There are 8 thoughts on “The Scalp of Your Head: Polysemy in Alma 44:14–18”.

  1. I thought of you statement in your above response, “I wonder if there might be even more to this,” this morning as I was reading Brant Gardner’s excellent book, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), pp. 270-271, where Gardner discusses the Mesoamerican tradition of kings representing deity in ritual settings that often involve wearing a mask of the head of a god:

    The living Mesoamerican king became, in ritual circumstances, the living and present deity. There were rituals where the king not only put on the mask of deity but, for ritual time and in ritual space, became that deity—commonly called god impersonation or “deity concurrence.” In deity concurrence, a ritual specialist, typically the ruler, puts on an engraved mask or elaborate headdress and transforms himself into the god whose mask or headdress is being worn. There is a glyphic formula that essentially says, “His holy image (u-b’aah-il), [that of] God X, [is upon] Ruler Y.” The Maya used the head metaphorically as a mark of individuality, and it stood as a representation of the whole body. In their minds, they were not playacting—they would actually become that god, acting as he would act and performing the godly duties pertaining to that particular deity. As Houston, Stuart, and Taube state, “There is no evident ‘fiction,’ but there is, apparently, a belief in godly immanence and transubstantiation, of specific people who become, in special moments, figures from sacred legend and the Maya pantheon.” There are many situations where deity concurrence takes place and a wide variety of deities are impersonated, such as wind gods, gods of incense burning, gods of ball playing, even major gods such as the sun god or the supreme creator deity, Itzamnaaj. This practice goes back to the Formative period (1500 B.C.–A.D. 200), as cave paintings in Oxtotitlan dating to the eighth century B.C. attest. Against that context, Alma’s question “Have you received his image in your countenances?” (Alma 5:14) and its rhetorical companion, “Can you look up, having the image of God [Jehovah] engraven upon your countenances?” (v. 19), become highly nuanced. Alma may have been referencing a concept that he expected his listeners to understand and attempted to shift that understanding into a more appropriate gospel context. The masks and headdresses that deity impersonators wore were literally graven; numerous ancient Maya ceramics depict artists in the act of carving them. [footnotes omitted]

    Coming back to King Benjamin’s speech, note the double use of head: “And under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free.” Christ is the head that frees us, and there were apparently competing “heads” that Mosiah warns against, for none of those other heads have power to save.
    While the Hebrew and Egyptian use of the word “head” seems similar to the range of meanings we give it in English, in my vernacular at least, “head” feels like it should be followed by “of,” as in “head of the Church,” “head of our faith,” etc. To speak of Christ simply as “our head” or “the head” feels odd to me. I’d rather say “our leader” or use some other noun. But if King Benjamin is speaking from the perspective of a culture in Mesoamerica, familiar with kings who represent and act as gods by placing the mask of a god’s head upon their head, then this phrase seems more meaningful and natural. (Just posted this thought at mormanity.blogspot.com, BTW. Thanks for the insights!)

    • I love these insights, Jeff. And your Mormanity blogpost was similarly excellent. I think you should consider doing a wider study along these lines. Keep up the great work! 🙂

  2. When my Jewish wife first read The Book of Mormon she said to me, “There is no way that anyone in the Nineteenth Century could have written this book.” LDS scholars continue to confirm what my wife instinctively knew.
    She then reasoned, “If The Book of Mormon is true, then Joseph Smith had to be a true prophet of God; and if Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, then Jesus must be the Messiah.”

    • Thank you, Theodore! I quite agree. The Book of Mormon’s trove of treasures is inexhaustible. To my mind, this speaks volumes about its origin and nature.

  3. The “head” under which we are made free in Mosiah 5:8 always seemed like an odd phrase to me. Understanding its apparent Semitic roots is now quite helpful.
    Mosiah 5:
    7 And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters.
    8 And under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free. There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh; therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives.

    • Thanks, Jeff, for pointing that out. I agree that it is helpful to see Mosiah 5:7-8 in terms of Helaman 13:38, as well as the polysemy of Alma 44:14-18. And I wonder if there might be even more to this.

  4. Very interesting article, Matt.
    There is likewise polysemic confusion between “things” and “words” at 2 Nephi 6:8 and 33:4. While the Printer’s Manuscript reads “things” at both locations, all editions (except the 1830 at 2 Nephi 33:4) have changed this to read “words.” Either variant is a good reading, and the Hebrew word debarim is accurately translated either “things” or “words,” as I noted in my article at http://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1110&index=20 .
    In that case, however, we would probably want to go with the Egyptian mdw “word; matter, affair,” for the same reason indicated by you for use of that equivalent in wordplay on “word of God; rod of God” in your insightful article at http://publications.mi.byu.edu/publications/insights/25/2/S00004-quotWhat_Meaneth_the_Rod_of_Ironquot.html .

    • Thank you, Bob! I am always grateful for your comments. Yes, the “words”/”things” polysemy works at numerous places in the Book of Mormon (and, yes, it works in Egyptian too). I plan to cite both of you on this in the not to distant future. A fuller treatment of the rod/word polysemy will be forthcoming in the near future too.

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