Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Eternity sketch'd" on the Abraham Facsimiles and on the Book of Breathings Vignettes


What is a facsimile of the Book of Abraham? And what is a vignette from the Book of the Dead or Book of Breathings? Why facsimile? Why vignette? Why not just picture or illustration? Facsimile 1, Facsimile 2, Facsimile 3: these designations become larger-than-life to the minds of the Latter-day Saints. We need to capture them better, dress them up a bit in the flowing tendrils of a vignette.

We talk of faxes, but facsimile is a near archaism. A facsimile is simply the attempt to make a true copy ("make similar!" "make a (similar or exact) copy!" fac similis) of a book, picture, letter. In the case of the Abraham-and-Book-of-Breathing vignettes, the Prophet had Reuben Hedlock make copies or "cuts" in wood blocks for purposes of printing, and the Prophet's History calls these copies of the vignettes both "facsimiles" and "cuts." Vignette never once occurred to him, and, sensu stricto, these drawings would not have been labeled vignettes in nineteenth-century American usage. So, for Abraham, we're stuck with facsimiles. That's all for the best: we can then distinguish between the facsimiles of the Book of Abraham and the vignettes from the Book of Breathings: the same little sketches but purposed differently over time.

That is to say, the vignettes may have been repurposed, relabeled, or resignified to blend two lives or two stories into one. "In this case, in relation to this subject," as the Prophet says in his Explanation of Facsimile 1, the facsimiles point to Abraham in Egypt. Logic, then, requires us to conclude that "in another case, in relation to another subject," the vignettes can also point to Hor, the owner of the Book of Breathings and the Theban priest of Min-who-massacres-his-enemies. Because the significance of an Egyptian vignette may relationally vary from case-to-case, or even according to point of view--it is Osiris! it is Abraham in the likeness of Osiris! it is Hor in the likeness of Abraham, who is in the likeness of Osiris--it requires a seer to look through the later layers of the representational onion in order to perceive the essence of the thing. Abraham, Osiris, and Hor appear "knit together as one man," knit in hope's precedent, as an earnest of the resurrection. They come to us in the eternal round of "concatenation" (see Joshua 20:11; "Concatenation," Leonardo da Vinci).

That's how Hugh Nibley, writing in 1968, understood matters. By stating so lucidly and so logically the idea of relational signification, the Prophet Joseph is telling us that the vignettes are anything but pictures as we know pictures; rather, the vignettes are signifiers: they signify just what a particular priestly scribe designs (or programs) them to signify, and for whatsoever audience he intends them so to signify (Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham, "Facsimile 1 Is Not a Picture," 174-6).

So let's not say the Prophet took the facsimiles for mere pictures of Abraham, or that they together make up "a pictorial representation of events in the life of the prophet, Abraham," as flatly stated on the Joseph Smith Papers Web site. Such a simplistic idea circumscribes our ability to see the representational and semiotic field described by the Egyptians. "The whole thing," says Nibley, "is culturally conditioned. Abraham is trying to explain the figures to non-Egyptians, and he tells them that they cannot be understood unless they are viewed through trained Egyptian eyes" (Ibid. 174-75).

So much for the notion of iconotropy--"image turning"--bruited about today, the notion that the Facsimiles, by way of cultural reinterpretation, speak to Hebrew rather than to Egyptian ideas. To the contrary, the Prophet's explanation of the three facsimiles matches Egyptian cultural notions with specificity. Where such ideas also happen to match the Hebrew understanding, as they often do, both Abraham and Joseph Smith point out the correspondence. The two cultures do not diverge so widely as to necessitate "image turning" anyhow. The Egyptian facsimiles must nevertheless convey many things best understood in Egyptian terms, otherwise what would the point be? why would Abraham trouble with these Rahleenos, as he calls them, at all? (See William J. Hamblin, "Iconotropy and the JS Abraham Facsimiles," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture).

And vignette? The word means little vine and refers to the tendrils that grace the margins of books. Bookmakers also apply the word to any little drawing illustrating or illuminating (in the Medieval sense) the beginning or end of book or chapter--a little window into the matter to sum things up. I see in Leonardo da Vinci's interlaced and multi-tiered vignette or "Concatenation" a marvelous summing-up of his picture of the universe--his own Facsimile 2, so to speak: a mazed, knotted sun with four distinct rays. The "Concatenation"--much like the hypocephalus--becomes a sort of encyclopedia written in knots rather than letters. A vignette can also be a little story, and indeed Egyptian vignettes, more than mere window-dressing, always tell us a little ritual story.


Even Egyptologists use these Egyptian vignettes as, well, vignettes. And throughout the world such like vignettes decorate book covers, conference stationary, postcards, hotel facades, and the like.

