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.

Reinterpreting a “Creation” Text from Chancala, Mexico

Fig. 1. Sawn section of a panel, probably from Chancala, Mexico (From Mayer 1991:Pl.96).

The incomplete text panel shown in Figure 1, now in a private collection in Florida, has been the focus of some attention since it was first commented upon by Schele, Friedel and Parker (1993:66) in their analysis of ancient Maya creation mythology surrounding the date 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u. It was first published by Mayer (1991:Pl. 96) and more recently by Van Stone (2010); a photograph by Justin Kerr also is available. Given the increasing interest in the base-date of the Long Count calendar and its upcoming repetition in 2012, it seems a few words about the interpretation of this partial inscription might be important, especially since widely published readings of the glyphs look to be incorrect in some key details. Others have made similar points in re-assessing this inscription — Steve Houston and Marc Zender in particular — so this is meant to be no more than a summary of more current thinking on the inscription.

The text begins in mid-sentence, with a partion of a Calendar Round date “8 Zip” (8-CHAK-AT). A distance number then follows, written oddly as 18-0-WINIK-ja-ya. These numbers as written simply don’t work, however, and there’s little question that the scribe has here made an error. The date resulting from this calculation is shown later as 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u, and the only means of connecting “8 Zip” and “8 Kumk’u” is to make a slight adjustment in the distance number as its written, from 18.0 to *16.0 (“18 Winals” would be an impossibility in any case). So we have the following chronological link between these two dates being the most likely:

[9 Ahaw] 8 Zip
+*16.0 (written in error as 18.0)
4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u

We have no idea what transpired on the earlier date; that section of the text remains missing.

4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u will be familiar to many as the Calendar Round for the so-called “Creation” date that serves as the base-line for the shortened Long Count, falling on Here it almost certainly does not correspond to, but instead to a far, far later position in the Long Count, probably near the so-called Terminal Classic era of Maya history. The main reason for thinking this comes from the glyphs that follow the date, which Schele, Freidel and Parker (1993:65) translated as “the first image turtle was seen.” They got it nearly correct, but some key details force us to reassess their interpretation. The verb at pB3 they originally read as IL-la-ji-ya, for ilajiiy, “it was seen,” a passive construction (Schele et al transliterated this as ilahi, following older conventions of Maya epigraphy). However, a closer look at the glyphs clearly shows that this verb takes the initial sign yi-, infixed into the main eye main sign. This would spell the ergative third-person pronoun (u)y- before the initial i- of ilajiiy, meaning that it cannot be a passive verb construction (intransitives, unless they are nominalized, can never take an ergative pronoun prefix). Yilajiiy is well known in ancient texts, functioning either as a derived transitive form, “he saw it,” or as a participial noun “his seeing it” (both interpretations are debated and have merit, although opting for one over the other doesn’t change the meaning of the passage). The subject of this statement comes next in the personal name Yax K’oj Ahk (YAX-k’o-jo a-AHK). Schele et. al., interpreted this as a deity, namely the turtle (ahk) represented in some mythical scenes of the rebirth of the maize god (see Schele, et. al. 1993:65). However, this is far more likely to be a name of a local king or ruler, for the glyph after the name reads Chak K’uh Ajaw, “the Chak K’uh Lord.” Chak K’uh is a known but fairly obscure emblem glyph that I have for some years now associated with the ruins of Chancala, located to the south of Palenque. One fragmentary relief from Chancala bears the same emblem title (see Stuart and Stuart 2008:235), as does a panel that Mary Miller and I long ago posited might be from the same region (Miller and Stuart 1981).

Fig. 2. K'inich Janab Pakal "witnesses" a period ending. PAL:T.I.middle (Drawing by L. Schele)

Yax K’oj Ahk therefore was a historical ruler from the court of Chak K’uh, who “saw” the day 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u in his lifetime — not the original “Creation” date, of course, but a recurrence of the same Calendar Round at a far later time. Similar references to the witnessing of period endings and anniversaries are common in Maya texts (Figure 2), and imply some degree of “oversight” of the events and rituals involved with their celebration. As others have noted, there is no reason to consider it a mythical reference.

