1. Sporgsmal

    In Chinese cosmogonic art during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.) two royal creator deities were depicted holding architectural implements that were used in the formation of heaven and earth—the compass and set-square (see Yves Bonnefoy, comp., Asian Mythologies [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993], 234–35). In a funerary context these beings served as “doorkeepers” or “guardians of boundaries” who “marked the division between inner and outer” spaces (cf. Gen. 3:24; Ex. 26:31). The depiction of these deities signified “transfer to another realm.” As early as the Warring States Period (475–221 B.C.E.) the Chinese compass and square “symbolized fixed standards and rules that impose order on unruly matter.” The Chinese deity who was shown holding the compass was associated with bringing “ordered space out of the chaos of the flood” (cf. the Hebrew concept) while the other, who held the square, was “credited with the invention of kingship” (Mark E. Lewis, The Flood Myths of Early China [Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006], 125–27).

  2. Interesting that the original picture came from Astana in Kazakhstan, around a region where some propose that some of the lost tribes were led.

    Bryce you seem to indicate that some of the pictures at the end are from the veil that Nibley references in the second quote above. I don’t have T&C with me at work so can you point out which of the pix is from the tomb?

  3. The one that was redrawn in Temple and Cosmos is the damaged one pictured above in the second row, fourth from the left. It is dated c. 667, discovered by Stein, 3rd expedition: Astana (in Xinjiang, China). It is a funerary banner, with pigments on silk. Located in the National Museum, New Delhi, 2003/17/347 (Ast.ix.2.054)

    (Susan Whitfield, The Silk Road, 328-9, link)

  4. Great job! Thanks for taking these things I’ve always had interest in and known about, if only superficially, and shedding an enormous amount of light on them.

  5. Thanks for the post Bryce! In addition to Google Book Search, here is an HTML version of Hamlet’s Mill. A few years ago I put together a list of all of Nibley’s references to Hamlet’s Mill and de Santillana’s other works. Nibley held him in high esteem. Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll send you a copy of them. Love the pictures by the way. And thanks for the tip in searching for them. I’ll be posting my perspectives on this interesting work at Believe All Things at some point in the future.


  6. Had another comment after re-reading your post. The statement that “Above the couple’s head is the sun surrounded by twelve disks, meaning the circle of the year or the navel of the universe” reminded me of Joseph Smith’s teaching to Benjamin F. Johnson about there being “twelve kingdoms or planets, revolving around our solar system”. Fascinating…

  7. The compass and the square motif pervades Chinese literature much earlier than the 7th century CE, so I would rule out any transmission from Christian sources. The Mencius and Analects, for instance both employ it, and these were works that were constructed sometime in the 4th or 5th centuries BCE. I’m interested to know what you (or anyone else) thinks these kinds of parallels prove. Is it that there was cross-cultural interaction in the ancient world? And perhaps related to this, that what we are seeing are remaining vestiges of sacred rituals which began in one common source? Or that human beings tend to conceptualize the world in similar ways; in other words, the compass and square motif is found in multiple places because people in multiple places recognized the significance of constructing certain shapes in building and orderly world, and took them as symbols for orderly ethical lives? And, said in a related way, that God reveals these kinds of things to multiple places?

    BTW, it would be interesting to have Tim Davis weigh in on this. He’s the new hire in BYU’s History Department, and just completed his dissertation (at Columbia) on Chinese burial inscriptions.

  8. My belief is that since these similar motifs and symbols seem to show up in disparate cultures and places, the only way that some groups could have had them is by revelation from a common source. I believe there has been multiple revelatory dispensations when these things could have been given in their perfect form, but through apostasy and degeneration they get somewhat spread around, changed, and lost, and subsequently the process starts over. So there probably was some cross-cultural interaction over time, but that can’t explain all instances. I don’t believe that the precision of the parallel existence of these symbols in disjointed societies can easily be explained solely by the theory of human nature.

