Abraham Facsimile 2
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On the relative difficulty of interpretation of this facsimile
While the other two facsimiles printed with the Book of Abraham have connections, more or less, with the narrative events of the text (facsimile no. 3 only implicitly), facsimile no. 2 has no obvious narrative connections, and, in the end, very little by way of connection in any other sense as well. This vignette, it has been pointed out by LDS and non-LDS scholars, is not so closely connected with the other two. Whereas there is good evidence to believe that facsimiles nos. 1 and 3 were on the same scroll, there seems to be no doubt that facsimile no. 2 represents a separate piece of papyrus (arguable not only on Egyptological grounds, but according to the journals and descriptions of the saints of and visitors to Nauvoo). The relative lack of connection with the text found in this facsimile establishes in advance the difficulty of interpretation.
More still, the subject matter of this vignette, according to Joseph's "explanation," deals with issues, themes, and events nowhere else engaged in scripture. Though there are some ties to Abraham's third chapter, all ties are only distant and difficult. Complicating all of this still more, the "issues, themes, and events" so unique to this facsimile are not only unique because they do not appear anywhere else, but because they are of a most extremely difficult nature: names of planets and hierarchies of stars, powers of interplanetary government and questions of Egyptian and Hebrew names for such authorities, even portions not to be revealed until another time. The difficulties raised by these complications seem almost insurmountable.
Also unique concerning this particular facsimile is the relative wealth of knowledge concerning its ritual use. Though vignettes like facsimiles nos. 1 and 3 are far more common archaeologically, details of a more specific nature have surfaced concerning hypocephali (the technical name for the class of documents represented by facsimile no. 2). In the end, however, this proves to be a further complication for interpretation. Whereas the depictions in the first and third facsimiles are only loosely tied to larger ritual contexts, allowing for a certain vacillation on the part of LDS scholars in their interpretation of the Abrahamic significance of the vignettes, the more particular nature of the hypocephalus has drawn criticism that is harder to combat for Joseph's explanation. The known details of Egyptian religion concerning this particular drawing seem more absolutely to veto Joseph's interpretation/translation.
Finally, it must be admitted from the very start that this particular vignette is more a question of the Egyptian language than it is of Egyptian art. While the other two facsimiles allow for artistic approaches to the drawings, opening thereby some possibilities for careful interpretation, the less artistic nature of this facsimile closes up much of these possibilities (not to mention the difficulty imposed by the relative unclarity of what remains artistic in this facsimile). All in all, it must be admitted that facsimile no. 2 imposes the greatest barriers to fruitful interpretation.
At the very same time, however, it must be admitted that--perhaps for all the same reasons--facsimile no. 2 is by far the most interesting of the three. Its departure from the text of the Book of Abraham makes it all the more fascinating, its venture into the unknown and otherwise unexplored, its curious collection of names, etc. All these things make facsimile no. 2 a most wonderful source of light and truth. Though it might prove to be the most difficult of subjects for study in LDS scripture, it might well prove to be among the most fruitful as well.
This facsimile is a representation of a hypocephalus, a technical term for a whole class of vignettes (more properly "amulets") that look similar to this facsimile. The word is Greek for "under the head," as the amulet was placed under or otherwise attached to the head of a mummified individual. The role the hypocephalus played in Egyptian religion is of peculiar significance for the Abrahamic context of this facsimile.
Chapter 162 of the Book of the Dead (called literally by the Egyptians the "Book of Going Forth by Day") provides specific instructions for the creation of a hypocephalus, and it also gives some indication of its purpose and use. The chapter itself is titled "Chapter [book, spell, utterance, etc.] to cause to come into being a flame beneath the head of a spirit [one's ka]." The chapter title already says a good deal: as the amulet was placed beneath the head, it was intended eventually to cause the head to be engulfed in flames, in a process that was meant to resurrect the dead person. The chapter provides some specific words that are to be spoken over the hypcephalus when it is created, part of which runs: "His [i.e., the person's who receives the amulet] place will be encircled with flame and he will be a god in the realm of the dead and will not be repuled from any gate [veil] of the Netherworld in very truth." Very broadly speaking, the hypocephalus was meant to aid the resurrection of a deceased individual, thereby making him (or her?) a god enthroned and encircled with fire who holds the keys to every veil. But these broad interpretations can only be a sort of beginning.
The hypocephalus, as is clear from the same chapter of the Book of the Dead, was focused on the figure of the cow marked in facsimile no. 2 as fig. 5. The vignette was doubled with a small statuette of a cow, made of gold, the latter applied to the throat of the deceased, as the hypocephalus was to the back of the head. The placement of the statuette was accompanied with a plea and an associated (and most explicit) curse: "O you most hidden of hidden gods in heaven [Amun], regard the corpse of your son; keep him safe in the God's domain. This is a book [spell, saying, prayer] of great secrecy--let no one see it for that would be an abomination. But the one who knows it and keeps it hidden shall continue to exist." Even as the cow was pressed to the throat of the individual, he or she was given an incredibly valuable secret and commissioned to keep it safe and secret in order to be exalted (and what is the significance here of the cow being at one's throat?).
