An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs/Chapter 2

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[ 22 ]

Chapter II. THE MAYA HIEROGLYPHIC WRITING

The inscriptions herein described are found throughout the region formerly occupied by the Maya people (pl. 1), though by far the greater number have been discovered at the southern, or older, sites. This is due in part, at least, to the minor role played by sculpture as an independent art among the northern Maya, for in the north architecture gradually absorbed in its decoration the sculptural activity of the people which in the south had been applied in the making of the hieroglyphic monuments.

Fig. 9. Outlines of the glyphs: a, b, In the codices; c, in the inscriptions.

Fig. 9. Outlines of the glyphs: a, b, In the codices; c, in the inscriptions.

The materials upon which the Maya glyphs are presented are stone, wood, stucco, bone, shell, metal, plaster, pottery, and fiber-paper; the first-mentioned, however, occurs more frequently than all of the others combined. Texts have been found carved on the wooden lintels of Tikal, molded in the stucco reliefs of Palenque, scratched on shells from Copan and Belize, etched on a bone from Wild Cane Key, British Honduras, engraved on metal from Chichen Itza, drawn on the plaster-covered walls of Kabah, Chichen Itza, and Uxmal, and painted in fiber-paper books. All of these, however, with the exception of the first and the last (the inscriptions on stone and the fiber-paper books or codices) just mentioned, occur so rarely that they may be dismissed from present consideration.

The stones bearing inscriptions are found in a variety of shapes, the commonest being the monolithic shafts or slabs known as stelæ. Some of the shaft-stelæ attain a height of twenty-six feet (above ground); these are not unlike roughly squared obelisks, with human figures carved on the obverse and the reverse, and glyphs on the other faces. Slab-stelæ, on the other hand, are shorter and most of them bear inscriptions only on the reverse. Frequently associated with these stelæ are smaller monoliths known as "altars," which vary greatly in size, shape, and decoration, some bearing glyphs and others being without them.

The foregoing monuments, however, by no means exhaust the list of stone objects that bear hieroglyphs. As an adjunct to architecture inscriptions occur on wall-slabs at Palenque, on lintels at Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras, on steps and stairways at Copan, and on piers and architraves at Holactun; and these do not include the great number of smaller pieces, as inscribed jades and the like. Most of the glyphs in the inscriptions are square in outline except for rounded corners (fig. 9, c). Those in the codices, on the other hand, approximate more nearly in form rhomboids or even ovals (fig. 9, a, b). This difference in outline, however, is only superficial in significance and involves no corresponding difference in meaning between [ 23 ] otherwise identical glyphs; it is due entirely to the mechanical dissimilarity of the two materials. Disregarding this consideration as unessential, we may say that the glyphs in both the inscriptions and the codices belong to one and the same system of writing, and if it were possible to read either, the other could no longer withhold its meaning from us.

In Maya inscriptions the glyphs are arranged in parallel columns, which are to be read two columns at a time, beginning with the uppermost glyph in the left-hand column, and then from left to right and top to bottom, ending with the lowest glyph in the second column. Then the next two columns are read in the same order, and so on. In reading glyphs in a horizontal band, the order is from left to right in pairs. The writer knows of no text in which the above order of reading is not followed.

A brief examination of any Maya text, from either the inscriptions or the codices, reveals the presence of certain elements which occur repeatedly but in varying combinations. The apparent multiplicity of these combinations leads at first to the conclusion that a great number of signs were employed in Maya writing, but closer study will show that, as compared with the composite characters or glyphs proper, the simple elements are few in number. Says Doctor Brinton (1894 b: p. 10) in this connection: "If we positively knew the meaning ... of a hundred or so of these simple elements, none of the inscriptions could conceal any longer from us the general tenor of its contents." Unfortunately, it must be admitted that but little advance has been made toward the solution of this problem, perhaps because later students have distrusted the highly fanciful results achieved by the earlier writers who "interpreted" these "simple elements."

Fig. 10. Examples of glyph elision, showing elimination of all parts except essential element (here, the crossed bands).

Fig. 10. Examples of glyph elision, showing elimination of all parts except essential element (here, the crossed bands).

