Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Book of Abraham as a Greco-Roman Era Constrained Writing Experiment with Sensen Papyrus and Hypocephalus: Analog to Senet


Its not that the Sensen papyrus is the Book of Abraham in particular.  Its that, the Sensen Papyrus and its characters were involved in ancient constrained writing experiments in various priestly circles with any number of things, including the story and/or text of the Book of Abraham.  And so, the story of Abraham was one of the things that it came to be associated with over time.  But this puts no limitation on what the Sensen Papyrus could or would have been used for in derivative compositions.  These derivative compositions would become, in essence, interpretive keys.  In other words, the Sensen characters were used as part of the Book of Abraham by virtue of external dependencies and input from the user of the document never contained the text of the Book of Abraham.  These characters were given Abrahamic meaning assignments or entirely different meaning assignments in derivative compositions.  In some sense, this is almost random or arbitrary that the ancients would make compositions like this, injecting random things into these compositions, yet employing aspects of older thinks, like modern Aleatoricism.  Aleatoricism, while being random, shares a fundamental property with iconotropy, which is its very basis: to inject a new interpretation into an older symbol.  Yet it is constrained by form and rules like other constrained writing/word puzzles such as Acrostics, Lipograms, etc.  It is only through research that all of the constraints on these things are known, because they are peculiar to this case, yet have parallels to constrained writing systems we are familiar with, which is why we can only say it is like such and such thing in this or that way.  It isn't precisely these, yet it is like these.

Facsimile #1 of the Book of Abraham is among many lion couch scenes from antiquity.  Here is another example from the Temple of Karnak:

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Above, we see a Senet board in the form reminiscent of a lion couch, and it is also on a sled.  The hypothesis suggested here is that it is meaningful that it looks like a lion couch, and subsequent posts will contain further evidence on these points.

In Egyptian funeral processions, the "boat" containing a mummy was actually a sled that carried the mummy shaped like a boat:
The Funeral Procession
Since the sun appeared to die in the west every evening, it made sense that the dead should end there too. So to get to the tomb in the necropolis, a trip across the Nile was necessary. The embalmers transported the mummy across the river on a boat, where it was picked up by the mourners on the other side. The mummy would be placed on a boat-shaped sled called a bier. This pretend funeral barge was either pulled by oxen or it was just dragged by people. As the funeral procession made its trip to the tomb, servants carried food and drink, shabtis, the canopic jars, and the mummy's possessions. Several priests walked in the procession too, reciting spells and prayers from the Book of the Dead. (
The boat/sled was pulled by oxen.  And it is interesting that in the Sensen Papyrus, it says that the mummy was "towed" across the pool of Khonsu.  It is the same thing.  This suggests that the Senet Game Board is itself associated closely with a bier/lion couch.

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Of the Senet game from King Tut's tomb, we read:
One of the young pharaoh’s favorite diversions was playing games of chance. Like many ancient Egyptians, he was particularly fond of the game of senet in which the movement of pawns on a checkerboard was decided by the throw of knucklebones or casting sticks. The religious text of the Book of the Dead refers to senet as one of the pastimes in the afterlife. Of the 4 game boxes found in the Annex, this one made of wood with ebony and ivory veneer was the finest. Recumbent on a leonine frame which rested on a small sledge, it was dismantled and scattered throughout the tangle of rifled objects in the crowded chamber. (
Now, let us have a look at Facsimile #1 again for a moment:

Look to the right of it, at the column of characters.  Not only do we see a lion couch/bier here, but we have these columns of characters.  Now, looking at a Senet board vertically rather than horizontally, we notice that the three rows/columns in the Senet board definitely resemble the arrangement of our three columns to the right of Facsimile #1:

In the senet board, some of the squares have characters written on them.  But also, the game pieces are dynamic and moving characters.   This is why, I suggest the hypothesis that the Sensen Papyrus is full of characters that could be considered dynamic and moving, ritualistically, rather than static and set.  And what I mean by that is, there is likely to be a dynamic "word game" or "word puzzle" going on here in derivative compositions where Sensen characters were employed.  It is perhaps something akin to a word puzzle not far off from something like Magic squares, where there is a "game" going on with numbers.  Or, for example, in the case of  where an acrostic uses letters of the Hebrew Alphabet in a specific way, in a type of thing that is called "constrained writing" which is a type of word game.  In this case, it wouldn't matter what the "text" says in the Sensen Papyrus at all, but rather that its characters become "players" or "participants" or "automatons" or even "game pieces."  As the definition of the word automaton states (that is, when you "google" the word, this is one of the definitions that comes up:
a machine that performs a function according to a predetermined set of coded instructions, especially one capable of a range of programmed responses to different circumstances
So, this is not truly a machine of any sorts, but the characters themselves take on a new type of life or dynamism than they had before in just a "text," because they are repurposed like other types of iconotropy.  If this hypothesis holds true, then the characters in the text are used as if characters in a symbol list like an alphabet, in a word game akin to other types of "constrained writing."  Except, in this case, rather than having them in alphabetical order, the ordering that they appear in the papyrus is the ritual or sacred order of the characters that we find them in for the "constrained writing" experimentation.  In this way, they are no different than any other symbol list, and they are are analogous, parallel or pretty much identical to an alphabetical list, rather than a "text."

And so, in this way, the characters in the listing of characters are able to be used in creative or artistic ways.  So, for example, so you can know what I'm talking about, with an acrostic, which is one type of constrained writing, you have characters sometimes in alphabetical order, like in the Psalms in the Bible, but that are used in an enumeration or list, much like an outline.  And so, you line up sections of text or explanations or whatever with characters from a list of symbols.  And the principle or fact or rule tying the character to the text it is lined up with is the fact that the letter it is matched up with is the same letter that the text starts out with.  The hypothesis in this blog is that there is some other type of constrained puzzle or constrained writing type of phenomenon going on with the Book of Abraham and the Sensen Papyrus, where an ancient derivative composition employed the text and concepts with the Book of Abraham and artificially tied these things to Sensen characters, assigning new meanings to them.  It is not identical to an acrostic.  It nevertheless has a lot in common with an acrostic, where there is a rule or principle or fact that ties a character to that which it is matched up with.  An explanation or chunk of text or idea doesn't necessarily "translate" directly to the character that it is matched up with.  Nevertheless, there is something that does tie it together.  And so, rather than the principle being the first letter that a text starts out with, it is some other principle.  As you shall see in other parts of this blog, it is usually a thematic or mythological association sometimes coupled with visual association that makes a character a suitable symbol to enumerate a section of text or explanation.  And in this way, the Sensen Papyrus doesn't contain the text of the Book of Abraham, or the ideas in it.  But rather, the characters enumerate sections of text or ideas in the text, in a derivative composition.  And they are tied to these things through various types of associations, not terribly different from the idea of an acrostic.  In other words, someone went through a lot of trouble to make these associations in some sort of a construction that some have called a "constrained stanza."

As we read in quotations from various writings about different kinds of constrained writing or word puzzles, or literary devices, these things are intentional, artistic and labor intensive:  "Constrained writing is painful, obligatory, not spontaneous." (Objects and Materials: A Routledge Companion
 By Penny Harvey, Eleanor Conlin Casella, Gillian Evans, Hannah Knox, Christine McLean, Elizabeth B. Silva, Nicholas Thoburn, Kath Woodward, p. 167.)

