Puzzle Writing

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

For Justin Kerr, with boundless admiration

Transparency is not always the aim of writing. Signs can also baffle and please by means of scribal ingenuity. Sometimes the puzzle relates to esoteric matters or “magical” diagrams, as in “Sator Squares” from the ancient world. These devices were four-directional palindromes, read left-right, right-left, up-down, down-up, invoking, perhaps, deities and Latin verbs for “work” and “wheels.” Examples exist in far-flung places like Pompeii, Dura-Europos in Syria, (Figure 1, Yale University Art Gallery), and Cirencester, England (Sator Squares). Decidedly pre-Christian, Sator Squares even infiltrated Christian settings of the Early Modern period (St. Barnabas, England). As symbol and puzzle, they clearly had “legs.” Their appeal carried them across millennia.


Figure 1. Sator Square from Dura-Europos, Syria, c. AD 165–256, Yale University Art Gallery, #1933.298. 

The Classic Maya seem to have had some fun too. The setting is not a slab or painted wall at Pompeii but a pot that is among the most finely painted to survive from the Classic period. Personally, I find it hopelessly subjective to speak of the “greatest Maya painting on a pot.” (It is an exercise in futility to engage in an aesthetic tournament between past and present standards of beauty.) But here, in this instance, the hyperbole fits (for an image, Coe and Houston 2015:pl. XVIII; also Boot 2008, the first to acquire, study, and disseminate images of the ceramic). Dating to about AD 750, the vase has a named calligrapher, ‘RABBIT’-bu (T’ulub?). Such references are rare. Its presence here signals special esteem for the painter. The pot belonged, as do many of the most carefully executed pot paintings, to a youth. In this case, the boy or teenager was associated with the Peten Itza (‘i-IK’-‘a) region of northern Guatemala.

This is not the place to discuss the rich complexities of the pot. Its fascinating spellings deserve separate study. Note, for example, the unusual pronouns (an absolutive -eet for the 2nd-person singular, “you,” another absolutive, –oon, “we” [Boot 2008:12]) and the late collapse or near-homophonic play of distinct words (juun [“one]~ hu’n [“paper, book”] > huun?, highlighted here in 1 pik ka[‘]nal k’uh, 1 pik kabal k’uh, “8,000 Celestial Gods, 8,000 Terrestrial Gods.” (In 1986, I had noted a similar alternation of the number “1” and a sign for “book” on two ceramics, one in a private collection in Guatemala City).

Instead, what draws our attention is a set of four Monkey figures conversing with God D on his throne (Figure 2). A text near God D makes it clear that he speaks to an assembled group of Chuween, doubtless the four Monkeys seated to lower left (Note 1). The TE’, “tree, wood,” probably serves as a numeral classifier for the number “4.” However, as an alternative, the Popol Vuh recounts the transformation of an earlier set of “wood” people into monkeys, for “their flesh was merely wood” (Christenson 2007:90; see also Boot 2008:28). Is that the reference here? Nothing on their bodies would indicate wooden substance. The contrastive appearance of the monkeys is intriguing, veering from human and elderly to simian or deity-like. A few are elderly (as cued by beards), one may be younger. The varied faces, along with the differing headdresses, hint at the poorly understood subtleties of mythic Monkeys.


Figure 2. Detail of vase (rollout by BAMW Photography). 

The figure to far left, presumably of lowest rank, has a large olla (liquid jar) in front, as does the monkey to the far right. A lively touch is that the small simian head-glyph above the latter combines a glyph for consumption–a small head with water sign in the mouth–and the monkey’s head itself (Figure 3, see Houston et al. 2006:fig. 3.5). He must have been a thirsty fellow.


Figure 3. The drinking monkey glyph (detail, BAMW Photography).

The lead Monkey is central to our discussion of puzzle-writing (Figure 4). He is the only figure on the vase whose mouth both opens and emits a flow of….what?  One suggestion is that it forms “a stream of red liquid” (Boot 2008:8). In my view, it more likely corresponds to speech scrolls in Maya imagery, a means of showing a forceful if invisible utterance and, at times, of linking it to glyphic text (Houston et al. 2006:154–163). The glyphs are, with a few exceptions, relatively easy to read: yax k’ax winik, “the first jungle/forest men” (aside from its resonance with the Popol Vuh, k’ax being more of a Yukatekan word [Barrera Vásquez 1980:387], uhtiiy, “it happened [at],” a likely independent pronoun, ha’o’b, “those,”a reading first pointed out to me by David Stuart (e.g., Hull et al. 2009:38–39; Mora-Marín 2009:120), for spelling, see Robertson et al. 2007:48); and a mythic place name, possibly featuring the flower of the tobacco plant (Simon Martin, personal communication, 2013; see Stuart and Houston 1994:77, fig. 92). [Note 2] A collection of the independent pronoun appears in Figures 5 and 6. The wa-wa-li is more difficult to interpret, but it may record w-aw-il, “my shouts [howling]?” or “my shouters [howlers?],” aw being a root for hearty vocalizations going far back to the beginnings of Mayan languages (Kaufman and Norman 1984:116; for the pronoun, a pre-vocalic first-person singular, see Law 2014:table 31). A few other texts appear to use this expression, including two versions on a pot with inebriated (and noisy?) youths (Figure 7).