The text goes on to mention an interval of nine years (9-HA’B-ya) reckoning forward to another date now missing, but which we can easily calculate as 7 Ahaw 3 Pax.

The proportions and style of the glyphs look to me to be late, falling in the so-called Terminal Classic period in early ninth century. Only one placement of the dates in the Long Count seems fitting, anchored to 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u (see below for all three positions).

Transcription of Text (designating the two columns as A and B, and the rows by number; the “p” indicates “provisional” given the incomplete nature of the text):
pA1: 8 CHAK-AT
pB1: 0-*16-WINIK-ji-ya
pA2: i-u-ti
pB2: 4-AJAW
pA3: 8-HUL?-OHL-la
pB3: yi-IL-la-ji-ya
pA4: YAX-ko-jo
pB4: a-AHK
pB5: 9-HA’B-ya i-u-ti

Summary of Dates:
[ 9 Ahaw] 8 Zip
[] 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u
[ 7 Ahaw 3 Pax]


Mayer, Karl Herbert. 1991. Maya Monuments: Sculptures of Unknown Provenance, Supplement 3. Graz: Verlag Von Hemming.

Miller, Mary Ellen, and David S. Stuart. 1981. Dumbarton Oaks Relief Panel 4. Estudios de Cultura Maya, vol XIII, pp. 197-204.

Schele, Linda, David Freidel and Joy Parker. 1993. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. New York: William Morrow.

Stuart, David, and George Stuart. 2008. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Van Stone, Mark. 2010. 2012 Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya. Imperial Beach, CA: Tlacaelel Press.

Notes on a Painted Text from Palenque

Among the many buildings and chambers of Palenque’s Palace is House B, facing the Northeast Court and located, as one might expect, between Houses A and C. The well-preserved structure was built sometime in the early reign of K’inich Janab Pakal, although no written dedication date survives. In fact, the only hieroglyphic text we know from House B is painted on the back wall of one of its rear room, evidently a name caption that accompanied an elaborate stucco relief now largely destroyed. In the late 18th century this scene was still intact, recorded by the artist Armendáriz who accompanied the 1787 expedition to Palenque led by Antonio del Río. His drawing is reproduced here (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Armendáriz

The painted text (Figure 2, below) was not included in Armendáriz’s drawing, but it today survives near the upper right portion of the now-missing scene, just above the seated figure to the right of the central “T” window. The glyphs were photographed and drawn by Merle Greene Robertson (1985:Fig. 170-1); here I include a new drawing based on her photograph that reveals a number of key details that help in its decipherment, and which bring up one very interesting epigraphic detail.

Figure 2. The House B text (Sketch by David Stuart)

The text is a name phrase, although it’s difficult to know who it refers to in Palenque’s known history. Here’s my tentative analysis and translation of it, to be discussed in some detail below:

ha-ta / i-tz’i-WINIK / ch’o-ko / AJ-pi-tzi-la? / OHL-la / 7-“BEN”?
ha’at itz’in winik ch’ok aj pitzl(al) ohl Wuk “Ben”
“You, younger brother, the ??, Seven Ben(?)…”

Let’s first look first at the final three or so glyphs. The fourth and fifth block (AJ-pi-tzi-la? / OHL-la) clearly show a title or name found elsewhere in Palenque’s texts. Aj pitzlal ohl is found in the Cross Group and elsewhere, for example, as a common reference to K’inich Kan Bahlam, to eldest son of K’inich Janab Pakal. The full phrase is difficult to translate — “ballplayer” (aj pitz) is surely inadequate — but it does incorporate two known roots: pitz, “to play ball” and ohl, “heart, center.” However one translates the full phrase, aj pitzlal ohl is known to be a pre-accession name for K’inich Kan Bahlam, and was also used by the later K’inich K’uk’ Bahlam (see the Tablet of the 96 Glyphs).

