Axes Mundi: Ritual Complexes in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon

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Places are made sacred through manifestations of the divine or ritual activity. The occurrence of a theophany or hierophany or the performance of particular rituals can conceptually transform a place into an axis mundi, or the center of the world. A variety of such axes mundi are known from the archaeological record of Mesoamerica and the text of the Book of Mormon. I compare and contrast several distinctive types of such ritual complexes from Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon and argue that they served functionally and ideologically similar purposes.

An axis mundi is a sacred place that connects heaven and earth and is believed to be the center of the world, even the cosmos. Mircea Eliade notes that such places are made sacred either through ritual consecration or through a manifestation of the divine known as hierophany, which “results in detaching a territory from the surrounding cosmic milieu and making it qualitatively different.”1 Countless cultures, ancient and modern, use axes mundi as ideological and ritual foci. Eliade explains:

Where the break-through from plane to plane has been modified by a hierophany, there too an opening has been made, either upward (the divine world) or downward (the underworld, the world of the dead). The three [Page 80]cosmic levels — earth, heaven, underworld — have been put in communication … this communication is sometimes expressed through the image of a universal pillar, axis mundi, which at once connects and supports heaven and earth.2

The sacred architecture of Mesoamerica was designed according to cosmological principles, establishing specific locations within their polities as an axis mundi. Their pyramids, topped by temples, were man-made sacred mountains, representing the first mountain that rose from the primordial waters of creation. Mesoamerican scholar Julia Guernesy noted that even comparatively early Mesoamerican cities, such as Izapa, “created a dynamic environment in which primordial time and the present were seamlessly woven together, creating a veritable web of politics and cosmogenesis.”3 Concerning specific ritual loci [sacred places] established by such communities, Pamela L. Geller notes, “Fraught with liminal connotations, axes mundi mediate between past and present, natural and supernatural arenas.”4 The rulers and ritual specialists used a variety of complex rituals in an effort to bring the past into the present.

A modern analogy might be drawn with Latter-day Saint temples. Prior to their dedication, they are merely beautiful buildings that can be entered by anyone during the “open house” period. Once they are dedicated through ritual action, however, they become an axis mundi. Ancient Maya temples similarly had dedicatory rituals for their temples. The most common was the “fire-entering” ritual, wherein incense was [Page 81]burned inside of a sacred building to dedicate (or rededicate) it. Such rituals are recorded in the hieroglyphic texts as och k’ak’ ta-y-otot, “the fire enters into his house.”5

Many types of axes mundi existed in ancient Mesoamerica, both natural and man-made. The structural form of these supernaturally-charged locations was virtually irrelevant; what mattered was the symbolic function. Mountains, caves, temples, altars, performance platforms, the central hearth of a home, portable objects such as censers for burning incense, and even the human body (when adorned with sacred regalia) could all function as portals of communication between the human and divine realms. Likewise, in the Book of Mormon there are countless places where ritual activity was performed that opened the portal between earth and heaven. Some of these are obvious, such as temples, synagogues, and sanctuaries, but we also read of ritual activity at royal palaces, in mountains, the wilderness, fields, and even homes. Such ritual complexes are not limited to faithful Nephites; the Book of Mormon explicitly mentions them among other groups such as the Lamanites, Nehorites, Amalekites, and Zoramites (Alma 23:2; 26:29).6

The most conspicuous type of axis mundi in the Book of Mormon and ancient Mesoamerica is the temple. Nephi tells us that he built a temple “after the manner of the temple of Solomon,” but is quick to qualify that statement by noting that “it could not be built like unto Solomon’s temple” because they [Page 82]lacked “precious things” (2 Nephi 5:16).7 What is the difference between “after the manner of” and “not … like unto”? In essence, it differed from Solomon’s temple cosmetically but not cosmologically. We might draw an analogy between the temples in San Diego, California, and Provo, Utah. Stylistically, the two buildings are quite distinct, but functionally they are identical. The same might be said for comparing the temples described in the Book of Mormon with what is known of those found in ancient Mesoamerica. Although they were superficially different, they may have had similar functions. This study will explore the functions of temples and other ritual locations in both the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerica and draw comparisons between the ways these axes mundi were used. Methodologically, I will rely on epigraphic, iconographic, ethnographic, ethnohistoric, linguistic, and archaeological sources of data from Mesoamerica and compare them to relevant passages from the Book of Mormon.

