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ANDREA STONE & MARC ZENDER — READING MAYA ART — A HIEROGLYPHIC GUIDE TO ANCIENT MAYA PAINTING AND SCULPTURE — 2011

The first one is that most illustrations reproducing Maya art, either on earthenware (vases, plates, mugs, etc.), or on buildings (carvings and sculptures), or on “Maya paper” from the four codices that have not been burnt, or rather that have miraculously escaped from the Spanish autodafe, many said illustrations contained some writing, some written text, and this text is rarely deciphered, transcribed in some Latin alphabet standardly used by Mayanists, and translated. On many of these illustrations, the definition of the images is either poor or slightly fuzzy, and the writing, being at times old, is difficult to capture it and transcribe it on our own, on the readers’ own. Of course, the authors are only interested in the art. But precisely that’s the second shortcoming.

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Each page is dedicated to one glyph and as such is introduced by its English translation with, under the glyph, the Latinized Maya word. We are then in writing, but this written dimension is not exploited. Only the semantic and slightly semiological dimensions are considered. Thus, we are not dealing with any alphabetical order. The order (actually presented page 5–6 is the only moment when we have a complete vision of the book with the numbered one-hundred glyphs, each one subtitled in first the English translation and second the Latinized Maya word. But we discover on these two pages that the glyphs are assembled in semantic or semiological groups: People; Gods; the human body: parts, movements, positions; rituals, regalia and implements; implements of warfare; musical instruments; seats and altars; architecture; writing; numbers; colors; travel; terrestrial and subterranean places; the heavens; fire and burning; natural elements and materials; animals; birds; plants and their products. You can see there is no real logic in this order and it misses what is going to be alluded to regularly the fact that these artful glyphs are a representational system evolving into a writing system, and most of them are composite, and the elements they are composed with are meaningful, even if it is only phonological. Never do we find the list of these elements, of their referential meanings, and thus the way these glyphs are composed, or can be reduced to one element that is then added on an object, on a person, on an animal to mean something that is not always clear. I will eventually give examples.

These two remarks done, we can enter the book and consider more details.

When we know how obsessed the Maya were, in a very compulsive way, by dates, by calendars, by days and months, by numbers and figures in general and their calculations, combinations, not to mention the systematic ritualistic and divinatory dimension of these numbers, these calendars, these days all of them organized in three cycles that are each one continuous but each one not coordinated with the others. That’s what is missing here; numbers up to twenty, the normal Maya counting basis, and the three cycles, calendars, the Tzolkin of twenty days building a month though the days are numbered in a continuous way from 1 to 13, meaning that this Tzolkin calendar goes back to its original point in thirteen cycles of twenty days numbered from one to thirteen in continuous flow. The second calendar is the year used for Long Count, that is to say, dating in long temporal periods, which is a set of eighteen months of twenty days, hence three hundred and sixty days. And a third one that is only the extension of the second, a real solar calendar that adds a nineteenth month of five days to build the year to three hundred and sixty-five days. Hence a date is a very complex thing in Maya, and it is determined with these calendars on a mathematical basis of twenty that is yet superimposed with the thirteen-basis for the counting of days and the eighteen-basis for the counting of months. When you know all engravings and carvings and even sculptures, plus a good proportion of painting on ceramic or fabric contains dates, are precisely positioned in time, you cannot just forget about it and say we are in art. That calendar-oriented counting system is an art in itself and when you know the carvers, the writers and scribes were all part of the elite and were highly educated, for them these calendars and the numbers behind were fundamental. The authors miss one instance of this rich mental vision of the world when they consider the word (Latinized) “Ka-Ka-aw” that is written in different ways. Either the number two, two black dots first meaning the next one is doubled, and then a glyph for “ka” and a final glyph for “aw.” Another writing possibility is two identical simple two-glyphs for “ka” first, meaning the next one is doubled, then a more elaborate glyph for “ka” again, and finally a third simple glyph for “aw,” and that produces “ka-ka-aw.” Of course in art, as the authors say page 219, you often have the simple painting of a cocoa bean-pod but, like in absolutely all arts, these pods, or any other element, are in the mind of the artist and in the minds of the audience, associated to words, associated to a story, exactly the same way the paintings in the Romanesque churches of ten to twelve centuries ago were only speaking to the audience, the congregation, the faithful because a priest was able to tell them the story behind the paintings or architecture and the audience memorized it. Thus, the number of piles and arches in a Romanesque nave had a clear symbolical, cultural and religious meaning in connection with the Christian religion. We have lost that and the authors here do not provide us with any explanation.

