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