Tough Talk and Maya Kings


By Stephen Houston, Brown University

Few conflicts begin with blows. First comes talk. Angry words serve to explain and justify an aggression, rallying friends and taunting foes. They advertise hostility to come–indeed, in part, they are that hostility. Among Maya peoples, such crusty talk was not always a good thing. The dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán, a peerless source on colonial Tzotzil Maya, likens “barbed” speech, tz’i’tz’i-k’opoj, to something dirty, dog-like, and rabid (Laughlin 1988, I:179–80).

Yet, with kings, anger plays a calculated role. Sometimes, a ruler needs to let loose, to flame out. Respect for him should blend with fear. Why? Because a perception of innate aggression keeps people in line, throwing them off-kilter. Subordinates and enemies never quite know what to expect. The Aztecs may have held just this view. Two of its emperors went by Motēuczōma, “Lord frowning in anger,”a name bristling with claimed irascibility (Karttunen 1992:153).

Elsewhere in Mesoamerica belligerence extends explicitly to depictions of speech (Houston et al. 2006:163, 154, figs. 4.5, 4.14, 4.19, 4.20). The Codex Selden, a Mixtec manuscript dating to c. AD 1555, shows two men speaking “words of flint,” apparently while hurling threats at a traveling party (Figure 1, page 7, Band III, Pohl n.d.). Virgules from their mouths denote words; small blades of flints, each half-stained with blood, underscore the truculent message.

Figure 1 Codex Selden Page 7 Band III

Figure 1   Flinty words, Codex Selden, p. 7, band III.

Dating to approximately the same time, the Mapa de Cuahtinchan No. 2, a document from the general area of Cholula, Mexico, displays relatively few virgules. But those that exist, as in Section I, appear to record a “painful moment of schism,” as groups take different paths on their journeys from a cave of origin (Figure 2, Carrasco and Sessions 2007:fig. 15.3). There are violent gestures, pointing, shouting, turned backs–it is quite a row. The scrolls are disconnected, in symmetrical alternation, almost as a sequence of chatter; their color is dark-red. The marks may be, as Davíd Carrasco and Scott Sessions note, “red-hot words” rather than bloody-minded utterances. Yet the color is suggestive.

Figure 2 Mapa de Cuahtinchan no. 2, I26-32Figure 2   Mapa de Cuahtinchan No. 2, Section I (from Carrasco and Sessions 2007:fig. 15.3)

A clearer example occurs on Monument 1, Finca San Cristóbal, from the Late Classic Cotzumalhuapa civilization of piedmont Guatemala (Figure 3, Chinchilla Mazariegos 2011:fig. 4.25). An excellent rendering by Oswaldo Chinchilla displays, in his words, a “verbal performance…with beautiful flowers and sprouts,” but a plausible alternative is that this records less a “performance” than an almost vegetal visualization of dialogue, growth that entwines but never fuses: the blade-like elements to upper right could characterize hostile speech.

Figure 3 Finca San Cristobal Mon 1

Figure 3  Speech scrolls with possible flints, Finca San Cristóbal Monument 1 (drawing by Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariego, with colors added for emphasis)

Tough talk from Maya kings may account for an enigmatic title of the Classic period. The best-known of these is an alternative epithet for the Naranjo ruler K’ahk’ Ukalaw Chan Chahk (Figure 4, Martin and Grube 2000:80–81). The title has been glossed as “He of Flint,” “perhaps his childhood moniker,” as Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube suggest in their masterly study of Maya history. But there is another possibility. Long ago, David Stuart deciphered a semblant of the third element as a logograph TI’, for ti’, “mouth” (personal communication, 1995). By extension, ti’ can mean “language” or “speech,” especially in Ch’orti’, to most epigraphers the richest and most relevant resource for decipherment (Zender 2004:Table 5). Beginning as a human head to signal acts of consumption, the glyph soon reached, Stuart discovered, an extreme state of stylization, transforming into T128 in the Thompson catalogue of Maya glyphs (for lucid discussion, see Zender 2004:212–21, figs. 38, 39, Table 5). One version on a panel at La Corona, Guatemala, now at the Art Institute of Chicago, enlists it to spell the title of a secondary lord. Here, the glyph, a truncated face, achieves an even greater stylization, to the extent that it closely resembles the sign at Naranjo (Art Institute of Chicago, Ada Turnbull Hertle Fund, 1965.407, glyph position H1; Schele and Miller 1986:pl. 101a). Thus, for the Naranjo ruler: AJ-TOOK’-TI’, aj-took’-ti’, “he of the flinty speech.” A tough-talking lord, ready for a scrap.

