Heavenly Bodies

by Stephen D. Houston

As usual, Shakespeare (or Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons) said it all: “…the moon … new-bent in heaven, shall behold the night of our solemnities.”

That a correspondence might exist between a celestial body and terrestrial events is hardly strange. Every tide shows this to be so. But the relation of humans to celestial motions is less clear. Some scholars find a secure correlation between the moon and menstruation in human females; others dispute it entirely (cf. Cutler et al. 1987; Folin and Rizzotti 2001:542, also Fehring et al. 2006:6-7). We do know that the Maya linked the moon to a young woman of child-bearing age. Her favored company: a rabbit, the light-fingered trickster of Classic Maya thought and an emblem of fecundity.[Note 1]

Maya dynasts had a long stake in the sky. A basic unit of time was, of course, the k’in, meaning “day” but also “sun.” Royalty associated themselves with the Sun God, invoking his name as a key prefix to their own. But what of the moon?  In the late 1980s my colleagues Barb Macleod, Nikolai Grube, and Dave Stuart sorted out the varied glyphs that went into hul, “arrive.” Hearing of this, the obvious hit me. I am sure it did to some others, too. In one such variant, especially in Glyph D of the Lunar Series, the moon-sign was not the verbal suffix I supposed it to be. It cued the moon. This had to apply equally to Glyph C, which also bore the lunar sign.

By now, epigraphers understand the elements of Glyph D. The compound consists of a number followed by a hand with an extended index finger. That finger points to a lunar crescent. (In Maya imagery, extended fingers mark conversation or emphatic declaration.) The position of the crescent to the right side, concavity to the left, is understandable. At first crescent this is precisely the shape and orientation of the moon. Underneath the hand and moon cluster two glyphic syllables, li and ya. Along with certain specialists, I view these as providing a phonic reinforcement for the final consonant in hul, a marker of single-argument predicates (-i), and a past-tense suffix (-iiy).

Figure 1. a) Balakbal Stela 5:A5 (Ruppert and Denison 1943:pl. 56a); b) Tikal Stela 40:A7 (photograph by D. Chauche); c) Piedras Negras Throne 1:B’3 (Thompson 1971:fig. 58); d) “Siegal Mask”:B4 (drawing by author); e) Calakmul celt (drawing by Alexandre Tokovinine); f) NAR Stela 24:C7-C10, and g) E3-D7 (drawings by Ian Graham, CMHI, Peabody Museum, Harvard University).

Finding an early example of this glyph is somewhat difficult. The sample is ragged. One of the first must occur on Balakbal Stela 5:A5, dating to May 16, AD 406 (Julian). Tikal Stela 40, from June 19, AD 468 (Julian), has it too, at position A7 (Fig. 1a, 1b, respectively). For these and other examples the likelihood is that the “arrivals” refer to the sighting of the new moon as crescent. I find this credible. A rare variant sign is a human eye peering out of a moon glyph. Perhaps this refers to first-sighting (Fig. 1c; note, however, that this may be less the eye of an observer than the Moon Goddess within).[Note 2]  I would also speculate that the numbers stray from astronomical predictions—deducible by calculation—because of the difficulties of detection. During the rainy season, bad weather would work mischief with naked-eye astronomy. The example from Balakbal lies about 10 days from its predicted value, the Tikal reference 3 days or so. In both cases, the recorded number is less than the predicted quantity, a pattern consistent with observational error. (One wonders, if this held up, whether weather patterns might be loosely reconstructible for the Classic period! High deviance from prediction would be more likely during rainy seasons.)

The gist of it: at some point, Classic scribes transferred an expression for celestial motion to the arrivals of kings and queens. Heavenly bodies accorded with royal ones. An early version of non-planetary arrival employs the “moon-observation” but to describe the motions of deities—in fact, all such gods on heaven and earth (kanal k’uh, kab[al] k’uh). Their destination is a flowery place (Fig. 1d; Houston and Inomata 2009:fig. 2.3). A later spelling, on a re-used and re-cut jade from Calakmul Tomb 1, Structure 3, carts the expression into a firmly dynastic setting. Somewhat flamboyant—the gesturing hand sports a bracelet, the moon nestles the God or Goddess—the text recounts an arrival at El Zotz, Guatemala, or Yaxchilan, Mexico (Fields and Tokovinine 2012:fig. 99a; the exact site cannot be resolved on present evidence.)

