Maya Creatures VI: A Fox Cannot Hide its Tail

Albert Davletshin (Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow) and Stephen Houston (Brown University)

The Chinese proverb, “A Fox Cannot Hide Its Tail,” bears the same meaning as the English adage, “The Devil Cannot Hide His Cloven Hoof”—i.e., certain beings incline inescapably to mischief or worse. [1] The Chinese expression emphasizes the mischievous character of the canid, known for its ability to escape hunters and trick hens. Fox stories are told in many places over the world. There are Chinese fox-spirits that transform into beautiful women, the Fox-Woman Next Door of Russian tales, and the eponymous Reynard the Fox (Mish 1954:329–330; Stevens 2013:153–154; Ting 1985:41–44). Attitudes can be extreme. The English upper class harbored a special loathing for the animal, to judge from fox-hunting and its export throughout the British Empire (Robb 2020:65–67). In some traditions, two related species of canids, the jackal and the coyote, take the place of the fox (Berezkin 2010:135; 2014:349). The Coyote of Native North America is an exemplary trickster who plays pranks or disobeys social rules with impunity (Radin 1956). By contrast, the wolf, a more threatening being, ends up badly.

One species, the gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), is known in the Maya area (Figure 1; Ceballos 2014:514–515). There, the role of the trickster who cheats everyone and ends foolishly trapped is delegated to Rabbit and Coyote. Foxes, however, receive the most attention. Among the Tzotzil people of Chiapas, we learn that “it is a very evil animal,” “its skin is stuffed and used on the fiesta of St. Sebastian to represent the president of Mexico,” “its bark is believed to announce disputes, sickness, broken bones, or murder on the road,” and that they are “the companion animal spirits of stupid people, especially Chamulas” (Laughlin 1975:368, see also Laughlin with Haviland 1988:327). Surprisingly, foxes are eaten by some Maya, and, in a curious detail given that practice, the animals are also said to consume the corpses of the dead (Hunn 1975:218). Such malevolent characteristics and local interest in them may explain why at least four Proto-Mayan names can be formally reconstructed for the same creature: *ch’umak, *waʔx, *weet, and *yaak (see, e.g., Kaufman and Justeson 2003:567-568). This implies many borrowings and, possibly, the operation of word taboos, resulting in several widespread cognate sets that nonetheless denote the same species (Emeneau 1948). Two of the reconstructed words have already been identified in the script. One is a personal name, ch’amak; another applies to a spirit companion, waax (Schele and Grube 1994:56; Grube and Nahm 1994:700). The aim of this note is to present a tentative identification of one more term for “fox” in the Maya script.

Figure 1. The Gray Fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus (

A sandstone slab from Tonina features a unique emblem glyph or royal title (Figure 2). We are grateful to Ángel A. Sánchez Gamboa and Guido Krempel for the opportunity to show this drawing and to consult a photo of the inscription, only a part of which was known through an unpublished field sketch by Ian Graham. Recently, in the course of Tonina conservation and documentation project, led by the Coordinación Nacional de Conservación de Patrimonio Cultural (CNPC) of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), this fragment was joined to another, smaller one. (These pieces will be published in a catalogue of the Tonina monuments by the CNCPC-INAH Project; more precise designations of these fragments are to come.) The title under discussion consists of a canine head with a syllable we and, above, a logograph ʔAJAW “lord, king” (for the we syllable see, Zender et al. 2016). The head sign features a canine tooth, trilobed ear, and dog’s nose, which can be observed in the logographic signs of other canids: TZ’Iʔ, tz’iʔ, “dog”, ʔOOK, ʔook, “dog (calendrical term),” CH’AMAK “fox,” and TZ’UTZ’, tz’utz’, “coati.” Recently, Christian Prager has also identified a logograph WAAX “gray fox” on a painted vessel, also with a fox head featuring the traits of canids (Prager 2020). Guido Krempel (personal communication, 2020) suggested to us that the fox’s head includes a spot at the corner of its mouth, which marks gray foxes and is attested in depictions of the animal on Classic Maya ceramics. This may well be the case, although the photo shows erosion in that part of the glyph. The title follows two blocks of ambiguous meaning: ʔu-TEʔ [yi]-ʔIHCH’AAK?-NOJ-la. These can be interpreted asʔu-teʔ yihch’aak nojool,the stick (bailiff[?]) of Yihch’aak Nojool” (see Houston 2008). The word teʔ is highly polysemous in Mayan languages, various denoting “plant (of any kind),” “tree,” “wood,” “stick,” and by extension, “staff,” “official holding a staff,” “spear,” and “person possessing a spear,” i.e., “spear-carrier, warrior.” In this context, “official holding a staff, bailiff” is perhaps the most likely reading, “spear-carrier” being less probable. If this interpretation is correct, the name of the bailiff was likely in the lost part of the inscription together with the verb referring to the described event, possibly, although it is speculative, chuhkaj, “he is/was captured.” A distantly related cognate for the word “south” in Yucatec, nòohol (Bricker et al. 1998:199), suggests a short final vowel; because of the disharmonic spelling, we reconstruct the long vowel yet remain open to the presence of a glottalized variant. [2]

Figure 2. Two joined fragments of a sandstone slab from Tonina. W 22cm, H 30cm, TH 12cm.
Preliminary drawing by Guido Krempel, courtesy of CNCPC-INAH.

