Saturday, August 30, 2008

Temple Symbols and Christmas

There is very little about Christ in Christmas. It’s more about Santa Claus, gift giving, decorated Christmas trees and colorful lights than remembrance of the Savior’s birth.

Perhaps that’s because Christmas is a holiday largely based on what most would call pagan festivals. In fact, it’s likely that Christians appropriated an ancient, cross-cultural tradition for our Christmas celebration that predates Christ by centuries, if not millennia.

Christ was not born in December. We learn from modern revelation that he was actually born in April. (See Doctrine and Covenants, Section 20.)

The idea to celebrate Christmas on December 25 originated in about the 4th century. The Catholic Church, based in Rome, wanted to eclipse the festivities of the original pagan religion of the Romans called Saturnalia. It was their preeminent holiday, a midwinter celebration of the birthday of their sun god, Saturnus. Church leaders decided that in order to alter pagan beliefs, they had only to superimpose the birth of the Christ child on the pagan celebration. So, they instituted the Mass of Christ or Cristes Maesse in Old English — Christmas.

In fact, there are an abundance of pagan midwinter festivals from cultures and religions the world over.

Special sanctity was attached to the period of the winter solstice in most traditional societies of Europe even before the introduction of Christianity in the first millennium A.D. The cult of the tree was especially prevalent among the early Celtic and Nordic peoples of Europe. Centuries ago in Great Britain, the Druids used holly and mistletoe as well as evergreens as symbols of eternal life during mysterious winter solstice rituals. They would also place evergreen branches over doors to keep away evil spirits. According to the Roman sources, the Celts of Gaul and Britain worshipped in groves of trees. When Europeans adopted Christian traditions, they created a blend of their winter solstice celebrations with that of the Catholic Church.

So, the roots of Christmas and its symbolic trappings lie deep in pagan cultural traditions, practices and beliefs, not in Christianity at all. This admixture of traditions — part Christian, part pagan — has created the hodgepodge holiday we know today.

For those reasons, many Latter-day Saints disapprove of the “worldly” trappings of Christmas. But that distaste may not be justified.

In an astonishing irony, a close look shows us that the iconography of latter-day temples — the Salt Lake Temple being the quintessential example — echoes the traditional, symbolic trappings from hoary antiquity that are now part of our Christmas celebration, validating symbols like Santa Claus and the Christmas tree.

The basis for this claim becomes clear when we look for indications of our Christmas traditions in numerous ancient cultures and then connect them with the symbolism found on the exterior walls of the temple in Salt Lake City.

So, let’s review the origins and history of today’s Christmas.

The controversial Gerald Massey, in two large works (The Natural Genesis and Ancient Egypt), claimed that the priest-astronomers of ancient Egypt first formulated the religion and mythology of a polar god, which tradition then spread from Egypt to the rest of the world. This may have been the starting point for our Santa Claus, a magical individual who lives at the North Pole. Additionally, ancient Egyptians treasured and worshipped evergreens. When the winter solstice arrived, they brought green date palm leaves into their homes to symbolize life's triumph over death.

Later, the Greeks memorialized the winter solstice with Kronia, a festival recalling the Golden Age, ruled by Kronos, another polar god and the father of Zeus.

Following the Greeks, the Romans adopted the same festival, the predecessor of modern Christmas-tide, renamed it Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, their father-god and equivalent of the Greek’s Kronos. They decorated their houses with greens and lights and exchanged gifts. They gave coins for prosperity, pastries for happiness and lamps to light one's journey through life. They decorated their trees with bits of metal and candles in honor of their sun god.

Trees — especially the conifer or evergreen — were objects of sacred significance in many ancient cultures. The Norse religion involved worship in sacred groves, which were trees planted to simulate the walls of a temple. This connects the tree to temple building traditions. Indeed, nearly all temples, ancient and modern, are adorned with gardens, as is the case on Temple Square.

The Canaanites, too, had sacred groves for worship, and the disobedient nation of Israel adopted this form of worship at the outset of their wanderings out of Palestine.

"For they also built them high places, and images, and groves, on every high hill, and under every green tree." (1 Kings 14:23. See also 2 Kings 17:9, 10.)

"Then shall ye know that I am the Lord, when their slain men shall be among their idols round about their altars, upon every high hill, in all the tops of the mountains, and under every green tree, and under every thick oak, the place where they did offer sweet savour to all their idols." (Ezekiel 6:13.)

We learn also that Israel’s neighbors practiced a custom startlingly similar to our practice of putting up Christmas trees. "Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not." (Jeremiah 10:2-4.)

This passage also alludes to the belief in ancient cultures that the tree was symbolic of something cosmological or sky-based. The mention of the "signs of heaven" in the above verse is our clue. As with so many ancient religious or sacred symbols, the "celestial" or "heavenly" tree was an integral part of archaic cultures' star worship.

In Norse mythology, the great ash tree, Yggdrasil, connects the underworld and heaven with its roots and boughs. It’s also called the World Tree, which many ancient cultural traditions remember and reverence, that links heaven and Earth and shelters all the world. The mythical world tree was said to grow from the Earth’s pole and spread its branches among the stars. This "celestial tree" or "tree of life" — a term familiar to Latter-day Saints — was central to astral worship, as Jeremiah pointed out. It’s also the reason we put a star at the top of our Christmas tree.

To Norsemen, sprigs of evergreen holly symbolized the revival of the sun god Balder, who was originally the familiar Baal, sky god of the Old Testament.

Also in the Old Testament, trees are associated with the ancient Canaanite religion devoted to the mother goddess Asherah (Ashtoreth, Ishtar, "star"), which the Israelites, intent on establishing their monotheistic cult of Yahweh, sought to suppress. The cult celebrated Asherah and her consort Baal in high places, on the tops of hills and mountains, where altars dedicated to Baal and carved wooden poles or statues of Asherah (also translated as grove, or wood, or tree) were located.

The significance of trees in ancient Assyria, the acknowledged home of Ishtar or "star" worship, is shown in the numerous reliefs of winged deities watering or protecting sacred trees. Sacred trees, or trees of life, were associated in Ancient Assyria with the worship of the god Enlil, yet another sky god.

So, our Christmas tree has a long and ancient tradition.

The evergreen Christmas tree also represents "World Tree" or "World Axis." The "Star of Guidance" that crowns the Christmas tree is also related to the North Star, Polaris. This natural compatibility of Christmas celebration with late December and beliefs about the evergreen tree, the North Pole, and the spirit called Father Winter, which survives in today’s Santa Claus, are evolutions of ancient tradition.

Notably, the six primary spires on the Salt Lake Temple are the symbolic equivalent of our Christmas tree. A round ball, the equivalent of a star on our tree, tops their conical shape.

Indeed, one of them bears an angel in place of the star, just as do many of our Christmas trees.

Just as the image of the star and the angel are interchangeable in ancient traditions, so too in modern Christmas tree decoration and temple iconography.

In Europe as well as in Asia, the Sacred Tree was considered to be the living image of the axis mundi or "Axis of the World," a figurative or imaginary still point or vertical shaft around which the world turns.

The North Star, Polaris, is the celestial placeholder for that sacred spot in the sky. It’s the only star in the sky that never moves. Throughout the night and year, all the stars move in circles around Polaris, called the pole star since it is located directly over the Earth’s north pole. As the night progresses, the stars will slowly move from east to west, circling around the pole star, due to the Earth’s rotation. Hence, all ancient cultures held that spot in the sky as sacred.

They also associated the pole star with the World Tree or Tree of Life and the central axis of the universe. In tradition, the top of the World Tree touched the North Star. This is the true meaning of the star on top of the modern Christmas tree, and also the reason that Santa makes his home at the North Pole in Christmas tradition.

In South Asia, traditions concerning the enchanted World Tree or World Axis have taken somewhat different forms. And yet, despite the differences, certain common patterns persist. The sacred tree, the vertical World Axis or stambha or stupa and the generous spirit from the far north are all features of pan-Indian culture that derive, most probably, from the same traditional sources as those of Western cultures.

The precedence of the cosmic center among the great ancient cultures has been noted and documented by many scholars. Almost a hundred years ago, William F. Warren, in his groundbreaking work, Paradise Found, identified the celestial pole as the home of the supreme god of ancient races. "The religions of all ancient nations ... associate the abode of the supreme God with the North Pole, the centre of heaven; or with the celestial space immediately surrounding it."

In a general survey of ancient language, symbolism, and mythology, John O’Neill (Night of the Gods) asserted that mankind’s oldest religions centered on a god of the celestial pole.

Latter-day Saints should note that, in keeping with ancient astral tradition, the constellation Ursa Major or Big Dipper, the traditional locator for the Pole Star, is depicted on the west wall of the Salt Lake Temple where it is positioned so as to ‘point’ to the northern sky and the polar star, Polaris.

Also seen immediately above these star stones are the Saturn Stones, circles with a ring.

This is no mere oddity or casual coincidence. As Nibley pointed out, the temple is an earthly replica of the heavens. It puts the uniquely modern temple squarely in the heart of ancient tradition — especially Christmas tradition. Certainly, it speaks to the reverence which modern temple builders placed on the star Polaris and its traditional role in ancient cultures worldwide.

Though it may seem completely odd to us, the Romans, who called themselves "Saturnians" and celebrated Saturnalia at the winter solstice, also placed their god Helios at the heavenly pole where Polaris now sits. In their pantheon, Helios was called the central sun, the axis of the celestial revolutions. But, Helios was also called Saturn.

All Greek astronomical traditions agreed that their god, Kronos, was originally the planet Saturn. What is now the sixth planet from the Sun stands at the center of the Greek paradise myth. According to their traditions, Kronos, the planet Saturn, ruled the heavens for a period, presiding over the Golden Age, then departed as the heavens fell into confusion.

Likewise, the Assyrians placed their central sun, Shamash, at the pole. But, they also asserted that Shamash was Saturn.

A stunning example of the polar Saturn is provided in Chinese astronomy, where the distant planet was called “the genie of the pivot” (Santa Claus?). Saturn was believed to have his station at the pole, according to the eminent authority on Chinese astronomy, Gustav Schlegel. In the words of Leopold deSaussure, Saturn was "the planet of the center, corresponding to the emperor on earth, thus to the polar star of heaven."

Finally, the Egyptian god Atum-Ra was said to be a central sun, standing atop the world pole. But, their traditions also depict Atum-Ra as Saturn.

