A Glyph for Yuyum, “Oriole,” in a Name at Bonampak

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin) and Peter Stuart (Hampshire College)

Among the many people depicted in Room 1 of the Bonampak murals is an official named Aj K’an Yuyum (Figure 1). His portrait, near the back corner of the chamber, is somewhat damaged and effaced. He seems to be a high-ranking noble, and he stands close by three elaborately dressed dancers on the center of the room’s lower register. In front of him is a similarly dressed man who bears the title sajal, often used for political and military figures of high elite status.

The hieroglyphs of his name caption are well preserved, and the first two glyph blocks of his name clearly read AJ-K’AN-na 2yu-ma. The remaining glyphs of his caption are syllabic spellings but are more difficult to make out fully: AJ-2ch’a-ta? ?-ma-ni (see Miller and Brittenham 2013:Figure 145). Perhaps one or both give a title based on some unknown place name.

Figure 1. Aj K'an Yuyum and his name caption, from Room 1 of the Bonampak murals. (Watercolor copy by H. Hurst; Caption drawing by D. Stuart)
Figure 1. Aj K’an Yuyum and his name caption, from Room 1 of the Bonampak murals.  (Watercolor copy by  H. Hurst; Caption drawing by D. Stuart)

Beyond his role as a named spectator at Bonampak, little can be said about Aj K’an Yuyum and his position in the local royal court; no other references to him are known. Here we would like to concentrate on his personal name, especially the unusual word spelled with the doubled yu sign and the main-sign form of ma. This combination is very probably an ancient attestation of yuyum, a word found in historical and modern sources for “oriole.” The noble’s full name then be would be “Yellow Oriole,” conforming to a widespread pattern of personal names based on colors and animal terms.

Yuyum is a word for “oriole” in lowland Mayan languages, including in Yucatecan and Cholan. Its first known attestation is in Beltran’s 18th century list of Yucatec faunal names as “un ave parecida al oropendula,” referencing a species closely related to orioles (see Perez 1898). It appears in modern Yucatec as well as yúuyum,“oriole” (Bricker et. al. 1998:319). In Bruce’s vocabulary of Lacandon yuyum is simply attested as “cierto pajaro” (Bruce 1968). Importantly, we also find it cited in Aulie and Aulie’s dictionary of Ch’ol (1978: 214) as yujyum, “bolsero espalda amarilla (icterus chysater),” specifically referencing the Yellow-backed Oriole.

A number of oriole species are common in the Maya region. These include the well-known Baltimore Oriole (which winters there), the Hooded Oriole, the Altamira Oriole, the Spotted-breasted Oriole, the afore-mentioned Yellow-backed Oriole, and the Streaked-backed Oriole. Whether all of these species were ever considered under a single term is difficult to know, given the vagaries of faunal classification in Mayan languages. Besides yuyum, there appear to be a number of more isolated words for different types of orioles: kubul in Yucatec (Bolles 2001), tzap’in in Itzaj (Hofling 1997:633), and kupulik in Ch’orti’ (Wisdom 1940), for example. Yet the consistent gloss of yuyum and its cognates as “oriole” across both Yucatecan and Ch’olan makes for a reasonable case that the word may be old and widely diffused in the lowland region.

FIgure 2. Orioles in the Murals of San Bartolo, North Wall. (Watercolor copy by H. Hurst.)
Figure 2. Orioles in the Murals of San Bartolo, North Wall. (Watercolor copy by H. Hurst.)

The only known representation of orioles in Maya art comes from another famous Maya wall painting, the Preclassic murals of San Bartolo (Figure 2). In the murals from Structure sub-1-A, we see depicted on the north wall a representation of a hanging nest surrounded by three small birds. This hangs from a tree that grows atop a cosmic mountain of emergence, associated with concepts of “flower mountain” in Mesoamerican mythology (Taube, et al. 2005:15-16). The small, extremely cute birds that flutter around the nest are yellow in appearance, with black bordering their wings and tails. Due to their coloration, and the fact that they do not have black on their backs like most Central American orioles, these are most likely Yellow-backed Orioles (icterus chysater), which are known to reside in the Maya area, and especially in higher elevations. Significantly perhaps, this is the very species given as the meaning of yujyum in Aulie and Aulie’s Ch’ol vocabulary, as noted earlier.

A good amount of work remains to be done on the identification of various bird species and other fauna represented in Maya art. We hope this small observation on the written and painted appearance of orioles will prove a useful contribution in such research.

Sources Cited:

Aulie, Wilbur, and Evelyn W. de Aulie. 1978. Diccionario Ch’ol. Summer Institute of Linguistics, Mexico D.F.

Bolles, John. 2001. Combined Dictionary–Concordance of the Yucatecan Mayan Language. FAMSI. On-line resource available at http://www.famsi.org/reports/96072/.

Bruce, Robert. 1968. Gramatica del Lacandon. Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Mexico D.F.

Hofling, Andrew. 1997. Itzá Maya – Spanish – English Dictionary, Diccionario Maya Itzaj – Español – Inglés. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Miller, Mary E., and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. The University of Texas Press, Austin.

