After researching the alleged medieval Egyptian rabbi Abenephius over the past couple of weeks, I became curious about the question of what exactly Jews and Christians of Egypt would have known about Hermes, Enoch, and the other related characters whose apocryphal adventures formed the basis of so much later fringe history. This led me to learn that the Jews of Egypt had indeed been interested in Enochian literature, but that they had been extinguished in the middle of the second century CE (177 CE to be specific), not to reappear again until the 300s, at which point their interest in Enoch and Hermes goes unrecorded. One would think they almost certainly would have produced their own texts reacting to Enochian and Hermetic texts because their Christian neighbors were obsessed with apocryphal texts; however, the period from 70 to 600 CE saw the suppression of the Enochian tradition among the Jews almost completely, reemerging only after around 700, for reasons that are not entirely clear.
One exception is 3 Enoch 5:9, possibly from the fifth century, which tells briefly of the fall of the angels, but Annette Yoshiko Reed has argued well that the passage is a later medieval interpolation taken over from Christian chronologers. If so, this would actually support the contention that Abenephius did something similar in producing a reaction to Christian chronologies in his own work.
This led me to discover that in 367 the Christian bishop of Alexandria named Athanasius (served 328 to 373) bore witness to the fact in an angry missive known as Festal Letter 39. In it, he railed against Hermetic, astrological, and apocryphal literature, particularly that passing under Enoch’s name, claiming that such texts were a threat to orthodoxy. Unfortunately, Letter 39 is a textual mess, with one big chunk preserved in Greek and several more in Coptic. The relevant Greek fragment is as follows:
They have fabricated books which they call books of tables, in which they show stars, to which they give the names of Saints. And therein of a truth they have inflicted on themselves a double reproach: those who have written such books, because they have perfected themselves in a lying and contemptible science; and as to the ignorant and simple, they have led them astray by evil thoughts concerning the right faith established in all truth and upright in the presence of God. (trans. Archibald Robertson)
The Coptic fragment is more relevant still, and in it Athanasius refers to the common folk of Egypt:
Who has made the simple folk believe that books belong to Enoch, even though no scriptures existed before Moses? […] Heretics will write these books whenever they want and then grant and bestow them dates, so that, by publishing them as if they were ancient, they might have a pretext for deceiving the simple folk! (trans. D. Brakke)
Here Athanasius provides testimony that the common folk of Alexandria had been exposed to Enochian material and through it had been seduced into heresy. He might just as well have been speaking in response to the alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis who wove a summary of the fall of the angels in the manner of 1 Enoch and/or Jubilees into his account of how Hermes Trismegistus learned of alchemy (Imouth 9, in Syncellus, Chronicle 14). This is particularly interesting light of the fact that St. John Cassian reported a century later that the Abbot Serenus, a desert father in Egypt, spoke fluently of the Enochian tradition of Fallen Angels sparking civilization and fathering giants as “that common notion” that he and the other churchmen could better understand not as the work of fallen angels but lapsed saints from the line of Seth.
The picture painted by the Egyptian writers of the fourth century is one of a Christian community divided between an orthodox elite and common folk who were much more heterodox and open to apocryphal texts that pretended to be coequal to the emerging body of canonical scripture. Athanasius is the first, for example, to enumerate the canonical books of the New Testament.
All of this makes it less surprising that the monk Panodorus of Alexandria, who wrote a world chronicle around 412 CE, attempted to create a grand synthesis of human history by appealing to the Book of Enoch, a choice that in another context might have seemed heretical or bizarre, but in Alexandria of the late 300s would have been in keeping with the popular understanding of human history. In this, Panodorus created a true innovation in Christian historiography (or, rather, mythology). Earlier chroniclers had mentioned the Fallen Angels. Sextus Julius Africanus, writing around 221 CE, spoke in a manner that betrayed familiarity with Enochian material, but he had dismissed all of the histories of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, etc. as lies, and therefore saw little special about the Watchers. Eusebius, writing around 325, dismissed most antediluvian history as speculative, and had tried to marry pagan and sacred history by manipulating dates (converting solar years to lunar months, for example). But Panodorus was the first to introduce the Watchers and the explanation for the problem of chronology:
But the Egregori [i.e. Watchers], who, as we affirm, descended upon earth and began to converse with men in the common year of the world, 1000, taught them concerning the orbits of the two luminaries, and their division into the twelve signs of the zodiac and into three hundred and sixty degrees. But men fixing their attention upon the lunar orbit of about thirty days, as being the lesser and the nearer to the earth of the two, as well as the more obvious one, determined to make this the measure of their year, pitching upon this instead of the solar orbit, which is also completed in twelve signs and three hundred and sixty equal degrees. (quoted in Syncellus, Chronicle 41; anonymous 19th c. trans.)
In other words, regular riffraff didn’t understand astrology and/or astronomy taught by the Watchers well enough and mistook lunar months for solar years, thus justifying Eusebius’ guesswork.
Panodorus added one more innovation, as best we can tell from the admittedly uncertain fragments of his lost world chronicle: He identified the gods who reigned among the pagans as the Watchers. We don’t know for certain that he invented this concept, but his contemporary, Annianus, who wrote a chronicle that was half summary and half critique of Panodorus, and which survives in greater fragments, took over this idea and passed it on to the Middle Ages.
Readers with long memories will recall that a long time ago I was rather surprised to discover that two medieval texts both identified the Babylonian kings before the Flood as Watchers. These texts were the chronicle of Bar Hebraeus, written in 1286, and Al-Juzjani’s Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, written around 1260. Both texts give Berossus’ Babylonian king list, albeit in mangled form, and call those kings Watchers, mixing them with Enochian figures, notably the Watcher Semjaza, again in corrupt form. I had wondered when I first discovered this how two very different texts written on opposite ends of the Muslim world by a Christian and a Muslim respectively hit upon exactly the same argument. I knew of their common source, and that the Persian astrologer Abu Ma‘shar’s Thousands stands behind both, mostly because Al-Juzjani says so explicitly, albeit via a secondhand source.