Moreover, there is encountered at the very outset in the study of these elements a condition which renders progress slow and results uncertain. In Egyptian texts of any given period the simple phonetic elements or signs are unchanging under all conditions of composition. Like the letters of our own alphabet, they never vary and may be recognized as unfailingly. On the other hand, in Maya texts each glyph is in itself a finished picture, dependent on no other for its meaning, and consequently the various elements entering into it undergo very considerable modifications in order that the resulting composite character may not only be a balanced and harmonious [ 24 ] design, but also may exactly fill its allotted space. All such modifications probably in no way affect the meaning of the element thus mutilated.

Fig. 11. Normal-form and head-variant glyphs, showing retention of essential element in each.

Fig. 11. Normal-form and head-variant glyphs, showing retention of essential element in each.

The element shown in figure 10, a-e is a case in point. In a and b we have what may be called the normal or regular forms of this element. In c, however, the upper arm has been omitted for the sake of symmetry in a composite glyph, while in d the lower arm has been left out for want of space. Finally in e both arms have disappeared and the element is reduced to the sign (
Maya Hieroglyphs Sidenote 24a.jpg
*), which we may conclude, therefore, is the essential characteristic of this glyph, particularly since there is no regularity in the treatment of the arms in the normal forms. This suggests another point of the utmost importance, namely, the determination of the essential elements of Maya glyphs. The importance of this point lies in the fact that great license was permitted in the treatment of accessory elements so long as the essential element or elements of a glyph could readily be recognized as such. In this way may be explained the use of the so-called "head" variants, in which the outline of the glyph was represented as a human or a grotesque head modified in some way by the essential element of the intended form. The first step in the development of head variants is seen in figure 11, a, b, in which the entire glyph a is used as a headdress in glyph b, the meaning of the two forms remaining identical. The next step is shown in the same figure, c and d, in which the outline of the entire glyph c has been changed to form the grotesque head d, though in both glyphs the essential elements are the same. A further development was to apply the essential element (
Maya Hieroglyphs Sidenote 24b-c.jpg
**) of e to the head in f, giving rise to a head variant, the meaning of which suffered no corresponding change. The element (†) in figure 11, g, has been reduced in size in h, though the other two essential elements remain unchanged. A final step appears in i and j, where in j the position of one of the two essential elements of i (
Maya Hieroglyphs Sidenote 24d-e.jpg
††) and the form of the other (‡) have been changed. These variants [ 25 ] are puzzling enough when the essential characteristics and meaning of a glyph have been determined, but when both are unknown the problem is indeed knotty. For example, it would seem as a logical deduction from the foregoing examples, that l of figure 11 is a "head" variant of k; and similarly n might be a "head" variant of m, but here we are treading on uncertain ground, as the meanings of these forms are unknown.

Nor is this feature of Maya writing (i. e., the presence of "head variants") the only pitfall which awaits the beginner who attempts to classify the glyphs according to their appearance. In some cases two entirely dissimilar forms express exactly the same idea. For example, no two glyphs could differ more in appearance than a and b, figure 12, yet both of these forms have the same meaning. This is true also of the two glyphs c and d, and e and f. The occurrence of forms so absolutely unlike in appearance, yet identical in meaning, greatly complicates the problem of glyph identification. Indeed, identity in both meaning and use must be clearly established before we can recognize as variants of the same glyph, forms so dissimilar as the examples above given. Hence, because their meanings are unknown we are unable to identify g and h, figure 12, as synonyms, notwithstanding the fact that their use seems to be identical, h occurring in two or three texts under exactly the same conditions as does g in all the others.

Fig. 12. Normal-form and head-variant glyphs, showing absence of common essential element.

Fig. 12. Normal-form and head-variant glyphs, showing absence of common essential element.

A further source of error in glyph identification is the failure to recognize variations due merely to individual peculiarities of style, which are consequently unessential. Just as handwriting differs in each individual, so the delineation of glyphs differed among the ancient Maya, though doubtless to a lesser extent. In extreme cases, however, the differences are so great that identification of variants as forms of one and the same glyph is difficult if indeed not impossible. Here also are to be included variations due to differences in the materials upon which the glyphs are delineated, as well as those arising from careless drawing and actual mistakes.

The foregoing difficulties, as well as others which await the student who would classify the Maya glyphs according to form and appearance, have led the author to discard this method of classification as unsuited to the purposes of an elementary work. Though a problem of first importance, the analysis of the simple elements is far too complex for presentation to the beginner, particularly since the [ 26 ] greatest diversity of opinion concerning them prevails among those who have studied the subject, scarcely any two agreeing at any one point; and finally because up to the present time success in reading Maya writing has not come through this channel.

