Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ancient Abecedaria, Acrostics and Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet

(The 6th Century BC Abecedarium from Attica, Greece, image credit::

(Ancient Greek Abecedarium on a Greek Vessel , Image credit:

As I stated, in the previous post, in searching for the ancient context for Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet, I serendipitously found Richard Flavin's article on ancient alphabets and their connections to Zodiacs and so forth, and decided to follow Flavin's lead on ancient Alphabets, and their occurrences in Abecedaria and Acrostics.  Wikipedia has this to say:

An abecedarium (or abecedary) is an inscription consisting of the letters of the alphabet, almost always listed in order. Typically, abecedaria (or abecedaries) are practice exercises.
Some abecedaria include obsolete letters which are not otherwise attested in inscriptions . . .
Some abecedaria found in the Athenian Agora appear to be deliberately incomplete, consisting of only the first three to six letters of the Greek alphabet, and these may have had a magical or ritual significance . . .
. . . The number of Christian objects bearing the Abecedaria, with the exception of two vases found at Carthage, is extremely limited. On the other hand, those of heathen origin are more plentiful, and include certain tablets used by stone-cutters' apprentices while learning their trade. Stones have also been found in the catacombs, bearing the symbols A, B, C, etc. These are arranged, sometimes, in combinations which have puzzled the sagacity of scholars. . . . (

Like ancient abecedaria, the vertical tables of characters in Hor's Sensen Papyrus are listed as if they are some kind of "alphabet" or table of characters (this is my current hypothesis), and Joseph Smith sensed this.  This is important for the fact that acrostics and similar letter constructions have the element in them of assignment of meanings or linkage of content to characters, where the usage of the characters that are dynamic, not static.  And by this I mean that rather than having a meaning of a character that you can look up in a dictionary, and it will be always the same, an acrostic has a meaning or content that is assigned or linked to a character because it is its current usage for a certain context.

Wikipedia goes on directly connect acrostics to abecedaria, saying that they are a form of abecedaria:

An acrostic is a poem or other form of writing in which the first letter, syllable or word of each line, paragraph or other recurring feature in the text spells out a word or a message . . . As a form of constrained writing, an acrostic can be used as a mnemonic device to aid memory retrieval. A famous acrostic was made in Greek for the acclamation JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD, SAVIOUR (Greek: Ιησούς Χριστός, Θεού Υιός, Σωτήρ; Iesous CHristos, THeou Yios, Soter — ch and th being each one letter in Greek). The initials spell ICHTHYS (ΙΧΘΥΣ), Greek for fish . . .
Relatively simple acrostics may merely spell out the letters of the alphabet in order; such an acrostic may be called an 'alphabetical acrostic' or Abecedarius. These acrostics occur in the first four of the five songs that make up the Book of Lamentations, in the praise of the good wife in Proverbs 31, 10-31, and in Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119 and 145 of the Hebrew Bible.[3] Notable among the acrostic Psalms are the long Psalm 119, which typically is printed in subsections named after the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each of which is featured in that section; and Psalm 145, which is recited three times a day in the Jewish services. Acrostics prove that the texts in question were originally composed in writing, rather than having existed in oral tradition before being put into writing.  (

Furthermore, we read:

The traditional practice of teaching the letters of the alphabet and their order by means of a mnemonic verse, consisting of words representing the individual letters, prompted the literary usage reflected in the Bible, of composing poems arranged in alphabetical order, be it with each verse beginning with a different letter, or with several verses for each letter (Lam. 3, Ps. 119), or with a different letter at the beginning of each half verse (Ps. 111, 112).
The poems, too, are at bottom didactic-literary attempts to convey by a series of words and sentences the essence of what is capable of expression by the letters of the alphabet: they present the letters in the order of a certain basic verse and extend and elaborate their didactic significance.  Some of these biblical poems were no doubt themselves composed in the course of teaching and for teaching purposes (comp. some of the psalms attributed to David which are likewise didactic in character. . . (The Origin of the Alphabet, by H. Tur-Sinai [Torczyner], The Hebrew University, Israel, “The Mnemonic Verses and the Alphabetically Arranged Poems of the Bible,”

To make this simple, here is an acrostic poem based on the letters in the word "Christmas":

C is for the Child born that night to be our light. (John 8:12) 
H is for holy is His name. (Rev.4:8) 
R is for rejoice with gladness & joy. (Luke 1:14) 
I is for Immanuel, God with us. (Is.7:14,) John 1:14) 
S is for the star that led the Wise men to Him. (Matt.2:2) 
T is for the truth & grace that was sent our way. (John 1:14) 
M is for Mother Mary laying Him in swaddling clothes in the manger. (Luke 2:7) 
A is for angels singing songs of joy. (Luke 2:14) 
S is for salvation. - Johnnie DesRochers.

