Book of Mormon Nuggets

Supplementing Jeff Lindsay's Book of Mormon Evidences page.

Nugget #9:
Overlooking the Obvious? Legends of Quetzalcoatl
and Ties to the Book of Mormon

I still remember the excitement I felt in fifth grade when we were shown a documentary film about Cortes and Aztecs, describing how Cortes was greeted as the Great White God of legend who had once visited the Americas and promised to return. I immediately saw the "obvious" connections to the Book of Mormon. Years later, I would read that these legends did not necessarily have any ties to the Book of Mormon, for some of these legends had been twisted by the Spaniards for their own purposes and may not have been reliable. Further, I would read that some Native Americans may have made claims of Christ-like legends to impress their new lords. And so, when critics would charge, "Why isn't there a scrap of evidence to support the Book of Mormon?", I would turn to the Arabian Peninsula evidence or other issues, rather than start with what once seemed like the most important issue of all: the evidence of a possible visit by Christ to the Americas, preserved in the legends of Mesoamerica, the land of the Book of Mormon.

While some legends have been given a Spanish-spin, there is reason to believe that pre-Columbian Mesoamericans did have legends consistent with some key ideas in the Book of Mormon. Great caution must be used in interpreting these myths and recognizing Spanish influence to possibly increase the willingness of the natives to accept Christianity. Further, one must struggle with the possibility that a Mesoamerican reference to Quetzalcoatl may be to Quetzalcoatl the god, or a follower of Quetzalcoatl, or Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, the cultural hero. But taking due caution, I think it's time to revisit the legends and traditions of Mesoamerica as tentative witnesses for a visit from Christ and the existence of the Gospel among the ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica.

Diane E. Wirth in "The Bearded, White God Is Everywhere - or Is He?", FARMS Review of Books, vol. 12, no. 1, 2000, pp. 9-22, writes (citing pages 12-13):

Nonetheless, some who support the authenticity of various accounts speak of the "return" of Quetzalcoatl, and although it is true that the original legend has a late Spanish "spin," the "return" myth may still have been derived from an original and authentic belief among the natives. One of the primary advocates of this opinion is David Carrasco of Princeton University. Carrasco writes, "There are a number of references in the primary sources to the expected return of Quetzalcoatl.... These references strongly suggest that the belief in Quetzalcoatl's return was a pre-Columbian attitude and not, as some have suggested, invented by the Spaniards." [David Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire: Myths and Prophecies in the Aztec Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 192. See page 192 and the following pages for Carrasco's argument and sources.]

Now, does it make any difference if the accounts refer to the return of Quetzalcoatl the god or Ce Acati Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl - the great culture hero? Indirectly, no. To the Mesoamerican community, the past, present, and future were all woven together. Rituals were often played out with the express purpose of including occurrences that took place in the past. A good example of this mentality is recorded in the Annals of Cuauhtitlan, which was originally written in the native tongue and which recorded the pre-Cortesian history of the Valley of Mexico. [See John Bierhorst, trans., History and Mythology of the Aztecs: The Codex Chimalpopoca (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992). 10. See ibid., p. 36.] The Annals tell the life story of the culture hero Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl who, according to this account, lived from A.D. 817-95. At his death, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl miraculously became a star, the Lord of the Dawn - he became what we call the planet Venus. It was at this time that he descended to the land of the dead. [ibid., p. 36] This is nothing but a repetition of what his god, Quetzalcoatl, is said to have done; thus the storytellers were able to bring the events of the past into the present. Quetzalcoatl the deity is clearly shown in the codices as the planet Venus and as the god who descended to the realm of the dead. It is true that we cannot know for certain that the story of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl's return also refers to the deity Quetzalcoatl, but there is a high probability that it did.

More recently, Diane Wirth has provided a fair and detailed analysis of the possible connections between Quetzalcoatl and Jesus Christ in her article, "Quetzalcoatl, the Maya Maize God, and Jesus Christ" (PDF) in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2002.

