Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Swords and the Book of Mormon

One of the more common criticisms of the Book of Mormon is the claim that "swords" were unknown in the ancient Americas, in contrast to references to swords among the Nephites, Lamanites, and Jaredites. Many of you may have read about the actual "swords" among Mesoamericans that as described by the Spaniards. For example, here is an excerpt from my Mormon Answers response to the question about swords on my page about Metals in the Book of Mormon:
Q. Isn't the mention of swords in the New World another anachronism?

A. Many say that it is. Certainly swords were known in the ancient Old World, but the Book of Mormon speaks of swords used for centuries in the New World, where it is "common knowledge" that swords as we know them were not in use prior to the time of Columbus. But the ancient peoples in Book of Mormon lands, especially in Central American lands, definitely did use weapons that qualify as swords and were even called "swords" by Europeans who later saw them in use. These New World swords were non-metallic, incorporating obsidian blades. Examples of such swords from the Aztecs are discussed in the online article, "A Technological Mystery Resolved" by Terry Stocker at http://www.cmog.org/page.cfm?page=278.

A well known form of these pre-Columbian New World swords is the macuahuitl or the macana. Though the macuahuitl has been described as a "war club with sharp rocks embedded in it" by a Book of Mormon critic, the Spaniards that came to Central America consistently described it as a sword, not a club, as is shown by Matthew Roper in the article, "Eyewitness Descriptions of Mesoamerican Swords," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1996, pp. 150-158. Roper notes that the early Chroniclers of Mesoamerica, Durán and Clavijero, regularly called that weapon a sword. . . . [continue reading]
As an update, this year I also learned about related club-like weapons further north in the Americas. For example, theNew Georgia Encyclopedia has an article about the archaeology of the ancient Indians in the Georgia area entitled "Indian Warfare." This article discusses weapons and describes "the atassa, which was actually a wooden sword shaped like a pirate's cutlass." A helpful drawing is also provided. The word "sword" in this article is not Mormon spin.

A related article is "Warclubs and Falcon Warriors: Martial Arts, Status, and the Belief System in Southeastern Mississippian Chiefdoms" by Wayne W. Van Horne, Kennesaw State College, paper presented at the annual meeting of the Central States Anthropological Society, Beloit, Wisconsin, March 20, 1993. This scholarly overview has the following passage:
During the Mississippian and early historic periods Southeastern warriors used the warclub as their primary weapon, and they were experts in using it. The wide variety of warclub types that existed is part of the evidence of their importance in warfare. Warclub types included utilitarian types that were constructed for use as actual weapons, and ceremonial types, which were clearly non-functional and were used for culturally symbolic purposes. Utilitarian warclubs can be categorized into several general types based on construction. The first type is a stick that is one to two feet in length with an inset projection at the striking end made from a flint blade, animal tooth, or bone or antler fragment. The second type is a globe-headed warclub one to two feet in length with a thin handle and a ball shaped head that sometimes has an inset projection on the striking surface. The third type is the atassa, a wooden broadsword that is one to three feet in length and is shaped like a European broadsword, or falchion, without a hilt. The atassa was the most prevalent form of warclub in use in the protohistoric period. [emphasis mine]
Again we encounter the theme of wooden swords among the ancient Americans.

If the swords used by Lamanites were at least partly made from wood, then a once puzzling discussion of such swords in the Book of Mormon makes sense, as noted by Matthew Roper in "Swords and Cimeters in the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1999, pp. 34-43. The passage is in Alma 24:12-15, where a group of converted Lamanites make an oath to bury their swords and "stain" them no more with blood:
Now, my best beloved brethren, since God hath taken away our stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren.

Behold, I say unto you, Nay, let us retain our swords that they be not stained with the blood of our brethren; for perhaps, if we should stain our swords again they can no more be washed bright through the blood of the Son of our great God, which shall be shed for the atonement of our sins.

