The Document of Breathing Isis Made for Her Brother

The Book of Breathings is my absolute favorite title of some of the ancient Egyptian “books of the dead.” The Books of Breathing are from a later period and were most popular during the Greco-Roman period in Egypt, though the earliest known copy has been dated to about 350 BCE.

The Book of Breathings tells us that it was…

…composed by Isis for Her brother Osiris to make His soul to live, to make His body to live, to make young all His members anew, that He might reach the horizon together with His father the Sun, that His soul might rise in heaven like the disk of the Moon, that His body might shine in Orion in the body of Nuet; that moreover these things might happen to Osiris <name of the deceased>; would that thou wouldst hide this thing, so as not to have it read to anyone. It is helpful to the one in the place of the dead; he shall live anew in truth, millions of times.

The Book of Breathings

The Book of Breathings contains versions of formulae also found in the Book of the Dead as well as new compositions, commentary, and reworkings of older formulae. Included under this category of Books of Breathing are works more fully titled the Document or Permit of Breathing Isis Made for Her Brother Osiris, the First Book of Breathing, also attributed to Isis, and a Second Book of Breathing, said to have been copied by Thoth. So we have our two great Divine Magicians, Isis and Thoth, at work here, too.

Possibly a photo of the real Joseph Smith, Jr.

The Book of Breathing focuses (surprise!) on the importance of breath in reviving the deceased, as well as purification, rejoining with the ba (soul) after death, the vindication of the deceased through a version of the Negative Confession, and the divinization and acceptance of the deceased by the Deities.

Highly idealized portrait of Smith

The translation of a particular text of the Book of Breathing plays a rather strange part in the history of Egyptology and the foundation of a new religion.

There is a copy of the Document of Breathing Isis Made, which was originally created for a priest named Hor from Thebes. (Thebes is where all the Books of Breathings originate, so it was apparently a Theban thing.) Interestingly, it was also one of the first Egyptian papyri to find its way to America. It was purchased (along with some other papyrus fragments) by the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons), Joseph Smith, Jr., from a traveling mummy show in Kirtland, Ohio in 1835.

Smith spent the next years “translating” the papyrus using his own system, developed in his book, Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language—as well as a great deal of divine inspiration. The resulting translation was serialized in a Mormon publication in 1842. The LDS Church today says that he translated it using the Urim and Thummim, in other words, by divination. (It is worth noting that Champollion’s deciphering of the hieroglyphs was not known in America at the time and European scholars were still arguing vehemently about whether or not he’d got it right, anyway. It is also worth noting that Smith was no stranger to the “translation” of purportedly Egyptian texts. The Book of Mormon itself was his inspired translation of writing inscribed on golden tablets in “reformed Egyptian.”)

A facsimile of the “sacrifice of Abraham” vignette from the Joseph Smith papyrus

Anyway, Smith boldly went on, interpreting the texts he had purchased as The Book of Abraham, which became canonized when it was included in Mormonism’s Pearl of Great Price in 1880. The Book of Abraham is supposed to be a record of Abraham’s life while in Egypt as well as his visions of the cosmos and creation. Thus, the “translation” of an ancient Egyptian text is one of the foundational texts of Mormonism.

The “restored” vignette…

The original papyri that Smith purchased were thought lost until the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York found (some of) them among their collection and made a gift of them to the Morman church in 1967. Since then, Egyptologists have had access and been able to truly interpret the texts for what they are: a Document of Breathing Isis Made. They also had plenty of time to unload a rather substantial round of criticism on Smith’s original work.

…and a more likely restoration

You may be wondering what sort of thing is actually in the Book of Abraham so I’ll offer a few examples, but I really don’t want to get into it too much…

Abraham’s tale begins as he seeks to leave the land of the Chaldeans because he wants to become a righteous High Priest of his God. His people had turned away from the one God and were worshiping “the god of Elkenah, and the god of Libnah, and the god of Mahmackrah, and the god of Korash, and the god of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” There were human sacrifices left and right…including small children and three virtuous virgins. Then the wicked priests attempted to sacrifice Abraham himself, but he was saved by an Angel of the Lord. Here, he refers to a vignette from the papyrus that had clearly been changed to suit the story. You will recognize the traditional Egyptian image of Osiris upon His bier with Anubis, no longer quite looking like Anubis.

A “bible stories” type illustration of the same scene

We also learn that Egypt was discovered by the daughter of Ham (her name was Egyptus, which means “that which is forbidden”) when Egypt was under water. (So perhaps Smith knew about Egypt’s Inundation?) And it comes to pass that Jehovah tells Abraham it’s time to leave Chaldea. Eventually, he ends up in Egypt. Next Abraham talks with Jehovah Himself and learns about the structure of the cosmos, the star that is closest to God, and how Creation came about. If your curiosity extends beyond where mine did, the Wikipedia article is pretty good and the whole Book of Abraham is online at the official LDS site.

Another vignette from the Book of Abraham; that’s supposedly ole Abe on the throne with pharaoh behind him. Abraham is “reasoning upon the principles of Astronomy, in the king’s court.”

So. What has all this to do with Isis, you ask? She is, of course, the Divine author of the work that inspired Smith. But beyond that, Isis has always been a Goddess of writing and sacred words, so much so that She was assimilated with the Egyptian Divine Scribe Goddess Seshat.

Isis, Lady of the Book, teaching Hermes and Moses in a painting by the Renaissance painter Pinturicchio

Later, in Isis aretalogies from Kyme in Turkey and Maronea in Greece, Isis and Thoth are credited with being the creators of hieroglyphic and demotic letters (a later script form of Egyptian writing). The Cairo calendar calls Isis “provider of the book.” In an aretalogy found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, Isis is said to be skilled in writing and calculations. In fact, this reputation followed the Goddess all the way into the Middle Ages when, as an ancestress and culture bearer, Isis was credited with teaching the Egyptians the letters of the alphabet and how to write.

So perhaps we are not all that surprised to find Her associated with books—not only ancient Egyptian ones, but also—although obliquely—books that inspired another of the world’s religions.