Ancient Near Eastern Scimitars (Howlers # 19)

Posted on by

A Cimeter (more commonly spelled scimitar) is a sword  “having a curved blade with the edge on the convex side” or “something resembling a scimitar (as in sharpness or shape); esp: a long-handled billhook” (Webster’s Third International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged 1993). Critics have long claimed that the scimitar was unknown before the rise of Islam and that references to this weapon in the Book of Mormon is anachronistic.

I might urge the utterance of ideas and the use of words which these ancient writers, if genuine, could not have known, as an argument against the authenticity of the book. Such as . . . . Cimeters.” John Hyde Jr., Mormonism: Its Leaders and Designs (1857), 234-35.

The book contains evidence of its modern origin . . . . The cimeter, a Turkish weapon, not known until after the time of Mohommed. Samuel Hawthornthwaite, Adventures Among the Mormons (1857), 69.

The use of the word `scimitar’ does not occur in other literature before the rise of Mohammedan power and apparently that peculiar weapon was not developed until long after the Christian era. It does not, therefore, appear likely that the Nephites or the Lamanites possessed either the weapon or the term. W. E. Riter to James E. Talmage, August 22, 1921.

Cimeters were curved swords used by the Persians, Arabs, and Turks, half a world away from America and appearing a thousand years too late in history to enter the picture. Gordon Fraser, Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates (1964), 58.

Scimitars are unknown until the rise of the Muslim faith (after 600 A. D.) James Spencer, The Disappointment of B.H. Roberts (1991), 4.

There are other anachronisms such as . . . cimeter, the latter presumably an Arabian scimitar that “did not originate before the rise of Islam” more than a millennium  after Lehi. Earl Wunderli, An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us About Itself (2013), 36.

We now know that scimitars of various forms were known in the Ancient Near East as early as 2000 B.C. (Yigael Yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963, 1: 10-11, 78-79, 172, 204-207; William J. Hamblin, Warfare in the Ancient Near East to 1600 BC.London and New York: Rutledge, 2006, 66-71, 279-80). They are subsequently portrayed in martial art from Mesopotamia and Egypt. Rare archaeological specimens of this weapon have also been found. The cutting edge was usually on the convex side, however some were double-edged such as the “curved sword sharpened on two sides” discovered at Shechem which dates to 1800 B.C. (“Arms and Weapons,” in Charles F. Pfeiffer, ed., The Biblical World: A Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology. New York: Bonanza Books, 1966, 93). “Ancient representations show mostly the employment of the inner blade; that of the outer one is however also perhaps to be found. Preserved oriental scimitars have the blade outside” (G. Molin, “What is aKidon?” Journal of Semitic Studies 1/4 October 1956: 336).

In the biblical account of David’s confrontation with Goliath the Philistine champion is said to be well armored. In addition to his spear he had both ahereb sword with a sheath (1 Samuel 17:51) and a kidon which he carries between his shoulders (1 Samuel 17:6). The term kidon was once a mystery, but texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls suggest that it was some kind of sword and is now widely acknowledged to have been a scimitar (Paul Y. Hoskisson, “Scimitars, Cimeters! We have scimilars! Do we need another cimeter?” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, 352-59. G. Molin, “What is a Kidon?” 334-37; Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel. New York and Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1965, 1:242). When challenged in 1 Samuel 17:45 David responds to his opponent, “You come against me with a sword [hereb] and spear [hanit] and scimitar [kidon], but I come against you with the name of Yahweh Sabaoth, god of the ranks of Israel” (See P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., 1 Samuel. New York: Doubleday, 1980, 285). Interestingly, as Hoskisson observes, the biblical description in the Hebrew text parallels that in Alma 44:8 in which the Zoramite chieftain carries both a sword and a scimitar (Hoskisson, “Scimitars, Cimeters!” 355).

