North American Ethnohistorical Sources on Death by Firebrands
Ethnohistorical sources from North and Central America provide a vivid (often too vivid, as it were) depiction of just such methods of torture and killing among numerous indigenous groups. Death by whipping with firebrands turns out to be one of the more common yet gruesome means of dealing with enemy captives whom one wanted to humiliate, make suffer, and kill.
There is considerable agreement among ethnohistorical sources, both pre-Columbian and post-Conquest in the New World, that scourging with firebrands was a favored means of torture for captured enemies. Dozens of sources from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries recount the horrors of seeing firsthand this brutal form of torture by many Native American groups in North America.11
The core elements of firebrand killing vary from group to group in North America, yet the commonalities outweigh the differences. In short, captives are bound to a physical structure, usually described as a “platform,” “scaffold,” “frame,” or “stake.”12 Once secured, members of the community often all participate in torturing the individual by burning the captive with lit firebrands or metal objects heated in the fire. This process is often highly ritualized and can extend over considerable lengths of time. Other forms of torture (scalping, bone breaking, flesh removal, etc.) can accompany the endless singeing and scourging with firebrands. Eventually, all of the bodily trauma leads to death, or, if pity is taken on the individual, death is induced through more direct means.
Du Pratz similarly describes the Natchez methods of torture for captives in the early eighteenth century. They would first construct “the fatal instrument” (or frame with three poles) to “cruelly immolate the unfortunate victim of their vengeance.” 13 He continues:
From the time they begin to take the scalp from the victim the young people go in search of dry canes, crush them, and make packages or bundles of the entire length of the canes which they bind in many places. They bring other dry canes, also, which have been neither crushed nor bound which the warriors make use of against the victim. The one who took him is the first one to take a single crushed cane, light it and burn the place he may choose. But he devotes himself especially to burn the arm with which he (the prisoner) had best defended himself. Another comes and burns another place.
This punishment could go on “three days and three nights without anyone giving them a glass of water to quench their thirst.” 14
Central American Indigenous Traditions of Death by Firebrands
Death by firebrands was also a known practice in colonial and ancient Mesoamerica. In 2001, Brant Gardner keenly connected Abinadi’s death to several scenes in sixteenth-century Aztec manuscripts.15 Gardner noted that the scene in the Codex Mendoza, dating to 1541, shows a youth being beaten with firebrands—a common means of punishment in Aztec society. He further associated three scenes from the sixteenth-century Florentine Codex, produced by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, in which an adulterer, a musician, and a merchant are being punished with cudgels, very much reminiscent of the description given of Abinadi’s death.
Both codices are important since they illustrate and describe this common form of punishment in Aztec society of beating someone, often youths, with sticks.16 Fifteen-year-old boys in Aztec society were typically sent to the telpochcalli, “young man’s house,” or to the cuicacalli, which were military training schools overseen by the telpuchtlato,the guards or captains over the youths who were responsible for punishing them if rules were broken.17 In the Codex Mendoza, a youth who was caught consorting with an Aztec woman is shown being reprimanded by the telpuchtlato, who are bludgeoning him with pine sticks. The accompanying Spanish text in translation reads: “Telpuchtlato. It means the two telpuchtlatos who are in charge of governing the youth, that when one youth was sleeping with a woman, they punished the youth by striking him with burning firebrands.” Note that the firebrands are used not solely used to scorch him but also to strike blows upon his body.
Firebrand Torture Among the Ancient Maya
Firebrands for the ancient Maya were made of bundles of highly flammable pine splinters, which were closely connected to ritual practice as part of ceremonial paraphernalia.18 Pine firebrands were also commonly associated with the burning of incense, as well as the burning of captives. At the site of Tohcok in Campeche, a mural on a doorjamb depicts a captive lying dead, face down on a large, spiked incense burner. He is disemboweled, and pine torches are shown in flames on his back.
