Examining the Book of Abraham
Chapter 7

Translation of Egyptian Symbols continued — Facsimile #2

So, where does Facsimile #2 fit in? Historically, we've been led to believe that it came from the same document — ie. Abraham's handwritten document.

If you will remember, Joseph received four mummies. From these four mummies, he received five different texts.1 The three which are applicable to our current study are:

  1. The Breathing Permit of Hôr, of which we have had considerable discussion.
  2. A Book of the Dead document belonging to the lady Tshenmîn, whose mother was Skhons. The handwriting dates it to the second half of the Ptolemaic Period, perhaps around 100 B.C.E. This is the papyrus that Joseph Smith believed to contain the Book of Joseph.
  3. A Book of the Dead document belonging to a person named Sheshonk.

The latter document (3) was a "hypocephalus," called such because it was placed under the head of the deceased (ie. literally "hypo"- under, "cephalus" - head) in order to magically keep the head warm and preserved.2

Facsimile #2 is this hypocephalus for Sheshonk. Joseph Smith, simply took Sheshonk's hypocephalus, combined it with the two vignettes from Hôr's Breathing Permit, and included the documents in his Book of Abraham.

Translating and interpreting the hypocephalus is a little harder than Hôr's vignettes, due to a combination of poor copying by Reuben Hedlock, and incorrect restorations from damaged areas in the original document.

An early rendering — perhaps the first — of this hypocephalus is included below. Note the clear indication of a swath of missing papyrus extending from the center to the northeast section of the drawing.

The vignettes in the damaged sections were probably "restored" in the same manner that Anubis was "restored" in Hôr's first vignette. And, the writing around the edge and in the square section just to the right of the middle (pictured below), was "restored" by copying symbols from Hôr's Breathing Permit and placing them into the missing areas. We know they are symbols from Hôr's Breathing Permit because they are hieratic as opposed to hieroglyphic (which composes the rest of the writing on this hypocephalus), and we can tell which lines in the Joseph Smith Papyri the hieratic writing came from.

A Note About Hypocephali in general

Before we delve into the interpretation and translation of the hypocephalus known as Facsimile 2, let's take a moment to familiarize ourselves with hypocephali in general.

While Joseph Smith apparently thought of this hypocephalus as a study of cosmic concepts, Egyptians would have thought of it as a funerary document which contained imagery and text culled from their long-standing religious beliefs, which would aid the deceased along their journey toward the afterlife. Even the shape of the hypocephalus was significant in this context.

To the ancient Egyptians, the circle symbolized the Eternity, and they used it in the glyph called "shen" (pictured to the right), which looks like a circle made of a rope. Often the sun disk is depicted in the center of it. The word "shen" comes from the word "shenu", which means to encircle. In its elongated form, the "shen" becomes a cartouche which surrounds the king's name. Another way of writing eternity was two twisted ropes on each side of the sign of Ra, which also was a circle, but with one dot in the center. In the context of the hypocephalus, the shape of a circle would undoubtedly represent the eternities.

The writing and vignettes inside the circle which make up the hypocephalus is about transformation. Transformation is the key word in the Egyptian concept of our journey into the afterlife. The deceased transforms into a spiritual being, or is re-born as one. To symbolize this, the ancient Egyptians used the most apparent phenomenon of nature they knew — the sun and its daily rebirth. Fertility imagery is also used, often paralleled with animals such as bulls, rams, etc.

As for the specific content inside our hypocephalus, commonly known as Facsimile 2, here is a short summary (we'll greatly expand on this in the next section): We start with the writing at the very bottom, which asks that the deceased's tomb not be desecrated and that his/her soul may also not be desecrated in the Netherworld. Next, we proceed to the figures at the bottom (drawn upside down) which represent the deceased's re-birth, or transformation, into the afterlife and divine realm. Again, symbolizing the process of re-birth/transformation is the fertility god Min, followed by the goddess Hathor who is there to greet the deceased.

