Ancient or Modern? What is the message of this rune?
by Gavin Callaghan
I discovered the stone in the early autumn of 1995, in the cemetery behind the United Methodist Church in Flemingville, New York, while making a study of local history and antiquities. Strangely, just before this, the story of Joseph Smith’s youthful stone-gazing activities along the Susquehanna in the 1820s and his discovery in Palmyra, New York, of the supposed hieroglyphic plates of the Book of Mormon (1830), had been on my mind.
As Whitney R. Cross observes in his book The Burned-Over District, “Across the rolling hills of western New York and along the line of DeWitt Clinton’s famed canal, there stretched in the second quarter of the nineteenth century a ‘psychic highway.’” Weird visionary sects; the 1869 discovery of the supposedly fossilized stone man known as the “Cardiff Giant” in Onondaga County; the hundreds of unexplained stone cairns that dot the local hills; the decayed cemeteries that lie hidden and untended in the backwoods and in the corners of countless farmers’ fields; and, even as late as 1964, the well-publicized close encounter of Newark Valley, farmer Gary Wilcox with the supposed inhabitants of a UFO: all of these strange happenings served to reinforce the dark and almost apocalyptic sense of mystery prevalent throughout the area.
The Flemingville stone was situated near the back of the cemetery, leaning loosely against a farmer’s fence to the right. The moss growing along its front and the various insect cocoons that adhered to its back suggested it had been there for a while. The missing left portion of its face, partially obscuring at least one character of its inscription, hinted that at some time in the past it had been damaged, or even violently effaced. Unlike all the other gravestones in the cemetery, most of which dated to the mid-1800s, this one had no clear date or name. The crudeness of its carving, and the tiny marine fossil visible along its back, indicated that it had been carved from local rock, as is found lying along the nearby dried creek beds.
The stone measured one foot, seven and a quarter inches from top to base, the width of the stone narrowing toward the base. It was about three inches thick along the undamaged side, while the inscription itself measured about five inches from top to bottom. It appeared that someone had tried to provide it with a base on which to stand. The smoothly hewn exterior contrasted with the irregularity of the inscription. The back of the stone on the right appeared just as damaged as the left half on the front.
I photographed the stone from all angles, and made crayon rubbings of the inscription that I later traced and photocopied to decipher the inscription on the front.
An unknown character, shaped like an angel, is repeated at least five times throughout the text. It may be either a decorative symbol or a cryptographic marker. Whether the inscription is an epitaph or message is unclear, although the layout and the slight attempt at decoration, with the top fourth separated from the bottom portion by a line and colophon, is certainly consistent with that of a tombstone.
I checked the records of the Flemingville churchyard in the Tioga County Historian’s office, but I could find no name matching the “Bob Y Didf” on the stone. Of the language of the characters, I am not qualified to judge, though I note a similarity between the letters here and some transcripts of so-called spirit writing reproduced elsewhere.
Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon
Strange stones and unknown languages are familiar to Central and Southern New York. In 1823, according to the official history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the 18-year-old farm boy Joseph Smith was directed by an angel to ascend a hill in Ontario County where he found, deposited “under a stone of considerable size,” a stone box containing an ancient breastplate, a pair of visionary gemstones set in eyeglass frames called the “Urim and Thummim,” and a golden record in Reformed Egyptian characters that would later become known as the Book of Mormon. Only three transcripts of these characters, known as “The Anthon Transcript,” survive today, one of which, a pen-and ink copy with the word “Caractors”[sic] written above it in what is thought by many critics to be Joseph Smith’s own hand, is in the possession of the Reorganized Latter-day Saints Church of Missouri. And though some, such as Mormon writer Joe Sampson, have identified at least some of the characters in the transcript as being identical with Egyptian Demotic, Professor Charles Anthon of Columbia University, to whom the transcript was first shown by farmer Martin Harris in 1828, concluded that the “paper contained anything else but Egyptian Hieroglyphics.”
After his alleged discovery in 1823, Joseph Smith persisted both in his farm work as well as in his prophetic and oracular endeavors, employing the services of several different magical seer stones for this purpose.