As peculiar as this tradition of Saturn at the pole may appear to us, it has been acknowledged by more than one authority, including Leopold de Saussure. The principle also figured prominently in the recent work of the historian of science, Giorgio de Santillana and the ethnologist Hertha von Dechend, authors of Hamlet’s Mill. According to an ancient astronomical tradition, the authors suggest, Saturn originally ruled from the celestial pole.

It is also known that Latin poets remembered Saturn as god of "the steadfast star," the very phrase used for the pole star in virtually every ancient astronomy.

Manly P. Hall, noted authority on ancient belief systems wrote, "Saturn, the old man who lives at the north pole, and brings with him to the children of men a sprig of evergreen (the Christmas tree), is familiar to the little folks under the name of Santa Claus."

Santa Claus, descending yearly from his polar home to distribute gifts around the world, is a muffled echo of the Universal Monarch, Saturn, spreading miraculous good fortune. But while the earlier traditions place this sky god at the celestial pole, popular tradition now locates Santa Claus at the geographical pole — a telling example of originally celestial gods being brought down to earth.

The origin of Santa Claus imagery can be readily seen in Egyptian religious art. Atum/Ra, the god of the north, stands in his celestial boat, bark or ark, pulled across heaven by servants or souls.

The Egyptian image metamorphosed over time and across several ancient cultures to become, in Nordic cultures, the old man of the north, Santa Claus, pulled in a sleigh by reindeer.

It is at this point that these ancient traditions most specifically intersect with modern temple symbolism.

Most Saints know of the Sun Stones depicted on the Salt Lake Temple. Given the traditions of the Egyptians, Assyrians and the Romans, it seems likely that those Sun Stones, like the Big Dipper, were placed there in recognition of the ancient traditions, which declared that a "sun" was once positioned at the celestial pole.

Additionally, most Saints are unaware that there are Saturn Stones in the Salt Lake Temple. The original architectural renderings of the building by Truman O. Angel, clearly depicted a planet with two rings around it at the top of each south wall buttress.

Note that there is no such symbol on the Salt Lake Temple as it was finally erected, as we see it today. Instead, a repeated symbol (called a 'frieze' in architecture) of a circle with a ring around it (the traditional symbol for Saturn) was installed to replace the original icon. This circle frieze can be seen on the parapet stringcourse, immediately below the three towers at each end of the temple, and is still referred to in LDS literature and tradition as Saturn Stones.

Just as the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans worshiped a central sun that we, today, can identify from cross-cultural comparisons as Saturn, the various 'stones' on the Salt Lake Temple also celebrate that connection, once again correlating temple iconography with ancient, traditional symbolism that gave rise to our Christmas traditions.

It’s no stretch to see that modern prophets would employ the ancient, traditional symbolism of antiquity on a modern temple. The fact that they would properly use the traditional, sacred, religious icons from the past serves to strengthen Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s claims to being prophets of God.

So, what should we make of Christmas with all its pagan symbolism and motifs? If modern prophets chose to memorialize the symbols of ancient traditions in latter-day temples, then who are we to reject those same symbols and traditions in our Christmas celebration?

© Anthony E. Larson, 2005

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Armageddon in the Atomic Age

Try to name all of the changes that the atom bomb and technology brought to our world in the middle of the last century. It certainly changed warfare; even populations far from any battle could be held hostage to annihilation. It changed politics and diplomacy; nuclear capable countries became overnight “superpowers.” It changed science; nothing since Newton’s laws of gravity or Copernicus’ heliocentrism has so profoundly effected our views of the universe. In reality, it’s hard to find some aspect of our lives that hasn’t changed in one way or another due to the advent of the atomic age.

In fact, as unlikely as it may seem to the average Christian - including Mormons - the atom bomb even changed our view of the scriptures and prophecy. Today’s believers, in general, have a radically different view of scriptural prophecy than their predecessors, thanks largely to the advent of the atomic age.

Historically, prophesied destructions of the last days such as those uttered by Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, John in his Revelation and even Jesus himself were viewed as the acts of an all-powerful God. The pronounced tumult and cataclysm in the heavens and on the earth, the apocalypse predicted to occur prior to the Savior’s second coming, were seen by Christians in centuries past as the forces of nature responding to the commands of their creator.

All that changed the day the first A-bomb was detonated in July 1945. "A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent,” recalled J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the A-bomb, who witnessed the first such detonation in the New Mexico desert. The awe-inspiring power of that blast reminded Oppenheimer of a line from the Hindu sacred book, the Bhagavad-Gita: "I am become death: the destroyer of worlds."

He wasn’t the only one to see mankind in a new, world-destroying light. From that point on, Christians began to see the atom bomb as the embodiment of God’s prophesied wrath. From Herbert W. Armstrong’s "World Tomorrow" radio ministry of the 1950s to Hal Lindsay’s book and movie, "The Late, Great Planet Earth," Christian ministers began to interpret the fantastic imagery from prophecy as immensely powerful super-weapons, nuclear weapons being the cornerstone of their exegesis.

It’s easy to see why. The bomb’s mushroom cloud looked like the "pillars of fire and smoke" envisioned in prophecy, its shockwave became the "blast from heaven," the soot and ash from its fallout darkened the sky, as in prophecy, and the long, deafening roar and rumble it produced became the "sound of many waters." Given its remarkable similarity to apocalyptic "fire and brimstone," and the effects of nuclear radiation exposure from fallout to the "sores, boils and blights" of prophecy, the A-bomb was seen as the tailor-made fulfillment of prophecy.

What’s more, the 20th century brought with it the development of extremely sophisticated machinery that completely replaced the crude weapons of yesteryear. Thanks to the development of airplanes, missiles and rockets, modern warfare expanded into an entirely new realm: the skies above us. Technology brought us jet airplanes and missiles that "roar upon the tops of the mountains," tanks and aircraft with a "sting like scorpions tails," and a multitude of other high-tech weapons such as missiles and lasers whose effects seem similar to the extravagant imagery of the prophetic apocalypse.

Then, the space age took man and his technologically advanced weapons into the very heavens themselves. Once the sole venue of God’s prophesied vengeance, the heavens were now mankind’s domain as well. Man could now wield god-like power both on earth and in the heavens.

All these developments brought about a revolutionary reversal in biblical interpretation. These astounding technological advances and super-weapons had a profound effect on the thinking of the Christian clergy as they read and interpreted prophecy. A whole new breed of millennialists appeared who saw the fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecy in the technological advancements of mankind. Religionists now proclaim that man with his super-weapons, not God, will be Apollyon (Abaddon), the destroyer, as noted by John in his Revelation. Mankind now had the power to single-handedly fulfill all prophecy of the last days and bring about Armageddon all on his own.

In fine, God was no longer necessary to the fulfillment of prophecy. Mankind would now provide all the elements of the apocalypse: pillars of fire devastating vast expanses and destroying whole populations, a quaking earth ruptured by super-powerful atomic bombs and the roaring of flying machines, ashen skies that turned the moon red and darkened the sun, death from virile plagues and toxic poisons unleashed on a hapless world populace, a "scorched earth" warfare that would leave a vast wasteland in the wake of advancing armies with super weapons.

God could sit on the sidelines, a celestial spectator, while we would bring about the end of the world. Deus ex machina; Deus ex homonum!

The problem is that this warped view of the apocalypse has been allowed to stand. Nothing could be further from the truth. Clearly, the egotism and myopia of modern man has overtaken the proper view of prophecy.

Nearly every Christian now sees the fulfillment of prophecy in these same terms. But it is a badly flawed view that should be corrected. This kind of myopic, egoistic interpretation is easily demolished when we look to scriptural accounts as accurate, eyewitness reports of God’s dealings with his children.

For example, no Christian in his or her right mind would suggest that the fire and brimstone that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah was really an atomic bomb. Early man had neither the technology nor the knowledge to produce such a weapon. It was destruction from God, not man.

And what about the fire from heaven that consumed Elijah’s sacrifice on Mt. Carmel or that destroyed the Assyrian army of Sennacherib as he laid siege to Jerusalem in the days of Isaiah? Ancient man could not have done that, but God could.

Was the Exodus’ pillar of fire and smoke, bloody water, darkness, earthquakes or plagues due to some super weapon? Was this man’s or God’s doing?

Were these not the forces of nature obeying the command of their creator? Why, then, do we allow descriptions of similar calamities to come in the last days to suggest the cause is other than God-sent?

The crux of this argument is the strikingly similar language used in the scriptures to describe both ancient catastrophes and those prophesied for the future. This logic is a vital key, axiomatic to understanding the Bible and the fulfillment of prophecy that every Christian should internalize: The calamities of the last days, prior to the Second Coming, will see a return of all the catastrophic types of destruction from the past, enumerated in the scripture. As a test, compare the "miracles" of Exodus and Revelation for yourself.

Otherwise, why would God use the irresistible forces of nature to do his bidding in the past and not in the future, leaving that to the hand of man instead? Isn’t it logical to assume that the striking similarities between ancient destructions and those prophesied for our future are an indication that they will be of the same nature, kind and source?

While it is true that "there will be wars and rumors of wars," fought by man, the true agents of destruction will be the forces of nature, "... shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the power of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven …"

We have fallen prey to delusions where the interpretation of prophecy is concerned because we failed to heed the teachings of the Bible. Perhaps it is time we returned to the proper perspective, rather than the distorted view induced by our myopic, egocentric, modern perceptions. Perhaps it is time we took man, his puny and fragile devices out of the equation — puny when compared to the forces of nature at God’s command — by recognizing that God alone will fulfill the promises made by the mouths of his holy prophets.

Perhaps this should also remind us of just how widespread, devastating and earthshaking the apocalypse of the last days will be — far greater by many orders of magnitude than any man-made calamity — when it does come upon us.

© Anthony E. Larson, 2002

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Tale of Two Books

The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt under Moses’ inspired leadership is perhaps one of the more spectacular events recorded in the Old Testament. In the process, the list of plagues visited upon Egypt is impressive: water turned to blood, vermin, pestilence, destructive hail, fire from heaven, thick darkness and the death of the firstborn. There were also some miraculous manifestations: the pillar of fire and smoke, the parting of the Red Sea, bitter water made sweet, manna from heaven, the sound of trumpets and thunder, as well as lightning and earthquakes at Mt. Sinai.

