Monday, March 12, 2018

Notes on a Curious Verse- Helaman 11:33

The Rape of the Sabine Women.

Due to the narrative complexity, debates or its origins, and somewhat enigmatic narrative, many verses in the Book of Mormon can provide a multitude of ideas often in direct contrast to how short the text is. One of those is late in the Book of Helaman, and 11:33 reads: Yea, for they did visit many parts of the land, and did do great destruction unto them; yea, did kill many, and did carry away others captive into the wilderness, yea, and more especially their women and their children.

What follows is a summary and explanation of ideas and implications of this verse. I see four interconnected ideas possible in the verse that come from a critical historical perspective.[1]

Captive Brides:

Bride kidnapping is common among many ancient cultures across the world. The Book of Mosiah already described a clearer example of this practice (Mosiah 20:1-5). It is in line with many norms of ancient war. The winner of a conflict had jurisdiction over its inhabitants, and usually slew the men while taking the women and children captive.[2]

The capture of women and children could represent the need for labor of an arms industry (mining metal), additional soldiers for their army, or increased agricultural production.[3] But the practice of captive brides also has several economic implications. According to sources, sometimes the practice of stealing brides was simply a cover for a couple’s elopement in order to satisfy cultural expectations. Many more times, the practice occurred because “the men who resort to capturing a wife are often of lower social status [see below], because of poverty, disease, poor character or criminality. They are sometimes deterred from legitimately seeking a wife because of the payment the woman’s family expects, the bride price [emphasis added]…”[4]

People Over Land:

During periods of massive economic and social turmoil, a decline in population means that people become more valuable than land. The most famous instance is probably Europe after the Black Death. The population decline by as much as a third, meaning the law of supply and demand made existing workers more valuable.

The Chinese period of disunion faced a similar challenge. During the fourth century AD as I write in my book: [A]s a consequence of the partial depopulation of North China, the various regimes that arose…placed greater value on the control of persons than control of territory…. During [this period,] empty cultivable land could be found in abundance…while the labor power to make that land productive was often in short supply. Human populations, therefore, were prominent among the spoils of victory.[5]

The resulting power of the people necessitated compromises between the emperor and various local power holders ranging from former officials of dynasty, towns that mobilized their own militia under a magnate, and robbers that gained unofficial and (eventually,) official power. The compromise between the emperor and submitting warlords or Confucian officials allowed the emperor to strengthen his position, reduce the threats against him, and gain greater legitimacy as an emperor. It also allowed the warlord, bandit chief, or army leader to keep power, have his position legitimized, and have a chance to amass greater wealth and power. The wins of the emperor produced a positive feedback loop. The initial winner received the submission of various warlords and leaders. This increased the ruler’s tax base and the number of farmers he could call on to supply his army, and it made him look like a mandated ruler in the eyes of the Confucian officials who helped him govern and the people over whom he governed. But there were significant limits to this power. A single defeat would break the success loop. The rival generals still held their armies, so they could easily sense which way the wind was blowing and rebel, and because of the ideology surrounding the Mandate of Heaven, they could claim a powerful justification for their actions by arguing that the ruler had lost the mandate.[6]

State Formation:

The first two points suggest the attempted creation of a rival state. The stealing of Lamanite women by the priests of Noah started a new “ite” in competition with the Nephites. And the power of the Gadianton Robbers to take women and children suggests they had the basics of a state apparatus. Again, Giddianhi was educated; there were many “waste places” in Nephite lands (Helaman 11:20), and it appears as though Nephites traded land for peace with the Gadianton Robbers (3 Nephi 6:3). Even later in Nephite history the record mentions a treaty with them but provides little about their state (Mormon 2:28).

