Jesuits, Angels, and Pipil Writing

by Stephen Houston, Brown University 

The list of Mesoamerican writing systems is not large. Of these, only a few are deciphered to a standard that would satisfy a Champollion or a Ventris. Among the most enigmatic and sparsely documented must be the script of the Pipil, a group of Nahuat speakers who lived in parts of Guatemala (near modern-day Escuintla), El Salvador, and even Honduras. A linked group, the Nicarao, flourished in the Rivas area of western-most Nicaragua, and possibly into the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica (the classic study of these peoples remains Fowler 1989). In Colonial times, their larger settlements tended to cluster on the south coast of Guatemala and El Salvador (Sampeck 2015:fig. 1).

There is little doubt that the Pipil wrote (Sampeck 2015:477; see also Sampeck 2013). What is less clear is what can be said of their system.

The only pictorial source, a meager corpus of signs and a purported text from Nicaragua, occurs in the Recordación Florida of Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzmán (1969–1972 [1699]:72–75). A powerful figure in the Kingdom of Guatemala, Fuentes y Guzmán (c. 1634–1700) soared at relatively young age to the position of Regidor Perpetuo, later becoming an Alcalde of what is now Antigua Guatemala (Warren 1973:105). This appointment doubtless resulted from his own merits but also received, one imagines, a heavy boost from influential relatives: Bernal Díaz del Castillo, originator of many elite families in Guatemala, was an ancestor. Fuentes y Guzmán wanted more, however, and sought a position as “chronicler of the Kingdom of Guatemala” (Warren 1973:105). That ambition precipitated into the Recordación Florida, along with other books, now lost.

A carefully considered work on Pipil writing by Kathryn Sampeck (2015:figs. 4, 6) reviews the signs in the Recordación, with close comparison to the original manuscript in the Archivo General de Centro América (Figures 1 and 2; see also Chinchilla Mazariegos 1990:45–46). It is fair to say that Sampeck, who makes her case with detailed attention to the signs, takes these pages at face value. Her premise is that, in some measure, Fuentes y Guzmán recorded a Pipil version of the interpretive trove offered by Bishop Diego de Landa. The signs were not Maya, but, as reproduced by Fuentes y Guzmán, formed an interpretable, coherent record of a late Pre-Columbian/early Colonial writing system that could be related to systems in central Mexico. To Sampeck, the content was heavily focused on tribute, “showing their unusual emphasis of cacao and money as well as the ways in which Pipil writing defined their literary identity” (Sampeck 2015:477). Yet the inventory of signs suggested some variance from sister-scripts in Mexico. “Pipil writing appears to be characterized by more schematic graphic symbols, a distinctive literary identity for the region” (Sampeck 2015:480).


Figure 1

Figure 1. Pipil writing as explained by Fuentes y Guzmán (1969–1972, II:72–73).

Figure 2

Figure 2. Further Pipil writing as explained by Fuentes y Guzmán (1969–1972, II:74–75).

Mayanists were burned long ago when they dismissed Landa’s “alphabet,” widely recognized as the key to phonic decipherment (e.g., Valentini 1880). But, read today, Fuentes y Guzmán on Pipil script induces a disquiet that is hard to shake. What were his sources really, how faithful was his account of this writing?  There is an alternative hypothesis. A missing inspiration may be someone who does not appear in much (any?) scholarly mention of the Recordación Florida. That is Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), a Jesuit polymath, “the last man who knew everything,” resident in Rome yet broadly read and admired by figures in Colonial Mexico such as Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, both more or less contemporaries of Fuentes y Guzmán (Findlen 2004:343–359). A well-educated person of the time, in Guatemala too, where the Jesuits were present, would surely have known of Kircher’s work. The location of the Compañía de Jesus, the Jesuit center of learning and piety in the Colonial capital of Guatemala, was purchased from Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s descendants in 1655, during Fuentes y Guzmán’s lifetime and almost certainly with his knowledge (Jesuit building in Antigua Guatemala). 

That Kircher influenced Fuentes y Guzmán is plausible. Consider Fuentes y Guzmán’s illustration of the Postclassic site of Zaculeu, Guatemala, here compared to Kircher’s views of pyramids from his Oedipi Aegyptiaci (1653) and his last book, the Turris Babel (“Tower of Babel,” 1679; Figure 3). Much differs, but some that does not. Note the blocky, stepped pyramids at the same rough angle and orientation. Figures 3A and 3C have the same smaller pyramids to the side, if edited in number and adjusted in placement. Figures 3A and 3B display a ditch and the Nile respectively, but they loop in roughly the same place above the pyramid, which clips this feature slightly. As Oswaldo Chinchilla points out, Fuentes y Guzmán specifically attributed such constructions to influence from Egypt and “la torre de Babilonia,” Old World models par excellence (Chinchilla Mazariegos 1999: 52).

Figure 3

Figure 3. Fuentes y Guzmán (A, 1969–1972, III:53) and Kircher (B, C, 1679 and 1653, respectively).

Another such template may inspire Fuentes y Guzmán’s “hieroglyph” (jeroglífico) for the “life of the king Sinacam” (Figure 4, left). The emblem to the right is from Kircher (1653:367). To the left, in the “hieroglyph,” there is no ark or set of Egyptian gods, no horses or rooster. But there is the same stepped motif and, above, what looks like a stab at the same peacock, if reversed by Fuentes y Guzmán.


Figure 4. Fuentes y Guzmán’s “hieroglyph” for Sinacam (left) and mystic emblem from Kircher (1653:367).  

