Evidence #185 | April 19, 2021

Three Nephites and the Popol Vuh

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Persecutors of the three Nephite disciples attempted, without success, to kill them in ways reminiscent of stories found in the Popol Vuh, providing insight into their miraculous deliverance from death.

The Three Nephite Disciples

When the resurrected Jesus appeared to the Nephites, he chose twelve disciples in the New World, three of which he blessed so that they should “never taste death” and “never endure the pains of death” (3 Nephi 28:6-8). As they went forth to preach, these chosen disciples were persecuted, but various attempts to slay them proved futile because of the blessing Jesus had given them:  

And they were cast into prison by them who did not belong to the church. And the prisons could not hold them, for they were rent in twain, And they were cast down into the earth: but they did smite the earth with the word of God, insomuch that by his power they were delivered out of the depths of the earth; and therefore they could not dig pits sufficient to hold them. And thrice they were cast into a furnace and received no harm. And twice were they cast into a den of wild beasts; and behold they did play with the beasts as a child with a suckling lamb and received no harm.” (3 Nephi 28:19–22)1

To the modern reader, the behavior of these persecutors may seem curious. There being no shortage of ways in which one might try to kill one’s enemies, we might ask why these specific methods were chosen and what may have been their significance? The behavior of these opponents of the three Nephite disciples may suggest influence from Mesoamerican traditions that date to the time of the Book of Mormon.

The Three Nephites see a vision of Christ. Drawing by Jody Livingston.

Mesoamerican Rulers and the Hero Twins

Among some of the most important and influential Mesoamerican myths that we know of are the tales of the two Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, found in the Popol Vuh.2 The Twins defeated the proud Vucab Cakish and his monstrous sons Zipacna and Cabracan, who offended the god Jurakan by their pride and assumption of divine prerogatives. The twins then overthrew the unsavory lords of Xibalba in the fearsome underworld.

Although the Popol Vuh was transcribed by Maya scribes in the sixteenth century, it is believed to record myths and stories going back much earlier. According to Mayanists Mary Miller and Karl Taube, “the middle section of the Popol Vuh, treating not only the Hero Twins but also their father, Hun Hunapu, is the most ancient, appearing in art from Late Formative times onward.”3 The exploits of the Twins are represented on Mesoamerican monuments, painted murals, and vases, reflecting the widespread nature of these pre-Columbian myths.4

Michael Coe notes,

the Twins were the very model of what ruling princes should be. They were eternally youthful and therefore immortal. Their father the Maize God had suffered death in the Underworld, but thanks to their efforts he was reborn on the surface of the earth; in a like manner, so were the temporal lords of the Maya realm responsible for the seasonal planting, germination, and harvest of the great staple food, maize.5

From an early time down to the Spanish arrival, “Maya kings seem to have emulated the Hero Twins and their exploits.”6 According to Justin Kerr, “Maya Rulers exploited their myth known as the Popol Vuh, to prove their right to rule … They portrayed themselves in the images of their gods and demigods. The most powerful and popular of the characters they cloaked themselves with were the famous Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque.”7

One of the scenes of conflict between the Hero Twins and the forces of the Otherworld. Photograph by Justin Kerr. Image via research.mayavase.com.

Casting into the Earth

In the Popol Vuh, at the direction of the god Jurakan, the precocious brothers outwitted the dangerous monster Cabracan by tricking him to eat dirt, thereby causing him to lose his power. “Then the boys tied him up. They tied his hands behind his back. The boys were mindful to make sure that his hands were well bound. They also tied his ankles together. Then they hurled him down into the earth and buried him.”8

Contemporary traditions in highland Guatemala seem to reflect this story. In the town of Chichicastenango, “They say of the earthquake that there is a giant under the earth, bound by his hands and feet, and when there is a slight tremor, it is because he has moved his hands and feet a little; and when he turns over on the other side is when there are strong earthquakes.”9 This later tradition recalls the more ancient story where the troublesome monster was overpowered and restrained by hurling him down into the earth and burying him.

