Pehk and “Parliaments”

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

Mayan languages often refer to assemblies, convocations, and gatherings.

Colonial Tzotzil speaks of ch’akob k’op, a meeting marked by deliberative speech. In the same language, tzoblej, “gathering,” denotes an accumulation of people (Laughlin 1988, I:174, 195, 257). A language of roughly of similar date, Ch’olti’ offers molo, “gather” [congrejar], and pacte, “gather people” [congregar jente] (Robertson et al. 2010:307, 327).

Such encounters can take subtle shadings. Ch’orti’, a descendant of Ch’olti’, labels one kind of meeting—a person overtaking another—by its own special descriptive. This is tahwi, perhaps in the sense of “find,” or, as embedded within a phrase, intahwi a’ani ni tatar ta bi’ir, “I met (or overtook) my father on the trail” (Wisdom 1950:659; see also Robertson et al. 2010:63). What these words emphasize is the act of people moving in space to interact with others.

Another word, pehk, beckons here. First studied by perceptive colleagues (Beliaev and Davletshin 2002; Beliaev and Safronov 2004, 2009; Hull 2000:17), its detection in Maya writing stems, it seems, from an unpublished observation by Werner Nahm (Schele and Grube 1997:96-97). Pehk is attested in all Ch’olan languages. Examples from Ch’olti’ are largely nominalized, including pehcahel [pehkahel] as well as the more weighty, even judicial chacpehcahel, “final [great] judgment” or “sentence” (Robertson et al. 2010:327). The sense is of serious language, words that communicate power, command, and consequence. In Morán’s “religious section,” our best source on fuller phrases in Ch’olti’, pehkahel is a benediction from saints and angels and, ultimately, the word of God (Robertson et al. 2010:46, 48, 52, 59, 88, 101, 102 103, 105, 106, 107, 109-110, 164, 165, 168, 198). The momentous, confessional implications are clear. A pehkahel promises salvation; as a satanic lie, it endangers the soul.

Pehk goes back to Common Ch’olan *pehk-ä , a transitive verb meaning to “call” or to “talk” (Kaufman and Norman 1984:128). There are many descendants. Modern Chontal employs pekän, “call to conversation” (Smailus 1975:163), Ch’ol the very similar pejkan, “speak with” or “read aloud,” but also the more racy (and presumably related) “fall in love” and “copulate with” (Aulie and Aulie 1998:92). Ch’orti’, too, the gold standard for glyphs, presents a full range of terms, some verbal, others transformed into nouns (Wisdom 1950:562-563; sources marked “PM” are from Pérez Martínez et al. 1996:166).

pehk, “a call, a shout”
pehka, “call or shout to, call one’s name, speak”
pejka, “call, invite, invoke, read” (PM)
pehkar, “call, shout, greeting”
pehkse, “command, summon”
pehksah, “command, summons, a summons”
ah pehksah, “Indian summoner (called ‘third alcalde’) at the pueblo juzgado”
pejna’r , “call, invitation, convocation” (PM, note the elided /k/)

These terms involve (1) vocalizations, often loud ones, (2) an insistent summons to serious talk, and (3) at least two parties. There is a summoner and another who hears and obeys that command. Pehk strongly encourages others to come close for further talk.

Figure 1. The pe syllable in Landa’s abecedario (photograph by George Stuart).

Figure 1. The pe syllable in Landa’s abecedario (photograph by George Stuart).

As Nahm had doubtless noticed, pehk is detectible in Maya writing by means of Bishop de Landa’s abecedario (Figure 1). The relevant sign, a syllable, lurks to the side, accompanied by an inverted “v” to signal insertion. The sign itself is an animal head, at least to judge from its dots for whiskers near the snout and long dropping ear. Above, the letter p advertises its syllabic value.

Landa’s abecedario is quite consistent in the matter of contrast. It places an unglottalized consonant just before a glottalized one. Accordingly, ka appears before k’a and ku before k’u. Landa’s p’e [pp by Colonial Yukateko spelling, a glyph that occurs in Classic texts too) should thus follow pe. Obviously, there was a mistake, and the scribe had to improvise with an awkward insertion. As for the vowel, e, that would be expected from the Spanish pronunciation of the letter.

But why did Landa, or whoever copied the manuscript, drop the syllable and then fuss to insert it? The answer may come from the way in which the Relación was assembled. When transferred from some earlier source—the manuscript cannot be original to Landa himself—the list of syllables was botched, I suspect, by mechanical and inattentive copying. The mistake is telling. Historians have increasingly seen the Relación as a “complex and messy” document compiled over one or two centuries (Restall and Chuchiak 2002:664).

