Was the Liahona in Part a Magnetic Compass?
(Part 3-A)

By Alan C. Miner

This begins the third part of a four-part series in which I have tried to present scriptural and historical aspects of the magnetic compass that might give perspectives as to whether or not the Liahona was, in part, a magnetic compass.  And in presenting the material, I have also tried to convey to the reader the difficulty in trying to discern “true” history when it is portrayed so differently by various writers.  

In the first part I reviewed some of the scriptural perspectives that might be viewed to support the idea that magnetism was part of the Liahona.  In the second part I investigated the possibility that the principles of the magnetic compass were known anciently.  In this third part, I will continue to focus on the plausibility, both geographically and chronologically, of Nephi and Lehi becoming acquainted with the magnetic compass. 

Could Nephi and Lehi Have Been in the Right Place Geographically and at the Right Time Chronologically to become Acquainted with a Magnetic Compass?

In my continuing quest to find perspectives on whether or not the principle of the magnetic compass was chronologically and geographically plausible for the Liahona, I next turned my attention to the biblical Middle East and western world – the Mediterranean.  In this regard, I came across a book by George Q. Cannon that had been published in 1883. 

In that book, The Life of Nephi, the Son of Lehi,[i] Elder Cannon made an interesting footnote in reference to the Liahona.   Although Elder Cannon first states that the Liahona “differed in several respects from what are known as compasses,” he notes the following in connection with the term “compass”:

In this connection it may be of interest to say a few words about what is known as the mariner’s compass.  It is claimed that the Chinese used the compass at a very early period; and it is thought probably that Marco Polo, the traveler, introduced it to Europe from China, about 1290 A.D., twelve years before Gioja, of Amalfi, its supposed inventor.

Elder Cannon follows this part of his footnote by making some comments on the 28th chapter of the Book of Job.  But before I get into his commentary, let me lay some groundwork.  According to what I read, the authorship and date of the Book of Job is unknown, although from the clues in the text it is estimated to have been written sometime between the time of Solomon (1000 B.C.) and 250 B.C. (with dates around 600 B.C. being most popular).[ii]   In chapter 28 Job compares the rich metals and gems (stones) of the earth to the value of the wisdom of God.  In verses 12-24 (KJV) Job writes:

But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding?

Man knoweth not the price thereof; neither is it found in the land of the living.

The depth saith, It is not in me: and the sea saith, It is not with me. . . .

It cannot be valued with the gold of Ophir, . . .

No mention shall be made of coral, or of pearls: for the price of wisdom is above rubies.

The topaz of Ethiopia shall not equal it, neither shall it be valued with pure gold.

Whence then cometh wisdom? and where is the place of understanding?

God understandeth the way thereof, and he knoweth the place thereof.

For he looketh to the ends of the earth, and seeth under the whole heaven.

By consulting various Bible commentaries, I found that whether the word translated here in scripture is “coral,” or “pearls” or “rubies” or “topaz,” the true meaning is not only a matter of conjecture, but there is a possibility due to the poetic nature of this passage – that they might be connected with different items of value associated with travels across the sea, or “depth,” (v. 14). 

I might note also that the “pure gold,” (v. 19) is paralleled (or equated) with the “gold of Ophir,” (v. 16) which is the mysterious location that took Solomon’s ships three years to visit and return from with their bounty of gold and other gems. ( 2 Chr. 8:18; 9:21)  

Now having said this, let me get back to what George Q. Cannon had to say in his footnote about the “compass” which Lehi and Nephi received at the valley of Lemuel near the Red Sea.  He writes:

 Some people contend that the compass is no new invention; but that the ancients were acquainted with it.  They say that it was impossible for Solomon to have sent ships to Ophir[ [iii] ], Tarshish[[iv] ] and Parvaim[[v] ], without this useful instrument. 

