Evidence #119 | November 27, 2020

Great Spirit

Post contributed by

 

Scripture Central

Abstract

In several ways, the “Great Spirit” familiar to Lamoni’s people in the Book of Mormon is similar to an ancient Maya god.

The “Great Spirit” in the Book of Mormon

Ammon and King Lamoni, by Scott M. Snow. 

The Book of Mormon gives an account of the sons of Mosiah and their remarkable mission to the Lamanites in the land of Nephi. When Ammon taught a Lamanite king named Lamoni, the king did not at first understand what Ammon meant by the concept of “God.” Ammon then compared God to the “Great Spirit,” a divine entity with which Lamoni and his people were apparently familiar (Alma 18:24–28). Some critics of the Book of Mormon have claimed that this reference to a “Great Spirit” is anachronistic.1 However, the description fits well if we assume a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon.

A “Great Spirit” among the Maya

Many readers of the Book of Mormon have compared the land of Nephi, where Ammon and the sons of Mosiah taught, with the geography and cultures of highland Guatemala.2 One of the most important documents reflecting pre-Columbian ideas of this region is the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche Maya.3 Evidence from Maya culture and archaeology indicates that many of the ideas and elements of its narrative date to the Pre-Classic (which overlaps with Book of Mormon times).4 

Among the most important gods of the pre-Columbian Maya was the god U K’ux Kaj or “Heart of Heaven.” He is the chief god in the Popol Vuh. According to Mayanist Allen Christensen,

He is the only deity to appear in every phase of the creation, as well as throughout the mythological and historical portions of the text. K’ux refers to the heart as the source of the ‘vital spirit’ of a thing, or that which gives it life. According to Coto’s dictionary, it is also believed to be the center of thought and imagination. The deity, therefore, combines the powers of life and creativity, which are believed to exist in the midst of the heavens.5

Another name for this god is Jurakan or Huracan. According to Mary Preuss,

He can be both fire and water, the essential elements in producing life and energy. He is, moreover, the source of all energy and life in the universe. Thus, everything and every being in existence owe their presence to him. Brinton says that Jurakan also represents the memory, will, spirit, and soul, as well as psychic powers, and suggests he should be called “spirit” or “soul” rather than c’ux, “heart.”6

The name Jurakan can mean “One Leg,”7 but the word element rakan in this name may also refer to an object’s exceeding length or height. Friar Tomas de Coto’s valuable seventeenth century Maya grammar indicates that rakan refers to “greatness in size, height or bigness” or “a person who is large in stature.”8 Jurakan would then signify a god who is the “greatest of a kind, gigantic, colossal.”9 The names of this Maya deity (U K’ux Kaj/Jurakan/Huracan) are thus linked to both spirit and greatness.

Maya depiction of Hurucan. Image via Yukatan Living.

A God of Creation

Ammon asked Lamoni, “Believest thou that this Great Spirit, who is God, created all things which are in heaven and in the earth?” Lamoni replied, “Yea, I believe that he created all things which are in the earth; but I do not know the heavens (Alma 18:28–29).

Jurakan is “the great creator,” and “although other deities also act in creation, their roles are derived from the ideas which Jurakan originates.”10 He is the god who “conceives the idea of forming the earth and all that appears upon it,”11 and then other deities “carry out his will by giving it material expression.”12

A God of Knowledge

When Lamoni learns of Ammon’s great power in defending his flocks from enemies, the king wondered, Art thou that Great Spirit, who knows all things” (Alma 18:18; emphasis added). Jurakan was similarly known as ajnaoj chicaj (“wiseman from the sky”).13 

A God of Retribution and Destruction

Before he learned the particulars of the God that Ammon was introducing him to, Lamoni wondered, “Behold, is not this the great Spirit who doth send such great punishments upon this people because of their murders?” (Alma 18:2; emphasis added).

In addition to being the most important god of the Quiche pantheon, Jurakan was greatly feared. Men and even other gods wanted to remain in his favor. “The trepidation which Jurakan incites in other gods and the people is understandable in terms of the destruction he causes. His arrival as a storm is devastating to human beings, land, crops, animals, and abodes. In fact, he is capable of wiping out an entire society.”14

A God Who Dwells in Heaven

Ammon taught Lamoni, “The heavens is a place where God dwells and all his holy angels” (Alma 18:30). “As the supreme deity of the Quiche. Jurakan acts on all levels of the universe, although his major role is played from the sky. His appearance on the earth and in the underworld is generally through one of his messengers.”15 He used the hero Twins, for example, to initiate changes in the world, and to overthrow proud and capricious rulers, such as Seven Macaw and the lords of death.16

One of the scenes of conflict between the Hero Twins and the forces of the Otherworld. Photo by Justin Kerr. Image via Maya Vase Database.

