Life of Sethos and The Fictional World of Archives

Original Novel Title (English translation): Life of Sethos, Taken from Private Memoirs of the Ancient Egyptians
Author: Abbé Jean Terrasson
Publisher: Paris: 1731; London: J. Walthoe, 1732.

A three-volume novel, which, according to classicist Mary Lefkowitz

purports to be a translation of an ancient manuscript found in the library of an unnamed foreign nation that is "extremely jealous of this sort of treasure." The author is said to have been an anonymous Greek in the second century A.D. Here Terrasson is following the conventions of ancient writers of historical fictions, such as the author of the Hermetica, who pretend that their works are translations of ancient writings that no one but themselves has seen. But Terrasson is careful not to deceive his readers completely: he assures them that the work he has "translated" for them is a fiction; .... He assures them that although fictional, the story keeps close to ancient sources, which, for the reader's convenience, he cites throughout the text. But he also says that "it is natural to suppose" that his author had access to original sources (now lost), such as memoirs available in the sacred archives of Egypt, written by unknown priests who accompanied Sethos on his travels. The sophisticated reader would be amused by the notion that the anonymous author had consulted these otherwise unknown documents, but Terrasson gives no warning to less well-educated readers that there is in fact no reason to "suppose" that these documents ever existed. (Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrist Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History, New York, BasicBooks, 1996, p. 111-12)

What is even more remarkable about this novel, besides serving as the inspiration for Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, is that it formed the basis for Freemasonry's rituals and ceremonies, including those practiced by Masons of African descent in the Caribbean and the United States (Lefkowitz, p. 120-21).

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CONTENTS: The Fictional World of Archives

Submitted by David Mattison, 2000.09.16. Updated 2000.09.17.