The classification followed herein is based on the general meaning of the glyphs, and therefore has the advantage of being at least self-explanatory. It divides the glyphs into two groups: (1) Astronomical, calendary, and numerical signs, that is, glyphs used in counting time; and (2) glyphs accompanying the preceding, which have an explanatory function of some sort, probably describing the nature of the occasions which the first group of glyphs designate.

According to this classification, the great majority of the glyphs whose meanings have been determined fall into the first group, and those whose meanings are still unknown into the second. This is particularly true of the inscriptions, in which the known glyphs practically all belong to the first group. In the codices, on the other hand, some little progress has made been in reading glyphs of the second group. The name-glyphs of the principal gods, the signs for the cardinal points and associated colors, and perhaps a very few others may be mentioned in this connection.[1]

Of the unknown glyphs in both the inscriptions and the codices, a part at least have to do with numerical calculations of some kind, a fact which relegates such glyphs to the first group. The author believes that as the reading of the Maya glyphs progresses, more and more characters will be assigned to the first group and fewer and fewer to the second. In the end, however, there will be left what we may perhaps call a "textual residue," that is, those glyphs which explain the nature of the events that are to be associated with the corresponding chronological parts. It is here, if anywhere, that fragments of Maya history will be found recorded, and precisely here is the richest field for future research, since the successful interpretation of this "textual residue" will alone disclose the true meaning of the Maya writings.

Three principal theories have been advanced for the interpretation of Maya writing:

1. That the glyphs are phonetic, each representing some sound, and entirely dissociated from the representation of any thought or idea.

2. That the glyphs are ideographic, each representing in itself some complete thought or idea.

3. That the glyphs are both phonetic and ideographic, that is, a combination of 1 and 2.

It is apparent at the outset that the first of these theories can not be accepted in its entirety; for although there are undeniable traces [ 27 ] of phoneticism among the Maya glyphs, all attempts to reduce them to a phonetic system or alphabet, which will interpret the writing, have signally failed. The first and most noteworthy of these so-called "Maya alphabets," because of its genuine antiquity, is that given by Bishop Landa in his invaluable Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan, frequently cited in Chapter I. Writing in the year 1565, within 25 years of the Spanish Conquest, Landa was able to obtain characters for 27 sounds, as follows: Three a's, two b's, c, t, e, h, i, ca, k, two l's, m, n, two o's, pp, p, cu, ku, two x's, two v's, z. This alphabet, which was first published in 1864 by Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg (see Landa, 1864), was at once heralded by Americanists as the long-awaited key which would unlock the secrets of the Maya writing. Unfortunately these confident expectations have not been realized, and all attempts to read the glyphs by means of this alphabet or of any of the numerous others[2] which have appeared since, have completely broken down.

This failure to establish the exclusive phonetic character of the Maya glyphs has resulted in the general acceptance of the second theory, that the signs are ideographic. Doctor Brinton (1894b: p. 14), however, has pointed out two facts deducible from the Landa alphabet which render impossible not only the complete acceptance of this second theory but also the absolute rejection of the first: (1) That a native writer was able to give a written character for an unfamiliar sound, a sound, moreover, which was without meaning to him, as, for example, that of a Spanish letter; and (2) that the characters he employed for this purpose were also used in the native writings. These facts Doctor Brinton regards as proof that some sort of phonetic writing was not unknown, and, indeed, both the inscriptions and the codices establish the truth of this contention. For example, the sign in a, figure 13, has the phonetic value kin, and the sign in b the phonetic value yax. In the latter glyph, however, only the upper part (reproduced in c) is to be regarded as the essential element. It is strongly indicative of phoneticism therefore to find the sound yaxkin, a combination of these two, expressed by the sign found in d. Similarly, the character representing the phonetic value kin is found also as an element in the glyphs for the words likin [ 28 ] and chikin (see e and f, respectively, fig. 13), each of which has kin as its last syllable. Again, the phonetic value tun is expressed by the glyph in g, and the sound ca (c hard) by the sign h. The sound katun is represented by the character in i, a combination of these two. Sometimes the glyph for this same sound takes the form of j, the fish element in k replacing the comblike element h. Far from destroying the phonetic character of this composite glyph, however, this variant k in reality strengthens it, since in Maya the word for fish is cay (c hard) and consequently the variant reads caytun, a close phonetic approximation of katun. The remaining element of this glyph (l) has the value cauac, the first syllable of which is also expressed by either h or k, figure 13. Its use in i and j probably may be regarded as but a further emphasis of the phonetic character of the glyph.

