Evidence #14 | September 19, 2020

Engraven Images

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Scripture Central


Alma’s questions about whether his people had received God’s image engraven upon their countenances fits well in a Mesoamerican cultural context, where deity impersonators would imbue themselves with the essence or power of a god by putting on engraved masks.

When Alma addressed the people of Zarahemla, he asked them numerous penetrating questions.1 (Alma 5). In one instance, he asked the people, “Have ye received [God’s] image in your countenances?” (v. 14, emphasis added). Then, inviting them to imagine the judgment day (vv. 15–18), Alma followed up by asking if on that day they could “look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenances?” (v. 19, emphasis added).

Deity Mask by Jody Livingston

According to Brant Gardner, “Having the image of God engraven on the countenances of the righteous appears to be unique to Alma.”2 By using the terms engraven and image together as he did, Alma might have been making a deliberate allusion to rituals and practices found in pre-Columbian America. As explained by Mark Wright and Brant Gardner, many Mesoamerican cultures participated in rituals of deity impersonation, where “a ritual specialist, typically the ruler, puts on an engraved mask or elaborate headdress and transforms himself into the god whose mask or headdress is being worn.”3 According to Cecelia Klein, participation in the Mesoamerican rituals was limited to the upper class. “The right to impersonate a deity … was not available to everyone; the costumes were signs of rank, office, privilege, and the right to riches.”4 Such rituals were often part of the celebration of fixed calendar dates, such as the New Year,5 with those of lower social status watching the ritual performance.

The masks worn by deity impersonators were themselves believed to be “intelligent objects in their own right, embodying the cognitive essence and powers of the [divine] being they represent.”6 As Wright and Gardner explained, “The masks and headdresses that deity impersonators wore were literally graven.”7 Pre-columbian masks were carved or engraved out of turquoise, jade, greenstone, gold, silver, obsidian, wood, and even human skulls.8 In the available artwork, masks “usually appear worn by rulers, priests, and leading warriors.”9

Both deity impersonation and the masks worn for that purpose were linked to the images of deity in pre-Columbian times. According to Klein, the Aztec term referring to a god impersonator literally means “god’s image,”10 and Wright and Gardner have noted that Mayan inscriptions refer to deity impersonators having u-b’aah-il, “his [the deity’s] holy image.”11 In addition, “the Maya word for mask, koh, means ‘image’ or ‘representative.’”12 Similar rituals and concepts involving masks existed among many pre-Columbian cultures throughout both North and South America.13

Deity mask of Xipe Totec (ca. 1400-1521, Mexico) from the British Museum. Image via Wikimedia commons.

In Mesoamerica, these masks and rituals are well documented back into Book of Mormon times. Wright and Gardner explained, “This practice goes back to the Formative period (1500 BC–AD 200), as cave paintings in Oxtotitlan dating to the eighth century BC attest.”14 Klein affirmed that carved masks “appeared in Mesoamerica beginning in the Early Pre-Classic period, after about 1500 BCE.”15 She further declared, “Mesoamericans have been impersonating their gods since … the Middle to Late Formative periods,” or in other words, from about 1000 BC on.16


Based on contextual clues, Alma was possibly speaking at a covenant renewal ceremony,17 the type of occasion where Mesoamerican societies would expect him to put on an engraved mask and assume the “image” of a god. In such a context, his question about whether the people, at the judgment day, can “look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenances” seems particularly apt and subtly consistent with Mesoamerican ritual practices. 

By universalizing the privilege of being able to take God’s image upon oneself, Alma’s message can be seen as analogous to the discourse given by King Benjamin, who symbolically universalized the blessings of kingship upon all who would enter into and keep their covenants with God.18 As Wright and Gardner have proposed, “Alma may have been referencing a concept that he expected his listeners to understand and attempted to shift that understanding into a more appropriate gospel context.”19 Whatever the exact situation may have been, the nuances of Alma’s questions reflect a Mesoamerican cultural setting remarkably well.

Mark Alan Wright and Brant A. Gardner, “The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 1 (2012): 25–55.

