After a great deal of hard work, I completed my translation of the Hermetic history of the Giants given in Alfonso X of Castile’s General Estoria, composed in the late 1200s. This undertaking was more involved than I expected, both because I had to learn a new language—medieval Castilian, also known as Old Spanish—in order to read it, and because Alfonso’s writers used complex grammar, pointless repetition, and ambiguous vocabulary that made it difficult to understand exactly what was being said in some places. A few of the words used can’t be found in dictionaries of Old Spanish and only rarely appear in other medieval documents, making them quite challenging to decipher. As a result, I am a little less certain about the particulars of this translation than I am for most, but the overall meaning is clear.
I see now why the only previous translation of this passage was a partial translation of a few paragraphs into modern Spanish, and why no one has made an English translation of the text. The only English-language writer to discuss the passage in detail simply dumped the Old Spanish in as quotations and assumed that his readers could read it without help. It probably doesn’t help the translation problem that the General Estoria itself is 7,000 pages long in the latest critical edition from 2009, which is rather intimidating.
These translation issues aside, the story told in the General Estoria’s narrative of Hermes and the Giants (2.1.34-39) is fascinating precisely because of how complicated, corrupt, and confusing it is. The main lines of the story are fairly clear, but the details are all jumbled up, for reasons we will discuss shortly. I encourage you to read the whole text, but in summary, the main story is this: There were three men named Hermes, including Trismegistus, the First Hermes, and his son Tat (Thoth), the Second Hermes. This second one lived after the Exodus, in the time of Joshua. Alfonso’s writers never quite manage to distinguish between the two and run them together in this account, relating the story of Hermes I and concluding by saying they had described Hermes II.
Anyway, the main narrative concerns Asclepius, a successor to Hermes in Hermetic lore. He has discovered a book written by Hermes, but it is in an ancient writing he cannot read. He asks people all over the world how to read it, but the only one who can is an old Chaldean woman named Goghgobon (or Goghgolon—the text spells it both ways) who claims to be a descendant of the lost race of Giants, from the family of Nimrod, who in this telling built the Tower of Babel, as in Jewish and Islamic lore. She tells Asclepius the story of the Giants, that they were great civilizers who were the first to discover astrology and architecture and the other sciences, that they built great cities, and that they colonized the whole world. She also said that they had seven great sages who were buried under the world’s seven highest mountains. According to her, Hermes lived with them for forty years and gained from them all of the secret knowledge of the world. His book was written in their script, which was derived from the stars, its letters symbolizing various conjunctions of planets and stars in the houses of the zodiac. And that was everything the woman told Asclepius.
The Hermetic elements of the story are obvious, and this led Charles F. Fraker to conclude that the text as we have it is a badly edited summary of an Arabic Hermetic text, but one that is so confused as to be difficult to understand: “The auctoritates it is based on are sometimes hard to identify, and what is more, they seem to be badly coordinated; witness the obscurities and plain contradictions that confront us here,” he wrote in Medieval Iberia. Fraker, like me, considered the section describing the alphabet of the Giants to be particularly obscure, perhaps because the Spanish translators did not entirely understand the technical terminology of the Arabic original. He speculated that a work based on that of Abu Ma‘shar’s The Thousands stands behind the text in a rather confused way, and that the frame narrative of Asclepius and the old woman was perhaps modeled on the opening to the Kyranides, which similarly tells of a narrator who meets an old man who translates the writing of the Giants to tell of the mysteries of nature. That book was, in the Middle Ages, attributed to Hermes, despite being the work of a Greek writer of Late Antiquity.
The similarities in the two accounts don’t stop with the frame story. Both the “book of Hermes” in the Giants’ tongue and the stelae of the Giants are divided into twenty-four sections characterized by a description of the “virtue” (aspects) of each division. For the book, those divisions are stellar, while for the Kyranides, they are the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet. Fraker goes so far as to argue that the frame story in the General Estoria is in fact an adaptation of the Kyranides, and as evidence he cites the Old French edition of the Kyranides, in which the translator writes that, “il vint a la notice du noble roy Alfons d Espaigne lequel le fit translater de grec en latin”—that “it came to the notice of the noble King Alfonso of Spain, who made a translation from Greek into Latin.” This would probably have been Alfonso VIII of Castile, seven or eight decades before Alfonso X, who was famous for commissioning Latin translations, but it proves that the Kyranides was available to Alfonso in the Castilian royal library.