Then there is the celebrated arrival of a princess from Dos Pilas at the site of Naranjo, where she resuscitates the local dynasty (Fig. 1f). About 16 years after the arrival she performs an important sacrifice with the “Stingray-spine” God (a reading first noted by Stuart) and at some point impersonates the Moon Goddess herself (Fig. 1g). That the texts highlight an arrival, the birth of an heir, and the princess’ bloodletting and impersonation as Moon Goddess savors of an overall arc of lunation and cycles of fecundity in females. I doubt it is a coincidence that hula means menstruo o regla de la mujer in Colonial Yukatek. Consider also a term for the Moon Goddess in the Dresden Codex, sak ixik, close to sakal ixik in Yukatek, also for menstruo (Barrera Vásquez 1980:242; also Dresden 18b, 19b).[Note 3] The Dresden may even allude to such cycles in its Moon Goddess pages, which seem unusually concerned with spouses and coupling. On Dresden 21b there is a possible phrase, HUL?-IXIK ya-TA-na, “Ixik arrives, the spouse of…” The HUL is in a late form but notably similar to its Classic precursor. Is the “arrival” metaphoric? A repetitive cycle of xa-HUL?-li KAB-ba > xahuli kab, on Madrid 107 raises the possibility of re-visits. Note the prefix xa, “more” or “again” in Colonial Ch’olti’ (Robertson et al. 2010:180-181, 333).

The merger of celestial and royal movement establishes an intriguing simile. The actions of one might mirror the other. For certain arrivals, the very order of heaven traced out in human activity. Perhaps, to draw a necessary inference, Maya sakbih or causeways need evaluation as the possible correlates of heavenly motion.


(1) Oswaldo Chinchilla (2011:199, figs. 86-87, 89) makes a plausible case for a male Moon god as well, with Maize God characteristics—perhaps, to judge from a text on the extraordinary “Hunal Ye box” (now on display in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología in Guatemala City), he was Glyph 10A (30) lunation, the female variant being—to conjecture wildly—Glyph 9A (29). A key image is from a pot (K5166) formerly in the Ranieri collection in Crystal River, Florida. When we visited the collection in 2002 or so, David Stuart observed that the vase highlights a sequence of beings that are surely related to the deities in Glyph C of the Lunar Series. There is a Maize God, along with companions like a Death God and God L, 6 in total, a pattern consistent with the 6-month lunation noted long ago by John Teeple. The male deities are in positions of entreaty, subordination, or with the opposed hands, wrists touching, that mark courtship dance in Maya imagery (e.g., K554)—are they “suitors” of the Moon Goddess, supplicants to a coy Penelope? The pot is the best evidence available that certain images are astral or planetary in nature. Stuart detected the sequence of such heads, including the Moon Goddess, in the Xultun murals (Saturno et al. 2012: 715, fig. 2). There, however, the sequence appears to consist of only 3 deities in order.

(2) By Terminal Classic times, the sign could be used flexibly to convey sound rather than meaning, as on Seibal Stela 9:D2, K’UH-HUL > k’uhul. “Seeing” also plays a role in a rare spelling in the Lunar Series, on the Palenque Palace Tablet:B15 or Copan Stela N:A10. In place of Glyph D it presents three elements: K’UH or K’UHUL, an icon for “seeing,” and a possible ordinal, “first.” I remain agnostic about the precise reading order of these signs, but the overall intent is to describe the first sighting of a god or a first “divine” sighting. Another form of Glyph D, found in the Initial Series Text in Room 1 of the Bonampak Murals, La Rejolla Stela 1:B5-A6, and Copan Stela I:B6, is more opaque: k’i~K’A’?-ji~hi-ya HUL-li-ya. Is this form of a “finished journey,” k’a’ with, perhaps, an epenthetic aspirate, based on the well-known expression for “death”? Or is it a completely different term? A more transparent sense of movement is in a spelling of Glyph D from a Coba altar drawn by Ian Graham: BIX-ya HUL-li-ya, with the sense of a past day and of human passage (Stuart 1987:33).

(3) A recent volume on codical astronomy argues that this supernatural, Goddess I in the Schellhas nomenclature, is unrelated to the moon (Bricker and Bricker 2011:674-679).  One challenge is that the book overlooks the unambiguous reading of her name glyph, Ixik or Sak Ixik, “Lady” or “White Lady.” I suspect the “white” refers to “weaving” or a clear moon (Barrera Vásquez 1980:709, 710). To be sure, there are ambiguities in the overall identification. Some time ago, in a redaction of his doctoral thesis, Taube pointed out that the goddess fails to appear with a moon sign in the Dresden Codex (Taube 1992:64-69). He nonetheless concludes, correctly I am certain, “it is likely ….Goddess I [is] related to the Classic period moon goddess” (Taube 1992:69). The complexity may arise from a complex or layered evocation: a procreative female, not Ixchel, whom Taube has shown to be an aged midwife, healer, and agent of destruction. The young female’s attributes include fertility and links to the moon.

