Stars, Planets, Moons and Temples

1,383 words

© Anthony E. Larson, 2002

Stars, planets, moons and temples

Mormonism is unique among Christian denominations for many reasons. One of the things that make it so distinctive was its founder’s interest in bringing ancient texts to light. Another was the instigation of temple use, a practice thought to be largely pagan and thus suspiciously sacrilegious by normative Christianity.

While it may not be readily apparent at first, upon closer inspection we will see that ancient sacred texts and temple use are closely related.

While the rest of Christianity contented itself with the Bible, Joseph Smith endeavored to establish the Book of Mormon as an equally important ancient, sacred record. Indeed, he tried to impress on modern Christianity the value of ancient records, beyond the Bible, to the practice of true religion.

Public interest in things from Egyptian antiquity has always been high, but it was far more than mere curiosity that compelled the latter-day prophet to purchase the Egyptian papyri that ultimately resulted in the Pearl of Great Price and the facsimiles therein.

At present, much is written and said by Latter-day Saints about the Book of Mormon, its origins in antiquity and its advent in modern times via angelic ministrations. Surprisingly, little dialog is devoted to the Pearl of Great Price, even less to the Egyptian elements found therein to which Joseph dedicated considerable time and effort. Perhaps that is so because it deals with some topics—stars, planets and moons—that seem largely foreign to religion, as is commonly supposed, topics that seem better suited to cosmology, astronomy or archeology. In fact, Joseph Smith and the church he founded have taken criticism from both science and religion over the years because he ventured into these areas.

Stars, planets and moons are seldom foremost in the minds of Latter-day Saints when contemplating the gospel. Indeed, modern Christianity as a whole has long since divested itself of nearly all such references since discussions of such objects is more typically thought to be the purview of either ancient pagan religions or modern science. Ministers and evangelists in Joseph Smith’s day were horrified by the prophet’s penchant for discussing such things in the context of the gospel. The stigma of being a “cult,” attached to Mormonism by orthodox Christianity, stems partly from these associations.

All this begs the question that nearly all Saints avoid: What seemed so vital about documents from the Egyptian culture and its religion that a prophet of God would dedicate so much time and effort to explaining their meaning and symbolism, as seen in the Pearl of Great Price facsimiles? One can easily see the value of translating the books of Moses, Enoch and Abraham for the doctrines contained therein, but what value can be gleaned from studying Egyptian hieroglyphs? Did Joseph include them simply to establish his credentials as a bona fide translator of ancient texts? Or was he pointing the way to a subject helpful in a thoroughgoing understanding of the gospel?

The answer to those questions may be provided by considering the other part of the equation cited at the outset of this article: modern temples.

The two primary temples of this era, the Nauvoo and the Salt Lake, were liberally decorated with icons of stars, planets and moons. This they have in common with both ancient texts and the temples of yesteryear, those erected by all ancient cultures. Those temples, too, were decorated with symbols of stars, planets and moons, along with illustrations of their gods, goddesses and a multitude of other religious icons peculiar to each culture.

Scholars readily acknowledge the strong and pervasive influence of astral beliefs at the heart of those ancient religions, reflected in the astronomical alignments and astrological references built into those edifices—from Angkor Wat to Tiahuanaco, from Teotiuacan to Stonehenge, from Karnak and the pyramids at Geza to Solomon’s temple and those erected by all Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures, including the Greeks and the Romans. They all venerated the heavens and the orbs they saw there. It is for that reason, for example, that our modern names for the planets come from the Roman pantheon.

Thus, the Prophet not only pointed to the use astronomical imagery in ancient texts by exploring the meaning of the icons he found on the Egyptian papyri that came into his hands, he also employed similar astronomical imagery in modern temples. Indeed, as in ancient temples, it is astral imagery that almost exclusively dominates modern temple iconography. In so doing, Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young after him, simply authenticated or validated the connection between the restored gospel and ancient beliefs.

The iconography and rhetorical imagery of the restored gospel stand side by side with those of ancient cultures as reflected in their writings and their art.