The fragility of both states might again take a cue from Chinese history. Both the Nephites and Gadianton Robbers had trouble consolidating their rule and protecting the people. As I’ve discussed previously, the rise of Robbers represented competing centers of power fighting for control. The conquest dynasties such as those from the period of disunion were even more fragile than Gadianton Robbers. Tribes like the Di didn’t have skilled bureaucrats who could collect taxes, administer rituals of leadership, conduct a census that taxes households, and raise their armies. On top of this, the Di tribe had only gained power within recent memory. There were still many gaps to their rule, which might specifically apply to weakening Nephite power. The various hilltop fortresses were only nominally loyal to the government. They still provided potential centers of opposition should the ruler falter and they shield peasants from taxes and the imposition of corvee labor. This weakened the government, as it couldn’t pay its army and didn’t have enough labor to build its own fortresses. Again, recalling Helaman 11:33, the most potentially damaging effect on a would-be emperor’s power was the tendency to relocate the population of defeated enemy states to areas around the capital. In times of severe chaos when central authority was weak or nonexistent, people often became more important than empty territory. By the time of the Battle of Fei River (383), there were over one hundred forty thousand households from the Xianbei and Qiang tribes stationed around the capital. They were easier to tax and control there, but they became a large sea of hostile people if the strength of the capital faltered, which it did in defeat at Fei River.

One final note is geographic specific, and that is how Mesoamerican rulers often needed a quick strike to legitimize their rule and provide captives for sacrifices. If we accept the notion that the Robbers weren’t just robbers but rather a rival state, then view could hold some merit. The warfare was needed on an economic basis but also for a cultural and political basis. Victory in battle, from Constantine seeing the Cross at the Battle of Milvian Bridge to the Chinese Mandate of Heaven, to the ritual ball court sacrifices of the Mayans was often the best divine diagnostic.

Ethnic Tension:

The final point would likely be the lowered social status of The Gadianton Robbers. Assuming these weren’t captive brides, economically important workers, or a need to show divine sanction of the state, their capture could just be part of the ethno history of the Nephites. The Greeks thought the Persians were weak and effeminate, the Romans thought the Greeks were duplicitous, mountain men often were perceived as brutish and darker skinned. The Nephites believed their opponents were cursed, indolent, bloodthirsty, and living in tents. Ethnic beliefs would hardly condone intermarriage with those that were considered ethnic others and mere robbers to boot.

The capture of women and children then is not a mere footnote or ambiguous verse sandwiched between speeches, but rather indicative of larger trends such as economic importance of people, but also the fragility of the states involved often in islands of power surrounded by seas of hostile people only loyal as long as they feared the military might of the leaders.

All of the factors are highly speculative and based on single verses combined with an overall picture presented in Helaman and an extensive knowledge of history. But the book of Helaman is shorter than the war chapters yet covers some 50 years. While some of the ideas in this section are extremely tenuous, they offer tantalizing clues into the nature of Nephite society, the underlying societal factors that drove prophetic warnings, and even possible sexual violence in the text.

What do you think?


[1] There are many more ways to look at the text, and those that think the text is a fiction would find this silly. But I’m not having the same debate over and over again.

[2] Morgan Deane, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon, (Ebookit Press, 2014), chapter 2.

[3] William Hambling, Warfare in the Ancient Near East to 1600 BC: Holy Warriors at the Dawn of History, (New York: Routledge Press, 2006), 113, 205.

[4] Daniel G. Bates, “Normative and Alternative Systems of Marriage among the Yörük of Southeastern Turkey,” Anthropological Quarterly 47, no. 3 (1974), 270–287. You might also examine the practices of Boko Haram and ISIS who are doing the same thing in the modern age.

[5] David Graff, Medieval Chinese Warfare:300-900AD,(New York: Routledge Press, 2001), 60.

[6] Morgan Deane, Decisive Battles in Chinese History,(New York, Westholme Press, 2018), 40.

Friday, March 2, 2018

From Sinners to Saints: Reassessing the Book of Mormon.

From Sinners to Saints: Reassessing the Book of Mormon is now available on Amazon. I'm a bit sheepish to admit it, but I haven't figured out how to add another box on the side of my blog, so this link will have to do for now. If you haven't had a chance, Decisive Battles in Chinese History is also available and has received glowing reviews. (Except for that two star review, but who's counting?) 

