Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Destruction of Records in Ancient America and the Book of Mormon

Men of Ammonihah burn the scriptures of believers (churchofjesuschrist,org)

The Nephite prophet-historians carefully preserved their most valuable records which were privately passed down from generation to generation with stern admonitions to keep them safe from abuse and destruction (Alma 37:14-18). Enos, the son of Nephi's priest brother Jacob wrote that their Lamanite enemies, "swore in the wrath that, if it were possible, they would destroy our records and us, and also all the traditions of our fathers" (Enos 1:14), and the Book of Mormon shows that it was only through painstaking labor that they were able to be successful in doing so. Not long before the annihilation of the Nephites, Mormon recorded,

Knowing this to be the last struggle of my people, and having been commanded of the Lord that I should not suffer the records which had been handed down by our fathers, which were sacred, to fall into the hands of the Lamanites, (for the Lamanites would destroy them) therefore I made this record out of the plates of Nephi, and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni (Mormon 6:6).

Attempts to destroy records of the past have a long a tragic history and the history of ancient Mesoamerica is no exception. "Deliberate destruction of records," writes Nichoson, "frequently accompanied pre-hispanic as well as post-Conquest military takeovers. As always, one of the principles prizes of military victory was the past (cf. Orwell's `who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.'), and conscious alteration of existing records for political advantage in the wake of conquests and related upheavals must have been common.--and creates problems in long range chronological interpretation" (H. B. Nicholson, Western Mesoamerica: 900-1620," in R. E. Taylor and Clement W. Meighan, eds., Chronologies in Ne World Archaeology. New York: Academic Press, 1978, 320).

The Spanish Conquest led to the irreparable loss of valuable historical knowledge about the pre-columbian past. Diego Duran, who sought to reconstruct the history of the Mexica wrote with frustration, "Some early friars burned ancient books and writings and thus they were lost. Then too, the old people who could write these books are no longer alive to tell of the settling of this country,and it was they whom I would have consulted for my chronicle" (Doris Heyden, ed., The History of the Indies of New Spain. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994, 20). The sparse details concerning Tlaxcaltecan rulers given in the Anonimo Mexicano, a document written decades after the Conquest, sadly points to the dearth of historical knowledge caused by the loss of such records. 

From Diego Rivera's mural The History of Mexico (Wikipedia Commons)

In a passage which speaks of earlier kings the writer recounts

He was called Cuauhtzinteuctli, grandson of the ruler of Acolhua. And he made himself the ruler. and this ruler's accomplishments were not written, because the books about his rulership perished. The he was succeeded by Ilhhuicamina. After he died, Matlaccoatl followed behind him and was made ruler. After this ruler died, a son called Tezcacoatl received the rulership. After this Tezcacoatl died, one named Tezcapoctli ruled. After this Tezcapoctli died, the lord Teotlehuac followed him. But the accomplishments of all these lords are not found in the painted books. When the Spanish entered, they destroyed all these books (Richley H. Crapo and Bonnie Glass-Coffin, ed., Anonimo Mexicano. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2005, 26).\

In Yucatan, Bishop Diego de Landa caused the destruction of numerous Mayan codices of which less than a handful survive today. He wrote:

These people also made use of certain characters or letters, with which they wrote in their books their ancient matters and their sciences, and by these drawings and by curious signs in these drawings, they understood their affairs and made others understand them and taught them. We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which there were not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction (Alfred M. Tozzer, ed., Landa Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 1941, 169).  

Bernardo de Lizana wrote that Landa discovered a cache of idols in a cave.

Thus he collected the books and the ancient writing and he commanded them burned and tied up. They burned many historical books of the ancient Yucatan which told of its beginning and history, which were of much value if, in our writing, they had been translated because today there would be something original. At best there is no great authority for more than the traditions of these Indians (Tozzer, 78).

Subsequent Spanish Clergy and historians lamented the willful destruction of such records.

With suspicion of this idolatry, they collected all the books and ancient writings which the Indians had and in order to erase all the danger and memory of their ancient rites, as many as they were able to find we burned publicly on the day of the auto and at the same time with these (were destroyed) the history of their antiquities (Diego Lopez de Cogolludo, in Tozzer, 78).

Afterwards some of our friars understood and knew how to read them, and even wrote them, but because in these books were mixed many things of idolatry, they burned almost all of them, and thus was lost the knowledge of many ancient matters of that land which by them could have been known (Alonzo de San Juan Ponce, in Tozzer, 78).