We then proceed to the middle level, in which the condition of the afterlife is depicted, along with an invocation requesting that the deceased may be granted eternal life (see the text to the left of the vignette). Finally, we end at the top level which symbolizes the deceased gaining eternal life.

In addition to the drawings, we have writing which was from the Book of the Dead (chapter 162)3, and which was customized to each deceased person with whom it was buried (in this case, a person named Sheshonk). In Facsimile 2, the writing was originally hieroglyphic (the earlier form of ancient Egyptian writing), but many of the missing sections was filled in with hieratic symbols (which was a later form of Egyptian writing).

Hypocephali first appeared around 663-525 B.C.E.4, which is, of course, much too late for Abraham, who would have lived somewhere between 2200 B.C.E. and 1500 B.C.E. at the very latest.

Facsimile 2 — Number by Number

One of the problems with discussing Facsimile 2 is that we don't have the original. We have an inaccurately "restored" drawing of the original. Therefore, in an effort to help us visualize what the original figures would probably have actually looked like, let's introduce a very similar hypocephalus from the British Museum:


As we move through the numbers, we'll compare the figures of one with the other.

Figure 1

Joseph Smith said that Figure 1 was: "Kolob, signifying the first creation, nearest to the celestial, or the residence of God. First in government, the last pertaining to the measurement of time. The measurement according to celestial time, which celestial time signifies one day to a cubit. One day in Kolob is equal to a thousand years according to the measurement of this earth, which is called by the Egyptians Jah-oh-eh."

Notice the differences between Figure 1 in Facsimile 2 on the left and the same figure in the British Museum hypocephalus on the right. Also, remember that this figure was one of the casualties of the damaged section in the original hypocephalus (see the picture further above on this page).

There has been a little controversy in the past among some Church defenders and Egyptologists as to whether this figure should have four ram-heads, or whether it's possible for it to have only two. While two ram-heads aren't unheard of, in this context the figure should properly have four heads as depicted in the figure on the right.

Regarding figure 1, Dr. Samuel A. B. Mercer, Ph.D. said, "It represents the four-headed ram-god, a form of Khnumu in whom, as Weigall in Petrie, Abydos I says, the spirits of the four elements were said to be united.5

Khnumu, also spelled Khnum and Khnemu, is one of the oldest gods of ancient Egypt. He is considered a creator god, and was said to have created humans out of clay on a potter's wheel.6 When depicted with four heads, Khnumu was said to have united within himself the attributes of four other gods: Ra, Shu, Gebb, and Osiris — in other words, the first four generations of creation.7

The baboons (figures 22 and 23) are adoring souls of that realm.8 In the British Museum hypocephalus, however, there is a double symbolism as well. The word "ba", which is loosely translated as "soul", is written with the picture of a leg, and the stars were considered to be the souls of the deceased. As we can see, both are pictured in the hypocephalus on the right. It would be interesting to see the original of Facsimile 2. There seem to be hints of a couple pictures of legs, representing the word "ba".

Figure 2

Joseph Smith said this figure: "Stands next to Kolob, called by the Egyptians Oliblish, which is the next grand governing creation near to the celestial or the place where God resides; holding the key of power also, pertaining to other planets; as revealed from God to Abraham, as he offered sacrifice upon an altar, which he had built unto the Lord."

Dr. Mercer said that Figure 2, "Represents a god with two faces — the double aspect of the sun in setting and rising."9 This figure wears the headdress of Amun, and is identified as Amun-Re by BYU scholar Michael D. Rhodes.10 The depiction of the sun setting and rising was very important to the Egyptians in this context as it symbolized rebirth/transformation into the spiritual realm after death takes place. Remember, also, that this figure was part of the top level of the hypocephalus, in which the deceased had achieved his/her goal of eternal life.

By the way, "Oliblish" is not a known Egyptian word.

Figure 3

Figure 3 is actually in the damaged section of the original hypocephalus. As you can see from the three photos above, the same section of the British Museum hypocephalus (far right) is very different than the one in Facsimile 2 (far left), but notice the similarity between the picture in the middle with Figure 3 on the left. Interestingly, the picture in the middle is a segment of the papyrus identified as the proposed "Book of Joseph".

