Last year I translated the fragments of Abenephius, an otherwise unknown figure quoted in the works of Athanasius Kircher. As I discussed at the time, he was claimed to be a Jewish author resident near Cairo during the early Middle Ages, but no evidence of his existence or proof of the authenticity of his writings exists. Nevertheless, some of the fragments are clearly derivative of Classical sources, and it is to one of these that I’d like to return today to point out something I didn’t highlight very well last year but returned to my attention while doing some research this week.
Abenephius paraphrased a passage from Pliny’s Natural History that is fascinating on its own. In 36.14, Pliny delivers a monograph on the history of obelisks, and he traces them back to a fascinating, if fictitious, source:
Mesphres, who reigned in the City of the Sun, was the first who erected one of these obelisks, being warned to do so in a dream: indeed, there is an inscription upon the obelisk to this effect; for the sculptures and figures which we still see engraved thereon are no other than Egyptian letters. (trans. Bostock and Riley)
The name “Mesphres” is corrupt—indeed much of this chapter comes to us corrupt. Scholars haven’t been able to propose a good reading for what the original name was. Mestres, Mitres, and Miphre have all been proposed. The writers of Greco-Roman times considered the god Mithras to have been a king of Egypt, having identified him with Apollo and the Sun, and with the corrupt Greco-Roman reading of Osiris as the Sun to Isis’s Moon—see, e.g., Diodorus 1.11 with Statius, Thebiad 1.717). It is from this late reading that Abenephius rewrites the same sentence with Mithras as the protagonist. Because Pliny later says in the same chapter that “Mesphres” carved the two obelisks known as Cleopatra’s Needles, which in reality were the work of Thutmosis III, this suggested to some scholars that Mesphres was a corrupt contraction of Mesphra-Thutmosis, as his name was given in the second book of the Hellenizing chronicle of Manetho. The name was rendered Mêphramuthôsis in the version preserved by Josephus in Contra Apion 1.15—apparently the most correct extant reading—Mêphrammuthôsis by Theophilus in To Autolycua 3.19, and Misphragmuthôsis in the later versions of Africanus (preserved in Syncellus) and Eusebius (Greek and Armenian). It’s as good a guess as any, since there were still priests alive in Pliny’s day who could read the inscriptions on the obelisks carved by Thutmosis III to know whose work they were.
The extant obelisks of Thutmosis III do not contain references to dream warnings, however.
Regular readers will remember that the medieval myth of the origin of Egypt’s pyramids contains a suspiciously similar story about a dream warning. The medieval historian Al-Maqrizi gives it, in its briefest form, this way: “the character who raised the pyramids located facing Fustat was Shaddad bin 'Ad who built them following a dream. The Copts, who contest the invasion of Egypt by the Amalekites, attribute the construction of these monuments to Surid, also following a dream telling him that a calamity would descend from heaven.” In the more elaborate forms of the myth, the pyramids are covered in writing to preserve the arts and sciences.
Now, granted, superficially these are not entirely similar, but both have the same underlying structure: An ancient Egyptian monarch receives a dream warning, carves important information into stone, and erects great monuments. Pliny’s reference is so brief that there is not much we can take from it, but the story of Surid has sufficiently clear antecedents that it might be possible to trace a common background for these stories.
The version of the pyramid myth involving a dream comes relatively late. The earliest account known to history was given by Abu Ma‘shar al-Balkhi in The Thousands around 850 CE, and surviving only in two quotations from authors who copied from him. Interestingly, there is no dream in this account, but rather an astrological prediction, and there is no obelisk, but rather temples. And the protagonist is Hermes Trisgmegistus. But there must be some relationship between the stories, for the Kore Kosmou, a Hermetic text written around the time of Pliny, makes Hermes into the erector of obelisks and assigns to him the role of inscribing secret wisdom onto them. George Syncellus, in his Chronicle of around 800 CE, copies a Hermetic forgery from the early centuries CE that passed under the name of the Egyptian priest Manetho. In it, the history of the world and the alchemical sciences “were engraved in the sacred dialect, and hieroglyphic characters, upon the columns set up in the Seriadic land, by Thoth, the first Hermes” before the Flood of Noah.
It probably goes without saying that obelisks and pyramids were often considered interchangeable in Late Antique Egypt, because the pyramidion atop the obelisk made it into a symbolic pyramid. Consequently, stories told of obelisks could be reapplied to pyramids and vice versa. We find this in Arab-Islamic accounts, where pyramids and obelisks sometimes swap roles across variants of the same story, and in the much later work of Athanasius Kircher, who purposely reinterpreted pyramid stories as applying to obelisks to better match them to the Watchers’ Pillars of Wisdom from apocryphal Christian lore. At root, this was a Greek development, in part because the Greeks understood (correctly) that obelisks were solar symbols and thought (falsely) that the pyramids were as well, because they etymologized “pyramid” from pyr, referring to fire or light.
