Female Egyptian Deities Isis and Maat in Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham: A Horrific Blunder by Joseph Smith?
In a recent post on my LDS blog, “Mormanity,” I suggested that the name Shulem given by Joseph Smith in his comments on Facsimile 3 might be more interesting than just a mere blunder. In response, one critic raised a fair question, though with a typical dismissive tone:
Wow. I look forward to your equally convoluted explanations of how “Isis, the great god’s mother” (what the characters above figure 2 actually mean) really means “King Pharaoh,” and how “Maat, mistress of the gods” (characters above figure 4) really means “Prince of Pharaoh.” This just goes to show how infinitely facile apologists can be with the facts.
While anything we say regarding any aspect of Mormonism will be dismissed as “infinitely facile” by some critics not interested in dialog, the question still merits a response. In spite of many evidences for the Book of Abraham as an ancient document, there are certainly some trouble spots, and the most problematic in my opinion are the names given in Facsimile 3. Figures 2 and 4 in that drawing are identified by Joseph as Pharaoh and the prince, respectively, but they are obviously female. What? Is he blind? Further, he dares to refer to the written text above the characters and states that these identities are “given,” “written,” or “represented” there. But now that scholars can read Egyptian, they can say that Joseph wasn’t even close. The characters above Figures 2 and 4 state that they are “Isis the great, the god’s mother” and “Maat, mistress of the gods,” and certainly not “King Pharaoh, whose name is given in the characters above his head” and “Prince of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, as written above the hand,” as Joseph said. As the critics say, here we have a simple test of his ability to read Egyptian, and it would have been easy here for God to simply prove to the world that His prophet could read Egyptian by inspiring him to write something like “The goddess Isis” and “The goddess Maat” for these figures. Instead, we have a “translation” that not only misreads the literal text, but even totally misses the obvious gender of the drawings. Any ordinary farm boy could have identified the correct gender, but not Joseph. Slam dunk, end of story, right?
If you’re looking for a reason to reject Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham, this is a great place to start. Yes, he failed to render the names Isis and Maat. He even got the genders wrong. Regarding the gender problem, Hugh Nibley has written that ritual dramas in which a man dressed as a female deity are known in Egyptian lore, but even if we accept that a gender-transforming lens can be applied in some kind of Egyptian role playing scenario, is there any reason to believe that Isis could somehow represent Pharaoh and Maat could represent the prince? Joseph gave us specifics that don’t make sense, at least not at a literal level.
Latter-day Saints recognize the possibility of error in the scriptures whenever mortals are involved (that covers the span from understanding what was revealed, remembering it, writing it down properly, preserving it properly, translating it properly, and printing it properly). We understand that Joseph and other prophets made mistakes, though we prefer them to be trivial ones, not big ones like getting something wrong that will be part of our scriptures, or at least printed with our scriptures. Is that the case here? Perhaps. But there may be something more interesting. Perhaps Joseph’s exercise was not about the literal representation of these figures, otherwise he surely would have said something about women rather than men. Perhaps he is seeking to understand what Facsimile 3 symbolized rather than its literal meaning.
Isis and Pharaoh: Are There Any Connections?
Could Isis be linked to Pharaoh? Wikipedia’s article on Isis provides our first clue:
The name Isis means “Throne”. Her headdress is a throne. As the personification of the throne, she was an important representation of the pharaoh’s power. The pharaoh was depicted as her child, who sat on the throne she provided.
Suddenly, the guffawing of critics seems a little less embarrassing for Joseph. The word “Isis” written above Figure 2’s head can, without delicate mental gymnastics, be rather directly linked to Pharaoh–rather precisely as stated by Joseph. Again, not literally–obviously not literally, because she is female, of course–but in a rather direct and simple metaphorical link. Isis = throne = symbol of Pharaoh. Not too tricky.
In the Turin Papyrus, Isis learns the secret name of Ra and gains power over him (see R.A. Ritner, “The Legend of Isis and the Name of Re: P. Turin 1993.”) This is a powerful goddess well suited to personify the Pharaoh and his power.
AncientEgyptOnline.co.uk offers this commentary on Isis:
Isis was a member of the Helioploitan Ennead, as the daughter of Geb (Earth) and Nut (Sky) and the sister and wife of Osiris and the sister of Set, Nephthys and (sometimes) Horus the Elder. However, because of her association with the throne Isis was sometimes considered to be the wife of Horus the Elder- the patron of the living Pharaoh. Ra and Horus were closely associated during early Egyptian history, while Isis was closely associated with Hathor (who was described as the mother or the wife of Horus or Ra) and so Isis could also be considered to be the wife of Ra or Horus.
However, when Ra and Atum (the Ennead of Helipolis) merged, Isis became both the daughter of Atum(-Ra) and the wife of (Atum-)Ra. This situation was clarified by crediting Isis as the granddaughter of Ra-Atum, the mother of Horus (the child) and the wife of Osiris.
