I have a quite odd piece of medieval ephemera to consider today, and I am not entirely sure what to make of it. I ran across a medieval manuscript that at first glance seems to have a hitherto undiscussed connection to the myth of Hermes, the Flood, and the Pillars of Wisdom that I have frequently had cause to refer to in this blog. Briefly: In Late Antiquity, a myth developed in Egypt, probably from the pen of the Christian chronicler Panodorus or his rival Annianus, that Hermes Trismegistus had carved the secrets of science onto the walls of the temples of Egypt to preserve science from Noah’s Flood. In time, this myth metastasized into rival stories in medieval Arab-Islamic Egypt, one that Hermes was actually Enoch and had carved the wisdom of the angels on pillars and the other that the pyramids were built for that purpose by King Surid, a descendant of the Nephilim-giants, around 10,500 BCE. (A longer version may be read here.) The manuscript I ran across may be a rare example of this Islamic myth in Europe prior to the Renaissance.
The text in question comes from the Book of Quinte Essence, a Middle English translation of what modern scholars say is a book by the alchemist Joannes de Rupescissa (Jean de Rocquetaillade) called the Liber de Consideratione Quintae Essentiae. Joannes’s book was composed in the middle 1300s, while the English version was produced sometime between 1460 and 1480 CE. The English edition, in modernized spelling, reads thus in its opening lines:
With the might, wisdom, and grace of the Holy Trinity, I write to you a treatise in English briefly drawn out of the book of Quintis Essenciis in Latin, that Hermes the prophet and king of Egypt, after the flood of Noah, father of philosophers, had by revelation of an angel of God to him sent, that the wisdom and the science of this book should not perish, but be kept and preserved unto the end of the world, by all holy men from all wicked people and tyrants, for great perils that might fall thereof. For within this brief treatise, with the grace of God, I will more determine of practice than of theory, yet being both needful.
Despite the lofty opening, the book is actually a set of instructions for distilling alcohol. It was a much bigger deal back then.
I, however, am more interested in those opening lines, which speak of Hermes as a philosopher and king, who received divine wisdom from an angel, and who recorded this angelic knowledge to preserve it from destruction. This is recognizably the same story as the one told at the same time by the Arabs, such as al-Maqrizi, who wrote only a few decades before the English text was written: “He foresaw, from the position of the planets, the arrival of a Flood that would submerge the whole earth; therefore he built a large number of pyramids in which were deposited treasures, science books, and everything he feared would be destroyed and disappear from view. He wanted to ensure their safety from destruction.” This story originates with Abu Ma‘shar in his Book of Thousands around 850 CE, but he almost certainly drew it from Late Antique Christian sources. Elements of it are present, for example, in John Malalas’s Chronicle in the sixth century and works of pagan alchemy by Zosimus, Iambilicus, and others in the fourth. The English story has been altered a bit, changed to move the writing of the divine wisdom to the Hermes after the Flood instead of the one before, following the Christian belief that Egypt was not inhabited before the Flood, but the story is otherwise the same.
What makes this particularly noteworthy is that other medieval texts of the fifteenth century don’t have quite the same story. The Matthew Cooke Manuscript from around 1450, for example, says that “Hermes the philosopher” found a pillar carved by the sons of Seth with antediluvian science and used it to teach humanity science after the Flood. (This was the version that entered Freemasonry.) But older European alchemical works of Arabic derivation or inspiration do contain elements of the story. In the Arabic world, following the scheme laid out by Abu Ma‘shar in his Book of Thousands, there were supposedly three men named Hermes, one before the Flood, another after and the third being Hermes Trismegistus and a king in Egypt. The Septan tractatus Hermetis Sapienta Triplicis describes Hermes as “thrice-great” because of his “three-fold virtue”: “For they say he was a king, philosopher and a prophet, who is said to have been the inventor or every liberal and mechanical art.” A twelfth century English text garbles a misunderstood attempt at Arabic translation and gives the parallel reference as speaking of the book “Mercury, king of Egypt, composed concerning the Trinity.” The text cites Abu Ma’shar as its source, and has hopelessly confused Trismegistus into a book on the Trinity. According to Charles Burnett, who translated the above, some variation of these lines appears in 41 medieval European works on alchemy, all ultimately from Arabic sources.
