The Egyptian Papyri

By August 31, 2011

So I decided to read Robert Ritner’s “The Breathing of Hor among the Joseph Smith Papyri,” [1] for reasons I’ll discuss below. Wow. Where do I begin? As I’ve mentioned several times, I’m working on late Neoplatonic influence on early Mormonism and the primary innovations that the late Neoplatonists made to Neoplatonism was theurgy. To learn theurgy, Iamblichus spent considerable time studying in Egypt; Egyptians ritual played a significant role in Imablichus’s ritual theology. In fact, Iamblichus wrote his De Mysteriis (the principal exposition on theurgy) as “Master Abamon,” an Egyptian priest.[2]

So I was particularly intrigued when I came across Algis Uzadavinys’s Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity, which argues that the theology behind theurgy was fundamentally based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead.[3] Uzdavinys argues in a nutshell that Egyptian theology was one of pre-mortal souls coming to earth, overcoming sin and then ascending back to the gods after death, to become gods themselves. Uzdavinys argues that Plato took these concepts and “philosophized” them, replacing the Egyptian gods with terms like “the good” and “the forms.”[4] Iamblichus, argues Uzandavinys, after extensive study in Egypt, brought the gods back to Platonism with theurgy. So if Uzandavinys and I are correct, (why not?) then when Smith acquired the Breathings of Hor, he acquired a sort of Ur text behind the whole operation.

Reading the Breathings of Hor thus was quite an experience. It’s description of the departed soul undergoing ritual purification and then progressing back to the gods and becoming deified himself sounded quite familiar both in terms of Mormon and Neoplatonic theology. Here’s paragraph 5: “You shall not be turned away from the doors of the Underworld. Thoth, the Thrice Greatest, Lord of Hermopolis, has come to you. He has written for you a Breathing Document with his own fingers, so that your ba-spirit may breathe forever, and that you might regain the form that you had on earth among the living, since you are divine together with the ba-spirits of the gods. Your heart is the heart of Re; your flesh is the flesh of the great god.” [5].

Most interesting is how Ritner interprets facsimile 3. Instead of Abraham lecturing on astronomy, it’s actually the initiate entering the presence of Osiris sitting on his throne. “Having attained justification,” explains Ritner “the deified Hor is brought by Maat and Anubis before the altar of the enthroned Osiris, behind whom stands Isis.”[6] Cool, totally looks like the temple, go take a look. That is, after undergoing ritual purification and various stages of progression, Hor is led into the presence of Osiris. They’re even wearing ritual-looking aprons. In sum, Ritner declares, “The text is a formal document or ‘permit’ created by Isis and copied by Thoth to assure that the deified Hor regains the ability to breathe and function after death, with full mobility, access to offerings, and all other privileges of the immortal gods. The implications, basic symbolism, and intent of the text are certain.” [7] Ironically, Ritner’s translation looks considerably more “Mormon” than does Joseph Smith’s “translation.”

It’s curious that it took Joseph Smith so long to translate the Book of Abraham (1835-1842) particularly in comparison to how fast he translated the Book of Mormon and the Bible. But what is interesting is the degree to which Smith’s theology aligned with this “Book of the Dead” and late Neoplatonic philosophy in the interim: pre-existence, material God, deification, and ritual enactment of the whole process. The text demands, “Hide it! Hide it! Do not let anyone read it!” The fact that Smith was rather secretive about his own mystery rite… perhaps Smith learned more from the Breathings of Hor than is contained in what he published as the Book of Abraham.[8]

Indeed, this all reminds me of how Sam Brown describes Smith’s translations in his upcoming book. Smith was “translating” all the time, seeing with spiritual eyes what was really supposed to be. Exact, literal translations of ancient texts may not have been the point us such “translation.”[9]

[1] Robert K. Ritner, “The Breathing of Hor among the Joseph Smith Papyri,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 52, no. 3 (2003): 161-180. Ritner is quite critical of Joseph Smith, Hugh Nibley, and John Gee in this article. Apparently there’s been quite a nasty debate over these issues. I confess I’ve read none of it. Indeed I’ve only read one small article by Nibley, his response to Lester Bush–I’ve read nothing by Nibley on these topics.

