Evidence #200 | June 1, 2021

Stained Swords

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The metaphor of the Ammonites’ swords being cleansed from the stain of blood and made bright again would have been a fitting symbol of redemption in ancient Mesoamerica, where wooden swords were permanently stained in warfare.

King Anti-Nephi-Lehi’s Metaphor of Redemption

The conversion and faithfulness of Lamanites is a key event in the Book of Mormon, in which thousands of Lamanites (who had previously been determined enemies of the Nephites) responded to the message of the Gospel taught by Ammon and his brethren. In what they viewed as a witness of their commitment to always remain faithful to the Gospel covenant, these converts buried their former weapons deep in the earth never to take them up again. King Anti-Nephi-Lehi explained the reasoning behind these actions as follows:

And I also thank my God, yea, my great God, that he hath granted unto us that we might repent of these things, and also that he hath forgiven us of those our many sins and murders which we have committed, and taken away the guilt from our hearts, through the merits of his Son. And now behold, my brethren, since it has been all that we could do (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of all our sins and the many murders which we have committed, and to get God to take them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain— Now, my best beloved brethren, since God hath taken away our stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren. Behold, I say unto you, Nay, let us retain our swords that they be not stained with the blood of our brethren; for perhaps, if we should stain our swords again they can no more be washed bright through the blood of the Son of our great God, which shall be shed for the atonement of our sins … Oh, now, my brethren, if our brethren seek to destroy us, behold, we will hide away our swords, yea, even we will bury them deep in the earth, that they may be kept bright, as a testimony that we have never used them, at the last day; and if our brethren destroy us, behold, we shall go to our God and shall be saved (Alma 24:10–13, 15–16).

Anti-Nephi-Lehies Bury Their Weapons of War, by Jody Livingston.

Stained Swords and Hearts

The imagery of swords stained with blood seems to mirror the way that sin and transgression can stain or defile the human heart. This would have been a particularly powerful symbol in ancient Mesoamerican, where the shedding of blood, warfare, and human sacrifice were so common and essential to the people’s world view.1

William Hamblin and Brent Merrill state, “Although today we speak of ‘stainless steel,’ in Joseph Smith’s day, metals were not generally thought of as becoming stained. Staining was a term that generally applied to wood, cloth, or other substances subject to discoloration. Reference to staining swords with blood is not found in the Bible. Thus, although not impossible, the metaphor of staining metal swords with blood is somewhat unusual.”2

On the other hand, while steel blades can be easily wiped off after battle, a Mesoamerican sword such as the macana would become unavoidably stained as the blood shed during combat would seep into the fibers of its wooden shaft. Following a military engagement, a soldier would replace a macana’s chipped and damaged obsidian blades with new ones, but the hard wooden base into which they were set could be used again and again, each time soaking up blood unless it too become broken and needed replacement. “Thus, the metaphor of the great mercy of God in removing bloodstains from the swords becomes more powerful and understandable if it refers to wood stained with blood, which only a miracle would remove, rather than if it refers to metal stained with blood, which a piece of cloth could clean.”3

Modern construction of Macuahuitl. Image via artstation.com.

Brightness

The second element of the metaphor—brightness—is also significant. Hamblin and Merrill note that “many types of obsidian have a fine luster, and the stones edges of the macuahuitl could easily be described as bright.”4 Concerning obsidian, Francisco Hernandez observed, “these stones are of distinct colors, blue, white, or black, but all translucent.”5 Obsidian from the region of Teotihuacan had a distinctive green color.6 The Spanish historian Juan de Torquemada described the black obsidian used for Mesoamerican swords blades as “precious, more beautiful and brilliant than alabaster or jasper. So much so that of it are made tablets and mirrors.”7

Obsidian artifacts from an unmixed Escoba 2 phase of the late Middle Preclassic midden deposit associated with an elite residence at Ceibal. Image and caption info via Kazuo Aoyama, “Preclassic and classic maya interregional and long-distance exchange: A diachronic analysis of obsidian artifacts from ceibal, Guatemala,” Latin American Antiquity 28, no. 2 (2017): 1–19.

The metaphor of brightness associated with what was once an instrument of death would have been a powerful one for a people whose lives and culture had been centered around warfare, as were the cultures in ancient Mesoamerica. In other words, freed by the Son of God from the dark stain of guilt upon their consciences for the blood they had shed, the converted Lamanites obtained a new hope as bright as the light which once reflected on their obsidian blades.

Conclusion

While the metaphor of stained swords expressed by the converted Lamanite king might be understandable with steel blades, it is especially meaningful in a cultural context in which swords and other weapons of wood could be permanently stained with blood. Additionally, the image of brightness associated with the redemptive state of faithful converts is equally powerful and consistent with weapons that had blades of light-reflecting stone.

Book of Mormon Central, “What is the Symbolism of the Stained Swords of the Anti—Nephi-Lehis?KnoWhy 132 (June 29, 2016).

Matthew Roper, “Swords and ‘Cimeters’ in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 39–40.

Matthew Roper, “On Cynics and Swords,” FARMS Review of Books 9, no. 1 (1997): 151–152.

William J. Hamblin and A. Brent 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, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 329–351.

Alma 24:10Alma 24:11Alma 24:12Alma 24:13Alma 24:15Alma 24:16Alma 24:17–19

Alma 24:10

Alma 24:11

Alma 24:12

Alma 24:13

Alma 24:15

Alma 24:16

Alma 24:17–19

  • 1 Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 4:354–355.
  • 2 William J. Hamblin and A. Brent 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, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 342–343. They note that stain as both a verb and a noun is used of “wood, cloth, glass, hands, stars, earth, water, reputations, and even stones are all stained in abundance in the examples given [in Oxford English Dictionary]” 349n. 18. See https://www.oed.com/search?searchType=dictionary&q=stain&_searchBtn=Search
  • 3 Hamblin and Merrill, “Swords in the Book of Mormon,” 342–343.
  • 4 Hamblin and Merrill, “Swords in the Book of Mormon,”343.
  • 5 Francisco Hernandez, Obras Completas, 8 vols. (Mexico: Universidad Nacional de Mexico, 1959), 3:406, emphasis added.
  • 6 See https://historicalmx.org/items/show/78.
  • 7 Juan de Torquemada, Monarqia Indiana, 3 vols. (Mexico: Salvador Chavez Hayhoe, 1943), 3:210, emphasis added.
Culture
Symbols
Stained Swords
Book of Mormon

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