Oh, how merciful is our God! And now behold, since it has been as much as we could do to get our stains taken away from us, and our swords are made bright, let us hide them away that they may be kept bright, as a testimony to our God at the last day, or at the day that we shall be brought to stand before him to be judged, that we have not stained our swords in the blood of our brethren since he imparted his word unto us and has made us clean thereby.
Metal swords are easily cleaned and do not stain with blood, but the wooden handles of a macuahuitl or other sword-like weapon could absorb blood and become stained. They would be difficult to clean - and would almost take a miracle to remove the stains, much as the converted Lamanites understood that it was the miracle of Christ's grace that had removed the stain of blood from their souls. I think the reference to the swords being made "bright" could be a metaphor referring to a lighter color or bleaching of the cleansed swords as a whole or to the shiny brightness of the cleaned obsidian blades.

In any case, I am intrigued by the richness of weapons used in the ancient New World and the possible correspondance to weapons in the Book of Mormon. This post only scratches the surface of this fascinating topic.

28 comments:

Clark Goble said...

It seems the one problem with this theory is the discussion of metal in so many places in the text. Given that, why no metal swords. I recognize that there are some answers to this, notably in Warfare in the Book of Mormon but none that I find entirely satisfying.

Mormanity said...

The Book of Ether actually has early Jaredites smelting "steel" from a hill to make swords - this was probably meteoric iron, often alloyed with nickel and other metals in a way that it can properly be called steel, and such iron was used by the Olmec civilization for mirrors and other things. Metal swords probably were used - but they decay readily and will usually not be found many centuries later. Iron was treated as a precious metal later (Book of Mosiah) among the Nephites. The more standard metals of ancient Native Americans and Nephites - copper, silver, and gold - are not very useful for weapons. Obsidian makes a lot of expense: inexpensive, easy to process, abundant. But at least among the Jaredites for one episode, there were some metal swords.

john f. said...

One slight problem: what about bloodrust on metal swords? Am I in error to think that blood will stain metal if not cleaned off readily?

Anonymous said...

"7:9 Wherefore, he came to the hill Ephraim, and he did molten out of the hill, and made swords out of steel for those whom he had drawn away with him; and after he had armed them with swords he returned to the city Nehor, and gave battle unto his brother Corihor, by which means he obtained the kingdom and restored it unto his father Kib"

Steel. The text is very plain. There is not a shred of evidence that steel existed in the new world. None.

Anonymous said...

It is convenient that your have decided to argue the existence of swords, while avoiding the myriad other problems that exist in the Book of Mormon:

Metallurgy: Silver and Gold Coinage, Bellows, Copper and Brass.

Animals: Ass, Bull, Calf, Cattle, Cow, domestic Goat - HORSES! Ox, domestic Sheep, Sow, Swine, & Elephants...

Agiculture: Barley and Wheat? Flax? Grapes and Olives?

Has satan so blinded you to the truth that you cannot see the lies so obviously before you? Pray that the true god will show you what is false and asked him for forgiveness. If you do this earnestly you will see the truth as so many other s have. The ONE true god loves you and does not want to you lose your eternal salvation.

The bible warns us all concerning the false prophets.

Jeseus was not false.

latterdaytruth said...

The Anonymous person who posted "problems" with cows, grapes, metals, etc. obviously has not studied out these issues. www.fairlds.org has some great articles on each of the things they posted and how they are reconciled with New World antiquity.

Anonymous said...

wow nice to hear all the swords but at least there is no one sword been found in Hill Cumorah nor bone remains struck by a sword.

Anonymous said...

ok, so there are no steel swords, but what really bothers me is that the cities recorded in the bible such as jerusalem, bethlehem, and many others can be verified. Even cities much smaller than some the Book of Mormon seems to indicate existed. These have existed for thousands of years. Much longer than any Book of Mormon cities. Can you definitively point to any city claimed by the Book of Mormon, and say here is where it was?

Anonymous said...