Sources cited:

Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo. 1980. Diccionario Maya Cordemex, Maya-Español, Español-Maya. Ediciones Cordemex, Mérida. Bricker, Harvey M., and Victoria R. Bricker. 2011. Astronomy in the Maya Codices. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.

Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 2011. Imágenes de la mitología maya. Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala City.

Cutler, Winnifred B., Wolfgang M. Schleidt, Erika Freidmann, George Preti, and Robert Stine. 1987. Lunar Influences on the Reproductive Cycle in Women. Human Biology, vol. 59, no. 6, pp. 959-972.

Fehring, Richard, Mary Schneider, and Kathleen Raviele. 2006. Variability in the Phases of the Menstrual Cycle. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, and Neonatal Nursing, vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 376-384.

Fields, Virginia M., and Alexandre Tokovinine. 2012. Belt Plaque, Plate 18. In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, ed. by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4, pp. 178-183. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Folin, M., and M. Rizzotti. 2001. Lunation and Primate Menses. Earth, Moon, and Planets, vol. 85-86, pp. 539-544.

Houston, Stephen D., and Takeshi Inomata. 2008. The Classic Maya. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Robertson, John S., Danny Law, and Robbie A. Haertel. 2010. Colonial Ch’olti’: The Seventeenth-Century Morán Manuscript. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Ruppert Karl, and John H. Denison, Jr. 1943. Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Peten, Publication 543. Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC.

Saturno, William A., David Stuart, Anthony Aveni, and Franco Rossi. 2012. Ancient Maya Astronomy from Xultun, Guatemala. Science, vol. 336, pp. 714-717.

Stuart, David S. 1987. Ten Phonetic Syllables, Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 14. Center for Maya Research, Washington, DC.

Taube, Karl A. 1992. The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art & Archaeology, No 32. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

Thompson, J. Eric S. 1971. Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction, 3rd ed. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

The Verb Bix, “Go, Go Away”

Back in 1996 I made notes about an interesting substitution set that pointed to a reading BIX for a logogram shown here, which makes an appearance in a few inscriptions from Yaxchilan, La Corona, Dos Pilas, Coba, as well as a few others. This value may well have been noted by others back around the same time, if not before, but I thought I would post my old hand-written note summarizing the evidence (having just now found them in an old notebook).

The sign was used to write the intransitive verb bix, “to go,” in a small variety of settings. This verb root can be traced historically to proto-Ch’olan *bix (Kaufman and Norman 1980) and in ancient texts it appears on Dos Pilas HS 4 (see page bottom) as BIX-ya, for bix-iiy, “he went” (in reference to the fleeing of the local ruler Bahlaj Chan K’awiil from Dos Pilas). Spelled BIX-ya or bi-xi-ya, the same verb was used in temporal expressions ho’ bix-iiy, “five days ago” or wuk bix-iiy, “seven days ago” (see top examples on page below). A variant form of  this verb is bix-Vn, “to go, go away,” which appears in Colonial Ch’olti’ and in the glyphs as well. Several examples occur in the texts of La Corona (spelled BIX-na 0r, for the compl,tive, BIX-ni-ya), where they refer to the journeys of the young noble K’inich ? Yook from his home to Calakmul (Chihknahb). A related example turned up long after I wrote those original old notes, on Panel 1 from La Corona (at right), discovered in 2005 by Marcello Canuto.  There we read bix-Vn chihknahb, “he goes to Chihknahb” (the same expression appears on Panel 2, but with a different date — see “Site Q” examples illustrated at the middle of the page).

My favorite example of these “go” verbs comes from Altar de Sacrificios, where on Panel 2 we have bi-xi-ni-ya, for bix-Vn-iiy, “he went away.” Rather than referring to a journey in the real world, this is a citation of a local ruler’s death (cited in more conventional terms on Stela 4, an associated inscription).

I’m as yet unsure what if any semantic distinction existed between between the verbs bix and bix-Vn, and they may just be regional variants.  The bix root is likely based on the noun *bih, “road,” and I find it interesting that this etymology is graphically reflected in the logogram sign itself, which incorporates an infixed BIH/bi element.