Another example of a disemboweled individual has remarkable parallels to the details prophesied by Abinadi. The figurine from the island of Jaina in Campeche depicts a man screaming out both in pain from the disembowelment and also for the fact that he has wood (perhaps pine) sticks strapped to his back in preparation for immolation. Abinadi prophesied to Noah and his people that they would “have burdens lashed upon their backs” (Mosiah 12:5, emphasis added) and that they would “suffer . . . the pains of death by fire” (Mosiah 17:18). The “lashing” of the “burdens”19 (possibly fire sticks20) to their backs could be an allusion to a death similar to that depicted by this Jaina figurine.
The consistent appearance of pine and pine torches in scenes of firebrand torture is significant. The Aztecs used specifically pine sticks for their flogging punishments.21 It is important to note that pine torches are resinous and were often soaked in additional resin to ensure they would burn longer.22 Furthermore, pine torches drip pitch as they burn, which adds a further element of pain when considered in the context of scourging—the introduction of hot pine pitch into open wounds and burns.23 If pine torches were those used on Abinadi, which is highly likely in light of the ethnographic record, then his wounds may too have had increased trauma from heated, dripping pine pitch.
In ancient Mesoamerica, there is a mythological antecedent for firebrand torture and killing of captives that likely informed its use by Maya elite, especially at the site of Naranjo, Guatemala.24 A number of scenes on pottery vessels show this otherwise unknown myth from distant Maya tradition, although the actors themselves are well known, even into colonial times. On vessel K4598, a jaguar deity from the underworld is shown seated on a stone throne, which functions in this case as the stand or scaffold, stripped of his finery, with his arms tied tightly behind his back. To his right stands one of the Hero Twins (either Junapu or Xblanque) known from the Popol Vuh, the colonial account of Maya creation mythology that has deep roots into Early Classic Maya times. To the jaguar deity’s left is the other Hero Twin, both of whom are holding flaming firebrands in the act of scorching the jaguar deity. Further to the right of the scene stands the Hero Twins’ father, Junajaw, who bears an armful of backup firebrands for the twins to continue their lengthy25 torture of the jaguar god.
On another vase dating to around the seventh or eighth century AD, K1299, the Hero Twins are again shown holding flaming firebrands in front of two depictions of jaguar deities who are likewise bound. The verb given twice near each Hero Twin reads puluyi, “he got burned,” providing explicit epigraphic confirmation of the nature of the event occurring in the scene. The parallels of these mythic depictions to other Maya scenes discussed earlier are so clear as to suggest they could be considered reenactments of the prototypical myth of the torture and killing of a jaguar god, a powerful underworld deity.
Maya kings themselves, therefore, seem to have tapped into the mythological narrative of the death of this jaguar deity by firebrands by replicating the scene with their own high-profile captives. It is possible that King Noah and his priests were aware of a similar mythological paradigm of torture and deicide through scourging with firebrands, and they may have likewise sought to reenact this event through the ritualized killing of Abinadi.
The death of Abinadi was an act of martyrdom, an act of bravery, and a result of obedience. He willingly placed himself in the clutches of evil and corrupt men, who had marked him for death two years before. His bold teaching in the face of certain death represents the very essence of his faith in the words and promises of his God. What we hope to have added to his memory and legacy is a greater appreciation for the suffering he underwent, which was certainly more horrific than many assume. Beyond the pains and physical anguish of possibly being burned at the stake, Abinadi likely suffered for hours if his death conformed to standard ethnohistorical accounts. What we have described above is ethnographic evidence of a widespread indigenous tradition throughout both North and Central America of a drawn out, torturous method of killing prisoners by scourging them repeatedly with burning firebrands. Textual details on Abinadi’s manner of death given in Mosiah 17:3 echo perfectly what we find in these ancient traditions.
Under the guidance of some of the best thinkers on the Book of Mormon, the Abinadi narrative springs to life as each chapter approaches Abinadi's story and words from a different perspective. Whether viewed through a sociopolitical, literary, theological, philosophical, or historical lens, new insights and a new appreciation for the richness of Abinadi's discourse will help readers reignite their passion for the beauty and depth of the Book of Mormon.
