False Book of Mormon Parallel? Wirth Responds

*EDIT*: Diane Wirth responded to this post below in the first comment.  I’ve edited the title of this post and I’m reposting this so those who are interested will know about it. Be sure to check it out!

Diane Wirth in her Decoding Ancient America discusses an ancient Mesoamerican myth which describes the origin of 7 tribes that came forth out of 7 caves. These caves are said to represent “ships.” This ancient Mesoamerican myth has been frequently touted by LDS authors as evidence for the Book of Mormon. The parallel is said to be the 7 tribes mentioned in the Book of Mormon, which came forth from Nephi’s ship:

Jacob 1:13
13 Now the people which were not Lamanites were Nephites; nevertheless, they were called Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites.

and 800 years later…

Mormon 1:8
8 And it came to pass in this year there began to be a war between the Nephites, who consisted of the Nephites and the Jacobites and the Josephites and the Zoramites; and this war was between the Nephites, and the Lamanites and the Lemuelites and the Ishmaelites.

In both accounts there are 7 major tribes whom the people identified themselves with. The details of the accounts surely do not match in every respect, but there does seem to be broad agreeements. Is there something to this? Is the timing of this myth right? Is it real evidence, or more wishful thinking on the part of a LDS researcher?

According to LDS Mesoamerican scholar Brant Gardner, the answer is no. This myth does not serve as evidence for the Book of Mormon. Gardner explains:

This one is a big stretch. In the first place, why 7? The Book of Mormon recognizes that there were tribes, but really doesn’t emphasize anything but the two great divisions. Why would the recollection of the individual tribes be important to the Nephites, or the Nephite tribes to the Lamanites (who are crediting with destroying the Nephites–not a high recommendation for a fond remembrance).

Next, the particular myth is Aztec and pretty clearly related to their homeland, in the American Southwest. The picture Wirth uses shows saguaro cacti, which are only located in the Sonoran desert and Arizona.

Lastly, it is caves, not ships. I cannot find any reference in Spanish or Aztec literature that mentions ships with this tale. The only place I see it is in people quoting Hunter and Ferguson and their translation of an introduction to Sahagun. That statement isn’t in Sahagun’s introduction.

Native Americans in the American southwest have an origin tale that has them coming from the earth. Teotihuacan has a seven-lobed cave under it. I think that this particular myth combines a Southwestern origin myth with Mesoamerican content (Mesoamerican origin myths do not have people coming up from under ground). No ships are involved.

Let’s be clear on what the trajectory has to be for this to work:

1) The Nephite recognition of 7 tribes must survive the destruction of the Nephites, enter into Nephite lore and then survive over 700 years and a minimum of two linguistic groups (where nothing else survived save the number 7).

2) Somehow, a connection must be made between caves and ships. This never happens in the native lore and I cannot find it in Spanish documents. The only place there is a connection is in a questionable translation in Hunter and Ferguson which is replicated by other LDS authors without examination of the underlying text. I have looked for it, and cannot find it in Sahagun where they say it exists. Based on my understanding of the literature, there was never a connection between the caves and the ships outside of LDS literature.

3) Somehow, the 7 tribes from Nephite lore have to make their legendary way to the Southwestern US where they influence the creation myth of the Aztecs (which is similar to other Southwestern peoples, but differs from Mesoamerican creation myths) in such a way that the main idea of arriving from under the earth is altered only by the addition of a particular number of tribes. This means that the idea of 7 tribes had to move through an unrelated creation myth before finding the Aztecs a very long way away in both distance and time.

I can’t see any of those happening in any feasible way. It is a big stretch because any single one of the connections defies the known ways information travels. To meet all three is beyond a stretch.

This post is adapted from a discussion on the topic at MADB that can be found here.

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4 comments on “False Book of Mormon Parallel? Wirth Responds

  1. Diane E. Wirth says:

    Brant Gardner asked, with the regard to the 7 lineages in the Book of Mormon: “why would the recollection of the individual tribes be important to the Nephites…?” Because they were mentioned in the BofM over a span of 866 years (see Jac. 1:13; 4 Ne. 36-38; Mormon 1:8-9). A F.A.R.M.S. Update of November 1987 wrote about the Seven Tribes and their importance to the descendants of Lehi, as well as the New Era 5 (1975).

