The Preclassic “Whiplash” 5

A few newly unearthed hieroglyphic texts from San Bartolo, all Preclassic in date, exhibit a distinctive curved “whiplash” line that runs beneath and along the right side of some signs. This may represent little more than artistic flair, but the line could also hold some meaning or function still unclear. When visiting the Museo Miraflores in Guatemala City last year, I was fascinated to find the same linear feature on a glyph incised into the text panel of Stela 21 from Kaminaljuyu, a Late Preclassic fragment with a style that surely dates to about the same time as the murals.

The well preserved Stela 21 glyphs, both undeciphered, show an infixed le syllable in the head sign at left, and a -la suffix on the block at right.


An Old Unpublished Review of ‘Apocalypto’ 1

Something a bit off-topic, but maybe interesting…

Nearly a year ago approached Steve Houston to pen a review of Mel Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalypto. Steve was kind enough to bring me on board as co-author, since I had seen an rough-cut of the movie the previous September here in Austin, and even had the chance to chat a few minutes with the Director himself. Long story short, days and weeks passed and the movie became “old news,” so our review wasn’t published. The anniversary of the release approaches now, so here it is, a “new beginning” for an old review…

* * *

Life and Art

By Stephen Houston and David Stuart

The number one movie in America this week is Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto—a lavish vision of ancient Maya civilization “destroyed from within,” as the theatrical trailers have it. Like The Passion of the Christ, Gibson’s take on the Crucifixion, Apocalypto offers viewers bloody sacrifices, impassioned crowds, authoritarian rulers, and the evocation of an ancient world gone wrong. And like The Passion, it uses an ancient language—in this case, Yucatec Mayan—to lend an air of authenticity to the proceedings. But is the film an accurate portrayal of Maya culture?

Not quite.

Apocalypto is a dramatization of the Maya “collapse,” an enigmatic time in the 8th and 9th centuries A.D. Yes when many cities and royal courts emptied of people. Archaeology tells us that over-population, deforestation, warfare, and disease all contributed to the fall of great ancient kingdoms. Gibson runs through this checklist of disaster in Apocalypto, and for good measure adds the strong suggestion that the Maya were doomed by sheer bloodlust and generally savage behavior.

Scholars now know that the collapse was not as complete as Gibson suggests. Some parts of the Yucatan peninsula continued much as before, with robust construction of buildings and active trade of luxury goods and basics for everyday life, including salt, textiles, ceramics, and stone tools. Today, speakers of dozens of Mayan languages number in the millions, living in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. The surprising feature of the Maya is not the collapse of their Classic civilization, which Gibson highlights, but their astonishing tenacity after the Spanish conquest and, more recently, a bloody civil war in Guatemala during the 1970s and 1980s. American television has produced a version of the reality show Survivor in the jungles of northern Guatemala, but the real survivors are the Maya themselves, through centuries of tumult and abuse.

Gibson’s main vision of the Maya, as a people given to violence, fits squarely with a long-standing debate among scholars. Until forty years ago, the ancient Maya were perceived as peace-loving worshippers of time, a view consistent with the New Agers who have appropriated the Maya as mirrors of modern-day astrology and mysticism. (The Maya date of 2012 looms large even in a recent Colbert Report, thus finding a secure target of ridicule.) Decipherments of Maya writing and fresh perspectives on their imagery confirm that the Maya were a lot like other ancient people: they fought, loathed, and loved, built mighty cities, and created a courtly civilization that left thousands of inscriptions and sculptures. Their aesthetic sensibility parallels what we see in warrior societies like pre-Modern Japan, which also paid eloquent attention to the interplay of life and death, honor and dishonor. Most Maya, of course, simply farmed and hunted, having relatively little contact with the intrigues and artistic commissions of royal courts.

As a work of creativity and boldness of vision, which Apocalypto certainly is, Gibson’s movie ought to have leeway for historical liberties. If Kirsten Dunst can play Marie-Antoinette, as in Sofia Coppola’s new film, why not fashion an impossible Maya city that looks both like Tikal, Guatemala, and Uxmal, Mexico? But Gibson goes overboard, with inaccuracy piled on inaccuracy. Epigraphic studies prove that the Maya of the great dynastic cities mostly spoke a Mayan language called Ch’olti’an, not the Yucatec Gibson chooses to use. No director of historical movies in Europe or the US would have Aristotle rub shoulders with Henry VIII. The set designers of Apocalypto seem to care little for such niceties. To cite one weird example, reproductions of the San Bartolo murals, from about 100 B.C., occur in a set supposedly meant to be 1600 years later. San Bartolo’s imagery not gory enough? Replace an animal sacrifice in the murals with a human body. The same in the Bonampak paintings of Chiapas, Mexico, perhaps the greatest set of images in the Pre-Columbian world, reproduced in part in Apocalypto. The ruler depicted in Gibson’s version of the murals holds a pulped human heart where none appears in the original.