If Joseph Smith is still alive, I am very sure he will be a lost guy in the arabian peninsula. If Marco Polo and Joseph Smith travel the arabian peninsula. I am very sure Joseph Smith is could not find his way to any city than Marco Polo. Even Joseph Smith knows how to read "modern Egytian writing" he still a lost guy, even if God is with him that day, I am still sure he is a lost guy. In the 1830's anybody can travel to the arabian peninsula but why none or not even one of the early LDS president been to this place. Even Joseph Smith neverf been to arabian peninsula, why because Joseph Smith would read the egytian writings on any place incorrectly. I would not follow Lost Day Saint(LDS)

Anonymous said...

It's very amusing indeed to see posts listing mortal materials as their "evidence" that the Book of Mormon is somehow less than truth. As if the fact that a horse was/was not known in the Americas is relevant to anyone's salvation. Did those horses somehow make the Mormons Demons? Because you don't have personal knowledge of metal being fashioned into tools, even swords (thousands of years ago no less - where's your personal journal from that time period?), it means it never existed or happened? Please explain the logic.

If I'm not mistaken, what the Jews were looking for in their king was someone more fanciful, missing the real king altogether as well. If it's physical evidence that will convert you, you would have converted long ago, as it is plentiful. However, like the Jews, most critics aren't looking for anything to convince them of the truth so much as to assemble ammunition (weak, at that) to argue their cause. Reminds me of the sadduces . . .

I don't want to be the one to put limits on God simply because there isn't immediate physical evidence of something. I'm fairly sure we've all heard of and understand the eventual outcome of sign-seekers. More often than not, even a sign doesn't convince; however, it sure seals one's fate a lot faster, as faith is no longer an issue, having received true knowledge but still finding a reason to deny it. It's happened over and over again.

Perhaps those who are so sure about what God provided to those in the Americas can shed some additional light on how the Great Pyramid was built. Then again, that's Egyptian history; maybe they're not so authoritative on how God facilitated that.

Anonymous said...

Here are some of my issues, firstly with metal. It is such an essential skill, giving and advantage to those who can make and use it, especially in warfare. If the Lamanites are so warfaring, they would have to be complete morons not to have been able to retain metal skill for weapons and armor. No where else in the world would you see a group of people, who have used steel for some time, simply abandon it. You see it every where, its one of the primary archeological evidences found elsewhere in the world. Such grand battles in the Book of Mormon, where is it? I hope you find the Roman armor like the pictures of Nephite soldiers are always shown wearing. How about the WHEEL, how may I ask is the wheel forgoten. The ancient americans did not even advance far enough to utilize the basic technology. Used for travelling/moving, building, and farming for example. I don't care how wicked a group of people get, they do not revert to barbarian cave men, abandoning key skills of civilization. My point is why are these things lost when the Spanish arive??? And don't get me started on elephants and horses, Why would Joseph even think to include them, I don't know?

Anonymous said...

Yes, next thing you know there will be a story about how the Gods parted the sea between Africa and South America to allow for an African tribe to migrate to the Americas. They came upon chariots made of gold, wielding machetes, having their chariots being pulled by strange black and white striped deer with no horns. There's no evidence to say it didn't happen, maybe it's true?

Michael said...

Here are a few "What If's" that may shed a bit of light.

-- What if there was a big global war and you were one of the few to survive. Could you make a metal sword? Could you mine the ore, smelt it? Fashion it into Steel? Because of technology, we lose the ability to do other things. Could you make a wagon wheel? That technology would be lost in a few generations.

-- What if all the buffalo were killed off. What if it were 1000 years later and someone dug up a book describing Indian Hunts. Where would the "Archaeological Evidence" be that buffalos even existed.

If you never saw one, how would you describe it.

Just because there is no evidence, just because Joseph Smith's "Horses" aren't what you call "Horses" today, does it make Brother Joseph a liar?