    I guess a good example that could be compared with these Chinese symbols is the gammadia of the Copts. Both use right-angle compass/gamma symbols. I think it is unlikely that they got these symbols from each other, or that they came up with them independently on their own. I believe that they were probably passed down from authoritative sources.

  9. Sporgsmal

    Notice in The Works of Mencius, Book IV, Part I, that the compass, square, level, and line are connected with the ‘ways of the ancient kings.’

  10. Shucks, my previous comment didn’t take as my browser timed-out so this will be a bit shorter and to the point.

    I believe there has been multiple revelatory dispensations when these things could have been given in their perfect form, but through apostasy and degeneration they get somewhat spread around, changed, and lost, and subsequently the process starts over.

    While I’m largely sympathetic to this perspective, all too often it is employed in a negative fashion. What I mean by “negative fashion” is that it often amounts to studying other traditions for the sake of reaffirming the truthfulness of our own. IMO this diminishes valuable learning experiences and demeans other traditions by putting us in a position where our tradition becomes the lens by which to see the other. For instance, in many of the passages cited here, the compass and square are employed along with the plumb line, water-leveler (to attain “true” horizontal), and various weights and scales. Why shouldn’t we take these other items as symbols equally sacred as the compass and square? To ask the question in a more general manner, why don’t we look to the Chinese tradition to actually learn something new (or something we once had, if you will) , rather than to simply identify things we already take to be true?

  11. It can be employed negatively. Hopefully we aren’t doing that here. If you’ve followed the posts, we’ve learned a great deal from the traditions of others. I think there is much we can learn from the cultures, traditions, religions, practices, beliefs, texts, etc. of others which are good and right and true. But I also believe that there is one tradition which trumps all others, and that is the singular restored gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith. There is only one way and means back to God, and that is through Christ, and through His gospel (Mosiah 3:17). So when I see patterns in other traditions which support the gospel, I am ready and willing to investigate them. Even if certain things do not stand out as conspicuously supportive of the gospel, if they are good, and promote light and knowledge, and teach us to believe in Christ, then they are of God, and we can learn from them (Moro. 7:16). But we should never set others’ beliefs or traditions above the gospel. Nothing in the world today is as sacred as that which is taught us in the temple. Nibley taught why this is so:

    Latter-day Saints believe that their temple ordinances are as old as the human race and represent a primordial revealed religion that has passed through alternate phases of apostasy and restoration which have left the world littered with the scattered fragments of the original structure, some more and some less recognizable, but all badly damaged and out of proper context…

    Among the customs and religions of mankind there are countless parallels, many of them very instructive, to what the Mormons do. But there is a world of difference between Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews and the book of Isaiah, or between the Infancy Gospels and the real Gospels, no matter how many points of contact one may detect between them. The Latter-day Saint endowment was not built up of elements brought together by chance, custom, or long research; it is a single, perfectly consistent, organic whole, conveying its message without the aid of rationalizing, spiritualizing, allegorizing, or moralizing interpretations…

    If the Egyptian endowment was but an imitation, it was still a good one, and we may be able to learn much from it, just as we may learn much about the early church from the vagaries of the gnostics. But it is not for a moment to be equated with the true and celestial order of things

    What these few bits of added information do is to supply a new dimension to the experience, along with the assurance that a wealth of newly found records confirms the fundamental thesis of its antiquity and genuineness. (Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, xxvii-xxix)

  12. So when I see patterns in other traditions which support the gospel, I am ready and willing to investigate them. Even if certain things do not stand out as conspicuously supportive of the gospel, if they are good, and promote light and knowledge, and teach us to believe in Christ, then they are of God, and we can learn from them.

    What does it mean to “support” the gospel? And what does it mean to “promote light and knowledge”, be “good”, and “teach us to believe in Christ”? So this doesn’t become too abstract of a discussion (my apologies if that seems like what I am trying to do), let’s use the Chinese case as an example. What have we learned from it?

  13. The gospel embraces all truth. If something is true, then it is part of the gospel, and part of the Father’s plan. We can know the truth of all things by the power of the Holy Ghost (Moro. 10:5).