Now here’s the weird thing: The version of Manetho preserved by Africanus—and Africanus alone—has Manetho say that a great flood, the flood of Deucalion, happened during the reign of Mesphra-Tuthmosis. This seems to be the proximate cause for the sages in Alexandria to have merged Mesphres into the story of Hermes and his obelisks. The early Christians, however, didn’t quite identify Deucalion and Noah. Africanus, Eusebius, Jerome, and Augustine, for example, placed him in the time of Moses. Syncellus, though, writing five hundred years later, recalculated and determined that the numbers didn’t add up, and Deucalion was later. We need not concern ourselves with the complex numerical and genealogical arguments except to note that at the time that the Hermetic version of history took shape, the Judeo-Christian timeline held that a great flood had occurred in the time of Thutmosis III.
We know from Zosimus of Panoplis, a Gnostic-Hermetic alchemist of c. 300 CE, that Christian apocrypha had a heavy influence on Hermetic history, for he alleges in Imouth 9 (in Syncellus, Chronicle 14) that Hermes Trismegistus wrote a book attributing the origins of alchemy to the Fallen Angels of Genesis 6, a story that originates in the apocryphal tales of the Watchers in the Book of Enoch. We know, too, from other medieval writers that after the loss of hieroglyphic literacy in Late Antiquity, medieval alchemists put out the story that the writings on the walls of the temples of Egypt were alchemical formulae, scientific treatises, and magic spells. This belief was already forming by 391 CE, when Ammianus Marcellinus recorded the belief that Egyptian tomb carvings were road maps to sacred religious rites, meant to protect them from a flood, and it was firmly in place by the time of Abu Ma‘shar in 850 CE, when it was applied to the “antediluvian” temples, by then occupied by alchemical squatters. By no later than 950 CE, the story had been firmly assimilated with the Christian myth that the sons of Seth had erected pillars of stone and clay to preserve antediluvian wisdom (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 1.68-74 with Al-Mas’udi, Meadows of Gold 31 and Al-Maqrizi, Al-Khitat 2.80) and had even filtered into the history of the pyramids, whose “inscriptions are related to the sciences, to the properties of bodies, to magic, and to the secrets of nature” (Al-Mas’udi, Meadows of Gold 31). One reason for this, according to one scholarly suggestion, is confusion: The Coptic word for the pyramidion atop an obelisk or pyramid, brbr, became conflated with the Arabic word for Egyptian temples, berba.
The pyramid legend we have from the Middle Ages went through two primary phases, the first being the story of Hermes inscribing science on temple walls after using astrological calculations to predict the Flood and the second being Surid inscribing science on pyramid walls after having a dream warning him of the coming Flood. That the second is the later version is attested by the fact that Surid then asks his priests to use astrology to confirm the dream, harking back to the older story, even though it is an unnecessary detail. Anyway, there seems to be some bleed-over from the Classical account of “Mesphres” into the emerging story of Surid as it was reworked from the Hermetic version. This should not surprise us since the Surid story as we have it in its oldest form, in the Akhbar al-zaman, is clearly of Greco-Roman origin since it (badly) transliterates astrological terms and character names from recognizable Greek originals. The Classical underpinnings, although probably heavily reworked, are nonetheless undeniable.
There may be another factor at work, too. It’s true that dream prophecies were a dime a dozen in Classical times, and the specific dream vision of Surid seems to be connected closely to the prophetic vision of Enoch in his apocryphal book. But it’s interesting to note that Thutmosis III’s son’s successor, Thutmosis IV, was famous for his own dream vision, in which the Sphinx asked him to clear the sand from its body. He recorded this on a standing stone before the Sphinx, where the Greeks and Romans undoubtedly read it in the days when hieroglyphs could still be read. Is this perhaps what Pliny, in a confused way, referred to? Or was there a lost inscription to similar effect from Thutmosis III? The earliest known pharaoh to have recorded receiving a prophetic dream was Amenhotep II, who was the son of Thutmosis III. However it happened, there was a tradition that associated this family with divine orders given in dreams. The exact origin of Pliny’s story will probably never be known, but it testifies to a belief in Classical times, extending into Late Antiquity, that monuments in Egypt were the result of warnings from the dream world.
The story we have in the medieval accounts is corrupt and confused, but the Classical version seems equally well to have only a partial relationship to actual history. The Greeks and Romans seem to have wrongly thought obelisks to be a relatively recent invention, and the late Hermetic writers appear to have cast the whole story back into primeval times by identifying Classical stories of obelisks with an emerging myth of the supposedly “alchemical” writings on the walls of the temples.
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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