    For the quote of Sahagun about caves/ships, see p. 49 at http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic200819.files/Florentine_Codex.Prologues_1.pdf I guess Brant missed that one. Caves or ships are metaphorical for a mother’s womb. They both deal with an enclosure and water. It’s a universal symbolism.

    The seven cave mythology basically comes from ancient Mexican cultures, but it also comes from the Maya. See The Annals of the Cakchiquel (Recinos and Goetz), p. 48. The Maya even had a glyph for the Seven Caves (see Image of the New World by Gordon Brotherston, 1979, p. 91).

    Do we really want to dismiss this hypothesis? Traditions in Mesoamerica are known to have lasted over 1,500 years; i.e., the dying and resurrecting Maize God, the ball court, etc.

    Diane Wirth

  2. Mark Cheney says:

    I agree with the premise that Diane Wirth puts forth in her book regarding the seven groups. Furthermore, her explanation of the caves being representative of wombs fits in with the carvings on a huge stone monument found in the field near Finca el Baul, Bilbao, Guatemala which depicts seven glyphs inside a womb or uterus “U” glyph with waters flowing out of it and an umbilical cord seemingly attached to a figure depicting a principal ancestor. One indication that the seven glyphs, most of which are head variants, is the one so-called flint glyph which is pronounced Zoram (T’zoram or T’soram) in Mayan. Also, see John L. Sorenson, AN ANCIENT AMERICAN SETTING FOR THE BOOK OF MORMON, 310-313.

  3. Brant Gardner says:

    Concerning the Sahagun quotation, I did indeed miss it when I wrote the review. I have since found the volume cited and it is there. My apologies.

    There is still a problem with the seven lineages. While the Book of Mormon does recognized the various lineages, it isn’t really clear how they recognize them. Sam’s blessing is included with Nephi as early as Lehi’s patriarchal blessing, and there is little clear separation after that.

    Second, we have the remembrance of the seven lineages from Nephite records in the Book of Mormon, we have them from long-distant Lamanite (culturally, not literally) peoples–if we have them at all–when we get to the caves.

    The last problem we have is trying to link the caves with ships. While we have that one citation from Sahagun, which I must agree is there, I still don’t see that as making a case that any native connected the two. Sahagun perhaps, but I don’t see it in the native mind. The caves are caves. They are necessarily subterranean, and related to water only in that water is also associated with the underworld and caves.

    What we have in the seven caves is a legitimate Mesoamerican mythology (and one adopted and perhaps transformed in its Aztec version because of the influence of the Southwestern autochthonous creations myths).

    What we do not have, anywhere except that one odd statement in Sahagun, is an indication that allows us to see those caves as anything but caves. The attempt to connect them with the Book of Mormon’s seven lineages requires not only the preservation of an origin myth that does not really apply to any of the people preserving the legends. The Nephites were systematically destroyed, not so much the people, but the polity (and the unity of political and religious concepts virtually guarantees that religion was part of what was expunged). So we have people who have no interest in Nephite legends having to preserve a Nephite origin legend that pertained to a completely different culture area.

    As for the caves among the Maya, we have the same problem as we do dealing with the Aztecs, save they are closer in time and space. They are still not demonstrably Nephite. There is no logical reason that they would preserve the Nephite origin myth.

    Of course, we might posit that the Lamanites would be equally interested in their Old World origins, but then we have to wonder why they would preserve the “other” half of the lineage, which they considered as usurpers of their tradition.

    What we have is coincidence without any good reason to tie them together. It is a happy coincidence, but not one you can hang your hat on.

  4. Diane E. Wirth says:

    Seven tribes from seven caves is not necessarily solely a Nephite origin myth. Why can’t it be also a Lamanite tradition. Both parties had a common ancestor–Lehi.

    Brant can’t seem to justify a connection between canoe and cave. The numeral classifier for caves in Yucatec is ak, which forms part of the word aktun “cave.” The classifier ak is also used for words such as canoes, boats, houses, and containers [Andrea J. Stone, Images from the Underworld: Naj Tunich and the Tradition of Maya Cave Painting (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 35]. All these words are associated with things that hold people and objects in safe enclosures. These symbols in iconography can also refer to a womb where one is delivered or disembarked.

    I’m not saying this theory is 100 percent correct, but it certainly is a good possibility that this tradition derived from Lehi’s landing party.

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