According to Bowen:
Alma 44:12–14 recounts a prophetic threat uttered by “one of Moroni’s soldiers” to the defeated Lamanite leader Zerahemnah and his soldiers after Moroni’s soldier had taken off a part of Zerahemnah’s scalp with his sword. His soldier’s prophecy and its reported fulfilment verses later in Alma 44:18 turn on the words “chief” and “head.” Both “head” in the anatomical sense and “head”/“chief” in a sociological leadership [Page 40]sense are represented by a single word in Hebrew (rōʾš)1 and Egyptian (tp),2 both languages that the Nephites themselves said they used.3
In this brief note, I propose that the intensity of the fear aroused in the Lamanite soldiers and the intensity of Zerahemnah’s redoubled anger are best explained by the polysemy (i.e., the range of meaning) of a single word translated “chief” in Alma 44:14 and “heads” in Alma 44:18. Mormon’s use of the latter term in Alma 44:18 completes the fulfilment of the soldier’s prophecy, a polysemic wordplay initiated with his use of a term translated “chief” in Alma 44:14.In response, I offered this comment to Matthew:
Bowen then responded:
I agree that it is helpful to see Mosiah 5:7-8 in terms of Helaman 13:38, as well as the polysemy of Alma 44:14-18. And I wonder if there might be even more to this.Helaman 13:38, mentioned by Bowen, gives a title of Jesus as "our great and eternal head.”
I thought of Bowen's closing words, "I wonder if there might be even more to this," this morning as I was reading Brant Gardner's excellent book, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), pp. 270-271, where Gardner discusses the Mesoamerican tradition of kings representing deity in ritual settings that often involve wearing a mask of the head of a god:
The living Mesoamerican king became, in ritual circumstances, the living and present deity. There were rituals where the king not only put on the mask of deity but, for ritual time and in ritual space, became that deity—commonly called god impersonation or “deity concurrence.” In deity concurrence, a ritual specialist, typically the ruler, puts on an engraved mask or elaborate headdress and transforms himself into the god whose mask or headdress is being worn. There is a glyphic formula that essentially says, “His holy image (u-b’aah-il), [that of] God X, [is upon] Ruler Y.” The Maya used the head metaphorically as a mark of individuality, and it stood as a representation of the whole body. In their minds, they were not playacting—they would actually become that god, acting as he would act and performing the godly duties pertaining to that particular deity. As Houston, Stuart, and Taube state, “There is no evident ‘fiction,’ but there is, apparently, a belief in godly immanence and transubstantiation, of specific people who become, in special moments, figures from sacred legend and the Maya pantheon.” There are many situations where deity concurrence takes place and a wide variety of deities are impersonated, such as wind gods, gods of incense burning, gods of ball playing, even major gods such as the sun god or the supreme creator deity, Itzamnaaj.50 This practice goes back to the Formative period (1500 B.C.–A.D. 200), as cave paintings in Oxtotitlan dating to the eighth century B.C. attest.51 Against that context, Alma’s question “Have you received his image in your countenances?” (Alma 5:14) and its rhetorical companion, “Can you look up, having the image of God [Jehovah] engraven upon your countenances?” (v. 19), become highly nuanced. Alma may have been referencing a concept that he expected his listeners to understand and attempted to shift that understanding into a more appropriate gospel context. The masks and headdresses that deity impersonators wore were literally graven; numerous ancient Maya ceramics depict artists in the act of carving them. [footnotes omitted]Coming back to King Benjamin's speech, note the double use of head: "And under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free." Christ is the head that frees us, and there were apparently competing "heads" that Mosiah warns against, for none of those other heads have power to save.
While the Hebrew and Egyptian use of the word "head" seems similar to the range of meanings we give it in English, in my vernacular at least, "head" feels like it should be followed by "of," as in "head of the Church," "head of our faith," etc. To speak of Christ simply as "our head" or "the head" feels odd to me. I'd rather say "our leader" or use some other noun. But if King Benjamin is speaking from the perspective of a culture in Mesoamerica, familiar with kings who represent and act as gods by placing the mask of a god's head upon their head, then this phrase seems more meaningful and natural.
There are numerous examples in Gardner's work where considering Mesoamerican culture adds insights and depth to the Book of Mormon text. It seems like there is always more than meets the eye in the Book of Mormon.