Ross Hassig has identified a curved weapon portrayed in Postclassic Mesoamerican art which he calls a “short sword”  (Ross Hassig,War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992, 112-13;  “Weaponry,” in Susan Toby Evans and David L. Webster, eds., Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001, 810-11; Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006, 23-24; “La Guerra en la Antigua Mesoamerica,” Arqueologia Mexicana 14/84 Marzo-Abril 2007: 36. See also Esperanza Elizabeth Jimenez Garcia, “Iconografia guerrera en la escultura de Tula, Hidalgo,” Arqueologia Mexicana 14/84 Marzo-Abril 2007: 54-59).

It was a curved weapon designed for slashing and consisted of a flat hard wooden base approximately 50 cm. (20 inches) long into which were set obsidian blades along both edges. “It was an excellent slasher and yet the forward curve of the sword retained some aspects of a crusher when used curved end forward” (Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, 113). The lightness of the short sword enabled the soldier to carry more than one weapon. “Soldiers could now provide their own covering fire with atlatls while advancing and still engage in hand-to-hand combat with short swords once their closed with the enemy” (Hassig, Mexico and the Spanish Conquest, 23-24).

This weapon or something very similar may have been used until shortly before the arrival of the Spanish in some sectors of Mesoamerica. Huastec engravings on shell show “a sort of curved club, apparently of wood and with a cutting edge” which may have been a similar weapon (Guy Stresser-Pean, “Ancient Sources on the Huasteca,” in Handbook of Middle American Indians 11 1971, 595). Hassig reported that short swords are portrayed in the hands of warriors on a Aztec monument from the ceremonial center at Tenochtitlan and took this as evidence that the weapon was either “still in use or at least remembered as a functional weapon” at that time (Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, 248, note 8).  Reportedly among the weapons used by the ancestors of Guatemalan peoples were “certain scimitars they say were made of flint” (“Descripcion de la provincia de Zapotitlan y Suchitepequez,” Sociedad de Geografia e Historia de Guatemala, Anales 28 1955: 74).  Another tradition relates that the Pre-Columbian ancestral heroes of certain west Mexican tribes taught their people to make fire and “gave them also machetes or cutlasses of iron” (Robert H. Barlow, “Straw Hats,”Tlalocan 2/1 1945: 94). Interestingly, if credited, this may suggest that pieces of iron may have sometimes been used as scimitar or machete-like blades rather than obsidian. In any case, this weapon seems to be a reasonable candidate for the Book of Mormon scimitar (William J. Hamblin and A Brent Merrill first suggested this correlation in “Notes on the Cimeter (Scimitar) in the Book of Mormon,”Warfare in the Book of Mormon, 361. For a more detailed discussion see Matthew Roper, “Swords and `Cimeters’ in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 1999: 39-40, 41-43; Roper, “Mesoamerican `Cimeters’ in Book of Mormon times,”Insights: An Ancient Window 28/1 2008: 2-3).

* This is cross-posted from a two-part entry at Ether’s Cave here and here.

3 thoughts on “Ancient Near Eastern Scimitars (Howlers # 19)

  1. MrNirom

    Has anyone thought about the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary?

    Let’s take for example the words Llama and Alpaca. If these were the two animals that were listed in the Book of Mormon as Curelom and cumom.. goto the 1828 dictionary and look up the words Llama and Alpaca. You will not find them in the 1828 Websters Dictionary. The Lord simply did not reveal the words Llama and Alpaca because they were unknown in Joseph Smith’s time. So the Lord called them Curelom and cumon.

    If you look up the word scimitar in the same dictionary.. it says scimitar SCIM’ITAR, [See cimiter. ] Then looking up cimiter it says: cimiter CIMITER, n. A short sword with a convex edge or recurvated point, used by the Persians and Turks.

    The words that Joseph used had to be familiar to the times of those that read the book.. if there was a word for it. If the word did not exist yet.. then the Lord would use strange words that people have no idea what they mean. Make sense?

  2. Pingback: 12 August 2013 | MormonVoices

  3. gusty13

    “Not known to western civilization until the rise of Islam circa 600 A.D.” What about when the Persians conquered Babylon and allowed the Hebrews to return to Jerusalem ? Didn’t the Persians have cimeters (scimitars) at that time ?

Comments are closed.