Remarkably, there is another book of scripture that reports the same plagues and miracles. When we turn to John’s Revelation in the New Testament, the principle scriptural source for a list of prophesied plagues and miracles seen to occur in the last days, we see the same sort of things going on. In fact, a side-by-side comparison of the two books reveals remarkable similarities that intrigue the student of the scriptures.

We read in Exodus: “… and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood. And the fish that was in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river; and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.”

A comparable passage from Revelation reads: “And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul died in the sea. And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of water; and they became blood.”

Again, in Exodus: “… and the Lord sent thunder and hail, and the fire ran along the ground.”

Also in Revelation: “… and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth.”

Exodus: “And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and brake every tree of the field.”

Revelation: “And there fell upon men a great hail out of heaven, every stone about the weight of a talent; …”

Exodus: “And it shall become small dust in all the land of Egypt, and shall be a boil breaking forth with blains upon man, and upon beast, throughout all the land of Egypt.”

Revelation: “… and there fell a noisome and grievous sore upon the men … and they gnawed their tongues for pain, and blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores.”

Exodus: “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings … and the whole mount quaked greatly.”

Revelation: “… and there were voices, thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake.”

Exodus: “… and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.”

Revelation: “And the seven angels which hold the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound. The first angel sounded …”

These stunning similarities are all the more amazing when we consider that Exodus is a record of past events while Revelation chronicles things that are yet to come. Apparently, the same things were going on in Moses’ time as will happen in ours. In fact, when all revelation touching upon the prophesied events of the last days is taken into consideration, these similarities become unambiguous commonalities.

Upon pondering this remarkable coincidence, it becomes apparent that the events of the last days, prior to the Savior’s advent, will see a return of the plagues and miracles of the Exodus — a rerun, if you will, in our day — something that most Saints have never considered.

Once established, these commonalities shed further light upon latter-day revelations, allowing us to better understand the context of past and prophesied events and appreciate their interrelated nature. That is, these signs do not happen in isolation; they occur in concert. Hence, when one or two of these plagues or miracles occur, most if not all of the others can be expected as well, even though they may not be specifically mentioned.

For example, the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith, "For after your testimony cometh the testimony of earthquakes, that shall cause groanings in the midst of her, and men shall fall upon the ground and shall not be able to stand.

"And also cometh the testimony of the voice of thunderings, and the voice of lightnings, and the voice of tempests, and the voice of the waves of the sea heaving themselves beyond their bounds. (Doctrine and Covenants 88:89, 90.)

These signs are plainly some of the same as those plagues mentioned in Exodus and Revelation. Hence, we can surmise that other signs from those two books will also be included. "For not many days hence and the earth shall tremble and reel to and fro as a drunken man; and the sun shall hide his face, and shall refuse to give light; and the moon shall be bathed in blood; and the stars shall become exceedingly angry, and shall cast themselves down as a fig that falleth from off a fig-tree. …

"And he shall sound his trump both long and loud, and all nations shall hear it." (Doctrine and Covenants 88:87, 94.)

This more ample statement of latter-day events significantly elaborates our understanding of such events, whether they occurred in ancient times or in the future. Yet, it reinforces the connected nature of these signs, plagues and miracles.

Given this new perspective of Exodus and Revelation, our study of prophecy and the scriptures should be more meaningful than ever before.

© Anthony E. Larson, 2003

Friday, August 15, 2008

Gaining Perspective

Joseph Smith lived his life with one foot in the present, the other in the past. That is, in order to effect a ‘restoration,’ he had to know what from the past had been lost in order to restore it.

It’s evident from the abundance of information he bequeath the church that he had a profound understanding of the past. In fact, his entire journey as a modern prophet began because he sought in vain for the original, primitive church. The gold plates entrusted to him contained the ancient history of at least two migrations to the New World long before Columbus. The Egyptian papyri, which he explained with self-assured confidence and considerable accuracy at a time when scholars knew little or nothing about their meaning, dealt with an ancient culture with a rich heritage that scholars are still trying to fully fathom.

One could go on for pages, listing his research into and exposure to the past.

So, ancient history played a huge role in the prophet’s life and career.

Given that fact, it would be natural to expect that if anything closely approximating what this author affirms about dramatic changes in the heavens and the earth occasioned by past planetary catastrophes, Joseph would have had something to say about it.

In fact, this was the question that prompted one of the early searches this author initiated into ancient history: Did Joseph Smith describe a world in the past that was in any way notably different from the one we know today?

The search yielded a wealth of evidence, some of it direct, some of it anecdotal, that, indeed, Joseph knew of and taught about a very different heaven and earth than the one we see today.

For example, speaking of the Tower of Babel story, Apostle Orson F. Whitney said, “… the object of the people who built the Tower of Babel (was) to reach heaven, to attain one of the starry planets, one of the heavenly bodies.

“… I cannot conceive how … a race of people … could cherish the idea that they could actually reach the sun, moon, or one of the stars simply by piling brick upon brick and stone upon stone.

“But the Prophet Joseph Smith, whose job it was to shed light upon the darkness of this generation, is said to have declared that it was not their intention to reach heaven, but to reach Zion, which was then suspended in mid-air between heaven and earth, or at such a height as to render the project feasible. This certainly is more reasonable.”

Orson Pratt, another Apostle, amplified on this idea, saying, “About the time of Abraham, the Tower of Babel was built. … They thought that the City of Enoch was caught up a little ways from the earth, and that the city was within the first sphere above the earth; and that if they could get a tower high enough they might get to heaven where the City of Enoch and the inhabitants thereof were located.”

Of course, we have the Philo Dibble illustration, presented to him by Joseph Smith, which gives us a virtual picture of Earth in a tandem arrangement with other planets that makes the above statements meaningful. This was Joseph’s vision of what the ancient heavens looked like, what Elder Orson Hyde called “one grand constellation of worlds,” a concept that he undoubtedly learned from Joseph.

This picture of the ancient Earth with its companion planets explains the following statement by Apostle Orson Pratt: “The Prophet Joseph once in my hearing advanced his opinion that the Ten Tribes were separated from the Earth or a portion of the Earth was, by a miracle, broken off and that the Ten Tribes were taken away with it, and that in the latter days it would be restored to the Earth or be let down in the polar regions.”

Fast forward to the present, and we find that most Mormons today know nothing of such accounts because they seem extravagant, far-fetched and implausible in light of the modern, scientific model of our solar system. They simply have not taken the time or made the effort to learn all that Joseph Smith taught. And LDS scholars have simply avoided quoting such observations because they don’t fit the “scientific” or “logical” worldview we embrace and are therefore an embarrassment or an enigma to them. So, they avoid them entirely.

Yet, as it turns out, the very information to which LDS intellectuals have an aversion is actually what the Prophet believed.

It can correctly be said that we Saints today live with both intellectual feet firmly planted in the present. Our motto seems to be, “Forget the ancient past,” a position diametrically opposed to our founding prophet’s perspective.

Even when studying the scriptures, we mostly restrict ourselves to an analysis of their content for a spiritual message. We rarely strive for a contextual, temporal picture of the ancients’ world in order to more fully understand the perspective offered in their writings. Instead, we tend to spiritualize what we don’t understand; we substitute spiritualized explanations to fill the gaps in our understanding. Hence, the entire study of the gospel has become an exercise designed to give everything a spiritual meaning, entirely ignoring the temporal side of all the scriptural accounts.Try suggesting to any modern Latter-day Saint that a thorough study of antiquity is necessary to understand the restored gospel, and you will note how their eyes glaze over, their brain switches to the ‘off’ mode and they start looking for the exit sign.

Given the unbounded interest of their church’s founder in the past, one must ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

© Anthony E. Larson, 2006

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Matter of Time

Search as much as you like, you will find little archeological or historical evidence to confirm much of the Old Testament. If you are a student of the scriptures, then you have undoubtedly been frustrated by this fact.

Early hopes of religionists, Latter-day Saints included, that biblical archeology and scholarly research would vindicate the Old Testament as accurate history have been repeatedly dashed.

Some of the first work done by 19th century Egyptologists was to create a comprehensive, chronological record of Egyptian history. Archeologists and historians decided that since it seemed to be the most complete chronological record of ancient history, as well as the oldest and the most long lived, Egyptian history could be used to create a complete, chronological timeline. It would thus function as a yardstick to correlate events in all the other contemporary ancient cultures in the Middle East and the Mediterranean — including those of the Hebrews or the Israelites — into a unified, seamless historical overview.

The sad reality was, though, once the Egyptian timeline was firmly established, scholars and historians found that archeological evidence seemed to contradict the historical timeline of the Old Testament at almost every turn. There seemed to be no evidence of the major events of Israelite history, as recorded in the Bible. There was little or no data confirming the existence of the Israelite nation in Egypt, no evidence of the Exodus or the conquest of Canaan in the relevant archeological strata.

For example, when Kathryn Kenyon excavated the site of ancient Jericho, she found a city with massive walls that had crumbled due to a sizeable earthquake. This was strongly suggestive of the biblical narrative that tells how the Israelite army, under Joshua’s leadership, took Jericho after its impressive city wall fell. But because of the conventional archeological dating of artifacts found at the site, Kenyon surmised that the fabled walls of Jericho fell hundreds of years before Joshua’s arrival, casting considerable doubt on the accuracy of the Old Testament as history.

In fact, these types of findings led many archeologists to doubt the historicity and the validity of a large part of the Bible. Most historians and scholars today consider most of the Old Testament to be conjured or borrowed history, if not mere mythology.

Frustrated religionists, Christians and Jews alike, were left with little historical or archeological evidence to support the sacred record. The advent of modern science and scholasticism had been no help. Archeology would be no friend to religion. It was as if the Old Testament Hebrews or Israelites never existed—a disturbing state of affairs.

Then a quiet revolution began.

A few maverick historians and archeologists suggested that their colleagues had, as one researcher put it, “been looking in the right places, but in the wrong time.” That is, they saw glaring flaws in the accepted chronology of ancient history.

These unorthodox scholars, such as British archeologist and historian David Rohl, sought to create a new chronology, one less arbitrary and more accommodating of strong historical and archeological evidence for inter-cultural correlations that were rejected in the old, rigid chronological scheme. Rohl and others suggested egregious errors in the Egyptian timeline had, in effect, dislocated and distorted other histories—including the Hebrew. They recommend that documented connections or correlations in the historical and archeological record should be allowed to speak for themselves instead of forcing an illogical, rigid chronology on all ancient history.

