Why does the Prophet Joseph Smith leave us with such odd Egyptian names (as he insists) in the Explanation of Facsimile 2? They stand as a trace of the seeric journey: Brother Joseph has ventured into the world of Abraham--Abraham in Egypt--and these oddly transcribed names so signify. Were these names read? or glimpsed? or heard? There is that which is heard with spiritual ears, even as there is that which is seen by spiritual eyes (President Russell M. Nelson, "The Price of Priesthood Power," Conference Report, April 2016).
Hugh Nibley speaks of the interdependence of the purpose and the significance of the facsimiles in the Book of Abraham. The inspired explanations (or "translations)," the vignettes as a whole, the elements of iconography, the hieroglyphs, and even the names Hebrew and Egyptian, all signify something or other of import, and all have their own purpose, for all contribute to the Message of Scripture and to the discovery of worlds long lost to view.
What do the odd names add to Scripture? just a sense of mystery? Are they then intended merely to mystify? The purpose of these names rather is to signify, that is, to point to, the lost or forlorn worlds now open to Brother Joseph in his quest to restore Scripture to the world. Once open, once that key to the past has been turned by the one who holds all keys pertaining to the dispensation of the fulness of times, then we also may venture.
Joseph Smith's contemporaries saw the discovery of Egypt, Akkad, Sumer, the Hittites, the Shang dynasty, and more. Ancient codes cracked with lightening speed, their lost writings have now unfolded to view. Since Cumorah; Since Thebes; Since Abraham. The Prophet Joseph Smith turned the key of discovery; he unlocked the "treasures in the sand"--and these funny names and startling explanations so signify. It is their appearance as Trace; their role as Signifiers that most matters. The names trace the transcendent journey into the past--and into the worlds without number. Do we ever venture there? or even There?
Along with the great find of Scripture, the Seer has brought us some souvenirs from the past, and we are invited to make of them what we will or can. The names do not replace, they do not void, the on-going science of egyptology or of Semitics. No. To the contrary, they serve as remainders or reminders pointing us to a more diligent consideration of a past about to be revealed. "The due time of the Lord" is at hand: No wonder the Prophet invites all "to find out these numbers": these figures, these hieroglyphs, these messages (see Explanation to Facsimile 2). And today we not only have the past recovered, we have better instruments for the study of that past than Brother Joseph's contemporaries could have even guessed at. We don't need a Urim and Thummim to come to understanding of the wonderful multiplicity. Our Ancient History is one of "charm'd magic casements" opening on an inviting dreamscape--and there's nothing "forlorn" about it. It's as fresh as an undiscovered country can possibly be.
Will we still fuss over the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, a one week endeavor of Brother Joseph and his companions, when we could be cracking the ten volumes of the Egyptian Woerterbuch, one of the truest contributions to philology ever made? Or don't we care about treasures? The bizarre names pointing to peoples and ideas now recovered will stand as bright testimony against us, if we do not study that past, now so freely at our disposal, using whatever Heaven-kissed tools are available to us. Can we, then, go beyond what the Prophet gave us? Why not? The names not only show us where the Prophet Joseph has been; they point us toward where we are to go. Should we simply marvel over the oddity of the names, or should we rather take up the lexicon of Ancient Egypt or some of the histories and books and articles available today--and take up our own journey, our own quest, into the world of the ancient patriarchs and prophets?
It's a test of intellectual curiosity.
The choice is ours: we can mull over the oddness, over the bizarre; we can fuss about the piecemeal nothingness known about Egypt in Joseph Smith's day; we can walk to and fro talking of Horapollo; we can blow smoke (puffing in rhetorical curlicues) about how Brother Phelps's or Brother Cowdery's or Brother Joseph's ideas capture (or don't capture) the culture or fit (or don't fit) the "context" or intellectual setting of the age--or we can go to work and read a book or two germane to the topic. We can be startled and bemused and rhetorically profound, or we can study the past for ourselves. To learn the hieroglyphs? You must be kidding! Take up a book or even the Woerterbuch--it's not so difficult as you may think it to be--and it's even more fun than you can imagine. . . Only one of these choices is the intelligent choice--the other leads to repetitive blather. Talk of Athanasius Kircher is dead and without a future. Forget the 19th century setting--let's go to Egypt.
In that quest there must perforce be road marks, signposts--this all comes to us from far away--from very far away. . . We hear of Jershon, Onitah, Elkenah. Must or can we render back into Egyptian names or phrases like Oliblish or Kae-e-vanrash? Given the lack of hieroglyphs and the vagaries of perception and of transcription, how would we even start the task?
