An important new study on relationships between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican culture was just published on Friday by Mark Alan Wright: “Nephite Daykeepers: Ritual Specialists in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, 38 (2020): 291-306. Several aspects of ritual specialists in Mayan society are examined, including those who use crystals or clear stones or glass to receive revelation of some kind. That aspect reminds us of the Nephite and Jaredite “interpreters” and their apparent relationship to the Urim and Thummim.
Here is an excerpt from Wright:
Zaztun and the Urim and Thummim
In modern-day Yucatan, the most common title for shaman or ritual specialists is aj-meen, which literally means “practitioner” or “one who knows and does.”3 The aj-meen use crystals, clear rocks, or even fragments of broken glass bottles as a medium through which they receive revelation. They hold them up to a light source and wait for three flashes of light to shine through, which indicates the revelation is about to begin. They interpret these three flashes as representing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which scholars attribute to the heavy influence of Catholicism among the modern Maya. They call these stones zaztun, which literally means “clear stone” or “stone of light.”4 They are considered extremely sacred objects, and the ritual specialist who owns them does not allow the stones to be casually handled by others. But not all clear stones are necessarily considered zaztuno’ob (plural of zaztun). Anthropologist Bruce Love recounted meeting a shaman who keeps a jar full of glass marbles on his table and says they are mere toys that are used as “practice” zaztuno’ob for his apprentices.5
Maya shamans believe that true zaztuno’ob are gifts from the gods that have been intentionally placed along their paths for them to find. If the stone they are meant to find is not along a well-traveled path but is out in the uncultivated forest, they receive some type of spiritual guidance to lead them to where they will find it, sometimes even given vivid dreams or visions of where it is located. One ritual specialist named Don Cosimo was led out to the forest and found his zaztun embedded in the fork of a tree.6 The finding of these stones is a sign that they have been called and chosen to be a diviner and a healer. Zaztuno’ob are not only gifts from the divine realm, but they provide the means of communicating with the Otherworld and enable the ritual specialist to tap into divine powers.
An aj-meen named Don Jose once held his zaztuno’ob to the sky and when they flashed he said:
“Look! You can see the angels.” Ti’aan te ka’an ‘elo, “They are in the sky. This is how they speak to me. They are near. Their words come down. The spirit makes a blessing, makes salvation. The holy ones make a sign and then READY!”7
There is evidence that such divination stones were used anciently as well. For example, a burial from Copan dating to the Middle Classic period contained “five peculiar quartz stones, with ferromagnesium inclusions, probably used in divination rituals.”8 This burial was likely that of a royal priest or shaman rather than of a ruler, as these stones were found along with other paraphernalia common to ritual specialists.9
Now, what does all this have to do with the Book of Mormon? I suggest there are conceptual and functional similarities between the zaztun, which literally translates as “light stone” or “clear stone” in Mayan, and the Urim and Thummim, which means “Lights and Perfections” in Hebrew. In Ether 3:1 we read that the stones the brother of Jared made upon the mount Shelem were “white and clear, even as transparent glass.” Interestingly, the brother of Jared went up the mount with sixteen stones, but he came down with eighteen; the two extra stones were the interpreters that were given to him by the Lord. Just as Maya ritual specialists believe their clear stones are gifts directly from their gods, the brother of Jared was given his zaztuno’ob by the Lord himself.
