Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Ancient American Goggles and the Nephite/Jaredite "Interpreters," Part 2

My previous post, "Don't Google 'Spectacles,' Google 'Goggles': The Nephite 'Interpreters' as a Book of Mormon Anachronism" (hereafter Part 1), raised the possibility that ancient Mesoamerican "goggles," sometimes depicted as gear for both deities and humans, might have some relationship to the Nephite/Jaredite concept of mystic stones for revelatory purposes. The Nephite "interpreters" that were buried with the gold plates of the Book of Mormon were said to comprise two stones set in a silver frame that looked like "spectacles." But perhaps "goggles" may be the right word to Google when determining whether the interpreters are anachronistic or not.

Adding to the images shown in Part 1, here's a relic found in Veracruz State in Mexico, as shown at Mesoweb.com, an "enormous terracotta brazier [that] depicts a deity with the characteristic round goggles and protruding mouthpiece that appear so frequently in Teotihuacan and later became associated with Tláloc, a widespread Rain/War god in Post-Classic Mesoamerica." Goggles seem to be most typically associated with the Aztec storm god, Tlaloc, also called the god of rain and a god of war.

The importance of Tlaloc is made clear in Teotihuacan, where the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl or Temple of the Feathered Serpent, the third largest of the great pyramids in Teotihuacan, features 365 heads that alternate between Quetzlcoatl and Tlaloc. The image below is available at Wikipedia's article, "Temple of the Feathered Serpent."

Here's a detailed view of Tlaloc, which seems to have goggles on the forehead above the eyes:

Page 28 of the Aztecan Codex Borgia, housed at the Vatican Library, has several similar images of Tlaloc. Here is a detail, as labeled by Dr. Helen Burgos Ellis for the Khan Academy, showing the characteristic "goggle-eyes" of the god:

Humans are also depicted wearing goggles in Mesoamerican artifacts, with the goggles sometimes shown on the forehead (perhaps to more clearly show that there are sacred or mystic goggles present and not just big round eyes). Here's one example, also from Mesoweb.com, dated to 300 to 550 A.D.:

Looking more closely at the goggles, it looks like they aren't just circles stuck on the head, but have a supporting structure that disappears under the hair. If it were a cloth band, it would go over the hair. Could this be part of a solid frame, like those of modern spectacles, that can slide under the hair of the head? Looking closely, that might be the case. Color me speculative, but these could fool some of us modern viewers into thinking it looks somewhat like "spectacles" with a rigid frame.

Let's turn again to the excellent 2018 article, "Goggles," from the Hammocks and Ruins blog. Regarding the origins of Mesoamerican goggles, the roots go back to the Olmecs, whose chronology can fit with the Jaredite culture of the Book of Mormon:

Most images of a goggled sculpture refer to the Rain God Tláloc. His goggled mask stemmed initially from the Olmec sources, the first Mesoamerican civilisation, and moved simultaneously into the Teotihuacán, Maya and Zapotec. The mask from Veracruz is principally understood as a Jaguar being (worshipped first by the Olmecs); however there are also the overriding implications of the 'Midnight Owl'. The Teotihuacános are thought to have derived the infamous feathered-serpent from the image of an owl fetching a serpent from a cave (with the ability to traverse its darkness). Mexican art historian, Miguel Covarrubias, demonstrated that later images of Quetzalcóatl, feathered serpents, and rain gods like the god Tláloc were all derived from the Olmec were-jaguar (half jaguar and half human being), who served also as a rain deity for the Olmecs, and was associated with sacrifice and the underworld (the Olmec rain deity did not wear goggles; that was added later by other Mesoamerican cultures).

So the concept of goggles in Mesoamerica goes back to the Olmecs, but became prominent among later Mesoamerican cultures, just as the "interpreters" began with the Jaredites, and became important among the leaders of the Nephite faith. They are connected to Quetzlcoatl and other Mesoamerican gods, but can be used by humans, and are related to the concept of an owl traversing the darkness and seeing through darkness. That seems consistent with Alma's statement about the interpreters when they are passed to his son Helaman's charge in Alma 37:

20 Therefore I command you, my son Helaman, that ye be diligent in fulfilling all my words, and that ye be diligent in keeping the commandments of God as they are written.

21 And now, I will speak unto you concerning those twenty-four plates, that ye keep them, that the mysteries and the works of darkness, and their secret works, or the secret works of those people who have been destroyed, may be made manifest unto this people; yea, all their murders, and robbings, and their plunderings, and all their wickedness and abominations, may be made manifest unto this people; yea, and that ye preserve these interpreters.

