A MAYAN ICONOGRAPHIC "LITERARY" CONVENTION1
The University of Texas at Austin
A "literary" convention, perhaps better labeled a "rhetorical" device, has been discerned in
Classic Maya iconography and writing that is of interest to students of discourse as well as of
iconography and writing. An analogous manifestation of this device occurs also in Mayan speech.
Not common in Western discourse or iconography, this Maya tradition consists of delineating,
referring to, or defining something by "pointing" to either side of it; by creating a hole in the middle
with statements about either side of it, a hole filled by implication. In short, the figure is not just
defined by the ground; it is created by it. The ground doesn't become the figure; instead it defines
the figure by a specific form of allusion. Elements of the tradition are retained today in Mayan
discourse, expressed verbally in the form of couplets, but it can also be found straddling the
borderline between iconography and script in artifacts of the ancient Maya.
There appears to be a convention of allusion, found on the boundary dividing iconography from
script, that is played out in a manner not easily found in English speaking literary traditions. I refer
to the notion of triangulating indexically on an unstated objective by using relationships of
contiguity, surrounding it so to speak with named associates, but not directly articulating the
objective, or at least not articulating it in the same manner as its associates. Some orally articulated
couplets, significantly present in Mayan discourse, operate in precisely this manner.
Several examples of this convention of allusion are here provided; first, contemporary couplets
from Mayan languages illustrate the convention in spoken discourse, in which the point is not
made directly, but implied as midway between the pair of meanings represented. Then three more
examples show that the convention was employed in Classic times by speakers of Mayan
languages. These examples from ancient times depend more or less on a fixed and well known list
of 20 day names which are stated directly or alluded to themselves by other relationships also well
known. These names are referenced either with glyphs from the Maya script referring to the day
names, by orally articulated day names, or by numbers given in bar-and-dot notation relating to the
KENNING THE COUPLETS
Parallelism in sequential "lines" of discourse can be referred to as coupleting. Couplets (or
coupleting) constitute a well known and long recognized literary form (or literary device) in Mayan
oral literature. For example, the following is a Tzeltal couplet:
sok a-k'ayob 'with your drum'
sok a-sot 'with your rattle'
Yucatec provides another example of such coupleting:
chakal hilib 'the red extractor'
sakal hilib 'the white extractor' (Fought 1985:135)
A very general definition is thus: "a simple paradigmatic structure composed of two pairs of
elements, such that one element is common to both pairs and one element is unique to each pair"
(Fought 1985:134). Found in all the native literatures of Latin America, yet curiously rare in
literature of indigenous North America, couplet parallelism "is the defining characteristic of
formal style among the Maya" (Edmonson 1986:59). Some couplets, frequent in Yucatec, have
hidden meanings and have been called kennings.
Repetition by couplets produces a redundancy that often becomes
reduced to the level of cliches, in which the original poetic
force is lost. On the other hand, the very formal contexts in
which they are employed may lend such expressions an additional
and esoteric semantic force, endowing the coupled concepts with a
third and dialectically derivative meaning. These may conveniently
be called kennings (Edmonson 1986:60).
One example of a kenning given by Edmonson is a Yucatec couplet in which sequential lines
contrast the semantic pair the sun and the moon which refers to "beginning and end" and hence
'eternity,' which illustrates the "hole" in the middle, between the sun and the moon, that implies or
alludes to the culturally contingent meaning 'eternity' (1986:60)
The paired lines with parallel semantic (sometimes syntactic) content (synonyms, antonyms,
symbolic complements) are sometimes contracted to form couplet compounds, such as the Tzeltal
word chan-balam meaning 'animal' and composed literally of the words chan 'serpent' and balam
'jaguar.' We can infer that the rationale behind this word is that the two animals exist adjacent to
one another on a continuum of animals that is visualized as a joined line, a circle. Thus the "hole
in the middle" is formed by including by implication or allusion all the animals ranging on the long
way around this circle. Alternatively the meaning 'animal' emerges because the continuum ranges
from 'serpent' on one end to 'jaguar' on the other. A similar interpretation can be applied to the
Tzeltal compound word te'-ak'
'plant' that is composed of the words for 'tree' and 'vine.
