Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Lamanites and Chthonic Religions

A puzzling interchange between Lamanite King Lamoni and Ammon sheds light on Lamanite religious cosmology (see Alma 18:24-31).

The Dialogue of Earth and Sky:

Ammon: Believest thou that there is a God?

Lamoni: I do not know what that meaneth.

Ammon: Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit?

Lamoni: Yea.

Ammon: This is God. Believest thou that this Great Spirit, who is God, created all things which are in heaven and in the earth?

Lamoni: Yea, I believe that he created all things which are in the earth; but I do not know the heavens.

Ammon: The heavens is a place where God dwells and all his holy angels.

Lamoni: Is it above the earth?

The Book of Mormon's notion of the Great Spirit of the Lamanites comes across too much like Hiawatha. Isn't the dialogue just too simple, too pat, too silly, for words?

Now Lamoni isn't just being a tough egg nor is he obtuse. He certainly knows what the "heavens" are in the sense of skies of blue and the panoply of stars by night.

What Lamoni doesn't know is that anybody's religious system could possibly include the skies, or at least give first consideration to the skies, for Lamoni's worldview looks to the chthonic, the dark underworld, "the darkest abyss" (Mosiah 27:29)---at the opposite pole from celestial conceptions of a God who "looketh down upon all the children of men" (Alma 18:32).

All this recalls the Mesoamerican focus on the chthonic: the caves and serpents of the Olmec, the Maya, and even of the distant Cherokee and Inca. Given the fact that chthonic religions focus on the earth as mother, note how the queens of both Lamoni and his father (and the queen of Lehonti) play an active role in the stories of the (false) burial of their husbands, both of whom fall to the earth in a deep trance, a reflection of the dark passage. Nephite queens don't even exist.

The Dialogue of Earth and Sky: Dreams, Souls, and Curing in the Modern Aztec Universe, is the title of a book on modern Aztec chthonic religion by T.J. Knab (2004). There seems to be a call for a latter-day Ammon to visit modern Aztecs; in other words, the Book of Mormon, "sophisticated" or not, is not only relevant--it's crucial.

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