Old Notes on the Possible ITZAM Sign Reply

Here follow some old thoughts and observations about reading the “God N hairnet” sign as a logogram ITZAM. This is found in spellings of the deity names long thought to be the so-called “Pauahtuns,” and it also seems to play some role in the name glyph of Itzamnaaj (God D).

First is a pdf of 1994 letter written to Linda Schele, not long after the publication of her Maya Cosmos book, where I posit that one name of the so-called Pricipal Bird Deity was Muut Itzamnaaj (“The Bird Itzamnaaj”). This has since been supported by a sculpted panel discovered at Tonina, depicting a full-figure version of Muut Itzamnaaj’s name (see Miller and Martin, Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, Plate 75). The letter was basically motivated by doubts I had of Linda’s proposed reading the Principal Bird Deity’s name as “Itsam Yeh,” which I think is still sometimes used and cited in the literature.

Letter to Linda Schele, Nov. 1994:

Second comes a letter from 2001, written to both Stanley Guenter and Karen Bassie-Sweet, summarizing my later thinking on the same issues. This still remains a tentative and unpublished case, but I guess that’s what the blog is for!

2001 letter to Guenter and Bassie-Sweet:

Dear Stan and Karen,

I’ll write this to the both of you, since each of you has presented good questions and observations on the God N, Pawahtuns and ITZAM reading. I should say at the outset that Steve needn’t share the blame for seeing God N as ITZAM, and I can’t be sure if he actually buys it. I am not sure of my own thinking on it’s veracity, to be honest, except to see it as one of the many “possible” decipherments that may never find proof through syllabic substitutions, etc., but which can be plausibly supported and tested.

First a bit of history. I initially considered the ITZAM value for the God N and the net headdress abbreviation around ’94 or so, and I wrote Linda a letter about it at the time. Whether she ever accepted it I can’t say, but over time I accumulated a few environments where it seems to work in intriguing ways. Even so, I’ve never thought the arguments strong enough to publish or argue for very forcefully, and you, Stan, already are well aware of some of the questionable aspects of ITZAM. In the last couple of years I’ve actually come upon a possible alternative analysis of the God N name glyphs, which I’ll discuss a bit further along, yet still I find ITZAM has some things going for it. To me, the issues remain unresolved, but the revealing patterns are nonetheless there to be studied.

Before moving on, I have to agree with Karen that “Pawahtun” probably isn’t the Classic name of God N, nor is PA/PAW/PAWAH very viable as a reading for the specific God N/hairnet sign complex. It simply doesn’t fly in any other context, so I’ve long been prepared to consider a completely different value. Hence…

The ITZAM value first suggested itself in the “God N” names that get recycled at Piedras Negras, where it is the first of three signs ending in -K’AN-AHK. The standard form of the glyph is of course the turtleshell with the K’AN infix and topped by the “hairnet.” Alternatively we have God N conflated with the turtle head variant and K’AN infixed as the ear ornament. Some inscribed sherd texts excavated from PN show the alternative spelling “hairnet”-K’AN a-ku, though before these were unearthed by Steve’s project I had noticed that Copan Stela C made reference to a deity named “God N”-K’AN-a-ku, which is of course the same thing (but not a reference to anyone from PN). The ending -k’anahk quickly brought to my mind Itzamkanak, the place name famous from the Cortes entrada through Tabasco and into the Peten. Now, I see no direct historical connection between this contact-period site (El Tigre, most suppose) and Piedras Negras, but I can entertain that this apparent god name could be equally used as a personal name or title in one setting, and as a place name in another. At any rate, it was this specific context that seemed to me to offer ITZAM as a good hypothesis to pursue got the God N and “hairnet” signs.

On the Hieroglyphic Step of Structure 2 at Copan, we may have an example of the same deity name. The glyph is partially damaged, if I recall, but the turtleshell and the hairnet are pretty clear, and intriguingly the prefix to the entire glyph is Landa’s i- sign. I’ve wondered if this is a phonetic complement for the full Itzamk’anak name.

Now for the Itzamnaaj name. You’ve seen the Quirigua, Stela C example, where we find the hairnet atop the standard portrait name of God D, and NAAH attached as well. It seemed plausible to consider these signs as complements of a sort, providing the initial ITZAM and final –NAAH, but admittedly such a use of “logographic complements” would certainly be odd, with little if any precedent.

The hairnet sign is also sometimes superfixed to an alligator’s head, and iconographically this relates of course to the “Starry Deer Caiman” famous from PN and elsewhere, who often wears it as well. It’s a small step to consider these as representations of Itzam Kab Ain, the earth caiman. Not a strong piece of evidence, but possibly suggestive.

