I’ve written in the past about how I don’t think Joseph Smith ever literally had ancient gold plates. But I do think he had something. The many witness accounts seem clear that he had something, some physical object, something wrapped in a cloth, which Joseph regarded as the “gold plates.” What is that?
I suggest that the object Joseph had in his possession was a kind of talisman of the gold plates that he saw in vision, a symbolic stand-in or vicarious substitute which represented the gold plates that he only saw in visionary states of consciousness. I suggest that Joseph believed these physical plates so fully represented those visionary plates that for all intents and purposes they were those plates, and they facilitated his “translation” of his visions into the Book of Mormon.
Wikipedia defines a talisman:
A talisman is an occult object stemming from religious or astrological practices. It connects the possessor with the spiritual world to provide functions such as healing and protection. Talismans are closely linked with amulets, fulfilling many of the same roles, but a key difference is in their materiality, with talismans often taking the form of paper or parchment inscribed with magic texts.
Here are some of the reasons why I think the physical object Joseph had was a talisman:
- Joseph was experienced in magical practices and the use of magical implements. D. Michael Quinn well-described this tradition in his book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. It seems it was common for him to use such objects in his magical/spiritual/mystical practice.
- Many claim that Joseph owned and used talismans, even perhaps having a Jupiter talisman on him at his death. This was purportedly “silver,” or some type of metal that looked silver in color, with symbolic inscriptions.
- The word “talisman” comes from the Greek telesma (τέλεσμα), meaning “completion, religious rite,” from the verb teleō (τελέω), meaning “I complete, perform a rite.” Joseph was often engaged in such magico-religious rites, both creating them, and performing them, throughout his life. He seems to have believed that the performance of such physical actions had spiritual benefit and efficacy.
- A talisman would have connected Joseph in a more substantial way to the gold plates that he saw in vision, thus talismanically connecting him to that “spiritual world.” I suggest that he only saw the gold plates in vision, as Joseph seems to have noted in D&C 17:5, “And ye [witnesses] shall testify that you have seen them [the plates], even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith.” If it took “faith” to even Joseph to see the plates, they were not merely an everyday physical object. It seems the “true” plates were visionary, but a talismanic representation of them in his possession would have helped hold the connection to this vision, inspiring him in “translating” them, especially if he thought the object had essentially become those plates through a kind of alchemical transmutation.
- Religious scholar Ann Taves has well-noted that although Joseph seemed to have seen these plates in vision, it is likely he also created a set of plates as a kind of transmutation of the visionary plates, making it on Earth as it is in heaven, not unlike the transubstantiation of the Catholic Eucharist which in some traditions is thought to make ordinary bread into the actual body of Christ.
- Wikipedia notes that “Traditional magical schools advise that a talisman should be created by the person who plans to use it.” If Joseph created a set of plates in a transmutation of his visions, that would fit this tradition of talismans being created by their owners.
- Wikipedia also notes that talismans often had inscriptions being full of symbolism: “It is also possible to add a personal touch to the talisman by incorporating a verse, inscription, or pattern that is of particular meaning to the maker. These inscriptions can be sigils (magical emblems), bible verses, or sonnets, but they too must be in harmony with the talisman’s original purpose.” What better symbols to incorporate on this talisman than those he saw in vision on the gold plates, again, in an attempt to fully represent or even transmute those plates into reality? These same symbols may have been the ones that made it onto the Anthon Transcript.
- There are numerous examples of talisman use in ancient religions, including Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, so it was not merely an occult “magical” practice. It was a religious practice, a spiritual practice, in antiquity. Religion and magic often overlapped.
- Wikipedia notes that talismans were often used for divine protection, to prevail over oppressors or nonbelievers, to channel positive energies to the owner, and deflect evil. Perhaps Joseph felt that these talismanic plates could also help protect him against his enemies, those who didn’t believe in his mystical visions, and who persecuted him for them, perhaps even seeking to kill him.
Here’s one particularly interesting detail about talismans. In the ceremony to consecrate a talisman, one author notes:
Once prepared, the talisman should be placed on a silk cloth… A large sphere of light… should be visualized over the talisman.