They insist that it was impossible for the ancients to be acquainted with the attractive virtue of the magnet, and to be ignorant of its polarity; nay, they affirm that this property of the magnet is plainly mentioned in the book of Job, where the loadstone [a naturally magnetic brownish stone discolored by the presence of an iron oxide] is mentioned by the name of topaz, or the stone that turns itself.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

This commentary on the 28th chapter of the Book of Job[vi] relative to the magnetic compass became very intriguing to me when I put it alongside the following commentary on the same chapter cited by Josiah Priest. [vii]   In 1834 he wrote:

Dr. [Adam] Clarke has given his opinion, in his comment on the book of Job, that the [compass] needle was known to the ancients of the east.  He derives this from certain expressions of Job, chap. xxviii. verse 18, respecting [the magnetic lodestone] and other precious stones . . .:

“No mention shall be made of coral, or of pearls: for the price of wisdom is above rubies. The topaz [or lodestone] of Ethiopia shall not equal it . . . “  That is, it is understood that the wisdom which aided man to make this discovery [of lodestone], and to apply it to the purposes of navigation, on the account of its polarity, is that wisdom which is above the price of rubies.  “The attractive properties of loadstone must have been observed from its first discovery; and there is every reason to believe that the magnet and its virtues were known in the east long before they were discovered in Europe.” – (Clarke [Old Testament Commentary])

To this I added another source which stated that in the time of Lehi “the magnetic properties of natural ferric ferrite stones (lodestones) were described by Greek philosophers.”  And “as early as 600 B.C. the Greek philosopher, Aristophanes was aware of it’s peculiar properties.”[viii]   Thales of Miletus (Miletus being a Greek city in SW Asia Minor) is also known to have mentioned the strange properties of magnetite (lodestone) about 600 B.C.[ix]  

Magnetic History

Anciently Miletus had a port and carried on important trade with Egypt and the Black Sea (which was linked through what is now Turkey via the Dardanelles to the Mediterranean).[x]   Interestingly, the name magnetite comes from a place called Magnesia in Asia Minor where this naturally magnetic iron (Fe3O4) was mined by at least the seventh century B.C.[xi]   

If these commentaries on the Book of Job and the Greek philosophers that mention the lodestone had any merit, I wondered, could this point to the possibility that the magnetic compass (or at least magnetic lodestone) was used for navigational purposes in the Middle East by the time of Lehi and Nephi? 

Additionally, we know that Solomon sailed to Ophir from ports on the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea.  And while the location of “Ethiopia” mentioned above might be a question to some, the present day country of Ethiopia is located on the southwestern end of the Red Sea.  So again I asked myself, could Lehi and Nephi have been in the right place geographically and the right time chronologically to be the beneficiary of the principle of magnetism in the form of the Liahona?  I was getting closer, but I still needed more information.

In trying to come up with some satisfactory answers, I visited the BYU Library and selected a few books that seemed to cover the subject from a variety of perspectives.  One of the most informative was published just recently by Amir D. Aczel[xii]   who actually grew up on a ship that his father captained in the Mediterranean, and who had always been fascinated by the mariner’s compass.   As I read the Preface the following caught my attention:

The origins of the compass are shrouded in mystery.  Or rather, the story of the compass is a series of mysteries which have not, until now, been satisfactorily addressed.  The tale of the invention of the magnetic compass spans the breadth of human civilization.  Geographically, the story traverses the world, from China to the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, Arabia, Africa, and the New World.  As a history, the story covers events that took place in ancient times, during the medieval era, and that continue to our own time.[xiii]  

This statement intrigued me, for it not only mentioned Arabia, but it also opened the door for further perspectives regarding ancient navigation.  In the first part of his book, Amir Aczel begins his review of ancient navigation with the following comments:

How did navigators of antiquity find their way at sea in the days before the compass?  There is a myth, propagated by people with little understanding of the sea and no faith in human ingenuity, that ancient mariners navigated by hugging the coastline.  Nothing is further from the truth.  Since time immemorial, mariners have sailed across seas far from the sight of land, and early sailors who inspired the stories of the Bible and Greek mythology were quite adept at navigating in the open seas without the advantages of the compass.[xiv]

Aczel’s ideas were intriguing and I continued to search the shelves.  I found another book that expanded on the subject of ancient navigation.  Jim Bailey writes:

Landsmen often have unrealistic notions of what sea travel is like.  Perhaps the most persistent is the idea that it is inherently easier to journey over land than over water.  In a country with good roads and efficient vehicles this may be so, but in early times it was far from the truth.  Particularly when it came to moving heavy loads the reverse was true. 

