I thought it might be interesting to ask today why it is that the modern fringe/occult movement has inherited a relatively wackadoodle conception of ancient Egypt and the pyramids as antediluvian repositories of scientific super-knowledge when there were, in days of yore, a plethora of bizarre ideas to choose from. As many of you know, the ancients didn’t think much about the pyramids other than that they were very large and represented a tremendous expenditure of economic, political, and human capital. Herodotus didn’t think that the Giza pyramids were all that old, and later Greco-Roman writers were more concerned about how many vegetables were needed to feed the workmen than the supposed mysteries of the pyramids. Herodotus, Diodorus, and many others all agreed that the pyramids were the tombs of the Egyptian kings.
This changed as Late Antiquity shaded into the Middle Ages. Western thinkers considered the pyramids to be the granaries of Joseph where wheat was stored against the seven years of famine. More creative Western thinkers suggested, following an obscure doctrine of the Church Fathers that Noah’s Ark was a pyramid, that the Giza monuments were imitations of the Ark.
By the High Middle Ages, a plethora of ideas had spread around the Muslim world: that the pyramids were monuments to Shaddad bin ‘Ad from the Arabian Nights, that they and the Sphinx were talismans to regulate the Nile flood or stop the rising sands, and, yes, that they were antediluvian repositories of science. By the Renaissance, European writers added the idea that they might have been astronomical observatories, and over the next century and a half dozens of new ideas came to the fore.
All told, by the middle 1800s there were more than 46 different explanations for the Great Pyramid, according to James Bonwick, who collected them in a book. Many of them were at odds with the antediluvian hypothesis.
The reason we have it today is interesting because it speaks to the methods used by pretenders to science to transmit their imagined knowledge.
The antediluvian hypothesis entered Europe thanks to the work of John Greaves, who reported it in his Pyramidographia (1646), and Athansius Kircher, who similarly reported it in his Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1652-1655). Appearing nearly simultaneously, these two books by respected scholars introduced Muslim ideas about the pyramids to European audiences as a serious subject for Western scholarship. Their reports were confirmed by Pierre Vattier, a scholar at the court of Louis XIV, who published his famous French translation of Murtada ibn al-‘Afif’s medieval account of ancient Egyptian history in 1666, followed by an English version from John Davies in 1672. This confluence of events at a time when the hieroglyphs were still unreadable and Egyptian history was little more than Classical and Biblical fragments meant that these stories had an outsized impact on the scholars of the era. In the next century, they played a role in developing Freemasonry’s claim to extend back in time to antediluvian Egypt and to Enoch and Tubal-Cain, a claim originally derived from a close cousin, the story of Enoch’s pillars of antediluvian wisdom, which were also the ultimate source of the medieval Islamic pyramid myth.
Even so, this was not enough to make the antediluvian hypothesis dominant, no, not even the Romantic poets’ fascination with Vattier’s edition of Murtada (which Percy Shelley’s friends ripped from his hands and threw out the window to get him to shut up about).
The real reason seems to be a decision that Col. Richard William Howard Vyse made in 1840 when he published his two-volume study Operations Carried On at the Great Pyramids of Gizeh in 1837. Vyse had chosen to present a compendium of testimonia about the pyramids going back to the earliest of days, but, crucially, he asked Aloys Sprenger to translate for him as many Arabic accounts of the pyramids as he could gather, creating the first such compendium of medieval Arabic accounts of Egypt in the English language, and one that remained unrivaled for more than a century and a half. (I will modestly admit to having exceeded his vision in my Library.) Nevertheless, Vyse was careful to discount medieval myths:
When I undertook the publication of these volumes, and of the explanations and remarks which were necessary for the larger work, I was naturally desirous of knowing the opinions which had been previously entertained respecting the Pyramids, and of making myself acquainted with the examinations and discoveries which had already taken place. […] The extreme antiquity of these remarkable monuments is evident from the uncertainty that attends their origin, and, also, from the fabulous accounts given of them by Eastern writers; in which ignorance and superstition have so completely disguised tradition and facts, that it is scarcely possible to ascertain the foundations upon which they rest.
Vyse’s compendium became the most cited source for medieval Arabic pyramid legends for a century, and yet the mystery-mongers were not content to follow Vyse in recognizing myths and legends as such. This is because of another, largely unseen, thread that contributed to the acceptance of the antediluvian story among certain classes of writer. Among the French, serious archaeologists and historians wrongly believed that the Inventory Stela, newly discovered at Giza, proved that the Sphinx predated Khufu, and scholars like Gaston Maspero argued that there had been a predynastic Egyptian civilization responsible for works of monumental architecture such as temples and the Sphinx. French occultists like Paul Christian, at the same time, drew on the same sources to propose that a secret prehistoric priesthood had maintained mysteries derived from the most ancient times, just as Maspero had suggested that the Followers of Horus had done. These ideas spread through occult circles, showing up in the works of Éliphas Lévi before seeping into Theosophy. Helena Blavatsky, in the Secret Doctrine, accused the Jews of “servile” copying of the Book of Genesis from Egypt and, citing Maspero’s authority and going beyond his suggestions, said that the Egyptian priests were mere inheritors of antediluvian wisdom, tied to astrology’s Great Year and encoded in the hidden science of the pyramid:
They had it assuredly; and it is on this “knowledge” that the programme of the Mysteries and of the series of Initiations was based: hence, the construction of the Pyramid, the everlasting record and the indestructible symbol of these Mysteries and Initiations on Earth, as the courses of the stars are in Heaven. The cycle of Initiation was a reproduction in miniature of that great series of cosmic changes to which astronomers have given the name of the Tropical or Sidereal Year. Just as, at the close of the cycle of the Sidereal Year (25,868 years), the heavenly bodies return to the same relative positions as they occupied at its outset, so at the close of the cycle of Initiation the Inner Man has regained the pristine state of divine purity and knowledge from which he set out on his cycle of terrestrial incarnation
From here, it is easy to see why the modern pseudo-historians have largely settled on the antediluvian hypothesis. They are not copying directly from medieval Muslims but rather took their lead from Theosophy, the underlying force animating so many pseudo-histories. Erich von Däniken, who discovered these ideas through Morning of the Magicians, knew the antediluvian pyramid story at first only through what he read in Vyse’s book, and he copied even Sprenger’s mistakes in Chariots of the Gods. Though he would later learn of other versions, the popularity of Chariots spread the story far and wide, and when bestselling books and popular documentaries by Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval adopted the main idea—that the pyramids and Sphinx were antediluvian (i.e., Ice Age) in origin and connected to astrology—from earlier writers whose sources traced back ultimately to Victorian speculation about medieval Arabic legendry, it guaranteed that one specific idea about pyramids would come to dominate the field of “alternative history.”
Yes, yes… I know the complaints people reading this are already working on: But The Orion Mystery and Fingerprints of the Gods don’t derive from any of these sources. But it so happens that Hancock and Bauval were inspired by Robert Schoch, who decided to try to prove the Sphinx predynastic at the request of John Anthony West, who got the idea from Schwaller de Lubicz, who got the idea from … Gaston Maspero. Schwaller de Lubicz literally said so in print in his book. Bauval, for his part, said in the Orion Mystery that he was also inspired by claims made in Robert Temple’s Sirius Mystery, which in turn was inspired by Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods, not to mention Temple’s use of other sources from our constellation of antecedents.
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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