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Mayan civilization and parallels to the Book of Mormon
Maya Ruins > Parallels to the Book of Mormon > Tree of Life
Nicknamed "Tree of Life Stela" this is really Stela #5 from Izapa Mexico. Izapa is unique in that it is a very large site with many stela. Matthew W. Stirling, the archaeologist who found it in 1941, labeled the stone "Stela 5." (see photo opposite). The stela depicts a fruited tree with several characters gathered around it. A decade after its discovery, M. Wells Jakeman - chairman of the Department of Archaeology at Brigham Young University created a drawing and interpreted the stone as representing "Lehi's dream." For years, many people believed this interpretation. Since then, further research and better imaging technlogies have resulted in other interpretations such as creation myths and 'road of life' themes. Regardless of what the real image portrays, it is interesting to learn more about the original inhabitants. Pictured below is a carving made by a local artist in the town of Bacalar that duplicates the drawing made by Jakeman. The interpretion of the image (as referenced in Joseph Allen's book 'Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon' is listed below the image.

In the early 1950s archaeologist M. Wells Jakeman claimed that a carved stone monument unearthed in Izapa, Mexico, in 1941 depicted Lehi's vision of the tree of life as reported in the Book of Mormon. As is true for any archaeological find, the accuracy of that initial assessment of the stone dubbed Izapa Stela 5 will either stand or begin to fall in light of further evidence and study, though a definitive determination regarding the stela may simply not be possible. The following is gleaned from Joseph Allen's Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy...And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit. (I Nephi 8:10-12) Stela 5 at the Archaeological Ruins of Izapa The Book of Mormon finds a logical, geographical setting in the area known as Mesoamerica - southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. Unlike the Bible, where the name of Jerusalem and its location has been known for millennium, no direct correlation between present day archaeological sites in Mesoamerica, and the Book of Mormon has been established. Archaeologist have yet to find a text name that says, "Welcome to the city of Zarahemla" or "The city of Nephi - 15 miles ahead." Nevertheless, when taken as a whole, the references in the Book of Mormon relating to directions, distances, city locations, rivers, mountain ranges, seas and other large bodies of water, coastal plains, mountain passes, and specific references to tropical heat, a narrow neck of land, wet lands, battles and troop movements, help to establish a high degree of correlation between the regions of southern Mexico, and Guatemala, and the story outline in the Book of Mormon. In other words, using the same references, it would be hard to show an archaeological and cultural relationship between the Book of Mormon and the Rocky Mountains (USA) or the mid-west (USA), or anywhere in Canada or the lands of South America, at the time periods required (600 BC - 400 AD). Click to enlarge photo Garth Norman's drawing of the Tree-of-Life from Stele 5 located at the archaeological site of Izapa on the Mexico/Guatemala border One of the most significant cultural relationships between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerica may be the archaeological ruins of Izapa, with its renowned "Tree-of-Life Stone" that carries the designation of Stela 5. The carvings on the 15 ton stone are proposed as a representation of Lehi's Dream as found in I Nephi 8. (Jakeman 1952) Strategically located on the Pacific Coast, Izapa sits at the crossroads of the Americas. Because of its location, the terrain and topography dictate that all traffic moving north and south between the Land Northward and the Land Southward, in fact between North and South American have to pass through the region of Izapa. It was the land of the ancient trade routes. The early Olmecs opened this trade route as they began expanding their culture between Veracruz and the coastal regions of Guatemala. The Maya used it as did the latter Aztecs. It may be the area where Lehi first landed, and/or it may be the Nephite City of Judea that was involved in critical Nephi/Lamanite battles during the first century BC (Hauck 1988:8) It was to the city of Judea that Helaman led his 2,000 young warriors: ...I, Helaman, did march at the head of these two thousand young men to the city of Judea, to assist Antipus, whom ye had appointed a leader over the people of that part of the land. (Alma 56:9) From 1961-1965, the New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF) conducted field excavations at this site. A report made by the field director had this to say about Izapa: Izapa is without doubt one of the largest ruins known on the Pacific Coast of North or Central America, lying as it does within a very productive, well-populated region where communications are good. (Lowe 1982:1) The uniqueness of Izapa stems from its large assemblage of carved stone sculptures centered around open plazas. Garth Norman who conducted extensive investigations of the stone monuments during the 1961-1965 excavations writes in his monograph: Izapa is an ancient ceremonial center first settled in Early Preclassic times -- perhaps as early as 1500 BC (Ekholm 1969). For almost a thousand years from 600 BC, it seems to have been the largest and most important center on the Pacific Coast, undoubtedly serving both civil and religious functions. Lehi's dream as recorded in I Nephi 8:11-12 depicts a Tree-of-Life which is a reference to the atonement of Christ. The interpretation of the dream is given by Nephi his son. The basic elements of the vision and the interpretation given by