“He Is Feeding Thy Horses”

Brant Gardner

Now that the servants have reported to the king, the king is very curious about Ammon, and will want to speak with him. For this reason he asks where Ammon might be.

Translation: Verse 9 introduces two of the most obvious anachronisms in the Book of Mormon text, horses and chariots. While there are some possibilities of horse bones found in archaeological strata that date to pre-conquest times, there has not yet been a confirmation on the dating off the bones, and therefore they remain enigmatic. To date, there is no firm evidence of horses existing in the Americas during Book of Mormon times. As for chariots, there is no evidence whatsoever of a chariot, nor any large scale means of conveyance with wheels. There are, of course, small ceremonial objects with wheels, but these simply indicate that the wheel was known, not that chariots were. What might we understand about horses and chariots?

It is important to note at the beginning of this discussion that much of what we may understand about horses and chariots relies upon an understanding of the nature of translation, particularly the type of translation that we see in the Book of Mormon. John L. Sorenson approached the problem of anachronistic animals and plants in his An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. In that volume he suggests that we have a type of translation error that is very common in cases where a different linguistic group is required to find names for new animals or plants. In the English of the King James Bible, “corn” was a generic term for a grain crop. When English speakers were required to find a term for New World maize, the existing term was adopted, and the meaning has now sufficiently shifted so that “corn” means maize to the majority of English readers, and the generic grain meaning is fading to the realm of historical linguistics and scholars off ancient texts.

It is in this light that Sorenson would see the horse. He supposes that the Nephites used a familiar label for an unfamiliar animal. He suggests that perhaps it might have been the deer, which was ritually important in the New World, and might even have been “ridden” in certain ceremonies. Certainly the reverse of this was true, where many Mesoamericans used “deer” to describe the Spanish war horses. This explanation is perfectly legitimate, and follows know linguistic patterns when different languages and cultures come into contact. Nevertheless, I suggest that it probably is not the case for the Book of Mormon.

The reason for this difference of opinion is that there are different ways of interpreting the translation method of the Book of Mormon, and Sorenson and I differ on the nature of that process. For Sorenson’s suggestion to be the reason we see a horse instead of a deer, his interpretation requires a tight control over the text that was on the plates. A “tight control” suggests that what we have in English may be reliably read as very close to what actually existed on the plates. In this reading of the translation process, there is very little room for any of Joseph Smith’s interpretations or insertions in the text. If such a tight control were possible in any of the text, then a tight control should be available for all of the text.

The analysis presented in this study has consistently suggested that there was a much less firm control between the underlying text and what we see on the surface. The evidence of the incursion of New Testament language suggests that the translation occurred more on the level of meaning than text. This is not to say that there is no relationship between the plate text and the English we read. What it does say is that there is evidence that Joseph was an active participant in the translation, and that we must therefore be very careful of too heavy a reliance on any interpretive method that requires specific words or word forms. A consequence of this understanding of the translation process is that all studies which attempt to see Hebraisms in the English text are not seeing the underlying plate text, but rather the Hebrew forms that were preserved in the King James style. While such forms may exist in the Book of Mormon, they may not be evidence of the nature of the plate text (which declares itself as not Hebrew, see Mormon 9:33).

Taking this approach to the text on horses, I would suggest that we still have a translation problem, but rather than suggest that it is due to the Nephite mismatching of words and animals, it is due to Joseph making the mismatch. In other words, we have “horses” because Joseph assumed horses, and didn’t give us a better translation of whatever was on the plates. This process is also attested in the process of translation. For instance, we have in the King James Bible the statement that Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger (Luke 2:7). While this verse appears innocuous enough, it is an anachronism. Swaddling clothes were a means of bundling babies when this version of the Bible was translated, but they were not used in early Jerusalem. What the translators did was see something associated with a baby and being wrapped with cloth, and translated a more familiar term, “swaddling.” While technically anachronistic, it does not invalidate the rest of the translation, nor especially the text itself.

Another example of the same type of phenomenon has had a lasting effect on many modern perceptions of the Aztec “white god” Quetzalcoatl. Spanish sources clearly note that Quetzalcoatl wore clothing different from that of the common native, and they frequently note that it is similar to the clothing of the Spanish. Cervantes de Sálazar is one of the authors who emphasizes the unique nature of Quetzalcoatl’s attire: “He was never dressed but in a robe of white cotton, well girded to the body and so large that it covered the feet, for greater modesty”. (Francisco Cervantes de Sálazar, Crónica de Nueva España. 3 volumes. Madrid: Hauser y Menet, 1914, 1:36.)

As with many facets of this complex character, Spanish descriptions are frequently distorted descriptions of something that was really much more native. In this case, there was a type of male dress that was a sort of cape called a tlilmatli, which was a piece of cloth worn across the shoulders and tied in a knot over the left shoulder. The most common style reached to just below the shins, but social status dictated longer lengths for those of higher social rank. Only the most important men could wear a tlilmatli which reached the ankles. It is therefore highly probable that when the Spaniards were shown representations of Quetzalcoatl or any other important figure in the codices, he would be wearing a tlilmatli which indicated his high rank by reaching the ankles. Indeed, Durán’s seated Quetzalcoatl is wears just such a garment. (The description of the tlilmatli is found in Patricia Rieff Anawalt, Pan-Mesoamerican Costume Repertory at the Time of the Spanish Contact. Dissertation, UCLA, 1975, 77-78. The reproduction of the picture is found in Durán 1971, p.323.)