Commonly Tzotzil prayers will begin with the following fixed couplet formula:
lital ta yolon 'avok 'I have come before your feet'
lital ta yolon 'ak'ob 'I have come before your hands' (Gossen 1974:194)
Taken together this couplet refers to the body of the Lord to whom the prayer is addressed, using
the two body parts, hands and feet, to create by inference the trunk that separates them.
Not all couplets in Mayan discourse illustrate the "hole in the middle" rhetorical device; not
even all of the couplets referred to by Edmonson as kennings. But the couplets given above do.
Moreover, it is not only in spoken discourse that the "hole in the middle" as a "literary" convention
can be found. It also occurs on the linguistic frontier where writing and iconography are joined.
The following examples illustrate the convention on that frontier as found in Classic Maya text and
THE MIDDLE OF THE QUINCUNX
On Vase II from Chama, in the valley carved out by the Chixoy river flowing through part of
Guatemala's Alta Verapaz, a Maya lord is depicted sitting cross-legged and leaning slightly
forward, his weight on the right hand while his left hand rests on the left hip. He faces to the
viewer's left (Figure 1). This seated lord is presented in unusual costume, however. He is nearly
naked and barefoot, wearing only "jewelry" and a loincloth. Another barefoot lord sitting
cross-legged depiction, a late Preclassic Zapotec from Mound III at Monte Alban, has been
interpreted on the basis of a Datura leaf in his hand and the open mouthed vision serpent in front
of him as a ruler being initiated as a shaman in an attested Mesoamerican manner (Figure 2); first
producing the vision serpent, then being swallowed and passed through it (Stross 1992 c). In
speaking of a lord who is a shaman, I refer to manifest "state shamanism," regardless of the specific
interpretation of that phrase (cf. Chang 1983). In this context of state shamanism and shamanic
initiation of a ruler, the personage on Vase II of Chama can be seen to fit as well. Both lords are
also in one of several postural positions employed in Mesoamerican iconography that are
appropriate for inducement of specific trance types (cf. Goodman 1988).
At the level of the seated lord's head are two reptilian heads lacking lower jaws, with four
"feathers" emerging flower-like from in front of the reptilian noses of each; the one seeming to
sprout from the lord's forehead, and the other similarly "sprouting" from the tuft of hair at the back
of his elongated head. Each has at its back an assemblage usually placed on an individual's ear, and
a similar but bell shaped assembly with bifurcate scroll emanations is suspended in front of the
lord's nose. The reptile heads facing opposite directions differ slightly in detail from one another,
and together they frame the lord's face and figure, as if they fit into the composition by completing
with reptile heads the ends of the crescent shaped pectoral that he is wearing.2
A crescent or U shape with reptile heads lacking lower jaws at the top ends of the crescent is
precisely the form and format of a Classic Maya pectoral representing the portal linking this world
to the Otherworld (Stross 1992 a). This portal is equivalent to the cosmic portal in the Maya script
that is known as the "hole" glyph and that demonstrably indicates the word way (Schele 1991).
This word, referring to 'sleep,' reads h-way 'transforming shaman, animal familiar' when the
"masculine" prefix is added, The reptile heads on the Chama Vase and the lord's pectoral together
suggest that this lord is in the maw of the vision serpent portal.3
While the reptile heads immediately frame the Maya lord's head, the entire composition of the
seated lord is framed by four Maya glyphs for four day names. They appear to be making an
important statement because of the way they are grounded in white and outlined in black, and
because of their anomalous positioning. In front of the lord are the day name glyphs known as Ben
and Ix. Behind him, on the viewer's right, are the day name glyphs known as Cib and Caban.
These glyphs are arranged as if schematically they represent the four corners of a quincunx
shape, with the seated Maya lord occupying the center. In order to appreciate their arrangement,
one needs to know that the sequence of day names, if begun at Ben, the 13th day, proceeds a day
at a time as in Table 1.