Our concern is that, for the public, Apocalypto crafts an odd and warped view of Maya civilization that will take years to reshape and correct. Gibson offers disturbing, simplistic and, we fear, enduring views of the Maya. In this movie, the “good Maya” are humble and tranquil forest dwellers who live in the most rudimentary fashion imaginable, despite using badly mangled versions of royal names attested in Maya inscriptions. “Bad Maya” are, for Gibson, crazed and blood-thirsty city-dwellers, eager for cruel sacrifice by cynical kings. In other words, they belong to a civilization that deserves to die, soon to be reborn with the arrival of the Spanish and Christianity. (Gibson states that he chose the Greek word as his title because of its supposed meaning, “a new beginning.”)

Gibson’s compelling understanding of action may excite the audience, but his narrative, indeed, the very excellence of the cinematography in this electric “chase movie,” manage to dehumanize one of America’s most splendid civilizations of indigenous origin. Scenes of domestic family bliss, such as when the villager hero lovingly strokes his pregnant wife, serve mostly to contrast with an archaic view of Native American ritual as performed by mindless savages. Heads sliced from captives bounce down pyramid steps, their bodies still twitching in unpleasant fashion. The eager audiences for such spectacles seem to be doped up and disoriented. The hero escapes from the horrors of this dynastic city by clambering over bodies laid out in Auschwitz-like trenches. The scale and fury of the violence are unlike anything ever documented for this civilization. The Maya may not have worshipped time, as New Agers still believe, but nor were they such an embodiment of collective evil.

Some decades ago, the ancient Maya were perceived as peaceful, and that was wrong. As in all human societies, violence was present and real but, in this case, operated within reverential systems of belief about the need to feed and tend gods and to test the honor of noble captives. Violence, a controlled, constrained violence, had purpose and meaning, however unpleasant those beliefs may seem today. But Gibson has transformed the ancient Maya, for decades to come, into a people given to capricious sadism and cruelty. The Maya past and present do not deserve this Apocalypto.

“White Owl Jaguar”: A Tikal Royal Ancestor 4


Illustration file: whiteowljaguar-figs.pdf

“White Owl Jaguar”: A Tikal Royal Ancestor

The long inscription on the façade and roof-comb of Tikal’s “Temple of the Inscriptions” (Str. 6F-27) receives little attention these days, but I find it one of the most interesting and unusual of Maya texts (see Figure 1). Its odd placement on the back of the building makes it hardly visible to anyone, but even more intriguing is the inscription’s narrative involving very ancient “deep time” history, spanning nearly two thousand years. The story is long and complex, and features one protagonist throughout: an ancestral king I call “White Owl Jaguar” (the actual name may have been slightly different). Before now this major mythical/historical figure has gone unrecognized, but clues in this and other monuments suggest he was considered something of an “uber-ancestor,” venerated at Tikal throughout the Classic period. The Temple of the Inscriptions was, I believe, White Owl Jaguar’s principal temple and shrine.

This unusual pyramid was discovered only in 1951. It’s location is set apart from the other major architectural complexes at Tikal, in the southeast sector of the ruins, at the end of the Mendez Causeway. The long inscription on the building’s exterior was analyzed first by Berlin, who established its basic time frame, and later by Jones in his important 1977 study of Tikal’s Late Classic dynasty. In both these early treatments the focus was on the chronology of the text, citing the remarkably early dates.

Before we get to that, let’s look at the name (see attached illustrations). White Owl Jaguar’s glyph is not well preserved in many of its examples, but in Figure 2 (top) I offer a reconstructed version to show its main parts: the prefix SAK (“white”) a full-figure bird’s body — perhaps that of an owl — and a HIX sign that usually covers the head of the bird, “facing” the viewer. The owl identification is still very tentative, suggested by a few spots on the feathers, as will as the frontal orientation of the head. There is also the possibility that the bird is simply the logogram MUUT (“bird”). The order of the jaguar and bird elements is also ambiguous, but for now I will simply refer to him by this descriptive label. In Tikal’s iconography we also see a few examples of his name glyph (Figure 2, i-j), and another, not illustrated here, may occur as a miniature feline image on Stela 29.

