Facsimile 1 of the Book of Abraham visually depicts the narrative contained in Abraham 1:12–19. As interpreted by Joseph Smith, this scene depicts Abraham fastened upon an altar before some idolatrous gods. An idolatrous priest is about to sacrifice Abraham, who is protected by the angel of the Lord.
Since the mid-1800s, when Egyptologists first began analyzing the facsimiles of the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith’s interpretation of this scene (sometimes called a lion couch scene, due to the prominent lion couch at the center of the illustrations) has clashed with Egyptological interpretations. In 1860, the French Egyptologist Théodule Devéria interpreted Facsimile 1 as depicting the resurrection of the god Osiris.1 In 1912, Egyptologists interpreted Facsimile 1 as, variously, “the well known scene of Anubis preparing the body of the dead man,”2 “a resurrection scene” showing “Osiris rising from the dead,”3 “an embalmer preparing a body for burial,”4 “the body of the dead lying” on a funerary bier,5 and “a dead man . . . lying on a bier” and being prepared for mummification.6 Similar interpretations of Facsimile 1 have been given in more recent years.7
From the weight of this Egyptological opinion, it may seem strange to associate Facsimile 1 with sacrifice as Joseph Smith did. However, more recent investigation has turned up evidence that suggests a connection between sacred violence and scenes of the embalming and resurrection of the deceased (or the god Osiris). Evidence linking Osiris’s mummification and resurrection with execration rituals can be detected “in the roof chapels of the Dendara Temple.”8 Other Egyptologists have already drawn parallels between Facsimile 1 and the Dendara Temple scenes depicting the resurrection of Osiris9 but have failed to notice the connection these scenes make with ritual violence.10 For example, the inscription accompanying one such scene says of evildoers: “He will not exist, nor will his name exist, since you will destroy his town, cast down the wall of his house, and everyone who is in it will be set on fire; you will demolish his district; you will stab his confederates, his flesh being ashes, the evil conspirator consigned to the slaughterhouse so that he will no longer exist.”11
It may also be noteworthy in this regard that in these texts the word for the “lion couch” (nmỉt) is homophonous, or nearly identical, with the word for “abattoir, slaughterhouse” (nmt) as well as for “offerings” (nmt).12 This homophony could plausibly have contributed to an association or relationship between the two words in the minds of some Egyptians, and examples from the Dendara Temple seem to indicate this. For instance, “in the same chapel, we have depictions of Anubis and the sons of Horus (presumably the figures under the lion couch in Facsimile 1) holding knives.” The text accompanying these figures gives us a sense of what purpose they serve in the scenes.
Anubis is here identified as the one “who smites the adversaries with his might, since the knife is in his hand, to expel the one who treads in transgression; I am the violent one who came forth from god, after having cut off the heads of the confederates of him whose name is evil.” The human-headed son of Horus is identified above his head as “the one who repulses enemies” and “who comes tearing out (šd) the enemies who butchers (tḫs) the sinners.” The baboon-headed son of Horus says: “I have slaughtered those who create injuries in the house of God in his presence; I take away the breath from his nostrils.” The jackal-headed son of Horus says: “I cause the hostile foreigners to retreat.” Finally, the falcon-headed son of Horus says: “I have removed rebellion (ḥꜣy>).”13
From this and other evidence,14 it can be seen that at least some ancient Egyptians associated scenes of the resurrection of Osiris with the slaughter of enemies. Why might some ancient Egyptians have done so? It may relate to the myth of the resurrection of the god Osiris, which lion couch scenes were meant to depict. In the classic retelling of the myth, Osiris was slain and mutilated by his evil brother, Seth. Through the efforts of his sister-wife, Isis, the body of Osiris was magically reassembled and resurrected. The final vindication came when their son Horus slew Seth in combat and claimed kingship.15 The element in this myth of Horus slaying Seth and thereby the forces of chaos or disorder (including foreign peoples, rebels, and enemies of Pharaoh) might explain why sacrifice may have been associated with embalming and mummification in some contexts.16
Interestingly, a papyrus from the first century BC (not far removed from the time of the Joseph Smith Papyri) “comments on the fate suffered in the embalming place during the initial stages of mummification by one who was overly concerned with amassing wealth while alive.”17 As read in the text, “It is the chief of the spirits (= Anubis) who is first to punish after the taking of breath. Juniper oil, incense, natron, and salt, searing ingredients, are a ‘remedy’ for his wounds. A ‘friend’ who shows no mercy attacks his flesh. He is unable to say ‘desist’ during the punishment of the assessor.”18 Commenting on this passage, Egyptologist Mark Smith observes that in this text “the embalming table [the lion couch] is also a judge’s tribunal and the chief embalmer, Anubis, doubles as the judge who executes sentence. For the wicked man, mummification, the very process which is supposed to restore life and grant immortality, becomes a form of torture from which no escape is possible.”19 That Anubis had a role as judge of the dead, besides merely being an embalmer, has previously been acknowledged by Egyptologists.20
One task Anubis fulfilled with this role was as a guard or protector who “administer[ed] horrible punishments to the enemies of Osiris.”21 From surviving evidence it is apparent that “Anubis must have been engaged in warding off evil influences, and it is conceivable that he did so as a judge. . . . [One Egyptian text even] identifies Anubis as a butcher slaying the enemies of Osiris while [another] states that such butchers are in fact a company of magistrates.”22 As a “reckoner of hearts” (ỉp ỉbw), Anubis was “the inflictor of the punishment . . . of the enemies” of Osiris.23 So from the perspective of the ancient Egyptians, the process of embalming and mummification included elements of ritual violence against evildoers or agents of chaos. “The punishment of enemies by a ‘judge’ is simply a part of the protective ritual enacted in connection with the embalmment of the deceased.”24
To be sure, there are still some significant differences in how Joseph Smith interpreted the lion couch scene in Facsimile 1. For one thing, embalming and mummification were only ever performed after the death of a person and were never meant to inflict death or otherwise sacrifice the person on the lion couch. Likewise, Anubis and the other figures attending to the mummification of the dead were meant to slaughter the enemies of Osiris, certainly not the figure of Osiris on the lion couch. This is therefore not to suggest that somehow Abraham had already been killed and was then set to be mummified. Nor is it to suggest that these parallels are perfect matches for how Joseph Smith interpreted this scene. Rather, it is to say that “excluding a sacrificial dimension to lion couch scenes” or scenes depicting the mummification of Osiris, which is how Egyptologists have interpreted Facsimile 1, “is un-Egyptian, even if we cannot come up with one definitive reading [of Facsimile 1] at this time.”25
Gee, John. “The Facsimiles.” In An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 143–56. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017.
———. “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri.” FARMS Review 20, no. 1 (2008): 113–37, esp. 130–35.
Nibley, Hugh. “Facsimile 1: A Unique Document.” In An Approach to the Book of Abraham, edited by John Gee, 115–78. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 18. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2009.