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III. What Joseph Smith Knew About Champollion

With the preliminary deliberations out of the way, it’s time for a close look at the GAEL.

Prior installments (read these, or what follows isn’t going to make much sense at all):

The GAEL is divided into two parts, and both parts are organized by “degrees” in descending order from fifth to first. We’ll be looking principally at the first part. Each of its five degrees treats the same 30-odd characters in the same, non-alphabetical order, from Beth to Zaol. The characters, their transliterations and definitions are arranged in columns. As the characters increase in degree, their definitions (with a few exceptions) tend to become more precise, extensive or expansive. Longer grammatical explanations stand at the head of the sequence of characters of degree 1, 2 and 5, and shorter ones are scattered throughout.

The GAEL begins with a grammatical lecture preceding the fifth degree. It opens with the following line (I’m normalizing the text throughout).

Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, page 1

This is a proper name. In manuscript C of the Book of Abraham, this character is keyed to the first line of Abraham 1:1, “In the land of the Chaldeans.” It is defined in Egyptian Alphabet manuscripts B and C as “land of the Chaldeans” and “land of the Chaldees,” respectively.

If we jump to page 2 of the GAEL, we get an explanation of how this character has been graphically composed of the following jots and lines.

Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, page 2

Each of these jots and lines is in fact a character in its own right, and the following lines explain each of them in turn.

Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, page 2

Each of these characters has been intentionally removed from its former position compared to the Egyptian Alphabet manuscripts and placed in this new sequence. Using the JSPP’s numbering of characters, these are characters 2.15 (Beth), 1.14 (Iota), 1.18 (Zubzooloan), and 2.16 (Bethka). We can recognize a few elements, but “Beth-Iota-(*Bethka)-Zub-zool-oan-Ki-Hi-Ash” still doesn’t look much like “Za ki-oan-hi-ash.” What’s going on?

If we look farther into the GAEL, we get more clues about the internal logic of this sequence of characters. On page 20, the grammatical lecture at the start of the first degree explains that the first character “has an arbitrary sound or signification which is Beth; and also a compound sound which is Za.” Unlike when a character stands alone, the sound used in compounds is unambiguous: “In its arbitrary sound it may have more sounds than one, but cannot have more than five sounds. When it is compounded with others, it can only have one sound.”

In other words, Za is the sound of Beth when it appears as part of a compound character, like we have here. This is also how to understand Ki: It’s the sound of Iota in compound. A note on page 16 of the GAEL explains that Ash is the “compound of Zub Zool-oan,” but “Zub Zool oan when connected with Beth” – as it is here – “is called oan for the sake of brevity.”

And there we have it. We can now read all the constituent elements of character number 1 as Za (compound form of Beth) – Ki (compound form of Iota) – Oan (compound form of Zub-zool-oan when connected with Beth) – Hi (an alternate form of Beth) – Ash (compound form of Zub-zool-oan). The GAEL begins with these characters in this order because they are the ones needed to spell out zakioan-hiash, the first character used in the translation of the Book of Abraham.

What all this shows is that character 1 is not a pictogram. It’s not even an ideogram. It is a word, “zakioan-hiash,” meaning “Chaldea/land of the Chaldees,” that we have just spelled out, sound by sound, phonetically. The GAEL carefully explains where each sound comes from: The various parts of the written character have dual potential significance; they can represent words or concepts, and they can represent specific sounds as they appear in compound form within a character, but with a different phonetic realization. Chris Smith and Brian Hauglid have both noted this phonetic component of the GAEL, but didn’t recognize its implications.[1] This is what Joseph Smith and his associates accurately understood about Egyptian hieroglyphics: Much as Champollion had recently discovered about hieroglyphics, the GAEL describes a system in which characters have both a meaning and a separate phonetic realization that could be used to spell out words, with multiple characters available to draw from. The GAEL doesn’t use the same rebus principle and the duplicate characters play a somewhat different role, but the influence of Champollion’s discoveries is clearly discernible. If the phonetic component of the GAEL differs from the rebus principle of Egyptian hieroglyphics, then perhaps intentionally: the Egyptian Alphabet manuscript in Joseph Smith’s hand (C) had included a column for a letter to match each character, with the letter “a” initially drawn next to the character Ah (“The first Being, who exercises supreme power”), but the letter was later struck out.[2]

Joseph Smith’s awareness of Champollion would make it more difficult for apologists to argue that the knowledge he had of the Egyptian language must have come through revelation, if any apologist actually argued for that view (to my knowledge, none have). It represents a more significant problem for Dan Vogel, who has argued that ignorance of Champollion gave Joseph Smith free reign to invent fictive translations without fear of falsification and “freedom to imagine whatever he wished about Egyptian grammar.”[3] Again we have to ask: If Joseph Smith was aware of progress toward deciphering Egyptian (and it seems impossible that he was not), what was he doing in creating the GAEL?