The opening Long Count on the temple’s inscription is 12 Ajaw 3 Sak (1143 BC!), later followed by 3 Ajaw 13 Pax (157 BC). The ten reliably placed dates of the entire text are given here, with a brief description of their associated events: 12 Ajaw 3 Zak – PE in presence of White Owl Jaguar 11 Cib 4 Zak – ? 3 Ajaw 13 Pax – PE in presence of White Owl Jaguar 13 Ajaw 18 Yax – PE in presence of White Owl Jaguar 13 Ajaw 13 Yaxkin – Ritual at waybil shrine of White Owl Jaguar 5 Kib 9 Keh – Fashioning of stone, White Owl Jaguar 4 Ix 7 Kankin – “Road-striking”(?) event, White Owl Jaguar 4 Manik 0 Muwan – ?
[…missing portions…] 4 Kaban 15 Pop – Dedication of waybil shrine 7 Ajaw 18 Pop – PE by Ruler B

White Owl Jaguar is named at least seven times in this inscription (See Figure 2a-g), mostly in the capacity of sanctioning or witnessing widely spaced Period Ending rituals. The inscription does not say he ruled at these times (an impossibility), but that other kings performed their rites in his “presence” (y-ichn-al). In the first of these records, in 1143 BC, White Owl Jaguar is said to preside over an all-important Bak’tun ending rite: “it is the 5th Bak’tun, the stone-binding of [NAME], The Holy Mutul Lord, in the presence of White Owl Jaguar, The Holy Mutul Lord.” The passage suggests that White Owl Jaguar was seen as an ancestral king of supreme importance, affiliated directly with the court and dynasty of Tikal. He is not the “founder” of the historical dynasty, however – that was the Preclassic king Yax Ehb Xook, cited in many Tikal inscriptions. White Owl Jaguar, as least as he was depicted in the written history of the Temple of the Inscriptions, predates the founder by a hundreds of years.

Other texts and images at Tikal convey an aura of great importance for White Owl Jaguar. On the famous Stela 31, the solar figure above the king’s portrait is identified as his father, Yax Nun Ayin (see Figure 3). He cradles a snake in one arm, from whose mouth emerges a very clear example of White Owl Jaguar’s name glyph. Such snake-emergence motifs were used by the Maya to depict the conjuring of deities and ancestors; here, in a multi-layered presentation of ancestral “deep-time,” the deified father is shown manifesting the primordial Tikal king.

The text on the “Hombre de Tikal” stone figure contains a very interesting mention of White Owl Jaguar (see posted image, above). Some event, now effaced, was recorded in a few glyphs, involving the important foreigner named Siyaj K’ahk’ (or Siyaj K’awiil). His mysterious arrival in 479 triggered a number of key political changes in Tikal and around the central Peten region. Here, in a later reference another event “at Mutul” involves the same Siyaj K’ahk’. The next phrase says t-u-ch’e’n Mutul Ajaw, followed by a nice “blended” version of White Owl Jaguar’s name glyph. Taken together, the text says that this episode — whatever it was — took place “at the cave (town) of the Mutul Lord, White Owl Jaguar.” Here White Owl Jaguar has the highly symbolic role as “owner” of the ch’e’n, a word that literally means “cave” but which in essence refers to the ceremonial and symbolic heart of a polity or city. He is Tikal, is a sense.

The Temple of the Inscriptions text contains a few other intriguing references to White Owl Jaguar, and although many of these are very damaged, I suspect we can read a few key details. A heavily damaged section of the text in columns E and F refer to the Early Classic date, when, just perhaps, we read of the dedication of a deity shrine (waybil) in honor of White Owl Jaguar, by the ruler Yik’in Chan K’awiil (a name that would be re-used later in Tikal’s dynasty). A short time after this, other items of the divine ancestor, including a “stone” of some kind, are “fashioned.” I suspect that these historical episodes in 527 AD involve the construction and dedication of an early temple dedicated to White Owl Jaguar. The final episode in this string of related dates says it is the jatz’ bih-tuun, “the road-striking,” or “the pavement striking.” This is an odd phrase found also at Naranjo (on Altar 2), where Nikolai Grube has suggested it refers to the construction of architectural spaces. One wonders of it could be more specifically referencing the building of causeways (bih-tuun, “road of stone”), an attractive interpretation given that Temple of the Inscriptions lies at the end of a very long and important ceremonial road, the Mendez Causeway. Archaeological probing in and around the complex would be needed to make sure, but I suspect that the events of 527 are key episodes in the architectural history of the Temple of the Inscriptions. Tellingly, the text closes with an extended record of the dedication of another waybil shrine in 765 by the later ruler Yik’in Chan K’awiil, aka ‘Ruler B’ There’s little doubt this corresponds to the final phase of the temple, what I suspect to be Ruler B’s ambitious refurbishment of White Owl Jaguar’s earlier ancestral shrine, earlier built by his namesake. Future archaeological work would offer an interesting test for the written history and my own tentative interpretation of the events.

