Old Notes on the Possible ITZAM Sign

Here follow some old thoughts and observations about reading the “God N hairnet” sign as a logogram ITZAM. This is found in spellings of the deity names long thought to be the so-called “Pauahtuns,” and it also seems to play some role in the name glyph of Itzamnaaj (God D).

First is a pdf of 1994 letter written to Linda Schele, not long after the publication of her Maya Cosmos book, where I posit that one name of the so-called Pricipal Bird Deity was Muut Itzamnaaj (“The Bird Itzamnaaj”). This has since been supported by a sculpted panel discovered at Tonina, depicting a full-figure version of Muut Itzamnaaj’s name (see Miller and Martin, Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, Plate 75). The letter was basically motivated by doubts I had of Linda’s proposed reading the Principal Bird Deity’s name as “Itsam Yeh,” which I think is still sometimes used and cited in the literature.

Letter to Linda Schele, Nov. 1994:

Second comes a letter from 2001, written to both Stanley Guenter and Karen Bassie-Sweet, summarizing my later thinking on the same issues. This still remains a tentative and unpublished case, but I guess that’s what the blog is for!

2001 letter to Guenter and Bassie-Sweet:

Dear Stan and Karen,

I’ll write this to the both of you, since each of you has presented good questions and observations on the God N, Pawahtuns and ITZAM reading. I should say at the outset that Steve needn’t share the blame for seeing God N as ITZAM, and I can’t be sure if he actually buys it. I am not sure of my own thinking on it’s veracity, to be honest, except to see it as one of the many “possible” decipherments that may never find proof through syllabic substitutions, etc., but which can be plausibly supported and tested.

First a bit of history. I initially considered the ITZAM value for the God N and the net headdress abbreviation around ’94 or so, and I wrote Linda a letter about it at the time. Whether she ever accepted it I can’t say, but over time I accumulated a few environments where it seems to work in intriguing ways. Even so, I’ve never thought the arguments strong enough to publish or argue for very forcefully, and you, Stan, already are well aware of some of the questionable aspects of ITZAM. In the last couple of years I’ve actually come upon a possible alternative analysis of the God N name glyphs, which I’ll discuss a bit further along, yet still I find ITZAM has some things going for it. To me, the issues remain unresolved, but the revealing patterns are nonetheless there to be studied.

Before moving on, I have to agree with Karen that “Pawahtun” probably isn’t the Classic name of God N, nor is PA/PAW/PAWAH very viable as a reading for the specific God N/hairnet sign complex. It simply doesn’t fly in any other context, so I’ve long been prepared to consider a completely different value. Hence…

The ITZAM value first suggested itself in the “God N” names that get recycled at Piedras Negras, where it is the first of three signs ending in -K’AN-AHK. The standard form of the glyph is of course the turtleshell with the K’AN infix and topped by the “hairnet.” Alternatively we have God N conflated with the turtle head variant and K’AN infixed as the ear ornament. Some inscribed sherd texts excavated from PN show the alternative spelling “hairnet”-K’AN a-ku, though before these were unearthed by Steve’s project I had noticed that Copan Stela C made reference to a deity named “God N”-K’AN-a-ku, which is of course the same thing (but not a reference to anyone from PN). The ending -k’anahk quickly brought to my mind Itzamkanak, the place name famous from the Cortes entrada through Tabasco and into the Peten. Now, I see no direct historical connection between this contact-period site (El Tigre, most suppose) and Piedras Negras, but I can entertain that this apparent god name could be equally used as a personal name or title in one setting, and as a place name in another. At any rate, it was this specific context that seemed to me to offer ITZAM as a good hypothesis to pursue got the God N and “hairnet” signs.

On the Hieroglyphic Step of Structure 2 at Copan, we may have an example of the same deity name. The glyph is partially damaged, if I recall, but the turtleshell and the hairnet are pretty clear, and intriguingly the prefix to the entire glyph is Landa’s i- sign. I’ve wondered if this is a phonetic complement for the full Itzamk’anak name.