John Welch’s careful analysis of Nephite temple worship highlighted a number of functions that Nephite temples served.8 In them, kings were crowned, religious teachings were dispensed, the plan of salvation was taught, the people were exhorted to proper behavior, sacrifices symbolizing the atonement of Christ were performed, religious and legal covenants were made and renewed, and the resurrected Jesus appeared to His faithful people as their God. Though clearly not identical, I argue that Mesoamerican ritual loci — axes mundi — served functionally and ideologically similar purposes.
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The Temple as a Place of Ritual

Temples were typically the most prominent and grandiose structures in Mesoamerican cities. Although the ancient term for them has thus far resisted translation, among modern Maya speakers they are referred to as k’uh na, or “god house.”9 At any given Maya city, temples and royal palaces anchor the site core. Maya scholars use term temple in reference to buildings whose primary function is assumed to be religious, whereas palaces are structures that appear to have been loci of political activity. However, the religious and political realms are not necessarily distinguishable among the Classic period Maya ruins, so a strict delineation between them is an imposition of our own modern perspective. Admittedly, the precise function of these structures is not clearly understood; the epigraphic and iconographic records contain precious few clues as to their use. It is common for large sites to have multiple temples, even within a single site core, each of which may have served different religious or political purposes.10

There was a shift in the manner of temple construction from the Preclassic to the Classic periods in the Maya lowlands.11 Preclassic temples typically were not intended to aggrandize individual rulers; rather, their architecture and [Page 84]iconography tended to highlight specific deities and reflect grand cosmologies.12 Since the focus of Preclassic period temples was typically not on specific rulers, it is unsurprising that few of them have been shown to contain royal tombs.13 Likewise, in the Book of Mormon the focus of temple rituals was on their deity rather than their rulers. King Benjamin seemed concerned that because of his exalted office his people might believe him to be more than a mortal man, perhaps even a divine king. Ironically, by informing his people that the words he was delivering to them were given to him by an angel who literally “stood before” him (Mosiah 3:2), he confirmed that he was in fact an intermediary between the human and supernatural realms, a defining characteristic of divine kings in the ancient world.

The Temple as a Place for Coronation

The most well-documented coronation in the Book of Mormon takes place at the temple in Zarahemla, when King Benjamin gathers his people together to declare that his son Mosiah was to be “a king and a ruler over” them (Mosiah 2:30). Benjamin ritually presents Mosiah with the royal paraphernalia: the plates of brass, the plates of Nephi, the sword of Laban, and the Liahona (Mosiah 1:16). The presentation of royal regalia was likewise an important aspect of accession among the Maya. On [Page 85]the murals of San Bartolo, Guatemala (ca. 100 bc)14 we see an enthronement ceremony wherein the ruler sits upon a wooden tower or scaffold to receive the emblems of rulership.15 The coronation and presentation of a new king to his subjects would have been an occasion of much pomp and circumstance. Maya temples form part of the site core, and were designed with public spectacle in mind.16 They were typically the tallest building in the central precinct and always faced a large plaza that would accommodate thousands of people. The architectural layout of temple complexes effectively maximized acoustics, enabling speakers atop a temple to be seen and heard clearly throughout the plaza.17 Nephites temples may have had similar acoustic properties (cf. Mosiah 1:18; 2:1, 5-6; 7:17).

The Temple as a Place for Religious Instruction

Throughout the Book of Mormon we read of religious instruction being given at the temple: by Jacob, Benjamin, and even the Savior. Among the Maya, we turn again to the murals of San Bartolo for a comparison. The murals were likely didactic, meaning they were used for religious instruction. Elaborate imagery was used in lieu of writing to teach those[Page 86]

Figure 1: Flower Mountain, the paradise of creation, from the murals of San Bartolo, Guatemala (ca. 100 BC). (Drawing by Traci Wright after Heather Hurst from The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala Part 1: The North Wall, 2005:8)

Figure 1: Flower Mountain, the paradise of creation, from the murals of San Bartolo, Guatemala (ca. 100 BC). (Drawing by Traci Wright after Heather Hurst from The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala Part 1: The North Wall, 2005:8). (Click to enlarge)

who may have been illiterate, similar to the art that adorned Medieval churches18. The San Bartolo murals were found in a comparatively small room that juts out from the base of a much larger temple structure. The two entry doors are low — about four feet high — which would require those who enter to lower their heads and bow deeply in order to gain access. Once inside, the initiates would stand upright and find themselves[Page 87]

Figure 2: Early Classic Maya ruler being enthroned in emulation of the accession of the Maize God, from the murals of San Bartolo, Guatemala (ca. 100 BC) (Drawing by Traci Wright after Heather Hurst from The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala Part 2: The West Wall, 2010:59)

