Iconotropy and the JS Abraham Facsimiles

This blog post was originally posted here.

Iconotropy is an English neologism from Greek, meaning literally “image turning.”  It is defined as “the accidental or deliberate misinterpretation by one culture of the images or myths of another one, especially so as to bring them into accord with those of the first culture.”   Iconotropy is, in fact, the most common ways cultures deal with images from foreign or ancient cultures.  That is to say, we almost always misunderstand and/or transform, at least to some degree, the iconography of other cultures or religions.  The further distanced we are from another culture in time, religion, ideology, or space, the more likely we are to misunderstand their iconography.

There are numerous examples of iconotropy in human history.  The most well-known is the Nazi swastika, which originally was an Indo-European good-luck symbol, possibly representing the sun, and can be found in most cultures throughout the world.  The Nazis iconotropically adopted this symbol for their Nazi ideology, and it is thus understood by most Westerners today.   But among Buddhists, the swastika is an auspicious religious symbol, often associated with images or temples of the Buddha (Below: Buddha with swastika on its chest.)


Another example is the Crux Ansata (“cross with a handle”), or Ankh.  In ancient Egypt, the ankh (☥ ʾnḫ) symbol represented life, and is ubiquitous in Egyptian iconography.  (Below: A god gives the pharaoh ankh/life.)


As the country was Christianized, however, the ankh/life symbol became linked to the life-giving death of Christ on the cross, and became formally reinterpreted by Christians as a symbol of the Christian cross and eternal life.  (Below: Coptic fabric with Christian ankh/cross.)


Which leads to a question: which is the Egyptian meaning of the ankh?  They are, in fact, both equally Egyptian, even though the crux ansata is an iconotropic reinterpretation of the ancient Egyptian ankh.

An interesting literary example of iconotropy can be found in Robert Graves’ novel King Jesus, where Jesus and a Canaanite priestess undergo a type of a contest offering opposing interpretations of a sequence of ritual panels (ch. 19, p. 249-259).

When examining the Book of Abraham facsimiles, we need to realize that all scholars, both Mormon and non-Mormon, agree that Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the facsimiles are iconotropic–that is to say they are reinterpretations of ancient Egyptian symbols transformed into a new cultural-religious context.  The point where the critics and believers disagree is the cultural context in which the iconotropy occurs.  Is it an ancient, Abrahamic/Jewish iconotropic reinterpretation of Egyptian symbolism?  Or is it purely early nineteenth century American iconotropy invented by Joseph Smith?

In this regard, it is important to remember that the ancient Egyptians themselves, engaged in iconotropic reinterpretations of their own symbols in different Egyptian denominations and times.  As Jan Assman notes, “the temple reliefs of the Late period [Egypt, after c. 700 BCE] reflect a full-fledged tradition of ritual exegesis, a culture of interpretation … applied not to texts–as in the more-or-less contemporaneous Alexandrian and Jewish institutions of interpretation–but to pictures.  However, this culture of interpretation [of Egyptian iconography] is anything but a symptom of Hellenistic influence; on the contrary, it is deeply rooted in Egyptian cult.” (Jan Assmann, “Semiosis and Interpretation in Ancient Egyptian Ritual” in Interpretation in Religion, ed. Shlomo Biderman and Ben-Ami Scharfstein (Brill, 1992), p. 92.)

In other words, by the Late Period at the latest, the Egyptians had developed religious methods of reinterpreting their own ancient iconographic symbols and images (which were by this time already 2000 years old).  Different movements and sects within Egypt produced differing interpretations of the same images.  This phenomenon broadly parallels similar and roughly contemporaneous developments of different movements of textual exegesis and interpretation among both Egyptians, Alexandrian Greeks, and Jews within Egypt itself.  The question for scholars of the Book of Abraham is: does Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the iconography of the papyri represent nineteenth century iconotropy, or a revelation to Joseph of ancient iconotropy?

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About William J. Hamblin

William J. Hamblin is Professor of History at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah, USA),
 specializing in the ancient and medieval Near East. He is the author of dozens of academic
 articles and several books, most recently, Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History, with David 
Seely (Thames and Hudson, 2007). In the fall of 2010 his first novel was published (co-
authored with Neil Newell): The Book of Malchus, (Deseret Book, 2010). A fanatical traveler and photographer, he spent 2010 teaching at the BYU Jerusalem Center, and has lived in
 Israel, England, Egypt and Italy, and traveled to dozens of other countries.

