May 29, 2012


Make a Liahona


"And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment, he beheld upon the ground a round ball, of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness" (1 Nephi 16:10).

I have always wanted to have a replica of the true Liahona but have had difficulty visualizing what the real one might have looked like. The normal artistic renderings of the Liahona have done little to clarify my vision of this instrument. They all seem awkward and unwieldy, and ofttimes rather delicate. Not something that would survive 8 years in the deserts of Arabia, or an extended period of sea travel, and a thousand years as a national treasure of the Nephite people. The above picture illustrates such an imaginary design.
To the right is another such design with an open top with fragile supports. But how else could one see the operations of the “compass” if it were not open?
The image below is how I have come to visualize the Liahona. I believe that it is a “ball” or sphere just as the Book of Mormon describes it. It doesn't need openings to make visible its workings. It doesn't need a spindle or shaft protruding from the top or bottom.  It would feature writing (probably Hebrew) and various messages.  Such a sphere is very sturdy and would stand years of wear and even heavy abuse.

I recently figured out how to make a “toy” Liahona that allows one to practice and experience exactly how the instrument functioned (without the miraculous results of course). I am going to show you how you can make one for yourself.
But first we need a little background on the Liahona, what it was, and how it functioned. This from none other than Hugh Nibley whose insight was indeed far reaching. But if you don't want the background, you can skip to the end of this blog and go right to it.
For a long time Bro. Nibley was puzzled by the Liahona and didn't know what to make of it. But let's  let him tell his own story.
We have in the Book of Mormon a most interesting apparatus called the Liahona. Now the chances of finding a genuine Liahona are, to say the least, remote; but what if something just like it showed up in the hands of Lehi's relatives? That should certainly come as a surprise, and even provoke some thought …
The present writer, for all his curiosity about Book of Mormon oddities, has always passed it [the Liahona] by in an abashed silence—it was like nothing he ever heard or read of—until the year 1959. For it was in that year that an Arabic scholar by the name of T. Fahd published the hitherto scattered, scanty, and inaccessible evidence that makes it possible for the first time to say something significant about the Liahona ...
Nibley notes that Mr. Fahd studied the practice of belomancy in the ancient Near East. “Belomancy is the practice of divination by shooting, tossing, shaking, or otherwise manipulating rods, darts, pointers, or other sticks, all originally derived from arrows.” When Nibley read Fahd's study it “dawned upon him that these old practices might have some connection with the Liahona. For the most common use of divination arrows, and probably their original purpose, was, according to the forgotten evidence unearthed by ... Fahd, the direction of travelers in the desert.”
The 'arrows' used in divination … were devoid of heads and feathers, being mere shafts or pointers.
He then quotes Edward Lane regarding this subject.
"Zalam ... arrows by means of which the Arabs in the Time of Ignorance [i.e, before Islam] sought to know what was allotted to them: they were arrows upon which the Arabs … wrote 'Command' and 'Prohibition'; or upon some of which was written 'My Lord hath commanded me'; and upon some, 'My Lord hath forbidden me' ... and they put them in a receptacle, and took forth an arrow; and if the arrow upon which was 'Command' came forth, he went to accomplish the purpose; but if that upon which was 'Prohibition' came forth, he refrained.”
But why arrows? Because ... the shooting of arrows is a universal form of divination … The consultation of the arrows by one about to marry was, according to Gaster, also an old Jewish custom; the parties concerned would throw rods into the air, "reading their message by the manner of their fall; this, Gaster observes, is 'tantamount' to the shooting of arrows." Other substitutes for shooting were shaking or drawing from a bag or quiver, "balancing on the finger, or spinning on a pivot.
More often than not, the arrows in question were mere sticks or pointers ... There was no more popular form of divination among the magic-minded Babylonians than arrow-lottery, and ... "casting lots" in Babylonian ... refers to an original shaking or shooting of arrows.
All this shaking, tossing, and shooting emphasizes the divinatory office of arrows as pointers ... it is certain that men from the earliest times have sought guidance by consulting the pointings and the inscriptions of headless and tailless arrows.
The word for "divination-arrow" in the above proverb was qidh, defined in Lane as one of the "two arrows used in sortilege." The original and natural number of arrows used in divination seems to have been two.
The reason for the two basic staves is apparent from their normal designation as 'Command' and 'Prohibition' ... the original arrangement was that two arrows designated the advisability or inadvisability of a journey; they were designated as 'the safr [Go ahead!] and the khadr [Stay where you are!].' From passages in Lane it is clear that the regular consultants of the arrows were those faced with travel-problems—all others are secondary.
It would be an obtuse reader indeed who needed one to spell out for him the resemblance between ancient arrow-divination and the Liahona: two 'spindles or pointers' bearing written instructions provide superhuman guidance for travelers in the desert. What more could you want? But what is the relationship between them? On this the Book of Mormon is remarkably specific. Both Nephi and Alma go out of their way to insist that the Liahona did not work itself, i.e., was not a magic thing, but worked only by the power of God and only for appointed persons who had faith in that power.
Moreover, while both men marvel at the wonderful workmanship of the brass ball in which the pointers were mounted, they refer to the operation of those pointers as "a very small thing," so familiar to Lehi's people that they hardly gave it a second glance. So contemptuous were they of the 'small means' by which 'those miracles were worked' for their guidance and preservation that they constantly 'forgot to exercise their faith,' so that the compass would work. This suggests that aside from the workmanship of the mounting, there was nothing particularly strange or mystifying about the apparatus, which Alma specifies as a 'temporal' thing.
Here we have an instructive parallel in the ship and the bow that Nephi made. Without divine intervention those indispensable aids to survival would never have come to the rescue of Lehi's company—their possession was a miracle. Yet what were they after all? An ordinary ship and an ordinary bow. Just so, the Liahona was 'a very small thing' for all its marvelous provenience, having much the same relationship to other directing arrows that the ship and the bow did to other ships and bows ...
Was the Liahona, then, just old magic? No, it is precisely here that Nephi and Alma are most emphatic—unlike magic things, these pointers worked solely by the power of God, and then, too, for only those designated to use them. Anybody about to make a journey could consult the mantic arrows at the shrines, and to this day throughout the world mantic arrows are still being consulted. But it is clear from Alma's words that in his day the Liahona had been out of operation for centuries, having functioned only for a true man of God and only for one special journey ...
Where, then, does one draw the line between the sacred and the profane? Religion becomes magic when the power by which things operate is transferred from God to the things themselves ... When men lack revelation they commonly come to think of power as residing in things [in this case the Liahona]. Did the staff of Moses make water come from the rock or cause the Red Sea to part? Of course not; yet in time the miraculous powers which were displayed through its agency came to be attributed by men to the staff itself. It became a magic thing ...
The practice [of using divination arrows] quickly degenerated to magic.  That is why it is so important to understand, and why the Book of Mormon is at such pains to make perfectly clear, that the Liahona was not magic. It did not work itself, like other divination arrows, in any sense or to any degree.
And yet it seems to have been an ordinary and familiar object, a "temporal thing," which could also serve as "a type and a shadow," teaching us how God uses "small things" to bring about great purposes …”
What does the word Liahona mean? “Fortunately the Book of Mormon has ... given us the answer: 'Our fathers called it Liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass' (Alma 37:38). Liahona is here clearly designated as an Old World word from the forgotten language of the fathers, which must be interpreted to present readers. But what is a compass? According to the Oxford Dictionary, the derivation of the word remains a mystery; it has two basic meanings, but which has priority nobody knows: the one is 'to pass or step together,' referring always to a pair of things in motion; the other refers to the nature of that motion in a circle, 'to pass or step completely,' to complete a 'circumference, circle, round,' to embrace or enclose completely. Thus whether it refers to the ball or the arrows, 'compass' is the best possible word to describe the device ...”  (From Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=74&chapid=917 Also in the Improvement Era Feb. 1961: pp. 87-89, 104, 106, 108-109.)
One of the definitions of compass from Websters 1828 dictionary is also instructive.
Compass or compasses, [or a pair of compasses, so named from its legs, but pair is superfluous or improper, and the singular number compass is the preferable name,] an instrument for describing circles, measuring figures, &c., consisting of two pointed legs or branches, made of iron, steel or brass, joined at the top by a rivet, on which they move. There are also compasses of three legs or triangular compasses, cylindrical and spherical compasses with four branches, and various other kinds.”