It must be remembered, however, that all of the above glyphs have meanings quite independent of their phonetic values, that primarily their function was to convey ideas, and that only secondarily were they used in their phonetic senses.

Fig. 13. Glyphs built up on a phonetic basis.

Fig. 13. Glyphs built up on a phonetic basis.

If neither the phonetic nor the ideographic character of the glyphs can be wholly admitted, what then is the true nature of the Maya writing? The theory now most generally accepted is, that while chiefly ideographic, the glyphs are sometimes phonetic, and that although the idea of a glyphic alphabet must finally be abandoned, the phonetic use of syllables as illustrated above must as surely be recognized.

This kind of writing Doctor Brinton has called ikonomatic, more familiarly known to us under the name of rebus, or puzzle writing. In such writing the characters do not indicate the ideas of the objects which they portray, but only the sounds of their names, and are used purely in a phonetic sense, like the letters of the alphabet. For example, the rebus in figure 14 reads as follows: "I believe Aunt Rose can well bear all for you." The picture of the eye recalls not the idea "eye" but the sound of the word denoting this object, which is also the sound of the word for the first person singular of the [ 29 ] personal pronoun I. Again, the picture of a bee does not represent the idea of that insect, but stands for the sound of its name, which used with a leaf indicates the sound "beeleaf," or in other words, "believe."[3]

It has long been known that the Aztec employed ikonomatic characters in their writing to express the names of persons and places, though this practice does not seem to have been extended by them to the representation of abstract words. The Aztec codices contain many glyphs which are to be interpreted ikonomatically, that is, like our own rebus writing. For example in figure 15, a, is shown the Aztec hieroglyph for the town of Toltitlan, a name which means "near the place of the rushes." The word tollin means "place of the rushes," but only its first syllable tol appears in the word Toltitlan. This syllable is represented in a by several rushes. The word tetlan means "near something" and its second syllable tlan is found also in the word tlantli, meaning "teeth." In a therefore, the addition of the teeth to the rushes gives the word Toltitlan. Another example of this kind of writing is given in figure 15, b, where the hieroglyph for the town of Acatzinco is shown. This word means "the little reed grass," the diminutive being represented by the syllable tzinco. The reed grass (acatl) is shown by the pointed leaves or spears which emerge from the lower part of a human figure. This part of the body was called by the Aztecs tzinco, and as used here expresses merely the sound tzinco in the diminutive acatzinco, "the little reed grass," the letter l of acatl being lost in composition.

Fig. 14. A rebus. Aztec, and probably Maya, personal and place names were written in a corresponding manner.

Fig. 14. A rebus. Aztec, and probably Maya, personal and place names were written in a corresponding manner.

The presence of undoubted phonetic elements in these Aztec glyphs expressing personal names and place names would seem to indicate that some similar usage probably prevailed among the Maya. [ 30 ] While admitting this restricted use of phonetic composition by the Maya, Professor Seler refuses to recognize its further extension:

Certainly there existed in the Maya writing compound hieroglyphs giving the name of a deity, person, or a locality, whose elements united on the phonetic principle. But as yet it is not proved that they wrote texts. And without doubt the greater part of the Maya hieroglyphics were conventional symbols built up on the ideographic principle.

Doctor Förstemann also regards the use of phonetic elements as restricted to little more than the above when he says, "Finally the graphic system of the Maya ... never even achieved the expression of a phrase or even a verb."

On the other hand, Mr. Bowditch (1910: p. 255) considers the use of phonetic composition extended considerably beyond these limits:

As far as I am aware, the use of this kind of writing [rebus] was confined, among the Aztecs, to the names of persons and places, while the Mayas, if they used the rebus form at all, used it also for expressing common nouns and possibly abstract ideas. The Mayas surely used picture writing and the ideographic system, but I feel confident that a large part of their hieroglyphs will be found to be made up of rebus forms and that the true line of research will be found to lie in this direction.

Fig. 15. Aztec place names: a, The sign for the town Toltitlan; b, the sign for the town Acatzinco.

Fig. 15. Aztec place names: a, The sign for the town Toltitlan; b, the sign for the town Acatzinco.

Doctor Brinton (1894 b: p. 13) held an opinion between these two, perhaps inclining slightly toward the former: "The intermediate position which I have defended, is that while chiefly ideographic, they [the Maya glyphs] are occasionally phonetic, in the same manner as are confessedly the Aztec picture-writings."

