The explanation accompanying figure 3 of Facsimile 1 of the Book of Abraham identifies it as “the idolatrous priest of Elkenah attempting to offer up Abraham as a sacrifice.” In order to gauge the validity of this interpretation from an Egyptological perspective, assuming this is the approach one wishes to take, a number of factors need to be considered.
The first issue to resolve is the matter of the lacunae, or missing pieces, in the original papyrus fragment. As printed in the March 1, 1842, issue of the Times and Seasons, figure 3 is shown as a standing figure with a bald head and a drawn knife. In the original papyrus fragment, however, the areas with the bald head and knife are currently missing. At some unknown point by some unknown person, an attempt was made to fill in the missing head of figure 3, although no such attempt was made to fill in whatever is missing in the figure’s hand. Determining whether the figure in the original papyrus is accurately represented in Facsimile 1 is important, because it may affect the interpretation of this figure.
First, there is the question as to whether the knife being held by figure 3 could plausibly have been in the original vignette or illustration. “The existence of the knife has been doubted by many because it does not conform to what other Egyptian papyri would lead us to expect,”1 and so some Egyptologists have denied the possibility that the knife was original to this illustration (even if others have had no objection to the possibility).2 At least two different nineteenth-century eyewitnesses who examined the papyri, however, reported seeing “a Priest, with a knife in his hand”3 or “a man standing by [the figure on the lion couch] with a drawn knife.”4 The significance of this is that the presence of a knife in the original papyrus “has here been described by . . . eyewitness[es] whose description of the storage and preservation of the papyri matches that of independent contemporary accounts. . . . This gives us two independent eyewitnesses to the presence of a knife on Facsimile 1, regardless of what we might [otherwise] think.”5 As such, despite what some scholars assume should be on the original papyrus, “it is not valid to argue that something does not exist because it does not correspond to what we expect.”6
Furthermore, the crescent shape of the knife in figure 3’s hand is consistent with the shape of ancient Egyptian flint knives that were used in ancient Egypt for, among other activities, “ritual slaughter” and execration rites.7 Indeed, “killing involving flint [knives] is connected in myth to sacramental killings, killings involving the restoration of order and the defeat of evil.”8 The mythological and practical significance of the flint (or sometimes obsidian) knife as a means of both destroying evil through execration rituals and preparing the deceased for embalming (which in some ways were conceptually linked in the minds of some ancient Egyptians) appears to have survived into the Ptolemaic Period.9 This strongly reinforces the likelihood that the knife was original to the scene.
Second, there is the question of whether figure 3 originally had a bald human head, as depicted in Facsimile 1, or a black jackal headdress, as proposed by a number of Egyptologists.10 That the figure originally had a jackal headdress seems likely, since traces of the headdress over the left shoulder of figure 3 can be detected in the surviving papyrus fragment.
With these considerations in mind, the question of identifying figure 3 comes into play. Some Egyptologists have identified this figure as a priest,11 while others have insisted it is the god Anubis.12 That the figure is Anubis seems plausible on account of “the black coloring of the skin”13 and the faint remaining traces of the jackal headdress over the figure’s left shoulder. However, without a hieroglyphic caption for this figure,14 this identification should be accepted cautiously, since Anubis is not the only jackal-headed, black-skinned figure attested in Egyptian iconography.15
What’s more, the question as to whether the figure is a priest or the god Anubis (or another jackal-headed god), or whether it originally had a bald human head or a jackal head, appears to be a false dichotomy. “The practice of masking for ritual and ceremonial purposes seems to have been important in Egypt from the earliest times and continued to be an element of ritual practice into the Roman period,”16 and “priestly impersonators of Anubis regularly appear in funerary ceremonies, and are styled simply ‘Inpw, ‘Anubis’ or rmt-‘Inpw, ‘Anubis-men’ . . . [or] ỉnk ‘Inpw, ‘I am Anubis.’”17 At the Hathor temple of Deir el-Medineh, for example, is a depiction of a ritual taken from chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead, which shows “the king offering incense, and a priest masked as Anubis beating a round frame drum.”18
Similarly, frescoes at the site of Herculaneum depict “ceremonies of the cult of Isis as held in Italy in the first century CE.”19 This ritual scene features a number of priests and priestesses, including one figure who has been variously interpreted as the god Osiris or a priest dressed up as the god Bes and disguised with a mask. “Although the Herculaneum dancer probably represents a masked participant impersonating the god, the matter [would have been] theologically unimportant” to the ancient viewers of this scene, since the priest “masked as Bes” performing the ritual would, for all intents and purposes, have assumed the identity of the god himself in that ritual capacity.20 All of this holds clear significance for Joseph Smith’s interpretation of this figure in Facsimile 1.21
If we assume for the sake of argument that the head of figure 3 of Facsimile 1 is correct, and that the figure originally had a bald head, then what might the implications be for identifying this figure? “Shaving was a common feature of initiation into the priesthood from the Old Kingdom through the Roman period” and would thus be consistent with identifying this figure as a priest. But what if we assume, on the other hand, that the head on figure 3 was originally a jackal. What then? Not only do we have “representations of priests wearing masks,” but we also have examples of actual masks, as well as “literary accounts from non-Egyptians about Egyptian priests wearing masks.” What’s more, there is at least one written account of when a priest would wear a mask. “In the midst of the embalmment ritual, a new section is introduced with the following passage: ‘Afterwards, Anubis, the stolites priest wearing the head of this god, sits down and no lector-priest shall approach him to bind the stolites with any work.’ Thus this text settles any questions about whether masks were actually used. It furthermore identifies the individual wearing the mask as a priest.”22
The leopard-skin robe worn by figure 3—which is not clearly depicted in the facsimile, but is undoubtedly shown on the original papyrus—would also be consistent with identifying this figure as a priest (specifically a class called the sem-priest), who is “recognizable by his leopard-skin robe” and certain hairstyles. Interestingly, and perhaps significantly for Joseph Smith’s interpretation of Facsimile 1, the ritual clothing of the sem-priest had a clear connection to the god Anubis defeating chaos and evil, personified as the god Seth, through violence. “Papyrus Jumilhac, dating to the Ptolemaic Period (ca. 300 BC), attempts to explain the significance of the leopard skin through a myth that relates the misdeeds of the god Seth. As told in the papyrus, Seth attacked Osiris and then transformed himself into a leopard. The god Anubis defeated Seth and then branded his pelt with spots, hence the robe commemorates the defeat of Seth.”23 Also in Papyrus Jumilhac, Anubis transforms himself into a giant snake who brandishes two flint knives.24
So even if some “issues concerning the accuracy of both the artwork and the copying [of Facsimile 1]” remain unanswered at the moment (issues which, unfortunately, “are routinely clouded by shifting the responsibility of the artwork from the engraver, Reuben Hedlock, to Joseph Smith, without adducing any evidence to identify a particular individual with the responsibility for the restorations”25), the identification of this figure as a priest is not outside the realm of possibility from an Egyptological perspective.
Gee, John. “Abracadabra, Isaac, and Jacob.” FARMS Review of Books 7, no. 1 (1995): 80–83.
Nibley, Hugh. An Approach to the Book of Abraham, edited by John Gee, 287–96, 494–95. 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.