Further Observations on the MUT Logogram

by David Stuart

Figure 1. The complements mu and tu on the Tikal/Dos Pilas emblem glyph.

Back in 1993 I proposed that the main sign of the emblem glyph of Tikal and Dos Pilas/Aguateca is read as MUT, based on the affixes mu- and -tu that appear with it in different contexts, apparently as phonetic complements (Figure 1). My colleague Christian Prager noticed this pattern around the same time, also seeing these syllables as essential clues to the sign’s reading. Many examples of the emblem also show an additional -la suffix, suggesting that MUT-la is a fuller spelling that has led to the various reconstructions Mutal, Mutul, Mutuul. Mutu’l, or something similar (the precise nature of the vowel in such -Vl suffix remains a point of minor debate among epigraphers). My inclination is to see the ancient court name as related to the historical attested place name Mutul, known from both Yucatan and the Petén, as in the modern names Motul de San José, or Motul, Yucatan (home of huevos motuleños, a staple of restaurant breakfasts in Yucatán). “Mutul” is the form I will use here as the reading the full Tikal emblem. In the Classic period Tikal seems to have gone by the name Yax Mutul, “The First Mutul,” perhaps as a way of distinguishing it from earlier centers who also had claimed the Mutul name.

One key lexical item of support of the MUT reading – or so it seemed at the time – was that the sign represented tied bundle of hair, seeming to agree well with the Yukatek term mut pol, cited in the Vienna Dictionary meaning rodete hacer la mujer de sus cabellos (“bun made by a woman from her hair”), clearly related to mut as rodete para asentar olla o vasija (“[round] support for a jar or vase”). However, mut here this may be a corruption or even mis-transcription of the better-established noun met, meaning ruedo, rodete, o rodillo sobre que se asienta alguna vasija (from the Calepino Motul). This possibility had set some doubt in my own mind about the lexical basis of the MUT sign reading, despite the evidence of the syllabic complements we had found. The lack of any non-Yukatek sources for the reading seemed problematic as well, and I’ve long thought MUT needed a bit more backing. Still, it is important to note that there were several signs that ubstitute with one another in the context of the Tikal emblem, each featuring bound hair or a twisted braid, as first patterned out by Linda Schele (1985).

Here I point out a helpful substitution of signs that would appear seems to confirm the MUT value once and for all, in the spelling of the name of a royal woman cited in the inscriptions of Yaxchilan and environs (Figure 2). She was a noblewoman from the court of Hixwitz, a spouse or consort of Yuxuun Bahlam IV (Bird Jaguar IV) named Ix Mut(?) Bahlam. She is depicted on Lintels 17, 40, and 43, identifiable by her name, which damaged in two of the three instances. The best-preserved examples of from Lintel 17, where the name is IX-MUT-tu BAHLAM (Figure 2b). It was this example that gave us the final –tu as a likely phonetic complement to the supposed MUT sign.

Figure 2. Portrait of Ix Mut Bahlam, royal woman of Hixwitz, from Yaxchilan, Lintel 17. Name caption from Dos Caobas (a) compared to Lintels 17 (b) and 43 (c). Drawings by Ian Graham except (a) by David Stuart.


Figure 3. Dos Caobas, Stela 2. Photograph by David Stuart.


Another portrait of Ix But Bahlam comes from Stela 2 from Dos Caobas, a satellite of Yaxchilan whose two monuments are now on display in the Museo Regional of nearby Frontera Corozal, Chiapas (Figure 3). Stela 2 is a fascinating and unusual monument, depicting the ruler Yaxuun Bahlam seated high upon a pillow-throne, facing a standing male figure who holds an object to him. Standing behind are two women, one named Ix Wak Jamchan Ajaw, of the Ik’ or Ik’a’ court of the central Peten lake area. She is also portrayed on Yaxchilan’s Lintels 5 and 41, and perhaps also 15 and 38, with a slightly different spelling. The second woman is a slightly eroded caption that contains a Hixwitz title (IX-hi-HIX wi-tz-AJAW) (see Figure 2a), and is surely Ix Mut Bahlam. Indeed, the BAHLAM logogram of her name is clear, as is a revealing spelling of the first part of her name in the initial block: IX-mu-tu. This substitutes directly for the IX-MUT-tu from Lintel 17’s caption, and offers another welcome piece of evidence to bolster the MUT reading. 