The baptism of Clovis in 496 AD. The combination of religious, political, and military power highlights the themes of the new book very well. 
As I work on how to get new boxes for the right hand of my blog, here is the book blurb:

Believers in the Book of Mormon contend it is an account of real people that existed in history. From Joseph Smith’s plural marriage to Brigham Young’s statements on race, as we study the complexity of history we develop a deeper appreciation for struggling leaders moving, sometimes imperfectly, through a tragic and fallen world. Morgan Deane, a professor of history and author of Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon, uses the best of modern scholarship and military history to mine indirect traces in the text to identify the complexity and ambiguity that we would expect from the actions of historical people. Extensive historical examples, including the campaigns of the Byzantine general Belisarius, "evil gangs" of Samurai, and purposeful manipulation of records by Chinese dynastic historians, combine with detailed analysis of subtle clues to provide additional insight into the militarization of the Nephites by their spiritual leaders, the futility of their battlefield victories, the deadly machinations even righteous rulers needed to gain and keep political power, the possibly unjust actions of Nephite rulers, the reconstruction of arguments used by Amalickiah, and Captain Moroni’s innovative and winning tactics leading to rapacious taxation and insurgency to make a book that offers a unique reinterpretation of both heroes and villains.
From Sinners to Saints: Reassessing the Book of Mormon is the first of its kind to fully reassess the narrative found in the Book of Mormon. During a time of increased militancy in foreign affairs and vitriolic domestic politics, the increasing economic and social costs of war, and the spread and acceptance of fake political narratives this text will revolutionize the way readers understand the Book of Mormon and help them apply its message for our day.
Thanks for reading and I hope you get a copy! 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Forts, Resorts and Nephite Military Strategy

The Tower of London in the 12th century, they often painted it white. 

A particular discussion of forts and strategy prompted an interesting reexamination of what I thought I knew. Arthur Ferrill writes about the Late Roman Empire:

In a situation in which the enemy can almost certainly pierce the defensive perimeter, defense in depth and elastic defense are the two most likely military responses. The idea of elastic defense is simply to seek out the enemy’s attacking force and defeat it whenever possible. But defense in depth permits limited retention of frontier territory in forts manned by small forces…Defense in depth is based on the assumption that the frontiers cannot be made impenetrable (at least not at a reasonable cost), and that attackers will inevitably succeed in piercing the defensive perimeters. Such invasions can be thwarted, however, by maintaining relatively strong forts in a fairly deep band along the frontiers and a mobile army (or several scattered regionally) within the Empire. The forts must be strong enough to withstand attack and yet not so strongly defended as to become a drain on manpower weakening the mobile army. Since the barbarian invaders of the Roman period normally knew little about the techniques of siege warfare and could not place forts under blockade for fear of being caught by the mobile army, defense was in some respects theoretically realistic. During an invasion the forts served as pockets of resistance for storing food and fodder. Later, as the mobile army coordinated its efforts against the enemy with the small defending frontier forces, supplies could be denied to the invader while they were made available to the central reserve. When situated at strategic points such forts might also hold river crossings and passes thereby impeding the enemy’s movements.[1]

What interested me about this is that everything I’ve read tends to support the Nephite strategy of a defense in depth. For example, here is Nibley’s discussion of the practice:

Moroni’s defenses were based on a series of strong points, being a defense in depth, as modern defense-lines are; beside specially placed ‘small forts, or places of resort,’ towns and cities on the line were also converted into strong points (Alma 48:8). Such an arrangement can take the momentum out of any military steamroller and slow down or stop any attacking force, no matter how formidable, by forcing it to reduce one strong place after another or else bypass the fortifications and thereby leave dangerous enemy forces in its rear to disrupt communications and launch harassing counter-attacks on invading units.[2]
Me and my daughter, Tower of London 2017. 

