“More Than a Man”

Brant Gardner

We can easily understand the wonder of the king at Ammon's mighty feat. However, it is more difficult to understand the nature of the king's response. The king responds with several pieces of speculation that we should understand more fully.

[Surely, this is more than a man. Behold, is not this the Great Spirit] The king had previously met Ammon, and had seen him bound. The servants had traveled with him for whatever distance the watering location lay from the king's palace. All had been able to attest that Ammon was a physical being. How should we then understand the king's declaration that he might be "more than a man," and that he might be "the Great Spirit?" We may gain some insight into these statements by understanding the nature of Mesoamerican deities.

The line between human and divine was not as firmly drawn in Mesoamerica as it is in the Western world. Many of the Mesoamerican religious stories deal with exploits of named individuals who are "more than men." The hero twins of the Popol Vuh are certainly depicted as men, but they are just as certainly more than that. The Mixtec deity male 9 Wind is shown in the Codex Vindobonensis as a being in the heavens who descends and acts upon the earth. There are indications in the myriad of legends surrounding the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl that he also has a heavenly aspect, and one in which he operates on earth as "more than a man." (Popol Vuh. Tr. Dennis Tedlock. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1985; Jill Leslie Furst, Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus I: A Commentary. New York: Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, 1978, pp. 104-106; Brant Gardner, "Quetzalcoatl's Fathers: A Critical Examination of Source Materials," http://www.ukans.edu/~hoopes/aztlan/tripart.htm; Alfredo Lopez Ausin. Hombre Dios. Mexico: UNAM, 1972).

These "more than men" may be best understood as demi-gods, or deities that inhabit the world and function here, but retain other-worldly powers. It is in this light that we should see King Lamoni's speculation on the nature of Ammon. King Lamoni and the servants know him to be physical. The very term "Great Spirit" has some connotation of ethereality, and so there is little chance that there was any indication that Ammon was less than tangible. However, Ammon could be one with the status of the demi-god, and it is in this light that we may see the king's questions.

[the Great Spirit who doth send such great punishments upon this people, because of their murders?] This is a most perplexing statement. First, Ammon was not punishing anyone in the service of the king, but rather defending the honor (and flocks) of the king. It is difficult to see how the king might see Ammon's action as a form of punishment. Secondly, how might the king connect Ammon's heroic defense with Lamanite murders?

The term "murder" is used with some frequency from Alma to the end of the Book of Mormon. There are times when it is very clear that it should be understood precisely as we assume it to be, as an intentional, unjustified, killing. However, there are other times when it is more difficult to understand how the term is being used. For instance, we find a description of the deeds of the Gadianton robbers:

3 Ne. 1:27

27 And it came to pass that the ninety and third year did also pass away in peace, save it were for the Gadianton robbers, who dwelt upon the mountains, who did infest the land; for so strong were their holds and their secret places that the people could not overpower them; therefore they did commit many murders, and did do much slaughter among the people (italics added).

In this verse we have the interesting difference made between the "many murders" and the "much slaughter." It is possible, of course, that this is simply a literary device that pairs two similar terms. However, we may also be seeing a difference in the understanding of murder.

One of the important aspects of "murder" is that is unjustified. This is an important distinction, because it allows us to separate a number of cases where a person dies. When an accident occurs, a death may occur, but not a murder. We understand when we are involved in the death of another person, we are not guilty of murder if it can be classified as an accident. Similarly, it is not murder in the case that our legal system recognizes as self defense. In the case of Ammon, he has killed seven. Yet he has not murdered them. Similarly, those killed during military actions are certainly casualties, but they have not been murder. No nation ever categorizes its own military actions as murder.

Thus we have a problem with King Lamoni's worry over murders. We do not know why Ammon might be considered as punishing King Lamoni's people, and why this should be attached to "murders" committed by King Lamoni's people is still to be explained. One possibility emerges from the Mesoamerican milieu that deserves consideration. Just as inescapable as the concepts of kingship and socio-economic hierarchy in Mesoamerica was the concept of human sacrifice. It is possible that some of the times that we see murder in the Book of Mormon, what is represented is human sacrifice. Whether this translation issue is due to Joseph Smith or to Mormon we cannot know. For Mormon, the sacrifices would certainly be murders because he saw no justification in them.

If these "murders" were indeed references to human sacrifices, we may be able to better interpret Lamoni's comments. First, we must understand that Mesoamerican deities were rather like Greek deities in that their presence among men was ambiguous at best. They were not always beneficial, and often were malevolent. In Mesoamerica, the presence of such a demi-god would be at the very least dangerous, even it not immediately threatening. Thus when the clear prowess of Ammon was demonstrated, he was certainly seen as a dangerous man, with no guarantee that he would be just as dangerous to Lamoni's people as to the enemies of Lamoni.

If a dangerous demi-god had come among them, what might be the cause of it? In polytheistic societies, it is not uncommon that there be sacrifices to the gods. Such sacrifices do not only ask for boons from the gods, but just as often were designed to keep the gods away. We see a similar sentiment in Tevye's prayer for the Tsar in Fiddler on the Roof: "God bless and keep the Tsar - far away from us!"

If the king is concerned that Ammon as demi-god had come because of their "murders," one reading of this situation might be that the king assumed that the demi-god had come because of something to do with the sacrifices that were done. Perhaps there were not enough in his honor, perhaps they were not done correctly. While there is no concrete evidence in the Book of Mormon to support this reading, it nevertheless fits with the known culture of the are and the time, and explains why the mention of a religious concept such as the Great Spirit might lead King Lamoni to speculate on "murders."

There is another possibility that is less speculative than that does not require the speculation about the connection between murder and human sacrifice (though that connection will appear as a possibility again in future chapters). In verse 4 Lamoni notes: "he has come down at this time to preserve your lives, that I might not slay you as I did your brethren." This might indicate that Lamoni saw the execution of the previous servants as the "murders" in question. This requires that the king reconsider his order to execute the men and reclassify it from justified to unjustified. It is possible, but does not fit the cultural circumstances as well.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon