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It is because of the support of generous readers like all of you that I have been able to devote some time to my ongoing project of translating the Akhbār al-zamān, a 400-page medieval mythical history of Egypt, the oldest such book to survive intact. It dates from sometime between 904 and 1140 CE. This project continues to pay dividends, especially when, in reading Graham Hancock’s Magicians of the Gods, I discovered that he spends a great deal of time exploring Islamic-period myths and legends of the pyramids and Hermes Trismegistus, entirely from secondary sources. How fortunate that this summer I’ve read the primary sources for this same material!
In translating the Akhbār, I’ve discovered something interesting about our friends the Nephilim-Giants. It seems that medieval authors on primeval Egyptian history weren’t entirely comfortable with the giants and slowly tried to edit them out of history. It’s an interesting story in its own right, but it also gives the lie to the idea that we can take any of these texts literally as an accurate account of supernatural forces in the distant past.
The background is complex but can be summarized rather quickly: Jewish legend held that fallen angels (the Watchers) mated with human women and begat a race of giants. The Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees make them into bloodthirsty cannibals, and they forever retained their association with violence. However, in the Hellenistic period, Jewish and then Christian intellectuals became uncomfortable with angel-human mating and instead proposed that the giants were the offspring of the godly sons of Seth mating with the sinful daughters of Cain, because women are evil sexpots who keep trying to ruin men. This became the standard interpretation of Genesis 6:4 from Late Antiquity down to the present, and it was the version of the story taken over by Islam. The Watchers rarely appear in Islamic sources, except where earlier Christian material has been incorporated wholesale.
In the Akhbār we see that the author, drawing on traditional material, has tried to weave these various traditions together, with only some success. The Watchers have become the djinn, for example, and share characteristics of the Enochian Watchers and the violent Nephilim. But the Akhbār author was also somewhat censorious. He cut Hermes Trismegistus—identified in other sources as Enoch—out of the story almost entirely, except in rare cases where he appears as a trickster magician because tradition demanded he be present and even our author could not remove him. This is the same author who had no problem reporting on dog-headed people, invisible islands, and other ridiculous things. “We will report,” our author writes, “only that which has a wonderful character, without worrying about the truth.” And yet some things he purposely left out.
Our author minimizes the role of the Nephilim, but because he is a traditionalist, he can’t eliminate the giants altogether. They show up in weird places, closely connected to the same few figures: Cainan (Kainam or Kenan) and the composite Enoch-Hermes-Idris. This is particularly interesting because the extra-biblical figure of Cainan is the same who in Jewish lore uncovered the hidden writings of the Watchers: “he found a writing which former (generations) had carved on the rock, and he read what was thereon, and he transcribed it and sinned owing to it; for it contained the teaching of the Watchers in accordance with which they used to observe the omens of the sun and moon and stars in all the signs of heaven” (Jubilees 8:3; trans. R. H. Charles). This astrology is the same science associated with Hermes, and which our author seems interested to censor as much as practicable, despite having to include astrological information among the “wonderful” traditions, though it’s clear he finds them untrue. It is perhaps telling that he pointedly avoids citing the opinions of Abu Ma‘shar, the most famous astrologer of the era, for anything to do with astrology, despite citing him for historical data. When he does refer to astrology, it is evildoers, pagans, and liars who seem to rely upon it.
In 1.6, our author makes Cainan the ancestor of the giants, including Goliath and the Amalekites, who were traditionally giants. Our author has to include the giants because they appear in the Quran (5:22) and cannot be denied, though they can be minimized. Similarly, ‘Uj the Giant (the Jewish Og) cannot be denied because he is too well attested in Jewish lore. Our author can, and did, however, reduce the character to a paragraph.