The name Kolob (qrb, "which is near" to the Throne of God; or "heart star") has long since been identified by Latter-day Saint students, but then we've had more familiarity with the Semitic languages. Whenever I hear the Swahili welcome, karibu! I draw nigh to Kolob. An ancient desert king of South Arabia bore the name Karib-ilu (Near unto God; Approaching God). And the latest studies of the figure we call Kolob have much to teach us about the both the cosmic and the patriarchal order, as understood by the Egyptians--and the Prophet's Explanation yet points the way. Be up-to-date! Egyptology does not leave Joseph Smith in the dust. And maybe it's enough to stick to the Semitic signposts in the facsimiles to hie to Kolob--though q3b is also an Egyptian word (m-q3b, in the center of, middle of, heart of).
But the Egyptian names? At best, we can show some parallels and some possibilities. For instance, Enish-go-on-dosh forcibly recalls several names of attested stellar and planetary bodies (Tosh-iat-hut-ins; Har-Tash-Tawy; Hor-ko-pi-ranef-siu-yaminty-jo-pi), and some preliminary yet etymologically and culturally sound explanations of this unusual name may be put forward based on these parallels. I see the name as referring to the Female Sun, the exalted (go) and beautiful (on) Red (dosh) Solar Eye (Enish, Dosh). And does not Brother Joseph connect Enish-go-on-dosh with both cow and sun? We may detect clues to unfold the true meaning of the names so prophetically proffered, clues that would broaden our picture of Abraham's world, but let's not lose sight of their semiotic purpose, just as they stand--and in all their ambiguity--which is to convey a trace of the past. They are thus meant to shock: Know all who enter here that you enter an unknown land. It is not only the land of Hor-dosh-dawy but also of Enish-go-on-dosh. Open your eyes and ears to learn--for here is the setting of Holy Scripture.
Brother Joseph makes it clear these names are Egyptian. That being so, it seems best to take the simplest approach possible, even when the names baffle any reader and no matter how deep the training in philology. Consider (through a glass, darkly) Oliblish, figure 2 on Facsimile 2. The purpose of the facsimile is to open to our view something of "the system of astronomy as understood by the ancients." Hugh Nibley, venturing, shows us that the figure, ram-faced and Janus-like, is crowned with the Shu feathers, Shu being a form of Amun-Re, and accordingly signifies atmospheric air and light, elements of creation and being (Hugh Nibley and Michael Rhodes, One Eternal Round, 286, 322).
Shu personifies the power of light moving, in its brilliance, through the atmosphere or expanse of space. And Amun, or Amun-Shu, is thus the entity known as the Ba of Shu, described in one hymn as the second in command (or the second manifestation of the divine), just as the Prophet Joseph has it. And note, too, the blurring of identity, or fluidity of representation, expressed in the word twt, both the second person singular pronoun and the word for image:
[Yo]u are Amun [twt n jmn: You are Amun and Image of Amun],
You are Shu [or Image of Shu],
you are the highest of gods,
you are 'Sacred of Manifestations' as the four winds of heaven,
so (you) are called, when they come forth from the mouth of his majesty.
The Ba of Shu, who bends the winds, who traverses heaven daily. . .
unto the limit of the heavenly circuit [rim of hypocephalus, etc.]
(Hymn to the Ba's of Amun, David Klotz, Five Hymns to Amun-Re from Hibis Temple, 59-60).
Things Egyptian get complicated in a hurry. Oliblish!? Need we even try to parse the odd name? We don't hear what Brother Joseph heard, after all. We can venture and all in fun. Oli, says Hugh Nibley in his Abraham in Egypt, answers nicely to Egyptian wr or wrj (great; cf. also '3j = great). Olimlah in Facsimile 3 may thus signify Wr(jw)-Jmn-R' (Great is Amun-Ra). Now we don't have the hieroglyphs for Olimlah, so we can't dogmatize--but what could be more straightforward and economical than Olimlah as Wr-jmn-r', Great is Amun-Ra?
So assured by Brother Nibley, we can continue by reading Oliblish as "Great is the Ba of Shu," or "Great are the ba's of Shu." Consider the consonants (for the vowels as written could stand for just about anything): /l/ or /r/; /b/ or /bl/ (the /l/ could represent the glottal stop, the aleph, and it perhaps represents the best Brother Joseph could do with that stop, which, after all, was, in the earliest stages of the language, a liquid /r/; /sh/. We expect Shu, and we can find Shu in the final consonant: no great shakes, yet a pleasant surprise nonetheless. Oli-great (is); b or bl/bli--the ba (or ba's) of sh-Shu. That seems clear enough: but what of the second /l/ in the bl or bli? Might the word be b3.w (ba's): "Great are the ba's of Shu?" The liquid semi-consonant, w, would explain the sequence bl (b3.w).
It is also altogether possible to see in -lish not three distinct Egyptian phonemes, but one, for the Egyptian grapheme we commonly associate with phoneme /sh/ (the shin) may well mask more than one phoneme; on the other hand, it may represent a phoneme quite different than we suppose. For instance, it may mask a lateral fricative, like the phoneme represented in Welsh by ll. Our -lish could be an ll. As far as that goes, the Hebrew grapheme shin apparently masks an additional phoneme, perhaps (also) the lateral fricative. Whether lateral fricative or not, a rough transliteration, made for the ear, not the eye, might not be readily identifiable. We'd have to work at it, puzzle things out. In short, lish could represent Egyptian shin, however that might have been pronounced.