We know that Mosiah I interpreted the engravings on a “large stone” that was brought to Zarahemla that told of the demise of the Jaredites, but we are not told exactly how he translated them other than that it was done “by the gift and power of God” (Omni 1:20). It is not until the days of Mosiah II, grandson of Mosiah I, that the Jaredite plates are discovered along with the interpreters that were given to the brother of Jared. We may presume that Mosiah I used an interpreter of some kind to translate the large stone, as that was the modus operandi among the Nephites. If Mosiah I did have an interpreter, it is unclear where he got it; we might speculate that it was a “found object” like unto the zaztuno’ob of Maya shamans (or Joseph Smith’s seer-stone, for a more recent analogy).10
The mystery of how Mosiah1 obtained the interpreters may have been resolved by a book whose late 2019 publication may have been after the time this paper was being written. Don Bradley’s outstanding new book, The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2019), explains that the Book of Mormon in the original text not only implies that Mosiah1, had the interpreters, but twice indicates that his son, King Benjamin, had them (Bradley, pp. 195-198), making it clear that the Nephites had them before King Limhi’s people found the 24 plates from Ether that were brought back to be translated by Mosiah2. This seems problematic, for the interpreters were “sealed up” with the sealed Jaredite record from the Brother of Jared (Ether 3:23-24, 27-28) which readers might assume was part of the 24 Jaredite plates from Ether. Not so, Bradley explains. The text does not say that the sealed Jaredite record nor the interpreters were left by Ether for the future Nephites from King Limhi’s group to find, nor does it say they also found the interpreters. They were already in the hands of Mosiah2 and had been in the hands of his father and grandfather. The Book of Mormon explicitly states that the 24 plates contained the record written by Ether, not by Jared (Ether 1:1-2, 6 and 15:33). There’s no need to figure out how 24 plates could contain the voluminous account of Jared and the record of Ether as well, and no need to assume that interpreters were not around for the translation episodes that occurred prior to bringing the 24 plates to Zarahemla. But how, then, did the Nephites obtain the interpreters?
Bradley finds evidence that the answer was part of the lost “116 pages” (actually much longer than that) of the Book of Mormon manuscript. An account from Fayette Lapham describing an interview with Joseph Smith, Sr., may reveal some relevant content from the lost manuscript:
In his report on the interview he had with Joseph Smith Sr. prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon, Fayette Lapham recounts a narrative of the Nephites that occurred after they had settled the promised land:
They . . . found something of which they did not know the use, but when they went into the tabernacle, a voice said, “What have you got in your hand, there?” They replied that they did not know, but had come to inquire; when the voice said, “Put it on your face, and put your face in a skin, and you will see what it is.” They did so, and could see everything of the past, present, and future; and it was the same spectacles that Joseph found with the gold plates. The gold ball stopped here and ceased to direct them any further.
Lapham describes the interpreters’ finder using a tabernacle, the temple’s portable counterpart, indicating a period between stationary temples. This narrows the incident Lapham describes to one of two periods, because there are only two gaps between temples in the Book of Mormon—after Lehi leaves Jerusalem but before Nephi builds his temple, and during Mosiah1’s exodus.
The account also narrows to these two possible contexts by giving three indications that the interpreters were found on an exodus. First, the finder of the interpreters echoes Moses in that he has a Sinai-like encounter with God, who asks him, “What have you got in your hand there?” This evokes God, from out of the burning bush, asking Moses about his rod: “What is that in thine hand?” (Ex. 4:2). Second, the seer’s covering of his face after an encounter with God is also part of the Exodus. When Moses comes down from Sinai after communing with God, he has to cover his face with a cloth because it is still shining from God’s glory (34:29–35). (In assessing the validity of Lapham’s account, it is also useful to note its parallel here with Joseph Smith’s own practice as a seer or scyer of covering his face with an animal skin, his beaver-skin top hat, while using his seer stone.) Third, the seer has these experiences in a tabernacle his people have erected in imitation of the biblical Tabernacle that was first erected at Mount Sinai (33:7). Again, only the early narrative of Lehi and Nephi and the later narrative of Mosiah1 fit the context described by Lapham.
