In a recent post, I discussed the sixteenth century Spanish account of Friar Diego de Landa about his experiences with the inhabitants of Mesoamerica shortly after the Spanish arrived and conquered the land. His description of a ritual much like Christian baptism is certainly an intriguing hint at possible ties to ancient Book of Mormon peoples. But in addition to that dramatic section, there are many other passages of possible interest. Here are some I’ve noted in my reading, followed by my comments.
These islands [in a large lagoon] with their shores and sandy beaches have . . . deer, hare, the wild pigs of that country, monkeys as well, which are not found in Yucatan. (pp. 2-3)
Some critics have mocked the Book of Mormon for referring to swine, claiming that they were unknown in the New World. The Book of Mormon does not say that the Nephites had swine or ate swine (which would have been a violation of the law of Moses), though one verse indicates that the earlier Jaredites did (Ether 9:18) – but the Jaredites were not under the law of Moses. Does “swine” necessarily refer to the type of animal we think of today? Perhaps not. I suspect that the “pigs” of de Landa and the “swine” of the Jaredites refers to peccaries, which are common in Mesoamerica and look very much like domesticated pigs.
Some of men of Yucatan say that they have heard from their ancestors that this country was peopled by a certain race who came from the East, whom God delivered by opening for them twelve roads through the sea. If this is true, all of the inhabitants of the Indies must be of Jewish descent. . . . (p. 8).
Other Spaniards and other American and European writers, including Solomon Spaulding, had speculated about a possible link between the lost tribes and the Jews, as one of many theories that had been circulating in Joseph Smith’s day. But the fact the de Landa heard a legend from the natives hinting at a transoceanic voyage from the east should not be dismissed lightly.
The most important thing that the chiefs who stripped Mayapan took away to their own countries were the books of their sciences, for they were always very subject to the counsels of their priests, for which reason there are so many temples in those provinces. . . . (p. 17)
The passage above is in the context of describing large stone monuments with engraved writing, now largely worn away, pertaining to a destroyed city, Mayapan, that was abandoned about 120 years before de Landa came on the scene (p. 16). De Landa’s quote indicates the importance of books, priests, and temples to the ancient Mesoamericans, in harmony with what we read in the Book of Mormon. The use of stone engravings and monuments is also found in the Book of Mormon (e.g., Coriantumr’s Jaredite engraving known by the Nephites.)
They say that among the twelve priests of Mayapan was one of great wisdom who had an only daughter, whom he married to a young nobleman named Ah-Chel. This one had sons who were called the same as their father, according to the custom of the country. (p. 17)
Twelve priests may relate to the tradition of twelve disciples. Though present in many other cultures as well, the Book of Mormon certainly shows a tendency for prophets and priests to name their sons after themselves (Nephi, Helaman, and Alma, for example). And the role of priests in making prophecies is fully at harmony with the Book of Mormon.
The successor of the Cocoms, called Don Juan Cocom after he became a Christian, was a man of great reputation and very learned in matters and affairs of the country, very wise and well informed. He was on familiar terms with the author of this book, Fray Diego de Landa, recounting to him many ancient things, and showing him a book which had belonged to his grandfather, the son of the Cocom whom they killed in Mayapan. In this was painted a deer, and his grandfather had told him that when there should come into the land large deer (for so they called the cows), the worship of the gods would cease, and this had been fulfilled, because the Spaniards brought along large cows. (p. 19)
This passage again shows the importance of prophecy and books among the ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica. In fact, the prophecy pertaining to the arrival of “large deer” and the change in religion of the people is not too remote from prophecies among the Nephites about the future scattering of the descendants of the Lamanites on this land by the Gentiles in the Book of Mormon. But I think the most interesting thing about this passage is demonstration of the practice of naming foreign animal species with familiar terms, such as calling cows “deer.” Such tendencies need to be considered in evaluating alleged problems about missing plants and animals in the Book of Mormon.