I'm not convinced. Yet Oliblish as wrj-b3-Shw/wrj-b3.w-Shw = Oli-b-Shw = Oli-b-lish or Oli-bli-sh (Great is the Ba of Shu) makes for a phonologically sound reading.
One thing is sure: It would be misguided to expect these transcribed names and epithets in the Pearl of Great Price to much resemble the (quite artificial and various) methods of transcribing Ancient Egyptian in use today. These last have seen much refinement and diversity and can even vary from scholar to scholar, and strong debate over Egyptian phonology continues. We're all just guessing--for none of us has even heard a single spoken word, nary a word, of any of the various dialects known to exist throughout the millennial sweep of Ancient Egyptian history. And to be sure, the transcription of Egyptian names into Akkadian or other Semitic languages--or into Greek--but little reflects our standard transcriptions. The distance between the hieroglyphs and Coptic, the latest form of the Egyptian language, also often startles. In other words, there's little we can make of bli, if we insist on bli answering to the sounds we know in our own languages, or to the sounds we think we discern in the hieroglyphs.
Consider the Coptic word for grape, eloole: that's not what we see in the hieroglyphs. Or is it? We transcribe the hieroglyphs as j3rry.t. Try pronouncing that--then pronounce the Coptic word as directed in the grammars (glottal stops and all): elo'ole'. Next note how other systems of spelling (or dialects) in Coptic show at least divergent spellings, and perhaps also divergent pronunciations, though that last point is not so well established: j3rry.t (yararit, yalalit, or yarari, yalali?): eloole, aloli, alali, elale.
We know the etymology of Kolob to be sound in both Semitic and Egyptian. So wouldn't it be premature to dismiss Olimlah or Oliblish or Shagreel or Elkenah as outlandish? Imagine the laughter, if the Pearl of Great Price had given us Eloole or Aloli? (Aloli does something recall the much-mocked name element Oli-.) Imagine the ridicule on Web sites everywhere (sites ever replete with the "latest" quotations from the exploded Budge), if it had been Joseph Smith rather than Egyptian scribes who gave us this spectacular Saturn: Hor-ko-pi-ranef-siu-yaminty-jo-pi. Pardon my own odd "transcriptions," yet note well that scholars used hyphens in transcribing the names for all the heavenly bodies four decades after Joseph Smith published the Book of Abraham. Will we yet mock Enish-go-on-dosh after encountering among the Egyptian stars the name Tosh (or Dosh)-iati-imi-hawt-ins (Whose two eyes are red, who dwells in the House of Scarlet)? Dosh-iati-imi-hawt-ins, besides star, is also one of the four sons of Horus, the very sons who face Enish-go-on-dosh, or in other words, the Hathor Cow, or Female Sun (Rait), on the lower half of the hypocephalus--and thus just below (or in) the House of Scarlet, i.e., the Akhet or horizon.
As for that last question, the mockery never ends, for "fools mock"; but Isaiah also assures us that "kings shall shut their mouths. . . for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider" (Isaiah 52:15).
Some things are more clear than others. With Oliblish, we are left to puzzle things out--if we like puzzles. If "Great is the Ba of Shu" (or "Great are the Ba's of Shu") matches the iconography, the cosmology, the seeric Explanation, and even the consonantal traces suggested by the Prophet--we might be on the right track. Oliblish as Great is the Ba of Shu is the most economic reading imaginable. It shows simplicity--as any translation must. Is it sound philology? It is, though sound philology in the absence of the hieroglyphs remains a delicate matter. Consider Zaphnath paaneah, the (bizarre?) Egyptian name of Joseph, Abraham's great-grandson. The most common explanation of the name--a name transcribed into Hebrew from Egyptian--is indeed sound, and, at once, delicate, tentative. "Better" readings for that name are suggested all the time. Finally, and whether our reading for Oliblish is the correct one or not, the suggestion reminds us (and this is where it's good philology) that we mistake greatly by looking for cosmic mystery, that is, for a special Mormon cosmology. No. These funny names are but traces, road signs, pointers to names once known to the ancient priests and pharaohs. There is depth. And we can now study something of that depth in published books.
The Egyptians pondered the cosmos and conceived of many things, yet the naming, whatever Oliblish or the Ba of Shu may mean, or however deep conceptually the ba-doctrine, is a rather simple convention. That is to say, whether Oliblish signifies Great is the Ba of Shu, or something like that, there's no mystic idea associated with the reading--it's just Egyptian. Beyond phonology and its conventions, we have a trace of the past--and that's the primary purpose and significance of the names in the Explanation of Facsimile 2.