All traditional poetics make room for what is called the "constraints of meter and rhyme," just as all traditional forms of writing know the practice of "fixed forms," i.e. poetic genres obeying strictly defined and often very sophisticated rules such as, for instance, the sestina.  Nevertheless, without having invented the word itself, it is indeed the OuLiPo that has defined the modern expanded use of constraint as self-chosen supplementary and systematic rule . . .
The constraint was compared to a kind of mathematical theorem, and the textual production that could accompany it was seen as one if its possible demonstrations. (The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature, edited by Joe Bray, Alison Gibbons, Brian McHale, p. 117)
Constrained writing is defined as this:
Constrained writing is a literary technique in which the writer is bound by some condition that forbids certain things or imposes a pattern . . .
Constraints are very common in poetry, which often requires the writer to use a particular verse form.
The most common constrained forms of writing are strict restrictions in vocabulary, e.g. Basic English, copula-free text, defining vocabulary for dictionaries, and other limited vocabularies for teaching English as a Second Language or to children. This is not generally what is meant by “constrained writing” in the literary sense, which is motivated by more aesthetic concerns. For example:
Reverse-lipograms: each word must contain a particular letter.
Univocalic poetry, using only one vowel.
Mandated vocabulary, where the writer must include specific words, chosen a priori, along with the writer's own freely chosen words (for example, Quadrivial Quandary, a website that solicits individual sentences containing all four words in a daily selection).
Bilingual homophonous poetry, where the poem makes sense in two different languages at the same time, thus constituting two simultaneous homophonous poems.
Alliteratives, in which every word must start with the same letter (or subset of letters; see Alphabetical Africa).
Lipogram: a letter (commonly e or o) is outlawed.
Acrostics: first letter of each word/sentence/paragraph forms a word or sentence.
Palindromes, such as the word “radar”, read the same forwards and backwards.
Anglish, favouring Anglo-Saxon words over Greek and Roman/Latin words.
Pilish, where the lengths of consecutive words match the digits of the number π.
Anagrams, words or sentences formed by rearranging the letters of another.
Limitations in punctuation, such as Peter Carey's book True History of the Kelly Gang, which features no commas.
One syllable article, a form unique to Chinese literature, using many characters all of which are homophones; the result looks sensible as writing but is very confusing when read aloud.
Chaterism, where the length of words in a phrase or sentence increases or decreases in a uniform, mathematical way as in "I am the best Greek bowler running", or "hindering whatever tactics appear".
Aleatory, where the reader supplies a random input.
The Oulipo group is a gathering of writers who use such techniques. The Outrapo group uses theatrical constraints.[3]
There are a number of constrained writing forms that are restricted by length, including:
Six-Word Memoirs: 6 words
Haiku: ~ 3 lines (5-7-5 syllables or 2-3-2 beats recommended.)
Minisaga: 50 words, +15 for title
Drabble: 100 words
Twiction: espoused as a specifically constrained form of microfiction where a story or poem is exactly 140 characters long. (
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. The word comes from the French acrostiche from post-classical Latin acrostichis, from Koine Greek ἀκροστιχίς, from Ancient Greek ἄκρος "highest, topmost" and στίχος "verse"). As a form of constrained writing, an acrostic can be used as a mnemonic device to aid memory retrieval. (
And while acrostics is generally similar to what I'm suggesting in the Sensen papyrus from the standpoint of character association through some principle to text, there may be something here akin or closer to Aleatoricism.  Because there is an element here where outcome is dependent on an external dependency entirely unrelated to what is in a document.  This external dependency is a derivative document.  It derives from an external reader, who becomes a contributor or inventor or interpreter of content, assigning meanings to the characters.  In that sense, it can be arbitrary and random, not unlike Aleatoricism, although still that word doesn't precisely describe the phenomenon, just like the word acrostic doesn't describe it precisely.  Aleatoricism has the idea of randomness attached to it.  In a derivative document, it would not always be random, but perhaps deliberate, employing these things like a word/letter puzzle.