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The whole mythology of the Mayas was based on numbers: the most common numbers are two, three and four. Two for the numerous twins, particularly the Hero Twins, three and its extension six as some kind of equilibrium number among men and man’s society, also connected to the Maize God and four as the four winds, the four directions, the four cardinal points, and the last group correspond to four fundamental colors that are associated to the three fundamental positions of the sun plus the absent fourth direction that is not a position of the sun: red (“chax”) for east, yellow (“k’an”) for South, black (“ihk’/ik’”) for West (meaning that black is the night, the underworld, the world when the sun is out). White (“sak”) generally refers to the North, and I guess the Mayas knew that white is light and not a color. The last color the Mayas knew was blue-green (“yax”) and it corresponds to the center of the world, the central point of the four directions, the gem on which the world is revolving, and probably the Tree of Life and the Crocodile, the axis that is so capital in many cultures, among others Indian cultures in the Americas.. The authors actually hint at this meaning now and then by repeating how Jade was the center of Maya vision. But there are two numbers (the authors only give six and zero) that are fundamental in the counting system. The zero the authors give, “mih/mi,” means the absence of anything, hence void, emptiness, zero as nothing. But there is another supposed zero which is, in fact, twenty (“k’al”) and this one is fundamental because it is the moon sign, but it means in fluent use “to bind, to tie, to wrap” or “to close” or “to set” hence the completion of something expressed in a head glyph, or the back of an extended hand clearly meaning it is finished and we can go to the next cycle. Twenty is the number that triggers the starting of a new group of twenty. That’s the real mathematical invention of the Mayas: that value of twenty is the first value of zero in algebra, in Descartes’ system, in modern mathematics. The first ten digits do not contain “0” but come to completion with “10,” the zero being the trigger of the second group of ten that will come to an end with “20” that will trigger the third group, etc. This value is carried by twenty (“k’al”) that wraps up, completes the first group of twenty, and triggers the next one that starts with twenty-one. The use of the moon sign, in this case, is, of course, to be explained but is certainly not gratuitous. The standard counting system of the Mayas was represented with dots and bars, dots for one unit each and bars for five units each, and when you reached twenty then “k’al” came in. A lot more should be said, and these numbers are on all the stones and buildings next to or over kings, and other carved pictures giving their birth dates, their throne ascending dates, their death dates and eventually some dates of some great moments of these rulers.

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But what I say here is that the basic numbers one, two, three, four, and eventually five are constantly present in the carvings, paintings, and writings of the Mayas, as well as dots, one particular abbreviated glyph to mean “sun,” “moon,” “death,” or whatever. Thus, the authors make a mistake page 227 when they identify a glyph stuck onto a square-nosed serpent in illustration 5 as being a “black-petalled flower.” They do not know their Maya writing well enough. The main glyph is T173 into which another glyph T552 is infixed. The first glyph that may look like a flower with three black petals and two smaller white ones in between these three (these two might look like two protruding bars or separations). The second glyph is what is known as “crossed bars” in the general shape of an X. The first glyph is “mi” and it is emptiness, nothing, a negative marker, one identity of zero, the zero that means “nothing” and is not really a number. The fact these three petals are black is also linguistically signifying. It carries the syllable “ik’” meaning black: but is it a qualifying element giving the color but also meaning the night, the west, the underworld, or is it in itself a dominant element that would expand the “nothingness” of “mi” with the underworld of “ik’.” And these are the three elements in this glyph that looks like a black-petalled flower,” but what is the “word” they assemble semantically and phonetically? That’s the rub. The second one is a phonetic sign “at” but it could also be another glyph with these crossed bars, T565, that stands phonetically for “ta.” This versatility of phonetic signs is not infrequent since we are dealing here with a syllabary and phonetically these signs are extensions to a previous glyph, either reinforcing the final consonant in writing, and the vowel is not pronounced at all or expanding the previous glyph with a new syllable that can be either “at” or “ta.” Those are conventions for writing and at times the Mayas are over-writing their syllables, though not always. There might be historicity in this evolution of the writing system, but it has not yet been studied in detail, at least to the best of my knowledge. To finish with this “black-petalled flower,” it is quite clear that the infix is a locative rather directional “preposition” when “ta” and does not seem to have any semantic meaning when it is “at,” probably because deciphering is not advanced enough. Nevertheless, the crossed bars carry this directional prepositional value and thus this glyph added on the nose of the square-nosed serpent seems to indicate a direction towards nothing, void, emptiness. This makes me think that here we have a couple of glyphs on this square nose with a first affix meaning “yellow,” “k’an,” and then a second affix “mi:at” or “mi-ta” meaning “to emptiness.” Yellow, “k’an,” being the color attached to the south the couple of affixed glyphs could easily be understood as meaning to merge into absolute sun-fire that dissolves our material being. This is close to “nibbana” (Buddhist Pali for Sanskrit “nirvana”) which is also the dissolution via merging of our own material existence into cosmic energy.