-- What if a thousand years from now you "discovered" a DVD filled with news archives from this century. All of the technology to read that DVD was gone. But, because the Lord neeeded you for a specific purpose, provided you with a "portable DVD player" and the means of powering it.

-- How would you describe the events? What words would you use?

Put yourself in others shoes and use what ifs. The "impossible" tends to become "possible" even probable.

Ujlapana said...

Unfortunately, as with many apologetic explanations, the text of the BoM does not support this interesting interpretation of swords.

We know that Laban's sword was old-world steel, and that Nephi made swords after the manner of Laban's sword.

Read Alma 44. The swords had hilts. And they could scalp someone in a melee without otherwise impairing their ability to act. How you scalp someone with a macahuitl without crushing their skull is beyond me. Plus the scalps go nicely on the point of a sword.

As for stained steel, pick up a copy of Romeo and Juliet. Read Act 1, Scene 1, where you will find a reference to "neighbor-stained steel." I think the BoM imagery works very well with the classic definition of a sword (as Joseph Smith would have imagined it).

ridgerunner said...

the idea that the ancient amerians did not know about iron and steel is not supported by history. In the book, Americas Before Columbus, Farnworth quotes a sailor with Columbus recieving an iron axe from a native as a gift. In another account tells of a grave that was opened of an Indian warrior finding by his side a hilt of a sword with a long line of rust running from it. Did the ancient americians have iron. Yes. was it common, I dont think so. What has survived is far and few between. However there is evidence of Iron.
What happened to that knowledge. There are some good reasons to consider. First off, I dont remember the Lamanites having that knowledge, only the Nephites and the Jaridites. So when the Nephites were killed off the knowledge was lost. Lamanites were described as lazy. It seems logical that they would not make such weapons that are hard to make if they could find something better that met their needs without the effort. Lets now examine a descripion from a
conquistador and what he saw happen. When war broke out, this solder witnessed an amazing feat.
A native split a horse down the middle with a single slice of his weapon. That was something that even the steel sword could not do
and he was amazed. That weapon was the wooden sword with obsidian lashed in it. Much easier to make and has a superior cutting edge then the steel sword. Being out classed, the steel sword fell out of usage. However, my first example showed that iron was still available to those natives. An axe would work much better then obsidian to cut wood.

Why did this knowledge not stay with the native americans?
When the europeans came, the natives were killed off by influenza, most that died off would be the young and the old.
the old would have had the knowledge to be passed on.
Without them the knowledge was lost forever. this would be in Meso america, where the great civilaztions were. Nomadic tribes could make iron tools but being nomadic it would be too hard to transport the equipment to make such tools everytime they pulled camp.

the truth is available if one searches for it.

Anonymous said...

For a more current referrence, I would referr you to page 12 of the book Sacred Sites by Joseph Allen Phd. There at the bottom of the page is a bust of an Aztec King made of silver and iron. The date around 650 AD. A picture is worth a thousand words, so I hear. Now I want to hear the apologies of all those that thought that the ancient americans did not have iron and that would prove the destruction of the Book of Mormon.

Mike said...

I'm interested in the statement that the Olmecs used iron. The only iron use I'm aware of in the new world was some of the paleoeskimo beating high grade ore into simple tools. Do you have more information on that?

Iron artifacts will easily last a thousand years or more in dry climates, clay soil or alkali bogs. Thousands survive from the Viking Era, and hundreds from Ancient Rome, even a few from Greece.

I wouldn't take too seriously any stories of macahuitls splitting horses. It's not as if modern soldiers, or other troops in history, have never exaggerated.

Anonymous said...

Iron was rare here in ancient America. the sources that I gave are all that I have. Sacred Sites was the best as it has a picture of the bust.

As for the story of the horse, I could see where an animal could be cut open with a glass cutting edge. I see no reason to disbelieve the account without a better reason.

Mike said...

Iron is incredibly available and in high grade around Lake Superior, from the Sudbury meteorite strike. However, in Central America, it's exceedingly rare and there's only one artifact discovered so far. It wasn't smelted, just ground. (I did some research.)

