Deciphering the Tikal Emblem Glyph

The Tikal emblem glyph, MUT-la.
The Tikal emblem glyph, MUT-la, from the inscription on Tikal, Stela 31 (photograph by D. Stuart).

by David Stuart

Back in 1993 — over a k’atun ago — I circulated a short note to colleagues about a proposed decipherment of the Tikal emblem glyph main sign as the logogram MUT. Around the same time, working independently, my colleague Christian Prager developed much the same argument. The details behind this proposal weren’t ever circulated much more widely or published, so I here share a copy of the original hand-written note (I now must wonder why I wrote it out by hand and didn’t type the thing!).

As one can see in the short note, the evidence for the reading was fairly simple. I first pointed out that the principal variants of the Tikal emblem sign (also used for a time in the Petexbatun region at Dos Pilas and Aguateca) originated as representations of tied hair. This was perhaps best revealed to me by jade figurine I excavated in Copan back in 1987 (in the dedicatory cache of the Hieroglyphic Stairway) and illustrated in the note. The figure wears a tied huun headband, and the back of the figure’s head looks identical to the most familiar variant of the Tikal emblem. I next pointed out that another version of the knotted hair emblem sign used in the Petexbatun region often takes a mu- syllable prefix. Further, in a personal name at Yaxchilan, the emblem sign also takes a -tu suffix, presumably also as a phonetic complement (an eroded text from nearby Dos Caobas my show a full mu-tu substitution, but it’s hard to confirm at the moment). These clues pointed to MUT as a possible reading, and the following entry in the Diccionario Maya Cordemex of Yucatec Mayan seemed to lend support to the possibility: mut pol, rodete hacer la mujer de sus cabellos (a plait or braid women make with their hair).

In the context of the emblem glyph the knotted-hair sign routinely takes a -la suffix (as do a number of other EG main signs, as in BAAK-la at Palenque, KAAN-la for Dzibanche and Calakmul). This would indicate that the court name centered at Tikal and also in the Petexbatun region was Mutal or, more likely, Mutul — forms probably reflected in the historical place names Motul de San Jose and Motul, Yucatan.

The 1993 note on the Tikal emblem glyph decipherment.

5 thoughts on “Deciphering the Tikal Emblem Glyph

  1. talk2winik November 10, 2013 / 8:41 PM

    Dear David, the epigraphic component of the decipherment is convincing, but there is no word /mut/ for “plait” or “braid” in Yukatek. Cordemex is a compilation and that particular entry goes back to an edition of Diccionario de Viena. However, it seems that the latter contained a transcription error because the Yukatek word is actually /me’et/. It is easy to establish this fact by comparing it to other editions and dictionaries:

    Bocabulario de Maya Than (edición René Acuña, 1992):
    Rodete hacer la muger de sus cabellos: meet pol

    Calepino Maya de Motul:
    met: ruedo, rodete, o rodilla sobre que se asienta qualquier vasija
    kax tzuc.tah,t[e] v met pol: coger los cabellos y que cuelguen atras assi cogidos.
    kax tzucte v met pol a ual: coge assi los cabellos de tu hija

    Diccionario Maya de San Francisco:
    Kax pol; met pol: trenzado, coger, trenzar, atarse los cabellos
    Meet: rodete, hacer rodete para asentar algo

    Therefore, although I do not question the argument for reading the logogram as and find alternative theories less convincing, the proposed explanation of the iconography of the character and its possible translation are not backed by linguistic data (the gloss in Yukatek is /met/ for an active verb and /me’et/ for a passive and a noun; see Bricker’s dictionary).


  2. David Stuart November 19, 2013 / 7:19 PM

    Many thanks for the clarification, Alex. Yes, no doubt you’re right regarding the source being met. Note that the Yucatec connection was presented in somewhat tentative terms, then as now. When I first looked at the phonetic evidence back in the fall of 1992 I was a fellow at the School of American Research in Santa Fe, with no access to Mayan dictionaries besides a few I brought along — including my handy, weighty copy of the Cordemex. And nothing digital, of course. This all brings to mind a good rule of thumb: a single gloss does not a decipherment make.

  3. Mario Giron-Abrego August 24, 2014 / 11:24 PM

    Dear Dr. David Stuart,

    Recently, Christophe Helmke has also noted, and cites Dmitri Beliaev in personal communication (2011), of the possibility for a fully phonetic rendition of Tikal’s EG Stela 31 (glyph E11). It appears that the glyph records K’UH-[2ku-la]-AJAW to be read k’uhul kuku’l ajaw, incorporating the toponym
    kuku’l. What are your thoughts on this?

    Best regards,

  4. David Stuart August 25, 2014 / 2:34 PM

    Hi Mario, This idea has been discussed over the past few years, but I’m not sure I agree with it. In order to posit a phonetic substitution for a logograph one needs to find more than one context or setting, especially for a glyph that’s as common at the Tikal EG main sign. Put another way, the context from Stela 31 is very restricted — the 2ku-la location appears only in connection with the reign of Yax Nun Ahyiin, cited with his accession date and with his last known PE on Given the political disruptions of the time, it might not be too surprising that the newly installed king is using a different court designation, for whatever reason. What I would like to see is evidence of a “KUK” reading from some other text, preferably from a different era of Tikal’s history, or from another site altogether. In any event one still would need to explain the nearly pervasive mu- prefix found on Petexbatun-region variants of the EG, as well as the -tu suffix we find in at least one Yaxchilan text (in the spelling of a woman’s name). Although unpublished, a monument from Dos Caobas shows what might be mu-tu combination substituting for the supposed MUT logograph — I might post something on this shortly here on MD. In sum, those Stela 31 glyphs need not point to a direct phonetic substitution.

    BTW, I noticed that you analyze the place name as kuku’l — do be aware that folks are still debating the presence of a glottal stop in these kinds of suffixes. Not everyone agrees that it should be there, however one chooses to read the main sign.

  5. Mario Giron-Abrego August 27, 2014 / 11:36 PM

    Thanks for the fast and very informative reply. The kuku’l transcription of 2ku-la it’s not mine, I unintentionally forgot to mention that it was taken from a footnote from the paper “Mythological Emblem Glyphs of Ancient Maya Kings” by Helmke (2012). It’d be very interesting indeed to see that monument from Dos Caobas and the mu-tu spelling. Looking forward to that note!