The result is a fascinating, insightful chronological and historical revision.

The happy news for Latter-day Saints and religionists everywhere is that by allowing heretofore discounted correlations between Egyptian and Hebrew histories to stand alone, irrespective of any ‘established’ chronology, we discover that much of the long sought for evidence of the validity of the Old Testament record has been right under our noses all the time.

For two centuries no evidence was found for the Israelites when looking in Egypt in the strata of the 19th Dynasty. Amended chronologies now suggest that the Israelite sojourn in Egypt be placed in the 12th and 13th dynasties. With that revision, we suddenly find a wealth of archaeological evidence corroborating the biblical account — some very revealing of ancient events, people and situations. The orthodox timeline prevented us from seeing them because the dating created an illusion of history that was really a dislocation in time, in most cases by hundreds of years.

Evidence of the Exodus, perhaps the most impressive event in Hebrew history, has been lacking in profane history for this very reason.

In the old chronology, Ramesees II was thought to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus, if there was one at all. There was little evidence for a large population of Hebrew slaves, for ‘plagues’ that swept the Nile Valley or for the decimation of the Egyptian armies, as the Old Testament relates.

In the new chronology, the Exodus occurred toward the end of the 13th Dynasty. Pharaoh Tutimaeus, or Didimose, emerges as the ruler whom Moses confronted. Thus, the corrected chronology gives new meaning to Josephus’ quote of the Egyptian scholar, Manetho, when he writes, “Tutimaos: in his reign, for what cause I know not, a blast of God smote us.”

The “blast of God” in the time of Tutimaos (Tutimaeus or Didimose) can now be seen as the Exodus plagues.

What is more, the Exodus story suggests that Egypt was left defenseless since Pharaoh’s army was drowned in the Red Sea. So, the Amalkites that did battle with the Israelites, who were on their way to Canaan, went on to easily conquer Egypt and became known to history as the barbarous Hyksos.

The new chronology allows a reassessment of the archeological and historical record, offering many fascinating historical details and creating a much more complete picture of Hebrew history in Egypt.

Egyptian history and archeology now confirm that Joseph became a vizier under Pharaoh Amenemhat III, and the Egyptian Labyrinth at Hawara with its thousands of storerooms was nothing less than Joseph’s administration center for the distribution of grain during the famine.

Near Tell ed-Daba in the Nile delta region, archeologists excavated a large city beneath the city of Ramesses, mentioned in Exodus 1:11. This city, which was called Avaris, anciently, had a large Israelite quarter. A magnificent palace with 12 pillars was excavated there and is thought to be Joseph’s. Additional evidence for that conclusion was a tomb found in the palace garden with the desecrated remains of a twice life-size statue with a uniquely Hebrew hairstyle — likely a statue of Joseph, the most powerful Hebrew in Egyptian history.

Further, death pits discovered at Avaris attest to the deaths of the Egyptian first born during that plague. What is more, immediately after this disaster, the remaining population left the city en masse — a startling corroboration of the Israelite Exodus following a terrible pestilence.

The same historical revision reveals evidence for the later Hebrew Monarchy in Palestine during the time of Saul, David and Solomon, which had been completely discounted under the old chronology. It now shines forth to illuminate the Old Testament accounts of that era and give it a historical context that has been utterly lacking heretofore.

As it turns out, the Amarna letters, clay tablets found at Tell el-Amarna over a century ago, record the correspondence of the famous Pharaoh Akhenaten with rulers in Canaan, and contain information about the Israelite conquest of that area following the Exodus. They paint a more complete picture of a tribal Palestine that corroborates the biblical picture described by the prophet Samuel.

Indeed, they tell of a king named Labayu, meaning “the great lion of Yahweh,” who shows scant respect for Pharaoh in his communiqué to that Egyptian potentate. The career of Labayu in the Amarna letters is strikingly similar to that of Saul, who was also known as the “great lion of Yahweh.” Thus, we reach the astounding conclusion that we have had in our possession a letter from Saul to Akhenaten, warning off an Egyptian Pharaoh, for over a century without recognizing it for what it is.

Moreover, the Amarna letters yield dozens of names recognizable to scholars as equivalents to familiar, prominent biblical characters of that era. Ayab is Joab, commander of David’s army. Dadua is a form of the name David, and Yishuya is Jesse (Yishay in Hebrew), David’s father.

We can now also see that instead of reigning in the impoverished Early Iron Age where conventional chronology puts him, Solomon is now seen to rule in the Late Bronze Age, a period of wealth and prosperity in the Levant. His contemporaries in Egypt were Horemheb and Seti I. An ivory piece excavated at Megiddo, which the Bible tells us was built up by Solomon, depicts a king on his throne flaked by two sphinxes with his queen before him. This could very well be Solomon and the Egyptian queen (I Kings 3:1) since Solomon is said to have had a throne flanked with lions.

Naturally, conventional historians and archeologists hotly contest such notions. The reputations of some eminent scholars and well-established academic careers are at stake in this debate.

Any Latter-day Saint wishing to better understand the characters found in the Old Testament and the history of God’s dealings with Israel and its prophets would do well to inform themselves of the revelations coming from these avant-garde archeologists and historians working on the revision of ancient history chronology.

© Anthony E. Larson, 2003

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Knowledge of the Stars

What Joseph Smith Taught the Early Saints

I advised all to search deeper and deeper into the mysteries of
(Joseph Smith, History of the Church 6:363.)

I also gave some instructions in the mysteries of the kingdom of God; such as the history of the planets, Abraham’s writings upon the planetary systems, etc. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 118.)

The heavens and the earth that we see now are not those seen by our ancestors. As the reader will see herein, this is the lesson that Joseph Smith and all the prophets taught. This is a lesson that every modern Saint who seeks to better understand the scriptures, the words of the prophets and the temple experience would do well to study carefully.

If we are to believe the scriptures and modern prophets, those who lived before Noah’s flood experienced a wholly different environment than that which we see today—something modern science flatly denies. This transformation of the sky above us and the earth beneath our feet is one of the primary themes of revelation, ancient and modern, reflected in the oft-repeated scriptural phrase, “new heavens and new earth.” (See the monograph by this author entitled “New Heaven, New Earth” for a more complete explanation.)

Because this concept is so well established in the scriptures, it should come as no surprise to any Mormon. Yet, when the implications and ramifications behind this bit of poetic prose are explained, church members almost universally react with surprise and incredulity, followed by skepticism and suspicion, even though this concept is fundamental to understanding the scriptures and the prophets and puts an entirely different light on many other concepts or principles within the restored gospel. (See “A Gospel Litmus Test,” “Modern Signs,” and “Stars, Planets, Moons and Temples.)

This state of affairs points out a conceptual weakness unique to today’s Saints. They are universally astounded to learn that early church leaders espoused cosmological views that are at variance with those we hold today. What may be needed is a perspective shift that would return today’s members to the views of the early church as they relate to ancient history and related astral events, a reorienting of our modern cosmological viewpoint to bring us into harmony with the founder of this church and early church leaders. To do that, we must examine some long neglected statements, from Joseph Smith and others, down to the present day. (See “The Golden Question” and “Signs of the Times.”)

In order to establish a corrected view of ancient planetary history in the minds of modern Saints, it is useful to consider statements from several church leaders and other members who report learning their views from the Prophet himself.

Brigham Young

Let’s begin with a view of the very earliest history of this Earth given us by the second prophet of this dispensation. In a conference address, President Brigham Young said, "When the earth was framed and brought into existence and man was placed upon it, it was near the throne of our Father in heaven. And when man fell … the earth fell into space and took up its abode in this planetary system and the sun became our light. This is the glory the earth came from, and when it is glorified it will return again unto the presence of the Father …." (Journal of Discourses, 17:143.)

When taken as a factual account as it was likely intended, rather than simply an allegorical statement, this observation is fraught with greater meaning.

First and foremost, it tells us that our Earth has not always orbited our Sun. It implies that this planet was located somewhere outside this solar system, only to later find its way into its present orbit.

Of course, such a notion flies in the face of modern astrophysical theory, which asserts that our Earth, along with the rest of the planets in the present solar system, coalesced from a nebular cloud that once surrounded our sun and that it has always been approximately where it is now.

This immediately puts the Saints on the horns of a dilemma, one that we will confront time and again in this narrative: Do we believe the concepts of modern science when they contradict the teachings of modern prophets? Or, do we place our faith in revealed truth rather than mainstream science? Where do our allegiances truly lie? Though most of us will give lip service to the belief that the words of the prophets prevail, in practice we act upon and view the world with the precepts of science. All Saints live with this dichotomy. (See “Children of the Light,” Eschatus, Vol 1, No. 1.)

It is to revelation, given through modern prophets, that we must turn for the final answer rather than science and its dependence upon the “precepts of men.”

Getting back to the statement itself, some will surely dismiss President Young’s declaration as purely allegorical rather than literal. They will say that this avoids the problem of dismissing the views of modern science in order to accept the words of a prophet, immediately settling the question without looking further.

Naturally, this is a valid observation, but it leaves us where we began our discussion, with a number of unanswered questions and the dissatisfaction of knowing that we may have overlooked some vital truths or misinterpreted the prophet’s meaning. Whereas, if we set this objection aside, temporarily suspending judgment until we can explore all the implications of Brigham’s statement and those of other leaders, we may find there is a much better explanation. We may actually come across something vital and enlightening if we but allow ourselves to explore the alternatives.

Notice, too, that President Young implies that the creation of the Earth and the placement of all creatures upon this world, up to and including Man, took place before our world found its present place, orbiting this Sun. Brigham stated, “This is the glory the earth came from ….” That would mean that the early descendents of Adam first bathed in a different light, that they did not see our Sun as we see it now. And if that was the case, the other planets in our solar system may not have been where we see them today at all.

Although President Young didn’t mention it, it is a natural assumption, supported by voluminous eyewitness accounts from ancient cultures the world over, that the relocation process experienced by this Earth, as referenced by Brigham, provided its human inhabitants with a spectacular series of celestial dramas that dramatically altered both their skies and the planet on which they stood, which drama played out over many generations and included numerous catastrophic events. (See “The New Saturn Myth,” Eschatus, Vol. 1, No. 2; “The Saturn Epic: In the Beginning, Eschatus, Vol.1, No.3; “The Saturn Epic: Mythmaking,” Eschatus, Vol 2, No. 1.)