Not only did the Spanish emphasize this long tlilmatli, they transformed it. The Spanish word used for Quetzalcoatl‘s garment is ropa ’clothing, garment, or robe’. Once the garment was called ropa instead of tlilmatli, the concept was free to alter its basic shape and take on the characteristics of Spanish ropa. Very soon, it was no longer a cape tied over one shoulder, but a garment with sleeves. In the labeling process the original tlilmatli lost its capacity to distinguish rank and became a sign, not of power, but of humility and modesty. So completely did Quetzalcoatl’s apparel lose its original significance that the Relación de genealogía actually states that the clothing of those who accompanied Quetzalcoatl was “like the dress of Spain.” (“Relación de la Geneaolgía y linaje de los Señores...” In Nueva Colección de Documentos para la Historia de México, edited by García Icazbalceta, (Nendeln/Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1971, reprint 1891), 3:263-280.) The royal tlilmatli-become robe eventually became a friar’s habit in Torquemada. (Torquemada, 1954, 1:254-5.)

This labeling error came not from a mistaken visual, but from the application of a term to the native article of clothing that had differing meanings in Spanish. That new meaning overtook the original, and virtually all later Spanish sources anachronistically have contemporary Spanish clothing being worn by a native prior to the conquest. Neither in this case, nor in the case of the swaddling clothes, does the translation error, or the extrapolation of the translation error, in the case of the Spanish, invalidate all of the historical data in the Spanish documents. Indeed, it is possible to reconstruct much of the information about this fascinating native deity in spite of the anachronistic elements in the Spanish treatments of the theme. Indeed, it is precisely these

early Spanish distortions of native categories that has led to much modern misinformation about the deity (see Gardner, Brant. Quetzalcoatl papers web page.).

All of this says that we have a translation problem, and that it is probably somewhere in Joseph’s worldview that he gave us a horse and a chariot for whatever it was that was on the plates. If we take this assumption, what might the horse and chariot have been? From this point on, all is speculation, but once again, speculation consistent with the world in which the Lamanites and Nephites might plausibly be placed.

There are a couple of possibilities that may fit the circumstances. The first has to do with the wheeled “toys” that have been found. Richard Diehl has worked with a large number of these from Tula, and concludes that they are most certainly not toys, but rather objects with some ritual meaning. The objects all consist of some animal on a flat bed under which are two axles, and four wheels for those which retain the wheels and not simply the grooves for the axles. While all of these are small, it is quite possible that they are small replicas of some larger ritual conveyance which places some animal on a cart to be pulled. It is very possible that some type of such larger conveyance is meant by the horse/chariot combination mentioned in this verse. The context of this verse does suggest a ceremonial setting: “for there had been a great feast appointed at the land of Nephi, by the father of Lamoni, who was king over all the land.”

While this is possible, it may not be a precise fit for this situation, as there is some indication that this should be a means of conveyance for the king, not for the “horse:” “that they should prepare his horses and chariots, and conduct him forth to the land of Nephi.” It is possible, of course, that the “conduct him” does not require us to understand that the king was conducted in the horse/chariot. Indeed, in the next verse, we have horses and chariots, but only the king being “conducted.” This might suggest that we are dealing with multiple ritual objects rather than a conveyance. Verse 12, however, does reopen the possibility of multiple conveyances when it suggests that they are made available for the king had his servants. This would be highly unusual, however, if servants were to ride in a culture where everyone walks. This would place them in the same social status as the king, and that would be quite unacceptable. It is therefore doubtful that the servants would have ridden in chariots unless chariots were very common, and nothing in the text suggests that they were.

There is a possibility for a conveyance that might be construed to fit the very limited evidence presented in this chapter. Important men are frequently depicted as being carried in a litter, but of course, that simple mode of transport lacks any association with an animal. The battle litter, however, does have a connection to an animal. In Maya battle imagery, the king rides into battle on a litter. This is a prominent aspect of the battle, and the capture of the king’s litter is tantamount to the capture of the gods of that king. What makes this most interesting for the horse/chariot pair is the assertion that a conceptually linked idea was the “battle beast” that is, an animal alter ego which also accompanied the king, and was embodied in the regalia of the king and litter. Thus there were three important elements of this complex which went into battle: king, litter, and battle beast. Let’s suppose that Joseph Smith, while translating, is coming upon ideas which he must put into words. What might Joseph have thought if the actual text held the image of a kingly conveyance associated with an animal?

Clearly, there is no way to know precisely what was on the plates. However, there is ample evidence that the process of translation allowed for the imposition of modern terms and concepts in lieu of the ancient ones. There are plausible combinations of elements that may explain the horse/chariot combination in the Book of Mormon. It is important to note that we see this rarely, and only in this ceremonial context. Chariots are never used in warfare. Indeed, even were there some type of wheeled conveyance for the king. It could only be used on roads, and the only roads suited for such conveyances where the highways built between friendly cities, called sacbeob (plural, sacbe is the singular, meaning “white road/way”) among the Maya.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon