Creation, Garden of Eden, and Resurrection in Mesoamerican Thought
Transcript of the September 2005 BMAF Conference held at the Red Lion Hotel
Creation, Garden of Eden, and Resurrection in Mesoamerican Thought
by Diane Wirth
We know that not all of those with Nephite blood were destroyed in the final battle. Many left their Nephite brothers to join the Lamanites, especially those who denied Christ. Their lives were spared. Others may have linked up with the Gadiantons, as these robbers had lived among them in previous times. Perhaps there were even Nephite ‘draft dodgers’. In other words, there were no longer Nephites who worshiped the savior in Mesoamerica. After Moroni’s death, the true Nephite became extinct, as prophesied by Alma. (Alma 45:9-11) But their seed still remained, as they mixed with other cultures. Nevertheless, some gospel stories managed to seep through and mesh with the Mesoamerican population. However, most of these stories are very weak imitations of what their ancestors once possessed. It was the upper class in Mesoamerica who were educated and could read and write. They were very knowledgeable about religious doctrine. For example, many of the Mayan nobles made grand monuments, but it was their pottery, in particular, in later years of Mesoamerican history that illustrate their legends.
(First slide on the screen) For example, this is a resurrection scene of a deity from the earth turtle on a clay plate. The commoners in ancient times spread an idea by word of mouth and through their household art. This was the way most traditions were passed from one generation to the next. Can you guess what happened to these stories? (I know when I was a child, we used to play a game at parties; and everyone sat in a circle, and the first person would whisper something to the person sitting next to him. That person would then tell the same thing to the next person, or so they thought they did. By the time the message went full circle it was totally different from how it started out with the first person.) By A.D. 231, the apostasy was in full swing, although there was still a small glimmer of truth from the knowledge they once knew. If the Nephites had remained righteous, this would not have happened. We will examine some of these beliefs starting with the Creator, our Heavenly Father. He has an eternal companion, and together they are the parents of all of us before we came to this earth. This concept is usually an unspoken truth among Latter-day Saints, but it is considered a very sacred subject. In 1909, the First Presidency of the Church stated, "All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother, and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity.
The gold plates of the Jaredites had an account of the creation and of Adam and Eve. The Nephites did not include these things in their writings because they already had that account from the first five books of Moses, and they were recorded on the Brass Plates of Laban. So, the Nephites already had these scriptures in their library, which they studied, and they did not give these accounts again, except for a few excerpts that we have in the Book of Mormon.
The Savior, while talking to those he visited in the Americas (3 Nephi 26:3) told them all things, even from the beginning, therefore, Christ most likely reviewed the scriptures from the beginning of time. Today, Latter-day Saints have two accounts of the creation: one from Genesis in the Bible, and the other from the Pearl of Great Price.
In Mesoamerica, there was a belief in a divine creator-couple, we would call them Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. Every locale in Mesoamerica had a different name for them because there were many languages spoken anciently in Mesoamerica. Mesoamerican picture books called ‘codices’ in the plural and ‘codex’ in the singular were written by scribes. This slide shows an example of a Mesoamerican picture book called the Selden Codex. In this illustration, the creator-couple is shown with their divine son, Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl is the figure in the center. Below them are many layers of heavens with star eyes, with the moon at the bottom left and the sun at the bottom right. The heavens are split with small feet ascending and descending. This is because Quetzalcoatl could come to the earth and return to the heavens. We will talk about Quetzalcoatl’s role in the creation shortly. However, the mistake they made in Mesoamerica, due to the apostasy and the Nephite and Lamanite wars, was that Quetzalcoatl was not recognized as the Savior, whose atonement made it possible for the children of men to return to their heavenly parents. That part of the story is never brought up. However, we will see that they did have the doctrine, somewhat right.
The Popol Vuh, which has been talked about a little bit, was written shortly after the Spanish arrived and was copied from a Maya book and oral traditions that were considered very sacred. The stories were told from one generation to the next. Today, the Popol Vuh is considered the bible of the Maya. There are many things that are similar to our account in Genesis, starting with the creation of the world. The Maya painted scenes on pottery and also carved in stone the creation story so that the people would understand and visualize what they were told in the creation. We know from the book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price that the Gods took counsel among themselves to plan the creation. Joseph Smith said, "The head God called together the Gods and sat in council to bring forth the world."
