As many readers already know, a wonderful photo resource for Maya archaeology and epigraphy is Harvard University’s Visual Information Access archive. It contains readable scans of field photos from various projects overseen by the Carnegie Institution of Washington from the 20s through the 50s (Uaxactun, Chichen Itza, Copan, etc.). Just enter a site name in the search engine and you’ll see lots of unsorted images, including many unpublished gems.
We all know the ceiba tree so naturalistically represented on vase K1226, but there are a few things to say about the facial motif and other elements shown on the tree’s trunk. What follows is probably obvious to many, but it will hopefully correct a few misconceptions that reappear from time to time in writings about this famous vase.
The face at the base of the ceiba tree, shown frontal-view, is not the same as the “mirror” face we see on the cruciform trees depicted at Palenque, as is often assumed (see Pakal’s sarcophagus lid). Instead — and again this is already known to many — the face is the deity known as the “Patron of Pax,” recognizable by the jaguar paw attached to the top of his ear spool (i.e., there is no jaguar hiding behind the tree, swatting at the alacran). As I showed back in the early 80s, the Pax Patron is a hieroglyphic sign that can be used as the head-variant of TE’, “tree.” The same head marks the base of trees in other representations; K1345 offers a good comparison, with the TE’ in a more conventional profile view.
What may be new to a few out there is the YAX sign just to the left of the tree’s trunk, attached to the TE’ and offering a visual balance to the paw. This is the “iconographic” YAX identical to what we see often on the top if God D’s head, where it helps to indicate his full name Yax Itzamnaaj. On K1226, the elements combine to give an emblematic hieroglyph YAX-TE’, for yaxte’, “ceiba.”
No big deal, but maybe a clarification.
The “Water Serpent” is a major but poorly understood character in Maya iconography. Also known as the “Waterlily Serpent” or the “Imix Monster,” the large jawless snake typically wears on its head a water lily pad and blossom with a nibbling fish or two. It seems to serve as an animate representation of water, as when we see it used as a glyphic head variant of HA’, “water.” For this reason I prefer to call it the “Water Serpent.”
The Water Serpent appears many times on ceramics, usually within symbolism of the so-called “Underwater World” (Hellmuth provides a good analysis of these settings in his important 1987 book Monster und Menschen in der Maya-Kunst). On sculpture, the Water Serpent appears most frequently as ritual costumes worn by rulers andother nobles in connection with Period Ending rites.
I have long suspected that the Water Serpent is an ancient Maya manifestation of the varied aquatic spirits described throughout the ethnographic literature of Mesoamerica, many of which are considered snakes or other reptiles. The Ch’orti’ Maya speak of the Ch’ihchan or Nohchan, which Wisdom described as a “deity of rain and spirit of water.” Both names literally mean “Big Snake,” and one may well be very old, used as the reading of an ancient glyph (NOH?-CHAN) that is essential to many of the Water Serpent’s glyphic names (I’ll get to that some other time).
The glyph representing the Water Serpent has two interchangeable forms. One emphasizes the “imix” element while another shows a “dotted winal” atop the head (see the Tikal, Stela 31 example in accompanying illustration). Both are strongly related to aquatic and waterlily imagery and iconography. As noted, the fist of these is sometimes used to spell HA’, “water,” in a few settings (as in Palenque’s place name LAKAM-HA’) but this is a rare usage, animating the standard “imix” form of HA’. I suspect another logographic value of the Water Seprent glyph must be at work in many contexts, where HA’ seems unlikely.
Copan’s texts offer some important clues about the Water Serpent’s true reading (see the accompanying illustration). On the side of Stela C, we see a reference to some curious variant of the creature involved with a mythic period ending ritual. The name (also cited in several other texts across the Maya area) is written HA’-?-EK’ 1-wi-WATER.SERPENT, with the snake displaying a wi- superfix. The Water Serpent routinely appears in the personal name of Copan’s Ruler 12 (usually written K’AHK’-(U-)TI’-WATER.SERPENT-K’AWIIL), and on the Hieroglyphic Stairway we find the inclusion of a strange bat sign after the snake – an element that never appears in any of the other examples of this royal name. The bat is the syllable tz’i and, depending on context and probably some subtle visual differences, at times also xu. I suggest that the bat is also a phonetic complement to the Water Serpent logogram.
The clues together offer witz’ as a word worth investigating. As it turns out, witz’ is a widespread root in Mayan languages meaning “water spray,” “splash (of water).” In Ch’orti’, witz’ is a noun cited by Wisdom meaning “waterfall.”
Far more needs to be presented on this, but for now I believe the evidence is strong for a decipherment of the Water Serpent sign as WITZ’ (not to be confused with WITZ, “hill”). It leads me to think that the snake is truly “animate water,” but emphasizing its “splashiness” and coursing movement in streams and rivers.
The last post reminded me of another interesting museum find I came across several years ago, this time on a vase in the Museo Juan Antonio Valdés in Uaxactun, Petén, Guatemala. (I’m sure others have noticed this as well.)
As seen in the photo, the vase bears a Dedicatory Formula (PSS) with the expected term for “his/her drinking vessel,” a possessed form of the instrumental noun uk’ib. The spelling, however, is unique. I was interested to see that instead of the initial yu- found in standard forms, we see two sequential u signs (U-u-k’i-bi). Scribes typically represented the surface phonetics in the possessed form (u)y-uk’ib through the spelling yu-k’i-bi, so it’s remarkable that the scribe here has chosen to emphasize the underlying morphemic structure with u- before uk’ib, ignoring the transitional -y-.
The choice of the two back-to-back variants is interesting. The initial “bracket” U- is the far older sign, used far and wide to represent the u- pronoun. Its use here, in contrast to the second, more “innovative” u, may reflect the scribe’s sense of this history and convention.
During a brief visit to the local museum at Tonina a few years ago, I noticed this interesting stucco glyph among the many displayed in the glass case. One can see it’s a conventional ‘K’atun’ with a 3 or 4 number coefficient, but the prefix is what caught my eye. The initial sign clearly represents a strand of hair passing through a carved tubular bead, just as depicted in a few portraits (see Tikal Stela 31). This presumably is an U- variant, slightly more elaborate that a common U form that shows only the skeletal bead. As John Justeson pointed out many years ago, the latter sign surely derives from the widespread Mayan words for “bead” (also “necklace”): *uuh (proto-Mayan), later appearing in Yukatekan and Ch’olan as u, uh or uj.