A large block of stone may need a dozen men with rollers and levers to inch it laboriously forward, even across level ground.  Put it on a raft and a single person can quite literally tow it through the water with one finger. 

Even a wheeled vehicle, until the coming of the railway, was a clumsy substitute for a boat and as late as the eighteenth century the English crisscrossed their country with canals in recognition of the greater efficiency of water travel. For most of the great prehistoric age of sea travel the wheel had not been invented.  Such long-distance tracks as there were across land were likely to lead through hostile territory and over terrain that was difficult going for men and for pack animals.  In those early times the rule was simple: the land divided, the water united.  It was for that reason that the Mediterranean formed a unit in the way the landmass of Europe did not. 

Another landsman’s fallacy is that a sailor looking for safety rather than adventure will hug the shoreline, staying in sight of land.  In reality, if you are in a true seagoing boat it is the land that is the danger.  In exceptionally heavy weather ships do get overwhelmed by the wind and waves of the deep oceans, but far more are wrecked on coasts.  If you are caught off a lee shore in a ship that cannot sail into the wind, it needs only a moderate wind to blow you to inevitable destruction.

The third fallacy is that the world ocean is a fairly homogenous body of water, and sailing across it in one direction is much like sailing in another.  It is easy for us to believe this as we speed across it in our power-driven ships, but in the long ages of sails and oars no one could have thought so.  Winds and currents make some voyages easy for the most primitive craft and make others nearly or quite impossible for all but ships of advanced design.  Our marine knowledge was developed over an immense period of time.

Fed on these mistaken ideas, most people suppose that it must have been far easier for early sailors to get from end to end of the Mediterranean than to cross the Atlantic.  The fact is that the Mediterranean is a tricky sea to navigate.  There are no long-distance currents to carry the sailor where he wants to go, and no constant winds either.  Mediterranean winds are unpredictable and can turn suddenly fierce.  Particularly at the eastern end, the sea is crowded with islands on whose shores many ships have been wrecked.

By contrast, the Atlantic presents a far more straightforward challenge.  For a start, the shortest distance between Africa and South America is less than the length of the Mediterranean, and the distance from West Africa to the mouth of the Amazon is almost exactly equal to it.  But by far the most important factor is the pattern of winds and currents. 

One need only glance at the map on Plate 77 to see how extraordinarily favorable it is.  Two great circular currents swirl endlessly around in the North and South Atlantic, the northern one driving almost straight from the bulge of North Africa to  the Caribbean.  Above this current the trade wind blows in the same direction.  A barrel thrown into the sea at the right point will find its way to America with a lot less fuss than Columbus made about his trips!  Even without the help of the wind, the current alone, flowing at about one knot, will get it there in two or three months.  And some currents flow at two or three knots.

The truth is that for anyone who sailed around the bulge of Africa in a primitive ship it was not hard to get to America.  The difficult thing was to avoid going to America!  If a crew allowed themselves to drift or be blown just a little too far from the coast, they would be lucky if they were not caught up in the strong combination of current and tradewind and, like it or not, deposited some weeks later in the Caribbean[xv]

            In an Internet article entitled “Austronesian Navigation and Migration,” I found the following:

The ability of the Micronesians to span out over many largely desolate atolls; of the Polynesians to make voyages over vast stretches of ocean; of the Melanesians to sail with minimal references; and of the Malays and Indonesians to venture thousands of miles over open sea to Madagascar are all great accomplishments that likely preceded similar feats by other peoples. . . .