Figure 4. The main monkey and his text (detail, BAMW Photography). 


Figure 5. Independent pronoun, ha’o’b, “those,” in Maya texts (Calakmul, upper left, field drawing by David Stuart; rollout, lower left, by Justin Kerr, downloaded from Museum of Fine Arts website, recording the “First Gods, First Lords”; and La Corona Panel 2, drawing by Linda Schele, perhaps referring to multiple sculptors, a suggestion made to me by Dmitri Beliaev).


Figure 6. Parallel phrase on Copan Stela A, referring to “those, the cache-openers [pasno’m], cache-coverers [makno’m]” (-no’m ending first interpreted by David Stuart, photographer unknown). 


Figure 7. wa-wa-li/IL spellings (photograph by Justin Kerr, drawing by the Tikal Project, University of Pennsylvani).

The enigma is in their reading order. A conventional view would have them as in the figure to the left: left to right, top to bottom (Figure 8). But that is probably wrong. The speech scroll—in multiple strands to signal the flow of distinct words?—issues from the mouth, then, in the figure to lower right, touches the glyph for “First Forest.” The next glyph, “person,” is directly below, emitting its own scroll that winds its way up to the “it happened [at],” followed by the place name at #4. What do we do with the ha’o’b and wawil/wawal? The looping strands, which go “off-scene” only to reappear, at #6, suggest that the former came before the latter. By the conventions of this pot, strands appear to be start slender, then expand. Of course, it is possible that #5, 6, came prior to the others, but the scrolls from the mouth suggest otherwise. The key is to follow their twists and turns.


Figure 8. Comparison of two possible reading orders. 

For scholars, writing is serious stuff. Careers collapse or soar on the fortunes of a decipherment or after review of a small, solemn bin of essays. Yet Maya glyphs were about wit too, as playful as any monkey god. Readers would start this text, and…let go. The sinuous red lines carried them away, in a scribal frolic that continues to charm.

Note 1. The che-he-na spelling is not recording, I suspect, the first person “I,” –een, as in “I say” (cf. Hull et al. 2009:36). On ceramic texts and Ceibal Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, among other places, a switch from an involved declaration (“I say”) to the statement of a name may require too many pivots in point-of-view. Not unprecedented, but awkward. For this reason, I prefer an interpretation by Nikolai Grube: “así dice,” akin to Ch’ol che’en (1998:549). Furthermore, unusual pronouns in Maya script tend to involve divine or “mythic” actors, or those operating in a more remote if non-mythic past. Piedras Negras Panel 3 is a pertinent example, for it surely depicts a number of people long-dead at the time the panel was carved. To my knowledge, the first presentation of such pronouns was in a paper for the Society of American Archaeology meetings (Houston and Stuart 1993).

Note 2. The spellings of ha-‘i may not yet be fully resolved. One reasonable view sees them two separate morphemes, ha’ and ‘i (e.g., Hull et al. 2009:36, 38, albeit with provisos; Mora-Marín 2009:fig. 4). This would provide a deictic clitic at the end, an -i, “this, here,” reconstructed for Common Mayan (Mora-Marín 2009:table 4). But a late version from Caracol Ballcourt Marker 3 (ha-‘a?) suggests an alternative: that the earlier form was haa’, as triggered by disharmony and the appended ‘i syllable. By a process well-attested at Copan and Naranjo, this term might later have shortened to ha’.  A challenge is that, on present study, no such length is reconstructible for earlier forms of ha’ (Kaufman and Norman 1984:139).


Barrera Vásquez, Alfredo. 1980. Diccionario Maya-Español, Español-Maya. Ediciones Cordemex, Mérida.

Boot, Erik. 2008. At the Court of Itzam Nah Yax Kokaj Mut Preliminary Iconographic and Epigraphic Analysis of a Late Classic Vessel. Maya Vase Essay 

Christenson, Allen J. 2008. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Coe, Michael D., and Stephen Houston. 2015. The Maya. 9th edition. Thames & Hudson, London.

Grube, Nikolai. 1998. Speaking through Stones: A Quotative Particle in Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions.” In 50 años de estudios americanistas en la Universidad de Bonn, edited by Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar Sáenz, Carmen Arellano Hoffmann, Eva Konig, and Heiko Prumers, 543–58. Verlag Anton Sauerwein Schwaben.

Houston, Stephen, and David Stuart. 1993. Multiple Voices in Maya Writing: Evidence for First- and Second-Person References. Paper presented at the 58th meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, St. Louis.

Houston, Stephen, David Stuart, and Karl Taube. 2006. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Hull, Kerry, Michael D. Carrasco, and Robert Wald. 2009. The First-Person Singular Independent Pronoun in Classic Ch’olan. Mexicon 31(2):36–43.

Kaufman, Terrence S., and W. Norman. 1984. An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology, and Vocabulary. In Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, edited by John S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell, 77–166. Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, Publication 9. State University of New York, Albany.

Law, Danny. 2014. Language Contact, Inherited Similarity and Social Difference: The Story of Linguistic Interaction in the Maya Lowlands. John Benjamins, Amsterdam.

Robertson, John, Stephen Houston, Marc Zender, and David Stuart. 2007. Universals and the Logic of the Material Implication: A Case Study from Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing no. 62. Universals

Stuart, David, and Stephen Houston. 1994. Classic Maya Place Names. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 33. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.