Kolob as Sirius

Kaimi’s T&S thread on Kolob raises the question of what the word “Kolob” means. Clark mentioned the Kolob as Sirius theory, and I mentioned that I personally hold to that theory. I was sure someone would ask about it, but no one did, so I thought I would undertake a brief explanation of it here.

There are two prominent etymological theories held by LDS scholars on the derivation of Kolob.(1) The first, as represented by Michael D. Rhodes in his “The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus…Twenty Years Later” at p. 8, suggests that “The word most likely derives from the common Semitic root QLB, which has the basic meaning of “heart, center, middle” (Arabic qalb “heart, center”; Hebrew qereb “middle, midst”, qarab “to draw near”; Egyptian m-q3b “in the midst of”). In fact, qalb forms part of the Arabic names of several of the brightest stars in the sky, including Antares, Regulus, and Canopus.” Nibley also favored this view, and given Nibley’s tremendous influence it has probably been the most widely held position historically.

The other common theory, held to by John Gee(2) and certain other LDS scholars, and which I myself favor, sees Kolob as deriving from the Semitic root KLB “dog,” which is an allusion to Sirius.(3) Both anciently and today Sirius was known as the “dog” star, or more technically in astronomical terminology, Alpha Canis Majoris (which means the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, or the “Bigger Dog”).

I like this view because:

1. The Semitic root works for Kolob.

2. Sirius is indeed the brightest star in the night sky from the perspective of earth.

3. Sirius is extremely important in Egyptian astronomy, since it was at its heliacal rising that the Nile began to rise. As Sir Alan Gardiner wrote in his seminal grammar,

It must have been early recognized that the Nile began to rise afresh about the same time (near July 19th of the Julian calendar) that the brilliant star Sirius (the dog-star), after having been invisible for a prolonged period, was first again observed in the sky shortly before sunrise. Consequently this latter event, described by modern astronomers as the heliacal rising of Sirius, and by the Egyptians as prt Spdt “the going up of (the goddess) Sothis,” came to be regarded as the true New Year’s Day (wpt-rnpt “the opening of the year”), i.e. tpy (n) tht sw t “first month of inundation, day 1.”(4)

Traditionally there have been three approaches to the astronomical material in chapter 3 of the BoA. First, many LDS take the view that the BoA portrays the universe as it actually is, and thus reflects modern relativistic Einsteinian or post-Einsteinian astrophysics. Second, those who see it as purely a 19th-century pseudepigraphon assume that it should reflect Copernican or Newtonian heliocentric astronomy. Third, some view the book as reflecting an ancient geocentric astronomy.

The first position is articulated by Michael D. Rhodes and J. Ward Moody, “Astronomy and the Creation in the Book of Abraham,” and the third position is articulated by John Gee, William J. Hamblin and Daniel C. Peterson, “‘And I Saw the Stars’: The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” both in John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid, eds., Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant (Provo: FARMS, 2005).(5) This to me is an absolutely fascinating contrast in approaches to understanding the scripture in question, and I think it is wonderful that the editors have placed these contrasting approaches side by side for easy comparison.

I favor the third view, and would agree with Gee, Hamblin and Peterson in their contentions that (i) the text of Abraham 3 can best be understood as a discussion of the visible heavens rather than as a grand supernatural vision of the entire universe, and (ii) the text of this material makes most sense when read as referring to ancient geocentric astronomy. But many Latter-day Saints don’t see it that way, and favor the first view (and some even the second).

If you’re at all interested in the variant ways different LDS scholars approach the scriptures, I think this is a fascinating case study. I highly recommend that you read both articles together and then draw your own conclusions. Toward that end, if you don’t have a copy yet, I would suggest putting the Astronomy, Papyrus and Covenant volume on your Christmas book list, along with the other volumes suggested by J. Stapley.

____________________
(1) I read a draft of a paper as a peer reviewer once that took it for granted that Kolob derives from Hebrew kol ab, meaning “every father.” I view this suggestion as incoherent, and so I have not undertaken to discuss it further here.

(2) Based on personal conversation. John and I reached similar conclusions independently of each other.

