A Glyph for Yuyum, “Oriole,” in a Name at Bonampak

by David Stuart (The University of Texas at Austin) and Peter Stuart (Hampshire College)

Among the many people depicted in Room 1 of the Bonampak murals is an official named Aj K’an Yuyum (Figure 1). His portrait, near the back corner of the chamber, is somewhat damaged and effaced. He seems to be a high-ranking noble, and he stands close by three elaborately dressed dancers on the center of the room’s lower register. In front of him is a similarly dressed man who bears the title sajal, often used for political and military figures of high elite status.

The hieroglyphs of his name caption are well preserved, and the first two glyph blocks of his name clearly read AJ-K’AN-na 2yu-ma. The remaining glyphs of his caption are syllabic spellings but are more difficult to make out fully: AJ-2ch’a-ta? ?-ma-ni (see Miller and Brittenham 2013:Figure 145). Perhaps one or both give a title based on some unknown place name.

Figure 1. Aj K'an Yuyum and his name caption, from Room 1 of the Bonampak murals. (Watercolor copy by H. Hurst; Caption drawing by D. Stuart)
Figure 1. Aj K’an Yuyum and his name caption, from Room 1 of the Bonampak murals.  (Watercolor copy by  H. Hurst; Caption drawing by D. Stuart)

Beyond his role as a named spectator at Bonampak, little can be said about Aj K’an Yuyum and his position in the local royal court; no other references to him are known. Here we would like to concentrate on his personal name, especially the unusual word spelled with the doubled yu sign and the main-sign form of ma. This combination is very probably an ancient attestation of yuyum, a word found in historical and modern sources for “oriole.” The noble’s full name then be would be “Yellow Oriole,” conforming to a widespread pattern of personal names based on colors and animal terms.

Yuyum is a word for “oriole” in lowland Mayan languages, including in Yucatecan and Cholan. Its first known attestation is in Beltran’s 18th century list of Yucatec faunal names as “un ave parecida al oropendula,” referencing a species closely related to orioles (see Perez 1898). It appears in modern Yucatec as well as yúuyum,“oriole” (Bricker et. al. 1998:319). In Bruce’s vocabulary of Lacandon yuyum is simply attested as “cierto pajaro” (Bruce 1968). Importantly, we also find it cited in Aulie and Aulie’s dictionary of Ch’ol (1978: 214) as yujyum, “bolsero espalda amarilla (icterus chysater),” specifically referencing the Yellow-backed Oriole.

A number of oriole species are common in the Maya region. These include the well-known Baltimore Oriole (which winters there), the Hooded Oriole, the Altamira Oriole, the Spotted-breasted Oriole, the afore-mentioned Yellow-backed Oriole, and the Streaked-backed Oriole. Whether all of these species were ever considered under a single term is difficult to know, given the vagaries of faunal classification in Mayan languages. Besides yuyum, there appear to be a number of more isolated words for different types of orioles: kubul in Yucatec (Bolles 2001), tzap’in in Itzaj (Hofling 1997:633), and kupulik in Ch’orti’ (Wisdom 1940), for example. Yet the consistent gloss of yuyum and its cognates as “oriole” across both Yucatecan and Ch’olan makes for a reasonable case that the word may be old and widely diffused in the lowland region.

FIgure 2. Orioles in the Murals of San Bartolo, North Wall. (Watercolor copy by H. Hurst.)
Figure 2. Orioles in the Murals of San Bartolo, North Wall. (Watercolor copy by H. Hurst.)

The only known representation of orioles in Maya art comes from another famous Maya wall painting, the Preclassic murals of San Bartolo (Figure 2). In the murals from Structure sub-1-A, we see depicted on the north wall a representation of a hanging nest surrounded by three small birds. This hangs from a tree that grows atop a cosmic mountain of emergence, associated with concepts of “flower mountain” in Mesoamerican mythology (Taube, et al. 2005:15-16). The small, extremely cute birds that flutter around the nest are yellow in appearance, with black bordering their wings and tails. Due to their coloration, and the fact that they do not have black on their backs like most Central American orioles, these are most likely Yellow-backed Orioles (icterus chysater), which are known to reside in the Maya area, and especially in higher elevations. Significantly perhaps, this is the very species given as the meaning of yujyum in Aulie and Aulie’s Ch’ol vocabulary, as noted earlier.

A good amount of work remains to be done on the identification of various bird species and other fauna represented in Maya art. We hope this small observation on the written and painted appearance of orioles will prove a useful contribution in such research.

Sources Cited:

Aulie, Wilbur, and Evelyn W. de Aulie. 1978. Diccionario Ch’ol. Summer Institute of Linguistics, Mexico D.F.

Bolles, John. 2001. Combined Dictionary–Concordance of the Yucatecan Mayan Language. FAMSI. On-line resource available at http://www.famsi.org/reports/96072/.

Bruce, Robert. 1968. Gramatica del Lacandon. Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Mexico D.F.

Hofling, Andrew. 1997. Itzá Maya – Spanish – English Dictionary, Diccionario Maya Itzaj – Español – Inglés. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Miller, Mary E., and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. The University of Texas Press, Austin.

Perez, Juan Pio. 1898. Coordinación alfabetica de las voces del idioma maya que se hallan en el arte y obras del padre fr. Pedro Beltran de Santa Rosa, con las equivalencias castellanas que en las mismas se hallan. Imprinta de la Ermita, Merida.

Taube, Karl, William Saturno, and David Stuart. 2005. The Murals of San Bartolo, El Peten, Guatemala. Part I: The North Wall. Ancient America 7. Boundary End Archaeological Research Center, Barnardsville, NC.