Perhaps there was enough of the original hypocephalus for Joseph to make out the ends of a bark (boat) — notice that the British Museum hypocephalus on the right has a bark in the same exact place. Perhaps Joseph deduced that there was supposed to be a figure in a bark in the damaged section, and, wishing to be as authentic as he could and noticing that there was another figure in a similarly shaped bark in the Book of Joseph papyrus, he had Rueben Hedlock copy the Book of Joseph figure onto the hypocephalus where the damage was.

Of course, this is all conjecture. Who knows why he used the figure he did in his "restoration". For whatever reason it's there, here is what Joseph said it was: "Is made to represent God, sitting upon his throne, clothed with power and authority; with a crown of eternal light upon his head; representing also the grand Key-words of the Holy Priesthood, as revealed to Adam in the Garden of Eden, as also to Seth, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, and all to whom the Priesthood was revealed."

Dr. Samuel Mercer identified the figure as: "Horus-Re sitting in his boat with the user, the royal sceptre which gave dominion over heaven and earth, in his hand. There is with him two uzat-eyes. These were used as amulets for protection against the evil eye. He is crowned with the sun's disk and ruaeus. An offering table stands before him."11

It would be interesting to go back in time and see if Joseph Smith's hypocephalus originally had the same figures as this British Museum's hypocephalus or not.11a They are alike in so many other ways. So, even though it's secondary to our discussion on Facsimile 2, here is the interpretation of the two figures on the far right picture above.

The deity in the upper corner is the Bennu, who sometimes was pictured as the bird and other times as a man with a Bennu's head. The Bennu is a symbol of being united with Ra, since it is "the soul of Ra". And, the Khepri (below the Bennu) ends the story of the transformation of the deceased told within the hypocephalus by depicting the deceased as the rising sun, in other words, the deceased is reborn and symbolised as being one with the rising sun.

Figure 4

Joseph Smith said this figure: "Answers to the Hebrew word Raukeeyang, signifying expanse, or the firmament of the heavens; also a numerical figure, in Egyptian signifying one thousand; answering to the measuring of the time of Oliblish, which is equal with Kolob in its revolution and in its measuring of time."

This figure doesn't seem to be very common, but is interesting. Dr. Mercer said that it represents Sokar,12 probably based on the fact that this is a Hawk, and Sokar is often represented as a hawk. But this figure has some interesting features that's not common.

The outstretched wings indicates the realm of the spirit or afterlife, and since the lower-half of the figure is mummified, it seems as though this represents the deceased — in other words, the union of the deceased with the spiritual realm; the birth of the Horus in the afterworld.

Figure 5

Joseph said that this figure: "Is called in Egyptian Enish-go-on-dosh; this is one of the governing planets also, and is said by the Egyptians to be the Sun, and to borrow its light from Kolob through the medium of Kae-e-vanrash, which is the grand Key, or, in other words, the governing power, which governs fifteen other fixed planets or stars, as also Floeese or the Moon, the Earth and the Sun in their annual revolutions. This planet receives its power through the medium of Kli-flos-is-es, or Hah-ko-kau-beam, the stars represented by numbers 22 and 23, receiving light from the revolutions of Kolob."

Dr. Mercer said figure 5, "represents the cow of Hathor, behind which stands a uzat-headed goddess holding a sacred tree." He also noted that there is no such Egyptian word as "Enish-go-on-dosh".13 Kae-e-vanrash, Floeese, Hah-ko-kau-beam and Kli-flos-is-es are Hebrew transliterations that were undoubtedly the result of Joseph's study of Hebrew from Prof. Seixas.

In the funerary context, Hathor is welcoming the deceased.

Figure 6

Joseph said this figure: "Represents this earth in its four quarters."