These quotations from the most eminent authorities on the subject well illustrate their points of agreement and divergence. All admit the existence of phonetic elements in the glyphs, but disagree as to their extent. And here, indeed, is the crux of the whole phonetic question. Just how extensively do phonetic elements enter into the composition of the Maya glyphs? Without attempting to dispose of this point definitely one way or the other, the author may say that he believes that as the decipherment of Maya writing progresses, more and more phonetic elements will be identified, though the idea conveyed by a glyph will always be found to overshadow its phonetic value.

The various theories above described have not been presented for the reader's extended consideration, but only in order to acquaint him with the probable nature of the Maya glyphs. Success in deciphering, as we shall see, has not come through any of the above mentioned lines of research, which will not be pursued further in this work. [ 31 ]

In taking up the question of the meaning of Maya writing, it must be admitted at the outset that in so far as they have been deciphered both the inscriptions and the codices have been found to deal primarily, if indeed not exclusively, with the counting of time in some form or other. Doctor Förstemann, the first successful interpreter of the codices, has shown that these writings have for their principal theme the passage of time in its varying relations to the Maya calendar, ritual, and astronomy. They deal in great part with the sacred year of 260 days, known to the Aztec also under the name of the tonalamatl, in connection with which various ceremonies, offerings, sacrifices, and domestic occupations are set forth. Doctor Förstemann believed that this 260-day period was employed by the priests in casting horoscopes and foretelling the future of individuals, classes, and tribes, as well as in predicting coming political events and natural phenomena; or in other words, that in so far as the 260-day period was concerned, the codices are nothing more nor less than books of prophecy and divination.

The prophetic character of some of these native books at least is clearly indicated in a passage from Bishop Landa's Relacion (p. 286). In describing a festival held in the month Uo, the Bishop relates that "the most learned priest opened a book, in which he examined the omens of the year, which he announced to all those who were present." Other early Spanish writers state that these books contain the ancient prophecies and indicate the times appointed for their fulfillment.

Doctor Thomas regarded the codices as religious calendars, or rituals for the guidance of the priests in the celebration of feasts, ceremonies, and other duties, seemingly a natural inference from the character of the scenes portrayed in connection with these 260-day periods.

Another very important function of the codices is the presentation of astronomical phenomena and calculations. The latter had for their immediate object in each case the determination of the lowest number which would exactly contain all the numbers of a certain group. These lowest numbers are in fact nothing more nor less than the least common multiple of changing combinations of numbers, each one of which represents the revolution of some heavenly body. In addition to these calculations deities are assigned to the several periods, and a host of mythological allusions are introduced, the significance of most of which is now lost.

The most striking proof of the astronomical character of the codices is to be seen in pages 46-50 of the Dresden Manuscript. Here, to begin with, a period of 2,920 days is represented, which exactly contains five Venus years of 584[4] days each (one on each page) as well as eight solar years of 365 days each. Each of the Venus years is divided into four parts, respectively, 236, 90, 250, and 8 days. The [ 32 ] first and third of these constitute the periods when Venus was the morning and the evening star, respectively, and the second and fourth, the periods of invisibility after each of these manifestations. This Venus-solar period of 2,920 days was taken as the basis from which the number 37,960 was formed. This contains 13 Venus-solar periods, 65 Venus-years, 104 solar years, and 146 tonalamatls, or sacred years of 260 days each. Finally, the last number (37,960) with all the subdivisions above given was thrice repeated, so that these five pages of the manuscript record the passage of 113,880 days, or 312 solar years.

Again, on pages 51-58 of the same manuscript, 405 revolutions of the moon are set down; and so accurate are the calculations involved that although they cover a period of nearly 33 years the total number of days recorded (11,959) is only 89100 of a day less than the true time computed by the best modern method[5]—certainly a remarkable achievement for the aboriginal mind. It is probable that the revolutions of the planets Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, and Saturn are similarly recorded in the same manuscript.

