Abstract: Although unknown as deities in Joseph Smith’s day, the names of four associated idolatrous gods (Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, and Korash) mentioned in the Book of Abraham are attested anciently. Two of them are known to have connections with the practices attributed to them in the Book of Abraham. The odds of Joseph Smith guessing the names correctly is astronomical.
Among the specifics given in the Book of Abraham are the names of five deities worshipped in Ur of the Chaldees identified as “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” (Abraham 1:6). The Book of Abraham also informs us a little about the organization of the cult of “these dumb idols” by noting that “the priest of Elkenah was also the priest of Pharaoh” (Abraham 1:7). Up to this point we have had very little knowledge about these particular deities outside of the text of the Book of Abraham itself.1 In this article I examine what can be known about the first four deities mentioned.
Obviously the preferred situation would be that one could find these proper names attested both in the correct time and place.2 This desideratum is easier said than done. There are relatively few extant [Page 134]sources from Abraham’s approximate time and place. Ancient sources from Abraham’s day were written for the needs and purposes of the people in Abraham’s day; they were not written to answer our questions. Information pertaining to our concerns comes only, if it come at all, as incidental mentions in the text. The likelihood of their appearing increases with the number of texts available. Since the amount of relevant information is small, so are the chances of that information answering the questions we may have. We may want, for example, to know how many people lived in Abraham’s Ur, but texts from Abraham’s day usually do not deal directly with population sizes of towns.
Based on the Book of Abraham, Abraham seems to have lived in a time when Egyptians were in the northern Levant. The only time when that appears to be the case is between the reigns of the Pharaohs Sesostris II (1871‒1864 BC) or Sesostris III (1863‒1825 BC) on one end and Amenemhet III (1843‒1798 BC) on the other end.3 This is a period of at most seventy years, and it coincides with the Middle Bronze II period archaeologically. Because this time period is rather narrow and we actually have no written records from the northern Levant at that time, we must widen our scope chronologically by assuming cultural continuity.
Cultural continuity relies on the widespread human inertia not to change what works. Many practices, institutions, and beliefs can persist for hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of years without significant change. The longer time between two attestations of a cultural practice, the greater the chance of its having changed between them.
Abraham’s hometown of Ur seems to be located in the area of modern southern Turkey or northern Syria:4 The homeland (môladâ) in which [Page 135]the Ur of the Chaldees that Abraham fled (Genesis 12:1) is the same homeland (môladâ) in Aram-Naharin (Genesis 24:10) to which he sent his servant to find his son a wife (Genesis 24:4, 7). Aram-Naharin is located in modern-day northern Syria or southern Turkey rather than Mesopotamia. The names in the Abraham narrative are also linked to that area.5
Although it has been suggested that the site of Oylum Hüyük in the Kilis plain has been connected with the Olishem mentioned in the Book of Abraham,6 this identification has been contested from both directions: on the one hand Oylum Hüyük has been proposed to be Ḫaššuwa instead;7 and on the other hand Gaziantep (alternately Oylum) has been proposed to be Olishem with Tilbeṣar as Ḫaššuwa.8 Neither proposed identification of Oylum Hüyük, as Ullišum or Ḫaššuwa, is certain. Locating Ur somewhere in the Kilis or Sajur plain is a reasonable proposal that can be provisionally accepted until more information either confirms or falsifies it. It is located about 165 kilometers (100 miles) west of Harran, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Carchemish, and about the same distance north of Aleppo. The Kilis plain contains thirty-eight known or suspected Middle Bronze II sites.9 Of the known ones, seventeen are small (1‒3 hectares), ten are medium sized (4‒6) hectares, two are large (7‒10 hectares), and one, at 17 hectares, is massive: Oylum Hüyük.10 Using the typical estimate of one hundred people per acre (2.47 hectares),11 the small sites would have a population of about a hundred [Page 136]people, the medium-sized sites would have about two hundred people, and the large sites three or four hundred people; Oylum Hüyük would have had about seven hundred inhabitants.
In the ancient Near East, deities could be either local, regional, or super-regional. Local deities are particular to a specific location. When deities are shared with other locations in an area, then they are regional deities. Those that transcend a particular region can be termed super-regional deities. If the deities mentioned in the Book of Abraham are strictly local deities, then they will be found only if the precise location of Abraham is discovered. Since the precise location is not known, the only chance to find the deities is if they are regional or super-regional deities.
Understanding the Labels
At the general time and place, the phrase “god of X” can mean a variety of things. The following are known usages from the time.