In fact, on the basis of numerous legends among native peoples, one non-LDS writer became convinced that Christ was once in the Americas and compiled these accounts in a book, He Walked the Americas, Amherst, Wisconsin: Amherst Press, 1963. L. Taylor Hansen apparently had Masters Degrees in Archaeology, Anthropology and Geology from Stanford University and spent significant time with Native Americans to better understand their traditions and legends. The book is still in print and maybe available at your local library. It requires some very large grains of salt, certainly, but does represent an interesting perspective.

Some students of Mesoamerica see an association between Quetzalcoatl and resurrection themes, as John Sorenson explains in Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, Utah: Research Press, 1998, p. 230):

The most popular treatment of this salvational interpretation is by Laurette Séjourné, Burning in Water: Thought and Religion in Ancient Mexico (Berkeley: Shambhala, 1976) who sees Quetzalcoatl as a god in a resurrection cult that is visible most clearly at Teotihuacan. Michel Graulich insists that elements in Mexican myth that have been considered products of Spanish Christian influence represent native, pre-Columbian beliefs (see his "Afterlife in Ancient Mexican Thought," in Circumpacifica, Band I: Mittel- und Südamerika, Festschrift für Thomas S. Bartel, ed. Bruno Ilius and Matthias Laubscher [Frankfurt, Peter Lang, 1990], 165-88). He maintains that the sources, when correctly read, tell of a divine creator couple who lived in a paradise from which they were expelled because of a transgression. They were rescued from their dismal state on earth by the self-sacrifice of the god Quetzalcoatl, or of him and his twin, and this allowed them to escape the underworld and provided a means by which humans who emulate their qualities may reach the lost paradise.
We must not forget that understanding what ancient peoples really believed is terribly difficult, especially in dealing with the Americas, where precious little written material has survived. Brant Gardner, a Latter-day Saint scholar, has examined Quetzalcoatl legends and sources in depth and urges that great caution is needed in understanding any possible connections to the Book of Mormon, largely because of interpolations and changes brought about by Spanish influence. Even the "white" of the Great White God legend may be largely due to our cultural views and wishful thinking applied to native legends. Brant's collection of papers begins at his page, "Quetzalcoatl: Papers," where I especially recommend reading his paper, "Digging for Quetzalcoatl's Christian Roots" and exploring his related collection of papers, "Quetzalcoatl Element Analysis."

In spite of a good deal of uncertainty, several LDS writers suggest that there are still some elements that may be of interest to the Book of Mormon. Wallace E. Hunt, Jr., in "Moses' Brazen Serpent as It Relates To Serpent Worship in Mesoamerica" (FARMS Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 1993, p. 122) notes the presence of evidence linking Quetzalcoatl with a Christlike-being (evidence which must still be taken with caution, preferably after reading Gardner's papers cited above). According to Hunt,

Although Quetzalcoatl's origin is clouded in obscurity, the legends, the few pre-Columbian writings extant today, and the early post-Conquest writings contain an abundance of material on this ancient and revered god. These accounts are contradictory and vary widely both on the god's attributes and the details of how he was worshiped, undoubtedly due to a millennium of digressions from the original concept from the end of the Book of Mormon to the time of the Conquest. However, through all this maze, we find that the Mesoamericans consistently endow Quetzalcoatl with many Christlike attributes, some of which are listed below:
--Quetzalcoatl was the creator of life. [1]
--Quetzalcoatl taught virtue. [2]
--Quetzalcoatl was the greatest Lord of all. [3]
--Quetzalcoatl had a "long beard and the features of a white man." [4]
--The Mesoamericans believed Quetzalcoatl would return. [5]

References cited above by Hunt:
1. Roberta H. Markman and Peter Markman, The Flayed God: The Mesoamerican Mythological Tradition (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), 32; see also Delia Goetz and Sylvanus G. Morley, trans., Popol Vuh (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975), p. 83.
2. Charles Gallenkamp, The Riddle and Rediscovery of a Lost Civilization: Maya, 3d ed. (New York: Penguin, 1987), p. 166.
3. David Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 43.
4. T. A. Willard, Kukulcan: The Bearded Conqueror (Los Angeles: Murray and Gee, 1941), p. 159.
5. Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. J. M. Cohen (London: Penguin, 1963); see also Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire, p. 48; and Brian M. Fagan, Kingdoms of Gold: Kingdoms of Jade (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991), p. 37; and Adrian Recinos and Delia Goetz, The Annals of the Cakchizuels (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 1953), p. 40.