22 For behold, the Lord saw that his people began to work in darkness, yea, work secret murders and abominations; therefore the Lord said, if they did not repent they should be destroyed from off the face of the earth.

23 And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light, that I may discover unto my people who serve me, that I may discover unto them the works of their brethren, yea, their secret works, their works of darkness, and their wickedness and abominations.

But it's earlier in Mosiah 28 where we get a description of these ancient interpreters:

10 Now king Mosiah had no one to confer the kingdom upon, for there was not any of his sons who would accept of the kingdom.

11 Therefore he took the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, and also the plates of Nephi, and all the things which he had kept and preserved according to the commandments of God, after having translated and caused to be written the records which were on the plates of gold which had been found by the people of Limhi, which were delivered to him by the hand of Limhi;

12 And this he did because of the great anxiety of his people; for they were desirous beyond measure to know concerning those people who had been destroyed.

13 And now he translated them by the means of those two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow.

14 Now these things were prepared from the beginning, and were handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages;

15 And they have been kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord, that he should discover to every creature who should possess the land the iniquities and abominations of his people;

16 And whosoever has these things is called seer, after the manner of old times.

Two stones fastened between the rims of a bow: that sounds like a rigid bow, or a frame of some kind. Could it fit on the head as shown in the image above of the human with goggles on his forehead?

The Hammock and Ruins article also gives an example of a Mixtec mask with goggle-eyes that could have been worn in rituals by a priest. They also observe the close relationship between Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl, in which Tláloc in at leat one case "acts as Quetzalcóatl's avatar, the feathered serpent.... Scholar Cecelia Klein has suggested that the ringed eyes of Tláloc refer to a mirror, which represents fire or water, which are other attributes associated with the Feathered Serpent."

Reviewing the symbolism of the googles covered in the article, the author states:

So the symbolism identified so far is the social status, star (deity), water (symbol of the underworld), owl (ability to see in the dark underworld). Our ball player example fits the bill in that sense as well. The ancient ball game (invented by the Olmecs and adopted by the whole of Mesoamerica) was seen as a struggle between day and night, and a battle between life and death. Ball game courts were considered portals to the underworld. Through the game, the players (including the kings) confronted the forces of the underworld to obtain rebirth and fertility. By playing the game, they symbolically entered the underworld to match themselves against its leaders, to defeat death and recreate life. (I deal with this topic in more detail in my post Ball Players.) In the underworld, they would have needed the owl's ability to traverse through darkness, hence the use of the goggles. So it seems all the symbolisms are connected with each other.

Some of these concepts may relate to the Book of Mormon teachings on the interpreters (see above), which explain that the interpreters not only help bring revelation/light out of darkness, but help in overcoming and defeating the works of darkness pursued by the Adversary and his followers.

The role of goggles in Mesoamerican lore covers multiple cultures and many centuries, so there's not one simple idea to capture it all. But there are some potential overlaps with the Book of Mormon, enough to wonder if either Mesoamerican goggle themes might have influenced some Jaredite prophet to fashion a goggle-like device to hold the sacred revelatory stones he used, or if the use of such a tool by Jaredite and Nephite seers might have inspired related practices and themes among Mesoamerican neighbors. Your thoughts?

If nothing else, the next time someone says that Joseph's "spectacles" from ancient American were a ridiculous anachronism, you can admit that they are absolutely right -- based on what scholars understood in Joseph's day. But in terms of what we are learning today about ancient Mesoamerica, we can at least say that sacred "goggles" worn by priests and gods were known in ancient Mesoamerica, and theoretically could have some relationship with the Nephite and Jaredite interpreters. That's still speculative, but does suggest that Nephite "interpreters"/"spectacles" might not be as ridiculous as once thought.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Don't Google "Spectacles," Google "Goggles": The Nephite "Interpreters" as a Book of Mormon Anachronism

When Joseph Smith received the gold plates of the Book of Mormon, he also apparently obtained the Nephite/Jaredite "interpreters," said to be like "spectacles," that could be used to assist the prophetic work of translating the plates. Spectacles? From ancient America? Isn't that just a bit anachronistic, given that spectacles or eyeglasses are a relatively modern European invention?