Figure 2: Early Classic Maya ruler being enthroned in emulation of the accession of the Maize God, from the murals of San Bartolo, Guatemala (ca. 100 BC) (Drawing by Traci Wright after Heather Hurst from The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala Part 2: The West Wall, 2010:59) (Click to enlarge)

surrounded by beautiful murals running along the upper portion of each of the walls, composed of elaborately painted mythological scenes. Questions remain as to where the visual narrative begins and ends, and some of the iconography remains difficult to interpret. Stephen Houston describes it as “a room of ‘mysteries’ for initiates, sequestered in an unusual location at the back of a temple.”19

In the most general of terms, the murals of San Bartolo depict the moment of creation — the ordering of the cosmos, the establishment of the primordial axis mundi. It is followed by a paradisiacal scene, Flower Mountain, and the ensuing emergence of the first humans. Next are scenes of sacrifice, leading up to a scene of resurrection of the Maize God and his subsequent enthronement. The murals culminate with a [Page 88]human ruler being enthroned in the exact same manner as the Maize God — his accession to an earthly throne mimicking that of the Maize God’s ascension to a heavenly throne.

In sum, the murals may depict a premortal existence; the ordering of the cosmos; a paradise of creation and the emergence of mankind; instruction on proper sacrifice; and the heavenly enthronement of the god of resurrection, culminating in a scene where a human accedes to a throne identical to the one used by the god of resurrection. It explains where humans came from (Flower Mountain); why they are here (to worship the gods), and where they are going (to the solar paradise of the sun where they will ultimately sit upon a celestial throne).

When we refer to the “plan of salvation,” we are essentially referring to the underlying mythology that answers our favorite questions as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? These answers are provided in the Book of Mormon and clearly center on Christ; that He was born, was crucified, and rose on the third day, enabling us to resurrect and return home to God the Father. How can we relate this to Mesoamerica? Here I wade into some extremely speculative waters. To be clear, I am not postulating that the Preclassic Maya of San Bartolo were Nephites or that they maintained a belief in the plan of salvation,20 but I am suggesting that some of the underlying themes on the murals of San Bartolo may be an indication as to how the Preclassic Maya attempted to answer those same questions.

Temple as a Place of Sacrifice

Ancient Mesoamerican temples were the epicenter of royal sacrifice. Blood was the most sacred of substances, and Mesoamerican cultures engaged in both human and animal [Page 89]sacrifice. The typical method of human sacrifice was to stretch the victim across a stone altar and have his hands and feet held down by four men. A priest would then make a large incision directly below the ribcage using a knife made out of razor-sharp flint or obsidian, and while the victim was yet alive the priest would thrust his hand into the cut and reach up under the ribcage and into the chest and rip out the victim’s still-beating heart. Among the Aztec, the body of the victim would then be rolled down the precipitous front stairway of the temple. Accounts by the early Spanish conquerors who witnessed such events claimed that the Aztecs would do such sacrifices by the thousands and the bodies would literally pile up at the base of the temple. The numbers are likely exaggerated, and little evidence from the earlier Maya periods suggests that human sacrifice was performed on a grand scale, but the evidence is clear that it was in fact performed.21

The peoples of the Book of Mormon would have been familiar with the types of sacrifices being offered by their surrounding Mesoamerican neighbors, which often comprised burnt offerings of animals, such as deer or birds. The righteous would have interpreted such sacrifices as a means to point their souls to Christ (Jacob 4:5; Alma 34:14). Yet Amulek prophesied that “it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice” (Alma 34:10). It is significant that the three things that Amulek is expressly telling the apostate Zoramites not to sacrifice are the three most common things that were offered by Mesoamerican worshipers: human, beast, and fowl.[Page 90]

Figure 3: Classic Maya scene of sacrifice involving human, beast, and fowl. (Drawn by Traci Wright after Alexandre Tokovinine from Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture, 2011:92)

Figure 3: Classic Maya scene of sacrifice involving human, beast, and fowl. (Drawn by Traci Wright after Alexandre Tokovinine from Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture, 2011:92) (Click to enlarge)

It stands to reason that the Zoramites, in rejecting Nephite religion, would embrace the cultural practices of the more dominant culture, as would be expected of an apostate group.22

The faithful in the Book of Mormon looked forward to the day when Christ would offer himself as sacrifice in their behalf. However, having no point of reference with regard to crucifixion in their own history, they may not have had a clear understanding of what such a death entailed. Nephi explained that the Lord speaks to us “according to our language, unto our understanding” (2 Nephi 31:3). Correspondingly, cultural context directly impacts the way people interpret manifestations of the divine.23 Thus, when Christ appeared to the Nephites, he [Page 91]may have been communicating with them according to their cultural language when he invited them to come and feel for themselves the wounds in his flesh. He bade them first to thrust their hands into his side, and secondarily to feel the prints in his hands and feet (3 Nephi 11:14). This contrasts with his appearance to his apostles in Jerusalem after his resurrection. Among them, he invited them to touch solely his hands and feet (Luke 24:39–40).24 Why the difference? To a people steeped in Mesoamerican culture, the sign that a person had been ritually sacrificed would have been an incision on their side — suggesting they had had their hearts removed25 — whereas for the people of Jerusalem in the first century, the wounds that would indicate someone had been sacrificed would have been in the hands and the feet — the marks of crucifixion.