Here we have a mapping of letters and meanings assigned to them, in a derivative composition.  Nobody would seriously suggest that the letter C really means the word Child in every occurrence of the letter C in the English language.  It is only so in this derivative composition.  It is abstract until you make a value assignment or linkage to it.  Yet, the acrostic made use of it and gave it a meaning or linkage for the moment, in that context, giving it the desired value assignment.  And if you were translating that, certainly in your translation of this poem in its particular context, C would mean or be linked to Christ Child.  So why do people get bent out of shape about the Abrahamic context of the Egyptian Alphabet in the Sensen Papyrus?  Now imagine an acrostic of ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ.  Here is one that I will make up here on the fly for the sake of making my point.  An alphabetical acrostic of Mormon things:

A is for Adam
B is for Brigham
C is for Christ
D is for Duty
E is for Salvation
F is for Faithfulness
G is for God
H is for President Hinckley
I is for I bear my testimony that I know Mormonism is true
J is for Justice
K is for Keep the Faith

And so on and so forth.  That is the type of acrostic I'm talking about that is an "alphabetical acrostic."  Or in other words, what has been called an Abecedarius (not to be confused with an Abecedarium).  And perhaps, this is one thing that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and the Explanations for the Facsimiles of the  Book of Abraham represent.  That is, they could represent a derivative composition, that is something like an acrostic, where characters were employed in constrained structures using an ancient type of alphabet.  And so, Joseph Smith reconstituted some sort of constrained writing experiment, reproducing or reconstituting something from ancient times in the modern day.  When Joseph Smith said he was arranging an alphabet, putting a table of a letter on the left side column, and an explanation on the right side, this mapping of character to explanation could be considered something akin to an acrostic-like constrained structure, in that it is a table of characters with text assigned to or linked to each character, even though it was not a mnemonic in the sense of a memory device, necessarily.  And it wasn't the same as a typical "dictionary" either in the sense of having a static meaning for a character.  Rather, it was a dynamic thing where meanings are assigned or linked at the time for a certain context, in that particular derivative composition.

My hypothesis is that this was the way the ancients arranged their abecedaria in derivative compositions, when text went along with the characters.  This is the same as how e acrostics are done in the Psalms.  The Psalms are a derivative composition, using the Hebrew alphabet as something that gives it structure, and linking the characters in that alphabet to content.  Therefore, in sensing that the tables of characters in the Hor papyrus represented a custom alphabet to be used in derivative compositions, and in arranging an alphabet table with its mappings or linkages of characters from the Sensen alphabet to explanations(explanations), Joseph Smith was just apparently following the lead of the ancients in this thing, precisely as he said he was.  There is, after all, ancient precedent for everything that he was doing.

No Egyptologist would say that the hieratic W character (that looks like a comma) that Joseph Smith said meant "Abraham" would ACTUALLY MEAN ABRAHAM IN ALL INSTANCES, because of its nature as an abstraction, any more than anybody would say that C always means Christ Child.  Yet, in the context where it was used that way, it meant precisely that.  W, after all, is the initial of WSIR or Osiris, and it is Osiris on the Lion Couch that Joseph Smith identified as Abraham.  Yet we know that according to Barney's theory of Semitic Adaptation/Iconotropy, Osiris only means Abraham when it is in the context for it to mean that.  Why then do some people have a problem with W meaning Wsir/Osiris/Abraham?

In acrostics, the usage of a symbol or letter is not necessarily a literal translation of the meaning of the symbol, but the symbol is used in the context of or has something to do with what the acrostic poem or message is trying to convey.  It is an abstraction, until the context of its use gives it a value assignment or linkage.  Therefore, in a "translation" of the "alphabet" of the Sensen papyrus, Joseph Smith's translation of this papyrus is not of the text of the papyrus, but rather, it is a reconstruction of the constrained, derived composition.  That composition contained a message that employed the Sensen characters in the columns as a part of it.  In other words, that's like having the Hebrew Alphabet in front of you, and coming up with a revelation of the text of the Psalms that use the Hebrew Alphabet in its acrostics.  Nobody would say that you had the text of the Psalms in front of you if all you had was the Hebrew Alphabet.  Yet, if you were a prophet and you came up with such a thing in your derivative composition, you would be conveying the message of the acrostic in which the alphabet was used.  It seems likely to me, this is the type of thing that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers represent.  The Sensen Papyrus to some ancient people represented an "alphabet" to the derived, constrained composition of the Book of Abraham, that uses the various letters in an alphabet to mark the sections like in the Psalms.  In other words, when these people REPURPOSED the characters in the papyrus in a derivative  composition, this is what they did.  Abraham didn't do this, but Egyptian Priests that cared about the story of Abraham did.  In itself, the Sensen Papyrus is not a text of the Book of Abraham, and is not related to it.  So, when Joseph Smith sensed that the papyrus had something to do with the Book of Abraham, it was all about reproducing the message that was in a derivitive composition, using characters that are abstract without meaning until they have value assignments in that derivative composition.  The Egyptian that did this didn't particularly care about the mechanical text that the abecedarium would spell out (i.e. the Egyptian Endowment that Hugh Nibley identified), which was its original intent of the Sensen Papyrus.  He only cared about the intent of the people that made the acrostic-like message in the (constrained derivative) composition that this papyrus would go along with.

This is why Joseph Smith stated:

The remainder of this month, I was continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients. (History of the Church, Vol.2, p.238)

It wasn't the text of Book of Abraham. The "translation" was the recovery of what was a constrained, hybrid, derivative composition, something that existed in some other papyrus as a text anciently.  There was no text in this papyrus when used this way.