The final discernable glyph of the caption looks to be a day sign “Ben” with a 7 number prefix. Here I doubt “7 Ben” functions as a date, for it’s location suggests it work as a calendar name in reference to some historical individual. In other Palenque inscriptions we find a similar use of such 260-day records as names, as with the sculptor named “5 Kan” mentioned on the so called “Death’s Head” from the Cross Group, and the lord named “4 Ahaw” who is portrayed on the bench platform of Temple XIX. Here I take 7 Ben — if that’s what the glyph is — to be a reference to the individual named also by the aj pitzlal ohl title.

Near the front of the name phrase, in the first and second blocks, we find a much clearer and readable title for this person: itz’i(n) winik ch’ok, “younger brother youth” (see Stuart 1997). This points to the obvious conclusion that the subject of this caption is some junior sibling, but just who’s brother is he? We can’t know for sure. In Palenque’s texts we find the same term applied to the ruler K’inich K’an Joy Chitam, the younger brother of K’inich Kan Bahlam. These glyphs look to be early in style, possibly contemporaneous with the architecture of House B, dating to the mid-seventh century, during the reign of their father. “7 Ben,” if a personal name, seems an unlikely designation for Pakal’s younger son, so might it be the younger brother of Pakal? Not being sure of the generation of the subject, his historical identity remains unclear.

Leaving the speculation aside, we still need to address the very first part of the initial glyph, a sequence that looks to be ha-ta. This is perhaps a previously unrecognized spelling of the 2nd person independent pronoun ha’at, “you,” known from at least a few other inscriptions at other sites (Figure 3). One of the more interesting aspects of the decipherment during the last two decades has been the identification of similar first- and second-person pronouns in numerous inscriptions, like “my,” “you,” “we” and so on (see Stuart 1993; Hull, Carrasco and Wald, 2009). The Palenque example is, I suggest, another case, incorporating a form a address to an otherwise conventional-looking name caption: “You, younger brother, the ??, 7 Ben (?)…”

Figure 3. Two possible examples of the pronoun ha'-at. From Copan, St. 49 (left) and the 'Birth Vase' (right; see Taube 1994)

Considering the possible presence of the unusual pronoun, it might prove useful to review that there are two basic types of pronoun classes attested in the glyphs — and known in Mayan languages — known as the “ergative” and “absolutive” sets. Ergative pronouns are prefixes that mark possession on nouns and also the subjects of transitive verbs. The most common ergative prefix in the hieroglyphic script is the third-person u- or (u)y- (pre-vocalic), but there are others. We have attested thus far:

1st person singular: ni- / w-V
2nd person singular: a- / aw-V
3rd person singular: u- / y-V
1st person plural: ka- / k-V-
2nd person plural: unattested (reconstructed in proto-Ch’olan as *i- / *iw-V by Kaufman and Norman)
3rd person plural: u-…(-oob) / y-V…(-oob)

Absolutive pronouns work differently, as suffixes that specify the subjects of intransitive verbs or else the subjects of stative statements when attached to nouns or verbs. These are also known from the Classic inscriptions, if a bit incompletely:

1st person singular: -een
2nd person singular: -at ~ -et
3rd person singular: -ø
1st person plural: -o’n(?)
2nd person plural: unattested (-ex? ~ -ox?)
3rd person plural: -oob

These absolutive suffixes can in turn appear with the demonstrative particle ha’- to make a class of demonstrative or independent pronoun (ex. ha’-at, “[it is] you here”). These include some irregular forms, but the relationship is clear:

1st person singular: hiin(?) < *ha’-in(?)
2nd person singular: ha’-at
3rd person singular: ha’-i ~ haa’-ø
1st person plural: unattested (ha’o’n)
2nd person plural: unattested (ha’ex)
3rd person plural: ha’-oob

So, returning to our Palenque text, we may have a possible second person independent pronoun in an unusual context, introducing a name caption. If this is the case, one question becomes: just who is addressing the younger brother? Who is saying “you”? Perhaps one of the standing figures in the scene? Or, in an odd discursive twist, could it be the viewer of the artwork? Such questions often come into play when assessing the voices behind such obscure, non-third person texts, especially when they are incomplete or lacking context.

