The Maya and Mormonism

The Maya and MormonismDiscussions on the book, "Breaking the Maya Code", by Michael D. CoeTo this day, most Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon encompasses all of North and South America in its history. Internal and external evidences, however, suggest that this is not the case. In fact, many LDS scholars feel that the Book of Mormon is more accurately a volume concerning 3 groups (Jaredites, Nephites and Mulekites) of peoples that had travelled to the New World and settled therein. Distances described in the Book of Mormon show that the entire continents of North and South America could not have been involved.  The distance between Zarahemla in the north, and the land of Nephi (Lamanite territory) was 40 days travel (Mosiah 7:4). Given the harsh terrain [since wandering was involved in trying to find the place], the average group probably could not have gone more than 25 miles in a day. In other words, the Nephite territory was no more than 1000 miles in length. We do not have any knowledge of the size of the Lamanite empire, but given their continuing desire for more land and pushing northward, I doubt they had much more land than the Nephites did. Given this, the Lamanites and Nephites could have been contained in an area smaller than Central America and Mexico.

Secondly, not all ancient Indian ruins are Nephite/Lamanite. Most ruins, in fact, tend to be from periods AFTER the Nephites were destroyed. Also, many of the traditions are so very different, that they couldn't possibly have been from the same peoples. However, enough trade and intermixing with other groups (as the Nephites did with the Mulekites, and as the Mulekites probably did with the Jaredites prior to their destruction), that many traditions and practices could have spread.

Many LDS scholars believe in a "Limited Tehuantepec Theory." This suggests that the Nephite/Lamanite area was limited primarily to Central America, perhaps going as far north as Mexico City. But even if this is the case, proving it is difficult. Also, many tribes were known to inhabit the areas concurrently as well as in different eras. Then again, they could have been in another area of one of the continents. Such distinctions create a difficulty in finding a Nephite needle in this large haystack known as North/South America.

In other words, the last Nephite/Lamanite battle may have occurred in Mesoamerica (Joseph Smith never stated. where that battle occurred). Afterward, Moroni travelled for 20 years to modern-day New York to hide up the plates.

Breaking the Maya Code
Michael D. Coe has written an excellent book entitled, "Breaking the Maya Code." He is Professor of Anthropology and Curator of Anthropology in the Peabody Museum at Yale University. His book discusses the struggles in cracking the code, much of the history behind such code breaking efforts, and discusses many important breakthroughs in Maya archaeology. However, this article will discuss items relating to Mormonism and the potential ties found in the Mayan world. All page references, unless otherwise noted, will be to his book.

As I stated before, many LDS people try and see proofs where there are none. Dr Coe discusses one encounter he had with a "crackpot notion." In 1956, he and his wife met an apostle of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (a break-off sect of the LDS Church), who claimed that after his resurrection, Jesus had preached to the multitudes here in the Americas from the Temple of the Cross (pg 194).  Surely this claim was uninspired and incorrect, given that the Temple of the Cross was built centuries after Christ's resurrection. Does this mean the Temple of the Cross is not related to Christ in any way? No. But it may show that a symbol from the past was placed in a relief in a different context.

The Eras of MesoAmerica.
Mesoamerican history is divided by archaeologists in certain time periods as follows (pp. 60-61):

Paleo-Indian Period      20,000(?)-8000 BC             Hunters and Gatherers of Siberian origin. Mammoths and wild horses roam continent

Archaic Period             8000-2000 BC      Small bands of Indians. Low-level agriculture, maize. First villages.

Pre-Classic (or Formative) Period       2000 BC-AD 250         First civilizations: Olmec were in 'full flower' around 1200 BC. The Zapotec in 600 BC and finally the Maya. The Zapotec invented writing in Mesoamerica.

Classic Period             AD 250-900         Golden Age of Mesoamerican culture. The heyday for both Aztec and Maya.

