Friday, August 9, 2013

What Does Book of Mormon Name "Cumorah" Mean? Cumorah's Redoubt; Cumorah's Olivepress


"I am going to Cumorah" is what the old man, turning down a lift in their wagon, said to Joseph, Oliver, and David.

Hugh Nibley points a road to Cumorah. In a marginal note--just two words--about Mormon's description of Cumorah as "a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains," Nibley writes "spots"; "rock-pits." A few verses down comes another note: "Redoubt; Armaggeddon; Flanders." It is as though Hugh Nibley was scouting the area for Mormon, prior to the final battle. Something about the pockmarked, spotty nature of the landscape: rock-pits, fountains, and the criss-cross of watercourses, made of Cumorah, for Nibley, the perfect redoubt. (See his annotated Book of Mormon, one of many, BYU Ancient Studies Library, Hugh Nibley, BX 8622.1 A1 1963b, copy dated 7/5/78.)

The name Cumorah also describes just such a landscape. After all, the Akkadian root(s) kumara signifies to heap up, to pile, to tally; then, to strike down, annihilate. For Latter-day Saint Assyriologist Paul Y. Hoskisson, it is this verbal root that best describes Cumorah (see CAD K 111; Hoskisson suggests the reading heaps: "What's in a Name: Cumorah," Journal of the Book of Mormon).

Professor Hoskisson also notes in passing an ancient Syrian place name Kamaru and, following Jean-Marie Durand, suggests it represents an Amorite name deriving from the same root as Akkadian kumara. As Michael Astour tells us, Kamaru occurs (up to three times) in ancient Syria--and it persists to this day in the place name Kimar, Syria, just east of the Afrin River (see Michael Astour, "Semites and Hurrians in Northern Transtigris," etc.).

The same place name also appears in special Egyptian hieroglyphics used to write Semitic names and words. A list of place names recorded in the temple of Amarah West in Nubia gives us the Syrian Ginta ku-ma-ra, the Winepress of Kumarah. You cannot get any closer to Cumorah than the "reformed Egyptian," or hierogyphic "group writing," that expresses West Semitic Ginta Kumarah, that is, Gath Kumarah (see James Hoch, Semitic Words in Egyptian Texts of the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period, #425).K. A. Kitchen, Ramesside Inscriptions II, 217, no. 98).

Professor Astour, taking his cue from the Akkadian dictionary, tells us what the Syrian place name means. The noun kumaru, kuwaru, etc., which signifies generally a construction of earth, specifically refers to a ramp or rampart (buttressing a city or city gate), or a dike. Such an embankment may have agricultural uses, or it may serve for defense, for a redoubt. Consider the following theophoric name: 'Ammukumarra, "'Ammu is a rampart." A like epithet speaks to "Teshub, the lord of the kamaru of the city of Irrite" (Michael Astour, "Semites and Hurrians in Northern Transtigris," Ernest R. Lacheman Festschrift, 26). Note, again, the ending in -a: Ginta Kumara, 'Ammukumarra: that's where the Amorite, or West Semitic surfaces. Book of Mormon Cumorah properly shows the West Semitic, rather than the East Semitic, that is, Akkadian, ending.

Beetling embankments, ramparts, and dikes: all these may serve for defensive earthworks, heaped up by men. Of superior worth would be a place where nature herself, in a riot of fountains and pits, rivers and embankments and escarpments, dikes and ditches--all criss-crossed and confounding--and rocks of all sizes everywhere, builds for man a place of redoubt--like Flanders. The whole makes for a natural beehive of military preparation, and, to be sure, the editors of the CAL (Comprehensive Lexicon of Aramaic) see in the Syriac word for beehive (kwr) a trace of the same Akkadian kmr in its sense of walling (brick wall and so on). (For the ruins of palatial Tell Ain Dara, our Syrian Kumaru towering over the paradisaical Afrin Valley, see

Nature walls off Cumorah and her hill--Mormon has the advantage.


In an earlier essay (published in 201o), I link Cumorah with a rare Hebrew, Aramaic, and, perhaps, Ugaritic verb kmr, which variously expresses darkness, gloom, blackness. Professor Hoch thinks kmr to be a by-form of the verb kmh (Semitic Words in Egyptian Texts). 

What first comes to mind is the Egyptian name for the fertile Nile Valley, Km.t, the black land. Again consider the Syrian place name, Gath Kumara (the winepress or olivepress of Kumara). The names of West Semitic presses and vineyards often bespeak blessing and fertility. The Bible gives us Gath Rimmon (Persimmon Winepress) and Gethsemane, which last evokes the fatness of the olive and the purity and brakhah--the blessed nature--of its oil. Gath Kumara fairly sings of fertile soil, and much calls to mind a like West Semitic root, krm, vineyard (Vineyard Winepress; Orchard Winepress). As Gath Kerem, so Gath Kumara. If kmr is a by-form of kmh, and if both evoke Km.t, could not Gath Kumara at least connote the black, fertile soil? After all, Kumarbi, he of Kumar, is an earthy, chthonic, fertility deity for the ancient Hurrians (in upper Mesopotamia), and his mythology speaks of a descent into the "dark, dark earth."

Michael Astour nevertheless assigns the Syrian place names built on the root kmr to the semantic field of kumaru, to heap up, pile. Kimar, ancient Kumaru, is thus Rampart or Ramp, the place of the Embankment--just east of the Afrin river. Gath Kumara, if the same place, is thus the Winepress of the place Rampart, the (brick) Walled Winepress, or the like. Any other associations with beehives or the black soil (the rich loam piled up about the river banks, etc.), if made at all, would have been secondary.

Alexander Militarev links Egyptian km, kmm, Km.t with a West Semitic root for darkness, gloom, blackness ('km), but, here, we find ourselves in by-paths: is the "original" root km? or 'km? or kmr? Or is kmr also a by-form of 'km, and therefore to be linked etymologically with Egyptian km and Km.t? Here is a language confounded and contorted into by-forms and shades of meaning. As early as the 19th century, scholars linked, though weakly, km with some of these same Semitic forms; later scholars proposed a "distant," even Nostratic(!) connection. Hoch has it right: the root has taken on affixes (an -r extension), owing perhaps to dialect or confusion with another verb. Between speakers of Akkadian, or East Semitic, and West Semitic, Babel must have ever been at work. Kmr, km, 'km: these likely do not all derive from the same root, but no matter--babel language has thrown them together. The semantic field--and the symbolic--has overlapped since the earliest times.

We cannot know just what came to the ordinary Nephite's mind, when he heard the name Cumorah, but some mind linked name and nature's fortress. We have only a fragment of the Hebrew spoken by the ancients: Biblical Hebrew, much of it poetic, classical, does not yield enough material to provide answers to questions about Semitic roots like kmr.

Yet Mormon tells us what the place Cumorah was like, and does so in terms suggestive of the West Semitic name Kumaru. Mormon may also have perceived a link between the kum of Cumorah and that of Km.t (Kumat or Kamat). Ramps and mounds are heaped-up of piles of black earth. And the Nile Valley, after each inundation, runs all a-dot with little black mounds, each awaiting the touch of life. Black earth spells germination, a semiotically rich theme belonging to the common Afro-Semitic "encyclopaedia." Kmr signifies black heaps of fertile soil, so well as ramparts, dikes, and ruined mounds. .

While Professor Astour explains the place name Kumaru in light of Akkadian kumaru (to throw down and thus heap up, etc.), the Sumerian lexeme answering to kumaru yields GUR-GUR, which refers to the tallying up of a sum: you heap up, and then you total the gain. So why not associate Hurrian Kumaru with the high-yield Kumat, or Black Land? "Every spring," explains Professor Ronald J. Leprohon, "the Nile flood would subside and what first emerged from the water were triangular-shaped islands of rich black earth. These little mounds represented the promise of new life, which led to the notion that all creation must have begun exactly the same way" ("Egyptian Religious Texts," Egyptology Today (ed) R. H. Wilkinson, 231). Such ideas need not be exclusively Egyptian, and Kumarbi's center place may thus be another Black Land, another place of beginning where life stirs into being. Similar little mounds do indeed appear in the Mesopotamian record, but here the theme is not "the promise of new life," but annihilation: "as if the flood had devastated them, I [Sargon] piled up (his cities) into ruin mounds [u-kam-mi]" (CAD K 114).