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That’s what I mean when I say the authors are not up to the writing system of the Mayas and they affix or infix any of these basic elements onto or into any other representation, be it a glyph, a person, an animal, a plant of an object. The procedure is always some kind of semantic composition though we do not entirely know which is dominant and which is dominated, the affix/infix or the “item to which it is affixed/infixed. But the authors of this book do not consider such linguistic subtleties by sticking to the idea that they are dealing with art. But even so the glyphs are constructed according to simple logic that can be summarized as follows on a flower pattern; The heart of the MAIN SIGN itself that can include an INFIX, hence inside this main sign. But a glyph is a composite assembly around this main sign. On top, the SUPERFIX, on the left or before, the PREFIX, on the right of after, the POSTFIX, under, the SUBFIX. Inga E. Calvin gives in her study, Hieroglyphic Decipherment Guide published in 2012 the following visual mapping:

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This visual mapping is slightly false because all the parts may not be present in one particular glyph, but a glyph is always contained in a square or at most a horizontal or vertical rectangle. Though when we are dealing with text all glyphs are square and ordered in a very special way that determines the reading order of the glyphs. Vertical columns from left to right, read two by two. The first column is A, the second B, the third C, and the fourth D, all having three glyphs numbered from top to bottom in each column as 1, 2, and 3. The reading is A1-B1-A2-B2-A3-B3-C1-D1-C2-D2-C3-D3, and so on with the next columns. If there is only one line, no matter how long, it is read from left to right and if there is only one column no matter how high, it is read from top to bottom.

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The problem is not that reading order of text, but the reading order inside the composite glyphs. The various x-fixes are read from top to left and right and bottom, but there might only be one or two x-fixes and they might be a prefix and a subfix to the main sign. Keep in mind top-left-right-bottom. That’s rather simple. But the Infix is more complicated because is it a qualifying element or a classifying element, hence is it dominated or dominant. Qualifying like in “red rose” where red is giving a particular quality of the flower rose. Classifying like in “yellow fever” which is not a fever that is yellow but “Yellow fever is an acute viral hemorrhagic disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes. The “yellow” in the name refers to the jaundice that affects some patients. Symptoms of yellow fever include fever, headache, jaundice, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. May 7, 2019” (World Health Organization) We actually do not know for sure. The case of the infix seems to be rather classifying but not necessarily; In fact, some may say that these glyphs are rebuses. But even so, it does not solve the problem of what dominates what in the glyph. That’s why it is interesting to know the semantic or referential value of these graphic or glyphic elements that can be extracted from a particular glyph and symbolically attached to any element in the painting or carving with a metonymic value that is transferred onto the element it is attached to though it is difficult to know the relation implied between the supporting element and the attachment. That’s why the crossed band infix in the “black-petalled flower” is important because it is a directional infix that indicates the subject that carries it is bound to go in one direction and the direction can only be indicated by the elements around the infix, that is to say the main glyph into which it is infixed and the various other similar attachments on the subject, in this case on the square-nosed serpent, itself an extension of a stingray spine oriented away from the carrying subject. The stingray spine is a tool of self-sacrifice, meaning self-blood-letting but oriented the way it is it seems to mean the blood-letting self-sacrifice is leading to the square-nosed serpent that is, due to the two attachments, leading to some kind of merging into the cosmic light of the sun at its zenith. That means the picture is not simply to be enjoyed artfully but to be read linguistically or if you prefer glyphically.

I would like to give a few more examples.

If we consider illustration 5, page 182, of the glyph T844, “ayin” (Montgomery), “ahin” in this book meaning “crocodile,” page 183, the authors propose the interpretation of it as a “cosmic monster” who “was a potent symbol of cosmic order” misses something in illustration 5. “On the east face of Copan Stella C, the ruler, Waxaklajuun Ubaah K’awiil, wears a loincloth transmogrified into the flattened head and dangling feet of a crocodile; present are the telltale oval body markings and rows of curved teeth (ill.5). This vertically positioned reptile is a variant of the crocodile-tree, seen in, ill. 4, and makes the ruler himself appear to be a stalwart axis of the earth. Maya kings used these kinds of pictorial allusions to make their own bodies seem part of cosmic order, thus claiming divine justification for their political legitimacy. The crocodile played a prominent role in the cosmic models exploited in royal art.” This interpretation misses many points. Penile bloodletting was self-sacrifice that had to be performed by all rulers regularly and for women, it was the passing of a rough knotted rope, with some cutting element in it through a hole in their tongue. This royal blood was putting the elite in the place of the Maize God himself who was sacrificed in the underworld according to the Popol Vuh. This sacrifice’s circumstances enabled this Maize God to impregnate the daughter of one of the lords of the underworld. She will refuse to say who the father or impregnator is, and she will escape to give birth to the two Hero Twins with the help of their grandmother; and these Twins via many challenges and tests they cheated themselves out of, impersonated cosmic magicians who could sacrifice any being and then revive them back to life. That was performed by one twin onto the other twin and it convinced the main lords of the Underworld to ask for the privilege of dying and being resuscitated. Of course, they were both sacrificed but never revived. The Twins once again cheated themselves out of the problem and solved it by enslaving the underworld under their authority and control. They also revived their father the Maize God.