The small plates accounts of Lehi’s and Mosiah1’s distinct exoduses, however, do not describe the finding of the interpreters. The narrative of Lehi and Nephi prior to Nephi’s building of a temple is allotted some twenty-four chapters (1 Ne. 1–19; 2 Ne. 1–5), while the narrative of Mosiah1 is allotted only eleven verses (Omni 1:12–22), with Mosiah1’s actual exodus given only two verses (vv. 12–13). Had the interpreters been found during Lehi and Nephi’s exodus, we would expect it to be narrated there with the accounts of their acquisition of the other relics. Given that Mosiah1 is also the first person implied to have possessed and used the interpreters (Chapter 11), all available evidence points to Mosiah1 finding this relic during his exodus. (Bradley, pp. 251-253)
There’s much more to Bradley’s work that enhances our approach to the nature of interpreters and their role as a sacred relic in Nephite religion. But turning again to Mark Alan Wright’s discussion of sacred revelatory stones used in Mesoamerica and the related concept found among the Jaredites and Nephites, let me also raise the question if Mesoamerican culture might provide further insight into issues related to the Nephite interpreters.
I’ve recently shared a rather speculative suggestion that perhaps the spectacle-like “interpreters” from the ancient Nephites might have a connection of some kind with the mystical “goggles” that were widespread across ancient Mesoamerica. Whether they are related or not, their existence and role in ancient Mesoamerica can at least overcome the objection that mystical oracular “spectacles” are a Book of Mormon anachronism since conventional spectacles or eyeglasses are a modern European invention. As for the possible relationship, my suggestion was that Nephite “interpreters” might be related to Mesoamerican goggles via either of two distinct routes: 1) the widespread cultural use of goggles as an oracular, mystical tool associated with divine vision may have provided inspiration for how Nephite or Jaredite prophets chose to physically frame or depict the two oracular stones received by the Brother of Jared and used by seers in Book of Mormon lands, or 2) knowledge of the use of the “interpreters” among the Jaredites and Nephites may have inspired some aspects of the complex of ideas associated with goggles in Mesoamerican culture. The related posts are “Don’t Google ‘Spectacles,’ Google ‘Goggles’: The Nephite ‘Interpreters’ as a Book of Mormon Anachronism” (June 25, 2020) and “Ancient American Goggles and the Nephite/Jaredite ‘Interpreters,’ Part 2” (June 26, 2020).
Goggles are often associated with Tlaloc, the Aztec Storm God, with control over rain, a god related to the Mayan god Chaac (but a goggle-free deity, as far as I know). Wright’s article also discusses the important role of Mayan shamans in seeking divine aid in bringing rain. Shamans used stones to receive divine messages and also sought divine help when it came to rain. Could these two roles, control over rain and revelation via clear stones or glass, point to association with Mesoamerican goggles as well as accounts of Nephite seers who also implored the Lord’s help in ending famine and bringing rain again? Again, this is mere speculation, and further input from those more familiar with Mesoamerican lore is welcome. But Wright’s article raises some potential links that may add further background for consideration of possibilities related to Mesoamerican goggles.
Update, Aug. 5, 2020: In the comments to Mark Wright’s article, where I asked Mark about the possibility of a connection with Mesoamerican goggles, Brant Gardner, an expert in Mesoamerican culture, kindly pointed out some problems with my speculative inquiry. He observes that goggles as represented in Mesoamerican artifacts do not appear to contain anything inside the circles or tubes over the eyes. Further, when Mayan shamans use crystals or glass for revelatory purposes, they seem to just use a single object, not a pair of them. With that in mind, it may be that any resemblance in form or use of mystic goggles and Nephite interpreters is due to chance.
The possibility of a relationship could remain, however. For example, modern statues of people wearing glasses are often carved or cast without showing the transparent lenses, and in many old European statues, the transparent cornea of the human eye is often simply absent, leaving a concave region. Perhaps a transparent object over the eyes in Mesoamerican goggles would be depicted with the same convention. As for one versus two, recall that Joseph began with a pair of interpreters but eventually just used a single seerstone for his interpreting work. One seems to be enough and is certainly more convenient, so it’s possible that pagan divination in Mesoamerica inspired by the ancient use of interpreters may have quickly evolved to the use of single crystals, while the mythical representation for gods and warriors kept the goggles concept. All still very speculative, and, frankly, likely to just be wrong. But perhaps something to keep an eye on as we learn more about Mesoamerica.