The name of the Fox lord, literally “His Paw(?), the South,” can be understood as either “The Paw(?) of the South,” “His Paw(?) is to the South” or “His Southern Paw(?).” However, in truth, these interpretations are somewhat unsatisfactory from a syntactic point of view. The title is followed by a partially preserved distance number that led to the lost record of another event—mi-HEEW-mi-WINAAK-ji-[ya] …, “no days, no months, … thence.” The numeral classifier for the “count of days” is written here with a rare version of the logograph HEEW, which depicts a deer head under two bones; to our knowledge, the only other example occurs on Bonampak Sculptured Stone 1:C1. It differs slightly from other versions that display a deer head with two crossed bones over the eye (e.g., Pestac Stela 1:D6; Palenque Palace Tablet:B18; Quirigua Stela H:T2) or a deer head with two bones that frame the head (Tonina Monument 162:A, Monument 170:A, Monument 175:pJ). Possibly, these relate to images of deer covered by mantles with crossed bones and eyeballs (e.g., Ek’ Balam Mural of the Deer; K2785). Excepting a few examples (Bonampak Sculptured Stone 1:C1; Quirigua Stela H:T2), the sign is usually complemented by a syllable wa. This surely cues a complex vowel in a logograph read HEEW. Importantly, the sign under discussion is not attested in other contexts, which excludes its interpretation as a syllable he. Cognates of the suffix have not yet been found in modern Mayan languages, so the long vowel is tentatively reconstructed here by means of the disharmonic spelling; the alternative reconstruction would contain a glottalized vowel.

.Figure 3. Different variants of the logograph HEEW, each depicting a deer head with two bones (from left to right, Bonampak Sculptured Stone 1, Tonina 162, and the Palenque Palace Tablet). Drawings by Albert Davletshin.

Few Mayan words start with the consonant-vowel combination of we- (see, Kaufman and Justeson 2003:passim). That rarity is helpful here, as it suggests a likely candidate for the animal head at Tonina: (we)-WEET?, weet, “fox.” Several Mayan languages employ this word, including some spoken in the vicinity of Tonina. A relevant point is that Spanish gato montés, “forest cat,” and gato de monte, “cat of forest,” designate “wildcat (Felis silvestris)” and “bobcat (Lynx rufus),” but, in the Spanish of Southern Mexico, they unexpectedly refer to “gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)” (Schoenhals 1988:584). The list below makes the orthographies consistent so as to facilitate comparison.

Proto-Mayan: *weet “gray fox” (for similar cognate sets, see Kaufman and Justeson 2003:567, Wichmann and Brown n.d.)

Teco: x=weʔch “fox” (Kaufman 1969:173)

Mam: weech “gato de monte” (Kaufman and Justeson 2003:567)

Popti: wech “gato de monte” (Kaufman and Justeson 2003:567)

Mocho: weech “gato de monte, zorra gris (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)” (Kaufman 1967:567)

Tuzanteco: weech “zorra, lobo, onza” (Kaufman and Justeson 2003:567)

Tojolabal: wet “gato de monte (Urocyon cinereoargentus)” (Lenkersdorf 2010:634)

Tzeltal: wet “a rare synonym of wax (Urocyon cinereoargentus), probably a loan from Tzotzil” (Hunn 1977:219)

Tzotzil: vet “gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)” (Laughlin 1975:368)

Guided by the gloss in Tzotzil, Guido Krempel (personal communication, 2020) independently arrived at (we)-WEET. The development of *t into ch is regular in Mam, Mocho, Teco, and Tuzanteco, signaling the considerable antiquity of the reconstructed word. Nevertheless, other cognates imply a relatively shallow time-depth and multiple acts of borrowing. The glottalized vowel in Teco x=weʔch is irregular, as is the final consonant in Popti wech; the latter shows the final ch in the place of the regular t and looks to be a borrowing from Mam (for correspondences involving dental stops and palatal affricates, see Campbell 1984:6).

Another reconstructed word, *weech, “armadillo,” may be related to this set. However, this interpretation requires two scenarios in order to be accepted. First, the original term for “fox,” weet, was lost in Yucatecan languages yet preserved as a part of a compound term “turtle-fox” or “shell-fox,” a term for “armadillo” that later became simplified. Second, the word was borrowed into Tila Chol and perhaps Ch’orti’, leading to the irregular final ch, where t might be expected. The alternative interpretation is that two animal names *weet “fox” and *weech “armadillo” are unrelated and that their similarity arose solely by chance.

