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Source:Echoes:Ch13:2:Smiting off arms
Smiting Off Arms
Smiting Off Arms
During Ammon's mission to the Lamanites, a fairly gruesome incident occurred that seemed to me completely out of character with this exemplary missionary. Ammon and his fellow servants were out tending King Lamoni's flocks when they were set upon by a group of Lamanites and Ammon performed a stunning feat of strength and skill—smiting off the arms of those who were trying to scatter the flocks (see Alma 17). This violent episode puzzled me, but I rationalized that it gave Ammon sufficient credence to gain the willing ears of King Lamoni, who as a result was converted to Christ. Hugh Nibley, however, gave this passage a lot more thought and research.
In The Prophetic Book of Mormon, Nibley likens the seemingly common play between the two groups of Lamanites in Alma 17 to ancient games such as "the bloody fun of the famous basketball games played in the great ball courts of the ceremonial complexes of Mesoamerica," where "either the captain of the losing team or the whole team lost their heads."1 From even more ancient sources, Nibley cites the games of chivalry depicted on Egyptian monuments showing "the first 'pharaohs' bashing the heads of rival rulers with the ceremonial mace" and the "famous scenes of the battles of Megiddo and Carchemish [displaying] the piles of severed hands and arms brought as trophies to the king."2
Nibley's views helped explain for me why King Lamoni executed his servants for their failure to protect the flocks, but I still wondered why Ammon went to far as to cut off the ruffians' arms.
In 1999 Bruce Yerman published an article that sheds light on this episode, with especial reference to the severed arms.3 Beginning his research with a wonderful, if graphic, mural by Diego Rivera that currently hangs in the National Palace in Mexico City, Yerman shows that as a war trophy, an arm "was considered comparable to . . . fine jewelry." He cites the conquistador author Bernal Díaz, whose comrades in battle were sacrificed, after which "Aztec warriors held aloft the severed arms of the victims as they taunted and threatened the Spanish and their native allies who were within earshot."4
Staying with Mesoamerica, Yerman brings our attention to the Popol Vuh, the highland Maya historical and mythological text, in which the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, battle the god Seven Macaw. At one point "Hunahpu shoots Seven Macaw with his blowgun. As the twin seeks to escape, Seven Macaw twists and tears an arm off Hunahpu's body." Later, Seven Macaw takes the arm home and hangs it over the fire.5
Book of Mormon scholars John Lundquist and John Welch provide further confirmation of the antiquity and authenticity of this practice. "On the extreme left of band 4 on the decorated Gates of Salmaneser III (858–824 BC), Assyrian troops are shown cutting off the heads, feet, and hands of vanquished enemies. 'In other reliefs, the artists of the Assyrian kings depict the military scribes recording the number of enemy dead in accordance with the number of severed heads, hands and feet which Assyrian soldiers hold up before them.'"6The Egyptian, Assyrian, and Mesoamerican evidences for the practice of smiting off arms not only resolved for me this episode in the life of an exemplary missionary but also, since it was highly unlikely that Joseph Smith would have had access to the relevant sources, provided further confirmation of the Book of Mormon as an ancient record.