Person: In one Mari letter, Išḫi-Adad refers to the “DINGIR ša a-bi-ia” “the god of my father,”12 showing that the name mentioned after the god can refer to the owner or possessor of the deity. Other letters mention “DINGIR ša be-lí-ia”13 or “DINGIR-lum ša be-lí-ia”14 “the god of my lord.” The Book of Abraham’s “god of Pharaoh” (Abraham 1:6) seems to fit this pattern.
Place: Mari letters refer to the “DINGIR.MEŠ ša a-li-šu” “the gods of his city,”15 which shows that it is possible for a specific place to be mentioned. Likewise, Idrimi refers to the “DINGIR.MEŠ ša URU [Page 137]A-la-la-aḫki” “the gods of the city of Alalah,”16 as well as the “i-lam ma-at Ḫu-ri-ib-teki” “the god of the country of Ḫuribte.”17 This can be extended to use the name of a god applied to a specific place, like “dDa-gan ša Ú-ra-aḫki” “Dagan of Urah.”18
It is not unusual for each location to have its own set of deities worshipped there. This can be shown in a Hittite cult inventory which lists the locations and the deities worshipped there, only portions of which we list here:19
|Ušḫaniya||Storm God (d10)
Sun Deity (dUTU-uš)
|Kipitta||Sun Deity (dUTU-AŠ)|
|Uḫḫiuwa||War god (dZA-BA4-BA4)|
|Kapitatamna||[Storm] God (d)|
|Liššina||Storm God (d10)|
|Kalašmitta||Stag God (dKAL)
|Tamettaya||Storm god of the gate-house (d10 KI.LAM)20
[Page 138]Some towns have more than one chief deity, and some deities are worshipped in more than one place, but the list gives an idea of the geographic variation in worship.
Attribute: The autobiography of Idrimi twice uses the expression “DINGIR.MEŠ ša AN ù KI” “the gods of heaven and earth.”21 This expresses more an attribute than a specific place. This can also be seen in the Mesopotamian god lists where successive lines of one give “AN šá LÚ,” “AN šá SAL,” “AN šá LUGAL,” and “AN šá par-ṣi” “the god of men, the god of women, the god of the king, the god of the official.”22
Name: In cuneiform the names of deities are usually prefixed with the Sumerian sign DINGIR (conventionally abbreviated d, although in the original cuneiform writing there is no distinction between writing a phonetic sign, a logogram, or a determinative).23 Determining when the sign should be read as a determinative and when it should be read as a logogram is not always a trivial or easy matter.24 While this sign is not always read, it is, for example, possible to read the construction dDa-gan as “the god Dagan” or “the god of Dagan,” even though this is not the usual way to understand this construction.
The English word god, however, might not translate as the equivalent of DINGIR. In Joseph Smith’s day, the word god could specifically refer to “a false god; a heathen deity; an idol,”25 which is clearly the way it is used in Abraham 1:6. In cuneiform writing systems of Abraham’s day, when the idol was referred to, the term sign ALAM was used rather than DINGIR. Thus the eighth year of Zimrilim was called “MU Zi-im-ri-li-im ALAM dḪa-at-ta ú-še-lu-ú” “the year Zimrilim erected the god of Ḫatta.”26
The Book of Abraham uses the Hebrew transliteration system that Joseph Smith learned from Josiah Seixas.27 It was the standard transliteration system used in English-speaking countries in the nineteenth century. It differs from the transliteration systems used today and had a number of disadvantages. One of these is that it creates ambiguities, because combinations of letters can stand for different phonemes in the original languages. Such ambiguities are common in transliteration systems both anciently and in modern times. The following table shows the differences between the transliteration system of Seixas and the system used today:
|Hebrew Letter||Current Transliteration||Seixas Transliteration|
As the table shows, the Seixas system is ambiguous in a number of cases where different letters have the same transliteration. This needs to be kept in mind when dealing with the transcriptions of foreign terms in the Book of Abraham. In this article I distinguish between Book of Abraham and contemporary attestations by preserving the spelling from the respective sources.
While identifying a facet about the text and showing that it occurred in the time of Abraham argues for the historical authenticity of the text, one should not stop there. It is important not just to identify names in extra-canonical sources but to use those sources to learn something more about the deity. More information can not just argue for historical authenticity but can elucidate facets of the text that might not be otherwise apparent.
A variety of identifications for Elkenah have been proposed,28 but the most likely is some form of Hebrew El-qoneh (ʾl qnh), “the god who creates.”