Another vexing issue, of course, centers on the historical identity of the mysterious “younger brother,” and whether he lived in Pakal’s generation or the next.


Hull, Kerry, Michael Carrasco, and Robert Wald. 2009. The First-Person Singular Independent Pronoun in Classic Ch’olan. Mexicon, vol. XXXI, no. 2, pp. 36-43.

Robertson, Merle Greene. 1985. The Sculpture of Palenque: Volume II. The Early Buildings of the Palace and the Wall Paintings. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Stuart, David. 1993. Breaking the Code: Rabbit Story. In Lost Kingdoms of the Maya, by G. Stuart and G Stuart, pp. 170-1. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

_________. 1997. Kinship Terms in Maya Inscriptions. In The Language of Maya Hieroglyphs, ed. by M. J. Macri and A. Ford, pp. 1-11. San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute.

Taube, Karl A. 1994. The Birth Vase: Natal Imagery in Ancient Maya Myth and Ritual. In The Maya Vase Book, Volume 4, pp. 650-685 New York: Kerr Associates.

Unusual Signs 2: The “Fringed Crossed-Bands” Logogram

In this post I offer up another rare and unusual sign in the Maya script. This is what I call the “fringed crossed-bands,” which looks to be an obscure logogram (word sign). I have no good suggestion to make about its value or meaning, but only show some of its scattered examples in the hope it might spur progress toward an eventual reading.

The sign seems visually complex. Its main feature is a fringe-like design on its left side, which appears to droop over a small rounded central element.  A crossed-bands motif appears in its upper central area. This sign often (not always) takes a superfix resembling a twisted cord or knot – I suspect these are all variations on the same form – and there’s a possibility that this an integral of a larger sign.


It appears in four places to my knowledge, mostly in personal names. An early example is from an unpublished Early Classic Tzakol-style vessel, where it looks to be part of a personal name (Figure 1a). On Kerr 1440 (Figure 1b) it may also be part of a name phrase, according to the recent analysis of the passage by Hull, Carrasco and Wald (2009).  There it takes the affixes –ya and -si. Yet another name that makes use of the sign is that of a sculptor who contributed to the carving of Piedras Negras, Stela 14, named on its front, where it again takes the -ya-si suffixes (Figure 1c).  Unfortunately, these cases don’t help us much when working toward a decipherment of the sign – names are contextually “neutral” in terms of their semantic constraints. The -ya-si affixes are difficult to account for, but they suggest a connection to the “body-part” nominal suffix -is noted by Marc Zender (2004).

One last instance of the sign maybe is more revealing (Figure 2).  This appears in the text that ran above along the top of the throne of the platform within Temple XXI at Palenque, in a passage describing a ritual that took place on 3 Ajaw 3 Yaxk’in (June 14, 709), There it appears as one of two verbs that take a –n-aj verb suffix, in a context that indicates a passive construction for non-CVC transitive stems (Lacadena 2004).

ha-o-ba ?-na-ja ?-na-ja TA-CH’AB-AK’AB-li
ha’oob ..?..naj .. ..?..naj ta ch’ab ak’bil
it is they (who were) ?ed and ?ed in creation-and-darkness

The mystery sign may stand for a non-CVC transitive verb, paired in this instance with some other obscure action. The subjects (“they”) are the protagonists of the scene on the Temple XXI panel, the future king K’inich Ahkal Mo’s Nahb and his possible brother, Upakal K’inich. With such a nicely specific grammatical setting, we may have an eventual in-road toward an eventual decipherment of the “fringed crossed-bands,” but that’s probably a long way away.


Hull, Kerry, Michael Carrasco, and Robert Wald. 2009. The First-Person Singular Independent Pronoun in Classic Ch’olan. Mexicon 31(2):36-43.