Nephi is as follows: The main characters in the vision are: Lehi--the father and prophet who led his family out of Jerusalem, prior to its destruction. Sariah--Lehi's wife. Laman--oldest son who is in constant rebellion against his father. At one point, he seeks his father's life as well as Nephi's. Lemuel--second son who, like his older brother, also rebels. Nephi--third son who heeds his father's counsel. Because of his righteous behavior, he is favored of the Lord, has many revelations, and becomes the leader of the Nephites in the promised land, and a keeper of the records. Sam--fourth son who is righteous and follows Lehi. A man dressed in a white robe comes to Lehi and commands him to follow him. Traveled through a dark and dreary waste. Prayed to the Lord for mercy. Beheld a large and spacious field. Beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy Lehi saw a river of water that ran beside the tree. Lehi saw a rod of iron that extended along the bank of the river. Lehi says that he saw a strait and narrow path that followed beside the rod of iron to the tree with the desirable fruit. It also passed by a fountain and a large and spacious field. He sees countless numbers of people in the strait and narrow path, holding to the iron rod and pressing forward to the tree, but a mist of darkness arises, and many lose their way, and wander off. He sees many who press forward to the tree, partake of the fruit, but then appear to be ashamed. On the other side of the river, he sees a large and spacious building, filled with people in an attitude of mocking those who have partaken of the fruit of the tree. Lehi sees his wife Sariah, and sons Nephi and Sam partake of the fruit, but Laman and Lemuel refuse to take hold of the iron rod, walk the strait and narrow path to the tree, and partake of the fruit. The interpretation as given by Nephi is as follows: The large and spacious field we understand to represent the earth. Lehi informs us that the fruit of the tree represents the love of God, and more explicitly the atonement of Christ, which leads to eternal life. The river of water has reference to the depths of hell. The rod of iron denotes the word of God. Holding fast to the word of God, brings one to Christ and allows the recipient to receive eternal life. We understand the strait and narrow path to be adherence to gospel principles, while the fountain of filthy waters and the field represent the temptations of the world. The spacious building represents the pride of the world. To summarize, Lehi has had a vision dealing specifically with his family in regards to their relationship with God and his son Jesus Christ. Lehi works his way to the Tree of Life and partakes of the fruit, which he finds to be most desirable. He wants his family to partake of the fruit also, and invites them to come and join him. To do so, they must set their feet in the strait and narrow path, and grab hold of the iron rod, (which is a way of saying keep the commandments and follow gospel principles), so as not to loose their way when they encounter the mists of darkness - worldly temptations. Should they let go of the rod of iron, they may wander into forbidden paths and be lost or stumble into the river of filthy waters and lose their life. The iron rod and the strait and narrow path are the only sure way of arriving at the Tree-of-Life. He calls, but only part of his family responds, and comes to him. (It's the story of the love of God, and the atonement of Christ, of those who endure to the end, and eventually inherit eternal life, the same type of life that God enjoys.) Though the story is of one man and his family, in its duality, it represents the whole family of man and their journey through life. There are some 80 carved monuments scattered around the site of Izapa, the most famous being Stele 5. The narrative portrayed on the surface of the stone is quite complex, and proved to be a tremendous challenge to Norman as he struggled to unravel its message. Were it not for the Book of Mormon, and the narrative relating to Lehi's vision of the Tree-of-Life, and the astute observations of archaeologists who were familiar with both the story and the discovery of the carved stone, it's doubted that any meaningful understanding of the individual motifs engraved in the stone would have emerged. When the first archaeologists visited the site in the late 30's, it was initially described as a market scene. In describing the narrative on the stone, Norman said: The complexity of the Stela 5 scene becomes apparent from a general inventory of its individual motifs. There are no less than 12, and possibly 15, human figures, another 12 zoological representations, and over 25 botanical and inanimate objects, plus 9 stylized deity masks--totaling over 60 separate motif. (Norman 1976: 166) Bruce Warren and Tom Ferguson summarize their feelings about the monument's narrative when they wrote: The Book of Mormon also gives the meaning and interpretation of the symbols carved on the stone. The river represents the barrier of evil between people and happiness. The rod of iron represents the word of God, which, if followed, leads one to the tree of eternal life and happiness. The tree represents the love of God--and if one loves God he will keep His commandments, and this leads to the fruits of the tree--happiness and eternal life. It is an entire philosophy of life set out succinctly on 15 tons of stone. (Warren and Ferguson 1987:74) In a nutshell, the narrative carved on the stone appears to represent a family as it progresses through life and their relationship to a Tree-of-Life, which is the same story and interpretation presented in Lehi's dream. An analysis of the individual carved motifs is presented below. This analysis is gleaned from the writings of Garth Norman, Wells Jakeman and Joseph Allen

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