Post-Classic Period     AD 900-1521       Militaristic period ruled by the Toltec until 1200 AD and later by the Aztec. Ended with the Spanish Conquest.

Given the timeframe above, the Jaredites fit in with the Olmec civilization era and the Nephites in the Zapotec/Maya. The Olmec civilization was unrecognizable by the 5th century BC, suggesting they were either destroyed or absorbed into the other cultures around them (such as the surviving Jaredite[s] like Coriantumr living among the Mulekites). Whereas the dates for the Jaredites and Nephites fit perfectly within the Pre-Classic period, most of what we know of the Maya concerns the Classic period. "The full extent of these Late Pre-Classic building programs in the lowlands will never be known, since in any particular Maya site early constructions are usually covered over with towering constructions of the Classic period." We do know that the Pre-Classic Maya did build villages with limestone blocks and cement-supported by the Book of Mormon (pg 63).

How can we use Classic material to compare with Pre-Classic societies? Because the evidence is there that many beliefs and traditions were passed down from one society to the others. For example:  "Throughout the indigenous cultures of the New World tropics, there is a widespread belief that shamans can transform themselves at will into dangerous animals, usually jaguars, and the anthropologist Peter Furst has been able to show that this notion can be traced back as far as the ancient Olmec Civilization of Mesoamerica."  Dr. Coe  discusses other "pan-Mesoamerican" concepts, as well (pp. 256-7).

For example, the Temple of the Cross was built hundreds of years after Christ with the representations of the great Maya ruler, Pacal, and his son and heir, Chan-Bahlum on each side of the cross/world-tree. There is no direct evidence of Christ ever preaching there (nor do I believe he ever did). But such symbols may have been taken from previous traditions long forgotten.

The Cross is emblematic of the vision Lehi and Nephi had (1 Nephi 5-11), where the Tree of Life represents the 'world-tree' (pg 212) as well as the cross of Christ (the fruit of which is the Love of God). So, although there is no direct connection with Pacal and his son, we do have a father-ruler (Lehi) and his heir-son (Nephi), who go forth to the Tree of Life/the Cross/the World-Tree.

Struggles DeCoding the Maya Language
Although we know they had books, we have no extant Maya books from the Classic or earlier periods. All were destroyed in "those twin cataclysms: the Classic collapse and the Spanish Conquest." Of the four Maya books we have, all were written in the Post-Classic era from memories of those then living. (pg 70).

Since then, many blunders have occurred to shroud some sites in secrecy forever. Chichen Itza is a perfect example of this. Most of the archaelogists employed in excavating it spent their time putting fallen buildings back together for the tourist trade, rather than reconstructing a good chronology of the place. "specialists are still arguing about its nature, its chronology, and even the reality of the Toltec 'invasion' believed by traditionalists like myself to have resulted in some of its most famous buildings, such as the Castillo" (pg 128).

The Maya language had no Champollion to translate it, as did Egyptian hieroglyphics. Early Darwinistic ideas of evolution invaded the world of linguistics, causing many 'experts' to believe that language (particularly written language) had evolved from a pure  (and lowest) pictographic form (each picture is an entire thought, without a syllabic form) to the eventual top of the food chain: the alphabet. Such a belief caused many to believe that Maya was such a pictographic form, and could therefore not be translated. Such ideas, as noble as they may sound, are wrong. Language, as Dr Coe points out, did not evolve from cave paintings and non-syllabic hieroglyphs (pictographs), to partial syllabic, to total alphabetic. Hieroglyphic languages are highly syllabic (including Egyptian, Chinese, and Maya). (pg 147).

But this prejudice in evolving languages caused a century of delay in translating the Maya hieroglyphs (pg 26). One of the greatest minds in Maya research, Sir Eric Thompson, was also one of the greatest defenders of the status quo. Dr Coe writes, "...almost the entire Mayanist field was in willing thrall to one very dominant scholar, Eric Thompson, who by the force of his personality, his access to the resources of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, his vast learning, and his acerbic- even cruel- wit, was able to stem [the idea of Maya language being syllabic] until his demise in 1975" (pg 164).