    I’m preparing to liveblog the Mormon Theology Seminar Conference right now, so I can’t list all the things I’ve learned from the Chinese case right now. But I’ll get back to you.

  14. In theory I agree with you that the gospel embraces all truth, and that the Holy Ghost can lead us there. The question is how in practice we bring these things to pass. I will await your response. Have a great time at the Alma 32 Seminar.

  15. Alright, back to the question of what we (or at least I) have learned from the Chinese mythology case:

    1. That these symbols have had sacral use in a variety of cultures/times dating back to the most ancient. This alone is interesting given the focus that these symbols often have in masonic circles. Clearly the Masons were not the first to use them.
    2. These symbols have a very practical and literal use in addition to the metaphorical, allegorical, and symbolic.
    3. They represent of the tools of creation, of putting order in the universe, and that the gods used them (or the idea of them in some sense) in the formation of our reality. This also means these symbols are connected with the rule of gods, sovereignty, kingship, or authority. Sometimes the literal tools themselves were used by emperors or kings.
    4. They represent the cosmos in interesting ways, the square for earth, and the compass for heaven, where they meet, and how they interact.
    5. For the Chinese, the words for compass and square are gui ju, respectively, which also means “the way things should be, the moral standard” or “the established order,” or “the rule, custom, usage and good behavior, i.e., keeping order.”
    6. The symbols also represent the yin-yang, or male/female, counterparts, a combination or at-one-ment of two different entities. How much different could two symbols be than the compass and square? They make diametrically different shapes, and yet they are both required to finish the whole.
    7. The symbols have been found both on Chinese garments, hangings or veils, and burial shrouds, as a sort of talisman of protection and good fortune.
    8. The axis mundi and the four cardinal directions have a strong relationship with the use of these symbols in Chinese mythology.
    9. The symbols were employed in funerary arrangements such to provide a favorable environment for the dead in the afterlife.
    10. The use of the compass, square, level, and line are all instructive as instruments of the ancients and the “ways of the kings.”

    These are some of the things I’ve learned just from this encounter, which are all instructive for Latter-day Saints to consider and ponder. The above is particularly interesting in light of the fact that much of it also applies to the symbols as used in early Christianity through medieval times, as Christ has also been depicted with these symbols (such as here). Proverbs 8:27 tells us that God used a compass as part of creating the heavens and earth. All these things are instructive and edifying to learn from an LDS perspective. It helps increase our understanding of the potential meaning in these symbols.

  16. I’m using the term the same way Nibley did:

    As noted above, the garment draped over the coffin and the veil hung on the wall had the same marks… (Temple and Cosmos, 111-112)

  17. Bryce, thanks for entertaining my question.

    Most of the things you list are things we already knew and accepted previous to having any interaction with the Chinese material. For those that are not, such as #6, I’m not sure what the implications are for LDS belief. Nonetheless, I’m glad to see this listed here, because it does sound interesting. My underlying point is attending to the question of “why study another tradition”? If it’s because we can truly learn something from them, then perhaps things such as the compass and square should be put in proper context. By “proper context” I’m referring to the fact that the compass and square, while significant, are not nearly as significant as other concepts such as “ritual propriety”, “benevolence”, etc. Why should the compass and square be chosen rather than some of the more fundamental concepts? My problem with much of Nibley’s work is his assumption that ultimately we will find ourselves in others. And while in principle I agree with that, I don’t believe that we should read ourselves into others in order to arrive at that conclusion. I find it better to try and understand them on their own terms.

    To illustrate this in another context, I’ve known some people who are Yiguandao, a religious sect in Taiwan and other parts of East Asia. It literally translates as “they Way of the one thread” (coming from a passage in the Analects), in other words it’s an attempt to tie all truths into one. When missionaries meet these people, they will often accept the BoM by placing it along with their other sacred texts on their alter. They of course don’t join our church, and probably don’t read much of the BoM; but from their perspective they’ve “accepted” Mormonism.