Here is more about Isis and her complex roles, also from Wikipedia:
During the Old Kingdom period, Isis was represented as the wife or assistant to the deceased pharaoh. Thus she had a funerary association, her name appearing over eighty times in the pharaoh’s funeral texts (the Pyramid Texts). This association with the pharaoh’s wife is consistent with the role of Isis as the spouse of Horus, the god associated with the pharaoh as his protector, and then later as the deification of the pharaoh himself.
But in addition, Isis was also represented as the mother of the “four sons of Horus”, the four deities who protected the canopic jars containing the pharaoh’s internal organs. More specifically, Isis was viewed as the protector of the liver-jar-deity, Imsety. By the Middle Kingdom period, as the funeral texts began to be used by members of Egyptian society other than the royal family, the role of Isis as protector also grew, to include the protection of nobles and even commoners.
By the New Kingdom period, in many places, Isis was more prominent than her spouse. She was seen as the mother of the pharaoh, and was often depicted breastfeeding the pharaoh. It is theorized that this displacement happened through the merging of cults from the various cult centers as Egyptian religion became more standardized. When the cult of Ra rose to prominence, with its cult center at Heliopolis, Ra was identified with the similar deity, Horus. But Hathor had been paired with Ra in some regions, as the mother of the god. Since Isis was paired with Horus, and Horus was identified with Ra, Isis began to be merged with Hathor as Isis-Hathor. By merging with Hathor, Isis became the mother of Horus, as well as his wife. Eventually the mother role displaced the role of spouse. Thus, the role of spouse to Isis was open and in the Heliopolis pantheon, Isis became the wife of Osiris and the mother of Horus/Ra. This reconciliation of themes led to the evolution of the myth of Isis and Osiris.
Her role was complex and shifted over time, but her association with the throne and the Pharaoh, either directly or through her connection to Horus, again points to a plausible symbolic meaning that an Egyptian/Semitic editor could see between the female Isis and Pharaoh. Could it be that Joseph recognized the symbolism here and saw that the deeper meaning of Pharaoh was symbolically given in the characters that mention “She of the Throne,” Isis? I think that possibility needs to be considered.
Maat and the Prince of Pharaoh
If a female deity can represent Pharaoh, can another represent a prince? Does Maat have associations that could make sense of Joseph’s statement? To me, this is not as clearcut and remains a fair question. Here is what Wikipedia says about Maat:
Maat or ma’at … was the ancient Egyptian concept of truth, balance, order, law, morality, and justice. Maat was also personified as a goddess regulating the stars, seasons, and the actions of both mortals and the deities, who set the order of the universe from chaos at the moment of creation. Her (ideological) counterpart was Isfet.
The earliest surviving records indicating Maat is the norm for nature and society, in this world and the next, were recorded during the Old Kingdom, the earliest substantial surviving examples being found in the Pyramid Texts of Unas (ca. 2375 BCE and 2345 BCE).
Later, as a goddess in other traditions of the Egyptian pantheon, where most goddesses were paired with a male aspect, her masculine counterpart was Thoth and their attributes are the same. After the rise of Ra they were depicted together in the Solar Barque.
After her role in creation and continuously preventing the universe from returning to chaos, her primary role in Egyptian mythology dealt with the weighing of souls that took place in the underworld, Duat. Her feather was the measure that determined whether the souls (considered to reside in the heart) of the departed would reach the paradise of afterlife successfully.
Pharaohs are often depicted with the emblems of Maat to emphasise their role in upholding the laws of the Creator….
The sun-god Ra came from the primaeval mound of creation only after he set his daughter Maat in place of Isfet (chaos). Kings inherited the duty to ensure Maat remained in place and they with Ra are said to “live on Maat”, with Akhenaten (r. 1372-1355 BCE) in particular emphasising the concept to a degree that, John D. Ray asserts, the kings contemporaries viewed as intolerance and fanaticism. Some kings incorporated Maat into their names, being referred to as Lords of Maat, or Meri-Maat (Beloved of Maat). When beliefs about Thoth arose in the Egyptian pantheon and started to consume the earlier beliefs at Hermopolis about the Ogdoad, it was said that she was the mother of the Ogdoad and Thoth the father.
Perhaps I’m grasping at straws here, but I find it interesting that Maat is the daughter of the great sun-god Ra and that some kings incorporated Maat into their names. And not just kings: there was also an Egyptian prince, Nefermaat, whose name was based on Maat’s.