Among the Maya, the creation also involved a council of supernatural beings. This scene is portrayed on a vase called the Vase of the Seven Gods. They are discussing and planning the act of creation. This council of Maya gods is also recorded in the Popol Vuh, which follows a somewhat similar pattern to that described in the Pearl of Great Price. The gods deliberated, agreed, and then united their words and thoughts. The business of God’s word is very important to Latter-day Saints, the power to do these things is the Priesthood. For example, God said, "Let there be light and there was light."
We know from Moses 1:32, that God’s son, Jesus Christ, created all things. We think of Heavenly Father as the Architect and the Son as the Contractor, and perhaps the noble spirits as Christ’s helpers. In Abraham 3:22-24, in the Pearl of Great Price, we learn that there were many great and noble spirits that assisted in the creation of the earth. Their thoughts did the planning and, significantly, their words carried out the design. In the Popul Vuh, we have a similar situation. There, gods not only planned but were involved in the creation. Here are some of the words from that Mayan scripture, the Popul Vuh, "Then the earth was created by them; merely their word brought about the creation of it. In order to create the earth, they said ‘Earth’ and immediately it was created." And, referring to the finishing of the creation, a Mayan hieroglyph at Palenque, Mexico, reads ‘it is done’.
Now let’s look at the pre-mortal state. In the Pearl of Great Price, Moses 6:51 reads, "I am God; I made the world and men before they were in the flesh." You cannot have a father of children without a mother. Today, no other Christian church believes in the existence of man before they came to earth, although the primitive church of Christianity did. Latter-day Saints have this knowledge thanks to restored gospel. The Nephites understood the pre-mortal state, even though the portion we have in the Book of Mormon only speaks of it in a round about way, referring to the beginning as the ‘foundation of the world’. (Alma 13:3)
Samuel the Lamanite refers to the pre-mortal state when he said, But behold, the resurrection of Christ redeemeth man, yea, even all mankind, and bringeth them back into the presence of God." If men had to be brought back to the presence of the Lord, they must have been there before – and this is a pre-mortal state.
An Aztec poem reads, "We came only to be born. Our home is beyond."
The superior and eternal couple were also the creators of the spirits of mankind. They sent spirits to human mothers. This is from the Codex Vaticanus, "With the god of heaven above is the first couple." That little round object (on the screen) in the center is a piece of jade. Jade was the most precious of symbols in Mesoamerica. The children of the heavenly couple were considered ‘precious jewels’. A German archaeologist researched the heavenly pair in Mexico, and described one of their primary functions. He said, "They must be regarded as the direct creators of the spirit of man. The pair are the great initiators of life, and must be comprehended as sending the human soul to occupy the soul made by human procreation, giving warmth and breath to the infant before being born."
In the Bourbon Codex, another Mexican picture book, a child descends from its heavenly home to a mother. The footprints (on the slide) show the direction that the child is going. Here we see the head is coming out while the child is being delivered. The Maya also understood this concept. For the Maya to touch the earth was an expression for birth when a child came from heaven to the earth. Douglas Gillette, the non-LDS specialist in comparative religions, remarks about the Maya soul symbolism. He said, "An ancient Maya doctrine is the pre-existence of the soul, a soul that is far more ancient and enduring than the brief span of our lifetime here on earth."
(New slide) Here is another example that may be the descent of a child from heaven to its mother. Garth Norman, who you heard from earlier, suggests that the earliest illustration of a pre-mortal state is on an upright rock monument called Stela 10 at Izapa. This carving was made about 200 B.C., and here we have a child floating above a reclining figure with a swollen belly. The spirit child is coming from heaven to enter its mother’s womb. Two children are to the right of the mother figure. One child is holding a scepter-like rod, possibly symbolizing an umbilical cord attached to its mother. Perhaps the other child is a spirit child. In Mesoamerican art you can have the same individual repeated several times in a codex, or especially on pottery, or on a stela.
(Next slide) Quetzalcoatl was the first son of this Mexican creator-couple. He had a special role in the creation. In one story, in particular, Quetzalcoatl is responsible for separating the sky from the earth. The gods in Mexico had various duties. In this case Quetzalcoatl looks very strange to us, wearing a bird-beaked mask. He uses this device to blow air and breath, even into living creatures. In this particular guise, he lifts up the skies, separating them from the earth. The top band represents the waters of the heavens, while the lower portion contains stars. Beneath his feet would be the earth. In a way;, this story is the same as in the Bible. The waters of the creation of the earth were divided or separated by the firmament. The firmament refers to the heavens.
