te-mu and te-ma as “Throne” 1

by Stephen Houston

In the early 90s, I happened to be looking at one of Justin Kerr’s most beautiful rollouts, of a fragmentary stuccoed scene (K1524). In it, the Maize god (or some comely youth) sits on a throne, entreated by an aged god — this last is, of course, none other than the deity who helps paddle the Maize god on his watery journey. To the side, other youths dress (?) a dancer, who is, perhaps, a version of the figure on the throne. The loss of the text is regrettable, as it might have helped to explain the scene. There may well be a connection to the dressing and paddling of the Maize god on related images, such as the Museo Popol Vuh vase.

Despite its ruined state, the vessel is a masterwork. The pooled paint and gently blurred outlines impart a truly pulsing energy to the surface, a quality seen on few other vessels. It continues to be one of my favorites.

However, what really drew my attention were the glyphs in red outline that ran along the throne. The scribe had highlighted these with a dark blue wash, making the glyphs somewhat difficult to read. But I could make out the so-called alay (still a problematic reading, in my view), t’abayii (as we would now decipher it, thanks to Dave Stuart), then, [u te mu…]. A quick look at the relevant dictionaries showed that tem was a perfectly acceptable name-tag, and of rather broad distribution among lowland Mayan languages:

Yukatek (Barrera V., p. 783): “poyo o grada, altar o poyo”
Ch’olti’ (Moran source, #2711, 2712 in Bill Ringle’s reworking): “asiento, banco”
common Ch’olan (Kaufman/Norman list, #511): “seat” …with common Mayan *teem

The final term became interesting a few years later. This was because of our much reviled but–let it be said!–obviously correct publication on disharmony, done with fellow co-conspirators David Stuart and John Robertson. The vowel length was predictable, given the final, if somewhat unusual, -u in the spelling. (Our colleagues Alfonso Lacadena and Soren Wichmann have come to prefer a te’m spelling, but we are not yet convinced of it.) I then remembered another such name-tag, on a masonry throne excavated by Eric Thompson in the 30s, at San Jose, Belize (then British Honduras, see Thompson’s 1939 CIW monograph, pl. 9 in particular). Here, too, was a dedicatory context, including a clear indication that the “bat” glyph pertained to the working of stucco. One can just make out a probable u-te-*ma?/*mu. I have since seen paintings of a secure u-te-mu in a similar, if earlier, context from Calakmul, as photographed by Simon Martin. A similar spelling was probably on K5388. Unfortunately, the relevant parts of the text are in bad shape.

The finds on the pot and at San Jose were useful at the time, and continue to be so. They augmented our list of name-tags, contributed a probative, disharmonic spelling, as predicted by a prior linguistic reconstruction, and helped remove–for me anyway–any lingering doubts about Landa’s te as a sign with roots in the Classic period. (Whether the “tree/wood” TE’ ever functions syllabically is quite uncertain.) The question remains of how to read the stray “throne” logographs that appear in the inscriptions, as on the Temple XIX platform so nicely reported by DS (e.g., P4) or, for that matter, the so-called “palanquin” signs that pepper the inscriptions. Their readings are surely different. The palanquin attaches a final syllable that, I sense, triggers disharmony, thus: CVht, CVVt or CV’t — I recall that Dmitri Beliaev suggested pit or, perhaps more likely, pi’t, as the most viable reading.

One comment

  1. And I have just remembered another such spelling: Maudslay, Vol. IV, pl. 28: the stucco pier to the left, u-te-ma

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