Now for the Itzamnaaj name. You’ve seen the Quirigua, Stela C example, where we find the hairnet atop the standard portrait name of God D, and NAAH attached as well. It seemed plausible to consider these signs as complements of a sort, providing the initial ITZAM and final –NAAH, but admittedly such a use of “logographic complements” would certainly be odd, with little if any precedent.

The hairnet sign is also sometimes superfixed to an alligator’s head, and iconographically this relates of course to the “Starry Deer Caiman” famous from PN and elsewhere, who often wears it as well. It’s a small step to consider these as representations of Itzam Kab Ain, the earth caiman. Not a strong piece of evidence, but possibly suggestive.

At Xcalumkin (Glyphic Group, S. Building, E Column) we find another God D name preceded by (for the sake of argument) ITZAM?-na- and suffixed by –ji. This I see as basically the same as the example you also noticed from the red-background polychrome vessel, where God N simply precedes God D’s portrait name. I have no problem with the idea of composite deities, but iconographically this is a “straight” Itzamnaaj figure seated nearby. While I do agree that reading ITZAM as a complement before God D’s name is awkward orthographically, I would also point out that such orthographic issues ought to hinge greatly on the etymology of the god’s name itself, which is hardly clear in this case.
The word
itzam is complex semantically, as Thompson must have been known when he posited “Iguana House” as an odd translation of Itzamnah (based solely on the Vienna dictionary). But I it’s important to realize that the name Itzam alone is fairly widely attested as a deity name associated with watery realms and mountains (see Thompson’s Maya History and Religion, p. 21), which seems fitting for God N as an Underworld character.

Would the common “Pawahtun” designator (4-“net”-TUUN) found in the codices, Pomona, etc., thus be read as Chan Itzam Tuun? There isn’t a shred of evidence I know to back up this particular reading. It is interesting that in the Classic sources, the 4-“net”-TUUN-ni glyphs never occur directly with a “traditional” God N figure. Rather, at Pomona and Laxtunich these designate watery characters shown as young men with waterlily blossoms and fish in their hair – no nets, no shells, etc. At least on Pomona, Panel 1 it would seem that these guys (and I am sure there were four of them there originally) were more like impersonators of watery Year Bearers (one holds “4 Ik’” and another “4 Kaban”), which are really not what God N was about, despite a few general overlaps.

Yet having said all of this, there is a very different reading for the God N/hairnet sign I’ve been considering of late. In a handful of texts we find reference made to a supernatural or group of gods named 4-xi-wa-TUUN-ni. One good example is from the long “Cancuen” panel buried in Guatemala somewhere, and I have seen another example incised upon a gorgeous Late Classic turtle carapace that remains unpublished, but photos of which were in Linda’s house a few years ago. The supports of the Del Rio throne from Palenque also present similar names (?-xi-wa-TUUN-ni) to indicate the supernatural identities of the watery subordinates who support the cosmic bench. So, might we actually have good evidence to posit XIW as a reading of God N and the hairnet abbreviation? Xiw is a widespread root for “fear,” which ultimately forms the likely basis for the name Xibalba. I find it really interesting that Kiche xiv is “shell” and xiuac (xiw-ahk?) is “shell played as a drum” (that is, a turtleshell). Tuun is of course a word also related to “drum,” so Chan Xiw Tuun, as a reading for these Year Bearer names, just might mean something like “the Four Shell Drums.” This in turn reminds me of the rich ethnographic data on directional rain and water deities and drums, such as we find with the Chaaks of Yucatan or the Anhels of the Tzotzil.

There is **something** here in all of this, but at present I have a difficult time reaching any firm ground on it. I can see that ITZAM and XIW each has suggestive evidence, but nothing more as far as I can see. They both can’t be right, and perhaps neither one is correct at all.

Best wishes, David