Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Ordeal of the Three Nephites and the Popol Vuh (Mesoamerican Perspectives)

    The Book of Mormon tells of three Nephite disciples who, like the Apostle John were blessed by Jesus that they should “never taste death” and “never endure the pains of death” (3 Nephi 28:6-8). As they went forth to preach, these chosen representatives of the resurrected Lord were persecuted by those who “denied the Christ” and his gospel and “did despise them because of the many miracles which were wrought among them. Therefore they did exercise power and authority over the disciples of Jesus” (4 Nephi1:29-30), According to Mormon, “they were cast into prison by them who did not belong to the church. And the prisons could not hold them, for they were rent in twain, And they were cast down into the earth: but they did smite the earth with the word of God, insomuch that by his power they were delivered out of the depths of the earth; and therefore they could not dig pits sufficient to hold them. And thrice they were cast into a furnace and received no harm. And twice were they cast into a den of wild beasts; and behold they did play with the beasts as a child with a suckling lamb, and received no harm” (3 Nephi 28:19-22; see also 4 Nephi 1:30-33). (1) To the modern reader the behavior of the disciples’ enemies may seem curious. There being no shortage of ways in which one might kill or attempt to kill one’s opponents, why, we might ask, were these methods chosen by the disciples’ persecutors, and what may have been their significance to those who observed them? (2) While definitive answers to these questions are elusive, it may be useful to consider Mormon’s account in light of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican myths found in the Mayan Popol Vuh.

    Chief and oldest among these tales are the exploits of the two Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque, and their triumph over various proud and powerful opponents (3). The brothers’ exploits are represented on Mesoamerican monuments, painted murals and vases dating back to Pre-Classic times evidencing the antiquity of the story. “The Twins were the very model of what ruling princes should be. They were eternally youthful and therefore immortal. Their father the Maize God had suffered death in the Underworld, but thanks to their efforts he was reborn on the surface of the earth; in a like manner, so were the temporal lords of the Maya realm responsible for the seasonal planting, germination, and harvest of the great staple food, maize.” (4)  From an early time down to the European arrival, “Maya kings seem to have emulated the Hero Twins and their exploits.” (5) In fact, “Maya Rulers exploited their myth known as the Popol Vuh, to prove their right to rule . . . They portrayed themselves in the images of their gods and demigods. The most powerful and popular of the characters they cloaked themselves with were the famous Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque.”(6)

    While the ordeals repeatedly inflicted on the three disciples by those seeking power may seem curious to the modern reader, it is noteworthy that similar ordeals are associated with Hunahpu and Xbalanque in the Popol Vuh. The Popol Vuh tells of the monster Cabracan who had the power to cause earthquakes. At the direction of the god Huracan, the precocious brothers outwitted their dangerous enemy by tricking him to eat, thereby causing him to lose his power. “Then the boys tied him up. They tied his hands behind his back. The boys were mindful to make sure that his hands were well bound. They also tied his ankles together. Then they hurled him down into the earth and buried him.” (7) Contemporary traditions in highland Guatemala seem to reflect this story. In the town of Chichicastenango: “They say of the earthquake that there is a giant under the earth, bound by his hands and feet, and when there is a slight tremor, it is because he has moved his hands and feet a little; and when he turns over on the other side is when there are strong earthquakes.” (8) In the ancient Maya story, the troublesome monster was restrained by hurling him down into the earth and burying him. Perhaps by casting the three disciples into the earth, the disciples’ enemies may have hoped to bolster their claims to rulership and authority by emulating the exploits of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, but their actions seemingly backfired for when the disciples were “cast down into the earth,” this failed to restrain them as it had Cabracan, “but they did smite the earth with the word of God, insomuch that they were delivered out of the depths of the earth; and therefore they could not dig pits sufficient to hold them” (3 Nephi 28:20). Consequently, “the powers of the earth could not hold them” (3 Nephi 28:39). (9)