I could see slicing a horse open easily enough. Obsidian is quite sharp. There are stories of "splitting horses" all over the world. None of them are supportable that I know of. Troops exaggerate.

Any discrepancy, from a theological POV, would be best explained either as a misinterpretation of scripture, or by insufficient knowledge at our end.

The Incas worked bronze, so it's possible there was some iron working. We'll see what develops.

cabezadepapa said...

check out this link on metal smelting evidence in south america.

cabezadepapa said...

i don't think my link worked above...here it is again:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/04/070423100437.htm

Anonymous said...

Horses in the Americas before Columbus: http://www.2s2.com/chapmanresearch/user/documents/horses.html

Anonymous said...

First and foremost, there is recent evidence of a species of horse in Ancient america (600-300Bc)
There is also fairly recent evidence of mastodonts(elephants) about 6000 years ago and earlier.
PLEASE people! do your research before you accuse our beliefs!

And by the way...show me any physical evidence that Adam and Eve were real; show me any physical evidence that 6 fingered and 6 toed giants existed(as described in the old testament) Well! what about Noah's Ark! and the two of each species! or what about Lot's wife who turns into a pillar of salt at the destruction of sodom and gomorrah, that makes no sense at all, right? it must be false. Show me physical evidence that there is a God!

People! the very belief that Jesus was the Christ was absurd to the Jews. The very belief that there is a God, without any physical evidence could be an insult to our intelligence if we want it to be. The very belief of God is outrageous!
So please, judge not. For with the same measure that you judge us, you shall be judged.
The Book of Mormon's consistent message is the same as the Bible: love, chastity, cleanliness, charity, obedience to the commandments and faith in Jesus Christ.
And in the end, if for some reason we happen to be wrong, who will an all merciful God find more guilty at the last day? us, for "wrongly" spreading a gospel of love, good deeds, sacrifice, selflessness, compassion and devotion to him? or you, for condemning, accusing, persecuting and exalting yourselves above your brethren in his name?

Please, don't just repeat what other people say and call. Read the Book of Mormon, do your own research and above all, truly and honestly ask God to know if these things are true. Give it a shot. It worked for me.

Blackmarch said...

Unfortunately, as with many apologetic explanations, the text of the BoM does not support this interesting interpretation of swords.
it does and does not. As the book of mormon covers a vast amount of time and multiple groups, what is a sword in one location doesn't necessarily mean that a sword in another spot is.

The points in the BoM where sowrds of metal swords are supported are minute... whereas the rest of the references are open.

Read Alma 44. The swords had hilts. And they could scalp someone in a melee without otherwise impairing their ability to act. How you scalp someone with a macahuitl without crushing their skull is beyond me...." A thin club with Obsidian edging would be able to do this.

Jignesh said...

This was really great post.

A+ grade from my side.


I bookmarked your site.

Anonymous said...

How could Ammon smite off the arms of the Lamanite bandits using a Mesoamerican atassa? The text even says that he did so without slaying them (Alma 17:37-38).

Anonymous said...

The problem here is linguistic. Steel means 'to harden'. The modern method for making steel was invented in 1846. Until that time, steel was used to describe bronze and brass (steeled copper) as well as steeled iron. Old Testament 'steel' is, in almost every instance, steeled copper. The Hebrew word used does NOT mean iron. Furthermore, the ancient Egyptian referred to meteoric iron as 'heavenly copper'. Finally, archaeology in Mesoamerica is hindered by the soil composition. Not only is decomposition accelerated, but entire cities are hidden from view by the jungles until 'accidentally' found.
The changing meanings of words combined with the difficulties inherent in archaeology are enough to challenge this line of attack.

Anonymous said...

The problem with all of your South American evidence is that your prophet Joseph Smith said BOM geography took place in upstate New York.

But we're asked to accept that he was wrong on this point hmmmm