These are the very well known entities of the four Sons of Horus. Defenders of Joseph Smith's interpretations are fond of calling this a "direct hit" for Joseph, in that the Sons of Horus are associated with the four cardinal points of the earth, North (Hapy), South (Imsety), East (Duamutef), and West (Qebehsenuef). However, calling this a "direct hit" is a stretch, in my opinion. The four Sons of Horus are associated with the cardinal points in only one aspect, and never in a funerary context such as this one.13a

In a funerary context, the Sons of Horus were seen as protectors of the deceased's internal organs. Imsety protected the liver, Hapy protected the lungs, Duamutef protected the stomach, and Qebehsenuef protected the intestines.

Figure 7

Joseph Smith said that figure 7, "Represents God sitting upon his throne, revealing through the heavens the grand Key-words of the Priesthood; as also, the sign of the Holy Ghost unto Abraham, in the form of a dove."

This figure is clearly the ithyphallic god Min. Next to Min, shown more clearly in the British Museum hypocephalus on the right, is the ithyphallic snake which represents Atum, whose power of creation was often represented in the form of a snake. The ithlyphallic pose underlines this creative aspect. I suspect that the unfinished representation of Atum in Facsimile 2 (due probably to damage in the original) was interpreted by Joseph to be a figure "in the form of a dove", rather than that of a snake.

Overall, this entire lower register describes the deceased's entry into the divine realm of the afterlife and the beginning of his/her transformation — his/her re-birth to that realm, as represented by these ithyphallic figures.

Figure 8-11

Joseph gave the following translations of this writing:

  • Fig. 8, "Contains writings that cannot be revealed unto the world; but is to be had in the Holy Temple of God";
  • Fig. 9, "Ought not to be revealed at the present time";
  • Fig. 10, "Also";
  • Fig. 11, "Also. If the world can find out these numbers, so let it be. Amen."

Joseph Smith seems to have numbered these backwards. The writing is actually read from top to bottom, or, in other words, from Figure 11 down to Figure 8. According to Michael D. Rhodes, BYU, figures 11-8 actually read:14

  • Fig. 11, "O god of the sleeping ones from the time of creation"
  • Fig. 10, "O mighty god, lord of heaven and earth"
  • Fig. 9, "the netherworld (below the earth) and his great waters"
  • Fig. 8, "grant that the soul of Osiris Sheshonk may live."

Figures 12-21

Joseph didn't offer any other translation, other than to write the following: "Figures 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21 will be given in the own due time of the Lord."

Apparently that time has now come, as we can translate these figures today.

Figures 12-15 were apparently damaged in the original, and were "restored" by pasting in hieratic symbols for Hôr's Breathing Permit — upside-down. A trace of the original hieroglyphic writing can be made out, but only the phrase "his words" can be made out at the end of the line in Fig. 15. The remainder of these lines are filled with hieratic writing taken from lines 4 and 5 of Hôr's Breathing Permit15:

  • Figure 12: (upside down) "near" and "wrap"
  • Figure 13: (upside down) "which made by"
  • Figure 14: (upside down) "breathings"
  • Figure 15: (upside down) "this book"

Figures 16 and 17 should actually be read in the following order:

  • Figure 17: "May this tomb never be desecrated"
  • Figure 16: "and may this soul and its possessor never be desecrated in the netherworld."16

Three-fourths of the original hieroglyphic inscription appears to have survived, and counterclockwise reads:17

  • Figure 18: "I am Djabty in the house of Benben in Heliopolis, so exalted and glorious. [I am] copulating bull without equal. [I am] that mighty god in the house of Benben in Heliopolis...that mighty god..."

  • Figure 19, 20, 21: "You shall be as that god, the Busirian."18

  • Figure 22 writing: "The name of this mighty god"19

Translation of Egyptian Symbols — The Breathing Permit of Hôr
Table of Contents Next
The Text of the Book of Abraham

**** Footnotes ****

1. The other two fragments were (1) The Book of the Dead belonging to the female musician Amon-Re Neferirnûb; and (2) Book of the Dead belonging to Amenhotep.

