The Book of Abraham describes how “the land of Egypt [was] first discovered by a woman, who was the daughter of Ham, and the daughter of Egyptus” (Abr. 1:23). This woman “discovered the land [when] it was under water, who afterward settled her sons in it; and thus, from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land.” Thereafter “the first government of Egypt was established by Pharaoh, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham” (vv. 24–25).
This genealogy in the Book of Abraham reflects the names of the characters as printed in the March 1, 1842, issue of the Times and Seasons.1 Two of the names in this genealogy, however, are rendered differently in the 1835 Kirtland-era Book of Abraham manuscripts. As has been long recognized,2 the name of Ham’s wife in all three of the Kirtland-era manuscripts is either “Zep-tah” or “Zeptah” instead of Egyptus.3 Additionally, the name of Ham and Zeptah’s (or Egyptus’s) daughter is Egyptes in the Kirtland-era manuscripts, as opposed to Egyptus.4 The name Zeptah is striking because it could very likely be a rendering of the Egyptian name Siptah (sꜣ Ptḥ), meaning “son of [the god] Ptah.”5 This name, as well as its feminine equivalent “daughter of [the god] Ptah” (sꜣt Ptḥ), is attested during the likely time of Abraham.6 It is also the name of an Egyptian king who lived many centuries after Abraham.7
The original pronunciation of Zeptah is unknown, since we have no surviving indication of how Joseph Smith intended the name to be pronounced. Was the /e/ phoneme in the first syllable in Zeptah short (/ɛ/ as in bed) or long (/iː/ as in keep or the name Egypt)? While impossible to prove, /iː/ (“ZEE-Ptah”) would be more congruent with how sꜣ (“son”) is believed to have been pronounced in Middle Egyptian and how it is later attested in Demotic.8 The spelling of the name with a Z instead of an S is not a problem for the Book of Abraham, since in the Egyptian language of Abraham’s time “these two consonants were pronounced the same, like English s as in set.” They were “essentially one consonant in [the Egyptian language of this time], and could often be written interchangeably,”9 having “become graphic variants of the same phoneme /s/.”10
The name Egyptes/Egyptus is clearly related to the name Egypt, which comes from the Greek Aigyptos (Latin: Aegyptus). Aigyptos is a rendering of one of the Egyptian names for the ancient city of Memphis, which contains the theophoric Ptah element (ḥwt-kꜣ-Ptḥ; literally “the estate of the Ka [spirit] of [the god] Ptah”).11 Since Egyptes/Egyptus is a Greek name that would be anachronistic for Abraham’s day, it might reflect the work of ancient scribes transmitting the text who “updated” the name centuries later. This may likewise have been the case with the name Zeptah as well.12
We don’t know for certain why Joseph Smith changed the names Zeptah and Egyptes when he published the Book of Abraham in 1842. The change from Egyptes to Egyptus might easily be explained as the modern scribe(s) for the Book of Abraham originally mishearing the name and being corrected later.13 The change from Zeptah to Egyptus is harder to explain. It could have been the result of scribe Willard Richards incorrectly copying the name shortly before the Book of Abraham was published.14 Another possibility is that the Prophet or one of his scribes who read through the text of the Book of Abraham beforehand substituted a more familiar name for the less familiar one to make it more consistent with other names in the text.15
But why might a woman have a masculine name like Zeptah? There are attested examples of the feminine -t ending dropping from names that include sꜣt (“daughter”),16 and it could be that the same thing happened in the name Zeptah. Another possibility is that the name was confused by ancient scribes copying the text after Abraham’s lifetime. This seems to have happened before to other ancient Egyptian figures; including, potentially, a male Egyptian king named Netjerkare Siptah who lived before Abraham’s lifetime and who appears to have been mistaken as a beautiful woman for almost two thousand years because of ancient scribal mistakes.17 Perhaps a similar problem happened when the Book of Abraham was copied over the centuries.
Alternatively, Egyptologist Vivienne G. Callender argues that Netjerkare Siptah was in fact a woman ruler named Neitikrety Siptah, despite the masculine form of Siptah in her name.
Perhaps the presence of the phrase, ‘Son of Ptah’, . . . may have been a specific tribute to the Memphite god, who was particularly prominent at this time. The masculinity of this name . . . is not a problem for a feminine ruler, because the masculine filiation, sꜣ Rꜥ [son of Re], was later used by other female rulers, such as Sobekneferu, who fluctuated between using male and female nomenclature. Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut and Tausret all used various forms of masculine display or titulary when they were rulers, so, if she had been a female ruler, perhaps Neit-ikrety may have done the same, and the title, sꜣ Ptḥ, may have been used to indicate that her monarchy was different from that of the other rulers who used sꜣ Rꜥ in the Old Kingdom.18
If this argument is correct, then we would have an attested ancient Egyptian female personality using precisely the same masculine name as in the Book of Abraham. This is mentioned not to positively identify the Book of Abraham’s Zeptah with any of these other ancient figures, but rather to note the attestation of the name itself and the phenomenon of women potentially bearing masculine names or titles. So while we may not be able to currently answer these questions entirely, what can be said is that the name Zeptah in the Book of Abraham is, arguably, authentically Egyptian.
Nibley, Hugh. “A Pioneering Mother.” In Abraham in Egypt, edited by Gary P. Gillum, 466–556. 2nd ed. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 14. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies at Brigham Young University, 2000.