Can You Spare Four Quarters for an Old Apologist?

Yesterday in a priesthood lesson I taught on the Book of Abraham, I had time to mention only one of the many interesting evidences for the plausibility of Joseph Smith’s discussion of the meaning of the facsimiles. I chose Figure 6 in Facsimile 2 – the strange figure of 4 upside down figures with animal heads. If somebody were just guessing, what are the chances that they would come up with Joseph’s answer of “the four quarters of the earth”? I have asked a variety of people to guess at its meaning before looking at what Joseph wrote, and naturally, none of these people ever made such a guess. But it is correct. Was Joseph just lucky?

Below is my discussion of this topic from page 2 of my pages on the Book of Abraham (the cited references are on that page):

Figure 6: the four quarters of the earth

Figure 6 is the same as the four canopic figures under the lion couch of Facs. 1 and is said by Joseph to represent “this earth in its four quarters.” How many farmers would have guessed that four little statues represented such a thing? But it is an entirely plausible explanation based on a modern understanding of Egyptian, and fits nicely into the themes of the hypocephalus. E. Wallis Budge explained, “These jars were under the protection of Isis, Nephthys, Neith, and Serqet, and represented the south, north, east, and west respectively” [Budge, 1904, 1:210]. In the forward to Budge’s translation of the Book of the Dead, Budge wrote that the four “children of Horus” were each “supposed to be lord of one of the quarters of the world, and finally became the god of one of the cardinal points” [Budge, 1967, p. cxxiv, emphasis mine]. Joseph was absolutely correct.

According to John Gee [Gee, 1991], the four canopic vessels represent the four Sons of Horus, each of which has its own unique name, its own animal head, and its own cardinal direction. The link between the Sons of Horus and the cardinal directions was first established in 1857 [Brugsch, 1857], so Joseph could not have drawn upon scholarly knowledge in saying that they represented the four quarters of the earth. Indeed, there was essentially no valid knowledge of Egyptian to draw upon in 1842 when the Book of Abraham was published.

Stephen E. Thompson criticizes Joseph Smith’s interpretation of Figure 4 [Thompson, 1995]. Concerning the claim of LDS scholars that the fours sons of Horus represent the four quarters of the earth, Thompson objects:

“As far as ancient Egypt is concerned, there is no evidence currently available to support this claim. There is only one context in which the sons of Horus are associated with the cardinal directions, i.e., ‘the earth in its four quarters.’ They were sent out, in the form of birds, as heralds of the king’s coronation….I must emphasize that it is only in this context, and in the form of birds, that these gods were associated with the cardinal points. In the funerary context no such relationship is evident. Furthermore, the fact that these gods are sent to the four quarters of the earth does not mean that the Egyptians equated them with these directions. There is no evidence that they did so.”

Thompson’s approach fascinates me. Instead of marveling at how Joseph could have guessed even a remotely plausible meaning for the canopic figures, he quibbles. After flatly stating that there is no evidence for a link to the four quarters of the earth, then he admits that there is only one context – coronations – in which such a link exists. He then denies the relevance of that link, alleging that Facsimile 2 is only a funerary scene. I wonder if he is unaware of what Hugh Nibley has been writing about Facsimile 2 for many years: that it centers around the concept of the endowment, which is the “coronation” of the resurrected soul in the kingdom of God. Indeed, non-LDS scholars acknowledge that figures of this type (the hypocephalus) are concerned with the life after, with a triumphant resurrection and entrance into eternity. It seems entirely reasonable to me to place Facsimile 2 into the context of a coronation scene, the one scene for which Thompson says the sons of Horus are linked to the four quarters of the earth. But Thompson can allow no room for plausibility in anything Joseph says.

I also disagree with Thompson’s stance that only one context permits a relationship between the sons of Horus and the cardinal directions. John Gee provides others in his article. For example, in the Pyramid Texts, “the Sons of Horus are associated with the orientation of the four corners of the earth and used to orient the Pyramid” [Gee, 1991, p. 38]. They are also connected to winds from the four corners of the sky.

I feel that identifying the “four quarters” with the sons of Horus in Figure 6 is especially appropriate, since the four legs of the adjacent cow, Hathor = ‘house of Horus’, have a similar meaning mentioned in the quote from Campbell [discussed in connection with the upside down cow of Facs. 2 on my Book of Abraham page].