These are all just preliminary notes on a complex issue, but the evidence points to White Owl Jaguar as a major symbolic figure in Tikal’s political and ritual life, in all likelihood an a hero-king of the distant past. The temporal distance might find a parallel in the physical remoteness of the Temple of the Inscriptions itself, set so far apart from the rest of the city as a sign of some special significance.

Illustration file: whiteowljaguar-figs.pdf

The MAM Glyph Reply


A key reason for creating this Maya Decipherment blog was to make available and circulate writings and various odds-and-ends that have sat for far too long in my files — and those of others I hope. A good case in point is my proposed reading of the MAM glyph, shown above, meaning “grandfather” and generally “ancestor.” I drafted a paper on it in 2000 but soon put it aside, intending to get back to it someday. Well, in typical fashion I never did. So here is the last draft, sans illustrations. You epigraphers out there can probably follow the argument without the drawings, etc., but one of these days I’ll modify the paper a bit and get it out in more formal fashion, with the figures.

pdf of David Stuart, “The Maya Hieroglyphs for Mam, “Grandfather, Grandson, Ancestor” (2000 draft): mam-glyph.pdf

Old Notes on the Possible ITZAM Sign Reply

Here follow some old thoughts and observations about reading the “God N hairnet” sign as a logogram ITZAM. This is found in spellings of the deity names long thought to be the so-called “Pauahtuns,” and it also seems to play some role in the name glyph of Itzamnaaj (God D).

First is a pdf of 1994 letter written to Linda Schele, not long after the publication of her Maya Cosmos book, where I posit that one name of the so-called Pricipal Bird Deity was Muut Itzamnaaj (“The Bird Itzamnaaj”). This has since been supported by a sculpted panel discovered at Tonina, depicting a full-figure version of Muut Itzamnaaj’s name (see Miller and Martin, Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, Plate 75). The letter was basically motivated by doubts I had of Linda’s proposed reading the Principal Bird Deity’s name as “Itsam Yeh,” which I think is still sometimes used and cited in the literature.

Letter to Linda Schele, Nov. 1994:

Second comes a letter from 2001, written to both Stanley Guenter and Karen Bassie-Sweet, summarizing my later thinking on the same issues. This still remains a tentative and unpublished case, but I guess that’s what the blog is for!

2001 letter to Guenter and Bassie-Sweet:

Dear Stan and Karen,

I’ll write this to the both of you, since each of you has presented good questions and observations on the God N, Pawahtuns and ITZAM reading. I should say at the outset that Steve needn’t share the blame for seeing God N as ITZAM, and I can’t be sure if he actually buys it. I am not sure of my own thinking on it’s veracity, to be honest, except to see it as one of the many “possible” decipherments that may never find proof through syllabic substitutions, etc., but which can be plausibly supported and tested.

First a bit of history. I initially considered the ITZAM value for the God N and the net headdress abbreviation around ’94 or so, and I wrote Linda a letter about it at the time. Whether she ever accepted it I can’t say, but over time I accumulated a few environments where it seems to work in intriguing ways. Even so, I’ve never thought the arguments strong enough to publish or argue for very forcefully, and you, Stan, already are well aware of some of the questionable aspects of ITZAM. In the last couple of years I’ve actually come upon a possible alternative analysis of the God N name glyphs, which I’ll discuss a bit further along, yet still I find ITZAM has some things going for it. To me, the issues remain unresolved, but the revealing patterns are nonetheless there to be studied.

Before moving on, I have to agree with Karen that “Pawahtun” probably isn’t the Classic name of God N, nor is PA/PAW/PAWAH very viable as a reading for the specific God N/hairnet sign complex. It simply doesn’t fly in any other context, so I’ve long been prepared to consider a completely different value. Hence…

The ITZAM value first suggested itself in the “God N” names that get recycled at Piedras Negras, where it is the first of three signs ending in -K’AN-AHK. The standard form of the glyph is of course the turtleshell with the K’AN infix and topped by the “hairnet.” Alternatively we have God N conflated with the turtle head variant and K’AN infixed as the ear ornament. Some inscribed sherd texts excavated from PN show the alternative spelling “hairnet”-K’AN a-ku, though before these were unearthed by Steve’s project I had noticed that Copan Stela C made reference to a deity named “God N”-K’AN-a-ku, which is of course the same thing (but not a reference to anyone from PN). The ending -k’anahk quickly brought to my mind Itzamkanak, the place name famous from the Cortes entrada through Tabasco and into the Peten. Now, I see no direct historical connection between this contact-period site (El Tigre, most suppose) and Piedras Negras, but I can entertain that this apparent god name could be equally used as a personal name or title in one setting, and as a place name in another. At any rate, it was this specific context that seemed to me to offer ITZAM as a good hypothesis to pursue got the God N and “hairnet” signs.