President Young spoke of Earth’s prior position as being “near the throne of our Father in heaven.” This has far more sweeping implications than those that immediately meet the eye. For example, the explanations Joseph Smith gave for the hypocephalus hieroglyphs on the papyri that came into his hands are all about planets and stars, their relative locations to one another, their hierarchy and their proximity to the “residence” or “throne of God.” (See The Pearl of Great Price, pp. 36, 37.) The implications are that the Egyptian traditions and the icons used to rehearse, recall or memorialize them actually retain the knowledge of the heavens as they appeared in the earliest epoch of Earth’s history. Both Brigham and the Egyptians used the same terminology to describe this first estate of our planet as a place near God’s throne. The Egyptian tradition is filled with this sort of affirmation, but we mistakenly take it to be largely metaphorical because we base our beliefs on the current scientific model of Earth’s history, not the words of our prophets.

It should be noted that part of the evidence supporting these conjectures about Brigham’s statements comes from no less an authority than Joseph Smith in his explanations of the facsimiles, as we shall see.

Another stunning assumption can be inferred from President Young’s observation, “… and when it [the Earth] is glorified it will return again unto the presence of the Father ….” This parallels the doctrine of the restoration of all things. This concept is also embodied in the revelation that says, “Truth is the knowledge of things as they are, as they were and as they are to come.” Put yet another way, by knowing information about past celestial events, we can draw inferences about future events and vice versa—each is a reflection of the other, like two conceptual bookends. (See “A Tale of Two Books.”)

This is a notion that we will run into time and time again in this journey of discovery and wonder. The reader would do well to keep it in mind as we move forward.

Before moving on, it should be noted that this evidence and the weight it carries, coming from the credible sources it does, should force us to drastically rethink our allegiance to mainstream thought and our current perspective on these matters. As stated at the outset of this monograph, this evidence requires a radical shift in our own perspective.

Granted, this thesis extrapolates much from a very brief statement, and if taken alone, hardly constitutes proof of these assumptions. But there is much more that serves to corroborate Brigham’s views, so let’s move on.

Orson Hyde

Elder Orson Hyde, an early Apostle and the man who dedicated the Holy Land to the gathering of Israel, substantiated President Young’s statement about the Earth’s restoration to its former place and glory when he remarked, "God says he will gather all things into one; then he will gather the earth likewise …. The gathering will be upon a larger scale in time to come; for by and by the stars of heaven will fall. Which way will they go? They will rally to a grand center, and there will be one grand constellation of worlds. (Journal of Discourses, 1:130.)

This statement amplifies on Brigham’s views by including other worlds in this gathering or restoration to its former location. Based on the restoration doctrine, we can also infer that this “constellation of worlds” was the arrangement that dominated the heavens anciently, in the beginning, when Earth was situated near the orb referred to as the “throne of God” by Brigham.

Elder Hyde’s reference to the “larger scale” of this gathering is a reflection on the idea that many planets, not just the Earth, were involved in the “fall” from its location near the orb referenced as “the throne of God, “ and that a group of planets and other orbs or “stars” will once again be gathered or returned to their former location. This statement has profound implications for our understanding and interpretation of the events prophesied to occur prior to the Savior’s second coming, providing a unifying theme for all such prophecy that makes it plain and easy to understand. (See “Keys to Prophecy, Joseph Smith’s Marvelous Key” and “Keys to Prophecy, What Joseph Taught.”)

In the journal of an early Latter-day Saint, Samuel Hollister Rogers, we find corroboration of this gathering of planets and stars. Rogers attributes this concept to Joseph Smith.

When these stars return to the place where they were taken from, it will cause the earth to reel to and fro. Not that the planets will come squarely against each other. In such case both planets would be broken to pieces. But, in their rolling motion, they will come together where they were taken from, which will cause the earth to reel to and fro. (Journal of Samuel Hollister Rogers, 1840, B.Y.U Special Collections.)

Orson Pratt

Another clue to the ancient appearance of other orbs in Earth’s heavens is found in a statement made by Elder Orson Pratt. "About the time of Abraham, the Tower of Babel was built. … They thought that the City of Enoch was caught up a little ways from the earth, and that the city [planet] was within the first sphere above the earth; and that if they could get a tower high enough they might get to heaven where the City of Enoch and the inhabitants thereof were located. (Journal of Discourses, 16:50.)

The reference to “the first sphere above the earth” is an allusion to the geocentric, Aristotelian view that the sun, moon, planets and stars were imbedded in nested, crystalline spheres, with the Earth at the center. Elder Pratt, an astronomer and mathematician, meant to infer that the planet was located as close to the Earth as our Moon, which was thought in ancient times to be in the “first sphere” above the Earth.

Since space is more typically the locus for planets rather than cities, it seems appropriate to infer that Elder Pratt meant that Enoch’s city was located on a planet.

Orson F. Whitney

Elder Orson F. Whitney, called to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1906, was born in Salt Lake City in 1855. Therefore, he could not have learned these things from Joseph Smith personally. But, as can be seen in his statement below, he directly and specifically attributed this concept to the Prophet. In all probability, this indicates that he obtained this knowledge secondhand, though it may also have been confirmed to him through revelation. Of utmost significance to our study is the fact that it confirms that this type of perspective could still be found among the church membership in Whitney’s day and that it corroborates the cosmology of earlier church leaders. "… the object of the people who built the Tower of Babel (was) to reach heaven, to attain one of the starry planets, one of the heavenly bodies. … I cannot conceive how … a race of people … could cherish the idea that they could actually reach the sun, moon, or one of the stars simply by piling brick upon brick and stone upon stone.

"But the Prophet Joseph Smith, whose job it was to shed light upon the darkness of this generation, is said to have declared that it was not their intention to reach heaven, but to reach Zion, which was then suspended in mid-air between heaven and earth, or at such a height as to render the project feasible. This certainly is more reasonable." (Collected Discourses, Vol. 1, p. 359.)

Reasonable or not, these two statements emphatically propose a wholly untenable concept in today’s astronomy: Earth was once at close quarters with another planet in the days of Babel’s tower. Additionally surprising is the fact that both Elders Hyde and Whitney unabashedly attribute this teaching to the Prophet, making it certain that Joseph was, in fact, the source of this concept.

Moreover, both statements infer that this planet was close enough to give the impression that it could be reached if one simply built a tall enough building. This mystery planet, referred to as a “city” by Elder Hyde, must have been an impressive sight if it seemed close enough to be within human grasp.

Perhaps most interesting of all is Elder Whitney’s reference to this planet as being “suspended in mid-air,” implying that it may not have orbited in the manner so familiar to us today. Rather, it suggests that the planet moved in tandem with the Earth. This notion seemingly borders on the preposterous, yet it is substantiated by another statement, this one from Elder Orson Pratt. "The Prophet Joseph once in my hearing advanced his opinion that the Ten Tribes were separated from the Earth or a portion of the Earth was, by a miracle, broken off and that the Ten Tribes were taken away with it, and that in the latter days it would be restored to the Earth or be let down in the polar regions." (The Letter Box, as quoted in The Lost Tribes, p. 50.)

If this “portion of the Earth” were actually another planet that had once appeared to hover or be “suspended in mid-air,” as Elder Whitney stated, then its location above the North Pole would explain how it could appear to remain in a fixed position with relation to the Earth. The one star in our present heavens that does not appear to move around the night sky is Polaris, the North Star. Any planet fixed in that same position at some distance from the Earth would appear to hang motionless in the sky, remaining stationary there day and night. (See “Keys to Prophecy, Planets and Stars” and “Keys to Prophecy, A Great Star.”)

Not coincidentally, the constellation Ursa Major or the Big Bear is located on the west wall of the Salt Lake Temple, where it points directly at Polaris. A reasonable conclusion, drawn from this discussion, is that Orson Pratt, who was responsible for the iconography of that temple and articulated the polar idea in the above statement as well, understood the importance of the Axis Mundi concept (World Axis at the North Pole) and the role it played in the position of a planet or planets in Earth’s ancient skies. Hence, he set in stone on a latter-day temple the very concepts articulated in the above statements: a great planet once hovered above the Earth’s north pole.

Startling documentary evidence of Joseph’s cosmological beliefs

As extreme as that position may seem, it is substantiated by evidence produced by another of Joseph Smith’s closest associates, Philo Dibble, who served as a bodyguard to the Prophet. After relocating to Utah with the pioneer Saints, Dibble settled in Springville. He was well known to church leaders, who treated him with deference and respect because of his diligence and service to Joseph and the church. Neither did they challenge the concepts behind the next bit of evidence we will examine.

In 1884, Dibble produced an illustration he claimed had been personally drawn for him by Joseph Smith in 1842 as the Prophet explained to Dibble how the Earth had once been part of a group of planets in the distant past—assumably the same idea as Elder Hyde’s “constellation of worlds.” (See “Saturn Symbolism in the Salt Lake Temple,” Eschatus, Vol. 3, No. 3 and Vol. 3, No. 4; “The Polar Configuration, Saturn, the Crescent and Joseph Smith,” Eschatus, Vol. 4, No. 3; “What Joseph Knew,” Eschatus, Vol.5, No. 2, “Keys to Prophecy, Prophecy and the Restored Gospel.”)

The conclusions that one can draw from looking at this Dibble illustration can be summarized thus: Not one but three planets once stood above the Earth’s north pole, sharing a common axis of rotation with one another and the Earth in a “shish kabob” configuration, as seen in the Dibble drawing. This unique positioning allowed them to appear stationary in Earth’s heavens such that the Babylonians considered it possible to build a tower to reach them. This “constellation of worlds” remained intact, contrary to all the tenets of our gravity-based, scientific notions, and orbited the sun in the same ecliptic plane as all the planets do today. Also, a tenuous column of lighted gases and dust seemed to interconnect these planets, as seen in the Dibble illustration.