[2] The actual title of the text is “the Reply of Master Abamon to the the Letter of Prophyry to Anebo, and the Solutions to the Questions it Contains.” Ficino, the text’s Latin translator entitled it De Mysteriis, On the Mysteries.

[3] Algis Uzandavinys, Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity (San Rafel, Calif.: Sophia Perennis, 2010). Sophia Perennis isn’t exactly a university press but the book’s foreword is by John Finnamore an important Neoplatonist scholar and the book is endorsed on the back by John Dillon, probably the leading expert on Neoplatonism. Says Dillon, “In this most stimulating and wide-ranging work, Algis Uzandavinys, drawing on the resources of his enormous learning, leads Neoplatonic theurgy back to its roots in Ancient Egypt, thereby setting Platonic philosophy in a new and wider context. Students of Neoplatonism will find themselves much indebted to him for this, and all readers will find their outlook on life significantly changed.” Quite the endorsement. I haven’t finished the book yet but wanted to put this post up anyway. Perhaps more when I’m done.

[4] Christian Platonists long asserted that the “ancient wisdom” came to Plato from the Egyptians and to the Egyptians from Moses, Joseph, or Abraham.

[5] Ritner, 172.

[6] Ritner, 175.

[7] Ritner, 177.

[8] This is not to say that Smith did not interact with these elements from other sources in his environment. It looks to me like Smith put gathered these elements and arranged them in a particular fashion.

[9] This is not to say that the text of the Book of Abraham isn’t worthwhile. It’s full of interesting stuff. I’ll have some more posts on some interesting things about that text later.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Ritner: “Such interpretations are uninspired fantasies and are defended only with the forfeiture of scholarly judgment and credibility.”

    Speaking of forfeiture of scholarly judgment, Ritner gives us the best example in his own assertion of it!

    Comment by Blake — August 31, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

  2. Didn’t H. Nibley relate the papyrus to the temple and the endowment quite extensively in his book “Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri”?

    This might offer another interesting approach to this question.

    Comment by Mike — September 1, 2011 @ 2:54 am

  3. Yep, Nibley’s “Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri” is definitely required reading on this subject – Iamblichus is one of hundreds of sources he used. Get the second edition, with the expanded text and updated illustrations.

    I’d also recommend Nibley’s “One Eternal Round” as the best interpretation of Facsimile 2 thus far, with fascinating connections to the ascension literature and the journey of the soul.

    Comment by Jeremy Orbe-Smith — September 1, 2011 @ 9:33 am

  4. Actually the plates and papyri are even in time to print.

    Comment by WVS — September 1, 2011 @ 10:12 am

  5. Blake, yes this got very heated, apparently.

    Thanks Jeremy, that’s what I’ve heard. It would be interesting to compare Nibley’s and Uzandavinys’s interpretations. I sort of need to make Iamblichus my starting point and can’t really justify studying ancient Egyptian religion for the dissertation. But the Egyptian papyri sort of thrust that world into the world of Joseph Smith. My adviser who helps me on early Christianity is actually quite interested in Egyptian parallels (particularly in Neoplatonism) so I wonder is she would find this interesting.

    WVS, I don’t understand, could you clarify?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 1, 2011 @ 10:45 am

  6. I think we should also look at how these Egyptian and Neoplatonic sources were being used by George Oliver and other early 19th C. Masonic Christian writers. Antiquities of Free-Masonry, which was likely available to JS early on, is well steeped in these philosophies.

    Comment by RobF — September 1, 2011 @ 11:18 am

  7. Drudgery Divine has useful sources in footnotes. Heavily theoretical but enjoyable. JZS is a bit anti-Protestant but fun. Masonry is the most convenient mechanism for contact, but there are many others. Oliver has recently been overstated as antecedent for JSJ–oliver is useful but neither unique nor conclusive for genesis of JSJ’s thought.

    Thanks for the nod toward the translation project. I start it in the death culture book but expand it dramatically into the new project, which is proving to be great fun. I love the dense interconnections, almost always misread by later observers, among classical cultures.