All mankind are brothers and sisters, but there are two sons of our Heavenly Parents that affect our spirituality in the long run. They are Christ and an angel of God, called Lucifer. We are all aware of the decision that each of them made – one for good and the other for evil. Lucifer, whose name literally means ‘light-bearer’ or ‘shining one’ held this name in the pre-mortal state before he rebelled against his Heavenly Father. After he rebelled he was dismissed and sent to the earth where he became known as the devil, or Satan. Due to his former name of Lucifer, we know that he once held authority in the pre-existence. However, we do not know what role he held before he turned to the dark side. (I say that for the "Star Wars" fans.)
With that, we will turn our attention to a deity in Mesoamerica, who has some of the characteristics of Lucifer, or Satan. His name is Tezcatlipoca. Tezcatlipoca’s brother was Quetzalcoatl, and they were rivals from the very beginning. For the most part, Tezcatlipoca was the opposite of Quetzalcoatl. He was dark, destructive, and the author of chaos, while Quetzalcoatl was a figure of light and mankind’s helper. It is said that Tezcatlipoca attempted to take possession of the newly formed creation of the earth. As a result, there was a great battle in heaven between Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. If we compare Tezcatlipoca with Satan, we can look to Moses 4:3 in the Pearl of Great Price to tell us the story of what happened. Heavenly father said, "By the power of my only begotten (who is Christ) I caused that he (Lucifer or Satan) should be cast down." Legends say that Quetzalcoatl hit Tezcatlipoca with a club, knocking Tezcatlipoca from the heavens into the waters of the earth. When Tezcatlipoca landed, his foot had been ripped off as he was being thrown out of heaven. Tezcatlipoca’s foot was replaced by a smoking mirror in which he saw a dark future for mankind. On the other hand, Tezcatlipoca had some good qualities; but so may have had Lucifer before he rebelled. Mesoamericans believed that their world contained paired opposites; for example, water and fire; life and death; light and darkness. Many times, Tezcatlipoca was seen as the dark side of life, even as a destroyer. But other times he was seen as a god of creation. In general, Tezcatlipoca represented negative forces that would include war, hostilities, sickness, deceitfulness, swindling, stealing, vanity and greed – all kinds of discord. Tezcatlipoca was nor necessarily viewed by the Mesoamericans as evil, but rather as a contrast to Quetzalcoatl and everything he stood for. One could not exist without the other, as we have in the scriptures – there "must be opposition in all things."
The story of the fall of our first earthly parents, was recorded on the brass plates of Laban, as well as on the gold plates made by the Jaredites; and is especially explained in 2 Nephi, chapter 2. There are some stories recorded in Mexican books after the Spanish conquest in 1519. And, these stories were passed by the natives to their offspring. Since there are several of these stories coming from different places, and different times (so we have more than one story of the same thing) we can be pretty sure they are authentic. In other words, they are not stories taken from the Bible that the Spanish Catholic priests brought with them to the Americas. In the legends that the native Indians told to the Spanish each Mesoamerican location has a different name for Adam and Eve, just as they differ for the creator-couple. But the stories are the same.
(Next slide) This is an illustration from the Codex Borgia showing the first couple created in the Mesoamerican paradise. Various myths say that the supreme couple in the topmost heavens created a garden of Eden for the first people. This garden was called Tamoanchan or Tollan in most sources. It is nearly identical with the Biblical Garden of Eden in some respects. These stories tell mostly of Eve, for which the Mexicans have various names. We’ll choose just one of her names, Xochicalco. She is the one who caused the transgression that would alter life for both her and her husband and consequently, all of mankind.
(New slide) Instead of taking a fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as recorded in Genesis, Xochicalco took a blossom from the sacred tree in the garden. In Mesoamerica, everything is considered to be living, so that the tree bled and was wounded when Xochicalco plucked a flower from its branch. The legend is told in picture-books (codices) both before and after the Spanish conquest, and this particular one is before the Spanish arrived. Taking a flower from the tree signified death. Death was unknown in the wonderful garden of Tamoanchan. In Alma 12:23, we understand that if Adam and Eva had not eaten of the fruit of the tree, they would have tasted of the Tree of Life and would have lived forever in the Garden of Eden and never have tasted death. But, as we know, their transgression was necessary to fulfill the plan of our Heavenly Father. And the first couple did eventually die, as well as all their offspring in mortality.
