Ancient Pyramid Legends and Myths

About Egyptian Pyramids

by Jimmy Dunn


Pyramid Legends in the One Thousand and One Nights


Many of us are familiar with the modern legends surrounding the Egyptian Pyramids, particularly that of Khufu, known as the Great Pyramid and one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. However, many of the legends and even information that is still sometimes reported as factual comes from more ancient legends.


Indeed from the writings of the famous Greek historian, Herodotus, we find a mixture of fact and folktale about the pyramids that live on today. He came to Egypt between 449 and 430 BC, when the hieroglyphic script was still read and pharaonic religion was still practiced, but still this was several thousand years after the construction of Khufu's temple. According to Herodotus, he was told by the priests, concerning Khufu, that:


"[he] brought the country into all sorts of misery. He closed all the temple, then, not content with excluding his subjects from the practice of their religion, compelled them without exception to labor as slaves for his own advantage"


Khufu's reputation was already tarnished by the legends of the Westcar Papyrus, probably dating from the Second Intermediate period, but copied from an older document, but it was Herodotus who established the erroneous and now virtually ineradicable association between pyramid building and slave labor. Herodotus' credibility must be strained when he goes on to report that:


"no crime was too great for Cheops: when he was short of money, he sent his daughter to a bawdy-house with instructions to charge a certain sum - they did not tell me how much. This she actually did, adding to it a further transaction of her own; for with the intention of leaving something to be remembered after her death, she asked each of her customers to giver her a block of stone, and of these stones [the story goes] was built the middle pyramid of the three which stand in front of the Great Pyramid."


At the time of Herodotus' visit to Egypt, Khufu's causeway was still intact, with "polished stone blocks decorated with carvings of animals...a work... of hardly less magnitude than the pyramid itself." It had taken, he was told, ten years of "oppressive slave labor" to build. The pyramid itself, took 20:


"including the underground sepulchral chambers on the hill where the pyramids stand; a cut was made from the Nile, so that the water turned the site of these into an island."


About two centuries after Herodotus, the Egyptian priest Manetho compiled his Aegyptiaca, possibly to correct the chronology of Herodotus, which we know only through the edited and abridged versions of Josephus (c 70 AD), Africanus (3rd century AD) and Eusebius (4th century AD). He credits Khufu, written as Suphis, with building the Great Pyramid and, far from being wicked, with writing the "Sacred Book".


Another myth became attached to the pyramids when, toward the end of the 1st century AD, the Jewish historian Josephus included pyramid building among the hardships that the Hebrews had to endure during their years of labor in Egypt:


"for [the Egyptians] enjoined them to cut a great number of channels for the river, and to build walls for their cities and ramparts, that they might restrain the river, and hinder its waters from stagnation, upon its running over its on banks; they set them also to build pyramids, and by this wore them out..."


This idea persists in the popular imagination, even though we know know that the Great Pyramids were constructed over a thousand years before the era of the Hebrews.


The last person who could read Hieroglyphic script died sometime in the 4th century AD, and as the ancient inscriptions became cryptic, real knowledge of the pyramid builders drowned in a sea of myths and legend. It would not be until modern times that we would once again gain any real factual knowledge about them.


As the Coptic Christians came into domination in Egypt, the tales of the pyramids became much more wild. One legend states that:


"Then Surid ordered the building of the pyramids, had the sciences recorded in them, and had the treasures and pieces of sculpture put into them. Finally, he set an idol to guard each of the tree pyramids [at Giza].... After his death, Surid was buried in the 'Eastern' [khufu's] Pyramid, his brother Hujib in the 'Western' [Khafre's] one, and Hujib's son, Karuras in the 'Pied' [Menkaure's] Pyramid."


The tells us that King Surid had a dream in which the (flat) earth turned over and the stars began to fall on it. This so frightened him that, fearing that the end of the world was near, he decided to erect the pyramids and to enclose within them all the knowledge of his age.


Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt


King Surid is largely legendary, though his name may be a corruption of Suphis, a late form of Khufu. He is said to have lived some three centuries before the biblical flood. His tale is a blend of Judaeo-Christian themes. Surid lived at Amsus, which is probably a corruption of Memphis, and was "Lord of the Boat, which is an amalgam of Noah's ark and the barque of the sun god.


It was, however, Arab stories and legends that became most fantastic, after their conquest of Egypt in the 7th century AD. One popular Arab legend maintained that the Great Pyramid was the tomb of Hermes, the Greek counterpart of the Egyptian Thoth who, like Surid, built pyramids to hide literature and science from the uninitiated and preserve them through the flood. The Yemeni Arabs believe the two large pyramids to be the tombs of their ancient kings, one of whom defeated the Egyptians. This is perhaps a distant memory of the Hyksos invasion in the 2nd Millennium BC.


In the 15th century, the historian al-Maqrizi reported that the king decorated the walls and ceilings of his pyramid chambers with representations of stars and planets and all the sciences, and placed treasures within such as iron weapons that did not rust and glass that bent without breaking.


There may indeed have been treasures hidden within the Great Pyramid, as there were in other tombs, but doubtless they were stolen from during antiquity. However, legends of treasures persisted, and even found their way into the tale of The Thousand and One Nights, along with a story that Caliph al-Mamun, son of Haroun al-Rashid, was the first to break into it, around 820 AD. We are told that, with great effort, he forced a passage with iron picks and crowbars, and by pouring cold vinegar on to fire-headed stones. Though Caliph al-Mamun may not have even been the one to have made the entrance that is now used by tourists, some stories say that he found a vase with limitless water, a golden casket with the ruby-studded body of a man and an animated cockerel of precious stones.


Middle Age Christian Europe thought the Pyramids were Joseph's Grain Houses


On the other hand, Christian Europe during the Middle Ages based their idea of Egypt mainly on the Bible, assuming that the pyramids were Joseph's grain store houses mentioned in Genesis 41-42.


No wonder that, after several thousand years of legends growing up around the Pyramids, and particularly that of Khufu, many people continue to believe in them today, as well as newer ones. The Great Pyramids of Egypt were amazing tombs, but they are also the stuff of dreams and mystery that continue to spur our modern imaginations.








Reference Number

Complete Pyramids, The (Solving the Ancient Mysteries)

Lehner, Mark


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05084-8

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2