5 thoughts on “Iconotropy and the JS Abraham Facsimiles

  1. I do not really think we need to make an argument they are translated correctly. The fact is they were given before the writings of the Book of Abraham. I think of the fact that Joseph Smith had a seer stone and other different items to prepare him to translate the BOM. This was another tool in the process of preparing Joseph Smith Jr. to receive revelations on the Book of Abraham. If God really wanted to he could just give him revelations verbatim, similar to the D&C. As a mortal man it takes some preparation to unfold great restorations of scripture. This was the case with the Book of Abraham.

    • We needn’t equivocate. One of the reasons why some apostates spend so much time gathering evidence that Joseph used 19th century material to make his correct facsimile identifications is because those identifications are quite correct. The point Bill is making is that the facsimiles contain artistic and iconotropic material which (as with all Egyptian art and iconography) can be “read” all by themselves, or are to be “read” right along with the accompanying Egyptian words (so R. H. Wilkinson and K. Baer). As James Allen says, “the Egyptians did not distinguish hieroglyphic writing from other representations of reality, such as statues or scenes in relief,” i.e., paintings, vignettes, and inscriptions depicting the gods “are nothing more than large-scale ideograms.”
      When we say that Joseph Smith “translated” of the Book of Abraham, we must take it in this full sense of the word.

  2. In answer to your final question, one can take stock of Joseph’s correct iconotropic interpretations of some of the pictures and find that he could not have known from the illustration itself or from contemporary knowledge of ancient Egypt those correct identifications. That Robert Ritner doesn’t understand this elementary fact is obvious from his recent book on The Joseph Smith Papyri (2011), 216-217. I have discussed this at length elsewhere, but a couple of striking examples are worth mentioning:

    A. Fac 2:1, this type of figure Budge identifies as Khnum, “the builder of men, maker of gods, and the father from the beginning,” the “maker of that which is, creator of what shall be, the beginning of beings, father of fathers, and mother of mothers,” shown as if a human with one or more rams’ heads, wearing a crown with rams’ horns, plumes, uraei, and disks (the triple diadem of the gods), and holding the ˁnḫ, wЗś, and dd scepters (supporting heaven on four such pillars of scepters). The name Ḫnmw / Khnum appeared in use by the 5th & 6th century B.C. Jewish military colony at Yeb (Elephantine) in Egypt as Ḥnb, and in Greek forms elsewhere: Xnoumis, Xnoubis, Xnoubi, Knoufis, Knef – which are all phonemically similar to Kolob (-l- can interchange with -r- or -n- in both Egyptian and Coptic)!

    B. Fac 2:4, Horus or Sokar in his boat. Horus means “Sky,” and he is the Sky-god par excellence. In some hypocephali the sky-boat rides on zig-zag lines, which Othmar Keel sees as a cosmic symbol of the primeval ocean which includes the sky-firmament (as in Fac 1:12). As noted by Nibley, sky-boats are mentioned in Coffin Text 162 (II, 403-404), where a “ship of 1000 cubits from end to end,” along with the wiЗ nḥḥ “boat of millions of years ” – in parallel with the ḥnw-boat of Sokar (Hebrew has no word for “million”). Rhodes cites a “ship of a thousand” used by Osiris, as described on the Sarcophagus of Princess Anchenneferibre. During the Festival of Sokar, his boat was drawn on a sledge in procession around his local sanctuaries, symbolic of the orbit of the sun.

    One could go on, but this is typical, and typically ignored by Egyptologists who are afraid to “read” the illustrations.

  3. In literature, this sort of thing is sometimes called reinscription. I have been working my way through a 2009 dissertation by Felisa Vergara Reynolds: _Literary Cannibalism: Almost The Same, But Not Quite/Almost The Same But Not White_ (Harvard University). I was kind of taken with the title, since I think the idea of literary cannibalism really provides an illustrative description of what is going on. Whatever text or image we are looking at, while obviously dependent on an earlier source or text, often has absolutely nothing to do with the way it was used in its original context. The source has become the “food” of the current context but isn’t its origin.

  4. I’m a little late to the party, but I am wondering if the incorporation of the papyrus vignettes into the book of Abraham gives any indication of whether the verses in 1:12b-14 are a later gloss. Could these words have been added by a later scribe (perhaps the one who composed the scroll) or Joseph Smith himself? The fact that a hypocephali has been incorporated into the book of Abraham as an illustration of the principles of astronomy seems to indicate that this is an innovation of the Prophet.

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