Figure 4. The name Ix Ch’ajan(?) Mut, showing possible substitution of hair-bundle and bird. Drawings by William R. Coe (a,b) and Stefanie Teufel (c).

One last connection that may be relevant is the name of another woman who is cited on Tikal’s Stela 23, whose name I tentatively read as IX-CH’AJAN?-MUT-AJAW?, or Ix Ch’ajan Mut Ajaw (Figure 4a). This surviving passage from the stela’s text records her birth, with no other names or titles, so she was clearly a person of great importance. This name seems related to another woman or female deity mentioned on the much earlier Stela 26 (Figure 4b), where we see the same combination of elements with the addition of a “mirror” or “shiner” sign, perhaps read as li or LEM before the MUT, possibly for Ix Ch’ajanil Mut. Yet another possible variation of this name or reference comes from a much later context, on a carved bone from Topoxte’, Guatemala (Figure 4c). This object was owned by an individual whose mother is also named, bearing the royal title of Tikal (IX-MUT-AJAW). Here the personal name may be distinct, displaying the sign TAL, but I wonder if this is instead the same twisted cord sign I consider as CH’AJAN followed by a full-figure of a bird, easily recognizable as MUUT (“bird”). The combination could suggest the possibility of a logographic substitution between two near homophones: MUUT, “bird,” for the hair-bundle MUT we find in the spellings at Tikal.Differences among these names makes their equivalence somewhat iffy, but such a substitution fits a pattern we see elsewhere in texts after 750 CE or so, which disregard certain traditional distinctions in the internal vowels near-homophones. In this case, the scribe may to have replaced the logogram MUT (mu-tu) with a short /u/ with MUUT (mu-ti), with its long vowel /uu/. By the time this late text was composed the old distinction may have been lost, and the pronunciation of the two signs may have been quite close. 

All of this, especially the Dos Caobas example, is to buttress the original MUT reading of the hair-bundle sign that is the basis Tikal emblem glyph and its court name Mutul, as proposed three decades ago. Questions still surround the lexical background of this reading, but from an epigraphic angle the logogram’s value seems secure.


Schele, Linda. 1985. Balan-Ahau: A Possible Reading of the Tikal Emblem Glyph and a Title at Palenque. In Fourth Palenque Round Table, 1980, Vol. VI, edited by M.G. Robertson and E. P. Benson, pp. 59-66. Pebble Beach, CA: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute.



Early Thoughts on the sajal Title

sajal glyph
Example of the sajal glyph (sa-ja-la) from Stela 12 at Piedras Negras.

by David Stuart

Back in 1985 I wrote an article called “New Epigraphic Evidence of Late Classic Maya Political Organization,” where I proposed the identification of a hieroglyphic title for certain subsidiary lords – basically elite court members who were not high rulers of kingdoms, many of whom seemed to rule at secondary centers surrounding larger capitals. This is the court title familiar today to students of Maya epigraphy and political organization as sajal, although at the time this reading wasn’t yet established.

The paper was circulated to a few fellow epigraphers working at the time, and I had originally intended to submit it to the journal American Antiquity (Freshman year at college soon got in the way, so I put it aside). Looking back nearly thirty years later, I see that the article is a good representative of that distinctive period in Maya decipherment when steady advances were taking place, even if our understanding of many details about Maya script were still a bit murky. For one, the paper hinges on what might be called a functional methodology in epigraphic analysis, without regard to any secure phonetic understanding of the glyph in question. This was a common approach in the 70s and early 80s, when the nature of the script’s visual cannons was not as clear as they would be a decade later. Moreover, in the 1980s the structures of Maya political organization were just coming into clearer focus; in this paper I was attempting to discern patterns in the geographical distribution of the sajal title in order to shed light on the borders between territorial units in the Usumacinta region. In some respects the conclusions drawn — that ancient territorial expanses and borderlands were knowable — anticipated the excellent archaeological surveys conducted in the same area by Charles Golden, Andrew Scherer and their colleagues (Scherer and Golden 2012).