Parley Pratt

Not only is that exceedingly strange, so is the final conclusion: A similar arrangement will be restored in the catastrophic events seen to occur prior to the Savior’s coming, as predicted in all prophecy. Elder Parley Pratt, Orson Pratt’s brother and an Apostle, said, "The stars [planets] which will fall to earth are fragments, which have been broken off from the earth from time to time in the mighty convulsions of nature …. These all must be restored again at the ‘times of restitution of all things.’ … When these fragments (some of which are vastly larger than the present earth) are brought back and joined to this earth, it will cause a convulsion of all nature …. The mountains will flow down, the valley rise, the sea retire to its own place, the islands and continents will be removed, and the earth be rolled together as a scroll." (The Millennial Star, 1:258.)

This restoration of polarly aligned planets is echoed in the journal of Brother Rogers, who was quoted previously as saying, “… they will come together where they were taken from ….” And again, from another early church member’s journal, that of Wandle Mace, we read: "Some of you brethren have been coming up the river on a steamboat, and while seated at the table the steamboat (ran) against a snag, which upset the table and scattered the dishes; so it will be when these portions of the earth return. It will make the earth reel to and fro like a drunken man." (The journal of Wandle Mace, p.47.)

Finally, from an extended discussion with the Prophet about the mechanisms behind such planetary encounters by an early church member, Homer M. Brown, great grandfather of Elder Hugh B. Brown, recalled these details of Joseph’s explanation. "Scientists will tell you … that two planets coming together would be disastrous to both. But, when two planets … are traveling in the same direction and one of them with a little greater velocity than the other, it would not be disastrous because the one traveling faster would overtake the other.

"Now, what would cause the mountains of ice to melt quicker than the heat caused by the friction of the two planets coming together?

"Now, Brother Brown, at the present time this earth is rotating very rapidly. When this planet returns it will make the earth much heavier, and it will then revolve slower, and that will account for the waters receding from the earth …." (The Last Days, pp. 90, 91.)

These are not the only evidentiary documents that could be cited. There are literally dozens of such references strewn about in the records left behind by the early Saints. While admittedly anecdotal in nature and therefore subject to doubt, taken together they form a compelling and coherent body of information that bears further study and compels us to examine our presently held beliefs regarding Earth’s true history.

Not only do these statements offer considerable evidence from a variety of sources that Joseph Smith was, indeed, teaching these concepts to the early Saints, apparently, this was our founding prophet’s view of Earth’s early history. If so, we would do well to abandon our present views, steeped in an apparently flawed scientific paradigm, in favor of the more enlightened views on these subjects held by the prophets.

Also, since virtually all these men referenced Joseph Smith as the author or originator of these ideas, it seems likely that even at that early date, when the scholarly doctrines of Uniformitarianism or Gradualism had just begun to take root in the minds of church members, these brethren felt obliged to recur to the authoritative intellect of the Prophet to give their statements validity or gravitas in the minds of the Saints. They should have an identical effect upon us.

More important still is the marvelous discovery we make by adopting this viewpoint and informing ourselves in all its facets. A multitude of questions in the restored gospel are thereby immediately resolved—such issues as the exterior and interior symbolism of modern temples, Joseph’s explanations of his Egyptian papyri and other scriptural accounts such as Abraham’s story about planets, moons, suns and stars in the Pearl of Great Price, John’s enigmatic vision recorded in his Apocalypse or Revelation and all the cryptic visions of the prophets.

Moreover, the paradigm shift this information provides allows a profound and enlarged understanding of nearly every facet of the restored gospel for the Saints. Indeed, this is the central purpose of this study: to make plain the symbolism of the scriptures and the temple experience in order to allow the Saints to better interpret the words of the prophets and grasp the core concepts of the restored gospel.

If, indeed, this is what Joseph Smith learned through revelation about the early history of the Earth, then it is incumbent upon all Latter-day Saints to understand it and make it their own. These precepts were part of what made Mormonism truly unique and Mormons a peculiar people. Without this remarkable and noteworthy perspective, our views would differ little from those of every other Christian denomination, making us as salt with no savor. (See “Keys To Prophecy, An Introduction.”)

A scientific counterpart to the prophets’ concepts

Happily for those who are made uncomfortable with notions that fly in the face of mainstream orthodox science, there is a group of modern scholars and scientists that agree with these concepts. Their explanation of Earth’s earliest history, while unorthodox and disputed by many in the mainstream, concurs with the Brethren’s observations and fills in many otherwise missing details. This should also come as very welcome news to those current Saints who perceive the ongoing conflict between mainstream science and religion—most especially the restored gospel.

Saying “a costly misunderstanding of planetary history must now be corrected,” these maverick scientists and scholars have set about correcting the fundamental misconceptions of a planetary science and cosmology conceived in the gaslight era when electricity was poorly understood and a mere novelty, when plasmas in space were not even imagined and the very best telescopes would not allow a good view of our neighboring planets let alone the multitude of galaxies, stellar clusters and planetary nebulae abundant in our heavens.

A comparative mythologist, Dave Talbott, who has written extensively on the cosmological implications of the sacred traditions of all ancient cultures, and his coauthor, Wallace Thornhill, a physicist who is the primary proponent of the novel idea that it is electrical energy in plasma that lights and governs our universe, have teamed up to explain that Earth, along with other planets, was once a satellite of a brown dwarf star, which was subsequently captured by our Sun, a similar affirmation to that made by Brigham Young.

Together, Talbott and Thornhill question the fundamental pillar of today’s theoretical cosmology—the concept of the “uneventful solar system.” They are adamant that the Sun’s acquisition of that brown dwarf star, now known as the planet Saturn, and its entourage took place within historic times, as evidenced by the records, traditions and religions of all ancient cultures. These ancient civilizations, which unanimously declare that Earth was once lighted by Saturn, now classified as a “dark star” or “failed star” by astronomers due to its energetic output, is the same orb that many cultural traditions designate as the “first sun,” or “best sun,” as well as “god’s throne.” The Babylonians, for example, made the most unequivocal statement of all ancient civilizations when they wrote, “The sun is Saturn.”

Talbott wrote of his and Thornhill’s studies, “Following quite different research paths, we arrived at the same conclusion: the ancient sky was alive with activity. The evidence suggests that only a few thousand years ago planets moved close to Earth, producing electrical phenomena of intense beauty and terror. Ancient sky worshippers witnessed these celestial wonders, and far-flung cultures recorded the events in the great myths, symbols, and ritual practices of antiquity.” (Thunderbolts of the Gods, p. 6.)

They additionally declare that the appearance and movements of planets that once hovered near the Earth, together with the life-like movements seen in electrified plasma displays of light and sound that erupted between those neighboring planets, are the source of all ancient astral symbolism, hyperbole and metaphor.

Ultimately, Elder Hyde’s “constellation of worlds”—called the “Polar Configuration” by Talbott et al and dramatically illustrated in the Dibble diagram—was dismembered, and each of its component orbs settled quickly into the orbits around the Sun where we see them today. But, that settling process entailed a number of close encounters between planets over several centuries that wreaked havoc on each of them, including our Earth, as the Elders Pratt asserted.

Once again, these are key concepts found in the statements by church leaders that we have explored herein. Ancient accounts from cultures the world over, including our Old Testament, report those catastrophic encounters in cryptic, enigmatic, arcane and obscure terms that are nevertheless easy to decipher from the point of view apparently offered by Joseph Smith and the proponents of the Neo-Catastrophist movement. (The evidence validating this view is voluminous and thus not practicable for citation here. However, reading this author’s body of work citing, examining and explaining that evidence and its relevance to the restored gospel will substantiate the validity of this view and expand the reader’s gospel knowledge exponentially.)

For the purposes of this essay, it is sufficient to say that there exists a thoroughly scientific, albeit unorthodox, premise for these seemingly extravagant and unsupported statements by prophets and apostles, as well as numerous other church members. In fact, the study of comparative mythology from a catastrophist point of view, initiated by Immanuel Velikovsky in the mid-20th Century and more recently elaborated by Dave Talbott and Wallace Thornhill, among many others, has provided the foundation for a fast-growing movement within scientific circles called neo-catastrophism. (See “The Great and Abominable Church.”)

For example, Talbott wrote, "We’ve paid far too little attention to the motives driving the ancient world: their desperate yearning to recover the semblance of a lost cosmic order, their collective efforts to replicate, in architecture, the towering forms claimed to have existed in primeval times, their festive recreations, through mystery plays and symbolic rites, of cosmic violence and disorder, their repetition, through ritual sacrifice, of the deaths or ordeals of the god and their brutal and ritualistic wars of expansion, repeating on the battlefield the cosmic devastation wrought in the wars of the gods.

"Such motives as these constitute the most readily verifiable underpinnings of the ancient cultures. How strange that in their incessant glance backwards, the builders of the first civilizations never remembered anything resembling the natural world in which we live!

"For centuries we've lived under the illusion that our ancestors simply made up explanations of natural phenomena they didn't understand. But that's not the problem. What the myth-makers interpreted or explained through stories and symbols and ritual re-enactments is an unrecognizable world, a world of alien sights and sounds, of celestial forms, of cosmic spectacles, and earth-shaking events that do not occur in our world.

"We have hypothesized a world order never imagined by mainstream theory--a world in which certain planets moved on much different courses than today, appearing as immense forms in the heavens.

1. Major changes in the planetary order, some involving Earth-threatening catastrophes, have occurred within human memory.

2. In myths, symbols, and ritual practices our ancestors preserved a global record of these tumultuous events.

3. The first civilizations arose from ritual practices honoring, imitating and memorializing these events and the planetary powers involved.

4. The dominant form at the onset of these events was a large sphere towering over ancient witnesses; the first astronomers identified this sphere as the planet Saturn.

"The theory holds that, just prior to the birth of the first civilizations, a gathering of planets close to Earth presented a spectacular visual display in the heavens, the obsessive focus of human attention around the world."

Ironically, all this could be said about the world described by the brethren cited in this monograph. This is certainly due to the fact that they were describing the same ancient celestial order as Talbott and other comparative mythologists have described. In fact, seen from this perspective, instead of being extravagant, odd observations, their observations become meaningful and revelatory. Thus, once again, it is the words of modern prophets that lead the way to a more meaningful understanding of the world we live in.