Abinadi: He Came Among Them in Disguise is written for an informed, Latter-day Saint audience and seeks to fill a gap in high-quality research and writing on the Book of Mormon. It is produced by members of Brigham Young University's Book of Mormon Academy, a group of scholars dedicated to research on the Book of Mormon. Each of the members brings a different area of expertise to bear on the Abinadi narrative. As that narrative is viewed from a variety of angles, its richness, beauty, and profound meaning come more clearly into focus.
1. Our proposal is a refinement on Robert J. Matthews’s important insights on the topic. See “Abinadi: The Prophet and Martyr,” in The Book of Mormon: Mosiah, Salvation Only Through Christ, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1991), 91–111.
2. John W. Welch, “The Trial of Abinadi,” in The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2008): 139–210.
3. Relevant ethnographic accounts emphasize the stoic bravery that was expected from the captives in North American indigenous traditions, even in the face of horrific torture and eventual death. According to Lee, not crying out during torture “certified their personal bravery” (Wayne E. Lee, “Peace Chiefs and Blood Revenge: Patterns of Restraint in Native American Warfare, 1500–1800,” Journal of Military History 71, no. 3 : 701–41, 730). For prisoners, exhibiting bravery while being tortured also “testified to their great spiritual power,” something that could at times win them the respect of their captors (Rachel Wheeler, “Women and Christian Practice in a Mahican Village,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 13.1 : 27–67, 36). See also Ron Williamson, “‘Otinontsiskiaj Ondaon’ (‘The House of Cut-off Heads’),” in The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians, ed. Richard J. Chacon and David H. Dye (New York: Springer, 2007), 191–222, 194.
4. Cf. Welch, “The Trial of Abinadi,” 202.
5. Brant Gardner, “Scourging with Faggots.” FARMS Update in Insights 21, no. 148 (2001): 2.
6. Webster’s Dictionary 1828–Online Edition, http://webstersdictionary1828.com/Terms.
7. How does one get beaten to death by faggots? A bundle of sticks seems an unlikely weapon for flogging someone to death. In fact, Royal Skousen has proposed a transcriptional error in the word “scourged,” which he suggests should be emended to “scorched.” Royal Skousen, “‘Scourged’ vs. ‘Scorched’ in Mosiah 17:13.” FARMS Update in Insights 22, no. 154 (2002): 2–3. Skousen notes that Oliver Cowdery misspelled the word “scourged” about 40% of the time, which could open the door to the possibility of a transcriptional error or a mishearing of what was said by Joseph Smith (due to the similarity in the pronunciations of scourged and scorched). The question of the role “scourging” actually played in Abinadi’s death is an important one but not one that we feel can be best answered by assuming an error in the transcription of the text. Indeed, as we argue, whipping or scourging is a standard component of death by firebrands in numerous indigenous societies in North and Central America. Therefore, rather than being an oddity, the mention of scourging turns out to be a crucial detail allowing for a proper contextualization of Abinadi’s death when compared to ancient indigenous American practice.
8. Webster’s Dictionary 1828–Online Edition, http://webstersdictionary1828.com/Terms.
9. It is possible and even likely that Abinadi was bound to a structure or a “stake,” as will be discussed, but the notion of wood placed under his feet and being burned to death “at the stake” is not justified by the details in the text. What killed Abinadi, in our view, was the physical trauma of being slowly singed and beaten by firebrands, for which there is considerable ethnographic support (also detailed below). There is also precedent, however, for a posttorture burning at the stake, which could ultimately result in the death of the individual or could otherwise be the ritual burning of the one already deceased during torture (cf. William A. Starna and Ralph Watkins, “Northern Iroquoian Slavery,” Ethnohistory : 34–57, 40; Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan [London: Allan Lane, 1977], 32).
10. Matthews, “Abinadi: the Prophet and Martyr,” 91–111.
11. The reader is directed to the largest study dedicated to documenting the various accounts of torture and killing by North American Indians: Nathaniel Knowles, “The Torture of Captives by the Indians of Eastern North America,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 82, no. 2 (22 March 1940): 151–225.