Witness the following vignette borrowed from a vignette (a story within a story): Publishers chose a vignette from Ani's famous Book of the Dead to grace and to illuminate the front jacket cover of Professor Jan Assmann's masterpiece, Tod und Jenseits im Alten Aegypten (Death and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt). The choice of vigette is apt: a mummy appears to be about to arise from the dead: Death and Afterlife, and Hope.

In my turn, I choose this same little vine to sketch an understanding of the Abraham facsimiles, or vignettes from the Book of Breathings. The little picture works well for Professor Assmann's masterpiece; will it work at all for Abraham's book? (Note: we only need to see if it will work at all--I only mean to stir curiosity, no one's trying to make an open-and-shut case for Abraham in Egypt by jacket cover--by vignette.)

The multi-use vignette shows the deceased on the lion couch and surrounded, head and foot, by two "Olympic" torches on stands. Over the mummy hovers a falcon with outstretched wings and a bearded human head. Held in its talons is a ring tied to a horizontal bar; the symbol, painted green, thus also hovers over the deceased.

The vignette nicely illustrates Professor Assmann's book on the afterlife: here is Osiris, whose experience expresses the hope of every Egyptian; it does just as well at recalling or reflecting something of Abraham, as represented on the first two facsimiles of his book.

The (fac-)similarities between the Ani vignette and Facsimile 1, the lion couch scene, complete with hawk, are obvious (though it is the differences that afford the specific and the peculiar). But how about Facsimile 2, the hypocephalus, the round pillow, which keeps the head warm? Joseph Smith places the hypocephalus immediately after the lion-couch scene. Why would he do that? Do they belong at all together? The Ani vignette hints at Facsimile 2 in at least six ways: 1) the blazing torches (Hugh Nibley and Michael Rhodes, One Eternal Round, 208-9: apotrapaic, sacrificial, and serving to keep the head warm); 2) the lion's mane as pillow cushion (the lion signifies renewal); 3) the outstretched wings (protection and unification: the round hypocephalus both protects and affords union with the solar disk); 4) the large open eyes of both human-headed hawk and the awakening mummy himself (hypocephalus as solar Eye, as also representation of the visions of Eternity, and the coming of the hawk to the deceased as shining Eye, One Eternal Round, 208-9); 5) the green back and wings of the hawk and of the shen-ring it holds (the green gem par excellence is the life-granting hypocephalus, One Eternal Round, Chapter 10, "Jewel of Discernment"); and 6) the shen-ring (the Eternal Round and the round hypocephalus, and the Abrahamic solar name Shinehah: One Eternal Round, 333-34). The shen-ring (the verb sheni describes the solar course) is the signature of the sun itself; in this case, on this vignette, the sun makes manifest as the ba-bird descending in glory into the lower worlds.

What the angel brings Ani, in circular form, recalls the protection and promise of the hypocephalus, the deliverance from death unto life eternal. Angel? Isn't this just a representation of the descending sun as the ba of Osiris (drawn with Ani's own face) uniting with his own Osirian mummy (the same face)? But what about the shen-ring? When a soul, artistically represented with wings, descends from the heavens with the sign of protection and the promise of deliverance (from the flames) and of eternal life, what do we call that soul? (Remember, the winged-soul is bathed in flaming glory here, its head just on a par with, and embraced within, the high-flaming torches.) Answer: The angel of the Lord (see Explanation of Facsimile 1).

Question: Does the Rhodes and Nibley interpretation of Facsimiles 1 and 2 partake of wild, freewheeling, and fantastic views having nothing whatsoever to do with what captivates Egyptologists today? Again, why does the Prophet place the hypocephalus immediately after the lion couch scene? My little comparison of motifs found sketched on vignettes is not a matter of "all or nothing" but of at all? and nothing whatsoever? That was Nibley's approach--the second look.

So let's look again! Here's an seventh hint from the Book of the Dead vignette: both the beard of Osiris Ani and the bushy, lotus-flower lion's tail curl lavishly toward the hawk (as do the torch flames)--almost touching--as if arms to embrace it; even as the highest pinion of the hawk's outstretched left wing brushes against the mummy. I see in this representation something made like (fac-simile) the curving-shape of the Lotus Lion Ram cryptogram found on Facsimile 2 (and even more closely resembling the same cryptogram as depicted on pSalt 825), as also the tendril-like phi spiral that stamps our facsimile with life (One Eternal Round, Chapter 15). Tendrils? What else should appear on a gracefully drawn vign-ette?

Embraces? Here's a hint at Facsimile 3 as well, in which each of the five figures beckons to, touches, or embraces the other in one eternal hug. They all wish to be brought into the picture--our picture. Osiris and Abraham were partakers of royal honors and glory: the priest Hor, as joint-heir, wishes to join in. Take another look.

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