So far so good, Nibley provided a decent description of the chapter and compares nicely to Ferrill’s definition of defense in depth. But the only problem is that the verse that talks about a system of forts and resorts, is never really mentioned again. The strength of fortifications for some major cities such as Bountiful, and Nephihah, and Mulek are mentioned. Moroni wrote his angry letter to the government because he felt it was easier to keep those fortified cities than take them. He tried to entice Jacob out onto the plains, and needed some extracurricular climbing to secure Nephihah.

But the vast majority of the war chapters suggest something different. When the Lamanites invaded with their “wonderfully great” army in Alma 51:11, they quickly seized most of the new cities along the seashore: Moroni, Lehi, Morianton, Omner, Gid, Mulek, and in an apparent typo or a narrative that got ahead of itself, Nephihah is listed here as well (Alma 51:26, compare Alma 51:24; 59:7.) There is little strategic depth here as Teancum searched out and “met” the Lamanite army. The Nephites didn’t hold key river crossings, or have fortifications with “limited retention of territory” behind enemy lines and definitely didn’t have a “fairly deep band” of forts throughout their territory. They were relatively close to Lamanite territory, (they did call it the “narrow strip of wilderness” after all, Alma 22:27) and they had little strategic depth. In the vast majority of cases it was Nephite armies that advanced to meet an invading foe in battle. This suggests the elastic defense more than defense in depth.

There were several times that what could be described as mobile armies operated with fortresses to attack and kill armies. But the limited Nephite geography combined with lack of institutional difference between the mobile army and garrison forces (that became rather prominent in late Roman history) makes this less persuasive for the defense in depth theory.

Moreover, I’ve read that there are actually differences between refuges, strongholds (Alma 50:6), and strategic defense. What we have in Nephite society is the first two, but it’s very unlikely they had the third.[3] As David Jones wrote:

Refuges function as short-term defense and only work against an enemy without the means to linger in an area for long periods. Refuges simply have to deter an enemy from organizing an assault. A stronghold, on the other hand, must be able to withstand attackers who can maintain supply lines to the siege site. Strongholds must be large enough to protect and house a garrison when under attack. They typically possess walls, towers, and some sort of moat—wet or dry. In the “strategic systems” type of fortification, multiple strongholds connect, much like a wall, to deny enemies access over a wide offensive front…Refuges are most likely found in small-scale societies of the band or tribal type, whereas strongholds are a product of small or divided sovereignties; they proliferate when central authority has not been established or is struggling to secure itself or has broken down…Strategic defenses are the most expensive form of fortification to construct, to maintain and to garrison, and their existence is always a mark of the wealth and advanced political development of the people who build them.[4]

In short then, based on a variety of factors that include a broader examination of the war chapters, and proposed Nephite geography, and the level of society necessary to produce wide spread fortifications, the Nephites practiced something closer to what Ferrill called the elastic defense and what I called the offensive defensive. In Mormon Perspectives on War I wrote:

This strategy was used by the Confederacy during the American Civil War, permitting them to choose the locations where critical military confrontations should occur: “Then the confederacy might muster adequate numbers and resources at critical places despite overall inferiority of strength.”[5] I contend that the Nephites were successful when they adopted this strategy. They were numerically inferior and, for much of their history, “nearly surrounded” by the Lamanites (Alma 22:29). Strategically they would receive the Lamanite attack. Once the attack entered Nephite territory they would then move offensively to force a battle at the time and location of their choosing. These tactical advantages would offset their numerical deficiency and result in victory.

So What

This might seem like an insignificant detail to many people, many others might have their eyes glaze over by trying to see the difference between elastic defense and defense in depth, or the differences between a refuge and stronghold. But being precise is important. Too often people, church members, conservatives, liberals, critics, and defenders, use labels such as war monger, terrorist, and snowflake, and let those labels do the heavy lifting in the argument. Without beating up on Hugh Nibley too much, (though I do have a project that offers a much needed critique of his military arguments), he and many others used the wrong term in this case that has obscured the debate. Apologist arguments in many cases have accepted Nibley’s writings as gospel truth when those writings really needed to be critically assessed.
Old Roman Wall and statue of Caesar with a medieval wall built on top of it. Tower Station London. 