On the Hieroglyphic Step of Structure 2 at Copan, we may have an example of the same deity name. The glyph is partially damaged, if I recall, but the turtleshell and the hairnet are pretty clear, and intriguingly the prefix to the entire glyph is Landa’s i- sign. I’ve wondered if this is a phonetic complement for the full Itzamk’anak name.

Now for the Itzamnaaj name. You’ve seen the Quirigua, Stela C example, where we find the hairnet atop the standard portrait name of God D, and NAAH attached as well. It seemed plausible to consider these signs as complements of a sort, providing the initial ITZAM and final –NAAH, but admittedly such a use of “logographic complements” would certainly be odd, with little if any precedent.

The hairnet sign is also sometimes superfixed to an alligator’s head, and iconographically this relates of course to the “Starry Deer Caiman” famous from PN and elsewhere, who often wears it as well. It’s a small step to consider these as representations of Itzam Kab Ain, the earth caiman. Not a strong piece of evidence, but possibly suggestive.

At Xcalumkin (Glyphic Group, S. Building, E Column) we find another God D name preceded by (for the sake of argument) ITZAM?-na- and suffixed by –ji. This I see as basically the same as the example you also noticed from the red-background polychrome vessel, where God N simply precedes God D’s portrait name. I have no problem with the idea of composite deities, but iconographically this is a “straight” Itzamnaaj figure seated nearby. While I do agree that reading ITZAM as a complement before God D’s name is awkward orthographically, I would also point out that such orthographic issues ought to hinge greatly on the etymology of the god’s name itself, which is hardly clear in this case.
The word
itzam is complex semantically, as Thompson must have been known when he posited “Iguana House” as an odd translation of Itzamnah (based solely on the Vienna dictionary). But I it’s important to realize that the name Itzam alone is fairly widely attested as a deity name associated with watery realms and mountains (see Thompson’s Maya History and Religion, p. 21), which seems fitting for God N as an Underworld character.

Would the common “Pawahtun” designator (4-“net”-TUUN) found in the codices, Pomona, etc., thus be read as Chan Itzam Tuun? There isn’t a shred of evidence I know to back up this particular reading. It is interesting that in the Classic sources, the 4-“net”-TUUN-ni glyphs never occur directly with a “traditional” God N figure. Rather, at Pomona and Laxtunich these designate watery characters shown as young men with waterlily blossoms and fish in their hair – no nets, no shells, etc. At least on Pomona, Panel 1 it would seem that these guys (and I am sure there were four of them there originally) were more like impersonators of watery Year Bearers (one holds “4 Ik’” and another “4 Kaban”), which are really not what God N was about, despite a few general overlaps.

Yet having said all of this, there is a very different reading for the God N/hairnet sign I’ve been considering of late. In a handful of texts we find reference made to a supernatural or group of gods named 4-xi-wa-TUUN-ni. One good example is from the long “Cancuen” panel buried in Guatemala somewhere, and I have seen another example incised upon a gorgeous Late Classic turtle carapace that remains unpublished, but photos of which were in Linda’s house a few years ago. The supports of the Del Rio throne from Palenque also present similar names (?-xi-wa-TUUN-ni) to indicate the supernatural identities of the watery subordinates who support the cosmic bench. So, might we actually have good evidence to posit XIW as a reading of God N and the hairnet abbreviation? Xiw is a widespread root for “fear,” which ultimately forms the likely basis for the name Xibalba. I find it really interesting that Kiche xiv is “shell” and xiuac (xiw-ahk?) is “shell played as a drum” (that is, a turtleshell). Tuun is of course a word also related to “drum,” so Chan Xiw Tuun, as a reading for these Year Bearer names, just might mean something like “the Four Shell Drums.” This in turn reminds me of the rich ethnographic data on directional rain and water deities and drums, such as we find with the Chaaks of Yucatan or the Anhels of the Tzotzil.

There is **something** here in all of this, but at present I have a difficult time reaching any firm ground on it. I can see that ITZAM and XIW each has suggestive evidence, but nothing more as far as I can see. They both can’t be right, and perhaps neither one is correct at all.

Best wishes, David