Jan 13, 2010

The Legend of the Seven Caves

There is a pervasive legend among all the Mesoamerican peoples that they originated from seven ancestral caves.  This is generally interpreted figuratively and assumed to refer to the metaphorical womb from which the people originated.  Some have even theorized that it refers to the seven family groups referred to in the Book of Mormon (i.e. Nephites, Lamanites, Lemuelites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites and Ishmaelites).  However the historian Bernardino Sahagun, who was one of the first Europeans to record the traditions and customs of the Aztecs, identifies these caves as a symbolic representation of the seven ships which they used to cross the ocean on their voyage to the Americas.  He writes:
"Concerning the origin of these peoples, the report the old men give is that they came by sea from the north . . . It is conjectured . . . that they came from seven caves, and that these seven caves are the seven ships or galleys in which the first settlers of this land came. . . .
This is also supported by the History of the Xpantxay de Tecpan, a tribe of Guatemala, who relate that their ancestors came to the Americas in seven ships.
Now the question arises, why would they compare a ship to a cave?  Think back on the ships of the Jaredites.  They were large, sealed vessels (described as “tight like a dish”) with no openings.  Although the Lord miraculously provided them with stones that would provide some light (probably equivalent to a candle) so that they would not have to travel in complete darkness, it was still not a pleasant environment.  They were shut up in these sea going containers for 344 days traveling through turbulent, tempestuous seas, not knowing what was going on outside their ships- probably a very harrowing experience.  Wouldn’t this environment remind you of living in a cave?  A damp, dark, enclosed, claustrophobic place.  An experience that would forever be etched in your memory.  If you were going to invent a mnemonic symbol for the experience, the symbol of a cave would come naturally.  I believe that this is the true meaning of the legend of the seven caves.  The ships of the Jaredites compare perfectly with the image of a cave, while a ship of standard design would not.  Any ordinary open vessel would not be comparable to living in a cave (unless one were locked up in the hold the entire trip).
However, there is one problem with this interpretation.  Perhaps you have already thought of it.  The Brother of Jared was commanded to build eight ships (Ether 3:1), what happened to the eighth ship?  If the legends were correct, shouldn’t there have been eight?  If my theory is correct, the only answer is to assume that something happened to the last ship.  This is not a completely satisfactory answer, but it is legitimate to consider it.  A number of possibilities come to mind.  The eighth ship was lost at sea.  Or for some reason they had to return to the Asian coast. Or perhaps they were separated from the others and landed in a completely different location.
The civilizations of Peru have always been a puzzle.  Perhaps the 8th ship ended up there.
Actually, when you think about it, isn’t it miraculous that even two of the ships landed in the same place.  Chance would scatter them all down the Pacific coast of North and Central America.   So just how did the ships maintain contact with one another and stay grouped together?  And did they need to?  Here again we are not provided with an answer in the abbreviated history of the Jaredites.  However, I am sure that the Lord could have arranged for them to stay in proximity of each other, or at least land in the same general area if he had wanted to, but as is often the case He leaves such details up to His disciples to work out.  Perhaps the ships were attached in some way, such as by a long, strong rope.  But it seems that any attachment would have created problems and risked the danger of collision.  But as they were only drifting with the current, or driven by the wind, at a fairly slow rate of speed this might not have been a serious problem.