Name Ordinal Number Conventional Meaning: Maya / Aztec
Ben 13 Reed
Ix 14 Jaguar
(Men 15 Maker, Creator, Seer / Eagle)
Cib 16 Wax / Vulture
Caban 17 Earth / Earthquake
Reading from top to bottom and left to right as the Maya would, the glyphs are arranged in the
order in which they occur in the day name sequence, except that they omit the center one, given
here in parenthesis. Schematically they look like Table 2.
Summarizing, this barefoot seated Maya lord is here interpreted as a shaman initiate. His
costume including the pectoral and the reptile heads framing his head seem to so indicate, showing
that he is centered, that he is within the cosmic portal. As a shaman he would be called a h-way
'transforming shaman' in Cholan, the language of the Classic Maya script. In Yucatec Maya, the
language of the Postclassic Maya writings, the word for shaman is h-men, which, stripped of the
masculine prefix, is the dayname missing from and implied by the framed sequential daynames on
These day names are not accompanied by numerical "coefficients", so they are not dates. They
are making a statement, however, for it is clear that they are functioning to frame the day name
Men, which is absent as a day name, but positionally present as the seated lord with the reptile
heads next to his own. In other words the seated lord is implied to be the Men, to share in the
characteristics of this day name. In short, he is implied by the day names surrounding him to be a
shaman or seer. In order to appreciate further the characteristics with which by implication he is
credited, and the context within which these were derived, we need to investigate the day name and
First of all, the presence and pattern of the quincunx shape implied by the daynames on the
Chama vase suggests an association of the day with the center and also the number 5, which in
quincunx form implies the center and four corners of the world. It may be significant, then, that in
the Yucatec Maya community book, the Chilam Balam of Chumayel (perhaps at one time kept in
Maya glyphic script), in a passage known as the Creation of the Uinal, telling of the 20 days during
which the world was created, the day Men is given in the following context: "on 5 Men he made
everything" (Roys 1967:117).
Another bit of evidence is the Highland Mayan name for the day that in Yucatec is Men ('Seer').
Most of the Highland Mayan languages have the name Tz'ikin ('Bird') corresponding to Yucatec
Men. Not only does this recall the headdress of some Preclassic Mesoamerican Rulers (e.g. on La
Mojarra Stela 1; Mural 1 from Oxtotitlan); it also calls to mind the (Muan) bird atop the "world
tree" (e.g. on Palenque's Tablet of the Cross), which has "serpent wings." The reptiles flanking the
lord's head on the Chama vase are rather like his wings, his "serpent wings," suggesting, in view
of the Highland Mayan day name corresponding to Men, a birdlike aspect to his head. This is
consistent with Kent Reilly's demonstration that the three cosmic realms (Skyworld, Middleworld,
Underworld) can be related respectively to the top, middle, and bottom parts of the human body in
Olmec iconography (1990). It also fits with the Huastec Maya notion of one of the two souls (or
spirits) that people have. The Huastec Maya word tz'itziin means 'bird' and is cognate with the
Highland Guatemalan dayname Tz'ikin. The same Huastec word tz'itziin also means 'spirit' or
'soul,' and this spirit resides in the top of the head (Alcorn 1984:67).
The Aztec dayname corresponding to Men means 'Eagle.' The eagle is connected with the
serpent in Aztec iconography, and the eagle is also symbolic of the sun.5 The centrality of the sun
as well as its zenith positioning must be the particularly relevant items here, for these
characteristics fit with the bird atop the world tree,6 whether this bird is to be identified with the
sun, or the Grandmother Moon Goddess (Thompson 1971:83), or alternatively as the bird that the
Maya saw in the northern constellation Ursa Major (cf. Tedlock 1985:36; Schele 1992). To
Huastec Mayans the Grandmother Aach Eagle of oral narrative, a creator destroyer who demanded
child sacrifice and who recalls the Hero Twins' grandmother Xmucane of the Quiche Popol Vuh,
is the grandmother of Thipaak, the Maize Deity (Alcorn 1984:392). The Zapotec day
corresponding to Men has been interpreted as 'Mother' and 'Eagle,' indicating perhaps that
Thompson's hunch was correct.