Tezcatlipoca, disguised as an animal, deceived Xochicalco and persuaded her to pluck a flower from the forbidden tree. Tezcatlipoca, as we recall, is Satan. To punish Xochicalco and her husband, the supreme creator gods banished them to the earth. They could no longer enjoy their wonderful garden.
(New slide) In Mesoamerica, when the first couple was banished from the garden, something unusual happened to them. They had a great deal of knowledge before they left the garden; they could remember their past lives in Tamoanchan (paradise). So the supreme creator-couple caused that they could not see clearly as they had before. The Maya book, the Popol Vuh, tells this part of the story, "Their eyes were merely blurred by Heart of Sky (the creator). They were blinded like breath upon the face of a mirror. Their eyes were blinded; they could only see nearby. Things were clear to them only where they were – thus, their knowledge was lost." Consequently, the first couple lost their former wisdom, and they were cast out of the garden from the very beginning. In other words, they could not remember the things that took place before. Their eyes becoming blurred, so to speak, may be compared to the scripture in 1 Corinthians 13:12, which reads, "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."
(New slide) Mexican codices depict the fall of man from paradise. Edward Seller, a German archaeologist interpreted the scene as the first man coming down from his home in paradise to earth. We see the heavenly staircase (those little round circles are star-eyes). This is the way Mexicans used to demonstrate man falling down a set of stairs from his home in paradise. The blindfolded man to the right is the very same person described (you can see the same person several times in the same image). Edward Seller said that he was guilty of a transgression and that’s why his eyes are blinded. But, other commentaries have said that perhaps it was because of the smoke and the ashes that were blown into his eyes so that he could not see clearly.
(New slide) One is reminded of William Wordsworth’s poem that we have heard so often, (Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood):
"Our birth is but a sleep and forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, H
Hath had elsewhere it setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home."
In the Maya area of Quintana Roo, Mexico, there is a myth that a long time ago there existed a rope that was a pathway that connected the earth with the sky, which was heaven. It was a lifeline—a link between the two worlds, much like an umbilical cord connecting the natural world to the heavens and the gods . The link was severed at the time of the fall when earth and heaven were separated from one another. Since the separation occurred it was necessary that specific steps be taken to reunify both body and spirit to its original heavenly home. The cycle of birth, death and resurrection are all part of that process. The various cultures that lived in Mesoamerica understood a great deal about birth, death and resurrection. However, much of these beliefs were twisted and altered from the knowledge that the Nephites had hundreds of years before. So, we’ll attempt to talk about those gospel principles and also how they deviated from the truth.
The scriptures in the Book of Mormon have numerous references to baptism, and how this ordinance should be performed. By the end of the Nephite era, these things were falling apart. Mormon writes an urgent letter to his son, Moroni (Moroni 8:9), "And after this manner did the Holy Ghost manifest the word of God unto me. Wherefore, my beloved son, I know that it is solemn mockery before God that you should baptize little children." Little children do not have knowledge of what they are doing.
The Spanish found out that the Aztecs were baptizing little children. They witnessed this with their own eyes. The Maya in the Yucatan performed a type of baptism, as well. This is from the Madrid Codex, drawn before the Spanish arrived. There are several illustrations in this codex that show small children being baptized, and this with the sprinkling of water, not being immersed. In fact, the Maya word for baptism is translated ‘to be born again.’ That is the exact same phrase that is used in the scriptures, and what modern Christianity uses today. By this time, Mesoamericans considered it a ritual way of purifying their infants; and women usually performed this. (I’m presently writing a young adult guide to archaeology in the Book of Mormon, and that’s why we’re being a little gentle.)
The Maya believed that by doing that ceremony, the infant received a pure nature, and was protected against future evils. They did this by sprinkling between the ages of three to twelve years old.