AYIN (ayi[i]n/ayin) Crocodile
(T844)

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The crocodile is nothing but the symbol of the necessary sacrifice of the rulers to be connected to the Maize God himself. Of course, we are only speaking of bloodletting for the rulers, but the rulers may organize every year a rite of death and revival for the Maize God. The maize god dies after the harvest of the corn and will resuscitate in spring with the new crop that will have to be protected by the Maize God, if he is alive, to provide with a good harvest. To reach that resuscitation of the Maize God, the rite was a real human sacrifice. That’s the cosmic order they speak of. Human sacrificees could be adult males or children of any age under puberty or still virginal. There were many methods that are not explored by the author and yet many of the glyphs they study are connected to such rites. The sacrificed people could be heart-ripped at the top of a pyramid temple, then their hearts were burned or may be eaten by the priests and rulers, the blood could be used in many ways, including drunk. The sacrificees were often decapitated then and the head, first, the body, second, at times dismembered, were pushed down the big stairways in the front of the pyramids down to the earth where the people stood and merged into the sacrifice. Another method was to throw the sacrificees into a cenote, a sinkhole with deep water at the bottom. These sinkholes were considered as being doors to the underworld. All that was always justified by the Maize God’s yearly resuscitation in spring.

The name of the Maize God is Jun-Nal-Ye, a composite glyph that is not present in this book and it is definitely missing.

JUN NAL YE (Ju Nal Ye) Maize God
(TI.84:512a)

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The prefix is T#1, “Jun” for ONE, a cardinal number, with his homonym T60 or T609 for paper and book, all of these books or codices had to do with calendars, rituals, mathematics, astronomy, and religious matters. The Superfix is T84, “nal” for “MAIZE, MAIZE CURL” as part of the proper name of the Maize God, but also a locative determinative suffix meaning “place.” The main glyph is T512a which is either a third person prevocalic pronoun or possessive pronoun, but also an adjective meaning “revealed,” hence has to do with religious beliefs. Yet this main glyph instead of having a black dot in the middle meaning ONE or an opening to the Underworld, has an infix that represents a black dot in a maize husk that can open up though it is not right now. This wrapping up of something in a potentially opening husk is connected to the moon and the Moon Goddess, “uh” in this book, page 147, vastly present in the Dresden Codex, for example, a closed husk that contains a black wrapping zone around most of a central pocket. The black wrapping contains three corn grains attached to the central pocket and the central pocket also contains three grains of corn. That means this infix is connecting the Maize God to maize of course and to the Moon Goddess in her full moon phase, a planet that is definitely connected to the night and thus to the Underworld but promising a full harvest if satisfied with the efforts of the Mayas. The six grains of corn are essential because six is “ehb-nal” in this book, page 117. “ehb/eb’” is the twelfth day the Tzolkin Calendar with an infix of “kawak,” the nineteenth day of the Tzolkin Calendar, the last day before completion of the first twenty-day cycle. And “nal,” we have already seen, is attached to the Maize God himself and may be a locative suffix. And from there we would have to go a long way to explore the various openings.

HUUN/JUN = BOOK (T609)

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But the authors could have gotten to such complicated and complex meanings and interpretations only if they had followed the writing strategy that emerged or inspired the paintings, carvings and other representational art productions of the Mayas. They can always say other people have dealt with such writing elements and approaches. But I will say that their approach of art is in many ways locked up in an air-tight cell that prevents them from seeing these representations only “spoke” to common Mayas if they knew the story they told because most Mayas were illiterate, but they had a good visual and linguistic memory that enabled them to understand and follow the stories behind these carvings, paintings, and other representations.

Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU

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Reference : John Montgomery
Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs

Written by

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, PhD in Germanic Linguistics (University Lille III) and ESP Teaching (University Bordeaux II) has been teaching all types of ESP

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