The Indians are very dissolute in drinking and becoming intoxicated, and many ills follow their excesses in this way. . . . Their wine they make of honey and water and the root of a certain tree they grow for the purpose, and which gives the wine strength and a very disagreeable odor. After eating the cup-bearers, who have had to remain sober, help themselves from great jars until they are overcome, and their wives have great trouble in getting their drunken husbands home. (p. 35)
Many critics have pounced upon the Book of Mormon for its references to wine and to honey. Both were clearly known in the Americas. The Book of Mormon actually does not say that there was honey in the New World, only that the Jaredites had the honeybee with them as they were traveling in the Old World, making the anti-Mormon attack on honey an argument that truly lacks any sting. Nevertheless, at least one anti-Mormon site I’ve seen lists it as one of two primary reasons for rejecting the Book of Mormon. Well, I suppose it is as valid as any other reason for rejecting the divine text of the Book of Mormon.
The Yucatecans naturally know when they had done wrong, and they believed that death, disease and torments would come on them because of evil-doing and sin, and thus they had the custom of confessing to their priests when such was the case. (p. 46)
The role of priests and the practice of confession is an interesting one.
The Yucatecans had a great number of temples, sumptuous in style; besides these temples in common the chiefs, priests and principal men also had their oratories and idols in their houses for their private offerings and prayers. They held Cozumel and the well at Chichen Itza in great veneration as we have in our pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome; they visited them to offer gifts, especially at Cozumel, as we do at our holy places; and when they did not visit they sent offerings. When traveling also, and passing an abandoned temple, it was their custom to enter for prayers and burn incense. (pp. 46-47)
The existence of ancient temples and the significant role they played in Mesoamerica is consistent with the Book of Mormon, and a far cry from anything in Joseph Smith’s environment.
So many idols did they have that their gods did not suffice for them, there being no animal or reptile of which they did not make images, and these in the form of gods and goddesses. They had idols of stone (though few in number), others more numerous of wood, but the greatest number of terra cotta. . . .
The most idolatrous of them were the priests, the chilanes, the sorcerers, the physicians, the chacs and the nacones. It was the office of the priests to discourse and teach their sciences, to indicate calamities and the means of remedying them, preaching during the festivals, celebrating the sacrifices and administering their sacraments. (p. 47)
Here we see priests in the role of teachers and prophets, though idolatrous – but that’s consistent with the Book of Mormon, which teaches that the land fell into idolatry.
At times they sacrificed their own blood, cutting all around the ears in strips which they let remain as a sign. At other times they perforated their cheeks or lower lip; again they made cuts in parts of the body, or pierced the tongue crossways and passed stalks through, causing extreme pain; again they cut away the superfluous parts of the member, leaving the flesh in the form of ears. It was this custom which led the historian of the Indies to say that they practiced circumcision. (p. 47)
Ouch. I don’t think their body piercing practices were inspired of God, though could it be that the circumcision-like practice had ancient Old World roots? In any case, it sounds like those ancient body piercers would fit right in to some segments of modern American society.
On pages 47-49, de Landa describes the horror of Mesoamerican human sacrifice, something that is, unfortunately, consistent with the practices of the Lamanites at the end of the Book of Mormon.
On pages 49-50, de Landa describes weaponry and some military practices. In addition to bows and arrows, lances, hatchets, including “hatchets of a certain metal . . . fastened in a handle of wood” (p. 50) – undoubtedly copper. They also had shields and “wore protective jackets of cotton, quilted in double thickness, which were very strong” (p. 50). “Some of the chiefs and captains wore helmets of wood, but these were not common” (p. 50). He also refers to defensive fortifications that bring to mind the structures described in Alma 50:1-4 (also see my page on Mesoamerican Fortifications and the Book of Mormon): “On the roads and passages the enemy set defenses manned by archers, barricades of stakes and trees, and more often of stone” (p. 51).
When the children were born, . . . they took them to the priest that he might cast their fate, declare the office a child was to fill, and give him the name he was to retain during his childhood; because they were accustomed to call the children by different names until they were baptized or somewhat grown up; afterwards they dropped these and called themselves after their fathers until they were married. Then they took the names of both father and mother.
The role of the priest in blessing children and making prophetic statements is again indicated.
At death they shrouded the body, filled with mouth with ground maize and a drink they call koyem, and with certain stones they used for money, that food might not be lacking to him in the other life. They buried them in their houses or the vicinity, throwing in some of their idols into the grave; if he was a priest they threw in some of his books; if a sorcerer his divining stones and other instruments of his office. (p. 57)
The reference to divining stones reminds one of the Urim and Thummim or Gazelem mentioned in the Book of Mormon. And again we see the importance of books for the priestly class.