    Comment by smb — September 1, 2011 @ 5:37 pm

  8. Thanks for the sources. Masonry is no doubt important. Look forward to more of your work, Sam.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 2, 2011 @ 10:14 am

  9. It seems to me that you get odd directions with “Egyptian” influences since a lot of what was considered Egyptian was much more Greek. (Think the hermetic corpus for example) That said the papyri were from around the 1st century so we’d expect them to be pretty syncretic. i.e. what a 6th century or earlier Egyptian thought of them is probably beside the point.

    It’s always interesting to me how some are willing to have Joseph reading in “nonstandard ways” various texts available in the 19th century but don’t allow 1st century figures the same ability to read peculiarly.

    All that said the influence of Egyptian religion and culture on Hellenistic thought is pretty interesting. Obviously there is some formal influence via some Greeks who partially trained in the Egyptian cult as I recall. I’m skeptical that the change in Greek mathematics and philosophy owes as much as some suggest. But that’s just a general distrust of that sort of meta-narrative rather than an informed historic position.

    By the same token others really play up the influence from India via Corinth. (Especially via Heraclitus) It seems to me that is an other example of historians of antiquity arguing from a fair paucity of data as well. Narrowing these things down is tricky.

    BTW – the Ritner – Gee tension goes back to when Gee was in grad school as I recall. (John was my roommate back in the 90’s but I honestly can’t recall the details although he told me about it)

    Comment by Clark — September 2, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

  10. Yes, I saw that Ritner was very critical of Nibley’s translation, but I haven’t read Nibley so I don’t know what he said. The syncretism of that era was very interesting: blending Greek, Egyptian, and Jewish ideas seemed to produce some Mormon-looking things. The Egyptian stuff is very interesting. Like I said, my adviser on early Christianity really pushes the idea, so there will probably be some of that in my dissertation.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 2, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

  11. Thanks for writing on this subject. The Hor Book of Breathings is interesting enough, from an LDS point of view, on it’s own and independent of the Book of Abraham. When Nibley called it an “Ancient Egyptian Endowment”, he wasn’t kidding. All of which is very interesting given the Book of Abraham’s description of Egyptian priesthood.

    Comment by Pedro A. Olavarria — September 2, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

  12. Thanks to Blake for getting the obligatory Ritner-bashing out of the way up front so the rest of us could focus on Steve’s interesting post. 😉

    You make some interesting observations, Steve. I don’t know that the clothing in Facsimile 3 has any kind of actual religious significance, but it’s certainly conceivable that Joseph Smith may have interpreted them as sacred garments.

    In your dissertation research, I’d advise caution in making use of non-Egyptological works that draw parallels between ancient Egyptian cosmology and other systems of thought. There is, in the words of Klaus Baer, “a large penumbra of semi-scholarly types (and crackpots) that hang around the fringes of Egyptology.” The conclusions they draw aren’t always in harmony with the Egyptological mainstream, so they have to be utilized more as brainstorming resources than as authorities on ancient Egypt.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — September 3, 2011 @ 12:20 am

  13. There’s also an interesting response to your post here, posted by Robert F. Smith. With footnotes and everything.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — September 3, 2011 @ 12:06 pm

  14. Thanks Pedro, the comment about the Egyptian priesthood is interesting in this context.

    Thanks Chris. This post was my impressions of Ritner’s translation that I had not read before. That Imblichus was heavily influenced by Egyptian ritual isn’t particularly controversial; Iamblichus says it over and over and the major study on Iamblichus, Gregory Shaw takes it as legitimate. So listing the Book of the Dead as a theological source for Iamblichus doesn’t seem to much of a stretch.
    Imablichus then has a major influence on Proclus and Proclus has a major influence on Christian Platonism which has a important influence on JS, or so my dissertation will argue.

    Thanks for the link. Interesting responses.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 3, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

  15. […] this context in mind, let’s now think about the context of the Breathings of Hor and its parallels with Mormon theology and the Endowment ritual. Let me quote Algis Uzdavinys for […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » The Book of Abraham and the Ancient Wisdom — September 29, 2011 @ 5:56 pm


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