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.
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.
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.
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