Look at the Pipil signs themselves. Many may be copies of Aztec signs (if misinterpreted or mis-reproduced) from books that Fuentes y Guzmán refers to as showing “similar things” (e.g., deLaet 1633; Fuentes y Guzmán 1969–72, II:73, fn61). The flint glyphs and circles are close to those reproduced by Kircher, also in his treatise on Egyptian writing; these Mexican signs derive from the Codex Mendoza, an early Colonial source on Aztec tribute (Kircher’s image of the Codex Mendoza f2r). The internal line of the flint always runs from upper-left to lower-right (cf. Figures 1, 2 above). The circles, each with dot inside, are like the Codex too, but recall Kircher’s exposition on an identical sign for the number “one” among the Egyptians (1653:42–43).

Some of the glyphs recorded by Fuentes y Guzmán are heavily conditioned by Western convention. This affects Mexican systems, too, but, among the Pipil signs, we have the presence of axes and “lozas” (crockery) with depth of field or Aztec flowers juxtaposed with western ones; there is even a cozy house in 3/4 view (Figures 1, 2). These reinforce a feeling that the author was being loose or injecting features with a high degree of license. Or, to be less charitable, he was simply making things up, a point underscored by the Nicaraguan slab of wood and Fuentes y Guzmán’s rather opaque description of what actually reached his hands (the piece was said to have been in the “poder” of a certain venerable [“antiguo”] Mercedarian friar (Fuentes y Guzmán 1969–1972:74). If it was not in Fuentes y Guzmán’s possession, and merely described by means of ekphrasis, to be imagined by him, then the signs are identical to those he reproduces elsewhere. If one set is made up, why not all of them?

Kircher has become a figure of ridicule to later generations, especially in his research on Egyptian writing (Pope 1999:28–38). But the Jesuit did know Coptic, the descendant language of ancient Egyptian and still spoken as a daily language during Kircher’s lifetime (it has since shifted to liturgical use). The alert reader has to wonder, is the supposed sign for “400,” the so-called sontle, a Coptic ph, from the Greek, as rendered by Kircher in his 1653 publication (Figure 5)? Is the triangle with dot above Coptic d or th? Are other signs, especially those embellished with circles, the ur-writing of esoterica (Chaldean letters from Babylon) or the writing revealed by angels (Drucker 1999:181, 183, 193)?  The final signs on the Nicaraguan slab, of three spike-like wedges, bring to mind one of the main components of the Jesuit coat of arms, the three nails driven into Christ’s flesh at the Crucifixion (Figure 6).


Figure 5. Comparison of esoteric scripts from Kircher and signs from Fuentes y Guzmán. 


Figure 6. The nails of Christ in the Jesuit coat of arms and the final signs of the Nicaraguan slab.

There may be a reason the purported Pipil script has “more schematic graphic symbols.” They were lifted from Kircher’s widely distributed works and composed by Fuentes y Guzmán into a mélange that brought the ancient world, then thought to be the origin of New World peoples, into union with Aztec images from deLaet and others.

Did the Pipil write in indigenous script? Probably. Is Fuentes y Guzmán a reliable source on that writing? Perhaps not.


Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 1999. Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzmán, precursor de la arqueología americana. Anales de la Academia de Geografía e Historia de Guatemala 74:39–69.

deLaet, Johannes. 1633. Novus Orbis seu descriptionis Indiae Occidentalis Libri XVIII authore Joanne de Laet Antverp. Novis talulis geographicis et variis animantium, Plantarum Fructuumque iconibus illustrata. Elsevir, Leiden.

Drucker, Johanna. 1999. The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination. Thames and Hudson, London.

Findlen, Paula. 2004. A Jesuit’s Books in the New World: Athanasius Kircher and His American Readers. In Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, ed. P. Findlen, pp. 329-364. Routledge, New York.

Fowler, William. 1989. The Cultural Evolution of Ancient Nahua Civilizations: The Pipil-Nicarao of Central America. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Fuentes y Guzmán, Francisco Antonio de. 1969–72.Obras históricas de Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzmán. Edición y estudio preliminar de Carmelo Sáenz de Santa María. Vols. 230, 251, 259 of Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, desde la Formación del Lenguaje hasta Nuestros Días. Ediciones Atlas, Madrid.

Kircher, Athanasius. 1653. Oedipi Aegyptiaci: Complectens Sex Posteriores Classes, Tomi Secundi, Pars Altera. Vitalis Mascardi, Rome. Kircher

—1679. Turris Babel, Sive Archontologia Qua Primo Priscorum post diluvium hominum vita, mores rerumque gestarum magnitudo, Secundo Turris fabrica civitatumque exstructio, confusio linguarum, & inde gentium transmigrationis, cum principalium inde enatorum idiomatum historia, multiplici eruditione describuntur & explicantur. Jansson-Waesberge, Amsterdam.

Pope, Maurice. 1999. The Story of Decipherment: From Egyptian Hieroglyphs to Maya Script. Rev. ed. Thames and Hudson, London.

Sampeck, Kathryn E. 2013. El campo letrado: Reflexiones sobre la lectura y la escritura en regiones mayas de Mesoamérica. Mesoamérica 55:191–204.

—2015. Pipil Writing: An Archaeology of Prototypes and a Political Economy of Literacy. Ethnohistory 62(3):469–495.

Valentini, Philipp J.J. 1880. The Landa Alphabet: A Spanish Fabrication. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 75:59–91.

Warren, J. Benedict.  1973. An Introductory Survey of Secular Writings in the European Tradition on Colonial Middle America, 1503-1818.” In Handbook of Middle American Indians, Volume Thirteen: Guide to the Ethnohistorical Sources, Part Two, ed. H. F. Cline, pp. 42–137. University of Texas Press, Austin.