I suspect it is for the same reason that our author had to concede that there were giants in Egypt, as in this passage on the antediluvian king Menāūs, grandson of Sūrīd, the builder of the Great Pyramid:
Menāūs was a giant, violent and cruel. He oppressed men, shed blood, and insulted women. He drained the treasures of his fathers, and he built a castle of gold and silver; there he led channel that rolled down a sand made of gemstones. The beauty of this house exceeded that which should reasonably be done. At the same time he neglected the country’s affairs, and he took courtesans from the people and the honor from women, and took the women for himself before their marriage. Men of evil passions surrounded him on all sides; his subjects hated him, and his kingdom was cursed. If anyone resisted, he was thrown into the fire. Menāūs sent a giant named Ḳarmās, the descendant of Idris, son of Adam, against the peoples of the West. This captain killed many men with his own hand. He was the greatest hero of the time; then he died, and the king wept; he was, like the kings, buried in the pyramids. It is also said that they made him a tomb near which was erected a monument engraved with his name and the history of his campaigns.
Notice that the giant Karmās is a descendant of Idris-Hermes-Enoch, and the giants retain their Nephilim bloodlust and rapine. Later, our author will go on to attribute to another king with the same name, Menāūs, not just a belief in astrology but also his reliance on astrology to institute the cult of cow worship. (It’s probably the same guy duplicated to work another giant, Shāddād bin ‘Ād, into the timeline, transformed into Shaddat bin ‘Adim. He and his son and grandson duplicate material from the story of the Coptic Sūrīd and his son and grandson and represent a different but overlapping tradition, this one of Arabian extraction.) This latter Menāūs, according to al-Maqrizi, built two magical cities in honor of Hermes Trismegistus!
But look what happens when an even more censorious author, Murtada ibn al-‘Afif, reworks the legend for his Prodigies of Egypt about 200-300 years later:
His son Menaos reigned after him in Egypt, and was a proud and haughty prince, who spilt much blood, ill-treated his subjects, ravished many women, and squandered away a great part of the treasures of his ancestors. For he built palaces of gold and silver, into which he brought channels of the Nile, the bottom whereof he caused to be covered with jacinths and other precious stones instead of sand. He tormented men, and took away their goods and cattle by force. This got him the hatred of the people, and at last the beast he rode on threw him and broke his neck (God’s curse go with him). So God delivered the Egyptians of him. (adapted from John Davies’ translation)
It’s obviously the same material, sometimes verbatim, but while his violence and rapine remain, all of the giants have been stripped out, and a moralistic and ignominious end provided for him. Murtada can’t entirely excise the giants either—the first king of Egypt is for him Craos the Giant, known to the Akhbār author as Nekraūs—but the only other time a giant appears in his work, it is as a descendant of the ‘Ādites, so well-known in Arabian lore as giants that they could not be called otherwise.
Murtada also strips out the djinn and gets rid of most of the references to Enochian history. But he leaves in one stunningly obvious reminder that Idris’s story is taken over from the legend of Enoch and the Watchers, however much it is rationalized:
Spirits spoke to him; he knew the names of the ascent and descent, and ascended and descended, and turned the sphere, and knew the significations of the stars, and all that was to happen, and engraved all sciences upon stones and upon bricks.
That’s Enoch’s two Pillars of Wisdom, the one of stone and the other of brick, to guard against fire and flood! What’s confounding is that Murtada retained this connection back to Enochian lore, when the Akhbār author, though greatly expanding on the life of Enoch-Idris, has omitted the reference entirely in the passage in which he (perhaps begrudgingly) explains Idris’s knowledge of astrology. (This was traditional material that could not be changed too much, though our author seems to distinguish between the divine science of the stars and malign astrology.) The Akhbār author, however, preserves a different connection to Enochian lore, naming the seventy leaders of the Sethites as the nuqabā’, literally “the Watchers,” though here possibly assimilated to a degree with the usage of the term in Sufism.
It’s not worth putting too much weight on these two particular sources since they are only two among many, but the comparison is indicative of the problem that fringe figures like Graham Hancock have in making blanket statements about what a particular culture or time period allegedly believed about a topic. If the very same story can have two wildly different spins put on it, then it becomes all the more difficult to allege that any one version holds the key to unlocking a millennia-old cult of tall white civilizing god-men.
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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