The great expansion of Austronesian peoples that began probably at least 8,000 to 9,000 years ago according to recent radiocarbon datings … required a sophisticated system of open sea navigation.  Such navigation differed greatly from sailing along the coastline or to visible landmarks.  Not only were sturdy blue-water vessels needed, but a system of orientation, dead reckoning, position-fixing and detection of landfall and weather prediction had to be developed. [xvi]

After citing some examples of long distance navigation with the Minoans [3100-1200 B.C.], the Phoenicians [1200-333 B.C.], King Solomon’s Ophir [1000 B.C.], and the Polynesians, Amir Aczel goes on to explain a number of different ways by which ancient navigators were able to know where they were in open seas as they traveled from one destination to the other.  He sums things up with the following:

Ancient mariners were astute observers – their trade was not only a science, it was an art … A captain would use all the tools available to him – astronomical observations, soundings, estimation of the directions of the winds and currents, and even the directions followed by migrating animals – to guide his ship as close as possible to its destination.  Once the coastline was sighted, he would use his knowledge of the terrain to correct the vessel’s heading accordingly and guide it into port.

Navigators of antiquity managed well without the advantages afforded by the compass.  When the invention was finally made, its effects were more subtle than we might have expected, and yet their consequences changed the world.  The compass did not enable navigation – navigation across the seas took place long before the compass was invented – but the compass made navigation much more efficient by opening the seas to winter sailing and by extending a ship’s range to regions that were previously unexplored. [xvii]  

Jim Bailey adds to the above on ancient navigation with the following:

Heyerdahl has described the amazing way in which Polynesian canoemen could find their way over long distances by observing variations in the pattern of waves and wavelets on the surface of the sea–variations so subtle that an untrained observer simply could not see them.  Sailors who travel long distances learn that the ocean has many different faces in its different parts. 

Those who rode the Gulf Stream on their way back from America would have noticed at once, what is visible to anyone today, that it is a different color from the waters through which it flows. As it runs up the American coast it is a deep indigo blue, clearly distinguishable from the greenish or grayish water inshore of it.

Not only the color but the taste of the water changes in different parts of the ocean.  A hundred miles out from the mouth of the Amazon the differences are marked enough to tell the sailor that he is approaching his goal, and the same thing is true off the mouth of the Nile or any other great river.  The sea bottom also changes, and to bring up a sample of silt all that is needed is a bit of tallow smeared on the lead that sailors from very early times have used to gauge the depth of the water.

Seaweeds, too, vary in different parts of the ocean, and the flights of birds were almost the principal guides … Birds can also be a sure sign of the closeness of land.  We know that the Sumerians took their own birds with them to release when they were lost: if they were beyond reach of land the bird would come back to the ship, as in the story of Noah.

The birds were also the first to make use of another navigational aid that may possibly have been used by men in early times.  In the heads of some migrating species zoologists have found tiny pieces of magnetic fiber, a naturally magnetized oxide of iron also known as magnetite, which occurs in certain rocks.[xviii]

So according to Amir Aczel and Jim Bailey, the navigation of the open seas was ancient using a variety of helps. [xix]   Why then, would the Lord need to give Nephi a magnetic Liahona?  Perhaps, as Aczel writes, it was to extend the range of his travels “to regions that were previously unexplored.” 

And perhaps the other navigational systems became unusable at certain times.  For example, Aczel reported that the Chinese navigators used the North Star for guidance at all points north of 8 degrees north latitude.  At that point, the North Star was barely visible over the horizon.  English mariners later sailing south from 8 degrees north latitude said that they had “lost the pole.” [xx]  

Thus if Nephi’s ship reached that area, the magnetic compass would have become important for navigation. 

But again, could the principle of magnetism be connected chronologically and geographically to Nephi’s time and circumstances? 

(continued in part 3-B)


[i] . George Q. Cannon, The Life of Nephi, the Son of Lehi.  Salt Lake City, Utah: Published by the Juvenile Instructor Office, 1883, p. 39.

[ii] . “Job, Book of,” in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Vol. 2, Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers, 1980, p. 791. 

