Eborn, Flaxen Cords: A Connection between Secret Combinations and Ancient Khipu Knotted Devices (Reviewed by Jeffrey Needle)

Review
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Title: Flaxen Cords: A Conection between Secret Combinations and Ancient Khipu Knotted Devices
Author: Bret A. Eborn
Publisher: Fact Press
Genre: Book of Mormon Studies
Year: 2017
Pages: 100
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN-13: 9781890718312
Price: $14.95

Reviewed by Jeffrey Needle for the Association for Mormon Letters

[Full disclosure: The author has been a friend for many years. This book arrived unannounced, with a note from Eborn: “Jeffrey, I would appreciate your reviewing my little book. Your brutal honesty is what I want! Thanks, Bret.” Whew! Okay, let’s get to it.]

Regular filmgoers will certainly remember Clint Eastwood in his several “Dirty Harry” movies. Violent, foul, and completely engrossing, if you like that sort of thing. In each of the movies, Eastwood has a tagline that lives beyond the lifetime of the film. Remember “Go Ahead, Make My Day”? In the film *Magnum Force,* Eastwood (playing Harry Callahan) has a particularly poignant conversation with his superior, Lieutenant Briggs.

Harry Callahan: Well you just might need me on a job like this. Whoever did this was very good at it.

Lieutenant Briggs: You’re sure one to know, Harry.

Harry Callahan: Well, I just work for the city, Briggs!

Lieutenant Briggs: So do I, longer than you, and I never had to take my gun out of its holster once. I’m proud of that.

Harry Callahan: Well, you’re a good man, lieutenant. A good man always knows his limitations…

Wow. Yeah, “a good man always knows his limitations.” I fancy myself a good man from time to time, and this volume from Eborn bumps right up against one of my limitations: I had no idea what a “Khipu” is. Before proceeding with the book, I decided to do some research.

My first stop was Wikipedia. I learned that “Khipu” is sometimes spelled “Quipus.” I learned how they were used in antiquity. Of course, Wikipedia was no help in evaluating the claims made in Eborn’s book.

Next I consulted with prominent LDS anthropologist Richley Crapo. We’ve been friends for many years. I sent him an email and here is his response:

“Yes, quipus are well known in anthropology. The wikipedia article seems sound. Generally, differently shaped knots represented different numbers. Then, if differently colored threads represented different commodities (e.g., potatoes, corn, textiles, etc.) a series of strings (and their knots) could be used to tally how much of each commodity was paid to the government to fulfill its tax obligation.

“I have no idea how a writer might relate quipu record keeping to secret combinations other than speculatively.”

Generally speaking, when an author posits a theory that no one else has suggested, readers are wise to be wary, not just about connections made between disparate historical events (which may only be coincidences), but also about the degree to which the author insists his or her theory is proven — a very shaky and dangerous thing to do.

Dr. Crapo, above, offers a brief glimpse of the use of Khipus in commerce and other counting activities. Eborn takes this a bit further and posits:

“Could it be possible that those who anciently formed secret combinations actually use khipu knot combinations to encode their evil designs and to pass them amongst each other? The debate about just what these devices were and how they were used continues. After much study the khipu devices still largely remain a great secret.” [57]

The dust jacket sets out Eborn’s larger thesis:

“Secret Combinations are mentioned throughout the Book of Mormon, and in the Pearl of Great Price and Doctrine and Covenants. We know from these scriptures where they came from and that they were used to commit murder and whoredoms, destroy the Saints, and to topple governments. They were often associated with the term *works of darkness.*

“We know that they existed for thousands of years, that they surfaced during the days of Cain, then among the Jaredites, and much later among the Nephites and Lamanites. We have had the Book of Mormon for almost 200 years and a logical explanation of how these secret combinations were passed from one individual to another has not existed — until now!”

Putting aside my general dislike of explanation points at the end of such declarative statements, I must admit that, up until now, I had never wondered about how secret combinations passed from one generation to the next. I guess I’ve supposed that Joseph Smith had a limited vocabulary and that he used the phrase to describe a phenomenon that was evil and corrupting.

But Eborn raised a question in my mind: what if there really was a physical form of transmission that, until now, has not been explored? Is he on to something?

Reading the book was an eye-opener for me. It never occurred to me that a thread might be present in modern scripture that I had not noted before. And, as far as I can tell, no one else has suggested Eborn’s solution to the problem of how secret combinations passed their plans from one generation to the next.

In the end, readers will have to be persuaded of the credibility of Eborn’s thesis. I won’t say I’m convinced, mainly because I don’t have the scholarly apparatus to properly evaluate the argument. I haven’t immersed myself sufficiently in Latter-day scripture to be able to make an informed opinion.

But I am perfectly capable of seeing the possibilities here. Eborn’s thesis informs not just Mormon studies but also, if true, the fields of archaeology and anthropology. And I’m anxious to see what Book of Mormon scholars think of all this.

I hope the book achieves a wide readership, as it takes a unique place in Mormon literature. The prose is spare, the topic approachable by readers of all levels.

If you have interest in all this, get the book (likely from Eborn Books — I don’t see it on Amazon yet). And, by all means, communicate this Bret Eborn what you think of his ideas.

Remember Clint Eastwood? Harry Callahan: “Well you just might need me on a job like this. Whoever did this was very good at it.” There are many Harry Callahans in Mormon studies. Maybe Bret Eborn is one of them. So go ahead, make my day.

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