Proto-Yucatecan: (plus, Chol) *weech “armadillo” (for similar cognate sets, see Kaufman and Justeson 2003:567 Wichmann and Brown n.d.):

Chol (Tila dialect): wech, x=wech “armadillo” (Aulie and Aulie 1998:139)

Ch’orti’: aj=wech “tatugo/armadillo-like animal’ (Wisdom 1950; this entry may not belong here; note the verb root wech’-, “to untwist, unfold, unbraid, roll down”)

Mopan: wech “armadillo” (Schumann 1997:284)

Itzaj: wech “armadillo” (Hofling and Tesucún 1997:662)

Yucatec: h=wèech “armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus), small pig” (Bricker et al. 1998:301)

Lacandon: weech “armadillo” (Hofling 2014:381)

It has been suggested that Proto-Mayan *weet, “gray fox,” is a loan from Proto-Zoquean *weetu, “fox,” also borrowed into Colonial Mixtec <vidzu> “fox (calendrical day name)” and Xinka weeto “fox” (Campbell and Kaufman 1976:86). Although the word is found in only one published dictionary of Zoquean languages (Harrison et al. 1981: 192; see also Gómez Domínguez 2003:163), there are now cognates that may be added thanks to Roberto Zavala (personal communication, 2020).

Zoque de Santa María Chimalapa: wetuʔ “especie de comadreja, color café (tiene dibujo como zorrillo; tiene olor como de waku; delgadito; parecido de kuru; come muertos)” 

Jitotolteco: wetu[weru] “gato montés”

Zoque de Copainalá: wetu “gato montés, lince”

Zoque de Ocotepec: wetu [wedu]“gato montés”

These cognates allow us to reconstruct the Proto-Zoquean *wetuʔ, “gray fox”; as yet, no cognates occur in Gulf Zoquean languages. In his comparative work, Søren Wichmann (1995:158) suggested that the final glottal stop was irregularly inserted in Chimalapa Zoque disyllabic nominals. In fact, new data indicate that these glottal stops are retentions and that Chiapas Zoque dialects regularly lost final glottal stops in disyllabic nominals (see the sets for “new,” “short,” “star,” “white,” “woman,” etc.). Proto-Mayan *weet is a phonological adaptation of the Zoquean word with the loss of the final vowel and compensatory lengthening of the first vowel (Mayan languages tend to have monosyllabic lexical roots of the type CVC). The lowering of the final u to o in Jumaytepeque Xinka weeto, “fox,” is due to Xinka vowel harmony (Campbell 1972:187). The borrowing of the medial voiceless dental stop t of Proto-Zoquean *wetuʔ as a voiced dental fricative ð in Mixtec <vidzu> “fox” and as a lateral l in Proto-Huave *wìlɨ “fox, tail” can be explained by allophonic realizations [d] and [r] of the word-internal dental stop in Zoquean languages (for Proto-Huave, see Suárez 1975:116). Different patterns of phonological adaptation indicate that the Proto-Zoquean word was independently borrowed into Mayan, Mixtec, Xinka, and Huave languages.

These etymological data allow us to identify weet, “fox,” as a dialectal word at Tonina. Tzotzil, Tojolabal, Popti, and Chiapas Zoque are likely donors. The syntactic opacity of his name also lies outside the norm for Classic Ch’olt’ian. It is known that Tonina texts show some features shared by the closely related languages of Tzeltal and Tzotzil, of which the positional verbs marked by –h-…-aj seem to be the strongest examples (Lacadena and Wichmann 2005:35). As a further detail, the hieroglyphic name of Tonina, Popoʔ, has been interpreted as Zoquean in origin, ultimately derived from *Popoʔ Tzatɨk, “White Cave” (Lacadena and Wichmann 2005:46). The name of the Fox Lord may be another visitor from such languages.

The example of (we)-WEET raises two intriguing questions. Why was this word written with the initial phonetic complement? Such spellings are relatively infrequent in the script (Grube 2010). And why was the word written, not with a combination of two syllabic signs, but with a logograph, perhaps improvised for just this occasion? To answer the first question, distinguishing the image of the fox’s head from other canids may have posed special challenges for scribes. The syllabic prefix clarified visual overlaps with other canids and contrasted with waax, the more common name for “gray fox.” To answer the second, logographs plainly operated as an enduring emphasis in Maya script. Continuous, phrase-long sequences of syllabic signs seldom replaced them. In glyphs, logographs carried a decided semantic and existential weight, standing as evident proxies for perceptible things.

At Tonina, there was also a special pleasure, maybe, in drawing a creature with so many nuances…in reference to a lord whose very title connoted moral ambiguity.

[1] For other entries in the “Maya Creatures” series, see MuskDragonsMosquitoesDogs, Teeth.

[2] In this essay we include complex vowels in logographic transcriptions; the alternative convention is to avoid such notation, reserving it for transliterations into language.


We are grateful to the Tonina conservation and documentation project, led by the Coordinación Nacional de Conservación de Patrimonio Cultural of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, for the opportunity to use unpublished materials. Many thanks go to Guido Krempel, Ángel A. Sánchez Gamboa, and Roberto Zavala who generously shared their data with us. We are also grateful to Terrence Kaufman, Evgeniya Korovina, Guido Krempel, Christian Prager, Sergei Vepretskii, Søren Wichmann, and Mikhail Zhivlov for their valuable comments.


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