There is good evidence that the papyrus of a hypocephalus was, previous to its being attached to the head of the deceased, rolled up and used as a musical instrument by the leader of a sort of chorus as the group sang the rites of the dead. The chorus was apparently made up entirely of female dancers, and the ritual took place precisely at the doorway of the resting place, at, as it were, the veil that opened onto the realm of the dead. Besides these few details, knowledge concerning the ritual function of the hypocephalus itself is rather limited. It is clear, from the above and from the content on the vignette itself, that it was used as a sort of reminder of rites performed during the life of the deceased, so that the dead would know what is to be said at what point of the journey that remainded for him or her.
By this point it ought to be obvious, however, that all of these details seem to have very little to do with what is pictured on the hypocephalus (except, of course, for fig. 5 of facsimile no. 2), and perhaps still less to do with Joseph's explanations of the facsimile. The fact of the matter is, however, that so little is known of hypocephali that much work remains to be done, and that work can only begin, for the Latter-day Saint, with the Abrahamic context of this hypocephalus.
Hieroglyphics versus ideograms
What is perhaps the most unique about facsimile no. 2 (among the three facsimiles, that is) is that it combines in an amazing manner both ideograms (small pictures) and hieroglyphics (Egyptian script). While there is some text on facsimile no. 3, Joseph's explanation of that vignette offers only pragmatic references to the hieroglyphics, never suggesting that the words written in Egyptian are of much importance. Here, however, Joseph's explanation seems to suggest that the script is of great importance, offering the world the possibility of translating portions of it, and suggesting that further revelation alone can unlock some of the meanings bound up in the text.
Standing over against the text is a collection of apparently unconnected scenes. Unlike the other two facsimiles, this one does not have a single depicted event but a number of such events at work in several places on the hypocephalus. The complexity at once imbues each scene with great importance and yet relativizes the same: each must be read in terms of the others, but the others must, at the same time, be read in terms of the one. The whole facsimile is a sort of play of pictures, all run through with an almost indecipherable text. The interplay of these two types of writing is the key to interpretation.
It might be noticed that the pictures on the hypocephalus form a sort of "I" shape: a line of figures across the top matches a similar line across the bottom (the lower one upside-down), and the two lines are connected by fig. 1. Everywhere else in the vignette, there is text (the hypocephalus is certainly marked by a sort of horror vacui). The central fig. 1, lined above and below by a string of figures, grounds the depictions, and ultimately, contextualizes all text.
The several depictions
But while fig. 1 is certainly the very center of the hypocephalus, and is explained by Joseph Smith to be the central astronomical figure, Kolob, there are two displacements--de-centerings--of the hypocephalus at work, one Egyptological, the other a consequence of the convergence of the several facsimiles.
First, the Egyptological descriptions of hypcephali, offered above, point to the vast importance of fig. 5 in the facsimile. The vignette--or rather, amulet--was understood to be first and foremost a drawing of a cow (the goddess Hathor certainly has some connection here, but the figure outstrips such a limited reference). The centralization of the hypocephalus on the cow figure is significant, not only because it de-centers the amulet in shifting the focus from fig. 1 to fig. 5, but also because it shifts the focus of the hypocephalus from things heavenly (fig. 1 and anything located above it) to things earthly (fig. 5 and the whole "line" on which it is found). The cow that is apparently to be understood as the center and focus of things is upside-down. Or rather, if one is to understand the hypocephalus rightly, one should turn the whole amulet upside-down so that the cow is right-side-up: if this way of taking the facsimile is performed, then everything heavenly becomes inverted, twisted through the earthly focus. With that insight, one (and only one) reason for the half right-side-up and half upside-down nature of the facsimile emerges: the heaven can only be seen as backwards, upside-down, twisted, or otherwise altered when viewed from the perspective of the earth (and the Book of Abraham is all about perspectives).
Second, the other two facsimiles both seem to converge on fig. 7 of this facsimile. The connections are best understood, in fact, by the sort of double explanation of that figure offered by the Prophet Joseph. The figure at once represents God sitting on His throne, revealing the key-words of the priesthood to Abraham, and Abraham sitting on a throne, receiving the visitation of the dove. The figure on the throne, then, is to be understood both as God and as Abraham, and the figure before the throne (across the altar) is to be understood both as Abraham and as the Holy Ghost. This duplicity is itself interesting and must be explored, but first it must be pointed out that this crossing of facsimiles nos. 1 and 3 in fig. 7 of facsimile no. 2 de-centers the hypocephalus a second time. If the Egyptological insight de-centers the hypocephalus once, this convergence of the three facsimiles in this one figure de-centers it again, moving the focal point of the hypocephalus further and further from Kolob. But whereas the first de-centering work to invert everything heavenly through the perspective of the earthly, this de-centering offers a means to overcome that: Abraham is visited by the heavenly dove; God provides Abraham with the keys for asking and receiving, for passing through the veil and into the heavens themselves. Fig. 7 seems, in other words, to offer the possibility that the veil itself (that point of inversion between heaven and earth) might be overcome.
Points to ponder
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- Paul Osborn, Pro-LDS Symbolism of the Book of Abraham
- Michael D. Rhodes Joseph Smith Hypocephalus: Seventeen Years Later
- Kerry Shirts Hypocephalus in "Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar" Critically Examined with Joseph Smith Hypocephalus
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