Anyhow, this external dependency or derivative composition becomes, as it were, an interpretive key, if it is written down, much like Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, or his explanations for the Facsimiles.
aleatory writing
(L aleatorius , from aleator, alea , ‘dice’) ‘Aleatory’ means depending on the throw of a die, and it here refers to writing (as well as to the composition of music, sculpture and painting) achieved by some random means, by leaving things to chance or accident. No doubt many creative artists have depended on the element of luck and chance, the totally unexpected; and the history of inspiration ( q.v. ) provides many instances of fortuitous experience which have helped in the creative act. In fact, one might go so far as to say that it may be a fundamental part of the process of inspiration and invention. Those who practise aleatoric techniques are somewhat more deliberate. They do not leave things to chance; they create the opportunities of chance. There is a certain ‘method’ in their ‘madness’, as it were. For example, a writer may write down a large number of words on different pieces of paper, throw the pieces of paper into the air, see how (like dice) they fall – and then join the words together according to their random disposition. Or, he might shuffle them like cards and then record the sequence that ensues. There are a number of ways of setting about it. William Burroughs, for example, is well known for his ‘cut-up’ technique in which he snips up pages and allows the random fall of the words and phrases to guide him. (
Aleatoricism is the incorporation of chance into the process of creation, especially the creation of art or media. The word derives from the Latin word alea, the rolling of dice. It should not be confused with either improvisation or indeterminacy. (
Aleatoricism is the incorporation of chance in the process of creation, especially in the creation of art or media. Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and valuable is created and expressed. It is easy to understand that aleatoricism often has a role in the creative process. When something is aleatory it means it is arising by chance, left to its own randomness. It can be a great factor in creative thinking, and the fact that one would let its creation depend on chance shows an great deal of open mindedness and extreme creativity.
This aleatory element can be applied in many fields of art or media creation. Literature for instance is a good example, as writing is helped by imagination, and therefore creativity is present at all times. In this case, aleatoricism can be of great use for creative writing. Imagination conducts the pen of the writer, however aleatoricism is truly what leads the mind, and generates an automatic generation of poetry. When you let your mind run free and random, you let your thoughts go wild and travel to places far away, and you never know what will come out of it.(
In many cases, it is the injection of something new and external into a derivative composition that employs characters from an already existent document.  And so, from that point of view, Aleatoricism shares that same property that is indeed the very basis of the principle known as Iconotropy, or symbolic appropriation.  Because a person comes along after the fact and appropriates a symbol for his own usage in derivative compositions that is entirely independent from the original usage of that symbol.  Therefore, an external interpreter is the basis of the new usage.  And unless this new interpreter that creates a new composition commits the rules and definitions to paper, it may become lost.  If it is lost, then it is up to a SEER to recover it, and reconstitute it.  This is what Joseph Smith did.

This is why, what I'm suggesting for this papyrus has aspects in common with various types of constrained writing and word games.  What ties the thing down is an external dependency, a derivative composition, that defines both rules as well as associations in order to make the content applied to it meaningful.  There is nothing in the original document that defines it, just like there is nothing in the alphabet that ties down it's letters to being used for only one acrostic usage.  And so, one may wonder, that if there was so much leeway with the usage of game boards in particular in Ancient Egypt like Senet and Mehen, to where many types of games were possible, within certain constraints, then, why would there not similarly be possible or plausible usages for the Sensen papyrus in particular, for its characters to be used in various ancient constrained writing experiments or word games or word puzzles?  Not as text, but as an ordered sign-list.  So, its not that the Sensen papyrus is the Book of Abraham in particular.  Its that, the Sensen Papyrus and its characters were involved in derived, ancient constrained writing experiments in various priestly circles, where the story and/or text of the Book of Abraham was one of them, perhaps a popular one to these people.  And so, the story of Abraham was one of the things that it came to be associated with over time.  But this puts no limitation on what the Sensen Papyrus could or would have been used for.  Therefore, there are two opposite, yet parallel and simultaneously-existing points:  freedom in composition, while being tied down to certain constraints that are well defined and committed to by the composer for artistic/aesthetic reasons, like in the case of any constrained writing or games.

The Ancient Egyptian game of Senet represented a game of life and death.  Not a game like gladiators fighting. Rather, it was a game that represented one's progress through the various stages of life and death and resurrection, and interaction of various gods, through various spheres of action in the game or ritual.  Hugh Nibley assured us that the same is so with our three facsimiles.  They are representative of a journey of a person's progression from one stage of the experience to the next.