Smith was eventually arrested for his scrying and magical activities on March 10, 1826. A Bainbridge Justice of the Peace found him guilty of being “a disorderly person and an imposter.” When Smith began his translation, in 1827, of the Book of Mormon, it is possible that he was merely transferring his concurrent fascination with Indian legends, lost treasures, and magical lore into different channels, and transforming that gift of tongues described as being bestowed upon the Apostles in the New Testament into a gift of translation.
Smith and his followers went on to create several other inspired translations from ancient documents, working sporadically on a series of fragmentary Egyptian texts in the 1830s, including an unpublished “Grammar & aphabet [sic] of the Egyptian language,” an unpublished 1837 document, written partially in Joseph Smith’s hand, entitled a “Valuable Discovery of hiden[sic] records that have been obtained from the ancient living plain of the Egyptians,” and the very important, in terms of later Mormon doctrine, “Book of Abraham,” first published in periodical form in 1842, supposedly a first-person account written by the Biblical patriarch Abraham and embodying Smith’s increasing fascination with astronomic and cabalistic lore. Though nearly all modern Egyptologists deride the validity of Smith’s inspired efforts, some scholars, such as Joe Sampson, claim to find in Smith’s Egyptian writings a complex and inspired system of hidden gematriac meanings, indicative of a wide and comprehensive knowledge on Smith’s part of the Talmud, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and even Mayan texts.
The Voree Plates
After Smith’s violent death in 1844, his church split up into several factions. One led by James J. Strang also produced its own set of divine translations, including “The Record of Rajah Manchore of Vorito” and The Book of the Law of the Lord (1852). “The Record” was supposedly based on sets of sacred plates found buried beneath the roots of an old oak tree. The second document was a combination of various revelations received by Strang from 1850 to 1851 combined with lost Biblical plates called “The Plates of Laban,” which were apparently given to Strang by an Angel of the Lord.
In an 1845 pamphlet, Strang described how, “On the 13th day of September, 1845, I called together a number of persons and related to them that God had revealed to me that there was in Voree, buried in the ground, an ancient record, which I was required to obtain and translate.” Strang, together with four witnesses, later dug upon “the hill in the east of Walworth, against the White River in Voree” in Wisconsin, where, in a signed statement, the witnesses later certified they found “an alphabetical and pictorial record, carefully cased up, buried deep in the earth, and covered with a flat stone, with an oak tree one foot in diameter growing over it, with every evidence that the senses can give that it had lain there as long as the tree had been growing.” Strang, in a footnote to The Book of the Law of the Lord, gave a more detailed version of this story, stating how he used the divine Urim and Thummim, previously given by the angels to Joseph Smith, in order to first divine the location of the plates underground. The spectacles allowed him to see them “buried in the ground as deep as man’s waist” as easily “as a man can see a light stone in clear water.” Comprising three double-sided plates, none showing any corrosion but instead covered, Strang wrote, “with a substance resembling gum elastic,” the Voree record was taken on a tour of the eastern United States and even to England, where it was observed by hundreds of people, though around 1900 the plates were lost.
According to Strang, “a body of learned men” determined that the characters on the Voree plates bore “a common relation to all the languages spoken in the earliest ages in the Levant, and that the translation was genuine.” Interestingly, there would seem to be a superficial resemblance between the pictograph of a warrior holding a sword on the first Voree plate and a mysterious stele found on the island of Lemnos in 1885 dating to the sixth century B.C. The Lemnos stele was written in Etruscan-like characters which have yet to be satisfactorily translated. For Strang, however, inspired as he was by the Holy Spirit, his translation posed no such problem. The sword-wielding warrior on the first plate was identified as a “prophet, seer, revelator, translator, and First President of the church,” while the “sun on the right and the moon on the left” represented “the two Vice Presidents, or counselors in the First Presidency” of the Church. The free-floating eye represented “The All Seeing Eye” of God, while the pillars and stars around them represented the “Coadjutors” and “High Council of the Church.” Strang interpreted the picture on the last plate as a map showing the scene of the battlefield where the First President lay dying.