The rulers who cast the three disciples into the earth may have hoped to bolster their claims to rulership and authority by forcing the three disciples into the role of the doomed Cabracan while they donned the role of Hunahpu and Xbalanque for themselves. These actions, however, seemingly backfired, for when they were “cast down into the earth,” the disciples, “did smite the earth with the word of God, insomuch that they were delivered out of the depths of the earth; and therefore, they could not dig pits sufficient to hold them” (3 Nephi 28:20). Consequently, “the powers of the earth could not hold them” (3 Nephi 28:39).

Furnaces of Fire

In their confrontation with the lords of death, the Hero Twins were confined in a series of houses at night designed by the lords of Xibalba to humiliate, overcome, or kill them, as had happened to other victims. These efforts, however, were unsuccessful. One of these was a house of fire. “There was nothing but fire inside. But they were not burned. They were to have been roasted and set aflame. Instead, they were just fine when the dawn came. It had been desired that they would straightway die when they passed through there, but it was not so. Thus, all Xibalba lost heart as a result.”10


Young Corn God, Twins sit on jaguar cushions in the House of Flames in Xibalba. Photograph by Justin Kerr. Image via research.mayavase.com.

Similarly, the three Nephites who were granted “power over death” by Jesus were cast into a furnace of fire on several occasions, but “received no harm” (3 Nephi 28:21; 4 Nephi 1:32).

Dens of Wild Beasts

On another occasion in Xibalba, the Twins were confined in a house full of hungry jaguars but were not killed. They outwitted the Lords of death by speaking to the beasts and giving them bones to eat.11 “What they had planned to do, they had done despite all their afflictions and misfortunes. Thus, they did not die in the trials of Xibalba. Neither were they defeated by all the ravenous beasts that lived there.”12

In a later tale found among the Popoluca of Veracruz, with affinities to the Popol Vuh, the corn-god hero Homshuk fills the same role as the Hero Twins and undergoes a similar ordeal.

In the land of Hurricane, there were different kinds of jails: one in which there were hungry tigers, another in which there were famished serpents … Then Homshuk was ordered placed in the jail where there were serpents. “You are a nagual,” Hurricane said. “Here you are going to be eaten.” But in the morning when they appeared, he was seated on a serpent. He had not been eaten. And the other serpents had disappeared … The next night he was placed in the jail with the tigers, and he told them the same thing that he had told the serpents, keeping only the largest to serve as his chair … On the following day, Hurricane saw that the boy was not dead, and he said, “That is a nagual.” Then he pondered, and finally said, “We won’t be able to kill him this way, but since he is a nagual, he can’t continue to live amongst us.”13

The tale of Homshuk, like that of the older tale of Hunahpu and Xbalanqueus, reminds us of the ordeal of the three Nephites who, in spite of the efforts of those who wanted to kill them, played with the dangerous beasts and received no harm (3 Nephi 28:22; 4 Nephi 1:33).

George Foster, who first published the Homshuk story, relates another Mesoamerican tale about “a wicked king of Chichen who periodically levied tribute in the form of children to be fed to a serpent. The child then goes on to best the king in a series of competitions, failure in any one of which would have meant his death, and the story ends with the killing of the king.”14

The idea of burning of victims or of feeding captives to hungry animals may have been viewed as convenient ways to dispose of troublesome individuals, but the inability of the rulers to kill the Nephite disciples by fire and hungry beasts would have undermined their attempts to “exercise power and authority” over them.

Another varient of the humiliation of God L by the Hero Twins and the Maize God. Photograph by Justin Kerr. Image via research.mayavase.com.

In the eyes of Mesoamerican observers, the wicked rulers’ would have been unexpectedly cast in the uncomfortable role of the corrupt lords of Xibalba of whom it was said, following their defeat, “Surely, they were not true gods. Their names merely inspired fear, for their faces were evil. They were strife makers, traitors, and tempters to sin and violence … Thus their greatness and their glory were destroyed.”15


While it is uncertain if the opponents of the disciples of Christ were familiar with the traditions recorded later in the Popol Vuh, their actions (though somewhat strange to us), make sense in an ancient Mesoamerican setting, where rulers sought to project legitimacy by donning the clothing and reenacting the actions of mythical heroes.

