This week Kristan T. Harris of the conspiracy radio show The Rundown Live (on which I appeared earlier this year) posted a video to YouTube presenting the latest edition of his ancient esoterica series “Dat Mystery School,” this time focusing on the allegation that the pyramids of Egypt had been built by giants. The video, and its accompanying article, are based on an excerpt from a long, rambling lecture recorded by famed occultist Manly P. Hall on “Atlantis and the Gods of Antiquity,” though I am not certain when between 1928 and 1990 it was recorded. He sounds old in the recording, so I’d guess closer to 1990, but it would only be a guess.
Anyway, the specific claim Hall makes in the lecture doesn’t seem to appear in his famous Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928) in the chapter of the same name, and it seems to be an innovation in his philosophy of ancient history. I transcribe the passage below, with my best guess for some of the less audible words:
Way back in the days of the glory of Baghdad, the great sultan, the follower and descendant of the great El-Rashid of Arabian Nights, the Sultan El-Rashid El-Ma’mun, decided to open the Great Pyramid. He had been told that it had been built by giants, who were called the Shaddai (?), superhuman beings, and that within that pyramid and those pyramids, they had stored a great treasure beyond the knowledge of man. So, taking his court with him, the sultan went to Egypt, and he stood and looked at the Great Pyramid. And at that time all the casing stones were in place. The four walls were perfectly smooth. There was no visible opening of any kind. He didn’t know exactly what to do. But he heard from legends where he supposed the entranceway was, and he began to dig there. And they had a very fine way of digging in those days, which I think we have improved on. They had to use cold (coal?) fills (?) and vinegar to go through the stone. And when they go through a certain way, they did find that they had come very close to an entrance, but a great stone blocked it, and they could go no further.
The claim is particularly interesting because of the way it is sort of but not quite right and freely mixes material from many different traditions in a way that isn’t reflective of any of them. We should, I suppose, break the piece down to separate fact from fiction.
In the first sentence, Hall is clearly thinking of the Sultans of Baghdad from the Western conception of the Arabian Nights, but these were not he historical actors he actually means. Sultans were independent rulers who were politically powerful but could not claim the Caliphate, and the men Hall names were actually caliphs. Harun al-Rashid had been caliph until 809, and the power and majesty of his court led to his fictionalized inclusion in the Arabian Nights. The Caliph al-Ma’mun was the second son of al-Rashid and succeeded to the caliphate upon the death of his brother, al-Amin. His name was not “El-Rashid El-Ma’mun” but Abū Jaʿfar Abdullāh al-Maʾmūn ibn Harūn.
It is an accepted historical fact that in 832 al-Ma’mun traveled to Egypt and ordered the opening of the Great Pyramid. It is also true that the casing stones were in place and fire and vinegar were used to break through them to tunnel into the pyramid. There rest, however, is not exactly right, not even in medieval legend. First, al-Ma’mun had no idea where the entrance really was; his engineers broke through on the seventh level of masonry, which was twelve too low.
But the real heart of the issue is whether al-Ma’mun had been told that the pyramids were filled with superhuman knowledge and treasure left by giants named what I believe he said were the Shaddai. (The audio is a little unclear.) Here is where things start to get weird.
Part of the story has some support in medieval legend—though there is, of course, no way to prove that the legends reflect the actual attitudes of al-Ma’mun. In the Akhbar al-zaman, among the earliest accounts of the legend of al-Ma’mun’s entrance into the pyramid, the anonymous author states that al-Ma’mun had no inkling of the history of the pyramids and therefore demanded one be demolished so he “could know what it contained.” Indeed, none of the sources with which I am familiar—and these are the greater part of the major Arabic accounts of the pyramids—makes any mention of al-Ma’mun looking for superhuman knowledge in the pyramids; rather, they claim that he found ancient wisdom texts and scientific wonders within the pyramid after he opened it. It is a safe bet that he hoped to find treasure, though no Islamic writer ascribed so crass a motive to the caliph; for them, the treasure was merely fortuitous coincidence.
Medieval Arabic pyramid lore did not explicitly claim that the Great Pyramid was the work of giants, but this could be inferred by stringing together different legends, all of which connect back to the progenitor of the story, the tale of the Watchers and the pillars of wisdom they supposedly carved to preserve science from the Flood. There is no mention I can find of the “Shaddai” in Arabian lore—nor would we expect it, since this is a Hebrew name of God. (Kristan T. Harris mistakes Shaddai for the Sheedi, an ethnic group of India.) Hall seems to have conflated the Hebraic term, which some believe derives from the word for “strength,” with that of one of the alleged antediluvian builders of the pyramids in Arabian lore (though not the usual one), Shaddad bin ’Ad, or his derivative duplicate figure Shaddat bin ’Adim. (The figure was duplicated with a Hebraic form to fill out a fictitious post-Flood Egyptian chronology.) This figure, who also appears in the Arabian Nights, probably takes his name from the same root for “strength.” According to al-Mas‘udi, Shaddad, like other antediluvian kings, was one of the giants.
This point the Arabs inherited from the Greek Christians, but unlike the Christians they never developed a detailed mythology of giants. Mostly, it is a mythology acknowledged in allusion; thus, Shaddad is mythically a giant because he is the King of ’Ad, the inhabitants of Iram, the city of pillars, said to be giants in folklore but not explicitly described as such in the Quran, where the pillars are themselves made to do the work of alluding to the “lofty” giants. The Akhbar specifically says that the people of ’Ad were “giants,” so Shaddad, being of them, must necessarily be one. It further relates that the monuments of Egypt (but not the pyramids) were built by a race of giants under the command of Naqraus, the first king of Egypt, while the city of Memphis was the work of a later set of giants, the companions of the king Misraim, another giant. It attributes the pyramids of Dashur to the giant Qoftarim. Beyond this, “‘Adīm was a giant, with insurmountable strength, and the greatest of men. He ordered the quarrying of rocks and their transportation to build pyramids, as had been done in former times.”
The long and short of it is that the myths told of the pyramids do indeed allege that they were built by giants, though in the case of the Great Pyramid specifically, this is by implication more than explicit claim. Nevertheless, this story is patently false since no trace of it exists before the end of Late Antiquity, when it had been abstracted from a Christian claim from the chronograper Anianus that the Watchers, in the form of the god Hermes Trismegistus, had constructed the temples of Egypt to guard knowledge against the Flood. This, in turn, derives from a localization in Egypt of material related to the Watchers, the fathers of the Giants, (or the patriarchs Enoch or Seth, identified with euhemerized Watchers in late myths) inscribing knowledge on pillars of wisdom as a hedge against the Flood.
So, Hall’s claim, while not true in the sense that it really happened, does manage to capture something of the Arabian lore surrounding the pyramids, albeit in a confused way that doesn’t quite follow any one tradition.
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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