More importantly than being precise is how the fortifications can tell us about Nephite society. Armies don’t simply float down from the imagination of historians, but are raised, equipped, fed, and trained by the societies that field them. A stronghold defense, (the second kind of forts mentioned by Jones), correctly implies a small, struggling central authority trying to establish itself against external and internal threats.

In my next book, From Sinners to Saints: Reassessing the Book of Mormon, I often criticized Nephite leadership. One of the biggest critiques comes from the expense of maintaining fortifications and garrisons after the great war. In short, the fortifications were decisive in the war, but very few have looked at the unintended consequences of those forts. My chapter and the quote from Jones above suggest that cost of building and maintaining their strongholds led to a rapacious need for taxation and an abusive, self interested class of soldiers and government officials which fueled an insurgency and societal unrest. In plain language, the dysfunction in Nephite society seen in the Book of Helaman was caused by the reforms of Moroni during the war chapters. Jones’ analysis builds on that by providing a general rule which states that a society building extensive fortifications must be wealthy and politically complex.

This should add a great deal of poignancy and nuance to the prophetic denunciations about “getting gain” in the Book of Helaman. War is expensive, and preparing to defend against a Lamanite attack seemed to break Nephite society. (Recall the need to provide “defense at a reasonable cost” mentioned by Ferrill.) War seems like good business for some, Nephite society didn’t have ammunition supplies like World War I, but they likely had local elites that got rich off of the Nephite building programs and garrisons. The government needed more money to pay locals, or to use a modern phrase, pay their contractors. This required more taxes which could seem rapacious enough to fuel an insurgency. The soldiers benefited from the plunder associated with warfare. And the people suffered and there are many more effects. I have hundreds of pages in my book that discuss these items in further detail, but in short, the denunciations against “getting gain” likely refer to what was the ancient Nephite version of a military industrial complex.

[Thanks for reading. I work as a free lance writer, if you found value in this work please consider donating using the pay pal button below. Thanks!] 


[1] Arthur Ferrill, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Military Explanation, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986,) 31, 45.

[2] Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Books, 1986.) Chapter 11. Please note Nibley’s use of “as modern defenses lines go”, this is quite ironic as Ferrill says most scholars accept certain arguments about Roman defense because it has a modern ring to it.

[3] Though I write in my new book that the consequences of the war chapters were expensive forts and garrisons for them that had negative effects on Nephite society, so I feel some vindication based on this quote.

[4] David Jones, Native North American Arms and Armor, (UT Austin Press, 2004), viii-ix.

[5] Russel Weigley, The American Way of War, (Bloomington, Indiana University Press), 97. Found in, Morgan Deane, “Preemptive Warfare in the Book of Mormon,” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, (Draper, Greg Kofford Books, 2012,) chapter 2.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Let he that is without doubt throw the first spear: Tikal 378

The benefit of being a blogger and free-lance writer is that I don’t have to come up with different projects for every cap. What follows is preliminary research for my next book about battle at 400 AD. These will likely undergo further revision, though, as you’ll see, there is still plenty to debate about Tikal in 378 so I will disagree with somebody no matter what the final form looks like. For a brief primer I would the this page, especially rulers 14-16. For its place in apologetics you might consult this article.

The first part of this post examines pre battle insults, the second part examines the impact of new technology on Mayan warfare and some of the changes to Tikal’s army that remains unexamined by most scholars, and the last part summarizes the highly speculative analysis surrounding issues with Tikal, before offering a few thoughts on apologetic arguments.

Nature of Pre Battle:

Tikal 378 AD is a pivotal year for Tikal. In Mormon circles it supports the idea of a militaristic influence and expansionist warfare that could decimate entire cities. Fire is Born arrived in the city of Tikal on Janurary 16th 378 on the same day the previous king, Jaguar Paw died. He amassed the forces of Tikal to fight their rivals at Uaxactun. In the decisive victory for Tikal they conquered their neighbors, introduced a new form of warfare, and left some very ambiguous questions in the process, many of which can be aided by the use of military history.

