“Hit the Road”


My earlier post on the Tikal ancestor “White Owl Jaguar” included a brief mention of the phrase jatz’ bihtuun, appearing in the long narrative recorded on the exterior of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Temple VI). It’s a rare verb expression, appearing only on that one Tikal text and also on Naranjo Altar 2, where it was first identified by Nikolai Grube. It’s clearly based on the transitive verb root jatz’, “to strike, hit something,” but bihtuun has been trickier to nail down. As mentioned in that previous post, bihtuun had been earlier analyzed as meaning “paved surface,” but both Steve Houston and I independently considered a somewhat different thought, suggesting it may be an alternative term for “stone road” (bih, “road” + tuun, “stone”). This was based solely on the etymology apparent in the glyphic spelling, and therefore hard to confirm. Beyond that question, what could “hitting” be about?

I’ve recently come across important lexical data that confirms our suspicions about jatz’ bihtuun. In colonial Yukatek, in the Motul Dictionary or Calepino Motul, we find two revealing entries:

be tun, camino o calzada de piedra
hadz be, abrir camino por matorrales

Thus Classic Mayan jatz’ bihtuun, literally “to strike a stone road,” turns out to be a phrase referring to the creation or opening of new causeways. The two inscriptions at Tikal and Naranjo provide specific dates we can consider for the construction and elaboration of associated road features at those sites.