A God Who Sends Messengers

After learning that Ammon was not the Great Spirit, Lamoni asked, “Art thou sent from God?” (Alma 18:33). Similarly, some of Lamoni’s people concluded, “he was sent by the Great Spirit” (Alma 19:25).  “Like any great religious or political leader, Jurakan sends messengers to collect data, make observations, or carry messages for him.” These messengers often “give advice and moral support.”17

A Source of Divine Power to Others

Ammon explained to Lamoni that the power and strength he possessed came from God. “And a portion of that Spirit dwelleth in me, which giveth me knowledge, and also power according to my faith and desires which are in God” (Alma 18:35). “As a leader, Jurakan is also helpful to other gods, the heroes, the people, and to nature itself. He not only provides them with energy to function but gives them moral support and stamina vital to the completion of their deeds.”18

Ammon, protecting Lamoni's flocks with the power of God. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Conclusion

While the setting of the land of Nephi and other Book of Mormon locations remain unknown, Ammon’s conversation with Lamoni fits well if Lamoni’s understanding of the “Great Spirit” was similar to the ancient Maya conception of U K’ux Kaj (also known as Jurakan or Huracan). That isn’t to say that every feature of this Maya deity corresponds perfectly with the “Great Spirit” from the Book of Mormon. Outside of the few items highlighted above, not much is known of the Book of Mormon deity, and we can expect that nuances of the Maya god surely varied in different regions and times throughout their long and complicated history.

Still, there are enough similarities between the two gods that a connection (whether direct or indirect) can’t be ruled out. At the same time, these parallels invalidate the claim that the Book of Mormon’s discussion of a “Great Spirit” is clearly an anachronism. To the contrary, the evidence is trending toward confirmation.

Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya (New York, NY: O Books, 2003).

Mary H. Preuss, Gods of the Popol Vuh: Xmukane’, K’ucumatz, Tojil, and Jurakan (Culver City, CA: Labyrinthos, 1988).

Alma 18:2–5Alma 18:11–35Alma 19:25–27Alma 22:9–11

Alma 18:2–5

Alma 18:11–35

Alma 19:25–27

Alma 22:9–11

Footnotes
  • 1 “The Book of Mormon teaches that the Lamanites (the American Indians) originally believed in the existence of a ‘Great Spirit’; research has conclusively proved that this deity was wholly an invention of the white missionary after the discovery by Columbus.” Charles A. Shook, American Anthropology Disproving the Book of Mormon (Cleveland, OH: Utah Gospel Mission, 1916), 19.
  • 2 See, for example, John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985), 138–189, 221–238.
  • 3 Allen Christenson, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya (New York, NY: O Books, 2003).
  • 4 Mary Miller and Karl Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993), 134–136. 
  • 5 Christenson, Popol Vuh, 69.
  • 6 Mary H. Preuss, Gods of the Popol Vuh: Xmukane’, K’ucumatz, Tojil, and Jurakan (Culver City, CA: Labyrinthos, 1988), 62; See also Daniel G. Brinton, “The Names of the Gods in the Kiche Myths, Central America,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 19 (1881), 623–630.
  • 7 “According to Dennis Tedlock’s Quiche collaborators, ‘leg’ may also be used as a means of counting animate things, in the same way that we refer to counting of ‘head’ of cattle. ‘One Leg’ might therefore mean one of a kind’” signifying the god’s “unique nature as the essential power of the sky.” Christenson, Popol Vuh, 70n.62.
  • 8  Brinton, “The Names of the Gods,” 626.
  • 9 Brinton, “The Names of the Gods,” 626; Delia Goetz and Sylvanus G. Morely, eds., Popul Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiche Maya (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969), 83–84n.7; Preuss, Gods of the Popol Vuh, 62n.b; Christenson, Popol Vuh, 70n.62.
  • 10 Preuss, Gods of the Popol Vuh, 67.
  • 11 Preuss, Gods of the Popol Vuh, 67–68, 71.
  • 12 Christenson, Popol Vuh, 69n.56.
  • 13 Preuss, Gods of the Popol Vuh, 73.
  • 14 Preuss, Gods of the Popol Vuh, 73–74.
  • 15 Preuss, Gods of the Popol Vuh, 67.
  • 16 Christenson, Popol Vuh, 91–111, 160–191; Kay Almere and Jason Gonzalez, Mesoamerican Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs of Mexico and Central America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 200.
  • 17 Preuss, Gods of the Popol Vuh, 72.
  • 18 Preuss, Gods of the Popol Vuh, 73.
Culture
Traditions
Great Spirit
Book of Mormon

© 2024 Scripture Central: A Non-Profit Organization. All rights reserved. Registered 501(c)(3). EIN: 20-5294264