In the case of senet, there was a ritual that went along with this game, described in the Book of the Dead (  And here is a round version of Senet, like a hypocephalus, or like the game Mehen, carved into a platter:

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And now, we show the game Mehen itself:

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This is a picture of a game very similar to Senet, which is round, just like the Hypocephalus.  And right in the middle is the eye.  Remember also that the Hypocephalus itself represents the Eye of Horus (

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This above is another picture of the game Mehen that is a little different, that doesn't have the eye in the middle.  We read:

One of the best examples for the game was found in the tomb of Hesay-Ra.  Hesay-Ra served under the Pharaoh Djoser as Chief of Physicians or Chief of Scribes in the third dynasty (approx. 2686BC-2613BC).  The tomb was excavated in 1911 by Quibell and contained illustrations of three complete board games; Senet, Men, and Mehen.  Senet (passing) was another popular board game of the time and is known to share a similar sacred meaning. (
From this point of view in this hypothesis, there is nothing special about the Sensen papyrus that ended up in Joseph Smith's hands.  Any one of them from antiquity could have performed the same function.  The ancients associated the whole class of documents with Abraham.

Reconstructions of the pictures in the Sensen papyrus made by Egyptologists, as well as the many hypocephali out there that have been discovered over time, show that there were multiple possibilities for the characters in the pictures, which could symbolize many things, and in Facsimile #2 in particular, they were shifted around a lot.  Things were swapped in and out all the time.  There was something very dynamic about these scenes.  An analogy to what I am talking about here in the modern world is movable type:
Movable type is the system of printing and typography that uses movable components to reproduce the elements of a document (usually individual letters or punctuation).
The world's first known movable type system for printing was made of ceramic materials and created in China around A.D 1040 by Bi Sheng (990–1051) during the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127).  In 1377, the first metallic types were invented in Goryeo Dynasty in Korea, which were used to print Jikjishimcheyojeol or simply Jikji, which is the oldest extant movable metal print book. The diffusion of both movable-type systems was, however, limited.  They were expensive, and required an enormous amount of labour involved in manipulating the thousands of ceramic tablets, or in the case of Korea, metal tablets, required for scripts based on the Chinese writing system, which have thousands of characters.
Around 1450 Johannes Gutenberg made a mechanical metal movable-type printing press in Europe, along with innovations in casting the type based on a matrix and hand mould. The more limited number of characters needed for European languages was an important factor.  Gutenberg was the first to create his type pieces from an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony—the same components still used today.
For alphabetic scripts, movable-type page setting was quicker than woodblock printing. The metal type pieces were more durable and the lettering was more uniform, leading to typography and fonts. The high quality and relatively low price of the Gutenberg Bible (1455) established the superiority of movable type in Europe and the use of printing presses spread rapidly. The printing press may be regarded as one of the key factors fostering the Renaissance and due to its effectiveness, its use spread around the globe. (
It doesn't matter where you put them on the page.  They are re-usable for any situation.  This is why it is so critical to recognize that the Senet and Mehen boards may be part of the key to our understanding of the ancient thoughts behind how the Facsimiles and the characters in the text worked in other contexts than the "regular old funarary context.."

The characters in the facsimiles and the characters in the so-called text, may be like actors in a play, or as pieces as on a chess-board, becoming very much like a constrained writing exercise or a word puzzle.  In these ancient "game-like" contexts, like an ancient Egyptian Senet-like game, (like in any game that we know in modern times) the outcome depends on the rules applied to the pieces on the board, by the person that imposes that system.  An analogy is that a checkerboard can host either a chess game or a game of checkers, or pretty much anything else.

As you will see, in other posts in this blog, Iconotropy figures in to the usage of these papyri, as the enabler principle, to enable symbols to be used in many ways.

Another analogy from the modern world is that the paintings on the papyrus and the characters in the text are like actors in a movie.  It is as if they are characters on one frame of a movie.  Like a snap-shot of moving characters that are in action.  The characters or game pieces in the game Senet are moving.  This is like a snap shot in mythic time, or the timeless, an "ahistorical, afactual time," (a mythical or hierophantic time).  A snap-shot of a frame in a ritual.  Or, like a frame in the movie in the endowment in our own temples.  (;

Note:  There is a lot more to the Senet connection that I will be documenting further on.  It is an interesting coincidence that the word sensen sounds like senet.  A hypothesis that could be suggested here is that there was some mental association between the two words because the first syllable was the same or homophonic.  Perhaps further evidence will show up to strengthen this possibility.  The Egyptians were fond of puns.