Temple as a Place to Enter Divine Presence

In both Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon, the temple is a place where worshipers go to enter into the presence of the divine. It was at the temple in Bountiful where Christ appeared in a grand theophany to the gathered Nephite survivors. The Maya believed they could evince the presence of gods and other supernatural beings within their sacred spaces through ritual activity. This was oftentimes done through incense or burnt offerings, wherein it was believed the billowing smoke effectually created a screen or portal through which supernatural beings could manifest themselves. On Lintel 25 from Yaxchilán, for example, a noblewoman named Ix K’abal Xook burns strips of paper that are soaked with her own blood.26 From the smoke of the[Page 92]

Figure 4. A Maya noblewoman conjures a supernatural being through a sacrificial burnt offering of her own blood. Lintel 25 from Yaxchilán (Photograph by William Hamblin).

Figure 4. A Maya noblewoman conjures a supernatural being through a sacrificial burnt offering of her own blood. Lintel 25 from Yaxchilán (Photograph by William Hamblin). (Click to enlarge)

sacrificial bowl issues forth a vision serpent, out of whose jaws emerges a patron deity of her city.

Within their temples, the Maya placed effigies that they believed were physical manifestations of their gods. Iconographically, there are only a handful of depictions of such deity effigies — idols, as the authors of scripture would call them — that are housed within temples. Although no direct evidence survives from the Preclassic or even the Classic periods, in the Postclassic these effigies were [Page 93]carved by priests out of cedar, called k’u che, which literally means “god tree” or “holy tree.”27 The priests had to engage in rituals of purification in order to produce these effigies, and it was a fearful act. To be clear, these effigies were not merely representations of the gods, they were the gods. Once the priest finished carving one, it would be ritually activated and placed within the temple. In the Classic period, only Maya rulers and priests could enter into the inner sanctuary where these effigies were housed. To enter into the room would literally be to enter into the presence of the god. Perhaps notably, the rooms that housed these effigies within the temples were typically covered with a curtain. Mesoamerican scholar Karl Taube notes, “Just as a covered household doorway could signal for privacy, the temple curtains probably were also used to indicate states of the god housed within.”28 This curtain may be conceptually similar to Latter-day Saint beliefs concerning the “veil” that separates humanity from the presence of the Lord in the celestial realm.

Other Ritual Locations

Temples were not the only places for ritual activity. Among the Maya, rituals and prayers were frequently performed in the forest, in milpas (cornfields), and in homes. The home is considered an especially sacred place, the center of which has a hearth comprising three stones at its center. As Taube explains,

As the first central place, the simple three-stone hearth may well constitute the original construction of creation … According to Post-Classic Central Mexican thought, the old fire god Xiuhtecuhtli-Huehueteotl resides in a hearth at the world center. The Anales de Cuauhtitlan [Page 94]explicitly defines this place as three sacred hearthstones, each personified by a specific god (Bierhorst 1992:23).29 The Florentine Codex describes this locus as the circular earth navel, or tlalxicco: “mother of the gods, father of the gods, who resideth in the navel of the earth, who is set in the turquoise enclosure, [enclosed] with the waters of the lovely cotinga, enclosed with clouds — Ueueteotl, he of Ayamictlan, Xiuhtecuhtli” (Sahagún 1969, Book 6: 88–89).30 In this account, the earth navel is a place of duality, embodying both the male and female creative principles … This evocation of dualistic principles seems to describe the hearth as a place of creation. However, as the axis mundi, the hearth is also a conduit between the levels of earth, sky, and underworld.31

In the Book of Mormon, the Zoramite proletariat complained to Alma and Amulek that they had labored abundantly to build all of the synagogues in Antionum but were subsequently forbidden to worship there due to the coarseness of their apparel (Alma 32:5–9). They believed they could only worship in the synagogue and seemed genuinely distraught that they were being denied entry. Alma recited the words of Zenos to them to assure them that they could worship anywhere and their petitions would be heard: wilderness or field, house or closet. In essence, they could connect heaven and earth wherever they worshipped in faith, effectively creating their own axis mundi.32
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Cultural Diversity in Mesoamerica

