Alma relates how the apostate Amlicites "had marked themselves with red in their foreheads after the manner of the Lamanites; nevertheless they had not shorn their heads like unto the Lamanites" (Alma 3:4). Though Alma does not say why the Lamanites so marked their foreheads, he does consider the mark as the sign of a (self-imposed) curse.
As for the first matter, the Lamanites may have so marked themselves as a sign of war: "white and red," says Professor E.V. Gordon, "were used as symbolic of peace and war among the Indians as among many other peoples. Later the Indians of the prairies are known to have carried small flags, one of white bison's hide and the other of reddened leather, for use in the same way that the red and white shields were used by the Norsemen," An Introduction to Old Norse, 217, 5.347. For the Amlicites, marking with red clearly also served as a sign of both identification with the Lamanites and, since they otherwise resembled the Nephites, of recognition in battle. Again, the mark may also have served an amuletic purpose. None of these four purposes is mutually exclusive.
So why a mark of red as register for cursing in Alma's playbook? Alma does not call up such an idea from his inner consciousness--it is cultural. In the system of signs by which the Nephites order their universe, red connotes cursing. Though there would have been other connotations associated with the color, and other reasons for the marking, the people of Alma's day would not have missed the point: by marking themselves for war, the Amlicites had also marked themselves with, and so taken upon themselves, both a new cultural identity as well as the associated demarcation and cursing.
I An Ancient Practice
That same semiotic tie between red and separation, i.e., cursing, famously appears in Egyptian books and paintings. Red is the color of Seth, the god who confronts the civilized order of things, and red marks all that pertains to him, including the desert wastes. All that is evil, all that is cursed, that is fit to be burned, trampled, or destroyed takes on a taint of red. We also recall the dot of red ink sometimes placed in the amulet of the Wedjat-eye, and so at the forehead, in order to subsume, and thus ward off, evil. For the Amlicites, marching to battle, the mark surely had a like amuletic quality, a quality willingly blending an element of the dangerous with a hope of impregnability. The Amlicites, whose cause was not just and whose amuletic dreams ran red, were setting up themselves for disaster.
The Egyptian language knows several words for red and related shades of hot color, the two most common of which are dashrut or dushrit (dshr) and timas, pronounced chimas (tms). The color word timas concretely derives from the substance of red ink. The names of the cursed, that is, the rebellious, are recorded in (lit. "cut into") a register of timasaw or tms.w, the book of damnation, the book of the "red ones." The idea comes close to the idea of marking--by cutting or tattooing or painting--the forehead with red. Those so recorded ("those of tms.w") are consigned to slaughter by knife and fire (red flames) in the Netherworld. It is the very act of cutting or painting forehead or register of tms.w that activates or "fulfills" the curse: "I will set a mark upon him that fighteth against thee and thy seed" (v. 16). And for Alma the supreme irony is that "they set the mark upon themselves, yea, even a mark of red upon their foreheads" (v. 13). It's all self-applied, and judgment immediately works its due.
The idea is captured by the Egyptian hieroglyph of enemy, a sign which reveals the fate of the Sethian enemy of order and reason--an ax to the head. But note: the sign ironically shows the enemy putting the ax to his own head. Thus for Alma, as for the Egyptians, enmity and rebellion (even coming out "in open rebellion against God," v. 18) make up the essence of folly. The curse follows forthwith: "therefore it was expedient that the curse should fall upon them," v. 18. The curse falls upon the Amlicites even as they fall in battle, only later to be identified and counted by their red marks. All this again recalls the Egyptian notion of tallying the record of timasaw (tms.w), a tally of accountability and the accounting of fate.
The books of Alma and Helaman have much to say about the doctrine of restoration, that is to say, divine retribution (Helaman 14:29-31). The doctrine accords with the Egyptian writings that speak of the punishment of timasaw (Book of the Amduat; Book of Gates), as a coursing from "red things" (evil deeds) to "red things" (evil punishments). Alma sums things up with impeccable Egyptian logic (a logic found throughout the Book of Mormon): "Now I would that ye should see that they brought upon themselves the curse; and even so doth every man that is cursed bring upon himself his own condemnation" (v. 19). Like the Egyptians, Alma, as shown again and again in his long book, considers rebellion the worst of all possible crimes, and as suits the crime, punishment begins its work with inexorable immediacy.
II Latter-day Applications (added on 10 November 2015)
"Orbed in a Rainbow" (Hodie, Ralph Vaughan Williams = John Milton, "Ring Out, Ye Crystal Spheres")
We are "to liken" all scripture unto ourselves. What modern practices might correspond to the action of the Amlicites in marking their foreheads? Modern prophets warn against the practice of marking the body with tattoos. Tattoos "defile" the temple of God, for the body is intended to be the dwelling-place of the Holy Ghost (1 Corinthians 3:17; 6:19). As followers of Christ, we manifest a constant love for all; neither do we seek to judge anyone who marks their body. At the same time, we share the prophetic warning about sanctifying the temple of God in our own bodies.
Another practice reminiscent of marking the forehead with red is the use of color in social media as a sign of allegiance to claims of equality not in alignment with the will of God. To superimpose symbolic colors onto one's own photograph on Facebook or Twitter, as a sign perhaps manifesting both allegiance and dissent--even if that is a quiet dissent--does something recall the practice of the Amlicites.
The substance that makes up discipleship is a thing of many days and, likely, even many jarrings. Every six months we come together in General Conference. We look for peace and comfort and love; we may find testing and rebuke. Learning at the feet of prophets and apostles was never easy. A disciple may be jarred into painful outcry for a day, but what is a day? As we continue in the covenant path, we must "hold on [our] way" by often also holding our tongues, meanwhile striving to tame our hearts. Loyalty, pure and undiluted, in both public and in private, should be the aim of every true disciple of Christ.
To follow Christ we must love and serve without distinction of persons--"charity is the pure love of Christ"--but as Latter-day Christians and Saints, we must also recall how the Joseph Smith Translation of Genesis presents the rainbow, with its comprehensive spectrum, as a symbol of God's eternal priesthood covenant with His chosen people. Section 97:21 of the Doctrine and Covenants defines the community of Zion as "THE PURE IN HEART." The bow further signals for the faithful that promised moment in which latter-day Zion and the Zion of Enoch will unite in purity, glory, and peace. Here is the full separation from the world. Here is Ralph Vaughan Williams's stunning rainbow scene in the Christmas cantata Hodie. In the hope of the rainbow, promised tomorrow will dawn Today:
"Orbed in a rainbow, and, like glories wearing,
Mercy will sit between,
Throned in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering;
And heaven, as at some festival,
Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall."
"And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant, which I made unto thy father Enoch; that, when men should keep all my commandments, Zion should again come on the earth, the city of Enoch which I have caught up unto myself. And this is mine everlasting covenant, that when thy posterity shall embrace the truth, and look upward, then shall Zion look downward, and all the heavens shall shake with gladness, and the earth shall tremble with joy" (see JST Genesis 9:21-24).
James Thomas Linnell's richly beautiful painting, "The Rainbow," found in the annex of the Salt Lake Temple--And the bow shall be in the cloud, and I will establish my covenant unto thee--carries that same message to the hearts of all who enter there.