Friday, March 22, 2019

Mesoamerican Speech Gesture

Jeremy Winborg's King Benjamin Speaking from his Tower
In Mosiah 12:2 Abinadi recounts his divine mandate to prophesy against King Noah and his wicked priests. What was the first thing the Lord instructed Abinadi to do? Open his mouth? Speak certain words? Cry with a loud voice? No. The first thing Abinadi was told to do was stretch forth his hand. At a particularly important point in his speech before Noah's court, Abinadi stretched forth his hand Mosiah 16:1.

Alma 10:25 tells us what Amulek did when things began to get heated as he preached in Ammonihah. Amulek stretched forth his hand and then cried the mightier to his angry audience.

Alma did the same thing. He stretched forth his hand toward the people of Ammonihah just before he energetically called them to repentance Alma 13:21.

Zeezrom in Sidom stretched forth his hand before he asked Alma and Amulek to heal him of his burning fever Alma 15:5.

King Lamoni, as soon as he awoke from his spiritual sleep, stretched forth his hand to his queen before he spoke to her Alma 19:12.

The Zoramites in Antionum, when speaking atop the Rameumptom, stretched forth their hands before speaking Alma 31:14.

About eight years later Alma was preaching to the Zoramites on hill Onidah in Antionum. A spokesman for the lower class arose and recounted the persecutions he and his friends had suffered. Alma turned toward these humble people, but before he said anything to them, he stretched forth his hand Alma 32:7.

Samuel the Lamanite prophesied to the Nephites atop a wall surrounding the city of Zarahemla. But what did he do before speaking to the hostile crowd? He stretched forth his hand Helaman 13:4.

In the most dramatic moment in the text, the risen Lord descended from heaven and appeared to the Nephites assembled at the temple in land Bountiful. Before speaking, he stretched forth his hand 3 Nephi 11:9.

After instructing his twelve disciples, the Savior again addressed the multitude, but before speaking he stretched forth his hand 3 Nephi 12:1.

Eleven of the most iconic discourses in the text were preceded by a hand gesture. What is going on?

Abinadi, Amulek, Alma, Zeezrom, King Lamoni, the Zoramites, Samuel the Lamanite, and the resurrected Savior were all speaking in Mesoamerica where important people and deities stretched forth their hand to give a major speech. The Book of Mormon authors faithfully recorded an ancient Mesoamerican cultural practice that anthropologists have only recently recognized. These examples are in approximate chronological order.
Unprovenanced Olmec Plaque
This Olmec image is dated ca. 1,000 BC. "That the Maya and other Mesoamerican peoples highlighted some kinds of speech as more important, more authoritative, than others is made evident by a convention in which an extended index finger secured emphasis." Stephen Houston, David Stuart, and Karl Taube, The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006) p. 250, fig 7.29.a.

La Venta Altar 3, Photo by Linda Schele
La Venta monuments date ca. 600 BC. La Venta may be where the Mulekites landed. Note the heavily bearded figure on the right. Both individuals have hands stretched forth in a speech gesture. Similar depictions are on Tres Zapotes Stela D and La Venta Altars 4 and 7.
Izapa Stela 5 Left-Hand Ground Level Scene, V. Garth Norman
This scene depicts a bearded old man wearing a conical hat tending a flaming incense burner. His left hand is stretched out in a speech gesture. Izapa Stela 5 is generally dated ca. 300 BC. Izapa may be the land of the Lehite's first inheritance on the west coast of the greater land of Nephi.
Izapa Stela 5 Right-Hand Ground Level Scene, V. Garth Norman
This scene depicts a younger man with an elaborate headdress holding a stylus or perforator in his left hand. A speech scroll comes out of his mouth and his right hand is extended in a speech gesture.
Kaminaljuyu (KJ) Monument 65 Front
This image of KJ Monument 65 was produced by a high definition 3D laser scan reported in Travis F. Doering and Lori D. Collins, "Revisiting Kaminaljuyu Monument 65 in Three-Dimensional High Definition" in Julia Guernsey, John E. Clark, and Barbara Arroyo, editors, The Place of Stone Monuments: Context, Use, and Meaning in Mesoamerica's Preclassic Transition (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2010). All three enthroned rulers have stretched out their hands in a speech gesture.

The back side of the stone has another example of an elite personage with hand outstretched in a speech gesture.
KJ Monument 65 Back
Kaminaljuyu underlies the northwest part of modern Guatemala City. It may be the city of Nephi. See the blog article "Kaminaljuyu." Monument 65, discovered in 1983, dates to ca. 150 BC, very close to the time Abinadi was in King Noah's court. For insight into the meaning of the objects displayed between these KJ figure's noses and lips, see the blog article "Partake of the Fruit."

San Bartolo is a Guatemalan site with spectacular murals that date ca. 100 BC.
San Bartolo West Wall Drawing by Heather Hurst
This scene depicts two enthroned gods flanking a dancer. Both gods have stretched forth their hands in a speech gesture. "As in the case of the San Bartolo gods, they both sit cross-legged and point with their extended index fingers, a convention for discourse that is present from Olmec times to the sixteenth century." Karl A. Taube, William A. Saturno, David Stuart, and Heather Hurst, The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala, Part 2: The West Wall (Bernardsville, NC: Boundary End Archaeology Research Center, 2010) p. 75.
Teotihuacan Plano Relief Vessel, Drawing by Karl Taube
This image dates ca. AD 250. "Two of the figures appear to be presenting decorated cloth, and another emits a large speech scroll while gesturing with his extended index finger. From the late Preclassic to late Postclassic periods, this hand gesture denotes speech in Maya art." Karl A. Taube, "Tetitla and the Maya Presence at Teotihuacan" in Geoffrey E. Braswell, editor, The Maya and Teotihuacan: Reinterpreting Early Classic Interaction (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003) p. 283.
Dresden Codex p. 9b
The Dresden Codex was painted ca. AD 1,300. It is believed to be a copy of an earlier manuscript. Itzamna, the right-hand figure, is shown talking to the maize god. Several other figures in the Dresden Codex are also depicted with hands extended in a speech gesture.

A speech gesture is attested in the New Testament with Paul before Agrippa Acts 26:1. Moses performed miracles by stretching forth his hand Exodus 9:22, 10:12, 14:21. David Michael Calabro, formerly with the Maxwell Institute, wrote his dissertation at the University of Chicago on various ritual hand gestures in the ancient near east. Human hands are ubiquitous. But, the consistent correlation of authoritative speech with a hand gesture in both the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican iconography supports the idea of a cultural connection.