First, when I hear statements about well-known modern European inventions, you know, things like the world's first mass-produced book, movable type, the blast furnace, paper money, and smallpox vaccination, it's often good to check if these things may have actually been invented in China, as was the case for all these items, as we've learned from decades of research by Cambridge scholar Joseph Needham and his successors. No, the Gutenberg Bible, wonderful as it was, came over a century after the world's first mass-produced book printed with movable type, the Nong Shu (or the Book of Farming) by Wang Zhen in 1313, an amazing story that was recently recognized and honored by the Paper Industry Hall of Fame in my town of Appleton, Wisconsin.

Eyeglasses can trace their origins to Italy, but China deserves some credit for sunglasses, as do the Inuit Indians of North America. The Inuits used ivory from walruses carved with small slits that could be placed over the eyes to reduce the intensity of light reflected from the snow and help them prevent sun blindness (see "Who Invented Eyeglasses?"). But surely that Native American innovation had nothing to do with the "interpreters" of the Book of Mormon, right? Right, as far as I know.

The story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon gave the world several apparent anachronisms before a single word of our Book of Mormon ever made it into ink. Some of these earliest Book of Mormon problems are are arguably no longer relevant in light of growing evidence for their plausibility, including the existence of ancient writing on metal and the use of stone boxes to bury sacred treasure in the ancient Americas. But one of these initial issues remains that I've seen used by critics several times recently, including in comments on this blog, to question the plausibility of the Book of Mormon. It's the argument that the Nephite "interpreters" (sometimes called a Urim and Thummim) that were included with the gold plates, are anachronistic based on their description as being like "spectacles." Actual spectacles or eyeglasses, after all, are a fairly recent modern invention that were not in use anywhere on earth, as far as we know, in 400 A.D. or earlier.

Are we sure the "interpreters" looked like spectacles? Several descriptions are shared in the Book of Mormon Central article, "Is There Evidence That Joseph Smith Possessed a Urim and Thummim and Breastplate?," Feb. 18, 2018:

Joseph Smith described the Nephite interpreters (which, over time, came to be known as the Urim and Thummim) as “two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.” Martin Harris said they “were about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the center; but not so thick at the edges where they came into the bow.” He added that they were “white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks.” John Whitmer called them “two crystals or glasses.” Lucy Mack Smith said they resembled “two large bright diamonds.”

David Whitmer reported that they were “white stones, each of them cased in as spectacles are, in a kind of silver casing, but the bow between the stones was more heavy, and longer apart between the stones, than we usually find it in spectacles.” William Smith further explained that a “silver bow ran over one stone, under the other, around over that one and under the first in the shape of a horizontal figure 8 much like a pair of spectacles.” [footnotes omitted]

The word "spectacles" is used a couple of times, and the word "glasses" is also mentioned. That also seems consistent with the brief description of the ancient Jaredite interpreters that the Nephites had apparently received (a topic for discussion later, but see Don Bradley's excellent book on the 116 lost pages of the Book of Mormon), said to comprise "two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow" (Mosiah 28:13).  Based on the published history of spectacles or eyeglasses, those terms certainly seem out of place in Jaredite and Nephite times. The website AntiqueSpectacles.com offers a timeline for the development of spectacles or eyeglasses, dating the origin to Pisa, Italy in 1286 AD. The site also exposes several artistic blunders in which paintings erred by showing spectacles in use during the time of Christ.  See "Two Unique Anachronisms Showing Eyeglasses."

Unfortunately, it thus seems that anyone Googling "ancient spectacles" will quickly find evidence that it was unlikely for ancient Americans, Mesoamerican or otherwise, to have known about spectacles. Were there optometrists among the ancient Americansproviding the Nephites with eyeglasses or spectacles? Of course not. So is there any hope for plausibility for the Nephite and Jaredite "interpreters," one of the first issues that may arise in considering the plausibility of the Book of Mormon account? Trying to turn Inuit "sunglasses" into "spectacles" doesn't seem helpful: they were just slits in ivory, not glasses, and I don't believe we have evidence that they were in use well before 400 A.D.

However, this problem, as happens in many debates, may be influenced if not largely determined by the assumptions we make, which then affect how we search and what evidence we look for and find. The interpreters, though looking like spectacles or eyeglasses to some modern witnesses, were not spectacles that help correct vision in daily life. They were stones held in a frame, perhaps translucent, but certainly not simple corrective optics designed for any individual's poor eyesight. They were not ordinary tools for anyone to use, but were mystic, revelatory tools to help a prophet bring forth light out of darkness, to reveal information such as translating ancient scripture, in some kind of sacred experience involving vision. They were tools for a prophetic seer, not for ordinary seeing in ordinary light.

