Digging into the Book of Mormon: Part 2

Print Share

    Our Changing Understanding of Ancient America and Its Scripture

    This is the second of three articles pointing out how developments in scholarship and science in the past half-century have produced information that seems to support and may actually help clarify the Book of Mormon. During the same period, increasingly careful study of the Book of Mormon by Latter-day Saints has placed it in new light as an ancient American document.

    In this article we will consider another major area of ancient American life that illustrates this convergence.


    The prevailing opinion among the few experts around 1935 about the development of writing in the New World is summarized by Dr. Sylvanus G. Morley, then the dean of Mayan scholars:

    “Maya writing represents one of the earliest stages in the development of graphic systems extant today, … It may well represent the earliest stage of a formal graphic system that has come down to us.

    “The Maya inscriptions treat primarily … chronology, astronomy—perhaps one might better say astrology—and religious matters. They are in no sense records of personal glorification and self-laudation like the inscriptions of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. They tell no story of kingly conquests, recount no deeds of imperial achievement; they neither praise nor exalt, glorify nor aggrandize, indeed they are so utterly impersonal … that it is even probable that the name-glyphs of specific men and women were never recorded upon the Maya monuments.” 1 That surely didn’t sound anything like what we have in the Book of Mormon.

    By the 1970s, however, a great change in scholarly opinion had taken place. Michael Coe now refers scathingly to the “very odd notion” which had been standard in Morley’s time that the Mayan inscriptions were little more than “chronological hocus-pocus.” The shift began in 1958 with the work of Heinrich Berlin, who showed, as Coe puts it, that “Maya reliefs and the texts which accompany them are historical records having to do not with occult, theocratic matters, but with the everyday, hurly-burly politics of primitive states with warlike rulers hell-bent on including other Maya states within their sphere of influence.” 2 The new view makes the Maya “sound very much like other early civilizations in the world, with their stories of conquests, humbling of captives, royal marriages, and royal descent.” 3 It also makes them sound much more like the Nephites and Lamanites.

    To scholars, the scripture looked dubious for a while on another point as well. Moroni claimed that “the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian” had been “handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.” (See Morm. 9:32.) Those “characters” must, then, have had a phonetic element—they represented sounds to an extent. Yet leading experts like Morley, Thompson, and Barthel were insisting that only trivial phonetic features were built into the Mayan glyphs. 4 Soviet scholar, Yuri Knorosov led the way to correcting that error. 5 Today it is generally acknowledged that “the Maya system had a strong phonetic-syllabic component,” much like Moroni’s description of the Nephite system. 6

    It remains true, of course, that Mesoamerican writing includes many ideographic signs (standing for entire concepts or words without regard to sounds). A single sign may have several meanings, clarified only by context and experience on the part of the reader. “It is the understanding of these which takes the longest time and greatest patience.” 7 Once more Moroni is echoed, for he bemoaned the fact that Nephite scribes were not “mighty in writing.” They could “write but little, because of the awkwardness of their hands.” They found themselves to “stumble because of the placing of our words.” (See Ether 12:22–25.) Mormon, too, lamented their writing system, saying that “there are many things which, according to our language, we are not able to write.” (See 3 Ne. 5:18; footnote 8.) 8 J. E. S. Thompson makes the same point about Mayan writing: “Both space considerations and ritualistic associations militated against precision in writing; … the reader had to have a good background of mythology and folklore to comprehend the texts,” 9 and even then the readings could be ambiguous.

    The Mayan hieroglyphic writing is singled out here for two reasons: it is the best known, and it dates to the late Book of Mormon period. The Mayan-speaking inhabitants of the Yucatan Peninsula from about A.D. 300 to 900 carved hundreds of inscribed monuments out of the available limestone, and their descendants carried on enough of the old culture that they were able to communicate useful information to the Spaniards about the Mayan system of thought and writing. Only the Aztec system survived in comparable detail, but it was a simpler and later kind of writing. 10 All together, at least fourteen glyphic writing systems are known for Mesoamerica. 11 For only three—the lowland Mayan, Aztec, and Mixtec—has significant progress been made toward decipherment. Some writing systems are identified only by a single text. 12 Just as with the “Anthon transcript” left to us by Joseph Smith, no progress is likely in understanding those texts until we have more to work with.