Here are my old scribbles on this stuff from 1996:

The Unusual Glyphs of Calakmul’s Stela 52

Figure 1. Calakmul, Stela 52 in its original state. After Rupert and Denison (1943)

by David Stuart

Some years ago I paid a visit to the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City, and spent a good portion of my time viewing one of its treasures — the scarred and eroded remains of Stela 52 from Calakmul. It’s a far cry from the gorgeous, well-preserved releif that was first photographed in its original setting by one of intrepid Carnegie Institution expeditions of the 1930s (Ruppert and Denison 1943). Looters armed with band saws attacked Stela 52 and other nearby monuments in the 1960s, removing the front carving for transport and eventual sale. As I looked over the stela it dawned on me that I once had an encounter of sorts with those very same looters. In 1999 Ian Graham and I spent two weeks at Calakmul recording many of its monuments, and we one day came upon the clear vestiges of the looters’ camp abandoned over three decades earlier in the woods in front of Structure 1, not far from where Stela 52 and its partner, Stela 54, once stood. The large and rusted band saws lay on the forest floor amidst cans and debris, a scene of an old archaeological crime. Years later, as I took in the stela at the museum, it dawned upon me that those old rusted cutting tools must have been the very ones used on the magnificent sculpture.

Despite the cutting and the weathering, the monument still bears its powerful regal image of a king dressed in an elaborate deity costume, most likely for a ritual dance. The nearby Stela 54 with its similar portrait of a woman is surely the partner of Stela 52, forming a male-female stela pair like others at Calakmul and some of its ally states, such as El Peru (Stelae 33 and 34, for example) (see Marcus 1987). A band of five glyphs runs above the portrait of the Calakmul ruler, and several more along the right side.

Taking a closer look at the text, it is clear that the date is 4 Ahaw 13 Yax, or, as Ruppert and Denison deciphered decades ago. The same date was inscribed as an Initial Series on the stela’s side, although this is now invisible. The event glyph in the fourth block of the front text is “scattering,” with the name of the ruler in the last block of the vertical band. His name and titles evidently continued in the other blocks below, although these were considerably more weathered. As Simon Martin has shown, this must be a reference of some sort to the ruler known as Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil, who reigned at Calakmul for several decades in the early eighth century (Martin and Grube 2008; Martin 2005).

Fig. 2. Stela 52's upper text. Sketch by D. Stuart

Something curious stands out in these glyphs. On close inspection one sees that a small sign consisting of two small semicircles of dots — much like a TOK or to sign — has been added to each glyph block. On the 4 Ahaw day record these dotted curls form a superfix, and on the Yax month they sit atop the YAX logogram. In the K’atun record, the same element seems to be between the number 15 and the k’atun sign itself. It even appears on the scattering (CHOK-wi-ch’a-ji) verb glyph, above the hand, as well as on the royal name.

The constant presence of the dotted curls sign should indicate that it cannot be a readable element, at least in the conventional sense that we understand Maya writing. The word TOK or the syllable to has no role to play, for example, in the spelling of a day or month glyph, nor in the writing of a verb. In the case of the scattering glyph, one could supposedly entertain the possibility that the “to” is an odd form of the pronoun sign u; however, the -wi suffix markes this form as an anti passive verb, and a prefixed pronoun can only exist in a transitive construction. Surely there is something odd going on here.

The pattern may well continue with all of the other glyphs on the stela’s front. The first set of three smaller glyphs set into the portrait look to be a k’aloomte’ title, with the “to” sign resting atop the head of the deity main sign. Likewise it seems to appear in the next glyph, in a numbered “successor” expression (see Martin 2005).

Why are these elements here? I suspect that the “to” signs that appear throughout Stela 52’s inscription are in no way phonetic, but instead serve as a purely visual devices, designed to integrate the look of the glyphs to the larger iconographic program of the stela. The effect is subtle, however, since no dotted curls appear on the king’s outfit. Demonstrating the link requires a bit of background discussion, and comparisons with similar ritual costumes on other monuments, and other sites.

The distinctive costume worn by the ruler includes an elaborate deity mask integrated with a large mosaic war helmet (perhaps a ko’haw). We see the same garb worn by many of the performing rulers depicted on the monuments of Dos Pilas, for example, where we also find the same dotted curls atop the same helmets and with very similar elaborate masks (see Figure 3). I suspect that this one detail is hidden by the other extra headdress elements shown on Stela 52, but is there nonetheless. So, while the dotted curls are not visible in the headdress on the Calakmul stela, the iconographic consistency of the costumes worn by the Dos Pilas and Calakmul rulers implies their presence.