At Xcalumkin (Glyphic Group, S. Building, E Column) we find another God D name preceded by (for the sake of argument) ITZAM?-na- and suffixed by –ji. This I see as basically the same as the example you also noticed from the red-background polychrome vessel, where God N simply precedes God D’s portrait name. I have no problem with the idea of composite deities, but iconographically this is a “straight” Itzamnaaj figure seated nearby. While I do agree that reading ITZAM as a complement before God D’s name is awkward orthographically, I would also point out that such orthographic issues ought to hinge greatly on the etymology of the god’s name itself, which is hardly clear in this case.
The word
itzam is complex semantically, as Thompson must have been known when he posited “Iguana House” as an odd translation of Itzamnah (based solely on the Vienna dictionary). But I it’s important to realize that the name Itzam alone is fairly widely attested as a deity name associated with watery realms and mountains (see Thompson’s Maya History and Religion, p. 21), which seems fitting for God N as an Underworld character.

Would the common “Pawahtun” designator (4-“net”-TUUN) found in the codices, Pomona, etc., thus be read as Chan Itzam Tuun? There isn’t a shred of evidence I know to back up this particular reading. It is interesting that in the Classic sources, the 4-“net”-TUUN-ni glyphs never occur directly with a “traditional” God N figure. Rather, at Pomona and Laxtunich these designate watery characters shown as young men with waterlily blossoms and fish in their hair – no nets, no shells, etc. At least on Pomona, Panel 1 it would seem that these guys (and I am sure there were four of them there originally) were more like impersonators of watery Year Bearers (one holds “4 Ik’” and another “4 Kaban”), which are really not what God N was about, despite a few general overlaps.

Yet having said all of this, there is a very different reading for the God N/hairnet sign I’ve been considering of late. In a handful of texts we find reference made to a supernatural or group of gods named 4-xi-wa-TUUN-ni. One good example is from the long “Cancuen” panel buried in Guatemala somewhere, and I have seen another example incised upon a gorgeous Late Classic turtle carapace that remains unpublished, but photos of which were in Linda’s house a few years ago. The supports of the Del Rio throne from Palenque also present similar names (?-xi-wa-TUUN-ni) to indicate the supernatural identities of the watery subordinates who support the cosmic bench. So, might we actually have good evidence to posit XIW as a reading of God N and the hairnet abbreviation? Xiw is a widespread root for “fear,” which ultimately forms the likely basis for the name Xibalba. I find it really interesting that Kiche xiv is “shell” and xiuac (xiw-ahk?) is “shell played as a drum” (that is, a turtleshell). Tuun is of course a word also related to “drum,” so Chan Xiw Tuun, as a reading for these Year Bearer names, just might mean something like “the Four Shell Drums.” This in turn reminds me of the rich ethnographic data on directional rain and water deities and drums, such as we find with the Chaaks of Yucatan or the Anhels of the Tzotzil.

There is **something** here in all of this, but at present I have a difficult time reaching any firm ground on it. I can see that ITZAM and XIW each has suggestive evidence, but nothing more as far as I can see. They both can’t be right, and perhaps neither one is correct at all.

Best wishes, David


The Captives on Piedras Negras, Panel 12 6


Panel 12 from Piedras Negras is a key record of Early Classic political relations in the Usumacinta region. Its figural scene, framed by rows and columns of incised glyphs, shows a standing ruler facing three bound and kneeling captives, with a fourth prisoner shown set off from the rest behind the royal warrior. As we’ve known for many years based on an observation first made by Linda Schele, the first (front) captive is identified in nearby caption as “‘Knot-eye Jaguar,’ the Yaxchilan Lord.” This is surely the ninth king of Yaxchilan who ruled at the Period Ending and continued on the throne for about one more decade, until the accession of K’inich Tatbu Jol on (these dates become important a bit later). The middle captive on Panel 12 looks to be from the kingdom affiliated with the ruins known today as Santa Elena, and presumably much of its surrounding region along the nearby lower Río San Pedro. Little is known of the history of Santa Elena, but this prisoner’s name looks very similar to one we know from its later inscriptions, possibly re-used by several rulers.

The third (left-most) prisoner on Panel 12 has thus far gone unidentified, but I’ve an idea who he might be, based on observations of the original panel made earlier this year. The emblem glyph is highly eroded, but its shape and features suggest it might be LAKAM-TUUN-ni-AJAW, for Lakamtuun Ajaw, “the Lakamtuun Lord.” This past March I presented evidence at the UT Maya Meetings suggesting that Lakamtuun was a kingdom or political region located on the banks of the modern Río Lacantun, a major tributary of the upper Usumacinta, and perhaps near the ruins of known as El Palma. The Classic kingdom of Lakamtuun was politically important, cited at Yaxchilan, Seibal, and Itzan, and now maybe Piedras Negras.

