Evidence #169 | March 22, 2021

Severed Limbs

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Scripture Central

Abstract

After Ammon cut off the arms of several Lamanite bandits at the Waters of Sebus, the servants of King Lamoni brought him their severed limbs. This is consistent with ancient practices of using dismembered body parts as war trophies.

Severed Arms as War Trophies in the Book of Mormon

When protecting King Lamoni’s flocks from bandits, Ammon “smote off as many of their arms as were lifted against him, and they were not a few” (Alma 17:38).1 Lamoni’s other servants then took the arms “unto the king … for a testimony of the things which they had done” (v. 39).

Artist unknown. 

War Trophies in the Ancient Near East

A pair of Latter-day Saint scholars have noted, “The practice of cutting off the arms or other body parts of enemies, specifically as a testimony of the conquest of victims, is attested in the ancient Near East.”2 Ancient depictions show soldiers “heaping them up in triumph,” in order to tally the dead or to entitle mercenaries to be paid.3 This was, according biblical scholars Cyrus Gordon and Gary Rendsburg, “a routine procedure all through the ancient Near East” and “symbolized victory in battle.”4

In recent archaeological excavations in Egypt, pits containing over a dozen right hands were found in the proximity of a Hyksos palace. According to several scholars, including archaeologist and Egyptologist Manfred Bietak, this is evidence of the “gold of valor” ceremony, where soldiers presented the hands of conquered enemies and received gold as a reward.5 Judges 7:25 and 8:6 indicate that early Israelites engaged in similar practices, which are well attested in Egyptian, Canaanite, and Mesopotamian sources.6

Piles of hands at the Medinet Habu temple. Photo by Stven C. Price. Image via Wikimedia Commons. 

War Trophies in Ancient Mesoamerica

Comparable traditions and practices are known in the New World.7 In the Popul Vuh, containing the ancient traditions of the Quiché Maya,8 the mythic hero twins fight the bird-demon Seven Macaw. During the conflict, one of the twins attempted to grab Seven Macaw, “but instead Seven Macaw tore off the arm” of the twin, went home and “hung the arm” over the fire, “until [the twins] come to take it back.”9This story is depicted on Izapa Stela 25 (ca. 300–50 BC), complete with the hero twin’s severed arm.10

Similarly, a classic Maya vase (ca. AD 250–900) depicts a bowl of arms and other human remains being presented to a deity. Anthropologists Ana Luisa Izquierdo y de la Cueva and Maria Elena Vega Villalobos state that this scene is a representation of “triumphs over enemies.”11 Although mythological, these examples likely reflect ancient Maya attitudes and practices in war and conflict. 

Maya vase number K2010. Photograph by Justin Kerr. Image via research.mayavase.com.

There is evidence of similar practices among the Aztecs.12 In the account of the Mexican conquest left by conquistador Bernal Díaz, “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.”13 Díaz specifically stated that the Aztecs “threw them roasted legs of Indians and the arms of our soldiers” and jeered, “Eat of the flesh of … your brothers.”14

As in the ancient Near East, these Aztec and Maya sources portray the severed arms of an enemy as “a trophy of their valor.”15 The limbs were used to boast in one’s prowess as a warrior, taunt one’s enemies, and prove one’s bravery and achievements.  

Figure on a vase from northern Yucatan wearing what may be a severed hand as a trophy. Photo by Justin Kerr. Image and description via research.mayavase.com.

Conclusion

In light of modern sensibilities, the “whole affair at the waters of Sebus must strike anyone as very strange,” Hugh Nibley observed.16 In fact, one commentator has proposed that “arms” should be interpreted as weapons (rather than limbs), in part because “the image of a servant dragging a blood-soaked bag across the floor of the king’s palace in order to show him the gory amputated limbs of his enemies seems somewhat fanciful.”17

Yet, in light of known ancient Near Eastern and Mesoamerican practices, the servants bringing the severed arms to King Lamoni as “a testimony” of the events they witnessed seems anything but fanciful. Instead, “the astounded servants of King Lamoni, who took the arms that Ammon had been cut off into the king” were acting conventionally, according to custom.18 As one would expect, the pile of “war trophies” greatly impressed King Lamoni. He was “astonished exceedingly,” to the point that he suspected Ammon was “more than a man” (Alma 18:2). And the servants were convinced “he cannot be slain by the enemies of the king” (v. 3).

Book of Mormon Central, “Hands and Arms as Trophies of Valor: Examples from Archaeology,” BMC Blog, June 23, 2020, online at bookofmormoncentral.org.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did the Servants Present Lamoni with the Arms of His Enemies? (Alma 17:39),” KnoWhy 125 (June 20, 2016, updated on June 25, 2020).

Bruce H. Yerman, “Ammon and the Mesoamerican Custom of Smiting Off Arms,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 44–47, 78–79.

John M. Lundquist and John W. Welch, “Ammon and Cutting Off the Arms of Enemies,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 180–181.

