One of many recent discoveries regarding ancient wordplays in the Book of Mormon is presented by Matthew L. Bowen in “The Scalp of Your Head: Polysemy in Alma 44:14–18,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 20 (2016): 39-45. He treats a couple examples where Semitic wordplays involving concepts like “head” and “chief” appear to have been used for additional effect in the Book of Mormon.
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:
The “head” under which we are made free
in Mosiah 5:8 always seemed like an odd phrase to me. Understanding its
apparent Semitic roots is now quite helpful.
7 And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be
called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold,
this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts
are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and
have become his sons and his daughters.
8 And under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head
whereby ye can be made free. There is no other name given whereby
salvation cometh; therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the
name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God
that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives.
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.