Toward the end of the Dresden Codex the numbers become greater and greater until, in the so-called "serpent numbers," a grand total of nearly twelve and a half million days (about thirty-four thousand years) is recorded again and again. In these well-nigh inconceivable periods all the smaller units may be regarded as coming at last to a more or less exact close. What matter a few score years one way or the other in this virtual eternity? Finally, on the last page of the manuscript, is depicted the Destruction of the World (see pl. 3), for which these highest numbers have paved the way. Here we see the rain serpent, stretching across the sky, belching forth torrents of water. Great streams of water gush from the sun and moon. The old goddess, she of the tiger claws and forbidding aspect, the malevolent patroness of floods and cloudbursts, overturns the bowl of the heavenly waters. The crossbones, dread emblem of death, decorate her skirt, and a writhing snake crowns her head. Below with downward-pointed spears, symbolic of the universal destruction, the black god stalks abroad, a screeching bird raging on his fearsome head. Here, indeed, is portrayed with graphic touch the final all-engulfing cataclysm.

According to the early writers, in addition to the astronomic, prophetic, and ritualistic material above described, the codices contained records of historical events. It is doubtful whether this is true of any of the three codices now extant, though there are grounds for believing that the Codex Peresianus may be in part at least of an historical nature.

BUREAU OF AMERICAN ETHNOLOGYBULLETIN 57 PLATE 3

PAGE 74 OF THE DRESDEN CODEX, SHOWING THE END OF THE WORLD (ACCORDING TO FÖRSTEMANN)

PAGE 74 OF THE DRESDEN CODEX, SHOWING THE END OF THE WORLD (ACCORDING TO FÖRSTEMANN)

[ 33 ]

Much less progress has been made toward discovering the meaning of the inscriptions. Doctor Brinton (1894 b: p.32) states:

My own conviction is that they [the inscriptions and codices] will prove to be much more astronomical than even the latter [Doctor Förstemann] believes; that they are primarily and essentially records of the motions of the heavenly bodies; and that both figures and characters are to be interpreted as referring in the first instance to the sun and moon, the planets, and those constellations which are most prominent in the nightly sky in the latitude of Yucatan.

Mr. Bowditch (1910: p. 199) has also brought forward very cogent points tending to show that in part at least the inscriptions treat of the intercalation of days necessary to bring the dated monuments, based on a 365-day year, into harmony with the true solar year of 365.2421 days.[6]

While admitting that the inscriptions may, and probably do, contain such astronomical matter as Doctor Brinton and Mr. Bowditch have suggested, the writer believes nevertheless that fundamentally they are historical; that the monuments upon which they are presented were erected and inscribed on or about the dates they severally record; and finally, that the great majority of these dates are those of contemporaneous events, and as such pertain to the subject-matter of history.

The reasons which have led him to this conclusion follow:

First. The monuments at most of the southern Maya sites show a certain periodicity in their sequence. This is most pronounced at Quirigua, where all of the large monuments fall into an orderly series, in which each monument is dated exactly 1,800 days later than the one immediately preceding it in the sequence. This is also true at Copan, where, in spite of the fact that there are many gaps in the sequence, enough monuments conforming to the plan remain to prove its former existence. The same may be said also of Naranjo, Seibal, and Piedras Negras, and in fact of almost all the other large cities which afford sufficient material for a chronological arrangement.

This interval of 1,800 days quite obviously was not determined by the recurrence of any natural phenomenon. It has no parallel in nature, but is, on the contrary, a highly artificial unit. Consequently, monuments the erection of which was regulated by the successive returns of this period could not depend in the least for the fact of their existence on any astronomical phenomenon other than that of the rising and setting of eighteen hundred successive suns, an arbitrary period.

The Maya of Yucatan had a similar method of marking time, though their unit of enumeration was 7,200 days, or four times the [ 34 ] length of the one used for the same purpose in the older cities. The following quotations from early Spanish chroniclers explain this practice and indicate that the inscriptions presented on these time-markers were of an historical nature:

There were discovered in the plaza of that city [Mayapan] seven or eight stones each ten feet in length, round at the end, and well worked. These had some writings in the characters which they use, but were so worn by water that they could not be read. Moreover, they think them to be in memory of the foundation and destruction of that city. There are other similar ones, although higher, at Zilan, one of the coast towns. The natives when asked what these things were, replied that they were accustomed to erect one of these stones every twenty years, which is the number they use for counting their ages.[7]

The other is even more explicit:

Their lustras having reached five in number, which made twenty years, which they call a katun, they place a graven stone on another of the same kind laid in lime and sand in the walls of their temples and the houses of the priests, as one still sees to-day in the edifices in question, and in some ancient walls of our own convent at Merida, about which there are some cells. In a city named Tixhualatun, which signifies "place where one graven stone is placed upon another," they say are their archives, where everybody had recourse for events of all kinds, as we do to Simancas.[8]

It seems almost necessary to conclude from such a parallel that the inscriptions of the southern cities will also be found to treat of historical matters.

