Since we’ve been talking about weird ways medieval stories were reimagined in regard to Zoroaster’s Pillars of Wisdom, I thought I’d bring up one final weird version of a (somewhat) related myth. You will recall that an earlier builder of the Pillars of Wisdom was Hermes, who in Arabic-language histories had these pillars identified with the two largest pyramids of Giza. These were said to be the tombs of Hermes and his teacher, Agathodaemon. For example, Abd Al-Latif al-Baghdadi’s Account of Egypt (c. 1200) says that “one of these two Pyramids is the tomb of Agathodaemon, and the other of Hermes, who are said to have been two great prophets, of whom Agathodaemon was the most famous and the most ancient” (trans. Joseph White).
The exact relationship of Agathodaemon to Hermes isn’t clear. Sometimes, as in Lactantius’ Hermetic fragment, Agathodaemon is the teacher of Osiris, not Hermes. But in Arabian mythology, the relationship can go two ways. Al-Kindi makes Agathodaemon the pupil of Hermes, while Mubashshir and Al-Qifti make Agathodaemon Hermes’ teacher. Al-Mas‘udi puts Agathodaemon a thousand years before Hermes.
At some point, though, Arabian historians tried euhemerizing or historicizing the myth of Hermes and his pals. One version of that is the famous story of Surid, a historical king perhaps indirectly derived from Khufu (via the intermediate form Suphis), building the pyramids before the Flood. A much more interesting euhemerizing can be found in Al-Idrisi’s book on the pyramids.
Sadly, this book seems never to have been published in a language I can read, so I have not been able to review the full context of the passage. From what I can gather, in the chapter on pyramid myths and legends Al-Idrisi presents with disapproval what he claims to be a Jewish pyramid legend presented by Joseph ben Gorion (Ibn Krion), the alleged author of the Josippon: “Aristotle was buried in one of them [the two pyramids] and Alexander was not buried in the other” (trans. Okasha El Daly). The story does not appear in the Josippon as we have received it and is known only from Al-Idrisi and from an apparent copy of Al-Idrisi’s claim found in a late seventeenth century Arabic text. Both the seventeenth century book and author have exceptionally long names, which I will omit.
Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher, and it is highly tempting to see this otherwise inexplicable tale as a corrupt euhemerizing of the relationship between Agathodaemon and Hermes mitigated through the supernaturalism of the Alexander Romance. Alexander, after all, was long suspected—since Classical Antiquity—of possessing the secrets of the gods, like Hermes (e.g. Plutarch, Life of Alexander 27.3; Cyprian, Treatise VI “On the Vanity of Idols,” sec. 3; etc.). In fact, Athenagoras, in the Embassy for the Christians 28 (176 or 177 CE), explicitly compares “Alexander and Hermes surnamed Trismegistus, who shares with them (the gods) in the attribute of eternity” (trans. B. P. Pratten), since both possessed the truth about the gods, that they were merely ancient humans. Indeed, in Hermetic lore, by the Middle Ages, Alexander had usurped the position of Balinas (Apollonius of Tyana), as Albertus Magnus wrote in De secretic chemicis: “Alexander the Great discovered the sepulchre of Hermes, in one of his journeys, full of all treasures, not metallic, but golden, written on a table of zatadi, which others call emerald” (trans. Thomas Thomson).
Whatever the real source of Idrisi’s story, it looks like it’s a corrupt euhemerizing of the medieval pyramid myth via Hermetic and/or Kabbalistic material.
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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