[iii] . We find the following by  D. J. Wiseman under “Ophir” in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary:

1. The name of the son of Yoqtan in the genealogy of Shem (Gn. 10:29 = 1 Ch. 1:23).  This tribe is known from pre-islamic inscriptions … Their area lies between Saba in the Yemen and Hawilah (Hawlan) as described in Gn. 10:29 …

2. The country from which fine gold was imported to Judah (2 Ch. 8:18; Jb. 22:24; 28:16; Ps. 45:9; Is. 13:12), sometimes in large quantities (1 Ch. 29:4), and with valuable almug (sandal?)-wood (1 Ki. 10:11), silver, ivories, apes and peacocks (1 Ki. 10:22), and precious stones (2 Ch. 9:10).  It was reached by Solomon’s fleet from Ezion-geber on the Gulf of Aqabah (1 Ki. 9:28) employing “ships of Tarshish”, which might be *ships normally used for carrying ore (1 Ki. 22:48).  These voyages took “three years”, that is perhaps one entire year and parts of two others.  The trade was sufficiently well known for Ophir to be synonymous with the fine gold which was its principal product (Jb. 22:24) …

Various theories have been put forward for the site of Ophir:

a.  S Arabia as in 1 above …

b.  SE Arabia: Oman.  These are not far from Ezion-geber, and it is necessary to assume both that the 3-year voyage included laying up during the hot summer and that some commodities (e.g. apes) not commonly found in S Arabia were brought to Ophir as an entrepot from more distant places.

c.  E African coast: Somaliland, il.e. the Egyp. Punt, a source of the frankincense and myrrh and those items described as from Ophir . . .

d.  (S)upara, 75 km N of Bombay, India.  Josephus (Ant. 8. 164), LXX and Vulg. (Jb. 28:16) interpreted Ophir as India.  In favour of this interpretation are the facts that all the commodities named are familiar in ancient India, and it is known that from the 2nd Millennium BC there was a lively sea-trade between the Persian Gulf and India. (The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Ill., 1980, vol. 2, pp. 1119-1120)

Note* One other theory that is overlooked here links Ophir with America.

[iv] . We find the following by J. A. Thompson under “Tarshish” in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary:

W. F. Albright has suggested that the very word Tarshish suggests the idea of mining or smelting, and that in a sense any mineral-bearing land may be called Tarshish … An old Semitic root found in Akkad, rasasu means ‘to melt’, ‘to be smelted’.  A derived noun tarsisu may be used to define a smelting-plant or refinery (Arab. rss, ‘to trickle’, etc., of liquid).

There is another possibility as to the site of Tarshish.  According to 1 Ki. 10:22 Solomon had a fleet of ships of Tarshish that brought gold, silver, ivory, monkeys and peacocks to Ezion-geber o the Red Sea, and 1 Ki. 22:48 mentions that Jehoshaphat’s ships of Tarshish sailed from Ezion-geber for Ophir.  Further, 2 Ch. 20:36 says that these ships were made in Ezion-geber for sailing to Tarshish.  These latter references appear to rule out any Mediterranean destination but point to a place along the Red Sea or in Africa.  The expression ‘ni tarsis, navy of Tarshish or Tarshish fleet, may refer more generally to ships which carried smelted metal either to distant lands from Ezion-geber or to Phoenicia from the W Mediterranean.

[Some] view that Tarshish vessels were deep seagoing vessels … These ships symbolized wealth and power.  A vivid picture of the day of divine judgment was to portray the destruction of these large ships in that day (Ps. 48:7; Is. 2:16; 23:1, 14).  The fact that Is. 2:16 compares the ships of Tarshish with ‘the pleasant place” (RSV ‘beautiful craft’) suggests that whatever the original identification of Tarshish may have been, it became in literature and in the popular imagination a distant paradise from which all kinds of luxuries might be brought to such areas as Phoenicia and Israel. (The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Ill., 1980) vol. 3, pp. 1517-1519)

[v] . We find the following by J. D. Douglas under “Parvaim” in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary :

PARVAIM.  The place which produced the gold used for ornamenting Solomon’s Temple (2 Ch. 3:6).  The location is obscure.  Some suggest Farwa in Yemen.  Gesenius, identifying it with Sanskrit parvam understands it to be a general term for the E regions. (The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Ill., 1980, vol. 3, p. 1156.)

