Snake on a Stick

by Stephen Houston

Two things I want to unsee: an eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegelii) coiled at face level in a low tree (Figure 1); and a “Barba Amarilla” (Bothrops atrox), an aggressive viper, slithering with shocking ease into the upper reaches of a hut (click Snake in rafter for an Amazonian parallel, ending in foul language). The forest poses many dangers, but climbing, venomous snakes induce an unease most of us would rather not feel. Sometimes it is better to forget these experiences.    

Figure 1 Eyelash viper, Cahuita, Costa Rica (photograph by Pavel Kirillov, Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0).

Not surprisingly, the Classic Maya noticed such reptiles and their alarming behavior. Indeed, there is a glyph that shows a snake looping around a horizontal bar, which, in one image (Figure 2, K3844), clearly bears a TE’ or “wood” marking: the bar is a stick, branch or beam. Another feature is that most such spellings begin with a color, “red” (chak, K3844), or “green-blue” (yax, K2752, and an unprovenanced “turtle shell” of jade, doubtless a miniature imitation of a percussive instrument; note the yu-k’e-*se, “noisemaker,” tag [see Zender 2010: 84]; cf. Dumbarton Oaks Flanged Pectoral:B4 [Fields and Tokovinine 2012: 159]). The reading is a little less clear, but, to judge from its spelling—usually by itself, once with ke, an evident syllabic reinforcement—the glyph recorded a word ending in -k.

Figure 2. Snake on a stick sign, with color designations, final example outlined in yellow (“K” photos used by permission of Justin Kerr, © Kerr Associates).

Most such spellings occur in the following sequence: a color (the attribute just mentioned) + “snake on a stick” + a mammal, ranid, even a dove? (K2572, spelling u-ku-na, like ukum?, “paloma” in Yukateko [Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980: 898–899]; for a word sign lacking a color, see K3007). The examples in Figure 3 are assembled with an argument in mind, that “snake on a stick” is not just a word sign ending in -k; it alternates with syllabic le-ke and thus carries a value of LEK. The ke on K3844 suggests this is more than a speculative proposal (note, however, that the examples in K5451 and 5722 are unlikely to cue the same historical figure). If the argument has merit, a sculptor’s name in Figure 3 would add another color, k’an, “yellow.”

Figure 3. Possible substitutions between the word sign, “snake on a stick,” and syllabic le-ke (“K” photos used by permission of Justin Kerr, © Kerr Associates; to right is a sculptor’s signature, pencil drawing by David Stuart from a looted, confiscated piece now in the Pomona Bodega, Tabasco, Mexico.)

The relevant glosses divide into two sets.

Cluster of terms for “good” and its congeners

Western Mayan  *lek “bueno” (Kaufman 2003: 203)

Ch’ol  lek, adj. “good,” “bueno” (Hopkins et al. 2011: 127)

Tzendal  lec(lek), “poseer”; lec(lek), “Hermosa cosa,” “digno” (Ara 1986: 319–320).

Tzotzil  lek, “elegant, gallantly, genteel, graceful, handsome, polished” (Laughlin 1988, I:243); lek, “good” (Laughlin 1975: 208)

Cluster of terms for “hanging over, suspended”

Ch’olti’  lechbun, “hang it, suspend it” (Robertson et al. 2010: 306)

Ch’orti’  lekb’u, transitive positional, “hang, suspend” (Hull 2016: 252); lekwan, positional, “hang over” (Hull 2016: 253)

Pokomam  lekli, participle of leka, “cosa, que esa colgada, como paño” (Feldman 2000: 231)

The first provides a more direct meaning that may attach to animals (“good,” “elegant,” “worthy”). In fact, in the 1990s, David Stuart suggested to me that the syllabic spelling of le-ke might correspond to “good” (see also Houston et al. 2009: 22, fig. 2.4; my thanks to Alexandre Tokovinine for reminding me of this citation). The second recruits a homophone suitable for graphing (“hanging over, suspended”). The terms for “hang,” “hang over” or “suspend” relate plausibly to the unnerving behavior of snakes up in trees or the roof beams of thatched homes. A final entry from a dictionary source ties lek to an actual, transverse house beam: Yukateko lekeb, “viga…el tercer poste transversal, el de más abajo que une a las tijeras” (Barrera Vásquez et al. 1980: 444). Of course, Mayan speakers often refer to a roof beam in traditional houses as the “road of the rat” (Wauchope 1938: Tables 4, 7, 9, 14). In houses, snakes ascend for a reason, to go after meals.

Yet the entry in Ch’olti’ (lechbun), along with the instability and relatively late date of the k/ch transition in Ch’olan languages (Law et al. 2014), raises another possibility. Perhaps lech was the relevant term in modern languages. In Ch’orti’, that word associates with open, snarling mouths (Hull 2016: 251), a nuance that links logically to roaring jaguars and croaking ranids. The toad or frog in K3844 (Figure 3)—or is it a turtle?—gapes noticeably.

As with most proposals for decipherment, the suggestion is now in place, awaiting further tests…and the need to forget about real snakes on sticks.


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