Facsimile 1 as a Sacrifice Scene

Book of Abraham Insight #


Facsimile 1 of the Book of Abraham visually depicts the narrative contained in Abraham 1:12–19. As interpreted by Joseph Smith, this scene depicts Abraham fastened upon an altar before some idolatrous gods. An idolatrous priest is about to sacrifice Abraham, who is protected by the Angel of the Lord.

Since the mid-1800s, when Egyptologists first began analyzing the facsimiles of the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith’s interpretation of this scene (sometimes called a lion couch scene, due to the prominent lion couch at the center of the illustrations) has clashed with Egyptological interpretations. In 1860, the French Egyptologist Théodule Devéria interpreted Facsimile 1 as depicting the resurrection of the god Osiris.1 In 1912, Egyptologists interpreted Facsimile 1 as, variously, “the well known scene of Anubis preparing the body of the dead man,”2 “a resurrection scene” showing “Osiris rising from the dead,”3 “an embalmer preparing a body for burial,”4 “the body of the dead lying” on a funerary bier,5 and “a dead man . . . lying on a bier” and being prepared for mummification.6 Similar interpretations of Facsimile 1 have been given in more recent years.7

From the weight of this Egyptological authority alone, it may seem absurd to associate Facsimile 1 with sacrifice as Joseph Smith did. However, more recent investigation has turned up evidence which suggests a connection between sacrifice or sacred violence and scenes of the embalming and resurrection of the deceased (or the god Osiris). In 2008 and 2010, Egyptologist John Gee published evidence linking scenes of Osiris’ mummification and resurrection “in the roof chapels of the Dendara Temple” with execration rituals that involved ritual violence.8 Other Egyptologists have already drawn parallels between Facsimile 1 and the Dendara Temple lion couch scenes,9 but, as Gee has elaborated, there is a clear connection with sacrifice and ritual violence in these scenes.10 “In the Dendara texts, the word for the lion couch . . . is either homophonous or identical with the word . . . ‘abattoir, slaughterhouse,’ as well as a term for ‘offerings.’”11 This is reinforced in the inscriptions surrounding the lion couch scenes.

The Egyptian word for “lion couch” (nmỉt; above) is homophonous or nearly homophonous with the words for “slaughter house” (nmt; bottom left) and “offering” (nmt; bottom right). Because of their similar spelling and likely pronunciation, these terms appear in some contexts to have been conceptually associated with each other through paranomasia or play on words, in which the ancient Egyptians frequently engaged. Hieroglyphs reproduced after Wilson (1997).

For example, in the central scene in the innermost eastern chapel, we read, “He will not exist nor will his name exist, since you will destroy his town, cast down the walls of his house, and everyone who is in it will be set on fire, you will demolish his district, you will stab his confederates, his flesh being ashes, the evil conspirator consigned to the lion couch/slaughterhouse, so that he will no longer exist.” . . . Furthermore, in the same chapel, we have depictions of Anubis and the sons of Horus (presumably the figures under the lion couch in Facsimile 1) holding knives. Anubis is here identified as the one “who smites the adversaries with his might, since the knife is in his hand, to expel the one who treads in transgression; I am the violent one who came forth from god, after having cut off the heads of the confederates of him whose name is evil.” The human-headed son of Horus is identified above his head as “the one who repulses enemies” and “who comes tearing out the enemies who butchers the sinners.” The baboonheaded son of Horus says: “I have slaughtered those who create injuries in the house of God in his presence; I take away the breath from his nostrils.” The jackal-headed son of Horus says: “I cause the hostile foreigners to retreat.” Finally, the falcon-headed son of Horus says: “I have removed rebellion.”12

The central scene of the innermost eastern chapel of Osiris at the Dendara Temple depicts the mummification and revitalization of Osiris. Although not reproduced here, the hieroglyphs that run in the columns directly above Osiris in the middle of the scene speak, in part, of slaughtering the god’s enemies. Line drawing taken from Cauville (1997).

From this and other evidence collected by Gee,13 it can be seen that at least some ancient Egyptians “associate[d] the lion couch scene with the sacrificial slaughter of enemies.”14 Why might some ancient Egyptians have done so? It may relate to the myth of the resurrection of the god Osiris, which lion couch scenes were meant to depict. In the classic retelling of the myth, Osiris was slain and mutilated by his evil brother Seth. Through the efforts of his sister-wife Isis, the body of Osiris was magically reassembled and resurrected. The final vindication came when their son Horus slew Seth in combat and claimed kingship.15 The element in this myth of Horus slaying Seth and thereby the forces of chaos or disorder (including foreign peoples, rebels, and enemies of Pharaoh) might explain why sacrifice was associated with embalming and mummification in some ancient Egyptian texts.16

Interestingly, another papyrus from the first century BC (not far removed from the time period of the Joseph Smith Papyri), “comments on the fate suffered in the embalming place during the initial stages of mummification by one who was overly concerned with amassing wealth while alive.”17 As read in the text, “It is the chief of the spirits (= Anubis) who is first to punish after the taking of breath. Juniper oil, incense, natron, and salt, searing ingredients, are a ‘remedy’ for his wounds. A ‘friend’ who shows no mercy attacks his flesh. He is unable to say “desist” during the punishment of the assessor.”18 Commenting on this passage, Mark Smith observes that in this text “the embalming table [the lion couch] is also a judge’s tribunal and the chief embalmer, Anubis, doubles as the judge who executes sentence. For the wicked man, mummification, the very process which is supposed to restore life and grant immortality, becomes a form of torture from which no escape is possible.”19 Indeed, that Anubis had a role as judge of the dead, besides merely being an embalmer, has previously been acknowledged by Egyptologists.20 

The sons of Horus hold knives and proclaim their intent to destroy the enemies of Osiris in the god’s chapel at the Dendara Temple. Line drawing taken from Cauville (1997).