The Karatepe inscription is a bilingual inscription in Hieroglyphic Luwian and Phonecian. In the inscription the Luwian Ea is equated with the Phonecian ʾl qn ʾrṣ, “the god who created the earth.”29 The Hittite form of this name is Elkunirša.30 The Hittites preserved a myth, supposedly [Page 141]Canaanite,31 about this god. According to that myth, Elkunirša lived at the headwaters of the Euphrates river.32 The myth, as such, is lamentably fragmentary, but has been summarized as follows:
“Ašertu, the wife of Elkunirša, attempts to seduce Baʿal. The Storm-god reveals everything to her husband and insults her on his inspiration. Thirsting revenge, Ašertu regains the favor of her husband, who then lets her do whatever she like with Baʿal. The goddess Anat now comes on the scene. Having overheard the conversation between Elkunirša and Ašertu, she warns Baʿal. Here the text breaks off. Elkunirša is the Hittitized form of the Semitic phrase ‘El Creator of the Earth.’”33
The myth contains intriguing passages, such as one character (Ašertu) saying to another, (Baʿal) “Come sleep with me”; and when the offer was refused, responding, “Else I will press you down with my [word] and [stab] you with my [. . .]”34 The restoration of “stab” comes from a parallel passage in the story. This passage echoes the passage in the Book of Abraham in which “this priest [of Elkenah (see Abraham 1:7)] had offered upon this altar three virgins at one time, who were the daughters of Onitah, one of the royal descent directly from the loins of Ham. These virgins were offered up because of their virtue; because they would not bow down to worship gods of wood or of stone, they were killed upon this altar, and it was done after the manner of the Egyptians” (Abraham 1:11). Most Anatolian myths are closely connected to rituals.35 The tablet from Böghazköy offers the mythic justification, while the Book of Abraham focuses on the ritual. The Book of Abraham specifies that the ritual, unlike the myth’s stabbing, was “done after the manner of the Egyptians,” and so it must have differed from the simple stabbing of the myth.
This deity is thus attested over a wide area, from Böghazköy to the headwaters of the Euphrates and down past Cilicia into Canaan. He is [Page 142]also attested over a wider temporal range. His myth is also associated with a choice between immorality or death.
Two god lists from Ugarit attest a specific set of deities called the “gods of Labana” (Akkadian: DINGIR.MEŠ la-ab-a-na; Ugaritic: il lb[-]n).36 This has been taken as meaning “the gods of Lebanon,”37 but others have been less certain about the translation.38 There are two canonical god lists from Ugarit, a short one and a long one,39 and the gods of Labana appear on the long one, suggesting that they are not main deities worshiped at Ugarit.
The alternate spelling that appears in some manuscripts of the Book of Abraham but was corrected in the printed edition, Zibnah,40 is attested in the Hittite pantheon as Zappana.41 In Hittite usage of the cuneiform writing system, some “signs whose initial consonant is a stop can have either a voiced or voiceless interpretation,” while those that end in a stop “do not indicate whether the final stop is voiced or voiceless”; so “when transcribing syllabically written Hittite words, Hittitologists normally transliterate the obstruent according to the value of the cuneiform sign most favored by the tradition of Hittitologists.”42 In other words, the transcriptions are traditional, and what is transcribed as a voiced consonant may actually be voiceless and vice versa. Thus the Hittite deity could as easily be Zabbana.
There are two possible ways to take this name: as the name of a deity or as a place name. The two possibilities will be discussed in that order, by considering it first as the name of a deity.