Figure 3. Detail of Dos Pilas stela, showing similar ritual costume. Note the dotted curls atop the mosaic helmet. Photo by D. Stuart.

The glyphs, then, wear their own outfits in a way. This example of a Maya glyphic “font” is unique to my knowledge. The only comparable example that comes to mind is the remarkable Teotihuacan-inspired text from the upper temple of Structure 26 at Copan, where the full-figure signs are given a central Mexican look and feel (Stuart 2005). But there the oddball glyphs are paired with legible Maya ones, in order to make the text readable. Here on Stela 52, the glyphs are in an elegant Maya style, yet visually tweaked to make them conform to the dress and performance depicted. It’s probably significant that the glyphs on the stela’s sides don’t show the dotted curls anywhere; this may make sense once we realize that the royal portrait wouldn’t have been visible to readers of those texts. The side glyphs might therefore be taken as exceptions that prove the rule.

If my assumptions hold true, it seems that the hieroglyphs on the front of Stela 52 were “costumed” in their own way and, like the king’s dancing persona, came to be infused with a particular deified identity on the occasion of the important period ending.

References Cited

Marcus, Joyce. 1987. The Inscriptions at Calakmul: Royal Marriage at a Maya City in Campeche, Mexico. Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan.

Martin, Simon, 2005. Of Snakes and Bats: Shifting Identities at Calakmul. The PARI Journal, vol. VI, no. 2. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/publications/journal/602/SnakesBats.html

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. The Chronicles of Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. 2nd edition. London: Thames and Hudson.

Ruppert, Karl, and John H. Denison, Jr. 1943. Archaeological Reconnaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo and Peten. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Pub. 543. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Stuart, David. 2005. A Foreign Past: The Writing and Representation of History on A Royal Ancestral Shrine at Copan. In Copan: The History of An Ancient Maya Kingdom, ed. by E. Wyllys Andrews and William L. Fash. pp. 373-394. SThe School of American Research Press.

A Sun God Image from Dos Pilas, Guatemala


In 1990, my friend Dr. Oswaldo Chichilla Mazariegos oversaw exploratory excavations at a small elite architectural compound at Dos Pilas known as Group N5-6 (Chinchilla Mazariegos 1990).  In the course of his excavations he discovered several beautifully carved blocks in the interior chamber of Structure N5-21, the largest of the buildings in the group.  These included sculpted masonry “legs” for a bench or throne, each depicting kneeling humans figures with duck-bills with their hand aloft. These were clearly once Wind God supports for the bench. Also found by Chinchilla were four carved stones that must have formed one of the two upper side panels of the same bench-throne, depicting a seated K’inich Ajaw, or Sun God (see figure). Here I present my drawing of the sculpture, based on a field drawing I  made from the original stones in 1990 while working as part of Vanderbilt University’s Proyecto Arqueológico Regional Petexbatun. This drawing has not been published before now.

K’inich Ajaw is shown seated within or in front of a nice example of a solar cartouche, adorned with bony serpent or centipede heads at its corners (only one is visible, at upper left). All in all, it is one of the finest portraits of the Sun God I know from Classic Maya sculpture. He has k’in glyphs on each arm and leg, as well as on his forehead. In his left hand the Sun God holds the head of an animal, probably a deer.  Although missing a few details, this is almost surely an example of a particular deer that appears elsewhere in Maya iconography, showing a footprint design over its eye. The “footprint deer,” as I call it, is nearly always paired with a certain old-looking human god in both iconography and in inscriptions, and I suspect the latter was depicted on the whatever image must have accompanied this Sun God on the N5-21 bench.  Their meanings remain obscure, but there’s good reason to think the two have some sort of opposed or complementary meanings, perhaps associated with solar phenomena.

I hope I will be able to track down my drawings of the two Wind God supports of the throne and post them sometime in the future.

* * *


Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo. 1990. Operación DP14: Investigaciones en el Grupo N5-6. In Proyecto Arqueológico Regional Petexbatun, informe preliminar no. 2, segunda temporada, 1990, edited by Arthur A. Demarest and Stephen D. Houston. Nashville: Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University.

UPDATE (April 14, 2009): As Oswaldo mentions in his recent comment (see below), photographs of this sun god carving were published in two European exhibit catalogues, and his own drawing appeared in an article he published in 2006. Thanks to Oswaldo for the information (and of course for finding the sculpture!).