    We are, however, on safe ground in saying that on the basis of finds so far many Mesoamerican cultures were literate (though others were not) from at least 1000 B.C. 13 Nowhere else in the Western Hemisphere have we good reason to believe that writing existed prior to European discovery. 14 We know of fragmentary inscriptions here and there in North and South America, but whether they represent ancient and genuine writing is in doubt. It seems interesting, then, that the Book of Mormon tells of a literate people residing for thousands of years in the immediate vicinity of the “narrow neck of land,” the same area as isthmian Mesoamerica, which is the only place now known in the New World with a similar tradition of literacy.

    Another important point of which earlier scholars were generally not aware is the structural similarity of Mayan and Egyptian hieroglyphics. Linda M. Van Blerkom of the University of Colorado recently clarified this by listing the six main types of signs both share. In words countering Morley’s dated judgment, she says, “Those who would place Maya hieroglyphs at a lower level of evolution than the … systems of the Old World civilizations are wrong.” In fact, “Maya glyphs were used in the same six ways as those in Egyptian.” 15

    Another similarity between Egyptian and Mayan writing is that both were deeply involved in, possibly derived from, the sacred aspect of life. Hodge feels that “the magical potency of both speech and graphic representation” helps explain the origin and longevity of glyphic writing among the Egyptians, which they called “the words of the god.” 16 Thompson speaks of “the close relationship between Maya hieroglyphic writing and religion, for there is no doubt that many of the forms and perhaps the names of hieroglyphs have religious connotations.” 17

    Morley and his peers correctly sensed the religion-writing connection but erred in supposing that there was little else involved. The writing system was a vehicle for carrying sacred significance throughout all aspects of civilized life—commerce, rulership, “history,” the calendar, astronomy, and such things as warfare, sacrifice, death, health, destiny, and genealogy. They all had religious overtones, and they all involved writing.

    Michael Coe, for instance, maintains that the scenes portrayed on the spectacular funerary vases from Mayan tombs come from “a long hymn which could have been sung over the dead or dying person, … The ultimate theme is that of the death and resurrection of the lords of the Maya realm.” In fact, “It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that there was a real Book of the Dead for the Classic Maya, akin to the Book of the Dead of the ancient Egyptians.” 18 In fact, he says, “There must have been thousands of such books in Classic times.” The sacred book of the Quiche Maya of highland Guatemala, the Popol Vuh, was a late version of one of those, most likely being a transliteration of a hieroglyphic original. 19 Most Maya were aware of the mythic pattern it represents and the ideas of death, resurrection, creation, and fate communicated by such books. The Mayan version, however, was only the best preserved one. Other Mesoamerican cultures had parallel beliefs and practices. “There was a single, unified body of thought in Mesoamerica … which we would call a Mesoamerican religion.” 20 Coe asserts.

    Mainly the priests had access to that religion in its full sense. Only they had the opportunity to master the complex language necessary to penetrate the religious scheme, and “The Maya writing seems to be imbedded in a sort of priest language.” One had to be laboriously instructed regarding “the richness of metaphors and the techniques of paraphrasing and cover names.” 21 A knowledge of this system “was nothing less than a criterion for the right to inherit one of the positions of leadership,” for priests were rulers or vice versa. 22

    Complexity of literary style was one of the reasons the hieroglyphic writing systems were so difficult to master. Fifty years ago, of course, nobody understood much about style in Mayan texts. But by 1950, J. Eric Thompson could say:

    “There are close parallels in Maya transcriptions of the colonial period, and, I am convinced, in the hieroglyphic texts themselves to the verses of the Psalms, and the poetry of Job.”

    Both, he noted, “have an antiphonal arrangement in which the second line of a verse answers or repeats a variant of the first.” (Examples are in Lam. 3:3 and Jer. 51:38.) The same pattern occurs in the Yucatec-language documents of the sixteenth century and the Chilam Balams of Chumayel and of Tizimin; a prayer by a Lacandon Maya Indian recorded in 1907 shows the same form. Of this language Sir Eric says, “Note the rhythm of the lines, the free use of Iambs, and the antiphonal character of every line.” This “blank verse of high quality … playing on the sounds of words” uses not rhyming but something closer to punning. 23

    Munro Edmonson of Tulane University is still more pointed: “The Popol Vuh is in poetry, and cannot be accurately understood in prose. It is entirely composed in parallelistic … couplets.” This form, as well as the nature of roots in the Mayan languages, contributes to the difficulty in getting unambiguous meaning out of the texts. Thus, “Often a dozen or more quite disparate meanings may legitimately be proposed for a particular monosyllabic root.” 24 Edmonson also comments on the use of Psalm-like parallelism where two successive lines which must share key words were closely linked in meaning and sometimes involved puns or word play not translatable to English.