Adding further scientific weight to this movement is the burgeoning field of plasma physics, which disputes the very foundations of Newtonian physics. Thornhill and others propose that the weak force of gravity is vastly overwhelmed by the actions of electromotive forces generated in ionized plasmas in space, which comprise over 99% of the mass in the universe. Having dubbed their theory “the Electric Universe,”—a cosmos where electricity and the magnetic fields that electric currents generate are the primary governing forces that organize galaxies and solar systems, as well as supplying the energy that causes suns and galaxies to shine brilliantly—they cite laboratory experiments that confirm their thesis, duplicating the phenomena and structures we see through our telescopes and space probes sent to other planets. (See “The Electric Universe,” Eschatus, Vol, 7, No. 2.)

This new pioneering field has been built upon the shoulders of giants such as Kristian Birkeland, Irving Langmuir, Noble Laureate Hannes Alfven and his colleague Anthony Peratt of the prestigious Los Alamos Laboratories. This novel view even includes the controversial work of noted astronomer Halton Arp, the author of Seeing Red.

Plasma physics explains the mechanisms and energy source needed to create the sorts of ancient, astral phenomena and events spoken of by the early Brethren. Noting that the electromagnetic force is a thousand, billion, billion, billion, billion times greater than the force of gravity, these scientists and scholars have constructed a series of scenarios that parallel the seemingly extravagant declarations of early Mormon theologians. (See “Prophets and Plasmas,” Eschatus, Vol. 7, No. 3.) When has that ever before happened?

Mainstream science is historically antagonistic where religion is concerned and downright hostile to Mormonism in particular. So, it is quite refreshing and enlightening to find a scientific paradigm that is in harmony with the restored gospel and unique throughout recent history, since the beginning of the Renaissance.

It is fortuitous that this information should come to light when it can augment and amplify our gospel comprehension many fold, to say nothing of immeasurably strengthening our testimonies. This is not an intellectual exercise, providing little of value; it is a journey of marvelous discovery, wonder and revelation into the very core of the restored gospel.

If revelation is the heart and soul of the gospel of Jesus Christ, this information may constitute its bone and sinew—the very framework of our restored religion, acquired through the work of Joseph Smith.

Copyright, Anthony E. Larson, 2007

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Prophets' Language

Prophecy, the unique province of prophets, is filled with bizarre, obscure and confusing images. Attempt to read any of the great prophecies in scripture, and your head will soon be spinning, overflowing with figures and metaphors strange and bizarre. A few of the most prominent examples are found in Revelation in the New Testament, Ezekiel and Daniel in the Old Testament and in Section 88 in Doctrine & Covenants.

Starting with the beasts

The array of images found in prophetic texts is plentiful. The list includes beasts of many kinds: lions, calves, eagles, lambs, horses, leopards and bears, as well as more fanciful things such as dragons, which come complete with wings and tails. Additionally, one finds rainbows, thrones, crowns, elders, spirits, angels, earthquakes, suns, moons, stars, mountains, temples, seals, trumpets, hail, fire, blood, a bottomless pit, scorpions, chariots, horns, kings, armies and alters, just to name a few.

More than a few questions immediately pop into mind. Why do the prophets report seeing these odd images? Why did they feel compelled to substitute imagery in their narratives rather than simply reporting what they saw? Why are there so many images? Prophecy reads like mythology or fables. Why so? Are these images substitutes for things in our day, as so many assert? What are we to make of such allegorical mayhem?

Rediscovering our true past

These are good questions, all. The answers are quite simple, but they require a good deal of explanation. Such explanation is needed because we’ve lost something: our true past. So, although the proper interpretation of prophecy and the future is the focus of our quest, it will lead us to far-flung antiquity, the distant past in search of our answers and to topics that seem, at first glance, to have little relevance.

Let’s begin with a categorical statement that is substantiated elsewhere: Prophetic metaphors are anchored in heavenly, cosmological events of ancient history that very nearly saw the destruction of this planet.

Those catastrophic events, like the Creation, the Deluge, the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Exodus, Joshua’s Long Day and Elijah’s contest with the priests of Baal, took place in the earliest epoch remembered by mankind, and they reoccurred from time to time on a variety of occasions down through the ages. These events weren’t only recorded in scripture. They fill profane accounts as well. The destruction of Atlantis, the Battle of Troy, the story of Phaeton and many, many other mythic stories recount those same destructions. They played out in Earth’s ancient skies, the heavens above and the ground beneath. Accompanied by a monumental auroral light and sound show, they were earth and heaven shaking, mind numbing and spectacular beyond anything seen in the skies we know today. (Good evidence for this claim, which will not be considered here for brevity’s sake, is presented in numerous books and articles by this author.)

Only when we allow the full impact and meaning of the words that the ancients used to describe what they experienced do we get a proper view of those events. Otherwise, they seem like little more than manic hyperbole.

Once obtained, that novel perspective leads to a stunning revision of this world’s past history. We see the Creation, the Patriarchal Age, Noah’s flood, the days of Abraham, the Exodus, the work of the Prophets and the career of Israel in a whole new light. Even the Savior’s mission, teachings, life and times become more understandable.

But perhaps most importantly for today’s Latter-day Saints, this novel viewpoint on the past reveals truths about the restored gospel and the teachings of its founding prophet, Joseph Smith, that have gone unnoticed, misunderstood or ignored.

So, it seems quite reasonable to expect that if we can decipher the imagery of prophecy, we might also get a handle on all scriptural imagery. And it almost goes without saying that such an accomplishment would greatly enhance our understanding of the scriptures, if not the entire restored gospel, making this effort a most worthy and worthwhile quest.

Applies to all scriptural imagery

With that corrected view, we now have a perspective that will allow us to get a clearer concept of the events that shaped the prophets’ language. (The details of those astral, celestial or cosmological events are amply enumerated and elucidated elsewhere by this author in extensive specificity.) Suffice it to say, the metaphors, found in religions, myths, legends and traditions the world over, universally originated in the events seen anciently in Earth’s skies and experienced by all mankind.

With that view in mind, we can turn to prophetic accounts and see them with new eyes. Therefore the pursuit is circular: As we pursue our quest, one topic leads to another until we find ourselves back where we began, only to see the first topic with more clarity than we ever did before.

Prophetic argot

Use of the term “language” to typify the prophets’ discourse may be a little confusing, though useful in the course of our exposition. It would be more correctly defined as a vocabulary or argot, because it is not a separate language. A doctor, a mechanic, a lawyer or an accountant is inclined to use a vocabulary peculiar to his or her profession, even though the language is still English. So it is that the prophets used a vocabulary unique to their calling.

But the prophets’ language is much more than just a distinctive vocabulary. Much like letters in ancient alphabets began as symbols, prophetic imagery grew up with a set of symbols or icons as well.

Prophetic symbols

When we consider that the masses were largely uneducated in the past, the need for icons or symbols becomes apparent: When one cannot read, meaningful symbols or images become an effective means of communicating and retaining information.

That same power to convey considerable meaning with a single, simple icon made symbols ideal devices for recalling long narratives. This is an ancient device, used by pre-literate cultures, since they committed to memory their sacred traditions. To aid in recalling those traditional stories, symbols were employed. So, symbols, icons or images became the mnemonic devices of choice, and grew up alongside language and writing.

Naturally, literate societies retained those symbols, due to their communicative power. That is, they could covey substantial meaning while occupying only a fraction of the space that text might on walls, tablets, papyri, parchments or metal plates. The members of the priestly class in any society were responsible for preserving those traditions and reciting them to the people. (A relevant example of this would be the so-called “Book of Breathings” that came into Joseph Smith’s hands.) To do so, they ‘read’ a series of symbols to aid in the recollection of their culture’s sacred stories. Some were epic tales of great length and detail. We receive them today as myths and legends. But what is more likely, as we are beginning to see, they are verbal records of this world’s ancient past.

A picture is worth a thousand words … and vice versa

Thus, the prophet’s language is icon-based. That is, each metaphor or narrative has a corresponding symbol or set of symbols—an illustration, if you will, that matches up with a specific, equivalent story. We see that most prominently in Joseph Smith’s Egyptian papyri where a single image in those illustrations corresponds to a specific description, whether a metaphor as in “grand governing creation near to the celestial or the place where God resides,” or a definition as in “signifying expanse, or the firmament of the heavens.”

So, memorize the following vital formula: icon = metaphor. That is, an icon or a symbol has a corresponding story or narrative. The mirror image of that formula is: metaphor = icon. That is, every story or narrative can be illustrated with one or more symbols. Metaphors and icons are, therefore, two sides of the same informational coin.

Symbols were seldom included or used alongside the written word since drawing the symbols in ancient texts may have seemed redundant and complicated. They were seldom included with the written word. Instead, the authors substituted a name for the image or icon (ex. beast, dragon, horse, bear, lion, etc.), assuming that further description was unnecessary since everyone in their day and age understood what was meant. The terminology and iconography employed was traditional, well known to all. It was taught in ancient schools as well as to the masses.

The ancients could not conceive that such common knowledge would be lost to later generations, that we would have no idea what words like beast, dragon, horse, bear, mountain, king, star and a thousand other such allusions actually referred to. Could they return to see our day, they would be stunned at our ignorance of their traditions and beliefs, especially our lack of knowledge regarding these icons and the true history of our planet, which they laboriously and repeatedly recorded for our benefit.

Thus, these symbols, in their rhetorical form, appear in ancient texts, including the scriptures, as fabulous gods, creatures, objects or angels, etc. So it is with all prophetic imagery.

It’s likely that this situation is what Joseph Smith alluded to when he said, “The prophets do not declare that they saw a beast or beasts, but that they saw the image or figure of a beast. Daniel did not see an actual bear or a lion, but the images or figures of those beasts. The translation should have been rendered ‘image’ instead of ‘beast,’ in every instance where beasts are mentioned by the prophets.” (History of the Church, p. 343.)

Joseph’s use of the term “image” makes his meaning clear. Similar terms used by today’s scholars are “icon,” or “symbol.” In this context, all three words mean the same thing.

Beasts aren’t the only images in prophecy. As we’ve seen, we read of kings, stars, mountains, highways, temples and locusts as well, to name just a few. Drawing on Joseph’s statement and what we have considered thus far, we can infer that all these are meant to replace an icon, symbol or image in order to convey meaning and not depict real creatures, individuals or objects. “When the prophets speak of seeing beasts in their visions, they mean that they saw the images, they being types to represent certain things.” (Ibid., p. 343.)