What I find more interesting is her role in renewal and preserving cosmic order, a topic that brings us to the issue of coronation of new kings (the former prince). On this issue, Ernst Wurthwein in “Egyptian Wisdom and the Old Testament” in Essential Papers on Israel and the Ancient Near East, ed. Frederick E. Greenspahn (New York: New York University, 1991), p. 134, cites H. Brunner, Handbuch der Oreintalistik I, 2 (1952), pp. 96ff:
As a goddess, Maat belonged to the Heliopolitan religious system, where she appeared as the daughter of the sun-god. She came down to men in the beginning as the proper order of all things. Through the evil assaults of Seth and his comrades, this order was upset, but restored through the victory of Horus. As the embodiment of Horus, each new king renews this right order through his coronation: a new state of Maat, i.e., of peace and righteousness, dawns. [emphasis added]
Maat’s role in coronation to renew the authority of the kingdom naturally points to the man who will serve as successor to Pharaoh, the prince. It is also interesting that the name of Maat was often used in special coronation names given to new kings at their coronation. One reference on this point is Emily Teeter, “Egypt,” in The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Mediterranean Religions, ed. by Barbette Stanley Spaeth (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 24-25:
One of the king’s main obligations to the god was to rule the land in accordance with maat, the interconnected concept of cosmic balance and truth that was personified by the goddess Maat. The commitment to maat is illustrated by offering scenes where the king presents a figure of the goddess Maat to the deities as a visible affirmation of his just rule and the acknowledgement that he will uphold the tenets inherent in maat. In the New Kingdom, the king’s coronation name was often compounded with Maat, another indication of the association of the king and principle of truth. Some New Kingdom kings are shown presenting a rebus of their name captioned “presenting Maat,” suggesting that the king himself was imbued with or personified, Truth.
David Leeming, The Oxford Companion to World Mythology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), offers this information about Maat (p. 243):
Maat in Egyptian mythology, the goddess Maat (Ua Zit), the wife of Thoth, a god associated with wisdom, and daughter or aspect of the high god Atum, is at once a goddess and an idea, the personification of moral and cosmic order, truth, and justice . . . that was as basic to life as breath itself, which in the Coffin Texts Maat also seems to personify. Pharaohs held small models of Maat to signify their association with her attributes. Maat gives breath itself–life–to the kings, and so is depicted holding the symbol of life, the ankh, to their noses. Maat represents the proper relationship between the cosmic and the earthly, the divine and the human, the earth, the heavens, and the underworld. It is she who personifies the meaningful order of life as opposed to the entropic chaos into which it might easily fall. It some stories it is the sun god Re who displaces Chaos with Maat. . . .
Maat was essentially in all Egyptian gods and goddesses as the principle of divinity itself. The goddess Isis acknowledges the qualities of Maat, as signified by the maat (ostrich feather) she wears behind the crowns of upper and lower Egypt.
Maat might be seen as a principle analogous to the Logos, divine reason and order. As Christians are told “In the beginning was the Word [Logos] already was” (John 1:1). Atum announces that before creation, “when the heavens were asleep, my daughter Maat lived within me and around me.”
If Maat is the daughter of the great god and is a parallel to the Christian Logos and the son of God, then could this child could be considered a princess and thus again a symbol of a prince?
Wikipedia, as quoted above, indicates that Maat is paired with Thoth, having the same attributes. Regarding Thoth, Claas Jouco Bleeker in Hathor and Thoth: Two Key Figures of the Ancient Egyptian Religion (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1973), p. 119, writes:
There was a close connection between Thoth and Re. In the previous section we became acquainted with him as son of Re. The sun-god placed so much confidence in the capacities of Thoth that he appointed him his deputy, his vizier. The pertinent text relates how Re sent for Thoth and gave him a place of honour next himself. Thereupon Re spoke: “Thou shalt be writer in the nether-world…. Thous shalt take my place as deputy, thou shalt be called Thoth substitute of Re.”
Another text adds that he was even appointed successor to Re. Thoth fulfilled his task so well that he was given the epithet “the one with whose word Atum (the primeval god at Heliopolis who later acquired solar significance) is content.”
In his office Thoth performs invaluable services for the sun-god. He is “the perfect secretary.” is said that his pen protects Re. Just what this expression implies is made clear in a hymn to Re which runs: “Daily Thoth writes Ma-a-t for thee.” [emphasis added]
Thoth, the escort of Maat, may be a symbol of a successor to the throne, again pointing to the role of a prince at a symbolic level.
Regarding Thoth, Maat’s husband, Leeming writes (p. 381):
Thoth was the moon god as well as the god of wisdom in Egypt. . . . In Hermopolis he might sometimes have been seen as a creator god. For some, Thoth was the son of Re, Re in this case being the sun, the right eye of Horus, whose moon eye had been ripped out by Seth. His consort was Maat. . . .
Maat, Thoth, son/daughter of the great god, and successor: if Isis can be a symbol for Pharaoh, could these associations allow an Semitic editor to also use Maat as a symbol for a prince? This doesn’t answer all the questions or objections to the identities offered by Joseph Smith on Facs. 3, but may suggest that there is “something interesting going on” besides random guessing coupled with gross inability to recognize a female in a drawing.
I could be way off , of course. I know little about Egyptology and have just relied on easily found sources here that may be inadequate in many ways. It’s still possible to accept that some egregious errors were made, but the theory that Joseph’s comments are based on symbolic meanings would be fairly consistent with some of the more interesting hits in the Book of Abraham, and consistent with the principle of God not removing the need for faith in accepting scripture. God could have provided manuscripts and literal interpretations capable of gaining peer-reviewed acceptance from the scholarly community with no need for faith. But that’s not how He does things. Faith will always be required.