Only since his death, has the deciphering of the language taken hold amongst most Mayanists as true. Since then, however, new attacks have occurred by many of the field archaeologists, who have set themselves against the epigraphers and linguists. "At present most field archaeologists, I am sorry to report,  are almost totally illiterate in the Maya script, except for a possible ability to recognize Long Count dates in an inscription. Few if any have any knowledge of a Mayan tongue. Compare this with what an Assyriologist must know before he or she gets a Ph. D.; the candidate must have mastered both Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform, and be well-grounded in one or more Semitic languages. Imagine someone calling himself an Egyptologist who couldn't read a hieroglyphic inscription, or a Sinologist tongue-tied in Chinese! How can illiterate scholars pretend to study a literate civilization? I will predict that all this is going to change, and for the better." (pp. 272-274).

And people wonder why archaeology in the MidEast is so much further along than in Mesoamerica!

The Maya Script - and its similarities to Egyptian and the Book of Mormon 
Since the Book of Mormon claims to be written in "Reformed Egyptian," although changed drastically from the original, we should be able to find similarities between the two forms of hieroglyphs and Hebrew (since it was done in the writing of the Egyptians and the learning of the Jews). Note that there are also similarities between Maya and other hieroglyphic languages as well (including Japanese and Chinese), suggesting that language may have a single source.

1. First off, in Joseph Smith's day, many believed that hieroglyphs were non-syllabic pictographs that couldn't be translated directly. The Book of Mormon refutes that idea and we now know that "all known writing systems are partly or wholly phonetic, and express the sounds of a particular language" (pg 25).

2. Second, "...hieroglyphic writing virtually ignores vowels, as in Hebrew and Arabic scripts. In fact, we have only the sketchiest idea of how the vowels sounded in any Egyptian written words." (pg 35). Mayan is the same way. Also as in Egyptian, "With the Mayan languages, roots are overwhelmingly monosyllabic, with the CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) pattern dominant, but these are highly inflected, and there are special particles added to them. Words therefore tend to be polysynthetic, often expressing in one word what it would take a whole English sentence to do." (pg 51). This can explain how the approximately 50 metal plates of the Book of Mormon could equal 500 pages in English.

3. As in Egypt, stelae (large stones with writing on them) were placed by important sites in honor of rulers and events. "As among the pharaohs of Egypt, the hereditary rulers and their families and ancestors were celebrated in these inscriptions and in the relief pictures described by the associated texts. These were no primitive democracies or nascent chiefdoms: the royal family and the nobility were the aristocratic patrons of artists, scribes, and architects alike, whose only goal was to glorify the gods and the ruling house." (pg 65).

4. The Mayan pyramids were very similar to the Egyptian ones. "I have read in many books that the Maya pyramids were nothing like the Egyptian ones in that they weren't used for royal tombs. That this is sheer, unfounded nonsense has been shown again and again...."  In fact, many of the greatest complexes or "palaces" were possibly used not only as royal residences, but as lineage temples and theological seminaries (pg 66). Such usage is similar to that in the Book of Mormon.

5. Both the Maya and ancient Egyptians had "an analogous practice" of celebrating important anniversaries and jubilees by the "ritual shedding of their own blood by the ruler and his wives" (pg 67).

6. Recent discoveries have found chiasmus, a form of literary parallelism, in both the Bible (primarily Isaiah) and the Book of Mormon. We now find that parallelism was common in Maya, as well. "[Floyd] also identified a pattern of parallel couplets, a rhetorical device widespread in the indigenous cultures of the Americas, and in the Old World as well; the Psalms are filled with such literary devices, for example:

"He turneth the wilderness into a standing water,
and dry ground into water-springs."It is much used in modern spoken Maya, especially in ritual discourse, prayers, oratory, and other formal uses of language...." (pg 213).