This is a concept that largely eludes most of us today. Scholars certainly do not acknowledge it. The notion that one, small symbol can evoke a long, narrative meaning is disparaged by most students of ancient language. They are adamant that each symbol, like letters in an alphabet, represents only one consonant or vowel sound. And while that may generally be the case, the idea of a direct association between a traditional narrative or metaphor and an icon or image is equally valid and correct.

A universal language

Because prophetic language is based in imagery and symbolism, it is universal. It need not be restricted to any one culture or tongue. Thus, anciently, it crossed all cultural and societal boundaries. It became a universal language, used by prophets, sages, shamen, priests, and clerics from cultures the world over. So, while the terminology and the story in religious metaphors may vary from culture to culture and language to language over time, the base imagery from which it was drawn, called an “archetype” by mythologists, will remain constant.

And again, it remains constant simply because it’s based in a common source: ancient cosmological events seen in Earth’s skies by all ancient cultures.

So, this is the symbolic language of the prophets, and it can be written with words as well as illustrated with symbols because they are two halves of a unified whole. Both are ways of retaining cultural and religious traditions; both are capable of conveying the same message.

More than just prophecy

But, the prophets’ peculiar terminology doesn’t stop with prophecy. Nearly all of scripture contains imagery that is puzzling when we stop to think about it. However, most of us never take the time to consider the otherwise odd use of such figures of speech. We simply accept such usage as part of our belief system. Everyone seems to understand what they’re getting at, so why hurt one’s head over it? After all, it’s colorful language, which makes the reading a bit more interesting.

Yet it’s clear, after thoughtful analysis, that there is more here than meets the eye. This imagery is clearly meant to convey meaning—profound meaning, perhaps—that simply eludes us because we have no training in those peculiar, prophetic figures of speech.

A good example of this is our unquestioned acceptance of the terminology applied to a temple, where the Lord’s house is repeatedly called “the mountain of the Lord’s house."

Almost certainly, this usage comes from the scriptures, where it is so used. “And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.” (Isaiah 2:2, italics added. See also Micah 4:1 and 2 Nephi 12:2.)

So, we get that usage on good authority. But, why is it so used? How does a building equate to a mountain in the prophets’ jargon? It’s easy to understand how a temple might be considered a “house” of God or his dwelling. But, how is a temple equated to a mountain? Such odd juxtaposition makes no sense in the real world where mountains are natural, geological phenomena and temples are constructed by the hand of man for sacred ordinances, worship and instruction. So, this is clearly a metaphor, a symbolic figure of speech.

Like the prophetic tendency to resort to animal imagery in prophetic revelation, how are we to understand such usage? Is such an allusion simply an odd turn of phrase used anciently, a colorful way of describing a sacred temple? Or, is there hidden meaning in the term?

The key is in the past

This author would argue that the mountain/temple equivalency derives from astral or cosmological events as old as time, that all cultures conceived of God’s house as a place in Earth’s heavens that sat atop a splendid, celestial pillar of light whose base spread out upon the curve of the horizon and whose peak terminated in a great planet that stood magnificently at its apex. The copious and ubiquitous evidence for such an eccentric assertion can be found elsewhere in this author’s writings.

The “mountain of the Lord’s house” metaphor finds its iconic or symbolic counterpart in this image. In this artist’s conception, the temple or “Lord’s house” sits atop the mythic “world mountain,” which all ancient lore places at the celestial pole where we see the North Star today and the prophets referred to as a “mountain.”

The appearance of this celestial phantasmagoria—a constantly changing heavenly scene that played out across earthly skies in antiquity, composed of a variety of planetary and electrically active plasma forms and elements—is a theme we will revisit again and again in this essay because it is the very origin of the world’s religious, cultural and mythological tradition and belief.

This Egyptian stele directly corresponds to the proceeding artist’s conception. In fact, it is very nearly a snapshot of the ancient Celestial Mountain. It shows the mountain beneath a crescent, thought to represent the moon. But, no astral arrangement would permit an orb to appear within the moon’s crescent, nor does it ever appear in such a horizontal position. This suggests a planetary order far different than today.

Called the “cosmic mountain” or “world mountain” by scholars and mythologists who study its role in ancient belief systems, this impressive peak or pillar is found replicated in ancient art of widely divergent cultures. It was described in their texts not only as a mountain, but also as a bridge of light or a great tree that connected Earth with heaven.

The Sumerians and the Babylonians knew this mountain or pillar as the “Khursag” or the “Kur,” and identified it as the home of the gods. Note the star at the apex of the astral mountain. Observe, too, that it appears to have an orb at its center, a wholly impossible configuration in our present heavens. It was illustrated on this victory stele of King Naram-Sin of Akkad.

In many cases, these illustrations are remarkably accurate representations of the astral mountain that once stood over the Earth—virtual snapshots in many cases. Yet scholars dismiss such an interpretation as nonsense. They see these images as representative of a metaphorical construct rather than a real phenomenon because of their bias. They believe that the ancient heavens were the same as ours. The idea that the skies—and by implication the present order of our solar system—were ever any different than they are today is considered scientific heresy.

This divine peak went by different names in each culture. The Egyptians called it the “Primordial Mound.” The Israelites knew it as “Sinai” and “Zion.” The Greeks named it “Olympus” and “Parnassus.” The Aztecs told of “Colhuacan,” while the Indians saw “Meru” or “Sumeru,” and the Chinese envisioned “Kun-lun,” to name just a few among many, many others.

Their proclivity for building pyramids, ziggurats, towers, spires and obelisks in nearly every culture the world over stems from this same symbolism. These were man-made replicas of the cosmic mountain imagery. Some were crowned with a temple or shrine at the summit; others were not.

One stands in awe and wonder before such colossal monuments. We wonder why they were built? What drove the ancients to create such engineering wonders? The effort and the resources devoted to the construction of these massive monuments is a clear indication of the importance the ancients put on replicating the real cosmic mountain of antiquity.

When we consider the scope and size of such undertakings, we begin to perceive the importance the ancients placed on the image of the cosmic mountain. In fact, we see that they dedicated a significant portion of their meager assets to replicating these symbols in stone. Keeping the ancient history and the memory of those celestial apparitions alive was everything to them.

It also tells us how imposing the original, cosmological structure in the heavens must have been. It so impressed itself on the minds of our ancestors that they compulsively replicated it again and again. And we unknowingly continue that practice today. Look, for example, at the primary icon of our Christmas holiday, the Christmas Tree. It’s a conical shaped tree with a star or angel at the top.

Even our Salt Lake Temple replicates this same icon: a pyramidal spire or tower with a ball at the top. It should surprise no Latter-day Saint that such ancient and venerable symbolism might be included in a temple erected to the restored truth.

The six towers on the Salt Lake Temple are seldom considered sacred imagery, but they are. Most think of them as mere decorative architecture. But in fact, they are as valid astral symbols as the Earth, Moon, and Star Stones. They are one more iconic instance of the “cosmic mountain” imagery, in effect saying what they replicate: “This is the mountain of the Lord’s house.”In fact, these traditional and architectural icons are simply more symbolic manifestations of the “mountain of the Lord’s house” metaphor found in scripture and ancient tradition.

If it is surprising to you that so much is derived from or indicated by one, simple turn of phrase in the scriptures—“mountain of the Lord’s house”—prepare yourself for an astonishing revelation: There are hundreds of such metaphors in scripture that stem from cosmological events and conditions in antiquity. Each of these has an equally rich and complex lineage of symbols or icons.

Revisiting Isaiah

Thus, when we reread the verse in Isaiah we cited earlier in light of the new meaning it helped us discover, we get a new, amplified or augmented reading. Not only was that prophet predicting the construction of temples in the last days as part of the great restoration, as today’s prophets properly apply the metaphor, this verse originally alluded to the restoration of the great cosmic mountain in Earth’s skies in the last days.

A systematic method for interpretation

So, the incredibly complex system of icons and images found in all ancient societies—some of them as bizarre as they are intriguing—are simply elaborations erupting from a handful of basic motifs. These few, basic motifs are called archetypes. That is, they are the prototypes, the original models and the source of a multitude of metaphors, images, icons or symbols. This is why the symbolism of the prophets’ language is so complex, containing virtually thousands of variations on a few basic themes and symbols.

The good news is that once one understands the origin of each archetype, the variations are easy to spot and interpret. Mastering those few basic images and understanding their original look, form and behavior in Earth’s ancient heavens gives one the ability to readily spot them wherever they might be encountered—in rituals, pageants and dramas, in temples, tombs, texts, monuments and architecture, in tradition, customs, holidays and festivals, as well as in scripture. Knowing the origins brings richness and texture to all these things that is lacking otherwise. With these few interpretive tools or keys, we begin to see a multitude of things that were invisible to us before.

You can do it

Learn the origin of the metaphors and their symbolic counterparts. See the underlying archetypes, the basis for each. Discover the many manifestations of those ancient cosmological powers, and you’ll then be able spot them whenever they’re used and by whichever culture at whatever time in history. You’ll find that they illuminate your perspective on the past as well as the future. More importantly, you’ll easily recognize them as the prophets employed them in our scriptures, you’ll find them on and in our temples and you will realize that Joseph Smith understood them as well because he correctly used them.

This, then, is the origin of the prophets’ language: Earth’s ancient heavens. As long as we ignore this crucial precept, we will remain largely ignorant, blind to the truths that the prophets—indeed all the ancients—sought to communicate to us. We find that all our vaunted scientific understanding of the past is really nothing more than fantasy. We learn that what most of the world considers utterly fantastic and fabulous—traditions, myths, legends and scripture—are actually the bedrock history from the past. This is truly an unexpected and shocking dichotomy.

This is a far cry from the standard system of interpretation employed today by Christian millenialists: guessing the meaning of those icons. Such expositors look around in their contemporary world for people and conditions that seem to fulfill the imagery of prophecy. But in so doing, they assign meanings to those icons that are completely erroneous, entirely foreign to the original intent of the authors, the prophets. Thus, any modern interpretation that seeks to find fulfillment of those images in a modern context is defective, and we should avoid them entirely.

There is no mystery here. It is only our ignorance of ancient history and the origins of gospel symbolism in our distant past that causes us to regard them as mysterious. All the prophets, including Joseph Smith, used this symbolism regularly, properly and with ease. It’s certain that Joseph gained this information through revelation. But, it can also be obtained by research and study.

I urge you to investigate further.

© Anthony E. Larson, 2008