One of the fascinating episodes in Jaredite history is the account of poisonous serpents being a threat to their survival. The account is as follows: And it came to pass (in the days of King Heth) that there began to be a great dearth upon the land, and the inhabitants began to be destroyed exceedingly fast because of the dearth, for there was no rain upon the face of the earth. And there came forth poisonous serpents also upon the face of the land, and did poison many people. And it came to pass that their flocks began to flee before the poisonous serpents, towards the land southward, which was called by the Nephites Zarahemla. And it came to pass that there were many of them which did perish by the way; nevertheless, there were some which fled into the land southward. And it came to pass that the Lord did cause the serpents that they should pursue them no more, but that they should hedge up the way that the people could not pass, that whoso should attempt to pass might fall by the poisonous serpents. (Ether 9:30-33)
Seven kings later in Jaredite history, we are told that finally the plague of poisonous serpents was resolved: And it came to pass that Kish passed away also, and Lib reigned in his stead. And it came to pass that Lib also did that which was good in the sight of the Lord. And in the days of Lib the poisonous serpents were destroyed. Wherefore, they did go into the land southward, to hunt food for the people of the land, for the land was covered with animals of the forest. And Lib also himself became a great hunter. And they built a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land. (Ether 10:18-20)
Do we have any archaeological evidence from jaredite times of a focus on serpents? I will consider such evidence from three archaeological sites in ancient Mesoamerica. These three sites are all in Mexico: Palenque, Chiapas; San Lorenzo,Tenochtitlan, southern Veracruz; and La Venta, Tabasco.
First, hieroglyphic writing on the Tablet of the Cross at Palenque speaks of an ancestral king by the name of U-Kish Chan ("he of the feathered serpent").* U-Kish Chan is considered the ancient founder of the Palenque dynasty of kings.
Second, Monument 47 from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan is a king who has a serpent around his waist and is holding the head of the serpent in his hands. The serpent has feathers on its head. This monument is Obec in style and dates to the beginning of the first millennium B.C. The monument has the head missing, but the imagery of the monument equals that of U-Kish Chan from the much-later Tablet of the Cross at Palenque. Could the San Lorenzo monument represent U-Kish Chan?
Third, the layout of the central part of the archaeological site of LaVenta represents a serpent focus: the large, volcanic-shaped mound representing the upturned head of a serpent, the ridges at the site of the serpent body, and the diamond-shaped tassels on two of the buried serpentine panels representing the body design on a variety of rattlesnakes, etc.+
The implication is that the serpent for the Olmecs and/or the jaredites became a symbol for the fertile earth and that corn or maize grows from its back or from the earth. By the way, we do have a good archaeological example of the combination of fertilizing rain, corn plants, serpent mouth cave opening, and a human figure holding an Olmec serpent year bearer calendar unit on Monument t at Chalcatzingo, Morelos. There is also a much-later Aztec monument that has rattles from a snake intertwined with corn cobs. A tentative hypothesis to explain the above information could be stated as follows:
At least by the days of the Jaredite King Kish, a cult focused on the serpent was developing. His son King Lib built a city in the narrow neck of land at La Venta, Tabasco that emphasized the serpent cult. Much later in time, the kings at Palenque, Chiapas, were claiming divine kingship from this ancestral king U-Kish Chan, who probably originally resided at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, Veracruz. The U-Kish Chan,"He of the feathered serpent" king on Monument 47 at San Lorenzo is the forerunner of the deity Quetzalcoatl of the Aztecs and Maya and could have been a symbol of the hoped for Messiah..
The imagery, dating names, and locations all make sense