Still puzzled about Thompson’s allegation, I borrowed a copy of Richard W. Wilkinson’s Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art [Wilkinson, 1994] from our local library. The discussion of the Sons of Horus in Wilkinson clearly links them to the four quarters of the earth or the four cardinal directions, with no hint at all that this connection only occurred during coronation ceremonies. For example, Wilkinson’s glossary entry for the Sons of Horus explains that they “were four genii or minor deities connected with the cardinal points and which guarded the viscera of the deceased. Originally human-headed, they were regularly portrayed with the heads of different creatures: Imsety, human-headed (south); Duamutef, jackal-headed (east); Hapy, ape-headed (north); Qebesenuef, falcon-headed (west)” (p. 213). His section on the meaning of the number four notes that the four Sons of Horus were one of several groups of four commonly found in Egyptian art. Then he writes, “Frequently the number [four] appears to connote totality and completeness and is tied to the four cardinal points…The four cardinal points are certainly an ancient concept…. Usually … the four areas represent the four quarters of the earth alone. This is the case in most religious rituals which find representational expressions” [Wilkinson, 1994, pp. 133-134, emphasis mine]. He does cite the coronation of the king as well as the jubilee ceremony as examples involving the cardinal directions, but there is no hint that the connection between the four Sons of Horus and the four quarters of the earth only occurs in a narrow and limited context.

Page 145 of Wilkinson shows a photograph of canopic jars (shaped as the Sons of Horus, containing human viscera) in a decorated chest (22nd Dynasty). Each side of the chest also has one of the four Sons of Horus on it, being protected by the goddesses Isis, Nephthys, Neith, and Selket. This concept is discussed on pages 70-71 in the context of placement of coffins, which were sometimes oriented with the cardinal directions (head to the north, with the body sideways facing east). The four Sons of Horus were sometimes placed on the long sides of the coffin, with two on the west side and two on the east. Wilkinson then notes that the Son of Horus are sometimes represented on the four sides of the chests in which canopic jars were stored. Again, the Sons of Horus are linked to directions in a context other than coronation rites alone. Joseph’s “four quarters of the earth” remains a “direct hit,” in my eyes. Now how can the critics explain that? If Joseph were a fraud, why the direct hits?

E. Wallis Budge, Gods of the Egyptians, or Studies in Egyptian Mythology 1 (1904), as cited by Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 1992, p. 148; and 2 (1969), New York: Dover, as cited by McGregor and Shirts, p. 218.

E. Wallis Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, (New York: Dover, 1967, originally published 1895).

H. Brugsch, Die Geographie des alten Aegyptens, Leipzig, 1857, pp. 30-37, as cited by Gee, 1991.

John Gee, “Notes on the Sons of Horus,” FARMS paper GEE-91, Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991.

Stephen E. Thompson, “Egyptology and the Book of Abraham,” Dialogue, 28, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 143-162.

Richard W. Wilkinson, Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994).


Author: Jeff Lindsay

4 thoughts on “Can You Spare Four Quarters for an Old Apologist?

  1. Your analysis of the “four corners of the Earth” concept is very interesting, but how do you account for Joseph’s translation of the names of the sons of Horus? “Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, and Korash” bear no resemblance that I can see to “Imsety, Duamutef, Hapy, and Qebesenuef”.

  2. worlebird,

    The four names Joseph gave are names of regions (or cultures) on the four sides of Egypt. That is, the names Joseph gave were repetitions of the four cardinal directions, not the names of those gods. His intent was to emphasize their symbolic meaning, not list their names.
    This further strengthens Joseph’s claim rather than diminishing it. The man was all he claimed to be.

  3. Jeff,

    Excellent analysis, and “spot on!” But, you failed to point out perhaps the most important element in all this: Those same four creatures show up in the prophetic visions of Ezekiel, Daniel and John (Revelation). The only difference being the variation of the symbols themselves over time and across different cultures. The Hebrews saw them as having the heads of a man, eagle, lion and ox (or calf). This raises a fascinating question that throws open a door on ancient tradition and prophetic symbolism: Why are pagan icons found in the revelations of prophets and apostles? I’d be happy to send you some material on that, if you’re interested.

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