Although the stories about the Hero Twins were, of course, not derived from the Nephites, they may help explain a peculiarity in the Book of Mormon text—why some who persecuted and attempted to “exercise power and authority over” the three disciples (4 Nephi 1:30), cast them down into the earth (3 Nephi 28:20), furnaces of fire (3 Nephi 28:21; 4 Nephi 1:32), and dens of wild and ravenous beasts (3 Nephi 28:22; 4 Nephi 1:33). That is what a ruler in an ancient Mesoamerican setting might be expected to do.

The implications of this potential historical and cultural context are significant, for the outcome of such a contest would not have been lost on those who witnessed it.16 Having turned the tables on their persecutors, the three Nephites exposed the fakery of their proud, vain, and power-seeking enemies, while also validating the teachings and authority of Jesus Christ, whose power over death and hell was complete.

Matthew Roper, “The Ordeal of the Three Nephites and the Popol Vuh,” Ether’s Cave, January 9, 2014, online at etherscave.blogspot.com.

3 Nephi 28:6–83 Nephi 28:193 Nephi 28:203 Nephi 28:213 Nephi 28:223 Nephi 28:394 Nephi 1:304 Nephi 1:324 Nephi 1:33Mormon 8:24

3 Nephi 28:6–8

3 Nephi 28:19

3 Nephi 28:20

3 Nephi 28:21

3 Nephi 28:22

3 Nephi 28:39

4 Nephi 1:30

4 Nephi 1:32

4 Nephi 1:33

Mormon 8:24

  • 1 Almost two hundred years later, these same disciples drew the attention of those who denied the Christ and despised the disciples’ teachings and envied their power to perform miracles in Jesus’ name. According to Mormon, “they did exercise power and authority” over the disciples and afflicted them in the same manner as had been done before (4 Nephi 1:30–33). However, it is unclear from the text if Mormon’s descriptions in 3 Nephi 28 and 4 Nephi refer to the same series of events or two separate periods of time. Either interpretation is possible.
  • 2 Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007).
  • 3 Mary Miller and Karl Taube, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993), 134.
  • 4 Kay Almere and Jason J. Gonzalez, Mesoamerican Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs of Mexico and Central America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 191–192; Elements of the story of Hunahpu and Xbalanque are represented on detailed murals found at San Bartolo in Guatemala. William A. Satorno, Karl A. Taube, David Stuart, Heather Hurst, The Murals of San Bartolo, El Peten, Guatemala Part 1: The North Wall (Barnardsville, NC: Boundary End Archaeology Research Center, 2005); William A. Satorno, Karl A. Taube, David Stuart, Heather Hurst, The Murals of San Bartolo, El Peten, Guatemala Part 2: The West Wall (Barnardsville, NC: Boundary End Archaeology Research Center, 2010).
  • 5 Michael D. Coe, “The Hero Twins: Myth and Image,” in The Maya Vase Book: A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, 6 vols., ed., Justin Kerr (New York, NY: Kerr Associates, 1989), 1:182.
  • 6 Mary Miller and Karl Taube, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, 134.
  • 7 Justin Kerr, “The Myth of the Popol Vuh as an Instrument of Power,” in New Theories on the Ancient Maya, ed., Elin C. Danien and Robert Sharer (Philadelphia, PA: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1992), 109.
  • 8 Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya, 110.
  • 9 Christenson, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya, 111n. 219.
  • 10 Christenson, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya, 171; emphasis added.
  • 11 Christenson, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya, 170.
  • 12 Christenson, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya, 177.
  • 13 George M. Foster, Sierra Popoluca Folklore and Beliefs (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1945), 193. Foster notes the many affinities this tale has with that of the Hero Twins in the Popol Vuh on pp. 194–196.
  • 14 Foster, Sierra Popoluca Folklore and Beliefs, 194.
  • 15 Christenson, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya, 188.
  • 16 As with all miracles, of course, only those with faith would benefit from them. Many of the Nephites refused to repent and “did harden their hearts” (4 Nephi 1:34).
Three Nephites and the Popul Vuh
Book of Mormon

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