All this is as it should be if, as Joseph Smith maintained, his was a restoration of the original gospel, which was taught universally by inspired prophets anciently. The true religion should retain and display those same ancient traditions, rhetoric and icons.

But it also suggests an extraordinary value in studying ancient history to understand what the ancients knew and what a modern prophet knew about the past that compelled them to make astral iconography, past and present, an integral part of religion and temple iconography. After all, such imagery is not employed simply to keep authors and artisans busy writing and chiseling.

Perhaps the clue as to why knowledge of the heavens is a vital part of the true religion and how that knowledge spawned a multitude of icons in ancient cultures the world over can be found in several passages of scripture, each of which say essentially the same thing: the heavens and the earth we know now are not the heavens and earth the ancients knew; and conversely the heavens and the earth we know now will be replaced by “new heavens and a new earth.” (Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:7, 13; Revelation 21:1; Ether 13:9; Doctrine & Covenants 29:23.)

Such dramatic language suggests radical changes in our solar system anciently. These sweeping and dynamic changes would have caused tremendous natural disasters, paroxysms of nature, wiping out large populations and dramatically altering Earth’s environment—changes that would have left few survivors to experience entirely “new heavens and a new earth,” changes that compelled the ancients to include them in their religious and cultural traditions.

Indeed, one school of thought suggests that the ancients were consumed with rehearsing the celestial drama that brought about those sweeping changes, that they made every attempt to preserve that knowledge in rite, ritual, architecture, art, text and religion since they considered it sacred as well as historical.

This would explain the compulsive use of cosmological imagery in ancient temples by their builders. Temples were specifically designed by the ancients to reflect, recall and reconstruct a lost cosmology, one that existed before the heavens and the earth suffered dramatic, sweeping changes.

Thus, our modern temples become living repositories of ancient wisdom and tradition, as well as venues for making sacred covenants.

This view would also explain the admixture of two distinct cosmologies seen in those same edifices, leading to confusion among modern scholars about their meanings and use. Temple iconography juxtaposed the present cosmology and that of the past, combining both in one presentation. To those who understood the profound transformation in the heavens and the earth anciently, such juxtaposition was proper and correct, not confusing and mysterious. Only modern man, divested of his cosmological heritage, would be perplexed by this coincidence.

And those two facts explain why a modern prophet would resurrect the use of that same imagery in modern temples, they being a restoration of ancient convention.

The marvel and the tragedy is that we, their posterity, have confused, denied and ultimately rejected that part of the record bequeathed us, that we consider it mere exaggerated myth and legend. Even the inspired efforts of a latter-day prophet to bring these ideas to light have gone largely ignored by those who practice the religion he founded.

The fact that Latter-day Saints almost universally discount such a possibility, even though statements of their prophet, their revealed scriptures and their temple iconography indicate otherwise, reveals a fatal flaw in their comprehension of the legacy they inherited from Joseph Smith in the magnificent revelation that comprises this latter-day restoration of the gospel.





Understanding John’s Apocalypse

894 words

© Anthony E. Larson, 2006

Understanding John’s Apocalypse

LDS scholars and church members alike fail to notice vital elements of John’s New Testament book, Revelation. They see it solely as a eschatological writing—a revelation of future tribulations to befall the world in a period of physical and political upheaval immediately preceding the second coming of Christ.

While it is certainly all that, there is much more to discover. With the aid of a new perspective, the mystery of that book vanishes. Revelation becomes a pivotal document, a virtual ‘Rosetta Stone’ of the cultural traditions common to 1st century Mediterranean and Middle Eastern peoples.

Let’s look at a summary of the situation that led to John’s vision:

Christianity’s early leaders, most notably the Apostle Paul, had expanded their missionary efforts far beyond Palestine and its roots in Judaism. Thanks to a revelation given to Peter, they initiated a campaign to win converts from non-Jewish or ‘gentile’ cultural groups, including Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and Babylonians.

This put the fledgling church on the horns of a dilemma. Gentile religious and cultural traditions were very different from those of Judaism and Christianity. For example, the gentiles believed in a multiplicity of gods while Christianity taught of only one God. This and many other fundamental differences made proselytism difficult for the newly born religion. Yet, if the new church were to survive and flourish, it had to win converts.