The main body of the hieroglyphics was a text written by this same First President as he lay dying on the battlefield: “My people are no more. The mighty are fallen and the young slain in battle. Their bones bleached upon the plain by noonday shadow.” Strang believed this First President alluded to both Joseph Smith—referred to here “the forerunner” and “a shepherd” whose flock will disown him—and Strang himself, called “a mighty prophet.” “The forerunner men shall kill,” Strang’s translation reads, “but a mighty prophet there shall dwell. I will be his strength, and he shall bring forth thy record. Record my words and bury it in the hill of promise.”
Strang’s other inspired translation, The Book of the Law of the Lord, was contained on a record which had even been sealed from Joseph Smith himself, the record being reserved for Strang alone by the Angel of the Lord. Claiming to represent a res¬tora¬tion of that Law of Moses which was lost when the plates in the Ark of the Covenant disappeared, The Book of the Law of the Lord “is from an authorized copy of that book, written on metallic plates long previous to the Babylonish captivity.” The 336-page book contains a series of Mosaic commandments, as well as a framework for various rites and laws to be observed by Strang’s restored priesthood, all accompanied by footnotes. A strict and legalistic work, it suggests a return to a very rigid fundamentalism similar to that of Orthodox Judaism. “As a translator,” Strang wrote, “I have brought forth hidden treasure, and revealed the old record to all who love the truth.” Strang was eventually killed by some disgruntled followers, and his “kingdom” on Beaver Island, Wisconsin, scattered, although a small remnant, which in 1994 comprised about 150 followers, still exists in Burlington, Wisconsin.
Shaver’s Rock Books
Like Joseph Smith and James Strang before him, science-fiction writer Richard Shaver likewise found his inspiration in “rock books” and old farmer’s rock piles. But whereas Joseph Smith’s interests lay in theological controversy and Indian treasure, Shaver’s interests were in antediluvian history, interplanetary space flight, Lovecraftian elder lore, and beautiful, voluptuous Mer-women. And whereas Joseph Smith’s golden plates told the story of a Hebrew remnant dwelling among the Native Americans, Shaver’s ancient records depict the specifications and plans for the colonization of space, all waiting to be discovered in scattered rock books located all across the Earth. “I think…” Shaver wrote, “people should read a few other books than the Bible, perhaps some made of rock like Moses’ tablets.
” Calling his rock-books “ROKFOGO” for short, Shaver wrote, “This is a new field, a new science. I started it. There are few quotes because there are no others to quote. There are no experts on pre-deluge artifacts…” Like Joseph Smith and James J. Strang, who required diamond-paned Urim and Thummim spectacles in order to translate their inspired texts, Shaver writes that “The optics of rock books are tricky…But, in spite of that, one can with almost no help but a couple of reading glasses get a great deal out of any rock book.” Shaver also advocated the use of squinting in order to discern ancient pictures and writing hidden in the stones. Like Smith and Strang, too, who submitted their translations to prominent experts with varying degrees of success, Shaver also spent a lot of time writing to various universities and colleges, trying to contact a working antiquarian actually interested in American artifacts of this type, without success.
Likening his rock books to microfilm, since many of the images he uncovered were quite small, Shaver theorized that the images in the rock books were originally moving pictures, which had been viewed holographically by their makers “in the round” via complex viewing machines, and afterward left lying on the floors of the oceans by generations of semi-aquatic Mer-people. Shaver, like Smith, claimed to find the writing of ancient men in these rock-books, like cryptograms that could be solved by being fed into “sophisticated cryptology computer decoders such as the National Security Agency uses to break enemy codes”—the divine vision of the gift of tongues used by Smith being replaced with the modern mechanical contrivance of a computer.
Shaver solved the main problem that confronted Smith and Strang of having their inspired records vanish upon being viewed by unbelievers, by having his inspired records hidden, as he puts it, in plain sight, lying unnoticed and untouched beneath everyone’s feet, the ancient record of a once grand civilization of which we are all descendants.
I make no claims for the Flemingville stone, whether religious, cosmic, or otherwise. Even if it was carved by space-men or prophets, its carvers were still just men, and as liable to error as any other men, even if their words are carven in stone.
Gavin Callaghan is an independent researcher and artist whose work has appeared in Studies in Weird Fiction and Nightlore. He hails from New York’s Southern Tier.