Reading the Water Serpent as WITZ’


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 Birth Date of Copan’s Ruler 12?

The two lowermost steps of Copan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway record two historical dates separated by over a hundred years in time. The earlier of the two appears only briefly on Step 2 as the abbreviated record “9 Kawak” (written as the head of Chahk — a nice variant). An associated Distance Number bridges this highly reduced statement with a full long count record of 12 Muluk 7 Muwaan. Although damaged, the DN is best reas as, resulting in this likely reconstruction of the initial date: 9 Kawak 7 Mak (Step 2)
+ 12 Muluk 7 Muwaan (Step 1)

The last date is the initial dedication of the stairway in 710 A.D., corresponding to the time Waxaklajuun Ubaah K’awil (Ruler 13) constructed the “Esmeralda” phase of Structure 10L-26 over the tomb of his illustrious father, Ruler 12. It seems the son designed this temple and the associated stairway inscription as a commemorative monument and funerary shrine for his predecessor, who had died some fifteen years earlier.

There’s little doubt that the earlier of the two dates was recorded more fully in the steps just above Step 2, perhaps among the very eroded glyphs found on Step 5. At least the abbreviated “9 Kawak” implies such an fuller record somewhere nearby. Much of the text on Steps 1-7 treat Ruler 12’s reign — his accession and death are both recorded on Step 7 — so it seems likely that the early 9 Kawak date would be relevant to that ruler’s history. In fact, there seems good reason to consider as Ruler 12’s birth. His age upon death would have been 91 years, and we know from several inscription that Ruler 12 lived to be a “Five K’atun Lord” — that is, to some age within his fifth K’atun of life (between 80 and 100). This was an important title for the king, so basic to his historical identity, in fact, that “Five Katuns” repalces his personal name glyph on the side of Altar Q.

The case is circumstantial but strong. Even if the date proposed here is incorrect, the timespan recorded in the DN suggsests the last two steps of the Hieroglyphic Stairway juxtapose Ruler 12’s distant birth with his son’s construction of “the steps for his tomb” many years later in 710.

And speaking of U signs…

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.

A nice U variant

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.

U-3?-”K’ATUN” from Tonina

The Michol Celt

Sketch of the Michol Celt (DS drawing, ca. 1988)

Here’s an old drawing I did of an obscure inscribed celt, from a murky photo published long ago by Heinrich Berlin. The original reference is:

Berlin, Heinrich
1955 News From the Maya World. Ethnos 20(4):201-209.

Berlin noted its provenience simply as from the “Michol River,” not too far from Palenque.

The most interesting aspects of the inscription are the odd chevron arrangement of the glyphs, as well as the final possessed noun, simply reading “his celt” (U-LEEM?). I will soon be posting some thoughts on the possible LEM or LEEM phonetic reading of the “celt” sign.