What was needed was a strategy to find connections, common ground with the religious traditions of their ‘pagan’ neighbors to make Christianity more palatable.

John’s Revelation was part of that strategy. His vision was an attempt to reconcile the cultural and religious traditions of the gentiles with that of the Jews, melding them into a new, common tradition for the Christian church that would allow it to appeal to both communities.

Evidence for this is found in several examples of Revelation imagery, which are also found in ancient sources that predate John’s writing, demonstrating the ‘borrowing’ nature of his account.

In Revelation, chapter 13, we read of a rather remarkable beast. “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leipard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority. And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed; and all the world wondered after the beast.” (Revelation 13: 1-3.)

Marduk Battles Tiamat

This story is a rhetorical rendition of a Babylonian tradition, illustrated in this copy of a Babylonian ostracon depicting the mythical battle between Marduk and the beast, Tiamat.

Astoundingly, we learn that this beast—wounded head and all—was depicted in Mesopotamian cylinder seal art hundreds of years before John described seeing it in vision.

This discovery allows for only one of two conclusions: Either this is a rather remarkable coincidence, or it is an instance of borrowing from older, pagan tradition by John. As we shall see from the next example, it was most likely a borrowing.

In his epic vision, John also reported seeing four other beasts in heaven. “And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.” (Revelation 4:7.)

These four are also seen everywhere in the Egyptian tradition that long predates John.

Canopic Jars

Named after Canopus, an area in the Nile delta region, these jars were funerary furniture used to house various organs of the deceased during internment rites. The four creatures depicted on lids of these Canopic jars were said to be the sons of Horus.

They are also found in the Joseph Smith papyri.

Joseph Smith Papyri

The Egyptians employed the heads of a baboon and a jackal rather than the Israelite designation of a calf (ox) and lion. This variation is typical from culture to culture and across time, just as the names of the same gods varied. But there is no mistaking that the four creatures seen in prophetic vision also adorned the burial art of Egyptians for many centuries before John penned his Apocalypse.

These two examples amply demonstrate John’s borrowing of pagan tradition and imagery for his own vision. As it turns out, almost all the imagery in Revelation can be traced to common religious traditions of that day and time.

This is a remarkable discovery.

John created an admixture of ancient cultural motifs and Christian beliefs that would give the ring of familiarity to doctrines of the early Christian church among any of his ‘gentile’ contemporaries—a calculated attempt to give Christianity the proper traditional underpinnings necessary to validate any religion, thus making it more acceptable to a much wider audience.

Given this alternative view, we can now see John’s vision with new eyes. Here is the answer to the riddle that is Revelation: The multitude of pagan gods became mythic characters and images in John’s vision—the strange beasts, creatures, kings, women and other icons—in a revised series of sacred dramas, each one calculated to show Christ’s place in those traditions.



Introducing a new contributor

Effective immediately, this blog has a new contributor: Anthony E. Larson. You can read his bio on the Contributors page. I also did a write-up about him back in November of 2007. He is a bit of a specialist in what I’ve termed plasma theology, which is why I’ve invited him to contribute. I look forward to his articles and hope that we all learn something new and have our perspectives broadened.

what4anarchy technically is still assigned contributor status to this blog, but as yet, has decided not to contribute, for his own reasons, which is why his bio is not on the Contributors page. When the time comes that he starts writing articles, I will update that page and list him.

I have been on a 40-day fast (tonight will make 32 days) and have not had the energy to dedicate to the articles and drafts I wish to publish, which is why this month (and last month) have been a bit slow in the number of articles published. It will take an additional 10 to 20 days just to wean me off of the fast, so don’t expect me to start publishing articles right after day 40. That said, there are times when I do have time and energy, so I might throw out a surprise post. But generally, the blog right now is not a priority. Getting through this fast in one piece is my priority. After the fast, I will resume my normal output, or more, as they say that you gain 10 to 20 years of youth after a 40-day fast. For those with interest, you can follow my extended fast journal.

Complete List of Articles authored by LDS Anarchist