12. In the seventeenth century, Penicaut described the scaffold (“frame”) for prisoners of the Koroa of Louisiana as being “composed of two poles 8 feet in height, 5 feet apart, the two hands [of the prisoner] being well bound above and the two feet below, in the form of a St. Andrew’s cross.” The captive is bound to this frame and burned with a number of different objects by the whole village. M. Penicaut, Annals of Louisiana, 1698–1722, cited in Pierre Margry, Découvertes et établissements des Français dans l’ouest et dans le sud de l’Amérique septentrionale, 1614–1754 (n.p.: Imprimerie D. Jouaust, 1876), 458–59.
13. Johnston and Johnston describe a similar structure in Ohio where “they made [the prisoner] get upon a sort of stage, where they began to burn him all over the body without any mercy.” Charles Johnston and Peter Johnston, A Narrative of the Incidents Attending the Capture, Detention, and Ransom of Charles Johnston, of Botetourt County, Virginia,: Who was Made Prisoner by the Indians, on the River Ohio, in the Year 1790; Together with an Interesting Account of the Fate of His Companions, Five in Number, One of Whom Suffered at the Stake. To which are Added, Sketches of Indian Character and Manners, with Illustrative Anecdotes (New York: J. & J. Harper, 1827).
14. Antoine Simon Le Page du Pratz, Histoire de la Louisiane, vol. 2 (Paris, 1758), 428–29.
15. Gardner, “Scourging with Faggots,” 3–4.
16. Physical punishment in general began very early in the life of an Aztec child. Campos writes: “A los ocho años los castigoscorporales comenzaban por pellizcos y azotes . . . a otro lo azotan con ramas de pino por la misma falta, y a otro le queman los cabellos por desobediente” (“At age eight corporal punishment began by pinching and whipping . . . they scourge another with pine branches for the same offense, and another burn the hair for disobedience”). Rubén M. Campos, Talleres Gráficos del Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía (Mexico City, 1936), 67.
17. Davíd Carrasco and Scott Sessions, Daily Life of the Aztecs: People of the Sun and Earth (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 117.
18. Morehart, Lentz, and Prufer, “Wood of the Gods,” 269.
19. This could also refer to the situation of Limhi’s people when they suffered abuse and “burdens on their backs,” in fulfillment of the word of the Lord (Mosiah 21:3–4).
20. Welch first suggested Mosiah 12:5 could refer to possibly having a “bundle of sticks” lashed to their backs. Welch, “The Trial of Abinadi,” 202.
21. Cf. Carrasco and Sessions, Daily Life of the Aztecs, 118.
22. There are also mythological explanations among some Maya groups for why pine burns so well. Jakaltek and Tojolab’al myths talk about how lightning got stuck in a pine tree, perhaps a mythological explanation for the excellent burning characteristics of pine. Karl A. Taube, The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1992), 76.
23. There is, curiously, a mythological connection between pine sap and blood. A K’iche’ Maya adaptation of a biblical story recounts that as Jesus was carrying the cross “the Jews kept whipping Jesus, and every drop of blood that he bled along the road became an ocote [pine] tree.” Sol Tax, “Folk Tales in Chichicastenango: An Unsolved Puzzle,” The Journal of American Folklore 62, no. 244 (April–June 1949): 125–35, 127.
24. Cf. Grube, “Monumentos Esculpidos,” 249–68.
25. How long would an average pine splinter torch last? Based on measurements gleaned from two torch holders found at St. Margaret’s Cave in Belize, Petroglyph Cave, and ethnographic accounts of pine splinters sticks found in caves, Antonio Morales and other project members of the Belize Valley Speleothem Project recreated pine torches to test how long they would burn. The torches burned for an average of 22.4 minutes. Holly Moyes, “Charcoal As a Proxy for Use-Intensity in Ancient Maya Cave Ritual,” in Religion, Archaeology, and the Material World, ed. Lars Fogelin (Center for Archaeological Investigations, Occasional Paper No. 36., 2008), 143–44.