For the sake of length I will not summarize the battle in great deal, though you might enjoy reading the dramatic recreation in The Forest of Kings, though that recreation could use the hand of a dedicated military historian. The most glaring case occurred when Linda Schele and David Friedel suggested that the Mesoamerican battlefield included ritualistic pre-battle insults. These activities followed an “honorable precedent,” as far as the written sources say, that went back 20 katuns (about 400 years) or more.[1] Yet a study of historical battlefields finds these behaviors unrealistic. Real-life battles, even in the early stages of the conflict, were a confused melee of screaming warriors bellowing battle cries; commanders attempting to shout orders; battle drums, gongs, trumpets, or cymbals; the braying of pack animals or cavalry horses; and the pounding of one’s own heart. This noise had to be processed or understood by those likely wearing helmets or head gear that limited hearing. The records describing the battle of Tikal don’t mention all or many of these specific things, but logic insists that battle amongst thousands of people would be a noisy affair — and the early battle sounds would be quickly added to by thousands of clashing weapons and the screams of the wounded and dying. Moreover, the rush of adrenaline triggers physical reactions that make battle notoriously difficult to understand for those participating in it.

Based on the analysis of the chaotic and loud battlefield then, Schele and Freidel’s recreation of Mayan battle fails to take into account the impractical nature of trying to understand each other during this kind of physical stress on a chaotic battlefield.[2] As other historians have suggested when examining pre-battle insults, this honorable tradition is more likely a stylized recreation of the account embellished long after the battle rather than a realistic recreation of events. The battle between Tikal and Uaxactun did include some verbal chanting, but instead of ritual communication between groups it was far more likely they were prearranged outbursts with some elements of spontaneity to strengthen the shouter’s morale and that of nearby comrades.

During the Battle

My next book focuses on the connection between armies and the society that creates them. This is especially important in considering why the Battle of Tikal in 378 was so important. After the embellished account of pre battle ritual insulting the two sides clashed. According to the most detailed account of the battle, initially the forces of Uaxactun pushed back Tikal’s military. The sides then separated, and that’s when Tikal forces debouched from the tall grass flanking the enemy army. Armed with hunting weapons like the spear thrower (atatl) and green obsidian tipped blows darts, apparently the first time adapted to the lowland battlefield, they had a devastating effect that killed the best warriors of Uaxactun, and drove the enemy army back to their capital. These changes had several implications about the changing nature of warfare that simply focusing on glyphs would fail to assess.

Generally, the skill required of a weapon and form of combat limits the number of participants in that form of combat. Elite warriors and possible members of military orders, fighting another elite warrior required a certain amount of skill and training which in turn limited the amount of warriors an army could field. Ross Hassig showed in detail the complicated way that warriors faced off with other warriors. Even though it was Aztec warfare, the weaponry and goals are familiar enough to glean specific details about the skill and danger required in hand to hand combat among elites.

For example, in striking their opponent, the obsidian tipped swords embedded in wood had a difficult time cutting through bone. Since the warriors aimed to capture, and the swords had difficulty with bones, they likely aimed for the fibula of the lower leg, which was thinner, likely covered by less armor, and happened to be the most broken bone found in ancient battles. (My daughter’s friend showed up to school in cast because she broke that bone falling off her scooter.) Yet even though it’s incredibly painful and would temporarily incapacitate an opponent, the captured enemy with a broken or damaged fibula could still walk back to meet his gruesome fate in the ball courts or pyramids.

Yet instead of using a weapon that required training, expert parries and even targeted blows at a specific part of the body, the new weapons in this battle were so easy to use that the militia and commoners used them. The mass of elite infantry in front of them made relatively easy targets as well. The spear throwers and darts had greater range, accuracy, and penetrating power than regular throwing spears. This meant that Tikal could field a larger military with a smaller population in quicker time. They didn’t have to spend massive amounts of time and money training an elite military class (that their population probably couldn’t support anyway). Tikal could lose the first part of the battle where their warriors were pushed back, but win the second part because they massed an untrained population that could strike from a distance at an opportune moment.