Lacadena, Alfonso. 2004. Passive Voice in Classic Mayan Texts: CV-h-C-aj and -na-aj Constructions. In The Linguistics of Maya Writing, edited by S. Wichmann, pp. 165-194. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Zender, Marc. 2004. On the Morphology of Inanimate Possession in Mayan Languages and Classic Mayan Glyphic Nouns. In The Linguistics of Maya Writing, edited by S. Wichmann, pp. 195-210. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Maya Multilinguals?

by Stephen Houston

The story of Malinche tells us that, in some places, at some times, Mesoamericans spoke several languages: Malinche’s control of Nahuatl and Chontal [Acalan] Maya (and eventually Spanish) provided the conquistadores with essential information in their wild journey to dominance.

Malinche’s tale leads me in turn to reflect on what the Maya called their languages. The Paxbolon papers in Acalan refer to t’an [than] when describing the sum totality of a language (Smailus 1975:173), a term found across the Maya lowlands, including colonial Yukatek (Cuidad Real 2001:559) and as reconstructed in Kaufman and Norman’s valuable study of proto-Ch’olan (1984:133)[Note 1]. Colonial Tzotzil follows a similar line by calling “language” k’op (“word”) or, in the case of itself, batz’i k’op, “real,” “fine,” “true” or “pure word” (Laughlin 1988, I:162, 234-235; II:415). This accords with the common perception that all other languages — i.e., those spoken by people other than my own! — have some suspect or degraded quality. The linkage of these terms to broader notions of reason or sense, equally attested in these sources, and to social congress (including sexual relations) places such words squarely in the realm of meaningful and socially bonding vocalization. T’an represents the essence of what it was to be human.

The emphasis, then, was not on Ferdinand de Saussure’s langue, an abstract notion of language distinct from utterance. Rather, it stressed parole, the ordered, sensible vocalizations themselves. For this reason, the “mouth” or even “lips,” ti’ in Tzeltalan and Ch’olan languages, chi’ in Yukatekan, plays and played an unavoidable role in their formation. And hence, of course, labels for languages like Ch’olti’, “mouth [utterance] of the milpa,” or its descendant Ch’orti’. The former is known by at least in the seventeenth-century as a reference to the language of such crucial importance to Maya decipherment (Robertson et al. in press). Further, as has been known for some time in Maya epigraphy, words for “mouth” are documented syllabically with ti-i and as a logograph first identified in the early 1990s by David Stuart: TI’, a sign of a human face that became progressively stylized through time.

It is the latter glyph that interests us here. The Museo Príncipe Maya in Coban, Guatemala, contains a fragmentary panel showing a bound captive, with clothing perforated in the manner usual with such figures (Figure 1). He is probably kneeling, but his legs are concealed behind what appears to be an architectural element. His face is hacked away, too, like so many other Maya sculptures. The text to the bottom right captions the figure, u-KAN-na YAX-to-ko BAHLAM, “his guardian [?], New/First/“Grue”-Cloud Jaguar.” The inscription to the top, of less certain referent, reads: u-KAN-? AJ-?-TI’-‘i…K’AHK’-*AJAW-wa.

When shown my photograph of the panel, David Stuart pointed out its similarity to a sculpture I had drawn at Dos Pilas back in 1984—this is Panel 2, to the south side of Hieroglyphic Stairway 1 (Figure 2). (At many sites in the Pasión River drainage, hieroglyphic stairways display such panels to either side of their outset steps.) Panel 2 had the same kind of caption, the same captive theme, and approximately the same dimensions. Moreover, as I recall, a more eroded panel nearby, Panel 3, suggested a more elaborate tableau, stretched across several sculptures. I have little doubt that Dave is right, and that the Museo Príncipe Maya panel was extracted from near Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, perhaps from its northern side, and from a building I mapped in 1986 and designated Structure L4-35. To my knowledge, the structure was never excavated by the later Dos Pilas/Petexbatun Project. It deserves far closer study.