But where did Abu Ma‘shar get the idea?
That is what I didn’t know. Scholars suggested that Abu Ma‘shar took the claim from Annianus, but I wasn’t aware of the proof that Annianus actually said these things. That’s why I was rather surprised to discover yet another medieval chronicle that I had never heard of. This one predates Bar Hebraeus and Al-Juzjani and gives the same story. However, the writer, Michael the Syrian, did not know of Abu Ma‘shar and therefore cited his source to the common source of all of them. Writing in sections 1.3 and 1.4 of his Chronicle sometime before 1199, he gives the whole of the Babylonian king list in greater detail than either of the other authors, and he refers to Semjaza by his correct Greek name, Semiazos. He even preserves more and better details than the other authors, with more of the original terminology from Berossus. His is the superior version of the myth, clearer and less corrupt.
The kicker? He identified this material as coming from what “Annianus tells of them.” A few pages earlier, he cites the Book of Enoch and quotes from Annianus, who he said used material from 1 Enoch on the birth of Seth in his chronicle. I translate from the French edition of the full Syriac chronicle (there is also an English version from the inferior Armenian translation):
According to the Syrians, Adam, having reached 130 years, begot Seth and lived another 800 years, which is in truth 930 years, until the ninth generation. -- Annianus the monk brings in the testimony of the Book of Enoch and then says: “Adam, after he came out of Paradise, being 70 years old, knew Eve, and she bore Cain; and after seven years she bore Abel; and after 53 years Cain killed Abel. Adam and Eve wept for 100 years, and then they begot Seth in his likeness and image.”
It’s not the most scintillating of data, but it shows that Annianus adopted Panodorus’ use of Enochian literature, albeit in a more limited way.
By comparing the accounts derived from Annianus (Michael, Bar Hebraeus, Al-Juzjani, etc.) with the version known to be from Panodorus (in Syncellus), we see that none of the texts derived from Annianus has more than an abbreviated version of the fall of the Watchers in which the Watchers are identified as the human offspring of Seth. By contrast, Panodorus preserves a lengthy section of the Book of Enoch and speaks directly of the Fallen Angels and the celestial wisdom they brought. This isn’t enough to prove whether Panodorus followed the angelic or Sethite version of the Watchers myth, but he must have offered enough the Book of Enoch to kept the angelic version known among the Byzantines, even as that entire corpus of literature curdled into the Arab-Islamic pyramid myth in the Muslim lands.
In the West, by contrast, the Sethite interpretation predominated, but instead of obsessing over the lost ancient wisdom of Enoch and Seth, Western Christians couldn’t get enough of kinky sex and wrote long tractates about how women were the root of all sin. More to our point, they maintained a different subset of Enochian material, derived from Flavius Josephus, practically the only source for the Enochian tradition known in the West for nearly a thousand years, and thus favored the Pillars of Wisdom narrative over the lost books of astrology and alchemy template favored in the East.
Incidentally, Agapius, a Christian writing in Arabic around 940 CE, bears witness to another key part of Panodorus’ argument. This is a little complicated, so the simple version is that Agapius copied from Theophilus of Edessa, an eighth century chronicler whose lost universal history was in turn based, in its antediluvian sections, on Annianus. Therefore, when Agapius tells us about the Egyptian priest Manetho citing the patriarch Enoch (i.e. Hermes Trismegistus) as the transmitter of antediluvian wisdom, he is actually reporting Annianus’ partially approving summary of Panodorus’ much longer argument, the thrust of which hinged on accepting a Hermetic forgery, the so-called Book of Sothis, as the real work of Manetho on the history of Egypt. From Panodorus, Syncellus quoted part of the forgery in which Pseudo-Manetho claims Hermes raised the Pillars of Wisdom before the Flood, and Agapius gives us the rest of the argument:
Certain scholars also affirm that Enoch – i.e. Idris – made known, explained and taught the arts of writing, letters, stars (astronomy) and calculation. Manetho, a scholar of Egypt and an astronomer, affirms that God raised Enoch to the revolving sphere and made known to him the signs of the zodiac, which are there, the fixed and wandering stars, horoscopes, the terms of the influence of the stars, the decades of the degrees, the constellations which are there, and the other mysteries of astrology. This is why it is said that his book of stars is called a book of hidden meanings. All the Harranians, who worship the idols and the stars, share the opinion of Manetho the Egyptian. (trans. Roger Pearse)
For Enoch, we should probably read Hermes, since Panodorus had equated the two. With this, we see the origins of some of the key elements of the medieval legend of Hermes and the antediluvian wisdom. It came out of a Late Antique forgery from a Hermetic community that had identified Hermes with Enoch to Christianize the pagan occult. Annianus didn’t approve (apparently disliking astrology, while Panodorus obsessed over it), and he transmitted only a very limited subset of the whole story, and it was that limited version that Abu Ma‘shar preserved. Thus we find that the Enoch of Annianus—he who “made known, explained and taught the arts of writing, letters, stars (astronomy) and calculation”—became the Hermes of Abu Ma‘shar—“the first to ponder celestial events and the movement of the stars […] the first to build temples to exalt God therein. He was also the first to study and discuss medicine.” Both characters had similarities from their origins; Enoch was long considered the founder of astrology and writing (e.g. Pseudo-Eupolemus, in Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 9.17), and Hermes originated in Thoth, the god who originated writing and literature. But it is here that we see how the characters had assimilated, with some indication of why.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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