I have no reason to doubt any of this, and the similarities speak for themselves. But there is a problematic aspect to it. Alfonso X’s redactors didn’t finish their work, and the story of the Giants as given is a mess. Goghgobon says she is the niece of Nimrod, which means that she lived after the Flood, and the redactors of the text appear to assume that the Hermes referenced in it is Tat, for they end by saying that this account finishes the story of Tat. But this can’t be the case because Goghobon explicitly identifies Hermes as Enoch, the antediluvian prophet. Similarly, the claim that the Giants invented astrology, architecture, etc. doesn’t make sense if it occurred after the Flood since, in the Abrahamic faiths, Noah’s kids had the rudiments of civilization from their pre-Flood relatives.
Therefore, while the frame story might well be a Hermetic interpretation of the Kyranides, the discussion of the accomplishments of the Giants just doesn’t belong. Fraker noted how positive it was, approvingly describing the Giants as civilizing heroes. This doesn’t fit with Biblical accounts, with Greco-Roman stories of the Giants and Titans, or with extra-Biblical stories of the rampaging, bloodthirsty cannibal giants. The narrative, however, is similar to, though more positive than, the one given in the Book of Jubilees (4:21-22), where Enoch spends 42 years with the angels of God and learns from them all of the secrets of nature and preaches to the Watchers, the fallen angels. In other apocryphal texts, like the Book of Giants, this time is spent with the Giants, who are also the offspring of the sons of Seth and the daughters of Cain, in keeping with later interpretations that replaced the angels and giants with human actors. It is closer still to some Jewish texts of the medieval period, such as Pseudo-Josephus Gorionides’ Josippon (2.18), which similarly spoke of a tower, antediluvian writings, and the pre-Flood peoples inscribing their wisdom and inventing the arts and sciences. This text is notable for being much less negative toward the Giants than other texts. The closest text I have seen is the Chronicles of Jerahmeel, a century older than the General Estoria but telling the story of the antediluvians in remarkably similar terms. It’s particularly notable that this text preserves stories that are otherwise found in the Book of Enoch and the Book of Giants, both unknown in the West. It’s worth asking whether the underlying source text for the General Estoria account might have been an Enochian book of some sort in Arabic translation.
This isn’t necessarily the case, of course, since the text that stands behind the later Jewish accounts is Genesis 4:17-22, which describes the descendants of Cain as the inventors of the arts and sciences, and they are the same people who were defiled by the Sons of God and gave rise to the Giants, and as the Akhbar al-zaman testifies, if only by implication, there was a belief in the Islamic world that the kings of the great kingdoms before the Flood were giants, that they invented the arts and sciences: “The first to reign in Egypt before the Flood was Naqrāūs. […] He collected the science that the angel Darābīl had taught to Adam, and by these means he kept under his yoke the giants, his companions; these are the princes who built monuments, erected high towers, and executed the wonderful works; who produced talismans, exploited the mines, and tamed the kings of the earth all around them.” That’s basically verbatim what the General Estoria reports, and what makes this fascinating is that we know that Alfonso used the Histories of Egypt by al-Wasifi (a.k.a. Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah, known in Spanish as Alguaziph), to whom al-Maqrizi attributes the Akhbar al-zaman’s content. In general, Alfonso only cites the lost second half of al-Wasifi’s book, which we know primarily by comparing the General Estoria to the fragments in al-Maqrizi and the parallel text of Murtada ibn al-Afif. At any rate, the story of Naqrāūs appears to be a revision of the narrative of Hermes Trismegistus, who in Christian sources was the first king of Egypt. The author has substituted a new character, apparently because by his time Hermes had been relocated to a later period.
But apparently some similar and perhaps older source, likely an Islamic text with a Hermetic / Enochian background, stands behind this most unusual Spanish account of the Hermetic history of the Giants.
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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