There is more, taking us back to Malinche. With a credible connection to Dos Pilas, the Príncipe Maya panel presents the opportunity to scan for related names of historical personages. It is highly likely that such a name occurs to the top of the panel, in the area reading u-KAN-? AJ-?-TI’-‘i…K’AHK’-*AJAW-wa. The final title (or a linked one) has been studied by Dave and separately by Marc Zender as a courtly, even priestly epithet employed by secondary lords at sites like Palenque. The recognizable sequence, however, is that between a captioned secondary figure on Dos Pilas Panel 19 (Figure 3) and the Príncipe Maya panel. The latter example is eroded or chipped in part, but enough remains to discern what is probably the same name, “guardian [?] of he of the nine [or many] mouths,” followed by a title consistent with secondary status. Even the style of the glyphs is similar, especially the “snake” version of the “guardian [?]” expression. The Príncipe Maya panel must date to the approximate time of Ruler 4, the final known ruler of Dos Pilas and the king who commissioned Panel 19.

When Panel 19 was excavated in 1990, Stuart and I commented on its intriguing content. In this instance, “guardianship” (the term has remaining ambiguities) seemed to relate to two figures attending the heir of Ruler 4. On Panel 19 they hover protectively as the heir undertakes what is presumably his first bloodletting. Thus, guardianship was not always about war captives, as elsewhere on the Príncipe Maya panel, but rather about “governorship” or “tutorship” of a key figure at the royal court. Moreover, the other “guardian” seemed from his title to come from Calakmul, by this point a long-standing ally of Dos Pilas. Notably, that figure is described as the “guardian [?] of the youth [ch’ok].”

Better preserved detail would deepen the story. Yet, plausibly, a guardian figure at Dos Pilas described his young charge as a “person of the nine [many] mouths.” Or, to extend that meaning, a “person of many languages.” (In the inscriptions, “nine” might have communicated a good plurality, without the overwhelming, nearly “countless” connotation of “8,000,” more properly applied to gods.) Could this have been one of the duties of a tutor from a distant capital, to impart several languages to his charge? I propose this mindful of other readings, such as “he of the many words,” a suitable description for an orator…and many a windbag professor!

Despite the proviso, this may be a unique allusion in Maya inscriptions to the very concept of multilingualism in the Classic world, and to its role as a particular accomplishment of elites.

Note 1. I follow John Robertson in preferring a label like “common Ch’olan,” in that it captures the hypothetical derivation of the “language” from what is held in common among its descendants, with due regard for shifts over time. As an adjective, “proto-” may be too assertive in implying an existential integrity beyond the limits of reconstruction.

Figure 1. Museo Principe Maya panel, with detail (Photograph by S. Houston)
Figure 1. Museo Príncipe Maya panel, with detail (Photograph by S. Houston)
Figure 2. Dos Pilas, Panel 2 (drawing by Stephen Houston)
Figure 2. Dos Pilas, Panel 2 (drawing by Stephen Houston)
Figure 3. Figure from Dos Pilas, Panel 19, with detail enlarged (drawing by David Stuart)
Figure 3. Figure from Dos Pilas, Panel 19, with detail enlarged (drawing by David Stuart)


Ciudad Real, Antonio de. 2001 Calepino maya de Motul, ed. R. Acuña. Mexico City: Plaza y Valdés.

Kaufman, Terrence S., and William M. Norman. 1984 An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology, and Vocabulary. In John S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, eds., Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, 77-166. Publication No. 9. Albany: Institution for Mesoamerican Studies, State University of New York at Albany.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1988 The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán. 3 vols. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology 31. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Robertson, John, Danny Law, and Robbie Haertel. In press Colonial Ch’olti’: A Translation and Analysis of the 17th Century “Morán Manuscript”. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Smailus, Ortwin. 1975 El Maya-Chontal de Acalan: Análisis lingüístico de un documento de los años 1610-1612. Centro de Estudios Mayas Cuaderno 9. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.