    The Popol Vuh also tells of the Hero twins’ encounter and eventual triumph in Xibalba where they outwitted the lords of death. During their visit, the hero twins were confined in various rooms where the evil lords of death hoped that they would be overcome and killed, as others had been. In one of these ordeals they were confined in a house full of hungry jaguars, but were not killed. They outwitted the Lords of death by speaking to the beasts and giving them bones to eat. (10) “What they had planned to do, they had done despite all their afflictions and misfortunes. Thus they did not die in the trials of Xibalba. Neither were they defeated by all the ravenous beasts that lived there.” (11) In another later, but possibly related tale found among the Popoluca of Veracruz, the corn-god hero Homshuk fills the same role as the Hero Twins and undergoes a similar ordeal. “In the land of Hurricane, there were different kinds of jails: one in which there were hungry tigers, another in which there were famished serpents . . . Then Homshuk was ordered placed in the jail where there were serpents. `You are a nagual,’ Hurricane said. `Here you are going to be eaten.’ But in the morning when they appeared, he was seated on a serpent. He had not been eaten. . . .  The next night he was placed in the jail with the tigers, and he told them the same thing that he had told the serpents, keeping only the largest to serve as his chair. . . . On the following day, Hurricane saw that the boy was not dead, and he said, `That is a nagual.’ Then he pondered, and finally said, `We won’t be able to kill him this way, but since he is a nagual, he can’t continue to live amongst us.’” (12) The tale of Homshuk, like that of Hunahpu and Xbalanque reminds us of the ordeal of the three Nephites who played with the dangerous beasts and receive no harm (3 Nephi 28:22; 4 Nephi 1:33).

    In another ordeal, the Hero Twins were confined in a house of fire. “There was nothing but fire inside. But they were not burned. They were to have been roasted and set aflame. Instead they were just fine when the dawn came. It had been desired that they would straightway die when they passed through there, but it was not so. Thus all Xibalba lost heart as a result.”  (13) Similarly, the three Nephites were cast into a furnace of fire on several occasions, but “received no harm” (3 Nephi 28:21; 4 Nephi 1:32). While the persecutors may have thought that these ordeals would have strengthened their own authority in the eyes of the people, the miraculous deliverance of the disciples could be seen as a testament to the power of Jesus who had bestowed this blessing upon his three chosen representatives.

    In the Popol Vuh, the two brothers definitively demonstrated their divine power in a voluntary act of immolation. After being consumed in the flame, they were then transformed, disguised and tricked the lords of death into sacrificing themselves. After humbling their proud enemies, the two heroes ascended into heaven where they became the sun and the moon. By besting the lords of Xibalba at the various ordeals, the Hero Twins demonstrated their power over death and exposed the illegitimacy of their enemies. “Surely, they were not true gods. Their names merely inspired fear, for their faces were evil. They were strife makers, traitors, and tempters to sin and violence . . . . Thus their greatness and their glory were destroyed.” (14) While speculative, it is tempting to view the confrontation between the three disciples and their opponents in a setting where the exploits of the Hero Twins were known and tied to claims of authority and rulership by those who rejected the gospel of Christ. The implications of the unexpected outcome could not have been lost on those who witnessed it. In triumphing over these efforts to slay them, the disciples effectively turned the tables, exposing the folly of their power seeking enemies and validating the teachings and authority of their Master, the rightful Lord who had truly triumphed over death.

1. Mormon provides two descriptions of the miraculous deeds of the three disciples (3 Nephi 28:18-23; 4 Nephi 1:29-34), but it is unclear if these descriptions refer only to the events in 4 Nephi or to two separate episodes (one shortly after the visitation of Jesus associated with the conversion of the people in that generation and to another two hundred years later, during which the disciples were rejected). While I prefer the later, either reading is possible.

(2) Moroni alludes to the faith of the Pre-Columbian saints. “For in his name could they remove mountains; and in his name could they cause the earth to shake; and by the power of his word did they cause prisons to tumble to the earth; yea, even the fiery furnace could not harm them, neither wild beasts nor poisonous serpents, because of the power of his word” (Mormon 8:24). These miracles attributed to the three Nephites and other Book of Mormon prophets may have become a point of persecution inflicted on the disciples of Jesus by those who saw them as a threat to their own power and opposed the teachings of Christ.

(3) Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya (New York: Winchester, 2003).

(4) Michael D. Coe, “The Hero Twins: Myth and Image,” in Justin Kerr, ed., The Maya Vase Book: A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases (New York: Kerr Associates, 1989),1:182.

(5) Mary Miller and Karl Taube, The God’s and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993), 134.

(6) Justin Kerr, “The Myth of the Popol Vuh as an Instrument of Power,” in Elin C. Danien and Robert Sharer, eds., New Theories on the Ancient Maya (University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1992),  109. 

(7) Christenson, Popol Vuh, 110.

(8) Christenson, Popol Vuh, 111, note 219.

(9) One wonders if a similar motivation may lie behind to murder of Jaredite prophets during th reign of King Heth (Ether 9:29).

(10) Christenson, Popol Vuh, 170.

(11) Christenson, Popol Vuh, 177.

(12) George M. Foster, Sierra Popoluca Folklore and Beliefs (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1945), 193.

(13) Christenson, The Popol Vuh, 171.

(14) Christenson, The Popol Vuh, 188.

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