A common misconception is that Mesoamerica was a relatively homogenous area, beginning with the Olmec in the Formative period, moving on to the Maya in the Classic period, and culminating with the Aztec during the Postclassic prior to the arrival of the Spanish. In actuality, there were scores of different cultures that inhabited Mesoamerica anciently, co-existing in space and time. 33 Cultures that modern scholars sometimes lump together were in fact quite distinct from each other. The hundreds of cities that we identify as Maya, for example, would not have identified themselves as belonging to the same culture. They were never unified under a single leader, such as the Pharaohs of Egypt. Rather, each city conceptualized themselves as a unique nation, with their own particular pantheon of gods and ritual complexes. Evidence from several major polities (such as Tikal, Caracol, and Naranjo) indicates that each city had its own distinctive triad of patron deities, along with a rich pantheon comprised of many other gods and supernatural beings.34 There were even distinctions in the rituals each polity would perform. The accession rituals of kings, for example, varied from site to site in terms of the regalia that was worn and the specific ritual actions that were done to enthrone them. 35 The Mesoamerican landscape was extremely heterogeneous, both between and within cultures. Yet each had their unique axes mundi that made their cities sacred to them.

[Page 96]Without question, the specific rituals and sacred locations of righteous Nephites would have been different from those of their neighbors, but enough variation existed across the culturescape that the Nephites may have effectively fallen within the margin of acceptable diversity. But, as demonstrated above, the overlapping form and function of many of their rituals and sacred architecture may have enabled them to blend in better than we might suppose: temples and altars, sacrifices and burnt offerings, prayers and supplications, and belief in and emulation of a dying and resurrecting god. These rituals took place at their individual axes mundi — their own sacred centers of the world — and served to bridge the gap between the human and divine realms.

1.Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1959), 26.

2. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, 36.

3. Julia Guernsey, Ritual & Power in Stone: The Performance of Rulership in Mesoamerican Izapan Style Art (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), 120.

4. Pamela Gellar, “Maya Mortuary Spaces as Cosmological Metaphors,” in EC Robertson, JD Seibert, DC Fernandez, and MU Zender, eds  Space and Spatial Analysis in Archaeology (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006), 38.

5. David Stuart, “‘The Fire Enters His House’: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts,” in Stephen D. Houston, ed., Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1998): 373–425.

6. John W. Welch, “The Temple in the Book of Mormon: The Temples at the Cities of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Bountiful,” in Temples of the Ancient World, ed. Donald W. Parry (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994), 348; William J. Adams, Jr., “Synagogues in the Book of Mormon,” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/1 (2000): 4–13.

7. 1 Kings 5:17 notes that Solomon’s temple was built with “great stones, costly stones, and hewed stones.” The “precious things” that were “not to be found upon the land” likely refer to the types of stones used in construction and other types of “precious stones” used to garnish the temple in 2 Chronicles 3:6.

8. Welch, “Temple in the Book of Mormon.”

9. John S. Justeson, “Appendix B: Interpretations of Mayan Hieroglyphs (1984:351),” in John S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, eds. Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing. Publication 9 (Albany, NY: Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, State University of New York at Albany). While the term k’uh nah “god house” in modern Mayan language calls to mind the Hebrew beit el or beit elohim, we must be cautious in drawing analogies since the ancient Maya glyph for temple has not yet been deciphered phonetically (although the conceptual meaning of the logograph is clearly understood to be a temple structure).

10. Lisa Lucero, “Classic Maya Temples, Politics, and the Voice of the People” Latin American Antiquity 18/4 (2007): 407–427, esp. 407.

11. Chronologically, the Book of Mormon falls roughly within the Late to Terminal Preclassic Maya eras (400 bc–ad 250), although the precise geography is still a matter of intense debate, even among those who hold to a limited Mesoamerican setting.

12. Linda Schele, “The Iconography of Maya Architectural Facades During the Late Classic Period,” in Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, 479–517.

13. Richard Hansen, “Continuity and Disjunction: The Pre-Classic Antecedents of Classic Maya Architecture,” in Function and Meaning, 89. Hansen cautions, however, that the scarcity of royal tombs that have been identified from the Preclassic period may simply be the result of inadequate testing in structures. Nonetheless, when Preclassic temples are adorned with stucco facades they consistently portray supernatural entities rather than historical rulers.