    Now, from our perspective they’ve taken the BoM completely out of context and wholesale adapted it to their religious purpose. My guess is that most Mormons would see this as an uninformed (and in some ways illegitimate) usage of LDS material to further their own goals. Can it not be said that you are doing something similar in your venture?

  18. I don’t know about you, but I did not know some of the materials I learned through this study previously. I’m sure there are others who did not know either, such as one of the first commenters who said, “Great job! Thanks for taking these things I’ve always had interest in and known about, if only superficially, and shedding an enormous amount of light on them.” It is for those of us, like Gdub, that have not heard or studied these things before that we are presenting and studying these things here. If you already know them, then there is not much reason for you to read this blog.

    For those things that we had not heard of, such as your pointing out of #6, there is a great deal of connection with LDS thought. I could have written a treatise just on that subject, but this is not an academic journal, it is a blog. Perhaps one day I will write a post specifically about the at-one-ment of two seemingly irreconcilable opposites, but that is an enormous subject by itself.

    My purpose at TempleStudy.com is specifically to study others and to find threads of truth and light in them which lend authenticity, plausibility, and genuineness to the temple. Sharing these things I believe sheds a great amount of light on the gospel, because as I said before, the gospel encompasses all truth. One of our readers found it particularly insightful how we draw in others beliefs and traditions which lend us insight:

    One of the things I like best about your approach, Bryce, is the information you pull in from “Other” sources in history, archeology, etc. For example, discussion about agency could fill volumes and volumes of blog posts if strictly limited to LDS sources, (Conference talks, Church publications, LDS books, etc). That’s the ultimate “preaching-to-the-choir.” However, examination of choice and accountability in world religious ritualism would really be cool. My hope is that you keep bringing to the table corroborating information and opinions from “the outside.”

    Your example of the Yiguandao is interesting, particularly in light of the fact that they believe that they can tie all truth into one. Don’t we also believe that, that all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole? I find that a highly respectable position, and would love to learn more about it. While they might not accept the Book of Mormon in the way we might like them to, accepting it at all is a great deal better than what most people do with the book.

    My belief is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true church, and that it contains more truth than any other belief system in the world. But there is much truth in others as well which lends credibility to the church and restored gospel. I don’t find this an unworthy venture. It is an educative apologetic approach which promotes faith, as well as learning about others.

  19. Clark@lextek.com

    I’d posted this over at FPR but figured I’d modify it and post it here as well. I should ‘fess up somewhat as well. As a Freshman in college I took a class on history of eastern civilization. One of the main assignments was a major paper taking off on some element mentioned in class but not focused on. At the same time I was getting into Nibley heavily. So of course I wrote a paper on Chinese temples as it related to spatial and functional parallels (i.e. relation to dead, names, washings, etc.) It was fairly audacious and in hindsight I shouldn’t have done it. But I was naive and a Freshman. Needless to say the teacher (a visiting scholar from Japan) called me out on it (although the other professor liked it, albeit agreeing with his co-teacher). The point being that one has to be careful with parallels.

    Here’s what I wrote at FPR.

    I think the problem is that there are compelling reasons to think though that temple parallels in the near east tell us something significant. That’s because (1) the temple purports to have some genealogical connection to that era; (2) our western tradition including masonry, hermeticism, etc. traces to that area and era; (3) there were people with the gospel in some form in that place.

    When one moves to China and the surrounding locals things become more tricky because (1) there is no purported revelation of the temple there; (2) it is far more alien to the western tradition; and (3) we don’t know how many had the gospel as we understand it.

    In addition to all this though are what for lack of a better term I’ll call the psychological structuralists. This would include Jung, Campbell, and others. (Roughly the scholarship from the 40’s through the 60’s) These people see the parallels because they believe they reflect some cognitive structure (ignoring for the moment what they considered the mind to be). I’ve long thought Nibley ought be taken in that category both because of the period of his training but also his methodology is similar. While I don’t think these figures are taken that seriously anymore – often due to big methadological problems (decontextualizing) there is something to be said for the stance. That is if there are common cognitive structures in human beings we ought expect those to be reflected in our oral narratives, rituals, etc.