With the abecedario, the challenge has always been, from Knorosov’s time on, to relate a particular sign to its Classic-era precursor. As observed by Nahm et al., the most obvious candidate is the rabbit head, T759 in Eric Thompson’s signary, with its distinctive flint markings in the ear. The sign is neither common nor vanishingly rare. (I do not regard all rabbit heads in the script as having this reading, e.g., the ko-?-ma on K5164 and Dos Pilas Panel 15:F1; the extension of pe to other examples warrants caution; cf. Beliaev 2004:122, fig. 2.) One context, from the name for the kingdom and place of La Mar, Chiapas, appends an ‘e syllable (Figure 2; see also Beliaev 2004:129 fn. 1). This expanded spelling reinforces the likely vowel of the rabbit head—a feature indicated by the abecedario itself—and argues that, as a proposal, pe is correct. For specialists, it also yields a probable reading of pe-‘e TUUN-ni AJAW for the La Mar title (see Tonina Monument 91:pD1) or pe-‘e-TUUN-ni for its physical location (Piedras Negras 4:H1, in a reference to the founding, K’OT?-yi, of that city in the late 6th century AD).

Figure 2 pe'tuun

Figure 2. Glyphs for La Mar and its lord: (a) Piedras Negras Panel 4:H1 (photograph by Teobert Maler); and (b) Tonina Monument 91:pD1 (drawing by Ian Graham, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project, Harvard University).

The meaning of pe’ remains elusive, but the word could highlight a feature of the landscape. Chontal pe’, “crest,” is suggestive in this respect (Keller and Luciano 1997:191), and, in fact, Charles Golden informs me that La Mar lies at the base of a sierra—the “crest”?– separating the city from the Santo Domingo Valley to the west (personal communication, 2014). For his part, David Stuart wonders whether some of the rabbit heads deploy a “doubler,” perhaps to write pe-pe (personal communication, 2014; see Piedras Negras, Stela 16, D5). Other examples may elucidate the matter.

Figure 3. Summons of gods (Dresden 8a).

Figure 3. Summons of gods (Dresden 8a).

As noted by colleagues, pehk occurs in the Postclassic Dresden Codex. There, it appears as a passive verb, pehkaj, invoking, calling to, inviting, particular gods (Figure 3). The agent is unspecified, however—was it the person doing the reading and, in a sense, “activating” the document? In the Dresden, a few pehk appear to be nominalized (D14a). Two features need added mention. The first is that almost all the deities extend their hands, a gesture indicating speech, as Karl Taube pointed out to me long ago. On one page, where speech itself may be intended (D14a), their mouths gape open, as though projecting sound. The second feature is that the examples on D14a surely cue pehk but use only pe. There are no ka syllables to complete the spellings. I suspect the final velar consonant was omitted with no loss of meaning. Perhaps it was uttered as a glottal—and, to be sure, it gives pause about the reading of the La Mar sign, which may connote other possibilities than simply pe’. Modern Ch’orti’ shows the operation of consonant assimilation in one secure case: *pejkna’r > pejna’r. Under certain conditions, the k appears, then, to be optional or elided, an attribute to be revisited below.                       

What intrigues us here is the appearance of pehk in the Usamacinta drainage and beyond, all during the Classic period. Beliaev, Davletshin, and Safronov draw useful attention to the spellings on the Denver and Brussels panels (so-named from the repositories of these works), as well as a reference on Bonampak (BPK) Sculptured Stone 5. However, I wish to explore the broader implications of these references and others, beyond the details of local history.

Figure 4. Bonampak Sculptured Stone 5 (close-up from Claudia Brittenham).

Figure 4.

The act of pehk, “call, summon, invite,” occurs in very particular contexts. One of them is BPK Sculptured Stone 5 (Biro 2011:50-51). It presents a well-defined succession of events. Exactly 4 winal (80 days) before a Bonampak ruler’s accession on, June 1, AD 643, a figure labeled ju-chi-? was “called, summoned” or “invited,” pehkaj. The reference occurs at position H8-H9 on the monument and dates to, March 13, AD 643 (Figure 4). (The chi occurs in both “hand” or “agave” variants, perhaps with another conflated sign, an animal head.) Apparently, ju-chi-? needed to be in place prior to enthronement. What kind of person was this? High-resolution photos of Bonampak Sculptured Stone 1 suggests that the same person, or at least someone with the same name, also participated in an accession ceremony (Figure 5; Alexandre Tokovinine convinced me the name was not merely a title). It may be that this individual stored or held royal regalia and then proffered them to the new monarch. The main image on Sculpture Stone 5, which depicts a lord lifting a headband jewel of kingship, must pertain to this action. But the main point for this blog: he was “called” or “invited” from somewhere else, by royal summons.

Figure 5. Bonampak Sculptured Stone 1 (close-up from Claudia Brittenham).

Figure 5. Bonampak Sculptured Stone 1 (This and Figure 4 from Claudia Brittenham).