Long term, Tikal could likely rely on its militia of spear throwers to give them an edge in battle against their enemies. It’s unclear how long this advantage lasted and likely didn’t last for long. In the short term Fire is Born is attested by monuments at Uaxactun, on the monument to the new ruler of Tikal (see below), and in several other nearby cities. Tikal entered a long silence from the late 6th to late 7thcentury that suggests a period of subjugation and weakness. But it is a very generous inference to say that some spear throwers gave them a 200 year advantage. As a matter of survival other powers would quickly implement the new equipment and tactics unless two factors prohibited it: Some kind of cultural prohibition against it. But the Star War ideology and spear thrower iconography became a dominant feature of Classic Maya, so that is unlikely. Or it was technology that was remained a secret, but the spear throwers weren’t a secret, it was their aggressive and unexpected use that made the difference.

In short, Tikal likely gained only a short term advantage from changing both weapons and tactics. The consequences of those changes- the larger military made possible by slightly different tactics as well as the additional prestige and income from their conquests, combined with the vigorous leadership of Fire is Born resulted in a roughly 40 year advantage.

I’m pleased to add that after I wrote the above analysis George Cogwell wrote this and he seems to agree with my anlaysis: I see such success as results of new tactics and more discipline units, possibly new weapons such as atlatls, probably the demographic strength to put more men in the field [though he posits a larger army based on a larger population, not a large army based on simpler weapons and tactics as I argue]…[and] a few exceptionally skilled leaders.[3]

After the Battle: Limitations of Sources

The failure to answer the question of technology implementation and the effects of the new battle weapons and tactics to change society fundamentally suggests the limits of sources in Mesoamerican studies. The glyphs on monuments are important keys to understanding and certainly better than nothing, but they are still incredibly limited. What follows are a summary of major hypothesis concerning key figures such as Owl Throwing Spear and Fire is Born, the extent of foreign intervention, and the relative use of military force in these events. They are intended to show the head spinning nature of all of these conflicting theories, are will then be contrasted with the supposed “speculative,” “weak,” or “fringe,” apologetic arguments using similar sources.

First, even their pronunciations remain in flux. I’ve been using the name Fire is Born, but he was originally called Smoking Frog, and you can also call him Siyaj K’ak’, which many modern scholars prefer. (I’m a Chinese historian that hates the dashes and apostrophes of the Wade Giles system, so I gravitate towards names that keep me near the home keys.) Fire is Born is nominally recognized as the Tikal war chief but anything beyond that is debated. It’s not in doubt that Fire is Born won the battle and Tikal conquered Uaxactun.

The story begins with his arrival on the same day as the previous king’s death. But its not even clear fire is Born physically arrived from somewhere else or was even a foreigner. The glyph describing the arrival of Fire is Born in Tikal could also mean that he is “of” or from Tikal. One author suggested that Fire is Born could also have been returning from a pilgrimage to Ho’ Noh Witz, which is assumed to be Teotihuacan, but could also be a place name of a different city or one that hasn’t been discovered yet.

Alternatively a powerful king of Teotihuacan, a symbol, and a title, depending at turns on the monument and who you ask.

One of the most contested terms is Spear Throwing Owl, a glyph that originated in Teotihuacan and is assume to refer to particularly powerful king that ruled from 364-439. Fire is Born could be Spear Throwing Owl’s war chief who arrived in Tikal the same day their last king, Jaguar Paw, died. There is no battle glyph so some suggest that the ruler simply died without an heir. Yet the snakes tail entering owl eyes glyph was a secondary phrase that meant violent conquest. This was added to the glyph for arrival in other cities such as Palenque which leaves open the possibility of a violent military event that killed Jaguar Paw (or Chak Tok Ich’aak).
Curled Snout. He is notable for the spear thrower and square shield, both of which are militaristic and foreign images.