Second. When the monuments of the southern cities are arranged according to their art development, that is, in stylistic sequence, they are found to be arranged in their chronological order as well. This important discovery, due largely to the researches of Dr. H. J. Spinden, has enabled us to determine the relative ages of various monuments quite independent of their respective dates. From a stylistic consideration alone it has been possible not only to show that the monuments date from different periods, but also to establish the sequence of these periods and that of the monuments in them. Finally, it has demonstrated beyond all doubt that the great majority of the dates on Maya monuments refer to the time of their erection, so that the inscriptions which they present are historical in that they are the contemporaneous records of different epochs.

Third. The dates on the monuments are such as to constitute a strong antecedent probability of their historical character. Like the records of most ancient peoples, the Maya monuments, judging from their dates, were at first scattered and few. Later, as new cities were founded and the nation waxed stronger and stronger, the number of monuments increased, until at the flood tide of Maya prosperity they were, comparatively speaking, common. Finally, as decline set in, fewer and fewer monuments were erected, and eventually effort in this field ceased altogether. The increasing number of the monuments by ten-year periods is shown in plate 4, where the passage of time (i. e., the successive ten-year periods) is represented from left to right, and the number of dates in each ten-year period from bottom to top. Although other dated monuments will be found from time to time, which will necessarily change the details given in this diagram, such additional evidence in all probability will never controvert the following general conclusions, embodied in what has just been stated, which are deducible from it:

BUREAU OF AMERICAN ETHNOLOGYBULLETIN 57 PLATE 4

DIAGRAM SHOWING OCCURRENCE OF DATES RECORDED IN CYCLE 9

DIAGRAM SHOWING OCCURRENCE OF DATES RECORDED IN CYCLE 9

[ 35 ]

1. At first there was a long period of slow growth represented by few monuments, which, however, increased in number toward the end.

2. This was followed without interruption by a period of increased activity, the period from which the great majority of the monuments date.

3. Finally this period came to rather an abrupt end, indicated by the sudden cessation in the erection of dated monuments.

The consideration of these indisputable facts tends to establish the historical rather than the astronomical character of the monuments. For had the erection of the monuments depended on the successive recurrences of some astronomical phenomenon, there would be corresponding intervals between the dates of such monuments[9] the length of which would indicate the identity of the determining phenomenon; and they would hardly have presented the same logical increase due to the natural growth of a nation, which the accompanying diagram clearly sets forth.

Fourth. Although no historical codices[10] are known to have survived, history was undoubtedly recorded in these ancient Maya books. The statements of the early Spanish writers are very explicit on this point, as the following quotations from their works will show. Bishop Landa (here, as always, one of the most reliable authorities) says: "And the sciences which they [the priests] taught were the count of the years, months and days, the feasts and ceremonies, the administration of their sacraments, days, and fatal times, their methods of divination and prophecy, and foretelling events, and the remedies for the sick, and their antiquities" [p. 44]. And again, "they [the priests] attended the service of the temples and to the teaching of their sciences and how to write them in their books." And again, [p. 316], "This people also used certain characters or letters with which they wrote in their books their ancient matters and sciences."

Father Lizana says (see Landa, 1864: p. 352): "The history and authorities we can cite are certain ancient characters, scarcely understood by many and explained by some old Indians, sons of the priests [ 36 ] of their gods, who alone knew how to read and expound them and who were believed in and revered as much as the gods themselves."

Father Ponce (tome LVIII, p. 392) who visited Yucatan as early as 1588, is equally clear: "The natives of Yucatan are among all the inhabitants of New Spain especially deserving of praise for three things. First that before the Spaniards came they made use of characters and letters with which they wrote out their histories, their ceremonies, the order of sacrifices to their idols and their calendars in books made of the bark of a certain tree."

Doctor Aguilar, who wrote but little later (1596), gives more details as to the kind of events which were recorded. "On these [the fiber books] they painted in color the reckoning of their years, wars, pestilences, hurricanes, inundations, famines and other events."

Finally, as late as 1697, some of these historical codices were in the possession of the last great independent Maya ruler, one Canek. Says Villagutierre (1701: lib. VI, cap. IV) in this connection: "Because their king [Canek] had read it in his analtehes [fiber-books or codices] they had knowledge of the provinces of Yucatan, and of the fact that their ancestors had formerly come from them; analtehes or histories being one and the same thing."

