I’m sure many of you are probably bored with the medieval pyramid myth, but I have been reading Kevin Van Bladel’s book The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science (Oxford, 2009), and part of it clarified a problem that explains a good amount of how the pyramid myth developed. The short form is that it wasn’t originally a pyramid myth. The oldest version of the story that we know of was told by Abu Maʿshar, a ninth century scholar, in his now-lost Book of Thousands. I knew his text from a quotation preserved in Al-Maqrizi, taken from Saʿid al-Andalusi, Al‐tarif bi-tabaqat al-umm 39.7-16 (1068 CE), quoting Abu Maʿshar speaking of Hermes Trismegistus:
It is also said that he was the first to predict the Flood and anticipate that a celestial cataclysm would befall the earth in the form of fire or water, so, fearing the destruction of knowledge and the disappearance of the arts, he built the pyramids and temples of Upper Egypt. Within these, he included representations of the arts and instruments, including engraved explanations of science, in order to pass them on to those who would come after him, lest he see them disappear from the world. (my trans.)
But I learned that this particular version of the story disagrees on a key detail from the oldest extant quotation of Abu Maʿshar, in Ibn Juljul’s Tabaqat al-atibbaʾ 5-10 (987 CE):
It is also said that he was the first to predict the Flood and anticipate that a celestial cataclysm would befall the earth in the form of fire or water. He made his residence in Upper Egypt, and chose it to build pyramids and cities of clay. Fearing the destruction of knowledge and the disappearance of the arts in the Flood, he built the great temples; one is a veritable mountain called the Temple in Akhmim, in which he carved representations of the arts and instruments, including engraved explanations of science, in order to pass them on to those who would come after him, lest he see them disappear from the world. (my trans.)
Did you catch the difference? In the older version, the pyramids were not built to guard against the Flood; instead, it was the great temples (birba, plural barabi) which were the places built to guard the arts against the Flood. Granted, at nearly the same time Ibn ’Abd al-Hakam (c. 803-871 CE), in his History of the Conquest of Egypt and North Africa and Spain, gave the full, baroque pyramid myth, but I would think that logic would dictate that the simpler version is more likely to be truer to the source, especially since it is closer to the Late Antique Roman account of Ammianus Marcellinus, who in Roman History 22.15.30 (before 391 CE) had already demonstrated that Late Antiquity considered Egyptian hieroglyphs in underground chambers (presumably burial chambers and cenotaphs) to be records of sacred ceremonies, preserved against the Flood.
Ibn Duqmaq, who died in 1407, recorded that the ancient Egyptian temple in Akhmim (then being destroyed to build a madrasa) had been built by Hermes himself “several years before the Flood,” and Al-Maqrizi declared that the walls of this “marvel of marvels” held all of the secrets of Egyptian science. His account is a little confused and seems to draw from multiple myths about Egypt, including the Christian claim that ancient buildings like the pyramids were Joseph’s granaries, conflated with the Judeo-Christian myth of the dual destruction of the earth by fire and flood:
The temple at Akhmim was among the finest and largest. The Egyptians had built it to store their wheat because they had been warned in advance of the coming of the Flood. But they disagreed about the nature of the destruction; according to some, it would be a fire that would burn everything on the surface of the earth; according to others, it would be a flood. Therefore, they constructed this temple before the Flood. In it they depicted portraits of the kings who ruled Egypt. The temple was built of marble blocks, each measuring five cubits wide and two cubits thick. It included seven rooms constructed from stones each eighteen cubits long and five wide; these stones were covered with paint the color of lapis and other shades, and for those who see them, these paintings appear to have been executed today, since they are that perfect. Each room was named after one of the seven planets, and all the walls were engraved with images of different shapes and sizes, along with signs explaining the sciences of the Copts: chemistry, cosmography, the art of talismans, medicine, astronomy, geometry, etc., all of which are represented by these images. (2.80, my trans.)
That Maqrizi’s account of the temple of Akhmim is virtually indistinguishable from that of the pyramids suggests heavily that the story of saving the arts from fire or flood was probably originally attached to tombs and temples before translating to the pyramids. (Maqrizi attributed the temple, on the authority of Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah [identical in wording to the Akhbar al-zaman], to Menakius, an ancient king whose works are similar to those attributed to Hermes Trismegistus—“He was the first to apply himself to culture; he built cities, erected stelae, brought together the works of science and books left behind by the kings and sages, made wonderful objects, and built a city where he retired.”) It might even be interesting to note that Akhmim (Panoplis), in Late Antiquity, was a Christian enclave where archaeologists uncovered parts of the Book of Enoch, the prophet whom Abu Maʿshar and later Arabic writers identified with Hermes Trismegistus, and who was long associated with buried antediluvian knowledge. It is probably also worth noting that Zosimus, the Late Antique scholar who linked Hermes to the Enochian Watchers, lived in Panoplis (Akhmim) and therefore was part of this milieu.
There is seemingly a natural progression from claims of antediluvian knowledge in underground chambers to great temples to the mighty pyramids as the story grew in importance.
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
6/30/2015 08:43:03 am
The fire-or-water cataclysm, the hidden knowledge, Hermes Trismegistus, the pyramids, the Nephilim, the giants… it's incredible how many permutations and offshoots this story has. And how many fringe theories are built on it.
6/30/2015 01:23:09 pm
There is also a lost fragment recounting how the young Hermes nearly got heat stroke while cutting hay to feed to the goat that the villagers believed was the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian god. It’s a story of the fodder, the sun, and the holy goat Amun.
6/30/2015 08:18:43 pm
There are times I really feel this blog needs a "Like" clicker for comments.
Duke of URL
7/1/2015 03:37:00 am
-pause- -reread- -blink blink- AAARRRGGHHH!
7/1/2015 05:56:26 am
That was great, but I almost spilled my morning coffee on my lap, laughing so hard.
6/30/2015 06:25:17 pm
See, know I'm wondering if there weren't brave medieval historians, who stood up against Academia to declare the truth about caves being the true repositories of ancient knowledge, and being suppressed by the politically correct pyramid supporters.
7/1/2015 05:17:41 am
So interested but much passed over my head. For the lesser educated, like me as an enthusiastic follower of controversial discussions, such as Jason's blog (and I have the greatest admiration for his incredible in-depth knowledge and analysis of historical records, usually far less researched by the subjects of his analysis), sometimes the detail passes over my head. It may not be possible due to the compexity of many issues, but to encourage followers of a complex historical dialogue it would be so helpful if a simple synopsis of a complex historical dissertation could be presented, as a summary, on many complex blogs, that could be more simply understood, accepted, and followed by those of us with a lower edcucational knowledge and understanding.
7/1/2015 07:58:06 am
Trouble is, it's not really feasible to produce a simple synopsis until the difficult version has been completed, and what the above blog entry demonstrates is that Jason is still filling in important blanks in the narrative.
Day Late and Dollar Short
7/1/2015 10:16:42 am
I was inclined to agree with Colin, because I am also struggling a little with the fascinating subject matter, but David brings up an excellent point. Personally, I have some trouble with Hermes Trismegistus, in general. I would be very happy if Jason wrote a post about the helenizing of Thoth to form Hermes Trismegistus and the creation (attribution?) of heremetic texts.
7/1/2015 01:17:33 pm
One of the problems is that I came to the story backward. I started with Surid and the pyramids, and I've only gradually worked backward to Hermes. Frankly, I didn't know when I started that Hermes was going to be the most important part of the story. I'm reading a book about him now, and I hope I'll be able to say something more profound about him when I've finished it.
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