Curled Snout (or First Crocodile, Yax Nuun Ahiin I), the new ruler of Tikal installed by Fire is Born, has been called the figurative son of Spear Throwing Owl (in a supposed bid to help commoners overlook the fact that he was not the son of a last king), and called the literal son of Spear Throwing Owl. Scholars further suggest that Fire is Born had Spear Throwing Owl as a kingly title, or as part of his name. Others point out that the iconography for Stormy Sky (Curled Snout’s son), that supposedly refers to Spear Throwing Owl, don’t include an owl or spear thrower, (they argue its another bird like an Eagle and just a shield) so it could refer to some kind of kingly title or influence from Teotihuacan.

Schele and Friedel argued that Fire is Born was the brother of the last great king, Jaguar Paw. At the death of the previous king Fire is Born then appointed his nephew, Curled Snout as ruler of Tikal, and Fire is Born ruled Uaxactun as sort of an empire by family rule. Finally, “arrive” might also be a figurative sense and not refer to movement at all. Scholars postulate that Fire is Born was the head of a great house that overthrew the last king or gained power (and arrived in a sense) after his death.

The limited reference to previous rulers and the martial iconography suggests a retrenchment and change in Tikal back to traditional iconography. This is not an Owl and only contains a shield, which leads to debate if this is a different way of saying the Spearthrowing Owl, or the something different.

When I was an undergraduate I was told that history is more like Swiss cheese than we normally think. It is full of holes and historians use their sources to try and fill them. The holes for Mesoamerican history and this event in particular are bigger than most. When your head stopped spinning from the previous section you likely noticed the significant questions pertaining to the identity, role, origin, and accomplishments of pivotal figures in Mayan history, and interaction between various groups. If you had trouble following the previous section and all of the conflicting theories, its okay because that was my point. The analysis that tries to solve these problems is so speculative and based on so little data that there are wildly different theories that interpret them.

After reading about the wildly different interpretations, analysis, and conclusions, as well as the obscure grammatical debates that come from a very small set of incomplete stelae, I am even more convinced that apologetic arguments, particularly those about Mesoamerica, are dismissed because of a prioribeliefs that historicity of the book is laughable, and not because the arguments are inherently weak.

John Sorenson presented a case that place Book of Mormon people in history with Mormon’s Codex. Off the top of my head it includes the sudden absence of white sculptures in highland Guatemala, the two different building materials suggesting two different ethnic groups building a temple in Santa Rosa, the sudden building program around 75 BC in the same area, the volcanic eruptions around 50 AD, and the sudden depopulation of Chiapas in the early terminal classic followed by new and different settlements, are all arguments that take incomplete data, apply the same scholarly methods, and come up with conclusions just as strong as the argument Spear Throwing Owl is mentioned in a glyph that doesn’t contain either a spear thrower or an owl. This point is debatable, but if I adopted the same tactics as critics of apologists, I would say they are grasping at straws, demand more proof, claim the argument doesn’t really show anything, question the scholar’s credentials and character, and insist upon peer review for every minute point, but never actually say why the argument is wrong. Then I would copy and paste a list of objections to the argument from Wikipedia, call it a sincere letter, let it go viral and then become a professional copy and paster. As you might have guessed, I think more study of limited data is important, even if different conclusions are reached, I just wished critics would allow arguments in favor of a historical Book of Mormon the same courtesy.

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[1] Linda Schele and David Freidel, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990), 151.

[2] Karl Friday, Samurai Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan, (New York: Routledge Press, 2004), 145–149. While modes of battle aren’t the same between Samurai and Mesoamerican peoples, the important points are the practice and effect of pre-battle insults, as well as the general chaotic nature of the pre-battle phase and the effect it had on participants.

[3] George Cogwell, “A Perspective From Outside the Maya Region,” in The Maya and Teotihuacan Geofrrey Braswell, ed. (University of Texas Press, 2003,) 331.

[4] Maria Ponce De Leon, “Problematic Deposits and the Problem of Interaction: The Material Culture of Tikal during the Early Classic Period” in The Maya and Teotihuacan Geofrrey Braswell, ed. (University of Texas Press, 2003,) 192.