If these connections are correct, then Hunt's discussion of the feathered serpent symbol for Quetzalcoatl in Mesoamerica may be of particular interest. Hunt suggests that this symbol may be related to the Old Testament story of the brass serpent that Moses made, which allowed the Israelites to be healed from the venomous bites they had received from fiery serpents among them (Numbers 21:6-9, where these serpents were apparently encountered near the Arava or Arabah Valley between Sinai and modern Israel). The Book of Mormon indicates that it was "fiery flying serpents" in 1 Nephi 17:41, a statement that seems to be unsupported in Biblical text (see also Alma 33:19-21). However, Isaiah's mention of "fiery flying serpents" in Isaiah 14:29 and 30:6 suggests that this may have been what the Israelites encountered (though Isaiah's references to such creatures is not in the context of the Exodus). More interestingly, numerous extra-Biblical texts point to an early tradition that the serpents that plagued the Israelites were "flying" serpents. Quoting from Hunt again (p. 128-129):
This usage of the term flying in association with Moses' brazen serpent is indirectly supported by numerous works of modern scholars. For example, Karen Joines notes in [his] exhaustive study of this subject that to the Hebrew word for serpent used in Numbers "may be attributed wings." [6] . . . Henry also suggests that the serpents "flew in their faces and poisoned them." [7]

In addition, there are isolated accounts of winged serpents in this area of the desert. Joines quotes Herodotus as believing "this desert to be a haven for flying serpents." [8] Bush, while he does not give the concept credence, does agree that "the popular idea has for some cause invested these serpents with wings . . . [and] it is supposed that the epithet flying was given from their power of leaping to a considerable distance in passing from tree to tree." [9] Perhaps most significant, however, is the analysis by Auerbach: the serpent "was not simply placed upon a pole; this would be sufficiently designated by makkel or simply 'es. Rather, it was connected with the 'flagstaff.' " [10] In this manner, the serpent would appear as a flag, as though it were flying. [11] If Moses did indeed attach his brass serpent outstretched and perpendicular to his pole, it would comply fully with the description "fiery flying serpent."

Thus, the connection can be made that Nephi's use of the term flying (and very likely its usage by other Book of Mormon leaders as well) could have been carried over into the later religious beliefs of the Mesoamericans, since we do find in Mesoamerica the application of the term flying in association with serpent representations of their God. For example, Carrasco refers to a Mixtec prose source containing stories in which Quetzalcoatl was referred to as "9 Ehecatl" (a calendric name) or "a flying serpent." [12] Nicholson reports that the Otomis (contemporaries of the Aztecs, the Otomi language being second in importance only to Nahuatl), in one of their annual veintena ceremonies honoring Quetzalcoatl, attributed the word antazhoni, meaning "Great Flying," to Quetzalcoatl. [13]

References cited above by Hunt:

6. Karen R. Joines, Serpent Symbolism in the Old Testament (Haddonfield, NJ: Haddonfield House, 1974), p. 8. Sturdy also indicates the word is sometimes translated "flying serpents"; John Sturdy, Numbers (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University, 1976), p. 148.
7. Matthew Henry, An Exposition of the Old and New Testament, 4 vols. (New York: Carter & Bros., 1853), 1:543.
8. Joines, Serpent Symbolism in the Old Testament, 44.
9. George Bush, Notes, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Numbers (Oxford: Oxford University, 1868), p. 313.
10. Elias Auerbach, Moses, trans. Robert Barchay and Israel Lehman (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1975), p. 137. Bush, Notes, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Numbers, p. 316, also comes to the same conclusion. He states "signifying properly a banner-staff."
11. Consistent with this concept were the words of the Maya prophet Chilam Balam of Mani: "The raised wooden standard shall come. . . . Our lord comes, Itza! Our elder brother comes, oh men of Tantun. Receive your guests, the bearded men, the men of the east, the bearers of the sign of God, Lord"; Ralph L. Roys, The Book of the Chilam Balam of Chumayel (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967), p. 167-68.
12. Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire, 28; also, Sylvanus G. Morley and George W. Brainerd, The Ancient Maya, 4th ed. (Stanford: Stanford University, 1983), p. 470, suggest that the two names may refer to the same God.
13. Henry B. Nicholson, "Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico," in Gordon F. Ekholm and Ignacio Bernal, eds., Handbook of Middle American Indians, 15 vols. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964-76), 10:table 4, example 4.