Maybe we need to consider something other than "spectacles" or "eyeglasses" when we explore the potential ancient parallels to the ancient "interpreters" Joseph had.

I'll offer one suggestion that didn't occur to me until I opened up a newly purchased used book on Mesoamerica and almost immediately saw this while looking for something else:

The book is Susan Toby Evans, Ancient Mexico & Central America: Archaeology and Culture History, 2nd ed. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008, first published 2004), and the image is from p. 306. This "goggle-adorned portrait" depicts the founder of the Copán dynasty. Here the goggles may be used to link the subject to the Storm God known as Tlaloc or to highlight his association with Teotihuacan, where goggle imagery abounded.

Goggles! Interesting. So here's one speculative suggestion for new perspectives on "spectacles": rather than Googling "spectacles," what would happen if we Googled "goggles" or, more specifically, "Mesoamerican goggles"? When I tried that, there was quite a surprise. The first hit for my search was a remarkable article showing and discussing numerous examples of figures from ancient Mesoamerica wearing goggles. The article is "Goggles," dated Dec. 18, 2018, from the outstanding website Hammocks and Ruins by a couple of Mayan enthusiasts and adventurers. Here are a couple images from the article and a few I've found at other sources:

Here is a Totonac culture figurine from El Zapotal in Veracruz at the Xalapa Museum of Anthropology (though the photo is of a replica in the National Museum of Archaeology in Mexico City) . See "'Spaceman'" at the Mexicolore website. This appears to be a human ball player. Are the goggles meant to be personal protective equipment or do they play a mystical role?

And here's a Mayan figurine also depicting the founder of the Copán dynasty, shown at Mesoweb.com:

Here's an image of the Storm God Tlaloc from Wikipedia:

Another from Wikipedia:

Based on their survey of the literature, the authors at Hammocks and Ruins say this about the meaning of goggles in Mesoameria:
The images above show that goggles were worn by gods, rulers, ballplayers and warriors. So what did they represent? Here is a summary of the various symbolisms of the goggles that I have found so far:
  • noble status, as part of the king's ceremonial headdress (not for eye protection, because there's no evidence that the goggles contained lenses of any kind)
  • penetrating gaze of the gods, which separated them from the common folk
  • the power of the Sun
  • Venus and its duality: twin stars of Venus, the movement of Venus in and out of the underworld as both Morning Star and Evening Star.
  • owl's eyes, the owl’s ability to traverse the darkness of the cave or the underworld
  • a symbol of water (found in caves/underworld)
  • stars/constellations/deity status
  • a symbol of sacrifice
  • a paradise of life after death
Could it be that legends of a mystical means for gaining divine vision spread from either the Jaredites or  Nephites and became associated with a mystical adornment associated with powerful gods, with seeing in darkness, and elite priestly status? Or could the transfer have gone the other way, with a Mesoamerica google-theme influencing the way humans framed the mystical stones used in the interpreters? In either case, perhaps it's worth further exploration.

Yes, highly speculative, but I hope you find it to be an interesting possibility.

More thoughts and information on this issue to follow in Part 2.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Another Update on the River of Laman

Warren Aston, whose personal explorations in the Arabian Peninsula have done so much to expand our knowledge of Lehi's Trail and the candidates for some of the places mentioned by Nephi in the Book of Mormon, has shared another update about the River Laman at Book of Mormon Central.

He had previously noted how the river (a stream to us, though it was certainly bigger in the past and is still amazing and unexpected today in such a dry part of the world) was recently seen to be coming relatively close to shore of the Red Sea and did reach it when it surged from rains. But here, months later, at a dry time, it is seen coming all the way to the beach.

The data from Arabia related to Lehi's Trail from beginning to end has done much to help us better appreciate the reality of Nephi's record, and I think there's more to come. The details of an impressive valley with towering walls, a continually flowing "river," fruit trees, oases, and places where people could camp and live comfortably, all accessible from Jerusalem and consistent in location and setting with the Book of Mormon account is something that Joseph Smith simply could not have known about it, for learned critics with advanced degrees said the existence of such a place was impossible all the way up until it was found and pointed out. This must be viewed as at least possible evidence for the antiquity of a portion of the Book of Mormon, or else a very big stroke of luck.