Thursday Odds and Ends: History Channel Ratings, Dating the Thera Volcanic Eruption, and Hermes' Receipt of Angelic Knowledge
Today I have a few brief topics to discuss as we await tonight’s broadcast of Ancient Aliens. The first is an update on the ratings for Ancient Aliens and its lead-out, In Search Of. According to figures released by Nielsen, Ancient Aliens is trending downward, sinking since the start of the current run of episodes to just 1.075 million viewers, a loss of about 10 percent of its audience from the start of the current half-season. I wonder if the new, slower format and primary focus on one ancient astronaut theorist and one location or “quest” per show is boring some of the audience. Meanwhile In Search Of pulled a surprising reversal. While it has not improved its ratings over its run, it did outdraw Ancient Aliens—just barely—this past week, bringing in 1.090 million viewers. A modestly larger number of men and older people watched In Search Of than Ancient Aliens. The two shows are now running neck-and-neck, but largely due to Ancient Aliens’ declining ratings than any particular momentum behind In Search Of.
Meanwhile, there was a news story I meant to mention last week but didn’t get around to. For the past several decades, controversy has surrounded efforts to date the eruption of Thera, the volcanic disaster that has been claimed as the inspiration for everything from the legend of Atlantis to the Biblical Exodus, and which has been considered a key event for establishing a chronology of the late Bronze Age Aegean. Archaeological evidence suggested that the eruption’s effects impacted Mediterranean societies around 1570-1500 BCE, but radiocarbon dates for the ash layer left behind by the volcano put it at 1600 BCE. Now a new study suggests that the international standard used to match radiocarbon results to calendar dates may be off. By examining tree rings from 1700 to 1500 BCE, researchers determined that the current standard doesn’t accurately reflect carbon-14 levels for those years. Their new, refined dates place the Thera eruption between 1600 and 1525 BCE, which now overlaps the archaeological dates and allows for a more precise dating of 1570 to 1525 BCE.
Finally, last week I described the Book of the Quinte Essence, a medieval text ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus. This book claimed that it was given to Hermes by an angel, and I said at the time that I wasn’t aware of any other Hermetic text that had such an attribution. I wondered if it were not, perhaps, a mistranslation of Agathodaemon, the “Good Spirit,” associated with Hermes in alchemical lore. But shortly after writing about that, I discovered that there is another book that offers a similar opinion. That book is called the Kyranides, and it was a Greek manual on magic attributed to Valerius Harpocration and written in the fourth century CE. It was the second volume of a work that began with the now-lost volume Archaika, a bestiary of magical animal lore.
Our concern, however, is not with the actual book itself, which is an interesting example of Late Antique popular magic—and widely dismissed in the Middle Ages and the early modern period because it was unrefined and of the people rather than the learned elite. Instead, our concern is with the preface. In 1168 it was translated into Latin by Pascalis Romanus, who was the Latin translator for Emperor Manuel I Komnenos of Constantinople, in which form it was known to the West. It provides a narrative—whether original to Harpocration or added by a subsequent editor is unclear, but the French scholars who edited the text favored the former—of how this treatise came to be:
He that received this Book from GOD, was Hermes Trismegistus, well known to all men. […] This Book was engraven in Syriack Letters upon an Iron Pillar, in a Book indeed interpreted by me formerly. But in this Book which is called Kiranides, twenty four Stones, twenty four Fishes, twenty four Herbs, and twenty four Birds are written of. (anonymous 1685 English trans.)
The Latin version, however, differs from the original Greek in ways small and large, and the Greek gives the narrative a bit more completely this way:
Hermes, the god Trismegistus, having received from the angels a very great gift from God, communicated it to all intelligent men. […] This book was written on an iron column in Syriac characters; it was interpreted by me in my first book, the Archaika. Here in what is called the Kyranides, twenty-four stones, twenty-four birds, twenty-four plants, and twenty-four fish are treated. (my trans.)
The Greek is slightly ambiguous since the word in question--ἄγγέλων, a plural form of ἄγγελος—could mean either messengers or an angels. To Harpocration, writing as a pagan in Latin Antiquity, or his first Greek editors, he probably meant to say “messengers of the gods,” but Christian copyists, who altered the work many times over the centuries, clearly interpreted it as Christian angels, though they oddly left in Hermes’ sobriquet as a divinity.
However it worked out, the text shows that there was a popular tradition, still known in the Middle Ages, that Hermes Trismegistus received his wisdom from the angels. The Quinte Essence isn’t as unusual as I imagined in that regard.
Also: There must have been a surfeit of engraved pillars back then to make plausible the idea that so many books are written on stones. Have you ever tried to engrave an entire book on a pillar?
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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