The personal name of the Panel 12 mystery captive, recorded before the murky emblem glyph and after U-BAAH, is also suggestive. The components look to be a ?-CHAN AHK with the initial sign resembling one known to represent a downward facing snake, but lacking a firm reading. In the comparison presented in the accompanying image, one can see what looks to be the very same name written in Lintel 35 of Yaxchilan: ?-CHAN-a-ku LAMAK-TUUN-AJAW. He is cited there as a foreign lord who oversaw a subsiduary noble with political connections with the tenth Yaxchilan king, K’inich Tatbu Jol.

So, Panel 12 looks as if it shows a Piedras Negras king with three subservient rulers from neighboring kingdoms, each located along a major rivers of the western lowlands: the Río Usumacinta (Yaxchilan), the Río San Pedro Martir (Santa Elena), and the Río Lacantun (Lakamtuun). I doubt this geographical spread is a coincidence, for it may have been used to bolster Piedras Negras’s message political influence, of not control, over a vast territory to its north and south.

My sense is that the scene of Panel 12 is largely performative and symbolic of such political dominance, not to be taken too literally as evidence of long-distance taking of royal prisoners. Yaxchilan’s Lintel 35 suggests that the Lakamtuun ruler (if that’s who he is) was still reigning a few years after Panel 12’s carving and dedication. Likewise Knot-eye Jaguar of Yaxchilan seems to have ruled locally for several more years, though still perhaps as a vassal of Piedras Negras. This is not as strange as it might seem, since we know that later Maya kings represented subject rulers as bound prisoners, even though the subservient lords continued to rule for many years. Jaguar Claw of Seibal, in “power” yet shown early-on as a prisoner at Dos Pilas and Aguateca, is a good case for comparison.

It looks as if the Piedras Negras king consolidated political authority up and down the Usumacinta drainage, north and south, around the Period Ending I find the timing of great interest, for it so happens that several polities of the western area first “get going” on or around this date. It is the first known Period Ending celebrated in texts at Piedras Negras, Yaxchilan, and Tonina, and it is featured prominently in the “deep history” recorded on Piedras Negras Altar 1. Moreover, is also the opening date of the vast panorama of history recorded in the three tablets of Palenque’s Temple of the Inscriptions, which highlights K’inich Janab Pakal’s victories over (no coincidence, this) Santa Elena. In sum, It seems was a seminal period in defining the geo-politics of the western Maya lowlands for the Classic Period.

Knots, Skulls and Jaguars Reply

Dusting off a minor paleographical tidbit others have probably noticed:

A familiar royal name in the history of the Usumacinta kingdoms is “Knot-eye Jaguar.” This nickname came about as a convenient term of reference, based on the form of the name glyph: a jaguar’s head with a strap or cord running from its eye up to a bow-tie knot (see attached image, at lower left). This name, however it was originally read, was used by the ninth king of the Yaxchilan dynasty as well as by a near-contemporary lord associated with the nearby Lacanha and Bonampak (one wonders if these may be the same person), and by others who came later in the history of the region.

We lack a firm reading of the whole name, but there’s good reason to think the jaguar is simply BAHLAM, “jaguar,” with the eye-knot being a separate sign. Many years ago, while looking at photographs of a Bonampak-area stela in the Musees Royaux d’Art et d’Historie in Brussels, I noticed what looks to be a visually expanded version of the same name (it may still be a different individual) accompanied by a Bonampak emblem glyph. In the detail attached we see that the upper portion of the glyph is a jaguar head prefixed by a skull showing precisely the same curved strap and top knot. This rare “knot-eye skull” seems to be a new logogram — representing a trophy head, perhaps — and its use in other settings might offer clues to a reading. Despite the unknowns, the Brussels example strongly suggests that the standard and familiar form of the royal name “Knot-eye Jaguar” is a conflation of these two components: a “knot-eye skull” before BAHLAM.


Drawing of a Text from Jonuta, Tabasco Reply

JonutaJust a brief post this time, to share a drawing I made some years ago of an interesting inscription from Jonuta, Tabasco. The beautiful panel fragment on which these glyphs appear was published in Proskouriakoff’s Classic Maya Sculpture (Figure 69b) in a painfully small reproduction of a photograph taken sometime in the 1940s by Hasso von Winning. This sketch (made for my dissertation) was based on a larger print of the same photograph, now housed in the archives of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum. I have no information on the panel’s current whereabouts, nor of any record of it since von Winning’s image.

