In the last parts of our series on the Egyptian hieroglyph of the ankh, and other related symbols, I’d like to look at where these symbols are found on the extant portions of the Joseph Smith Papyri, related documents, and the facsimiles of the Book of Abraham, to see if Joseph Smith was correct in any of his interpretations, or even on the right track. I’ve written a brief into to these documents here.
As we’ve noted before, the themes that show up in the rituals of the Egyptians have unique parallels to our modern temple practices and ordinances. This is not to be interpreted as an adoption of pagan rites, plagiarism of ancient rituals, or a belief in Egyptian polytheism, for the Egyptians had a corrupt imitation of the true order of God, and Joseph knew it. Indeed, such attacks leveled at Joseph might actually be counterintuitive to our critics’ position, for such would mean that Joseph understood what he was looking at in the papyri, yet such inspired translation is precisely what our critics claim he could not do. Note that the field of Egyptology had just recently been born in the 1820s, and the reading of hieroglyphics was only barely in its infancy in Europe at the time Joseph was translating the papyri in the 1830s, ruling out any scholarly approach to reading the papyri. The critics have yet to explain, therefore, if Joseph did not receive the temple ordinances by revelation from God, and he could not read the papyri, then how did he teach temple rites that have remarkable parallels to the Egyptians which were written on the papyri? Could he read the papyri or couldn’t he? Either way our critics find themselves in a quandary.
Instead of being detrimental to Joseph, such a connection between the papyri and the temple actually serves as evidence of his divine calling, and that he was inspired to translate the papyri. As in many instances of the early experiences of the prophet, Joseph had a question about something that he experienced in his life, and inquired of the Lord about it ((See the history behind the restoration of the Aaronic priesthood and baptism)). What followed was a restoration, through revelation, of the true and perfect ordinance or teaching of that particular thing. The papyri quite possibly were such a springboard for the restoration of the temple endowment, as H. Donl Peterson has noted:
The writings of Abraham and Joseph were purchased by the Church in July 1835 and the partial endowment was introduced to the brethren by the Prophet Joseph Smith in January 1836. Is this merely coincidental? Elder Bruce R. McConkie, referring to temple ordinances, wrote, “They were given in modern times to the prophet Joseph Smith by revelation, many things connected with them being translated by the Prophet from the papyrus on which the Book of Abraham was recorded.” ((H. Donl Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham, 132.))
I don’t claim to be remotely experienced in Egyptology or hieroglyphics. What the following represents is some observations that I have personally made.
Joseph Smith Papyri
First let’s look at where the ankh appears in certain fragments of the papyri which have been erroneously cited as the source of the Book of Abraham, since these fragments are the most popular. These fragments, namely Joseph Smith Papyrus XI, and X, constitute a portion of an Egyptian text known in Egyptological circles as “The Book of Breathings Made by Isis” or “The Hor Book of Breathings.” This text is an initiation text, as Nibley observed:
They were temple texts used in the performance of ordinances—”an inventory of the holiest mysteries,” the saving ordinances, which were “carried out or witnessed” by both the living and the dead. . . . showing how the business of awakening, washing, dressing, etc., of the king, carried out during the ceremonies of mummification, by way of preparing the dead to arise refreshed in the next world, “closely resembles the daily service performed in all Egyptian temples in historic times.”
…it is not only a funerary text but “a book of the living for conducting initiations here on earth.” ((Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed., 13.))
Nibley notes that these Egyptian funeral texts might all be called “Book of Breathings” since they all deal with a resurrection after death, a theme for which the Egyptians always used the word “breathing” ((ibid., 16.)):
…in a single intake one absorbs life, breath, nourishment, health, vigor—everything good. The aim of the mysteries is “to give life and joy through the nose, and joy to the heart … ”
… the king is petitioned “to give the breath of life to him who suffocates” and spare the life of the servant … he is the creator, “Khnum, … who puts the breath of life in every man’s nose”… he is also “the living breath” of Ptah the creator; he is Horus of Edfu, who “puts breath into the nose of the dead”…
The Book of Breathings . . . is a sermon on breathing in every Egyptian sense of the word. ((ibid., 16-17.))
And so you get this theme throughout the text of the gods bestowing air, wind, or the “breath of life” upon pharaoh and his queen. Since the ankh is the symbol that is often translated as “life,” it figures strongly whenever the “breath of life” is granted from the gods, usually “for time and eternity” ((See my post on the Egyptian dualism.)).
But what is even more interesting to me is where the ankh is used in connection with the other symbols, the wedja (w3s) and seneb (snb), that we’ve noted is a regular occurrence in Egyptian writings. This combination of hieroglyphs appears twice in the Joseph Smith Book of Breathings text. According to Nibley, the section of the text in which they appear correlates with the Egyptian thought of triumph, coronation, mounting to heaven, and exaltation ((Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed., 73.)). These glyphs are found on Joseph Smith Papyri X, column 4, lines 6 and 9, in the cursive hieratic script.
Line 6 reads (in the full Book of Breathings text):
Thou art (or Be) firm in possession of life [ankh], prosperity [wedja], health [seneb], remaining upon thy throne in the holy land (Deseret). ((ibid., 49, 73.))
Here Nibley writes that “The life prosperity, health formula is that which is always placed immediately after the name of the king or the title of His Majesty. This is enough in itself to indicate that the imagery of this section is that of the coronation since the formula is not applied to common mortals” ((ibid., 352.)).
Line 9 reads (in full):
It is Amon-Re who causeth thy ka, living [ankh], protecting [wedja], (or prospering) to flourish [seneb] in (or by) the Book of Breathings. ((ibid., 49, 73.))
Nibley notes that this last line adds “living, protecting or prospering” after the ka symbol which does not occur in any other Book of Breathings manuscripts, possibly because “the writer placed the usual ‘nh-wd3-snb formula after the royal ka title from force of habit” ((ibid., 59.)). The first edition of Nibley’s translation notes that this formula is usually “may it live, be prosperous, be healthy!” ((Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 1st ed., 22.)). Additionally he says, “Life and health were mentioned together in the preceding line, recalling the well-known royal salutation of ‘life, prosperity, health!’ Here life (‘nh) and prosperity (wd3) are paired, suggesting the same royal theme. This is confirmed in this passage by the only reference in the entire Book of Breathings to the ka, another sign of royalty…” ((Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed., 356.)). The ka symbol happens to be a pair of upraised arms, “the highest expression of immortality” ((ibid.)).
This formula is similar to that which appears on the Rosetta Stone in that it is followed by a pronouncement upon the king’s offspring, or posterity, for eternity in line 10:
Thy countenance liveth [ankh]; beautiful (perfect) is thy form (or are thine offspring); thy name shall be firmly established (or flourish) henceforward (every day). Enter into the gods’ [domain]… ((ibid., 50, 73.))
Next we will look at the facsimiles.
(To be continued…)