Reading the Water Serpent as WITZ’


The “Water Serpent” is a major but poorly understood character in Maya iconography. Also known as the “Waterlily Serpent” or the “Imix Monster,” the large jawless snake typically wears on its head a water lily pad and blossom with a nibbling fish or two. It seems to serve as an animate representation of water, as when we see it used as a glyphic head variant of HA’, “water.” For this reason I prefer to call it the “Water Serpent.”

The Water Serpent appears many times on ceramics, usually within symbolism of the so-called “Underwater World” (Hellmuth provides a good analysis of these settings in his important 1987 book Monster und Menschen in der Maya-Kunst). On sculpture, the Water Serpent appears most frequently as ritual costumes worn by rulers andother nobles in connection with Period Ending rites.

I have long suspected that the Water Serpent is an ancient Maya manifestation of the varied aquatic spirits described throughout the ethnographic literature of Mesoamerica, many of which are considered snakes or other reptiles. The Ch’orti’ Maya speak of the Ch’ihchan or Nohchan, which Wisdom described as a “deity of rain and spirit of water.” Both names literally mean “Big Snake,” and one may well be very old, used as the reading of an ancient glyph (NOH?-CHAN) that is essential to many of the Water Serpent’s glyphic names (I’ll get to that some other time).

The glyph representing the Water Serpent has two interchangeable forms. One emphasizes the “imix” element while another shows a “dotted winal” atop the head (see the Tikal, Stela 31 example in accompanying illustration). Both are strongly related to aquatic and waterlily imagery and iconography. As noted, the fist of these is sometimes used to spell HA’, “water,” in a few settings (as in Palenque’s place name LAKAM-HA’) but this is a rare usage, animating the standard “imix” form of HA’. I suspect another logographic value of the Water Seprent glyph must be at work in many contexts, where HA’ seems unlikely.

Copan’s texts offer some important clues about the Water Serpent’s true reading (see the accompanying illustration). On the side of Stela C, we see a reference to some curious variant of the creature involved with a mythic period ending ritual. The name (also cited in several other texts across the Maya area) is written HA’-?-EK’ 1-wi-WATER.SERPENT, with the snake displaying a wi- superfix. The Water Serpent routinely appears in the personal name of Copan’s Ruler 12 (usually written K’AHK’-(U-)TI’-WATER.SERPENT-K’AWIIL), and on the Hieroglyphic Stairway we find the inclusion of a strange bat sign after the snake – an element that never appears in any of the other examples of this royal name. The bat is the syllable tz’i and, depending on context and probably some subtle visual differences, at times also xu. I suggest that the bat is also a phonetic complement to the Water Serpent logogram.


The clues together offer witz’ as a word worth investigating. As it turns out, witz’ is a widespread root in Mayan languages meaning “water spray,” “splash (of water).” In Ch’orti’, witz’ is a noun cited by Wisdom meaning “waterfall.”

Far more needs to be presented on this, but for now I believe the evidence is strong for a decipherment of the Water Serpent sign as WITZ’ (not to be confused with WITZ, “hill”). It leads me to think that the snake is truly “animate water,” but emphasizing its “splashiness” and coursing movement in streams and rivers.

3 thoughts on “Reading the Water Serpent as WITZ’

  1. Jens Rohark October 1, 2014 / 8:55 PM

    Could the name be witz´ chan o witz´ kan? And have you noticed that the water serpent on the Leiden plaque has a tz´u sign on the tail?

    • David Stuart October 2, 2014 / 1:11 AM

      The sign that I describe here may be read as WITZ’, but it’s important to stress that this need not be the actual name of the water serpent we see in Maya iconography. I suspect that the full name of the character will prove to be something like Juun Witz’ Naah Kan, which is cited in many inscriptions (Pomona, Panel 1, etc.). As for the “tz’u” sign on the Leiden Plaque, I don’t think that is meant to be read as a phonetic sign in that context. One reason is that the 360-day time period of the Long Count was never read as WITZ’, but HAAB. Also, the little fish is integral to the full image of the serpent, which typically have little nibbling fish attached to its tail and forehead. One key point is that there seems to be a visual distinction between the WITZ’ serpent I describe and the HAAB serpent we see on the Leiden Plaque and in other Long Count dates — they are not really the same critter to my eyes, but seem to be two types of “water serpent” that show some visual overlap.