In the province of Yucatan, where is the so-called Bishopric of Honduras, there used to exist some books of leaves, bound or folded after a fashion, in which the learned Indians kept the distribution of their times and the knowledge of plants, animals, and other things of nature and the ancient customs, in a way of great neatness and carefulness. It appeared to a teacher of doctrine that all this must be to make witchcraft and magic art; he contended that they should be burned and those books were burned and afterwards not only the Indians but many eager-minded Spaniards who desired to know the secrets of that land felt badly. The same thing has happened in other cases where our people, thinking that all is superstition, have lost many memories of ancient and hidden things which they might have used to no little advantage. This follows from a stupid zeal, when without knowing or even wishing to know the things of the Indians, they say as in the sealed package, that everything is sorcery and that the peoples there are only a drunken lot an what can they know or understand. The ones who have wished earnestly to be informed of these have found many things worthy of consideration (Jose de Acosta, in Tozzer, 78).

Native accounts from the Valley of Mexico indicate that during the reign of Itzcoatl (1427-1440) many Aztec records were deliberately burned by Aztecs rulers themselves for ideological and propaganda purposes. The rulers at Tenochtitlan rewrote their own history and destroyed earlier versions. “Doris Heyden explains, "The Aztec had to be put in a favorable light in order to eradicate their early and probably undistinguished past” (Heyden, 81, note 7). For example, according to the Florentine Codex, “A council of rulers of Mexico took place. They said: `It is not necessary for all the common people to know of the writings; government will be defamed, and this will only spread sorcery in the land; for it containeth many falsehoods” (Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson, eds., The Florentine Codex. Book 10: The People. Santa Fe: School of American Research and the Museum of New Mexico, 1961, 191).  Joyce Marcus suggests that these burned histories likely, "contained the deeds of previous rulers, their genealogies, and their relations with neighboring peoples” (Joyce Marcus, Mesoamerican Writing Systems: Propaganda, Myth, and History in Four Ancient Civilizations. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992, 146).

In the official Mexica version of the conquest of Azcopalzalco, the Mexica did not acknowledge the substantial aid they received from their allies, the Alcohua of Texcoco; in fact, they neglected to mention that they had had any help. To legitimize their new prominence, the Mexica also needed to establish that they had had a glorious and worthy heritage; thus, they decided to claim descent from the last great civilization, that of the Toltec. They also decided to elevate their patron deity of war, Huitzilopochtli, to a level above that of the other deities populating the cosmos. . . . Itzcoatl thought that the Mexica’s historical archives were no longer appropriate to their new-found prominence, so he burned them and wrote a new history that was more in line with current needs (Marcus 148-49). 

Madrid Codex

“The famous burning of the books by (Aztec) Itzcoatl," wrote Davies, "was hardly an isolated case and the Maya were surely not alone in ritually destroying their carved texts." He believes such codices, "were destroyed at intervals and history was then rewritten to suit the ruler of the day" (Nigel Davies, “The Aztec Concept of History: Teotihuacan and Tula,” in Jacqeline de Durand-Forest, ed., The Native Sources and the History of the Valley of Mexico. Oxford: BAR, 1984, 207). Monuments and Stela appear to have been frequently defaced and destroyed throughout most Mesoamerican history. Such monuments, written on stone, however, constituted only a small part of what once must have been a robust and widespread literary tradition of records written on perishable materials. The late Mayanist Michael Coe wrote that the end of the Classic Period of Maya culture sadly saw the destruction of many such records. 

It was not just the `stela cult’–the inscribed glorification of royal lineages and their achievements - that disappeared with the collapse, but an entire world of esoteric knowledge, mythology, and ritual. Much of the elite cultural behavior . . . such as the complex underworld mythology and iconography found on Classic Maya funerary ceramics, failed to re-emerge with the advent of the Post-Classic era, and one can only conclude that the royalty and nobility, including the scribes who were the repository of so much sacred knowledge, had "gone with the wind." They may well have been massacred by an enraged populace, and their screen-fold books consumed in a holocaust similar to that carried out centuries later by Bishop Landa (Michael D. Coe, The Maya, Fifth edition. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993, 128).

The deliberate destruction of records makes sense in light of the Book of Mormon which was written by a record keeping people. Nephite enemies had rival traditions which conflicted with those held by the Nephites (Mosiah 10:12-17; Alma 54:16-18; 3 Nephi 3:10). Nephites dissenters, some of whom found value in keeping records for economic reasons, were not particularly interested in preserving much of the Nephite tradition itself (Mosiah 24:5-7). And the Lamanites actively sought to destroy Nephite records and traditions (Enos 1:14; Mormon 6:6). Records written on perishable materials would not likely have survived (Jacob 4:1-2; Alma 14:8). Original documents written on permanent material such as plates were carefully preserved and hidden up to come forth at a future day, but persistent efforts, following the last war to destroy anything considered Nephite would most likely insure that other Nephite records written in reformed Egyptian would not survive. When we think of the people of the people of Lehi as one pre-columbian group among many, it seems more understandable how the records of such a group might no longer be found in archaeological remains.

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