Evidence #17 | September 19, 2020

The Beheading of Shiz

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Scripture Central


The unusual physiological details involved in the beheading of Shiz can be plausibly explained by modern neuroscience.

At the conclusion of the final Jaredite battle, two opposing military leaders, Coriantumr and Shiz, were the last combatants who hadn’t “fallen by the sword” (Ether 15:29).1 Coriantumr had the advantage, however, seeing that “Shiz had fainted with the loss of blood” (v. 29). Ether reports that “when Coriantumr had leaned upon his sword, that he rested a little, he smote off the head of Shiz” (v. 30). Then a rather unusual detail is reported: “And it came to pass that after he had smitten off the head of Shiz, that Shiz raised up on his hands and fell; and after that he had struggled for breath, he died” (v. 31).

A man struggling for breath without a head is hard to imagine (and most people would not want to), yet Dr. M. Gary Hadfield, a professor of neuropathology, has discovered a possible medical explanation for this strange event. Hadfield noted that “Coriantumr was obviously too exhausted to do a clean job. His stroke evidently strayed a little too high. He must have cut off Shiz’s head through the base of the skull, at the level of the midbrain.”2 The suggestion that Coriantumr’s exhaustion may have affected his physical strength and accuracy is supported by the fact that afterwards he himself “fell to the earth, and became as if he had no life” (Ether 15:32).

Diagram of the brainstem. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Hadfield further explained, “Shiz’s death struggle illustrates the classic reflex ... when the upper brain stem ... is disconnected from the brain.”3 Certain muscles in the arms and legs contract, and this could have caused Shiz to raise up on his hands. This also explains why Shiz “struggle[d] for breath” (Ether 15:31). Such a botched decapitation “would also cause his rib cage to expand and contract automatically, as it does in all of us when we are sleeping.”4 This would have made it sound like Shiz was struggling to breathe. This type of neural phenomenon was first reported in 1898, many years after the publication of the Book of Mormon.5

Hadfield noted that “the event obviously astonished both Ether and Moroni, who chronicled it.”6 This is likely why they both would have felt compelled to include it. Even though Moroni would have been familiar with war and the head-injuries that go with it, he still “singled out this extraordinary occurrence to include in his abridgement. Perhaps Ether and Moroni had concluded that Shiz’s last-minute ‘pushup,’ ... was due to an unconquerable spirit, an unwillingness to die.”7

Shiz and Coriantumr by Briana Shawcroft.

It may also be noteworthy that heads and beheadings played an important role in ancient Mesoamerican ritual and warfare. For instance, large monuments in the shape of human heads are a well-known feature of the Olmec civilization, which some scholars have correlated with the Jaredites.8 According to Christopher L. Moser, “It is probable that these [monuments] demonstrate the early importance of the human head as an object for representing and honoring great rulers and ancestors.”9 This assumption is supported by various depictions of decapitations found in Mesoamerican artwork (in both ritual and warfare contexts) from the Formative period.10 In such a cultural environment, the beheading of Shiz would likely have been seen as a deeply symbolic—rather than just incidental—conclusion to a cataclysmic military conflict, which may help explain why the event was reported in the first place.

M. Gary Hadfield, “The ‘Decapitation’ of Shiz,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo UT: FARMS, 1999), 266–268.

M. Gary Hadfield, “Neuropathology and the Scriptures,” BYU Studies 33, no. 2 (1993): 313–328.

Ether 15:29–32

Ether 15:29–32

  • 1 For a discussion of opposing kings being the last military combatants on a battle field, see Hugh Nibley, “They Take Up the Sword,” in Lehi in the Wilderness/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Volume 5 (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1988), 234–237.  
  • 2 M. Gary Hadfield, “Neuropathology and the Scriptures” BYU Studies 33, no. 2 (1993): 325. This understanding assumes that part of the bottom of the head survived, so that Coriantumr did not “smite off” all of the head of Shiz. Some readers might object to this interpretation, but, as Brant Gardner has argued, a strictly literal reading of the text in this instance is unnecessary. See Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 6:326, including footnotes.
  • 3 M. Gary Hadfeld, “The ‘Decapitation’ of Shiz,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin Thorne (Provo UT: FARMS, 1999), 266.
  • 4 M. Gary Hadfield, “My Testimony, as an Academician, of God and of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” at Mormon Scholars Testify, April, 2010, online at mormonscholarstestify.org.
  • 5 See C. S. Sherrington, “Decerebrate Rigidity, and Reflex Coordination of Movements,” Journal of Physiology 22 (1898): 319.
  • 6 Hadfield, “My Testimony,” online at mormonscholarstestify.org.
  • 7 Hadfield, “My Testimony,” online at mormonscholarstestify.org.
  • 8 See Book of Mormon Central, “Why Does the Book of Mormon Include the Rise and Fall of Two Nations? (Ether 11:20–21),” KnoWhy 245 (December 5, 2016); John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 499–595; John E. Clark, “Archaeological Trends and Book of Mormon Origins,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 2006), 89–93; Clark, “Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief,” 48–49; John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 192–217; John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985), 108–137.
  • 9 Christopher L. Moser, “Human Decapitation in Ancient Mesoamerica,” Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 11 (1972): 9.
  • 10 Moser, “Human Decapitation in Ancient Mesoamerica,” 9–12.
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