14. William A. Saturno, Karl Taube, and David E. Stuart, The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala: Part I: the North Wall (Barnardsville, NC: Center for Ancient American Studies, 2005); Karl A. Taube, William Andrew Saturno, David Stuart, and Heather Hurst, The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala: The West Wall (Barnardsville, NC: Boundary End Archaeology Research Center, 2010).

15. As it happens, the date of the San Bartolo murals falls squarely in the time of Mosiah II, who reigned from ca. 124–91 bc, and whose reign was pronounced upon a tower by his father Benjamin.

16. Takeshi Inomata, “Plazas, Performers, and Spectators,” Current Anthropology 47/5 (2006): 805–42.

17. Although this seems obvious to modern visitors of Classic Maya sites, to date, there have been no serious academic studies concerning the acoustic properties of Maya plazas. See Stephen Houston and Karl Taube, “An Archaeology of the Senses: Perception and Cultural Expression in Ancient Mesoamerica,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10/2 (2000): 280–81.

18. The 12th century Christian theologian Honorius of Autun declared that “Painting … is the literature of the laity” (Gemma Animae, chap. 132 [PL, 172, col. 586]).

19. Stephen Houston, “A Splendid Predicament: Young Men in Classic Maya Society,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19/2 (2009): 171.

20. The Nephites, for that matter, had an incomplete understanding of the plan of salvation as well (cf. D&C 128:18).

21. Linda Schele, “Human Sacrifice among the Classic Maya,” in Ritual Human Sacrifice in Mesoamerica (1984): 7 — 48; Carrie Anne Berryman, “Captive Sacrifice and Trophy Taking among the Ancient Maya,” in The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians (2007), 377–99.

22. Mark Alan Wright and Brant Gardner, “The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 1 (2012): 25–55. http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/the-cultural-context-of-nephite-apostasy/

23. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, 11.

24. In John 20:19–20, 26–27, Christ invites His apostles to touch His hands first and secondarily His side.

25. We might speculate that the expression broken heart may have had a much more literal connotation in their cultural context.

26. On Lintel 24 from Yaxchilan, Ix K’abal Xook is shown pulling a thorny rope through her tongue, and the ensuing blood drips onto the paper that she burns on Lintel 25.

27. Alfred M. Tozzer, Landa’s relación de las cosas de Yucatán, Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology 18 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1941), 159–60

28. Karl Taube, “The Jade Hearth: Centrality, Rulership, and the Classic Maya Temple,” in Function and Meaning, 429.

29. John Bierhorst, History and Mythology of the Aztecs: The Codex Chimalpopoca (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press,1992), 23.

30. Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. 1555-79. Translated by Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. 12 Vols. (Santa Fe: School of American Research; Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 1950-82).

31. Taube, “Jade Hearth,” 432–33.

32. Alma and Amulek were speaking from experience, as they had both had powerful hierophanic experiences in the form of angelic visitations while out journeying rather than in a structure dedicated to worship (Mosiah 27:11; Alma 10:7)

33. Mark Alan Wright, “The Cultural Tapestry of Mesoamerica,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 23/2 (2013): 4–21.

34. David Stuart, The Inscriptions of Temple XIX at Palenque. (San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute. 2005), 160.

35. Mark Alan Wright, A Study of Classic Maya Rulership, PhD diss. (University of California, Riverside, Department of Anthropology, 2011). Accessible at http://escholarship.org/uc/item/6pb5g8h2.

13 thoughts on “Axes Mundi: Ritual Complexes in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon

  1. I don’t think anybody can dispute that it is still “possible” that the Nephites were in the Americas. It is probably impossible to eliminate the possibilities even though the probabilities are less and less possible.

    • David, I’m not sure what evidence you have the “probabilities are less and less possible.” I have found precisely the opposite, and I am not alone. If you are suggesting that Mark Wright’s paper was designed to prove that the Nephites existed in Mesoamerica, you have misread the intent. Proof is typically unavailable whenever we are looking at documents and archaeology. However, there are ways in which documents can be tied to what has been discovered, and speaking for the Mesoamerican region, those connections are become increasingly precise. Of course you are entitle to your opinion, but it doesn’t seem to engage any of the evidence I have seen presented.

      • Brant:

        DNA, the ever-shrinking geography of where the Book of Mormon supposedly occurred and how it doesn’t concur with the D&C, and what Joseph Smith said about the geography – this is the evidence that the probabilities are less and less possible.

        Is there a logical solution to this? It seems that the solution to this and the internal problems to the Book of Mormon is that it is not historical. The book still can have great spiritual value even if we admit that it isn’t historical.

        • David, I completely agree that the Book of Mormon can, and does, have great spiritual value even when read ahistorically. Most members of the church read it that way. Regardless of what the scholars argue about in terms of history, most Saints are happily unaware and read the text for the message it provides for their current life rather than information about the past.