(3) I believe the first person to pose this as a possibility was the non-LDS scholar R.C. Webb [J.E. Homans], in his 1913 article in the Improvement Era, “A Critical Examination of the Fac-similes in the Book of Abraham,” where he wrote: ” The explanation given in connection with this figure is that it indicates ‘Kolob, signifying the first creation, nearest to the Celestial.’ The form of this word would seem to suggest a Semitic etymology, akin, perhaps, to the Hebrew word KALAB, a dog; whence, possibly, Sirius, the Dog-star, so called.” This article may be found at this link; the paragraph in question is four-fifths of the way down. On Webb, see here.

(4) Sir Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, 3rd Ed. (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1979), 205.

(5) These articles are next to each other, the first I mention at p. 17 and the second at p. 1.

Comments

  1. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    Non-scholar that I am, it makes more sense to me that God would live at the center or heart of things than merely at a star that seems brightest from the perspective of Earth.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    PDE, this shows that you read the astronomy passages of Abraham 3 from the perspective that they describe actual, physical reality. Which of course is fine, and you have lots of company. But you can see how the way you approach the scripture influences which etymological theory you are likely to find most persuasive. Because you are right, if we’re talking about actual reality, it’s kind of silly to say that God lives on a planet encircling Sirius, inasmuch as in the universe as a whole Sirius is insignificant. Sirius is only significant if we’re talking about ancient, perceived reality from perspective of earth.

  3. I had no idea about this and it is really fascinating. I guess I would count myself in a 4th group that because of ignorance have looked at it as a symbolic introduction to the Lords teachings on the nature of the soul.

    That volume looks beautiful. $50 at Amazon.com

  4. Whoa, FAIR has it for $30. That is surprising. And here is a TOC.

  5. Nice post Kevin. I had never heard of the semitic qlb or klv roots being the basis of Kolob. These are really fascinating ideas.

  6. If I’m not mistaken, currently cosmology holds that there is no such thing as a ‘center’ of the universe. I guess you could draw a parallel to our measuring time relative to Jesus’s birth. (Although Joseph Fielding Smith argued that was the center of time.) In both cases, the designation is fundamentally arbitrary in relation to the overall structure. It is God’s presence that qualifies it as the center.

  7. Brad Kramer says:

    Derek Jensen wrote a fascinating paper dealing with theory no. 2 as a part of the Joseph Smith Summer Seminar with Richard Bushman several years back. A compilation of papers from the seminar was published by BYU Studies I think, but I’m not sure how easy it is to find or if Derek has posted it anywhere online.

  8. If you’re a FARMS subscriber, you can read that FARMS volume for free at the FARMS website.

    There’s another possible etymology that I’ve talked to Gee about, since I know little about Egyptian.

    The relevant passage is Abr. 3:3 “the name of the great one is Kolob, because it is near unto me.”

    I suggested that there was originally a Semitic wordplay on qrb (“near”) that was lost in the Egyptian, since it doesn’t distinguish liquids, ie. /r/ or /l/. Wordplays frequently get lost in translation/transmission, as in Jer. 1:11-12 (almond/ watching-over,Heb. “shaqed/shoqed”) or Jershon/inheritance in Alma 27:22.

    From that perspective (which I’ve never really followed up on), it would have originally said something like “the name of the great one is Korob, since it is kereb to me.”

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Ben, how does one find the volume at the website? I’m a subscriber, but I can’t find it there.

    (Interesting suggestion on the lost wordplay.)

  10. Make sure you’re logged in.

    Read our publications> Book excerpts>FARMS Books.

    A list of books appears, which are all available to be read in toto. Astronomy etc. is 5th down.

  11. I guess what I suggest in 8 is just a variant of Rhodes’ theory.

  12. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    Kevin, while I have read those scriptures I wasn’t thinking of them when I responded; I was thinking of what you had said about the possible derivations of “Kolob” from “QLB” vs. “KLB.” Since “QLB” seems to mean “heart” or “center” it makes sense to me. Whether or not it’s the literal center of anything or more of an emotional/spiritual center is up for debate. Like I think it could be said that Salt Lake City is the “heart” of the church but not geographically speaking.

  13. Given how much of the speculation about Kolob is not from Abr 3 but from Fac 2 it would be nice to find some deeper parallels to the astronomy/astrology presentation there. I did a bunch of searching years ago in both ancient texts as well as more contemporary hermetic styled texts. No go. It really is a pretty unique presentation with only very broad parallels that I was able to find. That’s not to say there aren’t parallels. But I did a fair bit of searching and couldn’t find much.