    From and LDS stance though if there is a spirit with some level of a veil of forgetfulness then the notion of this collective unconscious found in the psychological structuralists will manifest itself as a kind of repressed remembrance of a premortal life manifesting itself in human behavior. Now making the move from the general claim to the claim that this structure is significant will be much more problematic. But I think one should be careful here.

    I should also note that while a lot see Nibley’s parallels as evidence a perhaps too naive and optimistic diffusionism I think this more Freudean like element is at least as present. Indeed if you look at his writings on the Manic vs. Sophist you’ll see that provides the philosophical ground for his structuralism and ends up being fairly similar to Freud or Jung with even more of a Platonic thrust. (Hardly uncommon in the structuralism of the era) Even if Nibley ultimately has a different ontology.

  20. This is a terrific site, I have used it as a reference in my web site/book. I would be interested in having a link with your site. I have chapter in my book (chapter 3) devoted to Fu Hsi, Nu Wa, and the carpenter’s square (aka, the gnomon). I think you would find it interesting, the name of my book is Number, Time, and Archetype.
    Thank-you for your time,

    Dr. Robert Dickter

  21. Diane Wirth

    My eye caught this discussion on your fine web site. I specialize in Mesoamerican iconography. In the tomb of the great Pakal of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico (683 A.D.), there are two objects that were in the hands of the deceased King Pakal. In his right hand was a cube, and his left hand held a sphere. To the Maya, the right side of the body is male, and the left is female. The cube (square) would represent the earth, and the sphere the heavens (of course the compass makes a round like a sphere, which can represent the heavens). The objects held in the Chinese mythology are the square by the male and the compass by the female. The gender association with these symbols are the same in Pakal’s tomb.

  22. Hi Diane. Do you happen to have a reference or web site you can point us to? I would love to see an image if there is one available on the web. Also, your comments in relation to the “squareness” of the earth caught my attention. I recently blogged about the Four Corners of the Earth which seems to be a related concept.

  23. Diane

    Hi Greg:

    There’s an illustration in The Code of Kings. I’ll give you the web site and you can arrow to the page before.

    If you have trouble bringing it in, Google: cube sphere pakal schele

    There is a photograph of the sphere and square, but I’ll have to find it in my library. They were laying next to the hands of the skeleton of Pakal, so they know he was holding these objects.

    I’m working on a paper entitled “Paradise Themes,” and I will download it to you shortly. It has a lot to do with the four streams and four trees at the corners of the earth. You can give me your opinion as well.


  24. Thanks Diane – Using the information you provided I found reference to it on page 127 in the book. Thanks for pointing this reference out. I look forward to reading your paper!

  25. I have started a time line for the gammadia on my web site at this link:

    (I gave the wrong URL before, this one will work)

    Scroll to the very bottom, Appendix I.

    I have a start date of the Third Century, BC from Nibley’s book, Temple and Cosmos, p. 112.

    I am most interested in the cross cultural use (and more time line info). So far, beginning in the Third Century BC thru the Seventh Century AD (one thousand years) , the use spread from Egypt to Judea, China, Egypt, Italy, and Egypt.

    I am most interested in the Meso-American usage of the carpenter’s square and a start date.

  26. Tiffany Bullock

    I happened upon this image on a tour of Xian, China last summer. We went to a small art museum and one of the paintings that was explained to us is a version of these images. The guide told us that it was a replica of the original which was held by the Chinese government and that it was 2,000 years old. She then told us that it was of the Chinese version of Adam and Eve and that they were holding the compass and square… Being LDS my ears really perked up at this. She then continued to explain that the disc represented the sun and that there were stars. I later pulled her aside to make sure I heard her correctly. She then told me that the serpent represented royalty or divine heritage. I took a picture of the replica and its caption. It is different from the images you have on your post. I would be happy to send you my images if you are interested.

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