    All this is reminiscent of the Hebrew language’s forms, semantics, and textual style. It would be foolhardy to say that what we see in the one language derives directly from the other, but Mayan would have been very congenial to the stylistic concepts and forms which Hebrew speakers in a Mayan context would have wished to use.

    These points about style naturally make one think of chiasmus, the striking literary form widely found in the Book of Mormon and in ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean texts. 25 Chiasmus is an inverted type of parallelism. A direct parallelism is such as Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turneth away wrath: But grievous words stir up anger.” [Prov. 15:1] This near one-to-one relationship between concepts in the two lines is turned about in chiasmus so that the second line follows reverse order: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord” (Isa. 55:8.) Extremely complex chiasms are known, some in the Book of Mormon which extend throughout texts thousands of words in length and are unrecognizable except upon very detailed analysis. 26 I asked Thompson ten years ago whether chiasmus was to be found in Mayan literature, but he confessed he had never heard of the idea. When I described the form, he expressed interest and suggested that certain short passages in the Chilam Balam texts might indeed be chiasms. Some other potential chiastic examples in Mesoamerican texts and art deserve further study along with the Yucatec. 27

    The word play or punning of Mayan (and other Mesoamerican languages) is paralleled in Semitic languages and in Egyptian. Carleton Hodge observes that “the structure of a Semitic language makes possible a kind of pun which can be developed in a peculiar and subtle way.” Indo-European and many other languages do not allow this type of word play. He thinks Egyptian hieroglyphics might have developed in part as a result of this tendency. 28

    All this resonates remarkably with what the Book of Mormon indicates. King Benjamin “caused that [his sons] should be taught in all the language of his fathers, that thereby they might become men of understanding.” (Mosiah 1:2; it goes without saying that priests would have done the teaching.) The king’s concern was that his sons command the esoteric language by which their ancestral records, containing “the mysteries of God” (Mosiah 1:3), could be read.

    In Yucatan at the Conquest, knowledge of hieroglyphic writing was a possession only of the priests, the sons of priests, some of “the principal lords,” and “the younger sons of the lords.” 29 Benjamin was doing his duty as a proper royal father in having his sons taught. Note also that Zeniff was so proud of possessing this literacy that he inserted a statement about it at the very beginning of his record in Mosiah 9:1, where it made little sense. This language so laboriously mastered consisted of both the “characters which are called among [the Nephites] the reformed Egyptian” and the semantic equipment to interpret them, that is, “the learning of the Jews.” (Morm. 9:32; 1 Ne. 1:2.) The investment of time necessary to control the complex system meant that the well-off, who had the leisure for study, could increase “their chances for learning,” while others were “ignorant because of their poverty.” (3 Ne. 6:12.)

    Another area of agreement between Mesoamerican and Book of Mormon writing is the adaptability of characters to serve more than one language. Although there was a sound-connected element, as pointed out earlier, culturally related peoples could adapt the system either by memorizing the phonetic determinatives or by substituting new ones. Obviously, Egyptian itself over the course of thousands of years of use required modifications to reflect new pronunciations and vocabulary, and the signs used in Mormon and Moroni’s day would not have been termed “reformed” Egyptian had those not been further changed from what was considered Egyptian in Nephi’s day.

    When changed enough, it would be no surprise that, as Moroni said, “none other people knoweth our language.” (Morm. 9:34.) The glyphic system would have been changed in another direction when “the language of Nephi” was “taught among all the people of the Lamanites” in the days of Alma. By learning characters or glyphs, the Lamanites could communicate across local differences in speech, allowing them to “trade one with another.” (Mosiah 24:4, 7.) Merchants could then conduct their business through the written lingua franca in any area. No other reason seems to explain why learning “the language of Nephi” could have stimulated trade and prosperity. Mayan glyphic writing served in just this manner, being generally readable wherever the score or more languages of the Mayan family were spoken, and perhaps even beyond.