    I suspect that if we could find some more variants on Fac 2′s explanation we’d be able to provide stronger arguments for the sense of Kolob.

  14. threadjack: Kevin, sorry for this complete threadjack, but I watch Joyeux Noel last night and it was amazing. Best christmas movie I’ve seen in a long long time. Thansks for recommending it.

  15. Any Sirius/Kobol theory that posits Sirius as the actual home star of deity would have difficulty with the astrophysics since Sirius is much younger than our sun and solar system (only 250 to 500 million years for Sirius versus 5 billion for our sun and solar system). Furthermore as an A giant star it is likely to burn out and supernova long before our sun and is highly unlikely to harbor an Earth-like planet. All in all not a very good candidate for an eternal dwelling place.

    See http://www.solstation.com/stars/sirius2.htm for lots of fun Sirius info.

  16. Good greif. I’ve never entertained any thoughts along this line… I’ll have to poke into this more deeply. I do have to say, on first impulse, I want to agree with PDoE- of “heart” being the center of all things- litteral or not.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Matt W., Joyeux Noel was a powerful little film, was it not? A timely mention of it with the Christmas season almost upon us.

  18. Steve Evans says:

    Kev, are you sirius??

  19. Is there any sizable school of thought that holds Antares as a possible candidate? It is much closer to the center of the galaxy, it is among the stars listed as having qalb as part of the Arabic name.

  20. Thanks for this post, fascinating. (Sorry I don’t have anything to add….)

  21. Another possibility, less rooted in _ancient_ Semitic philology, might include a minor deviation from kokob, a word Smith knew represented ‘star’ in Hebrew, where kolob is the quintessential star. i’m interested to read these other proposals. (fyi, i believe this explanation is still consistent with a divine/ancient origin for BoA, though it is not as useful in apologia as QLB or QRB).
    Another possible context for the Abrahamic astronomy is the “scale of creation,” perhaps not an Egyptian or Semitic antecedent, though the ideas of order in cosmos, scale and hierarchy seem almost hard-wired into human cultures, so perhaps there are reflexes in Egyptian/Hebrew traditions. Does anyone know whether people have seen the scale of creation or “chain of being” in Egyptian texts or early Hebrew traditions (before medieval mysticism–the Qabbalah is clearly intimately associated with the chain)? That could be quite fascinating. I’m thinking of the teaching that the resurrected earth will be urim and thummim to things below it in the scale of creation, the tiered multiplicity of inhabited worlds, and the references to intelligences greater and lesser (Abr 3:18-9). Again, fyi again, i think this explanation is consistent with a divine/ancient origin for BoA.

  22. I’ve looked for parallels between fac. 2 and Merkabah or Kabbalistic texts and even the hybrid texts in the European hermetic traditions. I couldn’t find much. I’m not as up on Egyptian sources but certainly I couldn’t find any in the quasi-Egyptian stuff in Renaissance or later Europe. Ditto for what I could find in the Hellenized hermetic stuff in the ancient world. As I said that’s not to say there might not be something there. But the divisions are all wrong. There are general parallels, of course, such as to the Sefiroth as you note. But the non-parallels outweigh the parallels.

  23. Is sirius a twin star system? I wonder if this relationship was known in the ancient world. and if any semitic words reflect this knowledge. If I remember right the Dogon tribe in Africa knew that Sirius was actually a twin star system. I haven’t studied much on this word but if Sirius/Kolob is in the center then it would include its twin star.

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    smb, I think you’re right that Kolob as a variant of kokob is indeed a possibility and one we should keep on the table with the others, especially since the word kokob actually appears in the explanation to Fac. 2, Fig. 5, as Hah-ko-kau-beam (following the Seixas Sephardic transliteration scheme, with a definite article and in the plural).

  25. Lynn Wilkerson says:

    I think our finite minds are not grasping eternity. To say that God literally lives near Kolob in our known heaven, the Milky Way, which will pass away, Moses 1:37-38 … as the earth shall pass away and the heavens therof… is saying that God does not live in an eternal universe. Everything we know and can see, to our understanding, has a beginning and an eventual end. God’s heaven, being eternal and Celestial, must be in another “eternal, Celestial, dimension” that is beyond our sight and understanding. Therefore Abraham 3: 2-18 must be teaching us basic principals other than where the literal home of God. is.

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