(New slide) In Mesoamerica, the design of a shell symbolized a mother’s womb and everything was symbolic to them. As we have seen before, there are several instances in the codices that show people coming out of a shell submerged in water. Does this refer to baptism? It may be; and Edward Seller interpreted this as just as a fish emerges from a shell, so a man emerges from the womb of his mother. The Mesoamericans believed that their salvation was under water. There is another subject pertaining to little children among Mesoamericans that will really bring joy to those who have lost a child in death. As far as I know, there are no other people who believe a special and wonderful place is assigned for deceased children, except for Latter-day Saints and the Mesoamericans. The Book of Mormon makes it very clear that children who die before the age of accountability, at age eight years, are redeemed through Christ and are considered alive in Christ. Their destiny is Life, which is the Celestial Kingdom. It is truly amazing when we compare this belief with that of Mesoamerica. There are some differences but basically the same concept. Many of the early Spanish clergy wrote the native beliefs concerning the death of children. Remember the slide I showed with the first creator-couple, there was a piece of jade between them; the heavenly creator-couple considered that children were precious stones or jewels. Christ describes to the inhabitants of the Americas that children are precious jewels.
(Next slide) Referring to the same doctrine, this is an illustration in the Codex Ríos depicts deceased children. These children who have passed on from life are sitting under a tree bearing fruit. The fruit drips milk to nourish them. Now, listen to what the researchers have found among the people who made this drawing (and this is not an LDS researcher), "These deceased infants were extremely important to the faith of the human universe, because in the future, when the current great world age come to an end, these spirits would leave the tree and return to repopulate the earth." Think of what’s going to happen in the Millennium, when these children will be raised by righteous parents.
(Next slide) In the ancient world burying the deceased meant returning the body to the womb of mother earth, the place where people expected to be reborn. The shape of a mother’s womb is similar to a design, both in the Middle-east and Mesoamerica. It is simply U-shaped.
(Next slide) Sometimes the Mexican codices drew a ‘U’ to mean the grave, while the person being buried is in a mummy bundle. Both the skull and the dead person drawn mean the same individual. Yokes are used on horses to pull a plow, but we think of yokes in Mesoamerica they are different. In Mesoamerica, they sometimes put a U-shaped stone yoke in the burial chamber of the deceased, especially if they were ball players. Ball players used a yoke around their upper waist for protection. Their yokes were made of material, wood or leather. But the stone yokes were for burial. I believe these stone yokes symbolized the mother’s womb protecting the child before it was born.
(Next slide) On a clay vessel from Mexico, there is a U-shaped device around a man. There has also been an archaeological report of a body lying full length with the head placed inside on of these yokes. When we go to the Near-east and Jerusalem, there was an interesting discovery in a cave tomb. Stone headdresses were found, which date to several centuries B.C., which puts it at a close time when Lehi and his family left Jerusalem. It was customary that the head of the deceased lie within the U-shaped stone yoke, symbolizing what some scholars believe (and this was written in a Biblical archaeological review) that this would represent the comfort of the mother and the hoped for rebirth and resurrection of the deceased. You can see from the interpretation of the yokes being symbolic of a mother’s womb, that this whole system was geared to the resurrection. And the ancient people of Mesoamerica believed in the resurrection.
(New slide) This was alluded to today. A good example of this belief can be seen in this picture of the Codex Borgia, of Quetzalcoatl, and he has that ‘wind’ mask on, and he’s also back-to-back with a skeleton. Quetzalcoatl sacrificed his blood and he gave it to the deceased, and gave it to all these bones that were (we would say) in the Spirit World. Now the skeleton lives. (Pointing to the slide – there’s the heart in this dead skeleton. That means that these bones will again live.) This is a resurrection scene.
The ancient Mexican people believed that the deceased deserved to be brought back to life, because of Quetzalcoatl’s blood sacrifice. In Jacob 7:26, Jacob knew it was the end of this days, and said, "Our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream . . . ." The Aztecs told Sahagun, a Spanish priest, of their belief in different levels of the heavens that their ancestors went to when they died, and that life was but a dream, which has also been expressed in the Book of Mormon. They said that they did not die, they awoke from a dream they had lived. And they became spirits or gods. They said, also, that some were transformed into the sun, others into the moon, and others into various planets. That is very similar to 1 Corinthians 15:41, describing Heavenly Father’s many mansions. Here we are informed that there are different degrees of glory in the heavens. The kingdoms can be likened to the sun, the moon and the stars. Perhaps the Maya understood this to some extent, as well. They believed that their ancestors became stars, too. They also had the idea that when a person died, they not only became a star, but the better the person – the bigger the star.