A Glyph for Yuyum, “Oriole,” in a Name at Bonampak 9

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.

Early Thoughts on the sajal Title Reply

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.)

SOURCE CITED:

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