So, the Ancient Egyptians may have used these documents (the Sensen Papyrus, the Hypocephalus, the Book of the Dead) as things analogous to Game Boards or Maps, as it were, or any number of other purposes.

Now, going back to the idea of Alphabets, it is interesting that the Hebrew High Priest breastplate has a similar pattern:


Again, compare this visually to what we showed for the Senet board earlier:

Hugh Nibley writes:

Philo has described the garment of the high priest:  "On the collar, stones were fitted in, two being costly emeralds of exceeding value, on which the names of the patriarchs of the tribes were engraved, six on each, making twelve in all."  And on the breast are twelve other precious stones of different colors resembling seals, three rows of four each.  Pholo tells us that the garment of the high priest is a representation of the heavens.  The two great emeralds represent the hemispheres, the one above the earth and the other below it.  The twelve precious stones in 4 x 3 rows are representations of the Zodiac.  The whole arrangement is called logeion; all heavenly bodies are arranged according to reason and analogy, and there is nothing illogical about it. (One Eternal Round, p. 454).
So, the rows and so forth are representative of a ZODIAC, or at least a calendrical, astronomical set, and the heavens, just like the Sensen Papyrus, which is a series of columns surrounding the Facsimile #1, not unlike a Senet board.  The breastpiece of the priest was a pouch that contained the Urim and Thummim, which were stones like the stones that move on the Senet board.  The Urim and Thummim were sometimes used in different ways of divination to find out the will of the Lord, including the casting of lots, like the casting of dice or anything else in a game that uses randomness to determine what comes next in the game.  For example some scholars have come to the following conclusion:
1 Samuel 14:41 is regarded by biblical scholars as key to understanding the Urim and Thummim; the passage describes an attempt to identify a sinner via divination, by repeatedly splitting the people into two groups and identifying which group contains the sinner. In the version of this passage in the Masoretic Text, it describes Saul and Jonathan being separated from the rest of the people, and lots being cast between them; the Septuagint version, however, states that Urim would indicate Saul and Jonathan, while Thummim would indicate the people. In the Septuagint, a previous verse uses a phrase which is usually translated as inquired of God, which is significant as the grammatical form of the Hebrew implies that the inquiry was performed by objects being manipulated; scholars view it as evident from these verses and versions that cleromancy was involved, and that Urim and Thummim were the names of the objects being cast. (
Cleromancy is the tossing or casting of objects to divine answers, etc.  The "game" of life that we live in itself is a thing of randomness.  The future is dependent on present randomness to a large degree.

Hugh Nibley quotes Phineas Mordell, writing that:
According to the Sefer Yetzirah, the letters "were made in the form of a 'state and arranged like an army in battle array,'" as if coordinating human affairs with the order of the cosmos.  We are told that "when Abraham understood it, his wisdom increased greatly, and he taught the whole law." (One Eternal Round, p. 258)
It is interesting that the letters of the alphabet were being likened unto an army.  This reminds me of chess pieces representative of an army.  Even though chess isn't as ancient as Senet, this still suggests to me the same type of concept:  the letters of the alphabet, in constrained writing experiments and word games, were conceptually similar to the characters or pieces in the Senet and other games.  They were  dynamic, not static.  They were like the pieces on the Senet board or the Mehen board, the ancient Egyptian games.

I will demonstrate why this is important in subsequent posts.  Because, I will show evidence for my hypothesis that the repurposing of the characters from the Sensen papyrus was a dynamic, artistic, repurposing of ALPHABETIC characters from Egyptian sign lists, that are essentially the "Egyptian Alphabet."  And so, this type of thing is analogous to the dynamic randomness of a game.  This is why Joseph Smith called Sensen Papyrus characters the "Egyptian Alphabet."