Mythic Prototypes and Maya Writing

by Stephen Houston and Simon Martin

A perennial attraction of Maya writing to the modern eye is its playful balance between convention and observed detail. A recent work does rich justice to the wit and fun that arose from Maya minds and hands (Stone and Zender 2011). But there may be another element to the creation of signs, of a sort that needs definition and testing. This is the conceptual connection that exists in ancient Maya thought between a unique exemplar and a more general class of thing or being.

John Milton would have understood the issue. For him, every man contained the essence of Adam, a singular prototype. Adam was Man but also a man. His companion in the Fall, Eve, was by that same logic both a woman and Woman. These beings were at once unique and susceptible to generalization. There is a reason, too, that Adam and Eve appeared in book called “Genesis.” They animated an explanatory story of origins and accounted for why descendants are as they are, ever willful by some views, ever disobedient to heavenly instruction.

There may be a more subtle matter at stake. For decades, ethnobiologists have considered the nature and hierarchical patterns of Maya classification (e.g., Berlin et al. 1974:153-157). What is missing, however, is the process, familiar to Plato, by which humans thought with equal effort about ideal forms and concrete reality. This might involve, to offer one case, an exemplary concept of “Tree” versus the many ways in which arboreal vegetation might exist, flourish, wither, scar or flower. To George Santayana (1915:ch. 1), “[t]he Platonic idealist is … so wedded to perfection that he sees in everything not the reality but the faultless ideal which the reality misses and suggests.”

But it is unlikely that the ancient Maya were Platonists. The originals were not ideals, but, as argued here, for a number of examples, highly specific things or creatures that were extended to identify a general class. Reciprocally, the general class of such things might fold back in reference to a mythic prototype. Robert Laughlin comes closest to this groove with his stories of Tzotzil plant lore. Weeds, “the ancestors’ corn and beans, were so fussy and complaining that Our Lord banished them to the wilds” and “[c]hili sprouted from the drops of Christ’s blood” (Laughlin 1993, 105, 106). Implicit in such stories are theories of origins and causation, but also of first things and their inescapable bearing on the present.

Much of this is intuitively obvious to Mayanists. The Ajaw face, a youthful, male profile, headbanded, check with distinctive spot, is both every lord read AJAW, and a particular being of mythic stamp and story, often paired with a similar figure, but with jaguar pelage. As Karl Taube (2003) showed so cogently, the first exercises dominion over humans, the second over animals, although the name of the latter remains elusive. The head for woman, IXIK, may similarly refer to a First Woman. The clearest cases are where glyphic terms are those of natural categories of animal—as confirmed by full phonetic spellings or complemented forms—yet the logographic versions of the same depict supernatural beasts. A partial list would include the following (illustration below):

—the jaguar: both general, for the “jaguar,” BAHLAM, and eponymous, as a water-lily jaguar sprouting a water-lily from its forehead (Figure 1a). (A few such cats appear to be read HIX, as on Copan St. 13:E5, or to be depicted as this, possibly more generic feline, as in the jade from Tikal Burial 196; Coe 1967:65.)

—the Xook shark: both general, for a fearsome “shark,” XOOK, and eponymous, as monstrous fish speared in primordial times (Figure 1b).

—the crocodile: both general, for the reptile AHIIN, and eponymous, as a being with cross-bands in its eye, a mythic, sacrificial prototype (Figure 1c).

—the snake: both general, for the reptile KAAN/CHAN, and eponymous, as a specific being with flower-like element in its forehead (Figure 1d). —the trickster rabbit with marked ear: both general, as T’UHL, and eponymous, as an oversexed and cunning creature who, among his many deeds, bests the god of trading (Figure 1e).

—the eagle/bird: both general, as TZ’IKIN/MEEN?,” as an everyday category of avian, and as supernatural bird linked to the sun (Figure 1f). This is part of a larger phenomenon of words and concepts that are ostensibly prosaic, yet always realized in mythic or metaphysical terms.

—the so-called “Patron of Pax”: both general, the glyph TE’, most often as a numeral classifier, and eponymous, as the base of a mythic world tree, te’, perhaps the primordial ceiba (Figure 1g; see David Stuart, 2007,

—the sky-eagle: both general, in reference to a denizen linked to the sky, CHAN, and eponymous, as a bird that defines the lustrous arc of the sky. Or, in a related form, a solar eagle associated with war-flints, as at Tonina (Mon. 91:pB1, Karl Taube, pers. comm. 1985; Figure 1h).

A reasoned proposal might be made that each of these, some more secure than others, are not merely a set of generic words signs. In tandem they evoke a singular mythic prototype, a First Exemplar—implying a compendium of etiological, causational stories—along with everyday incarnations of that prototype. To see and depict such things and beings might have been, for the ancient Maya, a binocular process. It perceived the specific in the general, and the general amidst the wondrous particulars of ever-present myth.

Figure 1. (a) Copan Altar K:J1 (drawing by Barbara Fash, CMHI Project, Harvard University); (b) Tikal Cache 198:F1, Str. 5D-46 (drawing, University of Pennsylvania Museum); (c) Tikal Stela 31:F11; (d) Copan Stela A:H5 (drawing by Barbara Fash, CMHI Project, Harvard University; (e) K1340:C1 (photograph by Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates); (f) Río Azul Tomb 12, north wall (photograph by George Mobley, courtesy, George Stuart); (g) Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway (photograph from Barbara Fash, Copan Hieroglyphic Stairway Project, Peabody Museum, Harvard); and (h) Copan Stela A:G3 (drawing by Barbara Fash, CMHI Project, Harvard University).

References Cited

Berlin, Brent, Dennis E. Breedlove, and Peter H. Raven. 1974. Principles of Tzeltal Plant Classification: An Introduction to the Botanic Ethnography of a Mayan-Speaking People of Highland Chiapas. New York: Academic Press.

Coe, William R. 1967. Tikal: A Handbook of the Ancient Maya Ruins. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Laughlin, Robert M. 1993. Poetic License. In The Flowering of Man: A Tzotzil Botany of Zinacantán, by Dennis E. Breedlove and Robert M. Laughlin, pp. 101-108. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology No. 35. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Santayana, George. 1915. Egotism in German Philosophy. New York: Scribner’s.

Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. 2011. Reading Maya Art : A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. London: Thames & Hudson.

Taube, Karl. 2002. Ancient and Contemporary Maya Conceptions of the Field and Forest. In Lowland Maya Area: Three Millennia at the Human-Wildland Interface, edited by A. Gómez-Pompa, M. F. Allen, S. Fedick, and J. Jiménez-Moreno, pp. 461-494. New York: Haworth Press.