The Denver and Brussels panels have been plausibly interpreted by Beliaev and Safronov as recording a sea change in local politics (Figure 6, Beliaev and Safronov 2009). A ruler of Bonampak was captured on April 8, AD 693 ( 3 Chicchan 8 Zip), followed one day later by the summons of a long list of minor figures. Most have toponymic identifers only, suggesting they did not merit more personal references. In Beliaev and Safronov’s interpretation, these lordlings, two of them former companions of the vanquished king of Bonampak, were now compelled to switch sides and present themselves at the court of rival kingdom. Simon Martin tells me that Palenque Hieroglyphic Stairway 1 yields a similar expression, albeit with different historical characters. The Palenque Stairway text also uses the highly enigmatic yi-ta-ji phrase, perhaps in the sense of “co-capture” or “co-submission.”

Figure 6. Brussels Panel (drawing by Alexander Safronov).

Figure 6. Brussels Panel (drawing by Alexander Safronov).

Figure 7. Summons or invitation in Mural of the 96 Glyphs, N1, Acropolis, Room 29sub, Ek Balam (drawing by Alfonso Lacadena).

Figure 7. Summons or invitation in Mural of the 96 Glyphs, N1, Acropolis, Room 29sub, Ek Balam (drawing by Alfonso Lacadena).

The Usumacinta is not the only area to refer to pehk. The Mural of the 96 Glyphs at Ek Balam records what may be a nominalized version of the word. It shows the summons of the “head-throne” attendant (ba-tz’a-ma) of a foreign lord, Chak Jutwi Chan Ek’, by the local ruler, U Kit, (Figure 7, Lacadena García-Gallo 2004:fig. 18b)—the eroded beginning of this text may allude to other figures, too. A yet more intriguing case of geopolitics occurs on the recently discovered Panel 1 of La Corona (Figure 8). Already enthroned as a lord or ajaw, a young magnate from La Corona set off for Calakmul. Six days later, his overlord, Yuknoom Ch’e’n of Calakmul, performed a “calling” or “inviting” (u-pe-ji-?). I believe this expression is a nominalization in which, by expected phonological process, the –k of pehk has been assimilated to its suffixes, ji-?.

The historical scene is easy to imagine. Close your eyes: the sweaty-palmed lord of La Corona paces, cooling his heels after an arduous, mandatory journey. He is then brought into the royal presence on Nov 13, AD 673. An honor but probably fraught with danger. Meeting an overlord always is.

Figure 8. Summons by Yuknoom Ch’e’n. La Corona Panel 1:G4-H6 (drawing by David Stuart).

Figure 8. Summons by Yuknoom Ch’e’n. La Corona Panel 1:G4-H6 (drawing by David Stuart).

The sculptor did not need to indicate who the invited lord might be, for the context made that clear. The motivation must have been to prepare for an event 12 days later. At that time, the sons of Yuknoom Ch’e’n—there were 7 of them—undertook an important ritual, possibly involving the hands, k’ab, that involves elements not yet fully deciphered (?-ba-ja tu-k’a[ba]). My impression is that young lords of a kingdom were asked to attend or witness a ceremony involving more exalted youths.

In larger perspective, pehk resonates with practices elsewhere. Consider the concept of “parliaments” in the European past. These were occasions when, at royal summons, people assembled to talk, negotiate, advise, hear, and obey. They were not always about the Younger Pitt, the assertion of non-noble rights or Charles Fox and Whiggism. In this respect, later associations are unfortunate and unhelpful. Rather, as a word, “parliament,” comes from the plain idea of speaking and talking, parler, in a time of consultation and formal assembly. The English parliament, for example, descends from the Anglo-Saxon witenagemot or witan, a conciliar gathering of high nobles (Maddicott 2010; Roach 2014; but see Fletcher 2011/12:423-424, for distancing of the Parliament from earlier institutions in England). These assemblies established consensus at difficult times, threaded through or adjudicated difficult cases, and allowed noble participation within a framework of regal will. Much the same, as Karl Taube reminds me, inflected the selection of Aztec rulers by a council of lords or some of the deliberations attested for Late Postclassic Yucatan. So too, perhaps, for the Classic Maya. In acts of pehk, underlings were called and invited, summoned to the royal presence. That these events coincided with dynastic turbulence—war, succession, perhaps the acknowledgement of successors and overlords—hints at how certain kings ruled, by decree and suasion, through spoken invitations that had to be accepted.


Alexandre Tokovinine and, indirectly, Dmitri Beliaev, were most helpful with sources and access to a public presentation by Dmitri and his colleagues, Albert Davletshin and Alexandre Safronov. Alex and Simon Martin, too, corrected my view of certain dates and passages. Charles Golden helped with the physical positioning of La Mar, and Claudia Brittenham came to the rescue with high-resolution images of panels at Bonampak.

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