See H. Michael Marquardt, The Book of Abraham Papyrus Found, 2nd edition 1981, publ. by Utah Lighthouse Ministry, p. 23, 24; and Klaus Baer, "The Breathing Permit of Hor", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn 1968, p. 111 - Go back to article

2. See this short description of hypocephali by the British Museum - Go back to article

3. Michael D. Rhodes, "The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus, Seventeen Year Later". Click here for an online version of this essay. - Go back to article

4. Michael D. Rhodes, "The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus, Seventeen Year Later". Click here for an online version of this essay. - Go back to article

5. Samuel A. B. Mercer, Ph.D., "Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian", from The Utah Survey, Vol. 1, No. 1, September 1913, p. 23 - Go back to article

6. Joann Fletcher, The Egyptian Book of Living and Dying, p. 21 - Go back to article

7. Michael D. Rhodes, "The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus, Seventeen Year Later". Click here for an online version of this essay. See also this short description of Khnemu - Go back to article

8. Michael D. Rhodes, "The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus, Seventeen Year Later". Click here for an online version of this essay. - Go back to article

9. Samuel A. B. Mercer, Ph.D., "Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian", from The Utah Survey, Vol. 1, No. 1, September 1913, p. 23 - Go back to article

10. Michael D. Rhodes, "The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus, Seventeen Year Later". Click here for an online version of this essay. - Go back to article

11. Samuel A. B. Mercer, Ph.D., "Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian", from The Utah Survey, Vol. 1, No. 1, September 1913, p. 23 - Go back to article

11a. I should point out an interesting parallel, however. In another similar hypocephalus found at the British Museum — a hypocephalus for the temple musician Neshorpakhered — this same northeast corner is very similar to Joseph Smith's "restoration". Whether you call it "luck" or "inspiration", it certainly is similar, and I have no problem giving Joseph credit for anything he got correct:

- Go back to article

12. Samuel A. B. Mercer, Ph.D., "Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian", from The Utah Survey, Vol. 1, No. 1, September 1913, p. 23 - Go back to article

13. Samuel A. B. Mercer, Ph.D., "Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian", from The Utah Survey, Vol. 1, No. 1, September 1913, p. 24 - Go back to article

13a. LDS Egyptologist Stephen E. Thompson had this to say: "...it has been repeatedly claimed that Figure 6 in Facsimile 2, which is a depiction of the four sons of Horus (also found as Figures 5-8 in Facsimile 1) 'could indeed 'represent this earth in its four quarters' in the ancient world, as the explanation to the facsimile in the Book of Abraham says.' As far as ancient Egypt was concerned, there is no evidence currently available to support this claim. There is only one context in which the sons of Horus are associated with the cardinal directions, i.e., the 'earth in its four quarters.' They were sent out, in the form of birds, as heralds of the king's coronation. In this setting, Duamutef (Facs. 1, Fig. 6) went to the East, Qebehsenuef (Facs. 1, Fig. 5) to the West, Amset (Facs. 1, Fig. 8) to the South, and Hapi (Facs. 1, Fig. 7) to the North. I must emphasize that it is only in this context, and in the form of birds, that these gods were associated with the cardinal points. In a funerary context no such relationship is evident. Furthermore, the fact that these gods were sent to the four quarters of the earth does not mean that the Egyptians equated them with these directions. There is no evidence that they did so." — Stephen E. Thompson, "Egyptology and the Book of Abraham", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1995, p. 152 - Go back to article

14. Michael D. Rhodes, Brigham Young University Studies, Spring 1977, p. 265 - Go back to article

15. Richard A. Parker, prof. Egyptology, Brown University, Dialog: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1968, p. 68 - Go back to article

16. Michael D. Rhodes, Brigham Young University Studies, Spring 1977, p. 265 - Go back to article

17. Michael D. Rhodes, Brigham Young University Studies, Spring 1977, p. 265 - Go back to article

18. Michael D. Rhodes, Brigham Young University Studies, Spring 1977, p. 265 - Go back to article

19. Michael D. Rhodes, Brigham Young University Studies, Spring 1977, p. 265 - Go back to article

Translation of Egyptian Symbols — The Breathing Permit of Hôr
Table of Contents Next
The Text of the Book of Abraham