The people have always believed in the immortality of the soul, in greater degree than in other nations, even though they were not so civilized; they believed that after death there was another life better than this, which the soul enjoyed after leaving the body. This future life they said was divided into good and evil, into pains and delights. The evil life of suffering they said was for the vicious, and the good and delectable for those whose mode of life had been good. The delights they said would come into if they had been of good conduct, were by entering a place where nothing would give pain, where there would be abundance of food and delicious drinks, and a refreshing and shady tree called Yaxché, the Ceiba tree, beneath whose branches and shade they might rest and be in peace forever.
The torments of the evil life which they said awaited the wicked, lay in going to a place below the other, and which they called Mitnal, meaning hell, where they were tormented by demons, by great pains of cold and hunger and weariness and sadness. They said there was in this place a chief demon whom all the rest obeyed and whom in their language they called Hunhau; also they said that these good and evil after-lives had no end, because the soul itself had none. (pp. 57-58)
These beliefs regarding the afterlife resonate strongly with teachings in the Book of Mormon, not just about the afterlife, but also in its use of a tree as a central symbol, much like the tree of life symbol in Lehi’s vision (1 Nephi 8, 11).
Among the multitude of gods worshipped by these people were four whom they called by the name Bacab. These were, they say, four brothers placed by God when he created the world, as its four corners to sustain the heavens lest they fall. They also say that these Bacabs escaped when the world was destroyed by deluge. (p. 60)
This is an interesting reference to Mesoamerican belief in divine creation and a deluge that destroyed the world. The Mesoamerican concept of the four corners of the earth or the four quarter of the earth also is consistent with Old World views. (See the footnote on p. 13 discussing the four colors attached to the four directions.
When the New Year came, all the men gathered, alone, in the court of the temple, since none of the women were present at any of the temple ceremonies, except the old women who performed the dances. The women were admitted to the festivals held in other places. Here all clean and gay with their red-colored ointments, but cleansed of the black soot they put on while fasting, they came. When all were congregated, with the many presents of food and drink they had brought, and much wine they had made, the priest purified the temple, seated in pontifical garments in the middle of the court, at his side a brazier and the tablets of incense. The chacs seated themselves in the four corners, and stretched one to the other a new rope, inside of which all who had fasted had to enter, in order to drive out the evil spirit, as I related in chapter 96 (Sec. XXVI). When the evil one had been driven out, all began their devout prayers, and the chacs made new fire and lit the brazier, because in the festivals celebrated by the whole community new fire was made wherewith the light the brazier. The priest began to throw in incense, all came in their order, commencing with the chiefs, to receive incense from the hands of the priest, which he gave them with as much gravity as if he were giving them relics; then they threw it a little at a time into the brazier, waiting until it ceased to burn.
In the Old World, New Year rites were extremely important, and were often associated with temples. In the Book of Mormon, King Benjamin’s speech at the Temple has been viewed by some as a classic Old World New Year’s and coronation rite (e.g., see Kerry Shirts’ article, “Jewish Festivals in the Book of Mormon”). The gathering of the people in Bountiful at the temple shortly before the visitation of Jesus Christ may have been a New Year’s festival. And now we see New Year’s festivals at the temples of Mesoamerica as well. Further significant details include fasting marked with soot – as in the sackcloth and ashes practice of the Jews – and the use of incense in a brazier in the temple, reminiscent of the use of incense in the ancient Jewish temple. (See also p. 77 of de Landa, discussing the Oc-na festival whose name means “renovation of the temple.” Incense was again involved. See also p. 78, where incense is said to exorcise the evil spirit.)