The explanation of zakioan-hiash also shows that the characters in the GAEL are in general not pictograms. They are not visual depictions of natural objects whose meaning is free of the mediation of language. When Joseph Smith and his associates incorporated characters from the Egyptian papyri into the Egyptian documents, they did not treat them as pictograms whose sense was obvious to the eye. Compared to the papyri, the GAEL characters become more like conventional signs and less, not more, picture-like. The characters are not a “combinative pictography,” as Sam Brown puts it, but complex assemblages of simpler, largely arbitrary signs that are subject to various rules. They do not establish any kind of “strict correspondence of primal languages and objects in Nature, mediated through their conception of ancient pictography.”[4] The GAEL does not see the characters in terms of “one-to-one correspondence between a physical object and its representation,” but as part of a complex system in which the meaning of a sign depends on its relationships to other visual signs and where one sign can have many meanings.[5] The GAEL does not treat the characters as “mystical correspondences—abundant linguistic objects of real divine presence,” but as symbols that can be analyzed and utilized within a rational system of grammar. Other parts of Sam Brown’s research program will find considerable support here, but the pictographic aspect of his program is irreparable, at least as it relates to the Egyptian documents. “So where do the Saints belong within these modern Egyptian currents? Theirs is a complex collage of old and new,” as he states elsewhere, is a much more defensible formulation.[6]

Above all, what we see in the GAEL is clearly not the approach to hieroglyphics suggested by Athanasius Kircher in the seventeenth century. The second of Kircher’s six keys to interpreting hieroglyphs had stated, “Hieroglyphic symbols, founded on the pattern of nature, form sense not according to letters, syllables, voices, or sentences, but according to the ideal concepts of hidden mysteries.”[7] As Jeff Lindsay has asked: “Isn’t the very idea of an Egyptian alphabet contrary to the notions of Kircher?”[8] The same is even more true of a writing system that includes grammar rules, punctuation characters (“to designate one sentence from another,” page 5) and interrogative pronouns (“who, whence, etc., an interrogative pronoun through its degrees,” page 22). Once we determine that the hieroglyphic system of the GAEL has a phonetic and grammatical component, we’re within shouting distance of where Egyptology was in 1835.

* * *

One wrinkle: What about Bethka? It doesn’t seem like Bethka was necessary for spelling out zakioan-hiash, and maybe it wasn’t initially necessary for the GAEL authors, either, who had to add it in later. But it does seem to play a role in the translation (which I’ll discuss in the next post), and the GAEL authors are emphatic about adding it to the sequence; the instruction to add Bethka before Zubzooloan is made five times in the GAEL, once in each degree of the first part. Moreover, Bethka seems necessary for the grammatical completeness of zakioan-hiash. The dissected character consists of six individual marks (each one a character unto itself), and Bethka would seem necessary to reach that figure. The GAEL further states on page 1 that zakioan-hiash consists of “five connections or connecting parts.” In the grammar lecture on the first degree (page 20), we learn that Beth

is only increased or lessened in its signification by its connection with other characters. One connection with another character, gives it a compound signification, or enlarges the sentence. Two connections increases its signification still. Three increases it still. Four increases still. And five still. This is as far as a sentence can be carried in the first degree.

So for zakioan-hiash to develop its full significance, it would seem to require Beth plus five additional connections, for which Bethka would be required.

There are two basic, not mutually incompatible ways to approach Bethka’s apparent non-impact on the sound of zakioan-hiash. The first is to see Oan as some kind of a contraction – not just the compound form of Zubzooloan when connected to Beth, but a contraction of both, with Bethka presumably also qualifying for this rule. The second option is to see the grammar as an incomplete system for which not all rules are stated or fully formulated. The GAEL is a grammar that explains some important principles of the system without explaining all of them, enough to understand some important features without being able to reproduce them in all respects. It explains how a musical scale is constructed, so to speak, and the relationship of half, whole, and quarter notes, but doesn’t give us the score to the Moonlight Sonata.

* * *

Next time, we’re going to use the GAEL to understand the structure of Abraham 1:1-2a.


[1] Hauglid, “Translating an Alphabet to the Book of Abraham,” 368; Christopher C. Smith, “The Dependence of Abraham 1:1–3 on the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 29 (2009): 49–50.

[2] Hauglid, “Translating an Alphabet to the Book of Abraham,” 368.

[3] Vogel, Book of Abraham Apologetics, ix–x, 7.

[4] Brown, “Joseph (Smith) in Egypt,” 46, 48.

[5] Brown, Joseph Smith’s Translation, 29.

[6] Brown, 230.

[7] Athanasius Kircher, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, vol. 3 (Rome: Ex Typographia Vitalis Mascardi, 1654), 4: “Hieroglyphica symbola ad exemplar naturae instituta, non literis, syllabis, vocibus, periodis, sed conceptibus Idealibus latentium mysteriorum sensus efformant.”

[8] Lindsay, “A Precious Resource with Some Gaps,” 86.

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