Some invocations are said over the talisman.
Gather all your mental power and direct it towards the sphere, which you then visualize descending upon the talisman and becoming one with it. This is the fifth and final consecration in the element of Ether (spirit)…
After the talisman is consecrated it should be wrapped in the same cloth where it laid during the ritual and kept always near the owner.-Migene González-Wippler, The Complete Book of Amulets and Talismans, 255. As a side note, it is interesting here that “Ether” or spirit was the element that consecrated the talisman, mystically “becoming one” with it. The Book of Mormon contains a “Book of Ether.”
Another author likewise says,
The charged talisman should be wrapped in… silk, and then concealed… They should all be kept wrapped in their individual silk cloth…-Steve Savedow, The Magician’s Workbook: A Modern Grimoire, 172.
If Joseph did make a talismanic set of plates, he likely consecrated them in a similar magical/religious ritual on the Hill Cumorah on the night he said he retrieved them on September 22, 1827. When he brought them home, he almost always kept them wrapped in a cloth, exactly in the proper way these authors note that talismans should be kept, and Joseph always kept them near him, and often even further concealed/hid them in a box, buried under the hearth, in a barrel, in a log, etc. In other words, it seems he treated them as a magical/mystical talisman.
One of the most difficult parts of this theory for traditional Mormons is perhaps how we account for his making the physical plates when he said he “found” them, buried in the Hill Cumorah, as indicated by an angel? I suggest part of him felt he had found them, that he was “given” this spiritual treasure by God in vision, while another part of him actually did tell us he made them. I suggest he said many times, mystically, channeled through the voices of the characters of his “translation,” that he made them “with mine own hands” (e.g. 1 Nephi 1:3, 17).
I suggest that Joseph was “Nephi,” etc., who made the plates, or said another way, “Nephi” was a channeled “higher self” or “true Self” within Joseph’s consciousness, his identity in a purer mystical state of consciousness, as were the other characters of the book and angels of his visions. Moroni, as his “higher Self,” had showed him how to “get the plates,” which included being “Nephi,” “Mormon,” etc., and actually making them.
It is perhaps the same paradox that many mystics throughout history encounter in their work of writing or teaching their insights. Do they create it or are they given it? Well, both. They are inspired with the wisdom which seems to come from elsewhere, from beyond their ego identity, but they must also shape it, form it into words, give it expression in language, interpret/translate it from their mind into reality. It is neither exclusively theirs, but it isn’t not theirs either. They both “find” it, are given it, but they must also “make” it, giving it concrete material form in reality.
I most recently heard Richard Rohr express this sentiment about his recent book The Universal Christ (at a conference in 2019). He said that he was not its source, but more like a conduit through which it came, the means by which he put it into words. Elizabeth Gilbert also expresses this in her popular 2009 TED talk about the creative genius. She notes how it is simultaneously something beyond the self, which one does not have full responsibility for, i.e. a “genius” or “muse,” and yet it becomes real in the world through the instrumentation and work of the author/poet. Were the medieval alchemists finding the Philosopher’s Stone, or were they making it? Do mathematicians discover their theorems and proofs or do they create/invent them? Did the Tibetan Buddhist tertöns find the terma, this “hidden treasure” made by ancient masters, or did they create it, translating it into being? Again, perhaps both.
Like all of these, I think Joseph thought he had “found” and been “given” this spiritual gift/treasure, and yet he had to participate in making it too, in a very mystical and alchemical production. And in his experience with magical techniques and implements, I think he made a set of plates to fully represent the gold plates he saw in vision, and then magically charged them, as a talisman, with the reality of those visionary plates. These then inspired him to continue to do the mystical work of “translation,” contemplatively scrying with the seer stone as a meditation object in a hat, putting his deep visions and mystical insights into words, further transmuting the visionary plates into actual words, interpreting and reifying the abstract spiritual impressions into the concrete physical language and pages of a book.
I suggest the Book of Mormon ultimately became the true physical manifestation of the visionary and mystical “gold plates,” Joseph’s magnum opus, and then the talismanic plates he had created, a kind of stepping stone in that “translation” process, were no longer needed. The “work” was complete.