In the original article I mistakenly refer to the sajal title as “cahal,” following the conventional wisdom of the time. This was based on our misreading the initial sign of the glyph as the syllable ka, not sa, as was clarified only a few years later, in 1988. Incidentally, the same misidentification lead to the early mistaken (and oft repeated) reading of the royal name at Copan as “Yax Pac”; today we know this king (Ruler 16) as Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. There are a number of other points in this old article that I no longer believe, including the simplistic point that emblem glyphs should be seen as “family names” (emblems have various scopes of reference, I think, though they are generally best described as court names or designations).

One aspect of the sajal title that wasn’t treated in this article is its wider distribution pattern outside of the Usumacinta area. While the vast majority of examples of the glyph do indeed come from the Usumacinta region, we now know it was quite widespread geographically, with a number of appearances in texts from Xcalumkin and other southern Puuc centers, and even an isolated example at far off Copan.

The exact meaning of the word sajal has never been very clear, at least to my knowledge. It looks to be a derived noun based on a root saj, not easily traceable in Ch’olan and Tzeltalan. In Yucatec we do find the root sah meaning “to fear,” which I’ve long thought could prove a productive in-road, especially in light of a possible vague parallel from Classical Nahuatl. There the honorific term mahuizotl, “honor, fame, glory” is derived from the verb mahui, “to fear, be frightened.” A stretch to be sure, so much more mulling-over is needed.

New Epigraphic Evidence of Late Classic Maya Political Organization (1985 ms.)


Scherer, Andrew K., and Charles Golden. 2012. Revisiting Maler’s Usumacinta: Recent Archaeological Investigations in Chiapas, Mexico. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.

Deciphering the Tikal Emblem Glyph

The Tikal emblem glyph, MUT-la.
The Tikal emblem glyph, MUT-la, from the inscription on Tikal, Stela 31 (photograph by D. Stuart).

by David Stuart

Back in 1993 — over a k’atun ago — I circulated a short note to colleagues about a proposed decipherment of the Tikal emblem glyph main sign as the logogram MUT. Around the same time, working independently, my colleague Christian Prager developed much the same argument. The details behind this proposal weren’t ever circulated much more widely or published, so I here share a copy of the original hand-written note (I now must wonder why I wrote it out by hand and didn’t type the thing!).

As one can see in the short note, the evidence for the reading was fairly simple. I first pointed out that the principal variants of the Tikal emblem sign (also used for a time in the Petexbatun region at Dos Pilas and Aguateca) originated as representations of tied hair. This was perhaps best revealed to me by jade figurine I excavated in Copan back in 1987 (in the dedicatory cache of the Hieroglyphic Stairway) and illustrated in the note. The figure wears a tied huun headband, and the back of the figure’s head looks identical to the most familiar variant of the Tikal emblem. I next pointed out that another version of the knotted hair emblem sign used in the Petexbatun region often takes a mu- syllable prefix. Further, in a personal name at Yaxchilan, the emblem sign also takes a -tu suffix, presumably also as a phonetic complement (an eroded text from nearby Dos Caobas my show a full mu-tu substitution, but it’s hard to confirm at the moment). These clues pointed to MUT as a possible reading, and the following entry in the Diccionario Maya Cordemex of Yucatec Mayan seemed to lend support to the possibility: mut pol, rodete hacer la mujer de sus cabellos (a plait or braid women make with their hair).

In the context of the emblem glyph the knotted-hair sign routinely takes a -la suffix (as do a number of other EG main signs, as in BAAK-la at Palenque, KAAN-la for Dzibanche and Calakmul). This would indicate that the court name centered at Tikal and also in the Petexbatun region was Mutal or, more likely, Mutul — forms probably reflected in the historical place names Motul de San Jose and Motul, Yucatan.

The 1993 note on the Tikal emblem glyph decipherment.