few that are of fair shape, which possess the name of xuli, of this star. 4. And I mate with them in the guise of a spirit winged in form, copulating with them in their buttocks. And she on whom I have leapt goes heavy with child, and that which is born of her becomes Eros. But since such offspring cannot be carried by men, the woman in question breaks wind. Such is my role. (14:2-4; adapted from the trans. of F. C. Conybeare)
That translation is funny, but modern versions are a little different, with the standard 1983 translation rendering the last line this way: “One woman I attacked is bearing (a child), and that which is born from her becomes Eros. Because it could not be tolerated by men, that woman perished” (trans. D. C. Duling).
So there you have it, ancient astronaut theorists: Alien anal probing is real! Ancient texts say so!
8/9/2015 03:07:00 am
What does "and that which is born from her becomes Eros" mean?
8/9/2015 04:02:24 am
According to the notes in the 1983 critical edition, it refers to her giving birth to the god Eros/Cupid. I think it probably was trying to imply that it births the sin of lust.
8/9/2015 08:57:05 am
I can see why the older translation favoured "breaks wind". The key word in the Greek is "epsophehsen", meaning "made a noise". Also, "xuli" can be transliterated "xyli" (as in xylophone) suggesting that it may simply mean "wood". I understand that the equation of wood and getting stiff does work in Greek, but this sentence is so confused I can't be sure it's relevant here.
8/9/2015 10:54:30 am
Scholars have put forward two arguments about the "xuli," one related to wood in general and one arguing that it has something to do with Sagittarius, though I'm not sure I entirely followed that argument.
8/10/2015 05:42:59 am
Sagittarius is an archer in myths, as was Cupid. The constellation looks like the Hallmark version of Cupid priming his bow. Cupid though in ancient England was actually kind of an evil guy who would deliberately wound his victims for amusement with his special arrows.
8/10/2015 07:06:01 am
Just curious. Am I reading this right? Quote, "One unnamed Fallen Angel gave Solomon this account of his role in the universe...". Then extract follows, quoting apparent anal conception, with, "But since such offspring cannot be carried by men, the woman in question breaks wind. Such is my role." Sorry to be crude, but is this a reference to anal conception and childbirth by farting? Is that what the 'author' and followers are saying? Even the weirdest characters on alien thinking constrain themselves to talk about copulation between humans and aliens, supposedly by accepted means, but farting children seems to go beyond any previous deviations.
8/10/2015 08:12:50 am
I'm not sure it's meant to be literal childbirth. I think it's more meant to suggest that what this demon puts up the arse can't be contained within the human body, so it rips its way out as a nasty stink bomb. It makes some sense, since there is actually an association between Eros and winds--it may be an indirect reference to the myth of Eros, Zephyrus, and Hyacinth, wherein Zephyrus became Eros' eternal servant after blowing a discus off course to kill Hyacinth out of jealousy.
8/10/2015 08:00:05 am
The problem is the word I quoted in my previous post "epsophehsen". Although dictionaries of ancient Greek - English translate the verb "psopheoh" as "to make a noise", in modern Greek the word "psophoh" can mean "to die". Clearly, this late classical text is using the modern meaning, and "breaks wind" was an ill-conceived attempt to fit the old definition into the context.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
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.