"SALAMANDERS" AND "SHORT-HAND EGYPTIAN"
The 1830 letter of Martin Harris to W.W. Phelps, published in the Church News in April, has already attracted national attention. In this letter, Harris describes an early spiritual appearance to Joseph Smith, stating that "the spirit transfigured himself from a white salamander in the bottom of the hole."
This letter has been the subject of two fascinating research projects at F.A.R.M.S. this month. Aside from questions like "Is the letter authentic?", "From whom did Harris get his information?" and "Did Harris violate D&C 5:26 when he wrote to Phelps?", we have focused on "salamanders" and "short-hand Egyptian."
1. The preliminary results of our work on salamanders are now available in the report "Why Might a Person in 1830 Connect an Angel with a Salamander?" This documented collection of information can be ordered on the attached form. In it you will learn how, for centuries, the salamander has been used as a symbol of supernatural and extraordinary powers. For example:
Old Jewish traditions, found in Exodus Rabbah, say that God showed Moses a salamander in the fire on Mt. Sinai.
Well into the 19th century, it was commonly believed that salamanders lived in or were able to endure fire. Indeed, they were thought to be "generated in fire" according to the great Jewish Rabbi Akiba and as reported by Aristotle.
In Germany, salamanders were thought to be weather prophets ("Wetterpropheten") and house-protector spirits ("Hausgeister"). German churchdoor locks and bolts, as well as ovens and fireplaces, had salamander insignia on them.
In England, baptism "by fire and by the Holy Ghost" was depicted by the image of a salamander in the Winchester Cathedral.
In the Bible and Book of Mormon, the salamander image may be connected with the "fiery flying serpent," which symbolized Christ himself.
In the Middle Ages, the salamander denoted "a being possessing the shape of a man, whose element was the fire, or who at least could live in that element," according to Chambers' Encyclopedia (1875).
These and many other details help put Martin Harris' words into perspective. In this light, we can understand why W. W. Phelps would not have been disconcerted, but rather favorably impressed, by such a reference.
2. Our work on the great (but largely unnoticed) significance of the phrase "short-hand Egyptian" in the same Harris letter can be found in a second report, "Martin Harris' Visit to Charles Anthon: Collected Documents on Short-hand Egyptian." For years, there has been some controversy over what Professor Anthon actually told Martin Harris. Harris' letter now gives us the very earliest firsthand account of what transpired.
In this account, Harris says Anthon told him that the Book of Mormon characters were "short-hand Egyptian." This turns out to be a scholarly term, known to just a few students of ancient languages. Anthon was part of that scholarly community; Harris was not.
This was the term used in the 1820s to describe the system of writing hieratic Egyptian used around the time of Lehi. We know from Anthon's booklists that he had and read books using this terminology. Harris, it would seem, could only have learned this term from Anthon, notwithstanding Anthon's later protests attempting to deny any such thing.
The F.A.R.M.S. report supplies you with extensive documentation, including copies of the hieratic Egyptian plates known to Anthon which compare favorably with Joseph Smith's transcript of the Book of Mormon characters.