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.
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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