[vi] . The 28th chapter of the Book of Job contrasts the value of the metals and gems which come out of the earth with the wealth of wisdom, which cannot be bought with earthly things, for it comes from the Lord.  In speaking of this spiritual wisdom, Job writes:

16.  It cannot be valued with the gold of Ophir, with the precious onyx, or the sapphire.

17.  The gold and the crystal cannot equal it: and the exchange of it shall not be for jewels of fine gold.

18.  No mention shall be made of coral, or of pearls: for the price of wisdom is above rubies.

19.  The topaz of Ethiopia shall not equal it, neither shall it be valued with pure gold.

20.  Whence then cometh wisdom?  and where is the place of understanding? . . .

23.  God understandeth the way thereof, and he knoweth the place thereof.

[vii] . Josiah Priest, American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West,  Albany: Hoffman & White, 1834, p. 280.  Copy published by Ancient American Archaeology Foundation, Printed by Hayriver Press, Colfax, Wisconsin, 2004. 

[viii] .  History of Magnetism.National Imports. Magnetic Products Division. Internet

[ix] . Footnote #1, in “Lodestone and the Liahona,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, John W. Welch ed., SLC: Deseret Book Co. and Provo: FARMS, 1992, p. 46).  Based on research by Robert F. Smith, March 1984.  As a sidenote, however, I would refer the reader to Part 4 of this series where I have quoted the writings of the 16th century Spanish Jesuit historian Jose de Acosta who spent 17 years in the New World and became an authority on Indian culture.  Acosta makes the claim that the Greeks had no knowledge of the magnetic directional properties of lodestone.  He writes: it is strange that the Ancients have been so long ignorant of this excellent propertie of the load stone; … [neither] Aristotle, Theophrastus, Discorides, Lucretius, nor any other Writers or naturall Philosophers that I have seen, make any mention thereof, allthough they treat of the load stone.” 

[x] . Webster’s New World Encyclopedia. New York: Prentice Hall, 1992, “Black Sea” (p. 144) and “Miletus” (p. 743).   Some good illustrations of this area can be found at www.worldatlas.com, and www.chsweb.lr.k12.nj.us/kstokes/

[xi] . “Lodestone and the Liahona,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, John W. Welch ed., SLC: Deseret Book Co. and Provo: FARMS, 1992, p. 44.  Based on research by Robert F. Smith, March 1984.

[xii] . Amir D. Aczel, The Riddle of the Compass: the Invention That Changed the World.  New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2001.

[xiii] . Aczel, The Riddle of the Compass, p. xiii.

[xiv] . Ibid., p. 9-10.

[xv] . Jim Bailey, Sailing to Paradise: The Discovery of the Americas by 7000 B.C., New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994, pp. 40-42.

[xvi] . “Austronesian Navigation and Migration” (http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Templel/9845/austro.htm)

[xvii] . Aczel, pp. 27-28.

[xviii] . Jim Bailey, Sailing to Paradise: The Discovery of the Americas by 7000 B.C., New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994, p. 46.

[xix] . This idea is also supported by Cyrus H. Gordon, (Before Columbus: Links between the Old World and Ancient America, New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1971).  At the time, some considered Gordon to be one of the world’s most eminent scholars.  Dr. Gordon was Head of the Department of Mediterranean Studies at Brandeis University and had published numerous books.  In this thoroughly documented book, which represented a lifetime of research, he demonstrated that transoceanic travel across the Atlantic and Pacific to the New World was taking place as long as five thousand years ago.  He writes:

Today it is all too common for the descendants of the most civilized men to lose the great cultures of their ancestors … How abysmal our ignorance is, is described by the term “collective amnesia”: when mankind as a whole forgets the experience of the race.  This book would never have had to be written were it not that mankind as a whole has forgotten major chapters of its history. (pp. 36-37)

[xx] . Aczel, p. 118.