The Book of Abraham

In the early 1830's an Englishman doing the Grand Tour visited Egypt where he purchased, among other souvenirs, a mummy and various items of burial equipment. On his return he was kind enough to donate them to his nephew, a certain Michell Chandler, an impecunious youth who came up with the idea of going to the New World and making his fortune as a travelling showman.

Gratifying numbers of sight-seers came to view his Egyptian exhibition, billed as "The Amazing Hieroglyphic Writing that no-one can read." Gradually Mr Chandler worked his way west until on July 3, 1835, he arrived at the town of Kirtland, Ohio. He set up his stall, hung out his advertising and sat back to wait for customers.

At that time Kirtland was the home of Joseph Smith, an equally young and impecunious man who had, according to his story, been vouchsafed a set of golden plates inscribed in "Reformed Egyptian characters". By means of a crystal ball - later transformed into the Urim and Thummim in the form of a pair of spectacles - Joseph Smith claimed to be able to read these gold plates. Many of his contemporaries were sufficiently impressed to become his followers; a larger number remained sceptical.

The arrival of Michell Chandler seemed, to the believers, a heaven-sent opportunity to convince their doubting friends. Here was writing that no-one else could read, in the self-same Egyptian characters that had been so successfully deciphered by their prophet. Let him translate the scrolls and astound the unbelieving world.

A private showing was duly arranged - the apparatus of translation being too sacred to be viewed by profane eyes - and after an appropriate delay Joseph Smith appeared, his face shining with holy joy, to announce that God had been graciously pleased to bring into their midst the very book which Abraham had written during his stay in Egypt. (see Genesis 12) If Michell Chandler could not quite believe the mysterious workings of Providence the incipient Mormons could and a subscription was instantly organised to purchase these holy relics and preserve them for posterity.

Naturally Michell Chandler was not willing to sell the whole of his exhibition but he was at length induced to part with a papyrus scroll and a hypocephalus, a thick disk made of waste papyrus glued together like papier mache, which the Egyptians used to place under the head of the deceased for magical protection. Chandler went on his way with his abbreviated exhibition and Joseph Smith settled down to the task of fully translating Abraham's autobiography.

The completed work, a short but wordy account in which we are told that "Egyptus" (Egypt + a Latin ending) is Chaldean for Egypt and "Shagreel" is the national sun god of Egypt - curiously, Egyptologists today read the name as "Ra" or "Re", but then of course they do not have the benefit of Urim and Thummim - was rapturously received by the waiting Latter Day Saints and incorporated in the preserved writings of Joseph Smith. It can be found towards the end of the book The Pearl of Great Price, which is usually bound in with Doctrine and Covenants.

Abraham, in language strangely modern, tells the reader "I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record", which meant that Joseph Smith, in order to fulfil the patriarch's intention, had to provide modern readers with woodcuts of the scenes thus referred to. These woodcuts, three in all, may also be found in the above mentioned books.

Nine years later - by which time the Mormons had moved to Nouvoo, Illinois - Joseph Smith was lynched by neighbours upset by his attempts to take over the district by armed force and in the ensuing confusion of the great trek to Salt Lake City, the venerable relics were entrusted to the Chicago University Museum. A quarter of a century later, when much of Chicago was destroyed in the great fire of 1871, the precious book of Abraham was destroyed.

This, as it turns out, was a bit of luck for the Mormons, because modern scholars - pedantic, unimaginative infidels - uniformly identify the three woodcuts as representing the embalming of a mummy, the famous judgement scene before Osiris from the Book of the Dead and a normal hypocephalus. They have even deciphered the hieroglyphics - those not irredeemably mangled by the woodcutter's lack of skill - to discover that the hypocephalus was produced for a man by the name of Shishonk.

The correspondence between the woodcuts and the Book of the Dead is so marked that Mormon scholars from Brigham Young University do not even attempt to deny it. They simply claimed that it is difficult to be sure from such poor copies and if only we had the originals all would be made plain. Unfortunately, they were to have their wish.

In 1966 there was a minor fire in the University Museum in Chicago. The fire brigade was summoned and the gallant firemen hastened to the rescue. In their enthusiasm they squirted water in every direction and when they finally rolled up their hoses and departed the museum was left with about a foot of water in the basement where everything not on display was stored.

The task of opening every box and crate and drying out all the salvageable antiquities was a long and dreary one, but it did have one valuable side-effect. Many of the items were donations and bequests that had been long neglected, their file cards had gone missing, they had been forgotten. Among them was a box containing an Egyptian papyrus scroll and a circular hypocephalus. Associated papers showed, beyond any possibility of doubt, that these were the missing Mormon manuscripts, the long-lost Book of Abraham.

Mormon scholars were somewhat less than over-joyed by the discovery, though once again they were unable to deny the identity. Although the translation prepared by the Chicago scholars differed in certain minor details from that produced by Joseph Smith - for example, the name Abraham does not appear in the document and the Egyptian gods mentioned have more conventional names than Shagreel, Koresh and Mahmackrah - the woodcuts and the ancient Egyptian paintings were clearly identical.

Woodcut 1
The original papyrus reproduced as "Block 1" in the Book of Abraham.

If you ever come across the Pearl of Great Price, make sure you have a good look at the Book of Abraham. The first woodcut, which J. Smith identified as Abraham fastened upon an altar above the four gods of Egypt while the angel of the Lord hovers nearby, is clearly the preparation of a mummy by a shaven-headed priest. The supposed gods are in fact the four canopic jars in which the internal organs of the deceased were placed. The "angel of the Lord" is a clearly depicted "ba" bird, by which the Egyptians represented the soul. (A comprehensive article on the Book of Abraham together with the three blocks from that book, can be found in the Wikipedia article "Book of Abraham".)

The second woodcut, the hypocephalus, shows various gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt including Hathor as a cow. This is marked in the woodcut by the numeral "5" and is identified by Joseph Smith as Enish-go-on-dosh, one of the governing planets. It receives its power through the medium of Kli-flos-is-es, a bit of information that Stephen Hawking will doubtless find invaluable.

The final woodcut, declared by Joseph Smith to be "Abraham sitting upon Pharaoh's throne, by the politeness of the king ... reasoning upon the principles of Astronomy", is a typical rendition of the judgement of the dead before Osiris, the god of the dead. Hathor, identified by the cow horns on the top of her head, stands behind the throne, while another goddess wearing the Feather of Truth in her head-dress leads the deceased into the presence of the god.

The Book of the Dead was a sort of guide book to the afterlife and was buried with every person rich enough to afford a copy. It was the single most popular work of literature in Egypt and thousands of copies have been found. You will almost certainly find illustrations from the Book of the Dead - or possibly even a complete reproduction of it - in your local library.

Mormon scholars are reduced to saying that the whole business is a mystery that God will, in His own good time make clear. To the unbiased observer, however, the only mystery is how come so many people continue to be taken in by such a fraud. After all, if the Urim and Thummim were so wildly astray in deciphering un-reformed hieroglyphics, what confidence can we have in their abilities with "reformed Egyptian characters"? The gold plates, if they really exist, may be nothing more than an Aztec tax register or an Inca estate agent's list of desirable properties semi-d.