Previous attempts to equate Mahmackrah with the Mesopotamian deity dMa-mi-ḫi-rat43 foundered because in the first place the name had been misread and was actually Mami-šarrat (dMa-mi-šar-rat) and thus not a close match phonetically; and in the second place because it was not the name of a deity but of a canal.44 Some relation to Hebrew mimkar “merchandise” has also been suggested.45
The name of a deity that is at least somewhat close to that of Mahmackrah was found at Beth-Shan in 1927.46 It was found in Level IX of the tell, and is associated with a scarab of Thutmosis III,47 which would date it to the Eighteenth Dynasty of the Egyptian New Kingdom, which, in fact, is the standard date assigned to it by archaeologists.48 The deity is speculated to have been imported into the land of Israel from northern Mesopotamia during Amorite incursions at the end of the Early Bronze Age and thus part of the landscape during the time of Abraham.49
The god of Beth-Shean is written Mkr (or Mꜥkꜣrꜣ).50 This may be a variation of mꜥqꜣrw (alternately mꜥqwrwiw), which is a type of vessel. The word is thought to be related to Ugaritic mqrt , which is “a container or pot,”51 or to Akkadian maqārtu, which is some sort of vessel.52 The [Page 144]prefixed element might be the demon dMÁ attested at Ugarit,53 or perhaps a Hurrian prefix.54 The use of the Egyptian q to write a Semitic k and the reverse (k for q) are rare, but attested.55 The point, however, is moot, since both would have been rendered as a k or ck in Joseph Smith’s transliteration system.56 Modern scholars have often assumed that the rꜣ that ends the name in the Egyptian script is trying to transcribe a Semitic l, which it can do, but it more often transcribes a Semitic r.57
The other possibility is that Mahmackrah is a place name. A location with a name close to Mahmackrah is known from Abraham’s time in the general area of Haran. The Assyrian king, Šamši-Adad, writes to Ismaḫ-Adad that there is a revolt in Zalmaqum, a larger area of which the territory of Haran is a part, and that he is going with his army to suppress the revolt. On the way, an addition to his army has met him at Mammigira.58 So this was a place in between Šubat-Enlil (modern Tell Leilan, Syria) and Haran (modern Şanlıurfa, Turkey).59 A contemporary itinerary shows that it was seven days’ travel from Šubat-Enlil to [Page 145]Mammigira and another three days to Haran.60 The cuneiform writing of the place, Ma-am-ma-gi-raki, could also be read Ma-am-ma-qí-raki, which would end up as Mammackirah in Joseph Smith’s transliteration system. In a presumably later letter of Šamši-Adad, he asks Ismaḫ-Adad to install himself at Mammigira.61 Another letter from Šamši-Adad says that Suda, which is a part of Zalmaqum, is in the area of Mammigira.62 The letters concern military affairs, so no deities that might be worshipped at Mammigira are mentioned.
Of the various deities, perhaps the one we have the most information on is Korash, known among the Hittites as Kurša,63 which is conventionally translated as “hunting bag.”64 It was typically “made of appropriately prepared sheepskins and sometimes even decorated,”65 but “leather, wood, and reed” are all attested materials for a Kurša.66 The bag “functions as the symbol of a deity and is therefore treated as a god.”67 It seems to have been “worshiped as an impersonal deity.”68 The Hittites used “implements associated with a particular god as the actual cult representation of that god.”69 Some of the tablets mentioning Kurša are in Middle Hittite script,70 which seems to be a couple hundred years after [Page 146]Abraham,71 but it is known also from Old Hittite sources.72 For example, there is an Old Hittite mythic fragment in which “the bee is the goddess’s messenger bringing the lost kurša.”73 The term also appears in New Kingdom Egypt.74
Kurša could be a form of Zitḫariya,75 “the chief god of the lands occupied by the Kaška people,”76 but it could also represent a male deity written with the LAMMA sign,77 which had readings of either annari or innara.78 He was a tutelary deity,79 which means that he was one of a number of “guardian spirits over personal well-being, nature, the home, a sacred locus, a particular activity, etc.” that served some sort of protective function.80 Though Zitḫariya had “an extremely close connection” with Kurša, they were not always identical.81
Zitḫariya is a well-attested Hittite deity,82 but he seems originally to have been a Hattic deity from Ḫatenzuwa.83 “Zitḫariya has his own temple and a festival, and is sufficiently important to the king’s safety that he is taken on campaign.”84 He was evoked as a divine witness in a number of treaties: between Suppiluliuma I and Huqqana of Hayasa,85 between [Page 147]Suppiluliuma I and Shattiwaza of Mittanni,86 between Suppiluliuma I and Tette of Nuhashshi,87 between Mursili II and Tuppi-Teshup of Amurru,88 between Mursili II and Niqmepa of Ugarit,89 between Mursili II and Manapa-Tarhunta of the Seha River land,90 between Tudkhalia IV of Hatti and Ulmi-Teshup of Tarhuntassa,91 and between Tudhaliya IV and Kurunta of Tarhuntassa.92 One treaty was even set up on a bronze tablet in his temple.93 The purpose of the divine witnesses was to carry out the blessings for obedience or curses for disobedience to the treaty. He received offerings individually and along with other deities.94 For example, if Huqqana violated his agreement with Suppiluliuma, then “these oath deities will not leave you alone, nor on your account will they leave alone that man to whom you go over. They shall