Blood, Visions, and Prophecy: King Benjamin’s Polemic Against Maya Kingship

Yaxchilan lintel 24 & 25: Lady Xoc bloodletting from her tongue (left),
and then seeing a vision serpent (right)

During his final address to his people, when he crowned his son as the new king, Benjamin made it a point to announce, “I have not commanded you to come up hither that ye should fear me, or that ye should think that I of myself am more than a mortal man” (Mosiah 2:10). This seems curious to us as modern readers because to us, it seems quite obvious that Benjamin was not more than a man. Benjamin’s declaration may have seemed odd to some in his audience, as well, but for an entirely different reason: in ancient Mesoamerica, typically when the king gathered the people together for an elaborate ceremony (especially for a coronation of a new king), convincing them that the king was more than a man—that he was, in fact, divine—was the whole point.[1] And nothing made this point more convincingly than the shedding of the king’s own blood.

Blood, Visions, and Prophecy in Maya Kingship

According to Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller, “The [Maya] ruler was both human and god and, thus, the vehicle through which the sacred and the profane interacted. The transformation of an heir into the king required sanctification of the most sacred kind—human blood.”[2] During a king’s coronation (or accession), he would receive the royal paraphernalia from his parents (cf. Mosiah 1:16), and would participate in bloodletting ceremonies where blood would be drawn from sensitive parts of his body.[3] Arthur Demarest explained, “Royal bloodlettings were celebrated by pronouncements before thousands in the great plazas and were memorialized in stone sculptures.”[4]

In such bloodletting ceremonies, the king (and/or queen) would drip their blood onto paper in a bowl. “The paper soaked in their sacred royal blood was then burned, and in the smoke a ‘vision serpent’ would sometimes appear.” Within the smokey haze, they would have “visions of prophesizing deities or ancestors,” who were “presumably communicating sacred knowledge, especially about future events and portents.”[5] Schele and Miller argue that bloodletting went even further than that: “the act of bloodletting literally gave birth to the gods,” and thereby “brought the gods … into physical existence in human space and time.” This is evidenced by texts describing the king as “the mother of the gods.”[6]

King Benjamin’s Discourse in a Maya Milieu

So Benjamin’s explicit denial of being more than a man (Mosiah 2:10), no doubt accompanied by a complete absence of any bloodletting rituals by either him or his heir (Mosiah), actually sets him apart from his surrounding environment in a very important way. Yet King Benjamin does appear to bring the ideas of kingship, blood, visions, and prophecy together in ways reminiscent of this Mesoamerican backdrop.

Notice that, among the Maya:

  1. A divine king sheds his own blood
  2. This induces a vision, wherein the king sees a divine being or beings
  3. This divine being communicates sacred knowledge about future events to the king
  4. In some cases, this act was seen as bringing the gods into the human realm, into the presence of man
  5. Thus, bloodletting was seen as giving birth to the gods—with the king functioning as the “mother of the gods”

Now compare that to King Benjamin’s discourse:

  1. He disclaims being a divine king, but speaks of a true “heavenly king” (Mosiah 2:10, 19)
  2. Nonetheless, Benjamin still has a vision, wherein he speaks to an angel (Mosiah 3:2)
  3. This divine being communicates sacred knowledge about future events to Benjamin (Mosiah 3:3–27)
  4. This prophetic knowledge of the future pertains to a time when “the Lord omnipotent who reigneth”—the one, true “heavenly king”— will “come down from heaven among the children of men,” and “go forth amongst men” (Mosiah 3:5)
  5. The angel also revealed knowledge about the mother of the Lord omnipotent (Mosiah 3:8), “the mother of God,” as she was called by an earlier angel who appeared to Nephi (1 Nephi 11:18, 1830 version).  

As was revealed to Benjamin, this God among men, the one true divine king, would shed his blood. But he would not merely bleed from a single piercing, as did Maya kings. Oh no. This king would bleed “from every pore, so great shall be his anguish” (Mosiah 3:7). “For Mesoamericans,” Brant A. Gardner noted, “the Messiah’s bleeding from every pore would indicate the measure of his self-sacrifice, involving, as it was, his entire body.”[7] Furthermore, his blood sacrifice was atoning blood (Mosiah 3:11, 15, 16, 18); that is, it would not merely bring gods temporarily down into the presence of man—it would overcome the effects of the fall, bringing men and women permanently into God’s presence, able to stand at his right hand (cf. Mosiah 5:9). No Maya king could do that—only the Lord Omnipotent’s blood had that kind of power (Mosiah 3:17, 21; cf. 5:8).

King Benjamin’s Polemic Against Maya Kingship

Kingship, blood, visions, and prophecy are all connected within the Mesoamerican world, as they are in Benjamin’s speech, but Benjamin turn’s this relationship on its head. He did not claim to be divine, as other kings did, and he did not shed his blood the way other kings did either. And yet, he still had visions of divine beings who delivered prophetic knowledge. This, in and of itself, would undermine the claims of neighboring kings—if he had the same experiences they claimed to have without being divine, without shedding his blood, then this would call into question their claims about both divinity and blood.

If that wasn’t bad enough, however, the contents of Benjamin’s divine communication were devastating to any competing king’s claim to divine power: a true Divine King was coming, and His blood would be shed. And when it was, it would all at once be a greater sacrifice, with greater power to transform heaven and earth than that of all the Maya kings combined. Anyone relying on the blood of these earthly kings would, ironically perhaps, receive the same fate as the kingly blood—they would be tormented in unquenchable flames, “whose smoke ascendeth up forever and ever” (Mosiah 3:27).

Within a Mesoamerican context, Benjamin’s masterful discourse—Mosiah 3, in particular—becomes a potent polemic against the institution of kingship as practiced within the Nephites surrounding culture. At the same time, it draws on the very institutions and symbols of that culture to underscore just how powerful the Atonement of Jesus Christ really is. No wonder his people, upon hearing Benjamin’s teachings, fell to the earth, and cried out, “O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men” (Mosiah 4:2). Steeped in this cultural milieu, Benjamin’s people received the message loud and clear.

[1] See Stephen Houston and David Stuart, “Of Gods, Glyphs and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya,” Antiquity 70 (1996): 289–312. For previous Latter-day Saint commentary on this, see Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 3:125; Mark Alan Wright and Brant A. Gardner, “The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy,” Interpreter 1 (2012): 41–45.

[2] Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art (New York, NY and Fort Worth, TX: George Braziller and Kimbell Art Museum, 1986), 110. Cf. Wright and Gardner, “Cultural Context,” 47: “At the summit of Mesoamerican hierarchical society was a king who represented a divine lineage and whose ritual presence enacted both the presence of deity and the power of blood sacrifice.”

[3] Schele and Miller, Blood of Kings, 117, 179. See pp. 104, 110 for the transfer of royal objects to the heir from their parents (often only symbolically so, since their parents were typically dead when they ascended to the throne). On royal paraphernalia, see also Mark Alan Wright, “Axes Mundi: Ritual Complexes in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter 12 (2014): 84–85. On bloodletting, see also Gardner, Second Witness, 3:152; Wright and Gardner, “Cultural Context,” 51.

[4] Arthur Demarest, Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 188–189. See also Schele and Miller, Blood of Kings, 177–178.

[5] Demarest, Ancient Maya, 184, 188.

[6] Schele and Miller, Blood of Kings, 183–182. See also p. 182: “Bloodletting had one final function for the Maya: to bring the gods into man’s presence.”

[7] Gardner, Second Witness, 3:152.