Friday, September 27, 2013

"In Their Ships They Came"--Enlarging Our Memories through the Book of Mormon

"Though it be jade it falls apart, though it be gold it wears away"--what then of books, so easily set aside?

Yet I will recall with joy a book of Nahuatl poetry and a king who sang of the ephemeral nature of life on earth, a place we never felt to be our true home anyhow: "Somewhere else is the place of life. There I want to go, there surely I will sing. . ."

The title escapes me now; the author--who could dispute the matter?--Miguel Leon-Portilla.

I had forgotten Leon-Portilla until just the other day when, on a quest for American lore, I pulled a little book from the stacks: Los antiguos mexicanos a través de sus crónicas y cantares (1961).          .

Sus cantares: I found myself swept away by a brisk measure of song, and swept out to sea:

Llegaron, vinieron. . .

Por el agua en sus barcas vinieron.

They arrived, they came. . .

Over the water in their ships they came,

in many groups.

And it was there they arrived, at water's edge,

on the north coast.

And that very place where they beached their ships

is Panutla,

which means: the place where one goes over the waters,

and we still call it Panutla today.

The song of the sea runs on--I have neither the right nor the skill to put into English what Leon-Portilla so finely puts into Spanish. . .

A footnote leads us to the original Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica: Sahagun's Codice Matritense de la Real Academia. Sahagun's Aztec students recorded the verses.

Sahagun, the Florentine Codex. . . I had heard these names all my life. Just months ago I first held in my hands the volumes of the Codex; still I knew nothing of the Matritense.

The latter codex, in two folio volumes, is housed in Madrid's Real Biblioteca. There is no need to visit the palace library today: La Biblioteca Digital de Mexico proffers a digital image. On folio 191, recto et verso, penned in Nahuatl with a ready hand, the words of the poets appear. These words, we are told, all have to do with the archaic, a "distant time, which nobody now can tell, nor nobody now remember."

"Trailing clouds of glory," their "life's Star" came long, long ago from another home: seas and skies commingle into "this great deep."

Emergence and Migration sum up the American story from the beginning of time--and forever after. The Book of Mormon relates the tale of "a lost and fallen people," in fact whole nations, who, as "wanderers in a strange land," seem constantly to find themselves in the act of getting lost in the American labyrinth before being discovered all over again by yet another wandering band.

"Because we shall not live here, we shall not remain here. We shall go in search of a land."

The Toltecs and the Mexica, "born at sea," are "Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird."

"What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands/ What water lapping the bow."

Anything more? Yes, they came to an in-between place, a paradisaical land they called Tamoanchan. Golden Tamoanchan was no lasting city. There the lovely Xochiquetzal (Precious Flower) once tore "a floral spray" from a forbidden tree and, for the deed, "was cast out of Tamoanchan" (Burr Cartwright Brundage, The Phoenix of the Western World: Quetzalcoatl and the Sky Religion, 41). Bountiful Tamoanchan remains nature's "hardest hue to hold."

Nezahualcoyotl and Robert Frost impart one song:

"Nothing gold can stay."

Can anything stay? A trace of the song persists in the Codice Matritense: "the traditions of their fathers," "a small degree of knowledge," a scent on the breeze, "What images return."

Yet the book itself, says Jacob, "must perish and vanish away":

"Though it be jade it perishes, though it be gold it vanishes away."

"Take these plates." Take up their imperative. Plates of gold "must retain their brightness"--and, brightly, "enlarge the memory."

"But whatsoever things we write upon anything save it be upon plates must perish and vanish away; but we can write a few words upon plates, which will give our children, and also our beloved brethren, a small degree of knowledge concerning us, or concerning their fathers—" (Jacob 4:2).

"Take these plates."


"Though it be jade": attributed to King Nezahualcoyotl; Miguel Leon-Portilla (ed.), Native American Spirituality: Ancient Myths, Discourses, Stories, Doctrines, Hymns, Poems, 241 (from Collection of Mexican Songs [Cantares Mexicanos], National Library of Mexico, fol. 17. r.). In Book of Mormon idiom we might say: Though it be jade it perishes, though it be gold it vanishes away.

"Somewhere else is the place of life", Nahuatl poem, Miguel Leon-Portilla, Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico, 86.

Seafaring Narrative: Miguel Leon-Portilla, Los Antiguos Mexicanos, 21-22.

