Hugh Nibley was an undeniable and major influence on my life. I first discovered his writings as a young missionary, and soon became something of a fanboy, which continued when I returned to BYU to finish my undergraduate degree. My study of ancient languages is just one of the many scholarly things I inherited from him. For more background on my own encounters with Nibley, please read my Sunstone In Memoriam piece.
I caught up with Nibley just as his academic career was winding down. His last published book was Abraham in Egypt in 1981. He had a few more years of smaller publications, and then the trickle stopped. At that point, the then FARMS (now part of the Neal A. Maxwell for Religious Scholarship at BYU) began publishing the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, which was intended to be a comprehensive reissuing of all of his writings. One Eternal Round, which was just issued in time for the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, marks the 19th and final volume in the series. (I’ll be honest and say that I’ve ignored all but the Approaching Zion volume in the CWHN series, since I had already read most of the material in their original editions.)
Nibley spent the last 15 years of his life working on this book, until he finally became too ill to do any more. The Preface (p. xiii) describes how a team from FARMS, including John Welch, John Gee, Michael Rhodes and others, came to the Nibley home just south of campus to gather up his materials for the book. Nibley was lying on a hospital bed in the living room, but he was unconscious. This isn’t described in the book, but I remember contemporary personal accounts of this event; my understanding is that there was so much material, they had to approach it like an archaeological dig, keeping meticulous records of the locations of the various piles of papers they were excavating. Eventually they left the house with 30 boxes of papers, notes and pictures and some 450 computer files containing numerous drafts (some chapters existing in 20 different versions).
The group quickly realized that this was more than an editor’s nightmare; someone was going to have to dig into all of this stuff and take on the role of a coauthor. It was an awkward moment; they all looked uncomfortably at each other, as no one at that point was prepared to make the kind of commitment necessary to shepherd this project through to completion. After struggling with the idea for a day, the next night Michael Rhodes lay awake thinking about it, when a feeling of calm came over him, and he felt he could actually do it. So Rhodes took on the task of bringing some sense of coherence to this mountain of material. Rhodes was the ideal person to do this. The book is supposed to be an extended treatment of Facsimile 2 of the Book of Abraham, and he had already published a seminal article on the subject: Michael D. Rhodes, “A Translation and Commentary of the Joseph Smith Hypocephalus,” Brigham Young University Studies 17 (Spring 1977): 259-74. He also keeps an updated version of that article on his website, which you can read here.
Rhodes worried about their different writing styles. Nibley’s style was famously vigorous, full of hyperbole, sarcasm and wit; Rhodes’ style is, in his own words, more “pedestrian.” As much as I love Nibley’s style, sometimes less is more, and it could usually use some taming; the book is no doubt stronger for Rhodes’ involvement than it would have been otherwise. (Rhodes even toyed with the idea of trying to show their different voices graphically in some fashion, such as with a different typeface a la KJV italics; thankfully he abandoned that notion.)
So what is Facsimile 2? It is a representation of an Egyptian document known as a hypocephalus, which comes from the Greek instruction hupo tEn kephalEn “under the head.” It was a circular disk meant to be placed under the mummy’s head in accordance with instructions given in chapter 162 of the Book of the Dead in order to give the deceased warmth in the afterlife. More broadly, it was a sort of short version of the Book of Breathings, which was a short version of the Book of the Dead, which reflected themes from the Coffin Texts, which reflected themes from the Pyramid Texts, all of which were focused on instructions and means to navigate the afterlife and become gods.
At p. 591 Nibley gives some basic information regarding hypocephali:
1. There are a little more than 100 surviving from a period of 500 years.
2. They were private and intimate documents belonging to a very limited social class, families of priests and priestesses of Amun-Re.
3. They were designed to the personal taste and often by the hand of the owner, who “passed the practice down from father to son.”
4. They are found in few places, notably Thebes and Tel el-Yahudiah, “the Jewish settlement.”
The Table of Contents is as follows:
1. The Critics
2. What Is the Problem?
3. Dispensations and Axial Times
4. Myth, Ritual, and History
5. Abraham and the Great Year-Rite
6. What Is a Hypocephalus?
7. Reading the Hypocephalus: Part 1, Figures 1-4, 22-23
8. Reading the Hypocephalus: Part 2, Figures 5-21
9. The Ascension Dramas
10. Jewel of Discernment
11. Joseph Smith, Hermetic Tradition, and the Hypocephalus
12. The Kabbala
13. Alexander the Great
Now, if you’re looking for a book that sets out the polemical issues involving the Book of Abraham in un understandable way, you’ve picked the wrong book. The titles of the first two chapters sound like that is their task, but they’re very brief and mostly refer the reader to Nibley’s earlier publications for details. Of course, those earlier publications are both extensive and technical, but you’ll get little help here. As in Vergil’s Aeneid, Nibley pretty much begins this book in medias res, assuming that the reader already has adequate knowledge of the controversies. For most readers, that assumption will be a vain one, I fear.
Personally, I liked chapters 6, 7 and 8–the material most directly commenting on the JS hypocephalus–the best.
Long time Nibley readers will recognize from some of these chapter titles some of Nibley’s favorite topics: axial periods, the year-rite, and so forth. All of this material is related to hypocephali, even if sometimes only tangentially. This material is quite expansive and traverses a lot of territory, both in geography and time. Although some see in this type of approach parallelomania run amuck, I see it as largely Nibley being a product of his own education. He was always steeped in the “patternism” of the Cambridge school from the 1930s. The approach has an old fashioned feel to it, but its ambition is certainly exhilarating.
Much of this is kind of a high flying read, so Rhodes helpfully supplies brief summaries for some, though not all, of the chapters. The book just sort of ends without a conclusion, which is probably inescapable given its posthumous nature, but it is unfortunate all the same.
So who should read this book? I tried to come up with a list:
2. People who are fascinated by the pictures in the BoA and are curious what they mean.
3. People interested in BoA studies.
4. Serious students of LDS scripture (underline serious).
5. People with an antiquarian interest in the ancient world generally.
6. Egyptologists. Nibley talks about how the old school didn’t respect the religious ideas of the Egyptians. Although that is starting to change, Nibley gives those ideas a lot of respect. Even though he views them through his omnipresent Mormon lens, here is a chance for a secular, modern Egyptologist to see a rare bird: a person who is highly educated and intelligent, can read the language, is very knowledgeable in both the texts and the modern scholarly literature, but who also reads those texts seriously, engaging his own religious sensibilities in the process. I should think that for a 21st century Egyptologist reading Nibley would be an anthropological dream, rather like Dian Fossey studying her gorillas in the mist.