It is clear from the foregoing extracts, that the Maya of Yucatan recorded their history up to the time of the Spanish Conquest, in their hieroglyphic books, or codices. That fact is beyond dispute. It must be remembered also in this connection, that the Maya of Yucatan were the direct inheritors of that older Maya civilization in the south, which had produced the hieroglyphic monuments. For this latter reason the writer believes that the practice of recording history in the hieroglyphic writing had its origin, along with many another custom, in the southern area, and consequently that the inscriptions on the monuments of the southern cities are probably, in part at least, of an historical nature.

Whatever may be the meaning of the undeciphered glyphs, enough has been said in this chapter about those of known meaning to indicate the extreme importance of the element of time in Maya writing. The very great preponderance of astronomical, calendary, and numerical signs in both the codices and the inscriptions has determined, so far as the beginner is concerned, the best way to approach the study of the glyphs. First, it is essential to understand thoroughly the Maya system of counting time, in other words, their calendar and chronology. Second, in order to make use of this knowledge, as did the Maya, it is necessary to familiarize ourselves with their arithmetic and its signs and symbols. Third, and last, after this has been accomplished, we are ready to apply ourselves to the deciphering of the inscriptions and the codices. For this reason the next chapter will be devoted to the discussion of the Maya system of counting time.


  1. There can be no doubt that Förstemann has identified the sign for the planet Venus and possibly a few others. (See Förstemann, 1906: p. 116.)
  2. Brasseur de Bourbourg, the "discoverer" of Landa's manuscript, added several signs of his own invention to the original Landa alphabet. See his introduction to the Codex Troano published by the French Government. Leon de Rosny published an alphabet of 29 letters with numerous variants. Later Dr. F. Le Plongeon defined 23 letters with variants and made elaborate interpretations of the texts with this "alphabet" as his key. Another alphabet was that proposed by Dr. Hilborne T. Cresson, which included syllables as well as letters, and with which its originator also essayed to read the texts. Scarce worthy of mention are the alphabet and volume of interlinear translations from both the inscriptions and the codices published by F. A. de la Rochefoucauld. This is very fantastic and utterly without value unless, as Doctor Brinton says, it be taken "as a warning against the intellectual aberrations to which students of these ancient mysteries seem peculiarly prone." The late Dr. Cyrus Thomas, of the Bureau of American Ethnology, was the last of those who endeavored to interpret the Maya texts by means of alphabets; though he was perhaps the best of them all, much of his work in this particular respect will not stand.
  3. Thus the whole rebus in figure 14 reads: "Eye bee leaf ant rose can well bear awl four ewe." These words may be replaced by their homophones as follows: "I believe Aunt Rose can well bear all for you." Rebus writing depends on the principle of homophones; that is, words or characters which sound alike but have different meanings.
  4. The period of the synodical revolution of Venus as computed to-day is 583.920 days.
  5. According to modern calculations, the period of the lunar revolution is 29.530588, or approximately 29½ days. For 405 revolutions the accumulated error would be .03×405=12.15 days. This error the Maya obviated by using 29.5 in some calculations and 29.6 in others, the latter offsetting the former. Thus the first 17 revolutions of the sequence are divided into three groups; the first 6 revolutions being computed at 29.5, each giving a total of 177 days; and the second 6 revolutions also being computed at 29.5 each, giving a total of another 177 days. The third group of 5 revolutions, however, was computed at 29.6 each, giving a total of 148 days. The total number of days in the first 17 revolutions was thus computed to be 177+177+147=502, which is very close to the time computed by modern calculations, 502.02.
  6. This is the tropical year or the time from one equinox to its return.
  7. Landa, 1864: p. 52.
  8. Cogolludo, 1688: I, lib. IV, V, p. 186.
  9. For example, if the revolution of Venus had been the governing phenomenon, each monument would be distant from some other by 584 days; if that of Mars, 780 days; if that of Mercury, 115 or 116 days, etc. Furthermore, the sequence, once commenced, would naturally have been more or less uninterrupted. It is hardly necessary to repeat that the intervals which have been found, namely, 7200 and 1800, rest on no known astronomical phenomena but are the direct result of the Maya vigesimal system of numeration.
  10. It is possible that the Codex Peresianus may treat of historical matter, as already explained.