7. Maya funerary ceramics may have been used like the Egyptian Book of the Dead. "Keeping in mind my Underworld interpretation of Maya funerary ceramics, it is no surprise that I suggested that the PSS (Primary Standard Sequence) might be the written form of a stock funerary incantation, perhaps like the Egyptian Book of the Dead, meant to inform the soul of the defunct what he was to encounter on his journey into Xibalba. The whole Hero Twins  tale (from the Popul Vuh)was a kind of Death and Transfiguration parable for the Maya elite, so why not a formulaic text or spell to assist the honored dead?" (pp 224-225).

8. The Maya had a "cult of monkey or monkey-man scribes" which was widespread throughout Mesoamerica. Their scribes were represented by the monkey, who was the "patron god of the artisans, musicians and dancers....the Maya elevated them to a godlike status, just as the Egyptians took the baboon-god Thoth as patron of their scribes and the art of writing." (pg 226).

9. The Maya language itself, "just like [its] Mesopotamian and Egyptian counterparts" often had phonetic complements added to reinforce the proper reading of a sign. Also, as with Egyptians, multiple signs would have the same sound value, allowing for free substitution between signs. (pg 235). For aesthetic purposes, both the Maya and Egyptians would switch around the signs within a glyph block, changing their order. (pg 263).

10. The Mayan, as the Egyptians, signed their works. This is not a common event, since "prior to the Greeks, only in ancient Egypt do we find signed works, and these rare examples have only architects' signatures."  Also, there is evidence that the Mayan "monumental texts were originally laid out on the stones as ink drawings, as in ancient Egypt" (pg 249).

11. There weren't just slim similarities between the Maya and Middle Eastern hieroglyphics. "Hieroglyphic Hittite, the Bronze Age script of central Anatolia (modern Turkey) which is structurally almost identical with Maya writing." (pg 261).

It Came To Pass
The Book of Mormon (and to some extent, the Bible) are well known for the common term: "It came to pass." We now find this to be extremely common in Maya scripts, as well. The Maya term, "iual ut" literally means "and then it came to pass."  (see A,B in picture).  And the term, "utiy" means "it had come to pass." (see C in picture) (pp 240-241).  A good example of this is Stela 3 at Piedras Negras uses the term 4 times in 51 glyphs (pp 266-267).

There are, of course problems between archaeology and the Book of Mormon. One of these is mentioned in the book: "Metals tools were unknown in any part of Mesoamerica until copper and gold metallurgy was introduced from northwestern South America shortly before AD 900" (pg 68). The Book of Mormon discusses the use of metal tools, although the sword of Laban and Nephi's metal bow were considered special, probably due to their high metal content. It is possible that IF the Nephites were Zapotec/Maya, that their use of metal weapons and tools was very limited due to lack of knowledge of smelting metals. In any case, such tools and weapons may not have been discovered yet, because excavations have been limited and funding for archaeological digs in Mesoamerica is getting scarce (pg 271). Also, the almost total elimination of books by the Spanish and the Spanish hordeing of precious metals may have also caused the destruction of many such tools and weapons.

In any case, once again, nothing is proven. However, we can see from this:

1. Science and scientists aren't perfect, and often let their personal values cloud their judgement.
2. The Pre-Classical period fits nicely with the Book of Mormon, and there is little information on that period available due to later constructions and destructions which have occurred.
3. There are similarities amongst the Classic Maya, the Egyptian and the Book of Mormon.
4. There are issues which still must be resolved, including : if they weren't in Mesoamerica, where and who were the Nephites and Jaredites?
5. There are many preconceived notions about both science/archaeology and the Book of Mormon. Some of these notions are correct, but many are based upon unproven  or silly ideas. Both the scientists and religionists have a ways to go to finding the whole truth.

Breaking the Maya Code, by Michael D. Coe.   Thames and Hudson, Inc., reprinted 1995.
ISBN 0-500-27721-4