Alma 17:36–39

Alma 17:36–39

  • 1 Military historian William J. Hamblin, writing with Brent J. Merrill, described the technique required to sever an arm and concluded, “Ammon’s sword technique makes perfect sense.” William J. Hamblin and Brent J. Merrill, “Swords in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 335–347, quote on p. 337. This is followed by a lengthy discussion of the razor-sharp obsidian bladed macuahuitl used in Mesoamerica in pre-Columbian times, esp. p. 341. See also Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 4:280: “Could a blow from a macuahuitl sever an arm? According to a report from Titulo C’oyoi, created by Quiché during the Spanish conquest, a blow of a macuahuitl severed a horse’s head during battle sometime between 1523 and 1527. Certainly decapitating a horse would have been more challenging than severing the human arm.”
  • 2 John M. Lundquist and John W. Welch, “Ammon and Cutting Off the Arms of Enemies,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 180.
  • 3 C.L. Crouch, War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East: Military Violence in Light of Cosmology and History (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), 120–121, notes that in ancient Near Eastern depictions, severed heads “are frequently shown held high in triumph” and “are presented to the king” as “war trophies or proofs of success.”
  • 4 Cyrus Gordon and Gary Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, 4th edition (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1997), 179–180.
  • 5 Manfred Bietak, Nicola Math, Vera Muller, and Claus Jurman, “Report on the Excavations of a Hyksos Palace at Tell El-Dab c A/Avaris (23rd August–15th November 2011),” Egypt and the Levant 22/23 (2012/2013), 31–32; Manfred Bietak, “The Archaeology of the ‘Gold of Valour’,” Egyptian Archaeology 40 (2012): 42–43. See Book of Mormon Central, “Hands and Arms as Trophies of Valor: Examples from Archaeology,” BMC Blog, June 23, 2020, online at bookofmormoncentral.org.
  • 6 See Lundquist and Welch, “Ammon and Cutting Off the Arms,” 180–181; Gordon and Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, 179–180, 187 n.6; Crouch, War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East, 120–121.
  • 7 See Bruce H. Yerman, “Ammon and the Mesoamerican Custom of Smiting Off Arms,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 44–47, 78–79.
  • 8 Generally dated to the mid-16th century, “Many of the myths outlined in the text have antecedents in the art and religious beliefs of the people of Mesoamerica dating back some two thousand years prior to the transcription of the manuscript by its K’iche’ authors.” Allen J. Christenson, trans. and ed., Popol Vuh, The Mythic Sections—Tales of First Beginnings From the Ancient K’iche’-Maya, Ancient Texts and Mormon Studies, no. 2 (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 25. Christenson goes on to say, “There is value, therefore, in careful reading of the text from an LDS perspective, in that it reveals ancient theological concepts current among the people of Mesoamerica at a time contemporaneous with Book of Mormon history” (p. 25).
  • 9 Christenson, Popol Vuh, The Mythic Sections, 59. Compare Dennis Tedlock, Popol Vuh, The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1986), 92.
  • 10 See V. Garth Norman, Izapa Sculpture, Part 1: Album, NWAF Papers, no. 30 (Provo, UT: New World Archaeological Foundation, Brigham Young University, 1973), plates 41–42; V. Garth Norman, Izapa Sculpture, Part 2: Text, NWAF Paper, no. 30 (Provo, UT: New World Archaeological Foundation, Brigham Young University, 1976), 132–137. Norman, Izapa Sculpture, Part 1, 1 dates the monuments to between 300 BC–AD 250. However, site excavators argued that they most likely date to the earlier part of this period, most likely ca. 300–50 BC, with some possibly dating to as late as AD 100. See Gareth W. Lowe, Thomas A. Lee Jr., and Eduardo Martinez Espinoza, Izapa: An Introduction to the Ruins and Monuments, NWAF Papers, no. 31 (Provo, UT: New World Archaeological Foundation, Brigham Young University, 1982), 23.
  • 11 Ana Luisa Izquierdo y de la Cueva and Maria Elena Vega Villalobos, “The Ocellated Turkey in Maya Thought,” PARI Journal 16, no. 4 (2016): 19. Thanks to Mark A. Wright for bringing this publication to the attention of BMC staff. See also Book of Mormon Central, “Hands and Arms as Trophies of Valor: Examples from Archaeology,” online at bookofmormoncentral.org.
  • 12 Yerman, “Ammon and the Mesoamerican Custom of Smiting Off Arms,” 44–47.
  • 13 Yerman, “Ammon and the Mesoamerican Custom of Smiting Off Arms,” 46.
  • 14 Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517–1521, trans. A.P. Maudslay (London, Eng.: Broadway House, 1928), 570.
  • 15 Yerman, “Ammon and the Mesoamerican Custom of Smiting Off Arms,” 47.
  • 16 Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Volume 8 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1989), 539. See pp. 539–542 for Nibley’s discussion of this strange event in the context of Aztec sports. Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 285–289 likewise discusses the strangeness of the episode and contextualizes it with a Mesoamerican background.
  • 17 Alonzo L. Gaskill, Miracles of the Book of Mormon: A Guide to the Symbolic Messages (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2015), 198–203, quote on page 202. See also, Alonzo L. Gaskill, “Ammon and the Arms of the Lamanites: Have we Been Misreading the Book of Mormon?” Restoration Studies 15 (2014): 82–94.
  • 18 Lundquist and Welch, “Ammon and Cutting Off the Arms,” 180.
Culture
Customs and Ceremonies
Severed Limbs
Book of Mormon

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