Perez, Juan Pio. 1898. Coordinación alfabetica de las voces del idioma maya que se hallan en el arte y obras del padre fr. Pedro Beltran de Santa Rosa, con las equivalencias castellanas que en las mismas se hallan. Imprinta de la Ermita, Merida.

Taube, Karl, William Saturno, and David Stuart. 2005. The Murals of San Bartolo, El Peten, Guatemala. Part I: The North Wall. Ancient America 7. Boundary End Archaeological Research Center, Barnardsville, NC.

9 thoughts on “A Glyph for Yuyum, “Oriole,” in a Name at Bonampak

  1. Marc Zender April 18, 2014 / 2:52 AM

    Neat observation, Dave and Peter! I think you must be right about the interpretation of the AJ-K’AN-na 2yu-ma name. Very nice to have this bird pinned down.

    On the orthography, there may be some good support for transliterating the Classic Mayan word for oriole as yuhyum (with an infixed-h). As you note, the Yucatec term is yúuyum, with the so-called “high tone” that reflects a previous *h, as in báalam “jaguar” (from earlier *bahlam as we know). And the Ch’ol form is yujyum, where the -j- is just how -h- is written in many of our sources. So I’d think yuhyum is a pretty good bet.

    • David Stuart April 18, 2014 / 3:04 AM

      Yep, I’m sure you’re correct Marc. I tend to be overly safe (that is, ignorant) when it comes to such phonetic reconstructions, at least ones that are not directly indicated by the ancient spellings themselves. I’ll happily write it as yuhyum from here on.

  2. Helen Alexander April 18, 2014 / 8:50 PM

    Thanks so much for putting me on the automatic mailing list for the Maya Decipherment Blog site. I especially enjoyed this last one because I am a birder and was thrilled to see this. Also thrilled to see that David’s son, Peter, is interested in following the family tradition of scholarship!

    Helen Alexander

  3. karenbassie April 19, 2014 / 7:34 PM

    In his 1972 dissertation (A Highland People and their Habitat: The Natural History, Demography and Economy of the Kekchi), Michael Wilson lists the Q’eqchi’ term yuyum (chorcha) for the Icterus chrystater (yellow-back oriole) and other orioles. The Q’eqchi’ dictionary by Guillermo Sedat lists yuyum as chorcha. So the term is widespread.

  4. Jenja Korovina April 20, 2014 / 6:36 AM

    In Bricker’s dictionary also exists form yùuyah ‘oriole’. And perhaps I’m wrong but in Bolles’ dictionary exists only form kubul ‘oriole’ (not kulub) (source of this word in Bolles’ dictionary is “Ritual of the Bacabs”) and this form has parallels in mopan k’ub’ul ~ kub’ul ‘oriole’, itza k’ub’ul ‘oropendola’, chol k’ub’ ~ k’ub’ul ~ k’ub’ujl ‘oropendula’ etc. And it’s important chol k’ub’ul and yujyum are two different birds.

    • David Stuart April 20, 2014 / 3:17 PM

      Yes, “kulub” was a typo – it should be “kubul” (I’ve corrected it in the text). Some of the confusion about oropendulas and orioles is understandable — they are closely related — and dictionary compilers aren’t always terribly precise about species identification. The same can be true for native speakers, of course.

  5. karenbassie April 20, 2014 / 10:59 PM

    The following is a quote from my volume Maya Sacred Geography and the Creator Deities that sheds some light on the use of orioles in Maya imagery.
    Above the mouth of the cave is a pouch-shaped bird nest with three yellow birds busily weaving it. A serpent on the back side of the cave is in the process of eating a fourth bird. Although the size of the nest is indicative of an oropendola (blackbird), the birds’ yellow color suggests orioles. The extraordinary weaving skills of female orioles were naturally associated with the weaving skills of women, and the oriole is said to have woven the intricate feather designs into the wedding dress of a hummingbird in a Yucatec Maya myth (Bowles 1964:27). The San Bartolo nest-building scene is unusual because orioles do not help each other construct their nests. This triad arrangement does, however, suggest that these weaver birds are manifestations of the three kneeling goddesses of the cave. As noted in previous chapters, quetzal feathers were closely identified with Ixik/Lady Bone Water, and two incantations in the Ritual of the Bacabs pair the tail feathers of the quetzal with the tail feathers of the oriole (Roys 1933:32, 34). Both quetzal feathers and oriole feathers were given as tribute payments (Christenson 2003a:291).

  6. Anna Vanichkin April 21, 2014 / 12:12 PM

    Has anyone commented on the difference between these four San Bartolo birds? Two of them have tails that don’t look like ones of orioles.

    • David Stuart June 25, 2014 / 9:30 PM

      Good question. I asked Peter (resident bird expert) and he says: “it’s possible that the lighter tails may represent juveniles. The immature oriole is like the adult, but duller in plumage. The female and male adults have similar tails.” This might be a conscious effort to show a bird family around a single nest. Whatever the case, this is a good example of how Maya artists were not always consistent or “naturalistic” in the way we might hope.