          However, that doesn’t mean that there is no past and no history. You provide a couple of examples. First is DNA. That was really a pretty popular argument against historicity when it was first proposed, and it still has impact even though it wasn’t much of an argument even when it was proposed. Long before DNA research, LDS scholars were aware of two important facts. The first is that the majority of traceable Native American lineages were connected to Asia (though the Bering Strait was the original hypothesis, since expanded to probable coast-hopping in small boats). The second is that the Book of Mormon itself can’t support the traditional hemispheric reading that was part of the pre-scientific approach to the text. That people who read the text and imagined that it explained all Native Americans is part of our history, but it was never part of the Book of Mormon.

          Finally, you invoke Joseph. I’m really not sure why. Joseph appeared to have multiple ideas about Book of Mormon geography and there is no evidence that he or any of the people close to him assumed that those ideas were the final word. Joseph thought that the mound builder cultures supported the idea of cities in the Book of Mormon until he heard of cities in Central America. Then he thought those did. He wasn’t particularly scientific (or dealing with anything that we would recognize as history) at the time. He identified Central American cities as specific Book of Mormon cities, but the dates were wrong (and the locations, as far as current research can tell).

          Nevertheless, all of that LDS scholarship on the Book of Mormon is providing very close connections between the text’s geography (not what good-hearted, believing Saints have thought) and specific cultures and times. If you have been willing to accept what you appear to have heard about DNA and the shrinking Book of Mormon, I suggest that you look to the LDS scholars who are producing good work on those topics (including geneticists who have a lot to say about why DNA is not an issue for the Book of Mormon).

        • David Meltzer, an archaeologist with expertise on Native American origins of Southern Methodist University says that those “who study Native American history are glad to have the genetic data but also have reservations, given that several of the geneticists’ conclusions have changed over time. This is a really important step forward but not the last word,” he said noting that many migrations may not yet have shown up in the genetic samples.

        • Michael H. Crawford, an anthropologist [author of The Origins of Native Americans: Evidence from Anthropological Genetics] at the University of Kansas, said “the paucity of samples from North America and from coastal regions made it hard to claim a complete picture of early migrations has been attained” (Nicholas Wade, New York Times, “Earliest Americans Arrived in Waves, DNA Study Finds,” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/12/science/earliest-americans-arrived-in-3-waves-not-1-dna-study-finds.html (accessed August 13, 2012))

          Third, sampling of American Indian DNA is sparse. Many tribes have not been sampled. As more sampling occurs other DNA haplogroups are discovered among the American Indians. Who knows what is yet to surface? For example, some initial sampling of the Cherokee has shown other haplogroups not associated with Asia. One sampling found that 25% of the Cherokee have haplogroup T DNA. This is interesting because Egyptians also have about 25% T DNA. Remember that Joseph who was sold into Egypt married an Egyptian woman named Asenath. Could the T haplogroup be a marker for the tribe of Joseph from which Lehi came?

        • Lehi and his group were Hebrews from one of the tribes of Israel but not the tribe from which Jews primarily come. After the Israelites were taken captive and dispersed, and the 10 tribes became lost, the tribe of Judah mainly remained and became the primary basis for the Jewish people. Lehi was from Manasseh and his wife was from Ephraim – both from the tribe of Joseph. What is tribe of Joseph DNA? Nobody knows. You can sample all the American Indian DNA you want but if you don’t have Lehi’s DNA to compare with you can’t make any comparisons or reach any conclusions.

        • Most archeology/anthropology and DNA work attempts to identify the primary source for the peopling of the Americas. While Asia appears to be the leading source of ancient immigrants to the Americas, and Latter-day Saints don’t disagree with that, there is plenty of room for additional groups coming to the continent, and several studies have found evidence for non-Asian DNA that cannot be explained by modern European admixture. Some of this evidence is found in pre-Colombian burial sites with DNA connections to Europe and the Middle East. Most work in this field does not attempt to identify other minor migrations to the New world and experts in the field have recognized that there were, likely, other such migrations yet unaccounted for.