    The abundance of records in Book of Mormon times is often mentioned (e.g., Hel. 3:15; 3 Ne. 5:9). Most of them would, naturally, have been on the cheap and convenient material, paper. Those scriptures burned when the believers in Ammonihah were cast into the fire (see Alma 14:8) almost surely were of paper. Most records in Mesoamerica were on bark paper, folded screen fashion to form a book. 30 From the Mayan area only three of these codices of certain pre-Columbian date have survived. 31 Glyphs were placed in vertical columns on the “pages.” The Mayan inscriptions had double columns, each character being read with its adjacent neighbor and proceeding by pairs from top to bottom. Before about the time of Christ only single columns were used.

    Note that the “Anthon transcript,” made public in 1980 as a copy made by Joseph Smith of characters from the plates of the Book of Mormon, has single columns, in agreement with the older, pre-Christian age of “the language of Nephi” in which the Book of Mormon was kept. 32 Not surprisingly, Professor Charles Anthon, to whom Martin Harris showed the Joseph Smith copy in 1828, based on what little information was then available to him, likened what he saw to “the Mexican calendar.” 33

    More could be written about other aspects of the uses of records, particular characters, scribes, and so on, but it should be evident by now that in recent decades our knowledge of Mesoamerican writing has been revolutionized in many ways. Using this new information, we are able to see new meanings in Book of Mormon statements concerning writing and books. We should expect many more changes, changes which increasingly bring scriptural and scholarly information toward agreement.

    (To be continued.)

    [photo] Magnificent sarcophagus cover from the tomb of Pacal, king of Palenque, in the foothill country of northern Chiapas, Mexico, on the southwest frontier of ancient Maya culture. Carved in shallow relief, this solid limestone block measuring more than 12 feet long and 7 feet wide depicts the deceased ruler’s descent into the underworld, from which he will be reborn as a god.

    [photo] These three glyphs from the edge of the sarcophagus cover record the date of the king’s birth. (A.D. 603). Pacal’s long reign spanned some 68 years, from A.D. 615 to 683. Decipherment of glyphs such as these showed that the old idea that Mayan inscriptions were purely an ideographic system, with no phoneticism, was clearly mistaken.

    [illustration] This cylinder seal from the Olmec period, discovered near Mexico City in 1948, may represent the earliest, yet most advanced, writing known from Mesoamerica. Some of its symbols, which represent characters in the Anthon Transcript, are known in Old World scripts.

    Show References


    1.   1.

      Sylvanus G. Morley, The Ancient Maya, 2nd edition (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1947), pp. 260–61. The quoted statement was written in 1935; see page 259.

    2.   2.

      Michael D. Coe, “Ancient Maya Writing and Calligraphy,” Visible Language 5 (1971), p. 259.

    3.   3.

      Ibid., p. 298.

    4.   4.

      J. Eric Thompson, “Maya Hieroglyphic Writing,” in Gordon R. Willey, editor, Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 3 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965), pp. 652–53; Thomas S. Barthel, “Writing Systems,” in Thomas A. Sebeok, editor, Native Languages of the Americas, vol. 2 (New York: Plenum Press, 1977), p. 37.

    5.   5.

      Coe, 1971, p. 301; David H. Kelley, Deciphering the Maya Script (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976).

    6.   6.

      Coe, “Ancient Maya Writing and Calligraphy,” p. 301; Coe, The Maya Scribe and His World (New York: The Grolier Club, 1973), p. 11.

    7.   7.

      Coe, 1971, p. 301.

    8.   8.

      It is apparent that Mormon did not mean literally that their writing system did not permit addressing whole subjects, considering how many topics are in fact treated in the Book of Mormon. Ether 12:25 no doubt clarifies his meaning; Moroni there makes the point that they stumble “because of the placing of our words.” That was “the imperfection” they suffered in their writing. (See Morm. 9:31.) Ambiguities imposed by using a glyphic system instead of an alphabetic system would accounnt for the difficulty. (Compare Morm. 9:33.)

    9.   9.

      Thompson, p. 646.

    10.   10.

      Barthel, p. 35; George C. Vaillant, The Aztecs of Mexico (Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1950), pp. 201–04; Frances F. Berdan, The Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial Society, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982), pp. 150–51.

    11.   11.