I think that the Quinte Essence author may actually be confusing something else. The reference to the angel might sound like a call-back to the claims that Seth or Enoch received divine wisdom from an angel—and it might—but it could also be a garbled translation of an Arabic refence to Agathodaemon, literally “the Good Spirit,” sometimes translated as the “Good Angel,” who was considered to be the father (or sometimes the son) of the third Hermes—that is, Trismegistus—and the man who preserved the sacred wisdom of the first Hermes and passed it on to the third. The Christian forgery passing under the name of Manetho in the early centuries CE already had a version of this story, give or take a Hermes, as George Syncellus reported in his Chronicle (41) around 800 CE, writing of the “the inscriptions which were engraved in the sacred dialect, and hieroglyphic characters, upon the columns set up in the Seriadic land, by Thoth, the first Hermes; and after the deluge, translated from the sacred dialect into the Greek tongue in hieroglyphic characters: and committed to writing in books, and deposited by Agathodaemon, the son of the second Hermes, the father of Tat, in the temple-shrines of Egypt” (trans. I. P. Cory). If this is the case it is remarkable for indicating knowledge of a story that the West wouldn’t otherwise have again for more than a century after the Quinte Essence.
Although Christians originally recognized varying numbers of men named Hermes, usually settling on two by Late Antiquity, with the second being Trismegistus, neither of these Hermes characters was Trismegistus, the Third Hermes, when applied in the Islamic scheme. It’s pointlessly confusing to sort it all out, but the short form is that the Christians didn’t believe Hermes Trismegistus could have lived before the Flood and still reign in Egypt, so they cut the character in half and assigned one before and one after. The Arabs added an extra one for reasons that are of no particular interest to us except that they moved Hermes Trismegistus later in time, after Hermes II. Consequently, when all these different versions were translated back into European contexts, they ended up in all manner of mixed up forms.
The problem is that I don’t know where the introduction of this apparently Arab-Islamic story of Hermes occurred to end up in the English text. The English text is a very brief abstract that, I guess, to judge from scholarly accounts, is a summary of Joannes’s much longer book (both are about the distillation of alcohol), but Joannes’s text doesn’t mention Hermes and instead frames the story around that other master of alchemy in the Islamic tradition, Solomon. If the story in the English text refers to the Enochian tradition of angels giving wisdom to an antediluvian prophet, it is a remarkable story for referencing a tale forgotten in the West until the publication of Syncellus’s Enochian fragments in the 1600s. If, on the other hand, it is a garbled mistranslation of Agathodaemon’s books being read by Hermes, then it is merely an interesting question of where the underlying Arabic original came from.
Against this, there is a chance that this is all a coincidence. The standard school textbook of the Middle Ages, Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Philology and Mercury, written in the 400s, contains a passage unusually similar to the account given by Syncellus and our English author, though much grosser. In the book, Philology is personified as a maiden, the wife of Hermes (Mercury). The divine guardian of the gods, Athanasia, literally Greek for Immortality (“without death”)—basically an angel—diagnoses Philology as being too full of books to gain immortality, so Philology sticks her fingers down her throat and begins puking up divine books of wisdom written in Egyptian hieroglyphs:
136 Then verily that nausea and labored vomit was turned into an abundance of all kinds of writings. It became possible to discern what books and how many volumes, from how many languages, flowed out of the maiden’s mouth. They saw that some were of papyrus smeared with cedar oil; other volumes were rolled from fine linen; many too were made of sheepskin; and a very few were written on the bark of the linden-tree. 137 And there were some written in a sacred ink, whose letters were believed to be the images of living, breathing things; and when Athanasia saw the writings in these books, she ordered them to be inscribed on certain prominent stones, and placed inside a cave within the Holy of Holies [literally: innermost sanctuary] of the Egyptians. And calling these stones stelae, she ordained that they should contain the genealogy of the gods. (Marriage 2.136-137; my trans.)
This allegorical text reflects Late Antique beliefs about the magical powers of Egyptian hieroglyphs, and Hermetic beliefs about sacred wisdom on obelisks. The final line seems to imply that apparently it also references the secret truth that the gods were actually mortal kings, proposed by Euhemerus and reported as the ultimate secret of Egyptian wisdom by Diodorus Siculus and Leon of Pella. I suggest this because genealogy of the gods is often used as a reference to their mortality in the ancient writers, but strictly speaking it isn’t a literal reading.
Whatever the ultimate source, the Quinte Essence is an interesting reminder of the many ways that stories told in Late Antiquity heavily influenced the Middle Ages and eventually the present.
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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