In the month of Uo [beginning about August 6] the priest and the physicians and sorcerers (who were one ) [amazing how modern the Mesoamericans were!] began, with fasting and the rest, to prepare to celebrate another festival. The hunters and fishermen began to celebrate on the 7th of Sip, each celebrating for himself on his own day. First the priests celebrated their fete, which was called Pocam [‘the washing’]; gather in their regalia in the house of the chief, they first cast out the evil spirit as was their custom; after that they brought out their books and spread them upon the fresh leaves they had prepared to receive them. Then with many prayers and very devoutly they invoked an idol they called Kinch-ahau Itzamná, who they said was the first priest, offered him their gifts and burned the pellets of incense upon new fire; meanwhile they dissolved in a vase a little verdigris and virgin water which they say was brought from the forests where no woman had been; and anointed with it the tablets of the books for their purification. After this had been done, the most learned of the priests opened a book, and observed the predictions for that year, declared them to those present, [and] preached to them a little enjoining the necessary observances. . . . (p. 71)
Priests, sacred books, anointing with holy water, prophecy, casting out the evil one – all interesting concepts from Mesoamerica.
They ended it [the Tzec festival] with wine as usual, in plenty, the hive owners giving honey for it in abundance. (p. 73)
Again, wine and honey were important elements of ancient Mesoamerican society.
The second of the chief ancient structures, such that there is no record of their builders, are those at Tiho, thirteen leagues from those at Izamal, and like them eight leagues from the sea; and their are traces of there having been a fine paved road from one to the other. . . . (p. 86)
Around this structure [now he refers to Chichen Itza] there were, and still today are, many others, well built and large; all the ground about them was paved, traces being still visible, so strong was the cement of which they were made. . . .
From the court in front of these theatres there goes a beautiful broad paved way, leading to a well two stone-throws across. (p. 91)
The Book of Mormon also speaks of highways being built in Book of Mormon lands. There is also a reference to construction with cement in the north part of the land. Again, this was not something Joseph would have experienced among Native Americans in his area.
There are two kinds of bees, both being much smaller than ours; the larger of these are raised in very small hives, and do not form a comb as do ours, but instead certain small sacs like wax-nuts, all close together and full of honey. . . .
The others live in the woods, in the hollows of trees and rocks, where one must hunt the wax. With this and the honey the country abounds, the honey being most excellent save for the fact that it is somewhat watery. . . . These bees do not sting, even when the honey is gathered. (p. 101)
Again, the reality of honey is affirmed.
In the country there are certain wild vines bearing edible grapes. . . . Another fresh and beautiful tree holds its leaves without falling, and bears a small fig they call ox. (p. 105)
Just a helpful reminder for those who challenge the Book of Mormon for a mention of grapes and figs when Christ repeats the sermon on the mount: “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” (3 Nephi 14:16). However, the translated passage does not require that such things be found in the New World – presumably Christ would have referred to plants known by the locals in his actual statement, which would then be appropriately translated into the “grapes” and “figs” language understandable by modern readers.
De Landa also indicates that the Mesoamericans planted gardens around their homes (e.g., p. 103 [I’ve lost track of the main reference – still searching]), consistent with the Book of Mormon account in Helaman 7:10 of Nephi praying on the tower in his garden that was next to a highway to the chief market. (See further discussion on my Book of Mormon Evidences pages.)
Now here is a sobering statement from de Landa:
These people also used certain characters or letters, with which they wrote in their books about the antiquities and their sciences; with these, and with figures, and certain signs in the figures, they understood their matters, made them known, and taught them. We found a great number of books in these letters, and since they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehood of the devil we burned them all, which they took most grievously, and which gave them great pain.(p. 82)
How horrible that so much knowledge would be destroyed. Only four codices have survived, out of what may have been tens of thousands. As a result of such crimes, much information about the ancient inhabitants of the New World has been lost. In general, our state of knowledge about ancient Mesoamerica is still in its infancy, many decades behind the studies done in Bible lands, but stay tuned for new insights as more is learned.
Mesoamerica – the best candidate for the setting of the Book of Mormon – was a very pagan and wicked place in the sixteenth century, with no help from the terrible cruelty of the Spanish conquerors. But the native practices reflect some elements that could very well have derived from knowledge of ancient Christian ceremonies such as baptism, though in a pagan and corrupt form.
If the Book of Mormon account is pure fiction, how do we explain that in the one region that can be a plausible candidate for Book of Mormon geography, we also find a culture that had baptism, legends of a Great White God who visited them and promised to return, the presence of sacred writing systems in a continent otherwise devoid of writing, elaborate temples, and many other elements consistent with the Book of Mormon?
And remember, de Landa’s book was not available in English until long after Joseph Smith’s death.