The same day I found Leon-Portilla's little book, I had, by coincidence, been reading Hugh Nibley's comments about the Mexica sea crossing, as found in similar records. I had often read these comments but had never yet done any independent searching. (I still recommend Hugh Nibley, The World of the Jaredites, Appendix One).

Then just yesterday I opened with joy Professor John Leon Sorenson's hefty new tome, Mormon's Codex. I quickly turned to the chapter on transoceanic crossings to early America and found six pages of primary sources from Mesoamerica detailing legendary voyages of origin. Six pages--astonishing! I wished to see what Sorenson had to say about Leon-Portilla and the Codice Matritense, and unsurprisingly, Sorenson reproduces on page 163 the very story found in the Matritense, though here rendered in the narrative prose translation provided by Leon-Portilla, "Pre-Hispanic Literature," in Handbook of Middle American Indians, Gordon F. Ekholm and Ignacio Bernal (eds.), 10:455. (Whether the narrative should be considered Nahuatl prose or poetry remains to be seen; I wish to look more deeply into the question.)

A reference to the same article, "Pre-Hispanic Literature," can also be found in John L. Sorenson's and Martin H. Raish's two volume bibliography, Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas across the Ocean. I have also now read Sorenson's still valuable 1955 article on the same theme; he does not yet mention the Matritense, but what a wealth of other material!

Codices matritenses de la Real Biblioteca, fol. 191 r. and v.

"Because we shall not live here," Codice Matrilense (Leon-Portilla, 23), said of the place Xomiltepec, where they arrived after leaving Tamoanchan. Leaving Xomiltepec, they traveled to Teotihuacan.

Burr Cartwright Brundage, The Phoenix of the Western World: Quetzalcoatl and the Sky Religion, 41.

Robert Frost: "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

Nezahualcoyotl: Nahuatl songs, recorded after the Spanish Conquest, and attributed to King Nezahaulcoyotl. We don't know whether the king wrote the songs or whether they serve to memorialize him.

"wanderers in a strange land": Alma 13:23; Alma 26:36; Jacob 7:26

"Trailing clouds of glory"; "life's Star": Wordsworth, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood"

"this great deep": Ether 2:25

"born at sea": "called Marina because I was born at sea"; Shakespeare, Pericles

"glitter with the glory of the hummingbird" = "death" (and also = Huitzilopochtli, the patron god of the Mexica (Hummingbird of the South), who led them from Aztlan to the Valley of Mexico): T.S. Eliot, "Marina"

"the traditions of their fathers": Book of Mormon, passim

"a small degree of knowledge": Jacob 4:2

"What images return": T.S. Eliot, "Marina"

"What seas what shores": T.S. Eliot, "Marina"

"no lasting city": Hebrews

"Take these plates": Jacob 7:27

"must retain their brightness": Alma 37:5

"enlarged the memory": Alma 37:8

Additional Notes

1) And then there is South America. A study released just this year shows a genetic match between Japan, Korea, and a portion of the population of coastal Ecuador. The explanation? The authors point the reader back to Dr. Betty J. Meggers's research linking Japan's Jomon Culture with the ancient Valdivia Culture of coastal Ecuador. It seems Jomon fishermen did cross the Pacific long, long ago. They too came.

2) I would also point the curious to the online essays of Ronald A. Barnett, especially "Reinventing the Aztecs." Barnett tackles the tough questions that Amos Segara, John Bierhorst (a genius), Gertrudis Payas, etc., have raised about the interpretation of Nahua poetry and philosophy, particularly as that has been mediated by Angel Maria Garibay and his student Miguel Leon-Portilla (see Payas, Meta 49:3 (2004), 544-561). Of course we do not know whether King Nezahualcoyotl composed the poems attributed to him but recorded after the Conquest, nor can anybody fully sort out their meaning and purpose (see Jongsoo Lee, The Allure of Nezahualcoyotl, and especially, his quotations of Louise Burkhart). Riveting remain the words Non Nezahualcoyotzin, ni cuicanitl (I am Nezahualcoyotl, I am the singer).

Whether the colonial era Nahuatl and Spanish records represent the true intellectual and religious history of the Mexica culture may be debated forever. These are voices from the dust and the record perishes at the touch. The Book of Mormon shines brightly--"the most correct book on earth."

3) There number over one million Latter-day Saints in Mexico and Central America. No household throughout the length and breadth of Latin America should long remain without a copy of the Book of Mormon. No effort should be spared in making the book generally available; besides, gone forever is the notion that the extant record of ancient America, whether written or material artifact, lends no witness to the Book of Mormon, itself Another Testament of Jesus Christ.