The point is not whether snakes could actually fly, but whether it is plausible for an ancient Hebrew prophet in Nephi's day to have spoken of fiery "flying" serpents instead of the fiery serpents that we know of in the Bible. We don't know what would have been the source of the term "flying" - perhaps someone used the term "flying" because the snakes were tree-dwelling snakes or something like cobras with flaps of skin like "wings" that seemed to hold them upright in the air (there are cobras in Egypt, after all), or perhaps the word "flying" was due some obscure pun on a Hebrew word or even a word that was later misunderstood to mean "flying," or perhaps the legend derived from Moses' very creation of a brass snake on a flagpole. I don't think that mythical Pegasus-like snakes were meant. Regardless of what was meant, the fact is that there are ancient traditions that provide support for an ancient Hebrew to have used the word "flying" to modify the "fiery serpents" encountered by the Hebrews while wandering in the wilderness. People were bitten, but God in His kindness provided a miraculous cure that also served as a powerful teaching tool.

Aug. 2002 Update on a Tangential Issue:
Flying Snake Candidates Examined
Some critics have guffawed over the "fiery flying serpents" cited in the Book of Mormon. "Are we supposed to believe that God created some magical dragon-like flying creatures that breathed fire? How could sane people accept such a tale?" A more reasonable question, rarely asked by the critics, is, "What could the text actually mean?" I had previously speculated that tree-snakes could be viewed and described as flying serpents, and that idea got more interesting when I learned that there actually are "flying" tree snakes in Asia. Though these almost certainly aren't the snakes encountered during the Exodus, there existence does demonstrate that such a thing as "flying snakes" are possible. Basic information on these creatures, with photos these snakes in flight, are available at: As interesting as these flying snakes are, they don't live in the right part of the world to have been encountered by the Israelites. There are some flying snakes on the west coast of India, but that's still far from Israel (though we can't rule out the remote possibility that a related species of aerodynamically gifted snakes may have once been in the Middle East). Plus known flying snakes aren't poisonous enough to kill humans. Rather than flying tree snakes, a more likely candidate for the fiery flying serpents of 1 Nephi could be a member of the deadly saw-scale viper family, according to Ronald P. Millett and John P. Pratt in, "What Fiery Flying Serpent Symbolized Christ?," Meridian Magazine, Aug. 9, 2001, online at http://www.ldsmag.com/article/5390/1. Saw-scale vipers such as the deadly Israeli saw-scale viper live in the region of Israel, are known to kill humans with a slow-acting venom, have a burning bite that could be called "fiery," strike so quickly that they can be said to be "flying," can leap when they strike, and even have a reddish color that could be represented by a brass serpent. As the authors note, "One Bible dictionary explains that the word "flying" is still used in modern Arab usage to "refer to the speed with which such reptiles may strike, as though 'winged'." [New Bible Dictionary, "Serpent," Tyndall House, 1982, p. 1091]

(There is one more tangent worth mentioning, perhaps. I previously suggested that Egyptian cobras could have interpreted as being "winged" due to their extensible folds of skin. I have just learned that cobras have been depicted with wings in Egyptian art. One can see an example of this at the Web page, Animals and the Gods of Ancient Egypt by Caroline Seawright, where a carving of Wadjet, the cobra goddess of Buto, is shown as a cobra with wings and a human head.)