The Sumerian lexicon also yields KUM (to be, become hot, heat). The word likely is a Semitic loan-word; it's a shared word anyhow. How to bridge the gap between Egyptian Kuma and Sumerian KUM, between black and hot? Lamentations 5:10 speaks of faces "hot like an oven" (nikmaru), and some have translated the word as scorched, blackened. Hot as an oven; black as an oven, it is all the same. Blackness absorbs heat. Afroasiatic Km, together with its by-forms kmr and 'km, signifies heat. Heat, gloom, sadness, darkness, blackness all come together in an original root, kum. For Job, a very trying day, a day in which everything piles on, is a kamirirey yom--not just kmr but kmr-r. Any relation to Akkadian kumaru? Who can say?

It is easy to see how semantic and symbolic fields begin to overlap. In West Semitic one of the meanings of kmr and 'km has to do with the heat necessary for the germination of plant life in the dark earth. Which brings us back to the greatest Hurrian god, Kumarbi, he of Kmr, the chthonic rampart god. A blade of wheat is his symbol. Does Syrian Kumaru signify rampart? or black earth? or both?

Cumorah, with its many waters, rivers, and fountains, calls up a Spring's fertility, a black land like Kuma. Is such a link sound linguistically? I would call it semiotically sound, part of a shared connotative encyclopaedia, though somewhere on the other side of denotation and dictionary. Closer to dictionary and the denotative would be Cumorah the Redoubt, the Rampart Land, "serving," as Shakespeare would have it, "in the office of a wall." In other words, Cumorah denotes a Rampart, a stronghold, "this fortress built by Nature for herself"; it may also connote a land rich in promise.


Is a New York Cumorah a rampart too far?

The search for Cumorah will be facilitated so well by the meaning of the name as by Mormon's description of that land. And until those who seek Cumorah identify a place that better matches the linguistic and narrative evidence, a study of New York antiquities can still serve up surprises. 

E. G. Squire's study of the native antiquities of New York, whether Huron or a bit older, comes chock full of details about how Native Americans constructed earthworks and dug ditches in tandem with the natural defenses found in springs, spits, pits, bays, fissures in the limestone, etc. Squire's descriptions astonish. The natural defenses are already sufficiently strong to require but little in the way of the works of men: some ditches for palisades, earthen gates and ramparts--these last, large but not spectacular--and so forth. All such partake of the ephemeral; earth remains. 

Even for the reader who situates Cumorah in Mexico (and as Hugh Nibley reminds us, Anahuac does signify waters), Squire's study will prove indispensable in setting forth the proper Cumorah terrain (Ephraim G. Squire, Antiquities of New York, 1853). Western New York, anyway you slice it, has always been good Cumorah land. Nibley ever argued that a New York setting for Cumorah was not a bridge too far; he also saw the merit in a Mesoamerican or Peruvian setting, provided Cumorah's hill remained a hill, and not some ridiculous mountain. Now we also see Cumorah in Syria. 

And Syria today sees Cumorah.


Curiosity about Zarahemla, the land of Nephi, and the narrow neck of land comes with the reading. Hugh Nibley once answered a direct question about the location of the city of Zarahemla with some specific indications. I don't know which startled me more: that I would ask so directly or that such specificity would be immediately forthcoming. On the other hand, I heard Brother Nibley say on more than one occasion, "I wouldn't touch Book of Mormon geography with a forty-foot pole." (I still admire John Sorenson's latest book: Mormon's Codex.)

An overmuch concern with Book of Mormon geography, beyond noting the internal consistency of geographic reference within the book, lies outside intelligent endeavor. To go on from overmuch concern to determined argument becomes the mark of the huckster or the fanatic. The damage to spiritual and social refinement, thus accrued, may prove inestimable.


"I am going to Cumorah": Joseph F. Smith, Orson Pratt, Interview with David Whitmer, 1878 Millennial Star

Paul Y. Hoskisson, "What's in a Name: Cumorah," The Journal of the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon Onomasticon Project (BYU, Neal A. Maxwell Institute), q.v. "Cumorah"

Michael Astour, Journal of Near Eastern Studies

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