Make Your Own Liahona
After reading Nibley's original article (Liahona's Cousins, see above reference) I was impressed that the Liahona was an extraordinary object used for a very common practice, but it facilitated divine direction. The ancient peoples used similar devices for magical purposes, much as someone would shake a pair of dice in a cup. But in the case of the Liahona, it wasn't magic and it didn't depend upon chance. If faith were exercised, the Lord manipulated the results. If not, it was just an exercise in “casting lots.” It was a very common practice used for uncommon ends. I could visualize two arrows or spindles inside a brass ball which would be shaken and then the ball separated to see the results. It all seemed very simple if my logic were correct.
I wanted to try and make one for myself, but what to use. I am not skilled in metal work so ruled that out. I found a hard plastic ball and made one from that, but it wasn't satisfactory. Then one day while splitting a coconut, it occurred to me that I could use the two halves of the coconut for my "ball" after cleaning the meat out.
Click to enlarge.  This means stay.
After preparing the coconut, I cut two Popsicle sticks into 2.5 inch lengths with one end pointed. One I colored red and the other green. These I placed inside the coconut shells, which fit together nicely to form a ball.  Then the sticks inside are shaken vigorously. After shaking, the two halves are separated and the results observed.  One must be careful to maintain the shells in the same position or direction when opening them.  
The green stick stands for “go” and the red for “stop” or “stay.” If the green lands on top of the red, it means go in the direction indicated by the arrow. If the red is on top, it means stay. If they are equal, or on the same level, I arbitrarily decided that the red would prevail.
It has been quite entertaining and I have enjoyed spending some time observing the repeated results and imagining how Nephi and Lehi would have done it. Even if the design is not completely accurate, I think it is probably in the ball park judging from Nibleys research and comments.
One additional thing: you may be wondering how to crack the coconut without destroying it completely. I was taught this trick by a fellow missionary who had served in Micronesia and learned the technique. After draining the milk, the coconut is held in the left hand and hit repeatedly on the equator of the nut as it is gradually turned. Ideally this is done with the back edge of a machete.  But if a machete is not available, any heavy metal object will do.  The north pole is where the 3 eyes are located, and the south at the opposite end. If it is done correctly, the nut will crack right around the equator with enough irregularities that the two halves can be matched easily. The meat is removed by cutting into sections while still in the shell, and then prying each individual section out with a dull knife or spoon.
There you have your own Liahona. Have fun with it. I imagine that all kinds of games could be invented to play with it.
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