Evidence #151 | February 15, 2021

War Banners in Mesoamerica

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Scripture Central


In various ways, the Title of Liberty in the Book of Mormon corresponds to ancient Mesoamerican war banners.

The Title of Liberty

Captain Moroni and the Title of Liberty, by Jody Livingston

During a time of great dissension among the Nephites, a military captain named Moroni “rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it—In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children—and he fastened it upon the end of a pole” (Alma 46:12). Moroni then put on his armor, invoked God’s blessing upon his people, and “went forth among the people, waving the rent part of his garment in the air” (v. 19). Moroni called this banner the “title of liberty” (v. 13). It is also referred to as the “standard of liberty” in this chapter and elsewhere in Mormon’s abridgment (v. 36; 51:20; 62:4–5).

While the banner was seen as a religious symbol, it was also clearly used as a war banner—a symbol for rallying troops and motivating them to fight for their rights and religion.1 To broaden the influence of this symbolic standard, Moroni “caused the title of liberty to be hoisted upon every tower which was in all the land … and thus Moroni planted the standard of liberty among the Nephites” (v. 36).

War Banners in Ancient Mesoamerica

Banners also played an important role in ancient Mesoamerican societies. Several types of banners, found in a variety of shapes and sizes, are depicted in pre-Columbian art, including codices, ceramics, murals, stone reliefs, and graffiti. Banners are also discussed in early Spanish accounts. “While different types of banners had various uses in ancient Mesoamerica,” writes Kerry Hull, “one dominant theme among them is warfare.”2

Cloth banners depicted in Mesoamerican codices. (A) Codex Barbonicus, p. 27 (drawing by Asa Hull); (B) Codex Laud, p. 8 (drawing by Asa Hull); (C) Codex Barbonicus, p. 9 (drawing by Asa Hull); (D) Codex Barbonicus, p. 31 (drawing by Asa Hull); (E) Codex Selden, p. 6 (drawing by Asa Hull). Image and caption via Kerry Hull, “War Banners: A Mesoamerican Context for the Title of Liberty,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 24 (2015): 88.

As a practical matter, banners helped with military organization. For instance, “each Aztec city had its own war banner under which its army marched.”3 Leaders of military units “usually donned a special standard,” and even individual warriors had “banners fastened tightly to their backs; this custom served a number of functions, such as aiding in locating one’s commander, coordinating movement of forces, and identifying one’s regiment.”4

War scene with banners and backracks. Photo by Justin Kerr. Image and caption via research.mayavase.com.

Some banners were so crucial to military engagements that their loss or capture sometimes “demoralized the unit, often causing them to abandon the fight.”5 Conversely, when maintained during battle, banners were “rallying points in times of adversity, thus sustaining the morale of the warriors.”6 Among the K’iche’ Maya, the standard-bearer “was a position reserved only for high-ranking individuals.”7

Banners in Towers and Other Architecture

Mesoamerican banners were often ceremonially raised in prominent locations. Structures at El Tajín and Bonampak, for example, feature multiple stones that had holes drilled in them for the placement of banners.8 “In some cases, standards were also inserted into monumental sculpture that had a hole drilled in the center.”9

Late Classic banner platforms at Tonina. Image and caption info via research.famsi.org.

Hull has drawn attention to a Yucatec Mayan term for tower (hulbil na), which literally means “speared-through building.”10 As a potential backdrop for this term, Hull points to a monument in Tikal where a stone war banner had been ritually placed on an altar platform. In a context of warfare, the inscription on the monument “describes the setting up of the banner stone itself with the verb tz’ahpaj, ‘it was planted/erected.’”11 Hull comments, “It is easy to envision the title of liberty, a war banner itself, being hoisted on similar raised altar platforms designated as towers in the Book of Mormon translation.”12

Drawing of Altar 49-sub in the North Plaza of Tikal with the “Marcador” standard in its likely original position (drawing by Asa Hull, after Linda Schele). Image and caption via Kerry Hull, “War Banners: A Mesoamerican Context for the Title of Liberty,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 24 (2015): 97. 

Banner Stones and Writing

Hieroglyphic text on the side of Stela E at Quiriguá. Image and caption via Wikipedia. 

Only one known example of a Mesoamerican banner (specifically a flap-staff) has writing on it.13 However, it is suspected by some experts that “banners among the ancient Maya once carried written texts, just as stone stelae, or banner stones, did.”14 One major clue comes from the fact that the inscribed stone monuments throughout Mesoamerica share the same root word as banners. The stelae are referred to as lakam-tuun during the Classic period, which can be translated as either “large stone” or “banner stone.”15

Thus, stelae “were conceived of as decorated banners, fully akin to decorated quotidian and ritual flags and banners made of perishable materials.”16 The covenant writing on the Title of Liberty is therefore more at home in an ancient Mesoamerican context than it might initially appear, based on visual depictions of cloth banners alone. 

Hoisted and Planted (Parallel Phrasing)

“One of the more commonly encountered verbal phrases in Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions,” writes Hull, “is ‘u-tz’apaw u-lakam-tuun’ (he planted his banner stone/large stone). The verb tz’ap … means ‘to sow (corn), to plant,’ ‘to erect,’ or ‘to hoist,’ stemming from the agricultural action of spearing the ground with a planting stick.”17 Several Maya texts utilize this type of phrasing in a poetic couplet when discussing the raising of banner stones:18

uhti tz’ap-tuun


it came to pass the stone [stela] planting,

it was raised.

Interestingly, the Book of Mormon features a couplet using similar phrasing when describing the raising of the Title of Liberty:

he caused the title of liberty to be hoisted upon every tower …

and thus Moroni planted the standard of liberty (Alma 46:36)

According to Hull, “The presence in the Book of Mormon of the precise terminology and couplet structure associated with the erection of banner stones in Late Classic Maya society is extraordinary.”19


Although banners have been used for a variety of purposes in both ancient and modern societies, the Book of Mormon’s account of the Title of Liberty is especially at home in an ancient Mesoamerica setting, where banners were eminently important in matters of ritual and warfare. In particular, banners in each context share the following features:

  • both were used in military contexts for rallying soldiers,
  • both were utilized as symbolic public documents (when stelae are included as types of “banners”),
  • both were ceremonially raised in prominent public locations,
  • both were specifically raised on platforms or towers,
  • both used the language of “planting” to describe a banner being raised,
  • and both used a similar poetic couplet involving the same key words.

As concluded by Hull, “Convergence to this degree of linguistic and cultural data is a striking endorsement for the validity of the text as an ancient document and provides evidence of a Mesoamerican cultural background for the Book of Mormon.”20

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Moroni Quote the Patriarch Jacob about a Piece of Joseph’s Coat? (Alma 46:24),” KnoWhy 154 (July 29, 2016).

Kerry Hull, “War Banners: A Mesoamerican Context for the Title of Liberty,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 24 (2015): 84–118.

Alma 46:11–36Alma 51:20Alma 62:4–5

Alma 46:11–36

Alma 51:20

Alma 62:4–5

Book of Mormon

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