destroy him. And the oath gods shall not neglect95 this matter in regard to both of you, and they shall not make it permissible for both of you. They shall destroy both of you together and thereby fulfill the wishes of My Majesty.”96 “If you, Prince Shattiwaza, and you Hurrians do not observe the words of this treaty, the gods, lords of the oath, shall destroy you [and] you [Page 148]Hurrians, together with your land, your wives, and your possessions.”97 Total destruction was the usual curse.98 He was also invoked in other oaths.99 Though known as a tutelary deity100 and the best attested of the tutelary deities,101 and thus in charge of protection, he could also be involved in destruction. Zitḫariya was also involved in both the Great Substitution Ritual and the Ritual at an Enemy Border.102 In the latter ritual, Zitḫariya received an offering of an extra sheep.103
As an object, the kurša “was taken along on military expeditions and upon returning was ceremoniously brought back into his temple in the capital.”104 Given that it was made of perishable materials and was prone to decay when handled, the Kurša had to be renewed and rededicated occasionally. We have a ritual for the renewing of the Kurša.105 It involved eating bread, drinking some liquid, singers, and something called “dog-men.”106 The term for dog-men is a literal rendering of the Sumerian signs LÚ.MEŠ UR.GI7107; it can mean “hunter” in some contexts, but was also used in cultic contexts,108 such as the festival of the crocus (AN.TAḪ.ŠUM),109 which took place in the spring.110 The dog-men drove sheep into the temple for offerings connected with oracles,111 and they were involved in sacrificing a goat.112 They are also involved in the construction of the [Page 149]Kurša containers.113 They are noted for their ceremonial dress.114 The role of these dog men in the ceremony is described by the Hittite verb wappiya-, which is the same verb that is used to describe a dog making noise, but also a particular aspect of Hittite ritual activity.115 (In one festival Zitḫariya also has “cult functionaries who bark” like Kurša.)116
Kurša could also be a witness on treaties and enforce the curses for disobedience.117 In these cases he is listed alongside Zitḫariya and thus is not syncretized or conflated with him.
One of the things that make the Hittite evidence interesting is the presence of the dog-men, which seems to be reflected in the standard Egyptological insistence that figure 3 in Facsimile 1, identified as “the idolatrous priest of Elkenah,” should have a jackal’s or dog’s head.
Tentative identifications can be provided for all four of the deities mentioned in the first chapter of the Book of Abraham. Three (Elkenah, Libnah, and Korash) are close phonetically. Three (Elkenah, Libnah, and Korash) are close geographically to the site of Abraham’s sacrifice; the other (Mamackrah) is attested a bit farther away (although if it is a place name then it is closer). Two (Elkenah and Korash) are superregional deities whose geographical attestation covers Abraham’s homeland. As there are few sources from the region in Abraham’s day (Middle Bronze Age), all of them are attested in the Late Bronze Age with indications that at least one of them (Korash) goes back to the Middle Bronze Age. For two (Elkenah and Korash), we can currently discuss more than their names. The ability to do so shows the importance of going past the simple identification of a name where possible.
For those deities for whom we have more information than just their name, one (Elkenah) seems to be involved in a ritual in which individuals were asked to engage in sexual immorality or face death, which parallels Abraham 1:11. One (Korash) is involved in cursing those seen as disobedient to the king, who were destroyed, which parallels Abraham 1:5‒13.
This might seem like a meagre amount of information, but it represents a significant step forward in research on the Book of Abraham. [Page 150]Twenty years ago almost none of this was known. It was certainly not known when Joseph Smith published the Book of Abraham.
What are the odds of Joseph Smith guessing right? A number of factors complicate the calculation, so only a simplified calculation will be done. Joseph Smith provided four names, two of two syllables and two of three syllables. Using the twenty-two unique consonants provided by the Seixas transliteration system, a CVC syllabic structure (since one of the Seixas consonants is a null value), and five vowels, there are 2420 possible syllable combinations; but because the vowels were not always written and frequently changed in dialects, we drop them, for a total of 484 syllable combinations. Since there are ten syllables in the names Joseph Smith provided, this is a total of 7.05 x 1026 different possible combinations. The Mesopotamian god list AN: dA-nu-um lists 2130 non-unique deities.118 Multiplying the number by five to account for deities not included in the Mesopotamian list, and taking the ratio of the two numbers, gives us a very rough estimate of the chance of randomly putting together syllables into four correct ancient deities’ names of one in 6.62 x 1022 By comparison, the odds of winning the Powerball lottery by buying a single ticket are merely one in 292 million(2.92 x 106).119 The odds of winning the Powerball lottery two weeks in a row are one in 8.52 x 1016. The odds of winning three weeks in a row are one in 2.49 x 1025. Though only a crude calculation of the odds, it gives some idea how difficult it would be for Joseph Smith to simply guess correctly.