Jun 16, 2009

Of Ceremonial Stools and Judgment Seats



New York Museum of Art
The ancients of Costa Rica were unique in the use of grinding stones, or metates, as ceremonial stools. These stools were probably used by those of higher rank who were in positions of authority in their communities. They may have sat on the stool, in the appointed place, as they rendered judgment. The archaeologist Wolfgang Haberland[1] refers to them as “seats of honor”. Another archaeologist calls them “ceremonial stools”[2].

The normal metate or grinding stone, as used throughout Central America, is a very utilitarian object. There are no adornments or aesthetic additions. However the Costa Rican varieties are much different. They are decorated with everything from prosaic designs, to elaborate carvings, such as the type called “flying panel metates”. They are typically three dimensional, having been carved out of a single block of stone. Quite often they are decorated with animal heads such as monkeys or birds. The carving of these metates required considerable skill and obviously used special techniques. Terence Grieder, an archaeologist, points out that the tradition of the carved and adorn metate developed in Costa Rica and is unique to that area[3].
These metates were apparently the possession of the individual and were buried with him upon his death. They are normally found in the graves and cemeteries. Nowhere else in Latin America are such elaborate metates found, nor in such astonishing numbers.
Could these metates be related to Book of Mormon Judgment Seats? In the Book of Mormon the judgment seat seems to have been an office, or position of power, during the time of the Reign of the Judges. Elected or appointed men held these positions of power, or office, where they sat in judgment, rendering important decisions on matters of Nephite law.
For example in the Book of Mormon we read:
…Nephihah…was appointed chief judge; and he sat in the judgment-seat to judge and to govern the people. Now Alma did not grant unto him the office of being high priest over the church, but he retained the office of high priest unto himself; but he delivered the judgment-seat unto Nephihah. (Alma 4:17-18.)
Here we find that Alma “delivered” the judgment seat to Nephihah, but retained the “office” of high priest, seeming to differentiate between an object and an office.
Farther on we find other references to the judgment seat:
For behold, Pahoran had died, and gone the way of all the earth; therefore there began to be a serious contention concerning who should have the judgment-seat among the brethren, who were the sons of Pahoran. Now these are their names who did contend for the judgment-seat, who did also cause the people to contend: Pahoran, Paanchi, and Pacumeni. (Helaman 1:2-3.)
And it came to pass in the forty and second year of the reign of the judges, after Moronihah had established again peace between the Nephites and the Lamanites, behold there was no one to fill the judgment-seat; therefore there began to be a contention again among the people concerning who should fill the judgment-seat (Helaman 2:1).
And it came to pass that in this same year, behold, Nephi delivered up the judgment-seat to a man whose name was Cezoram (Helaman 5:1).
And it came to pass that in the sixty and sixth year of the reign of the judges, behold, Cezoram was murdered by an unknown hand as he sat upon the judgment-seat (Helaman 6:15).
Now behold, I will show unto you that they did not establish a king over the land; but in this same year, yea, the thirtieth year, they did destroy upon the judgment-seat, yea, did murder the chief judge of the land (3 Nephi 7:1).
All these references speak of the “judgment seat” as if it were an object or specific location—something one possessed—not just an office or position. It was something one sat in, gave to another, was driven from, contended for, possessed, filled, delivered to, sat upon, went to, or was destroyed upon--all actions referring to an object.
In this context the opinion of Sami Hanna is of interest. Mr. Hanna was an Egyptian scholar, who according to various accounts translated the Book of Mormon from English to Arabic. In the process he was convinced of the truthfulness of the book and joined the church. Later, according to his son, he renounced his testimony and left the church. However, I believe that his observations are still valid. The observation I am interested in relates to the present topic. He notes the use of the term “judgment seat” in the Book of Mormon and observes:
The use of the term "judgment seat" would be quite strange to an American who might have used a more familiar noun such as governor, president, or ruler. Yet, in Arabic custom, the place of power rests in the judgment seat and whoever occupies that seat, is the authority and power. The authority goes with the seat and not with the office or the person[4].
We find that other cultures have similar traditions. The Asante people of Ghana [Africa] use special stools as an emblem of power and authority. In an article discussing the traditional Asante stool, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art states “the…stool is used as an icon of leadership throughout this region [Ghana].” They go on to explain:
An Akan [one of the sub-tribes] ruler's stool occupies a place at the very center of his personal and political life. It is a potent indication of royal patronage, for only those chiefs considered sufficiently loyal to the king are granted permission to use them. In some areas, the transfer of chiefly power is consummated at the moment of the successor's first contact with his predecessor's stool. A leader's stool is so integrally linked to his identity that his death is described by the phrase "a stool has fallen." Before burial, a chief's body is ritually washed on the stool… The stools of the most important chiefs are blackened after the deaths of their owners through the ritual application of smoke and other offerings and are then placed on altars where they facilitate communication with the spirit of the decease.[5]
A stool from the Asante royal tradition Source: http://www.ifeas.uni-mainz.de/workingpapers/AP94.pdf accessed 06/16/2009.
Another group that has used ceremonial stools is the Bemileke of Camaroon, Africa. They are a sub-tribe of the Bantu of Cameroon, Africa. Examples of their stools can be seen at http://www.hamillgallery.com/BAMILEKE/BamilekeStools/BamilekeStools.html
In conclusion, if the ceremonial stools of Costa Rica are indeed samples of Book of Mormon judgment seats, this would strengthen the claim that the Book of Mormon lands are in fact centered in that country, and we would finally have physical proof of a Book of Mormon tradition.

[1] From Paths to Central American Prehistory. 1996. Univ. of Colo. Press. P. 44.
[2] Lange, F. W. Paths to Central American Prehistory. 1996. Univ. of Colo. Press. P. 127.
[3] Grieder, Terence. Reinterpreting Prehistory of Central America. P. 44.
[4] http://www.greaterthings.com/Tropical/BofM_Arabic.htm
[5] New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/asan_2/ho_1986.478.2.htm