Izapa Stela 5


Excerpts from BYU Journal of Book of Mormon studies, ‘A New Artistic Rendering of Izapa Stela 5: A Step toward Improved Interpretation’, by BYU Mesoamerican archaeologist John E. Clark (August 1 1999): 1

“In the 48 years since Jakeman first concluded that Stela 5 represents Lehi’s dream of the tree of life, major advancements have come about in the study of Mesoamerican art. Hundreds more monuments have been discovered and many of them have been analyzed in a detail that was impossible in the 1950s. It should not be surprising that these later studies would require changes in his interpretation as well as the interpretations of other scholars treating the material. His argument depended on interpreting the iconography of Stela 5. But this was seriously hampered by lack of a good pictorial representation of the scene on the stone. Major details were omitted or misdrawn in the rendering Jakeman used. A poor drawing is the equivalent of bad data. There is no way to arrive at a “correct” analysis using bad data. Unfortunately, because of the poor drawing, Jakeman saw things on the stone that are not there and missed many other features that are. In this he had company, for the same thing can be said of every interpretation of Stela 5 thus far.

Without belaboring the point, it is clear that many of Jakeman’s identifications of the monument’s features were forced to fit what he wanted to find. This applies to parallels he claimed between features on the stone and both Near Eastern art and references to the Book of Mormon text. In regard to the scriptural parallels, most of the several dozen elements that he thought linked the stela and Lehi’s dream are only hypothetical. For example, the account in 1 Nephi tells us nothing of the circumstances when Lehi recounted the event to his family; all that is said is “he spake unto us” (1 Nephi 8:2). We are not told who was present and who was not, nor whether incense was burned or not. Again, most of the purported parallels to Old World art are based on Jakeman’s speculations.

Actually, only two elements mentioned in the text, a fruit tree and water, can be recognized on the stone without resorting to guesswork. All the rest—the spacious field, the iron rod, an angel, and so on—were revealed as such by dint of Jakeman’s own imaginative eye. This sort of subjective matching is not an acceptable procedure in scholarship or science

A logical problem also undercuts Jakeman’s work. None of his critical identifications of Book of Mormon characters and elements work unless one assumes his conclusion beforehand. The supposed glyphs for Lehi, Sariah, and Nephi, for example, are impressive only if one assumes that Old World concepts were translated into New World iconography to signify names that were simultaneously meaningful in Palestine and Mesoamerica. Thus Jakeman supposed that the “Lehi” figure, the old man, can be identified by a monster skull floating behind his head, and he assumed that this feature represented a crocodile-like mythic creature known to the Aztecs (2,000 years later) by the name Cipactli. From that tenuous linkage, the analyst leaped to the notion that the skull signified “jawbone,” despite the fact that the skull is noticeably jawless. Another step takes Jakeman to the name Lehi, which may have been pronounced like the Hebrew word for “jawbone.” This argument is forced at several points. None of the links proposed is warranted, let alone demanded, by the data

Two general issues here are basically problematic. One is the hypothetical relationship of Lehi’s dream to the scene on Stela 5. At this point in time it is much too speculative A pair of fish carved from jadeite and forming part of a necklace was excavated together with the ceramic head of Ehecatl shown above. Whatever they mean exactly, obviously they are tied with the wind-god. Notice this pair appears just in front of the Ehecatl figure on Stela 5, possibly representing jadeite images hanging from a necklace. JOURNAL OF BOOK OF MORMON STUDIES 33 and is based on too many weak points of logic to be accepted. The new drawing may not allow a final conclusion about the viability of Jakeman’s argument but it does appear to rob it of most of what had once seemed like impressive support. The claim that significant parallels to Old World art are shown on Stela 5 is the second, independent question. It deserves study in its own right. If a connection is sustained by such an art historical investigation, that relationship need not have resulted from any connection with the Book of Mormon. The new drawing will at least facilitate anyone’s research on that matter.

Given the nature of LDS interest in Stela 5, most of my discussion has been forced to focus on what the scene is not. If it does not show Lehi’s dream, what does it show?

The monument is clearly Mesoamerican in theme, style, technical execution, and quite surely meaning. It derives from a long tradition of stone carving which predates the people of Lehi by at least 700 years. The scene shown has cosmic significance; the heavens, the earth, and the underearth are conventional framing features for earlier art in this area. So is the tree—the world tree that is considered in Mesoamerican thought to grow at the center of the earth, from whose surface it reaches up to heaven and down to the underworld. Supernatural monsters appear in the scene. So do other figures, either gods or mortals (both male and female) who are dressed as though they were gods (they were probably royalty), and their attendants. Ceremony, pomp, and ritual are clearly represented with individuals depicted in elaborate dress, masks, and jewelry positioned before smoking incense burners. Some individuals hold piercing implements used to draw their own blood as an offering to deities. Overall the carving shows the basic symmetry, balance, and concern for geometry and numerology that one also expects in Mesoamerican art. Of course, some elements for the moment do not make sense, such as pairs of fish; comparison with other monument scenes will probably clarify their meanings.

None of these elements fits one’s expectations about Lehi’s dream. Instead, the scene appears to concern royalty, their subjects, and their relationships to deities and the cosmos. I suspect that the basic theme of Stela 5 is the king as intercessor with the gods on behalf of his people. This was a concern of the ancient Mesoamerican rulers who commissioned the carving of monuments for the sake of their own glory, and this all accords with the ancient tradition of art and culture within which Stela 5 fits comfortably.

Some Latter-day Saints may still feel the need to seek a relationship between Stela 5 and Book of Mormon history. The Lehi connection that Jakeman espoused goes nowhere, in my opinion.”


1 A New Artistic Rendering of Izapa Stela 5: A Step toward Improved Interpretation – https://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1396&index=6

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