So the good news is that I’ve finished reading Graham Hancock’s Magicians of the Gods, and I’m about two thirds of the way through writing a review of it. My plan is to post the review on September 10, when the book is released in Great Britain. I’m also amazed that I have finished translating the first book of the Akhbār al-zamān, and that was a major undertaking! Between Book 1 and the parts of Book 2 I’ve already translated, I figure I’m somewhere between 55% and 67% of the way through the text. I am surprised by what I’ve learned so far, and it’s certainly changed the way I view medieval pyramid lore.
One of the most interesting things I’ve seen is that the author of the Akhbār, who was intentionally reporting the most entertaining stories rather than the most likely to be true, preserved a lot more of the myth of the Watchers and the Nephilim than other Arabic-language authors, and this suggest very strongly that many of the texts that have come down to us from other authors contain stories that have been heavily edited and redacted as Islam diverged more and more from the Judeo-Christian sources from which it emerged. Our author did some censoring, too (especially of Hermes), but he was not as good at it, or at least not as systematic. Some elements we see in the Akhbār aren’t familiar to me from other Arabic sources, except for a handful of Arabic and (especially) Persian sources that tell the Watchers myth from Abu Ma‘shar’s summary of the Christian chronology of Annianus (e.g. Al-Juzjani, Tabaqat-i-Nasiri 1). But even there the story follows the more rationalized version of the Watchers myth popular with Christian clerics, who held that the story was merely that of the battle between the godly children of Seth and the sinful children of Cain (Julius Africanus in Syncellus, Chronicle 19-20).
(All the texts discussed in this blog post, except the Akhbār, are available on my Watchers page.)
Our author retains the identification of the antediluvians as giants—Nephilim. He identifies the early kings of Egypt as giants, and their companions as giants. And these giants are prone to violence and rapine, just like their Judeo-Christian analogues. Late authors reduced the giants to merely “the great” or historicized them down to mere humans. We also read that particular kings had the markings that the Judeo-Christian writers associated with the Watchers, or fallen angels. The antediluvian king Misram, for example, had a djinn who gave him divine attributes: “the djinn ordered him to hide from the eyes of men, and he lit his face with a light so great that no one could look at him. He was then thought of as a god.” Compare that to the tradition that the Christian writer George Kedrenos recorded of the sons of Seth at around the same time. These Sethites “were called Watchers and Sons of God because of the shining of the face of Seth” (History of the World 1.16, trans. M. R. James). Similarly, just as Christian tradition held that the Watchers were mistakenly worshiped as gods (Justin Martyr, First Apology 5; Lactantius, Divine Institutes 2.15), our author informs us that the sons of Seth were named the nuqabā’, literally “the Watchers,” whose descendants came to worship statues of them as idols.
But the most interesting thing I’ve learned is that the dream-vision that prompted Sūrīd to build the pyramids in the famous and widely repeated medieval legend of the pyramids isn’t unique. I’ve already told you how a parallel vision occurred with the king of Babylon and Noah, resulting in the carving of sciences on towers in Babel. But the Akhbār is chock full of parallel stories that follow the exact same pattern: A heathen king has a confusing vision of destruction. He consults a holy man who is or will become an adherent of the God of Abraham. The holy man has a clearer vision of doom. The holy man predicts disaster for the heathens, explaining the forthcoming history of a territory, including its various invaders. The king makes an effort to preserve knowledge. Disaster happens. In the case of Sūrid, his dream was interpreted by Philemon, who had his own dream, and though a heathen was shown the correctness of Noachian monotheism.
The best-known medieval version of this story, and one told in the Akhbār, involves the pre-Islamic prophet Saṭīḥ, who enacted the drama for Khosrow II Aparvēz and thus predicted the fall of the Persians and their eventual conversion to Islam. Obviously, the story was written ex post facto, but its parallels to the beats of the Sūrīd drama are so close as to be unmistakable. The same pattern is told of Lamech and Mahwīl, Noah and Darmashil, and Saṭīḥ (yes, again) and King Rabī‘ah (with a variant giving the story with another pre-Islamic prophet, Shiqq).
All of these stories appear to take as their model the story of Joseph and Pharaoh from Genesis 41, though in time the role of the prophet/priest seems to grow to the point that he has been given the clearer vision because he is closer to God. In trying to research this, I learned that this is apparently a theme in Islamic literature—royal dream interpretation by an Abrahamic prophet—and therefore, it seems we can dispense with the suggestion some scholars have made that the story as applied to Sūrīd had a genuine ancient Egyptian origin. This is especially likely when we see that the Akhbār author has ascribed the engraving of ancient sciences on stones not just to Sūrīd but to everyone and anyone, including, but not limited to, Darmashil of Babel, Philemon the priest, Mahwīl and the Cainites, and King Naqrāūs II of Egypt. Taken as a whole, I think it makes sense to conclude that the myth of inscribed sciences conflates two threads, the Enochian-Hermetic tablets/pillars of wisdom, and a folk explanation for unreadable hieroglyphs and cuneiform—in other words, of Egyptian and Mesopotamian monuments and why they are in ruins.
You learn the damnedest things reading the whole book instead of just the paragraphs of interest.
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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