Figure 4 Naranjo

Figure 4   Alternative names of K’ahk’ Ukalaw Chan Chahk, Naranjo

A similar spelling, from a stairway block found at Anonal, near Ceibal, Guatemala (kindly supplied to me by Takeshi Inomata and Jessica Munson), shows a “fiery mouth,” K’ahk-ti’, as part of the name of the person buried (we presume) in a tomb (muknal) that had once existed behind this block. The TI’ is nearly identical to that on Naranjo Stela 19.

Figure 5

Figure 5  Spelling of K’ahk-ti’, Anonal, Guatemala (image supplied by Takeshi Inomata and Jessica Munson).

There is another lord with what may be the epithet. It derives from the site of Chinikiha, on a tributary of the Usumacinta River in Mexico (Figure 6). (Some years past, I had the good fortune to see it on display at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City.) The name appears on a large panel—the glyphs are just under 30 cm in height—that records the raising of a headband to the forehead of a new lord (K’AL-?-HU’N tu-BAAH, Schmidt et al. 1998:623, #416; n.b., the dates are difficult to place because of a disconnection between the evident Kib day-sign and the coefficient of the month). In short, an accession to highest office. The name appears to be AJ-TOOK’-ti-TI’, Aj-took’-ti’?, with a probable syllabic reinforcement in the form of a rare version of the TI’ glyph. Regrettably, the panel is broken, and other elements may follow to alter the reading, but this is surely a historical figure. A similar spelling recently noted on a series of limpet shells pertains to gods, who may nonetheless have had ferocious or bellicose natures (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gift of the Harry K. Wright Collection, 2015.479, and Houston Museum of Natural Science, Loan 48.1997.02; Looper and Polyukhovych 2016:figs. 3, 4, 5).

Figure 5 Chinikiha

Figure 6 Chinikiha Panel (rubbing by Merle Greene Robertson, enhanced here)

The recipients of such tough talk may also have been represented in Maya imagery. Two doleful captives appear on a cylinder vessel of Caana White Incised from Tonina, Chiapas (Becquelin and Taladoire 1990:fig.142a). The base and rim of the vase correspond to usual place for such people, pressed uncomfortably into small spaces, often under the feet of lords. Yet their earspools attract attention here. Each has a clear marking of flint, a recalcitrant material that is unlikely to have been the actual substance of the ornaments. In general, earspools relate to hearing, vocalization, and exhalation, as shown on many examples from the Early Classic period but applicable to later periods as well (Carter et al. 2012; Early Classic Earspools; see also Houston et al. 2004:figs. 4.6, 4.16, 4.17). Perhaps the captives at Tonina showed their warrior-status, their true being, in this way. Or they had to hear, continually and to their dismay, the martial language of victors.

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Figure 7. Incised cylinder vase from Tonina, Chiapas, Mexico (Becquelin and Taladoire 1990:fig. 142a). 

An ideal Maya ruler was not just splendid…he was, on occasion, cantankerous, proud in anger, best left appeased.

Acknowledgements  Takeshi Inomata and Jessica Munson generously shared their photo of the hieroglyphic stairway block from Anonal, Guatemala.


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