If Joseph Smith had fabricated the Book of Mormon, he would have been foolish to make up the idea that the serpents that afflicted the Israelites were "flying" serpents, but that addition in the Book of Mormon text is supported by several ancient sources, providing further evidence that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient writing, and also showing a possible source for the widespread use of the feathered (or flying) serpents as the symbol of a great God, just as the serpent on the flagstaff that Moses made was a symbol of the healing power and the Atonement of Christ.

And if the legends among the Aztecs, Mayans, and others really do refer to a visit from Jesus Christ, might we not expect traces of Christian rituals to have persisted, in spite of the great apostasy and persecution of Christians reported in the Book of Mormon from about 300 A.D. to 400 A.D.? One such trace may be the practice of baptism, not of infants, but of older children, as I discuss on my page of Questions about LDS Baptism. The Mayan rituals encountered by the Spanish included concepts of being reborn, purified, and prepared for the next life, repenting of sins, confession to a priest, white cloth as symbol, and was called with a name that meant "the descent of the god." These remarkable parallels with teachings in the Book of Mormon may be due to the teachings on baptism that Christ gave to his people in the Americas when he ministered to them after His Resurrection (see 3 Nephi 11).

Others encountering the interesting parallels between Mesoamerican traditions and Jesus Christ are quick to dismiss the possible "Mormon" connection, but it's interesting that this is an issue they have to at least acknowledge. One interesting example that I encourage you to read and consider is Bruce Lane's article, "The Making of 'The Tree Of Life,'" in Quaker Theology, Vol. 4, No. 2, Issue 7, Autumn 2002, available at http://www.quaker.org/quest/issue7-4-lane04.htm, in which he notes interesting parallels between Mesoamerican traditions and Jesus Christ. These were encountered in his work of making a film about the highly symbolic Mesoamerican ritual of the "Voladores" involving men who hang from a large tree of life as they spin in a circle. Fuller details are given at http://www.docfilm.com/quakers/makingTOL.html. The following quote from Bruce Lane is available on both of the previously cited Web pages:

The Spanish priests brought with them statues of a white bearded god on a wooden version of the symbol of the four directions. They told the Totonacs that this god had sacrificed himself so that no further human sacrifice would be needed, and that they should accept him as their god, in place of all others. Since Quetzalcoatl, represented as white and bearded, had prophesied his return in the year Cortes landed, my guess is that the Totonacs identified the white, bearded Christ image as Quetzalcoatl. There may be no way to prove or disprove this hypothesis. But there is circumstantial evidence. The patron of the Huehuetla Voladores is San Salvador, the risen Christ -- a logical manifestation of the returning I>Quetzalcoatl. And since Cortes and his men claimed to be the followers of the returning Quetzalcoatl, it would make sense for the Voladores to dress in European costumes. Similarly, the Flowering Tree could easily be identified with the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Four Directions to which the second Quetzalcoatl was nailed. This explanation appears to account for the symbolic transformations in the Voladores ritual.

Finally, and perhaps strangest of all, Christ was in fact the perfect mythological answer to the Mesoamerican dilemma: a god who sacrificed himself to end all sacrifice.

Besides explaining the Volador ritual, for me this interpretation for the first time made a kind of sense out of the otherwise baffling central idea of Christian theology: that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity. But it also raised new questions, which I am still struggling to answer. How could a theology born in the Levant possibly "resolve" a mythic dilemma halfway around the world? Discarding the Mormon fantasy of a lost tribe, the answer must surely lie in a broader conception of the role of human sacrifice in the development of human societies. Why was human sacrifice so widespread, and why does it seem to occur in early agricultural societies? [emphasis mine]

The author, in spite of an impressive bibliography and much research into Mesoamerican traditions for his film-making project, may be too quick in dismissing the possible connections between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican legends. Such connections may not be as pervasive as I would like, and perhaps some aspects have been the subject of improper hype in the past, or are accidental products of Spanish influence. But still, there remains a genuine possibility of a real relationship between the Book of Mormon and the ancient traditions of Quetzalcoatl and other Christ-like figures in the ancient Americas.


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Created: July 20, 2002. Updated: Jan. 10, 2004
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