A few months ago I wrote a post about the widespread alternative history claim that the Greek Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus (412-485 CE) claimed that the pyramids of Egypt were flat-topped and used as astronomical observatories for recording the transit of Sirius. As I wrote then, this claim does not appear in the alleged source, Proclus’ commentary on Plato’s Timaeus. I thought I’d revisit this weird little claim and follow it from its origins down to the present day, mostly to show that alternative history writers don’t bother to check sources when they can just copy things.
The earliest version of the claim appears in Robert Greaves’s Pyramidographia (1688), and all later versions are dependent upon this source, directly or indirectly. At first I thought that Greaves had simply made up a fake quotation, but a careful review of Greaves’s passage helps us to see the most logical explanation for what happened. Here’s Greaves’s text (in the 1737 edition):
His source for this is goven as Proclus' commentary on Plato's Timaeus at Book 1, chapter 1. It seems to me that Greaves must have been heavily interpreting one of Proclus’ sentences, which otherwise had nothing to do with the Great Pyramid, since no mention of the pyramid appears in Book 1.
This is what Proclus actually said in standard translation:
And in a modern translation:
I am not expert enough in ancient Greek to read Proclus in the original, so I cannot confirm the original meaning of the word translated variously as “antiquities” (as in things) or “antiquity” (as in time). If the Greek is the former, Greaves may well have read this as a direct reference to the pyramids, which the priests would therefore seem, by the grammar of the sentence, to use in making the observations of the second half.
Then, a bit later, Proclus writes that “the history is from pillars, in which things paradoxical and worthy of admiration, whether in actions or inventions, are inscribed.”
Greaves wrote that he believed that obelisks, pillars tapering to a pyramid-shaped peak, were “but lesser models of the Pyramids” (p.87), and he recalled the tradition that “all sciences are inscribed” in the Pyramids (p.125), though his own firsthand observations contradicted the point. Since Greaves discounted the claim he ascribes to Proclus that the Egyptians used the pyramids as observatories, it may well be that he was reading into Proclus’ two passages a discussion of the Pyramids in light of the other traditions about the pyramids with which Greaves disagrees. The later information in Greaves about the Sothic cycle is Greaves's own inference and is not derived from Proclus.
From Greaves’s account, Richard Anthony Proctor in Old and New Astronomy (1888) grossly exaggerated Greaves’s discussion of the currently existing small square platform at the top of the pyramid into something completely different:
This was a claim Proctor had been flogging since 1883, in an earlier book on the pyramidology called, oddly enough, The Great Pyramid, though never in so great of detail. In neither book, however, did Proctor cite a source for Proclus. This would be because there is no warrant for the claim outside of Greaves, an author Proctor explicitly cites elsewhere as a source.
These claims then reappear wholesale in later alternative history books. Robert Schoch, for example, repeats it, with credit to Proctor, in Pyramid Quest (2005), without any effort to cite Proclus directly. From there he attempts to divine Egyptian astronomical techniques based on this speculative notion. John Anthony West does the same in The Traveler’s Key to Ancient Egypt (1996), though West completely misunderstands the distinction between the (assumed) Proclus and Proctor’s own ideas: Proclus, he said, “mentioned that the Great Pyramid had served as an observatory before it had been completed” (p.91). Needless to say, Proctor’s claim entered the work of Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert, neither of whom sought Proclus’ original text but who, in The Orion Mystery (1994) pretended as though the line attributed to Proclus by Proctor had an existence outside of Proctor (p.43).
Other authors also repeated Proctor’s speculation with varying allegiance to fact. In Starseekers (1980) Colin Wilson recited the claims with attribution to Proctor, but by the time of From Atlantis to the Sphinx (2004), he wrote that “it had been stated as fact” by Proclus that “the Pyramid was used as an observatory while it was under construction.” He then says Proctor merely repeated Proclus’ original claim, using nearly the same words as Bauval and Gilbert (p.63). Giovanna Magi, in The Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx (2006) dispenses with Proctor altogether and attributes the claim solely to Proclus, who she says inspired “a number of eighteenth century astronomers” (p.12)—wrong on all counts since Greaves wrote in the seventeenth century and Proctor the nineteenth. Proclus is again claimed as the originating source in Alan Alford’s Pyramid of Secrets (2003), though all of his citations are indirect—to Proctor, Bauval, and other alternative writers.
The long and short of it is that alternative writers never check citations or look at primary sources. If there were any truth to the claim that Proclus said the Great Pyramid was an observatory while under construction, surely more than three centuries of authors researching the claim should have turned up something by now. I'd love to be proved wrong, but the complete lack of any citations to the primary source--which in all modern translations says nothing about the Pyramids--is certainly troubling.
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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