No time to offer any full commentary on the text, but it does contain a number of interesting grammatical features. One is a full spelling i-yu-wa-la for the demonstrative particle iyuwal, “and then…,” which later appears in Ch’olti’ as a progressive aspect marker, with cognate forms in other Ch’olan languages. Several other examples of the same i-yu-wa-la glyph appear before verbs on Stela J at faraway Copan.

The crisp style of these glyphs suggests to me a date of about 9.17. or Jonuta remains a very poorly known site, but in the Late Classic it evidently held some importance as a major political and ritual center along the extreme lower Usumacinta River, well downriver from Pomona and the Pakbu’ul kingdom.

The Origin of Copan’s Founder 2

The first Classic king of Copan, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ (KYKM), had a complicated life story spanning much of Mesoamerica. His arrival at Copan in AD 426 was the seminal event of the dynasty, but where did he come from? For many years we’ve known about his strong symbolic connections to Teotihuacan, but even within the Maya area he seems to have had roots outside of the Copan Valley, perhaps in the central Petén lowlands. New information, noticed last week while visiting Copan, now leads to an important revision to KYKM’s story, adding a new and unexpected dimension to the founder’s significance in Maya history.

Before citing the newest evidence, one clarification is necessary: KYKM was not a Teotihuacano. Some might assume his highland ethnicity based on KYKM’s appearance in later Copan iconography, where he consistently assumes the garb of a Teotihuacan warrior (best known on Altar Q). Yet his earliest portrait on the Motmot marker, possibly carved while he was still living, shows his “Maya-ness”, and only much later do we see the visual connections to highland Mexico. The key distinction is that KYKM’s political identity was deeply rooted in Teotihuacan and its pan-Mesoamerican role as a hub of political authority. The written evidence from Copan suggests that he acquired sanction for rule at Teotihuacan before founding Copan’s ruling line. Specifically, Altar Q tells us that in AD 426 KYKM is said to have “received k’awiil” (k’am k’awiil) at or in connection with Teotihuacan. K’am k’awiil is a term used elsewhere in Maya inscriptions in association with the establishment of new political lines and offices. Teotihuacan’s historical role in the Early Classic may presage that of later Tollan, “the Place of Bulrushes,” which served a center of political pilgrimage throughout Postclassic Mesoamerica, even among rulers of different ethnicities.

Now back to Copan. Last week, while looking closely at Stela 63, I noticed for the first time that KYKM has a special title with his name glyph, just barely preserved on the front on the monument (see attached photo, at bottom). The very last glyph of the inscription is damaged, but it shows his personal name, followed by what looks to me to be the place glyph 3-WITZ-a or Uxwitza’, “Three Hills Water,” along with ch’ajoom — a common ruler’s title almost as generic in meaning as ajaw, “lord.” This is a toponymic title, and clearly connected to a similar title KYKM carries on the later Stela J, where he is named as the “Three Hills Lord” (also in attached photo).

Uxwitza’, “Three-Hills-Water,” is a known place name, identifiable with one and only one Maya site: Caracol, Belize. There Three-Hills-Water is cited as a local name in both Ealry and Late Classic inscriptions, and rulers of Caracol are often portrayed standing atop animate witz mountains wearing the headband of the number 3 (hence 3-WITZ). The evidence from Stela 63 is, I feel, basic and hard to ignore: KYKM was a Caracol lord by origin.

Jane Buikstra’s strontium analysis of the founder’s bones, excavated by Bob Sharer and David Sedat within the so-called Hunal tomb, points to KYKM having spent his younger days outside of the Copan valley, probably in the central Maya lowlands. The new historical evidence would seem to agree with Buikstra’s analysis, although far more discussions on the topic will tell us for sure. A Caracol origin for the Copan founder also conforms to an odd connection ceramic Copan seems to have had with Belize – something now to be analyzed with renewed effort. The connection might also be reflected in the unusual mention of a later Copan ruler on Caracol’s Stela 16.

I suspect KYKM was born as a member of Caracol’s nobility at a time when “pre-dynastic” Copan was already a place of siginficant size and importance. He may have already had personal connections to Copan, but in AD 426 journeyed to Teotihuacan to receive the emblems and sanction of office (K’awiil), and then established a ritual center — and a new political order — where Copan’s acropolis now lies, shortly before the turn of the Bak’tun.

More to come…