        • The people who published the claim that DNA proved the Book of Mormon false are not population geneticists and they borrowed data gathered by experts in the field and repurposed that data in a way that created misconstrued interpretations. That is, they did not follow methodology standards which are required by legitimate experts in the field. Trained geneticists say it is impossible to prove or disprove the Book of Mormon using the current state of DNA studies. They go into a number of additional reasons for this that you need to be aware of which cause DNA markers from populations to disappear over time such as founder effect and bottlenecks. Much more could be said about this which would require too much space here. I’ll just mention one other example:

          Population geneticists recognize that DNA does disappear. For an example of disappearing DNA note the recent DNA study of more than 131,000 modern Icelanders, which discovered that many DNA markers disappeared in just over a century. The study was conducted in Iceland because it is a closed society. People don’t usually move to Iceland and so the people who live there are descendants of the original settlers. The study found that the majority of Icelandic ancestors — from just 150 years ago — did not contribute mtDNA or Ycs to their actual descendants. Conversely, a small minority of Icelandic ancestors from the same 150 years ago contributed the bulk of DNA markers to their now-living descendants. According to DNA tests, more than 86 percent of Icelandic males descended from just 26 percent of potential male ancestors in their family tree who were born between 1848 and 1892 and also lived in Iceland. Among the female population, nearly 92 percent descended from only 22 percent of potential female ancestors in their family tree who were born between the same years. (Agnar Helgason and others, “A Populationwide Coalescent Analysis of Icelandic Matrilineal and Patrilineal Genealogies: Evidence for a Faster Evolutionary Rate of mtDNA Lineages than Y Chromosomes,” American Journal of Human Genetics 72 (2003), 1370–88)

          This means that the DNA from the majority of known ancestors disappeared in just 150 years. Most of the Icelandic people living today who have genealogical records of their ancestors 150 years ago could not match up their DNA to most of those ancestors.

          This makes sense when the following is understood:

          Our parents each have one complete set of DNA. But we only inherit half of the DNA from each parent. In the step from your parents to you, half of the DNA is lost. It is not passed on to you. Your body can only hold one set of DNA and, therefore, is incapable of preserving two full sets. You only preserve one quarter of the DNA that your four grandparents had. . If we go back 10 generations, you have 1,024 ancestors who are possible contributors to your genetic makeup. But do they all contribute to your DNA. No. Of these 1,024 potential ancestors, 512 are females. Only one of them has contributed your mtDNA. That means that the DNA of 511 of your female ancestors over the last 10 generations is not passed down to you.

    • It turns out that the longer we go, the more evidence is discovered which confirms parts of the Book of Mormon and other LDS doctrines and practices. There are literally scores and scores, probably several hundred, Book of Mormon details that are now confirmed or supported by evidence that was not available in Joseph Smith’s time.

      There is a growing body of evidence from New World archaeology that supports the Book of Mormon. Dr. John Clark of the New World Archaeological Foundation has compiled a list of sixty items mentioned in the Book of Mormon. The list includes items such as “steel swords,” “barley,” “cement,” “thrones,” and literacy.

      In 1842, only eight (or 13.3%) of those sixty items were confirmed by archaeological evidence. Thus, in the mid-nineteenth century, archaeology did not generally support the claims made by the Book of Mormon. By 2005 forty-five of those sixty items (75%) have been confirmed. Therefore, as things stand at the moment, current New World archaeological evidence tends to verify the claims made by the Book of Mormon. (John Clark, “Debating the Foundations of Mormonism: Archaeology and the Book of Mormon”, presentation at the 2005 FAIR Apologetics Conference (August 2005). Co-presenters, Wade Ardern and Matthew Roper. S. Kent Brown, “New Light: ‘The Place That Was Called Nahom”: New Light from Ancient Yemen,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 66-68.)

      After 60 years of research Mesoamerican archeologist, John Sorenson has published his “Mormon Codex” showing 420 details that match up between the Book of Mormon and features of geography, language, and culture in Guatemala and Southern Mexico. Since these details were not known by science or scholars in 1830 when the Book of Mormon was published, how did that book get so many things right? Because it is true. It’s the only way it could get that many details right which were unknown in Joseph Smith’s day.

  2. Having spent several hours on top of Danta and other such Maya sacred buildings it is not hard to see them as Axis Mundi. The speculative idea that the murals of San Bartolo could be a form of a temple text is fascinating to me. Excellent article, thanks

  3. Great article. It would be interesting to examine more how the realm of the dead played into the Mesoamerican axis muni as that is particularly important in LDS understanding. One of the things I find striking from Sorenson’s Mormon’s Codex is just how little we know of their theology or daily life. Why did they sacrifice humans? What kind of priesthood structure did they have? What kind of political structure? There is only so much that can be inferred from a few murals and artifacts are also of limited value to determine these things. Even concepts of God/gods is difficult to determine. Were these all distinct gods or different manifestations of an overarching power? Did they view their gods as different than their neighbors gods? Did any of them have a view of God as bigger than their own community? It’s very different than examining a culture like Egypt where we have lots of texts and histories within and without the culture.

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