One task Anubis fulfilled with this role was as a guard or protector who “administer[ed] horrible punishments to the enemies of Osiris.”21 From surviving evidence it is evident that “Anubis must have been engaged in warding off evil influences, and it is conceivable that he did so as a judge. . . . [One Egyptian text even] identifies Anubis as a butcher slaying the enemies of Osiris while [another] states that such butchers are in fact a company of magistrates.”22 As a “reckoner of hearts” (ỉp ỉbw) Anubis was “the inflictor of the punishment . . . of the enemies” of Osiris.23 So from the perspective of the ancient Egyptians, the process of embalming and mummification included elements of ritual violence against evildoers or agents of chaos. “The punishment of enemies by a ‘judge’ is simply a part of the protective ritual enacted in connection with the embalmment of the deceased.”24

It is thus reasonable to insist, as Gee does, that “excluding a sacrificial dimension to lion couch scenes is un-Egyptian, even if we cannot come up with one definitive reading [of Facsimile 1] at this time.”25

Further Reading

John Gee, “The Facsimiles,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 143–156.

John Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Review 20, no. 1 (2008): 113–137, esp. 130–135.

Hugh Nibley, “Facsimile 1: A Unique Document,” in An Approach to the Book of Abraham (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2009), 115–178.



1 Jules Remy, Voyage au pays des Mormons, 2 vols. (Paris: E. Dentu, 1860), 2:463; cf. A Journal to the Great-Salt-Lake City, 2 vols. (London: W. Jeffs, 1861), 2:540.

2 Franklin S. Spalding, Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator (Salt Lake City, UT: The Arrow Press, 1912), 23.

3 Spalding, Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator, 26.

4 Spalding, Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator, 28.

5 Spalding, Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator, 30.

6 Spalding, Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator, 30.

7 See e.g. Michael D. Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 18–20.

8 John Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Review 20, no. 1 (2008): 130–135, quote at 132; “Execration Rituals in Various Temples,” in 8. Ägyptologische Tempeltagung: Interconnections between Temples, Warschau, 22.–25. September 2008, ed. Monika Dolińska and Horst Beinlich (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010), 67–80, esp. 73–79.

9 Lanny Bell, “The Ancient Egyptian ‘Books of Breathing,’ the Mormon ‘Book of Abraham,’ and the Development of Egyptology in America,” in Egypt and Beyond: Essays Presented to Leonard H. Lesko upon his Retirement from the Wilbour Chair of Egyptology at Brown University, June 2005, ed. Stephen E. Thompson and Peter Der Manuelian (Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 2008), 26–28.

10 Gee, “Execration Rituals in Various Temples,” 73–79.

11 Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” 132, citing Penelope Wilson, A Ptolemaic Lexikon (Leuven: Peeters, 1997).

12 Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” 132–133, citing Sylvie Cauville, Le Temple de Dendara: Les chapelles osiriennes (Cairo: IFAO, 1997); cf. John Gee, “Glossed Over: Ancient Egyptian Interpretations of Their Religion,” in Evolving Egypt: Innovation, Appropriation, and Reinterpretation in Ancient Egypt, ed. Kerry Muhlestein (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2012), 74. Cauville, Le Temple de Dendara, 2:107, calls these figures defending Osiris “aggressive genies” (les génies agressifs) who form a “defensive zone” (zone de défense) around his body.

13 Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” 134–135.

14 Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” 134.

15 Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), 193–194; cf. A. M. Blackman and H. W. Fairman, “The Myth of Horus at Edfu: II. C. The Triumph of Horus over His Enemies: A Sacred Drama,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 28 (1942): 32–38; “The Myth of Horus at Edfu: II. C. The Triumph of Horus over His Enemies: A Sacred Drama (Continued),” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 29 (1943): 2–36; “The Myth of Horus at Edfu: II. C. The Triumph of Horus over His Enemies: A Sacred Drama (Concluded),” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 30 (1944): 5–22.

16 This connection is explicitly made in Papyrus Jumilhac. See Harco Willems, “Anubis as Judge,” in Egyptian Religion: The Last Thousand Years, Part 1: Studies Dedicated to the Memory of Jan Quaegebeur, ed. Willy Clarysse, Antoon Schoors, and Harco Willems (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), 741.

17 Mark S. Smith, Traversing Eternity: Texts for the Afterlife from Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 26.

18 Smith, Traversing Eternity, 26–27.

19 Smith, Traversing Eternity, 27.

20 Willems, “Anubis as Judge,” 719–743.

21 Willems, “Anubis as Judge,” 726.

22 Willems, “Anubis as Judge,” 727.

23 Willems, “Anubis as Judge,” 735.

24 Willems, “Anubis as Judge,” 740; cf. Cauville, Le Temple de Dendara, 2:108, who observes that the role of Anubis in these Dendara embalming scenes is to act as both an embalmer and a butcher of Osiris’ enemies. “Cette double fonction est aussi assumée par les trois Anubis: préposés à l’embaumement (ḫnty sḥ-nṯr, nb wˁbt, ỉmỉ-wt), ils massacrent Seth et le découpent en morceaux.”

25 Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” 135.