      Coe, “Early Steps in the Evolution of Maya Writing,” in H. B. Nicholson, editor, Origins of Religious Art and Iconography in Preclassic Mesoamerica (Los Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center and Ethnic Arts Council of Los Angeles, 1976), pp. 110ff. Coe lists thirteen, but omits the Olmec signs which may prove to be glyphs and the unique Tlatilco seal, on which is a totally different system than any other. Interesting similarities between it and the “Anthon Transcript” are shown in Carl Hugh Jones, “The ‘Anthon Transcript’ and Two Mesoamerican Cylinder Seals,” Newsletter and Proceedings, Society for Early Historic Archaeology 122 (September 1970), pp. 1–8, drawing on David H. Kelley, “A Cylinder Seal from Tlatilco,” American Antiquity 31 (1966), pp. 744–46.

    12.   12.

      The Tlatilco stamp mentioned in Note 11 and Kaminaljuyu Stela 10; see Coe, 1976, p. 115.

    13.   13.

      Joyce Marcus, “The Origins of Meso-american Writing,” Annual Review of Anthropology 5 (1976), p. 44; although her date is now perhaps a century late. In any case, the glyphs shown on this monument (Monument 3, San Jose Mogote, Oaxaca) are too conventionalized not to have had a developmental history of centuries behind them.

    14.   14.

      Barthel, op. cit.

    15.   15.

      Linda Miller Van Blerkom, “A Comparison of Maya and Egyptian Hieroglyphics,” Katunob 11 (August 1979), pp. 1–8.

    16.   16.

      Carleton T. Hodge, “Ritual in Writing: An Inquiry into the Origin of Egyptian Script,” in M. Dale Kinkade et al., editors, Linguistics and Anthropology: In Honor of C. F. Voegelin (Lisse, Belgium: The Peter de Ridder Press, 1975), pp. 333–34, 344.

    17.   17.

      J. Eric S. Thompson, Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960), p. 9.

    18.   18.

      Coe, 1971, pp, 305–06; 1973, pp. 18ff.

    19.   19.

      Coe, 1971, p. 305. Compare Alfred M. Tozzer, editor, “Landa’s Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan: A Translation,” Harvard University, Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Papers, vol. 18, 1941, p. 169.

    20.   20.

      Coe, 1973, p. 8; David H. Kelley, “Astronomical Identities of Mesoamerican Gods,” Archaeoastronomy (Supplement to Journal of the History of Astronomy) 11 (1980), pp. S1–S54.

    21.   21.

      Barthel, p. 45.

    22.   22.

      Ibid. Compare Thompson, 1970, p. 7; Tozzer, p. 28.

    23.   23.

      Thompson, 1960, pp. 61–62.

    24.   24.

      Munro S. Edmonson, “The Book of Counsel: The Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala,” Tulane University, Middle American Research Institute, Publication 35 (1971), pp. xi–xii.

    25.   25.

      John W. Welch, editor, Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis (Hildesheim, West Germany: Gerstenberg Verlag, 1981 ); John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” in Noel B. Reynolds, editor, Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, (Provo: Brigham Young University, Religious Studies Center, 1982), pp. 33–52. 26.

    26.   26.

      Welch, 1982, pp. 49–50.

    27.   27.

      For example, Margaret McClear, Popol Vuh: Structure and Meaning (Madrid New York: Plaza Mayor, 1972), pp. 55, 67–90; Marvin Cohodas, “The Iconography of the Panels of the Sun, Cross, and Foliated Cross at Palenque: Part 1,” in Sociedad Mexicana de Antropologia, XIIIa Mesa Redonda, Xalapa, 1973 (Mexico, 1975), pp. 75–101.

    28.   28.

      Hodge, p. 344.

    29.   29.

      Tozzer, p. 29.

    30.   30.

      Ibid., p. 28.

    31.   31.

      Thompson, 1960, pp. 23–26.

    32.   32.

      Danel W. Bachman, “Sealed in a Book: Preliminary Observations on the Newly Found ‘Anthon Transcript,’” Brigham Young University Studies 20 (1980), pp. 321–45; available separately as Reprint BAC–80, Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, P.O. Box 7113 University Station, Provo, Utah 84602.

    33.   33.

      B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, vol. 2, part 2, “The Book of Mormon” (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1926), pp. 95–100. See the discussion on the matter in my “The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Codex,” Newsletter and Proceedings, Society for Early Historic Archaeology 139 (1976), p. 2.