Alma 5:14–19

Alma 5:14–19

  • 1 For a listing of all 50 questions, see John W. Welch and J. Gregory Welch, Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and Teaching (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), charts 61–65.
  • 2 Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 4:97. Alma’s engraven image of God should not be confused with the graven images universally condemned in the scriptures. See Exodus 20:4Leviticus 26:1Deuteronomy 4:1623255:87:52512:3Judges 17:3–418:14, 17, 20, 30–312 Kings 17:4121:72 Chronicles 34:4, 7;  Psalms 78:5897:7Isaiah 10:1021:930:2240:19–2042:1744:9–10151745:2048:5Jeremiah 8:1910:1451:17, 47, 52Hosea 11:2Micah 1:75:13Nahum 1:14Habakkuk 2:181 Nephi 20:52 Nephi 20:10Mosiah 12:3613:123 Nephi 21:17.
  • 3 Mark Alan Wright and Brant A. Gardner, “The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 1 (2012): 49. See also David L. Webster, “Maya Religion: Deities,” in Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia, ed. Susan Toby Evans and David L. Webster (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001), 449: “Rulers or other individuals could wear god costumes, and the Maya apparently believed that the deity manifested itself in the impersonator.”
  • 4 Cecelia F. Klein, “Impersonation of Deities,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, 3 vols., ed. Davíd Carrasco (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 2:36. Klein also explained, “the majority of these masked persons were rulers or high-ranking officials” (p. 33). Walter R. T. Witschey, “Theater,” in Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya, 341, similarly explained that “performance art, including god-impersonators, masks of deities and spirits,” was “performed by costumed ruling elites of society, divine rulers repeating for all to see the actions and interests of the gods by ‘becoming’ those gods in a spectacle often loaded with religious significance.”
  • 5 Mary Miller and Karl Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya (New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1993), 76–77 discuss deity impersonation at various Aztec festivals tied to specific calendar dates. Walter R. T. Witschey, “Rites and Rituals,” in Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya, ed. Walter R. T. Witschey (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), 295 discusses “acts of performing art” where Maya “kings impersonated the god they called upon” as part of rituals which were “repeated at fixed intervals determined by the calendar.”
  • 6 Cecelia F. Klein, “Masks,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, 2:175.
  • 7 Wright and Gardner, “The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy,” 50.
  • 8 Klein, “Masks,” 2:176. For examples of masks found in Mesoamerica, see Mary Ellen Miller, The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec, 5th edition (New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 2012), 8, 19, 94, 233, 268.
  • 9 Klein, “Masks,” 2:175.
  • 10 Klein, “Masks,” 2:175. Klein, “Impersonation of Deities,” 2:34 notes that the Spanish used nouns like “image,” “likeness,” “surrogate,” and “substitute” to translate the term.
  • 11 Wright and Gardner, “The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy,” 49. Klein, “Impersonation of Deities,” 2:35 also explained: “Carved stone portraits of Maya dynasts dressed as a god are identified in accompanying inscriptions as u bah, the ‘likeness, image, person, self’ of the god.” See also Stephen Houston and David Stuart, “The Ancient Maya Self: Personhood and Portraiture in the Classic Period,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 33 (1998): 81, 93–94; Stephen Houston, David Stuart, and Karl Taube, The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2006), 66–67, 270.
  • 12 Klein, “Masks,” 2:175. Alfredo Barrera Vásquez, et al, Diccionario Maya Cordemex, maya-espanol, espanol-maya (Merida, Mex.: Ediciones Cordemex, 1980), 409, s.v., koh: “el que representa la figura, imagen o persona de otro” (that which represents the form, image or person of another).
  • 13 For the Eastern North American (especially Iroquois) cultures, see Raymond D. Fogelson, “Person, Self, and Identity: Some Anthropological Retrospects, Circumspects, and Prospects,” in Psychoscial Theories of the Self, ed. Benjamin Lee (New York, NY: Plenum Press, 1982), 75–77; Harold Blau, “Function and the False Faces: A Classification of Onodaga Masked Rituals and Themes,” Journal of American Folklore 79, no. 314 (1966): 564–580. For the American Southwest, see Virginia More Roediger, Ceremonial Costumes of the Pueblo Indians: Their Evolution, Fabrication, and Significance in the Prayer Drama (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1991), 158–163. For South America, see Christopher B. Donnan, “Moche Masking Traditions,” in The Art and Archaeology of the Moche: An Ancient Andean Society of the Peruvian North Coast, ed. Steve Bourget and Kimberly L. Jones (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2008), 67–72.
  • 14 Wright and Gardner, “The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy,” 49. On the Oxtotitlan cave painting, see Miller, The Art of Mesoamerica, 46–47.
  • 15 Klein, “Masks,” 2:175.
  • 16 Klein, “Impersonation of Deities,” 2:34. As evidence of this, Klein also cited the “cave mural at Oxtotitlan” that Wright and Gardner referenced.
  • 17 For a discussion of Alma 5 in light of ancient Israelite autumn festivals, see Hugh W. Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon: Transcripts of Lectures Presented to an Honors Book of Mormon Class at Brigham Young University, 1988–1990, 4 vols. (American Fork and Provo, UT: Covenant Communications and FARMS, 2004), 2:210–218.
  • 18 See John W. Welch, “Democratizing Forces in King Benjamin’s Speech,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 110–126; Matthew L. Bowen, “Becoming Sons and Daughters at God’s Right Hand: King Benjamin’s Rhetorical Wordplay on His Own Name,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 21, no. 2 (2012): 2–13; Stephen D. Ricks, “Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1–6,” in King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom”, ed. John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 233–276.
  • 19 Wright and Gardner, “The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy,” 50.
Engraven Image
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