The Mixe of Oaxaca, Mexico, have a dayname corresponding to Men that means 'Tobacco'
(Lipp 1991:63) Tobacco is a plant of great importance in Mesoamerica, used in divination
through trance, as a sacred offering to the gods, and in curing. It was, in fact, deified by Mayans
and other Mesoamericans (Thompson 1970:103-123). Tobacco was called by the Aztecs "the
green divinity" and said to be "'possessed by a spirit' because it served as a communication with the
gods" (Heyden 1986:37). As a means of getting a shaman into the trance, this plant can be seen
as a tranformer; it transports one to the "center". In Mixe death ceremonial, a vital ritual involves
the creation of a quincunx of bundles surrounding a central bundle that is surrounded by wild
tobacco leaves, forming the boundary defining the center and its contents (Lipp 1991:131),7 so
again the tobacco is central, and it opens the portal. Significantly, the Mixe refer to Datura, not
tobacco, as taag'amAh "grandmother" (Lipp;37). Datura is more powerful hallucinogen than
tobacco, and it is known to elicit visions of serpents (Stross and Kerr 1990). Moreover it is mixed
with tobacco in some Mesoamerican groups.8
Some characteristics of the day name corresponding to the Men that is missing from the pattern
glyphically established on the Chama Vase II have been reviewed, so it is now possible to see that
they cluster around the notion of a cosmic portal that can be opened and passed through by the
shaman with the aid of appropriate materials (and ritual). The seated lord is implied by the missing
day name specifically to be a shaman or seer, and the additional data from other Mesoamerican
cultures fill out our perceptions of the nature of the shaman, attest to the correctness of concluding
the seated lord to be named a shaman, and additionally verify the already long established semantic
cognacy of the Mesoamerican day names (Caso 1967).
Having mentioned the serpent-winged bird atop the tree recalling the reptile skulls framing the
seated lord's head, and alluded above to a template for this metaphor of souls that could reside in
the human spinal column (tree) growing out of a the pelvic girdle (monster at the base of the tree)
atop which rests the skull (bird), it remains to expand somewhat on the iconographic meaning of
the serpents/wings. Two points warrant mention. The first is that they appear to have some
connection with the ears or the earholes (just as the bell-shaped assembly seems to be connected
with the nose), both because of their positioning and because they are backed by an assembly
usually placed on an individual's ear, although the exact nature of that connection must here remain
The second is that while the ears can be seen as metaphorical "wings," substantiating the
connection of the serpent-wings with ears, there is also a significant linguistic connection between
serpents and souls in Mayan languages, underscoring the aptness of visually representing a soul or
animal familiar with a serpent. For example, the Tzotzil Maya word for this animal familiar or
"animal spirit companion" is chanul, which comes from the root chan 'serpent,' even though the
animal familiars represent many different kinds of animals (Vogt 1969:371). In Jacaltec the word
lab means roughly 'omen,' while laba is 'serpent.' In Tzeltal the word lab means 'animal familiar'
while in Mam labaj refers to 'serpent.' It is possible, then, that the serpent heads framing the seated
lord's head metaphorically represent souls or animal familiars of the seated lord. It is with the
concept of the soul that my next example of allusion through creating a hole in the middle is
FRAMED BY TWO SOULS
Mixe Indians of Oaxaca say that of the three souls possessed by human beings, one is like the
sun but with bird-like wings, and it remains in the body. The other two can leave the body in sleep.
One of these is a "bad" soul, sits on the person's left shoulder, and has bat wings; the other is a
"good" soul, sits on the right shoulder, and has eagle wings, according to Lipp, who maintains
accurately that "the representation of the soul as a winged being is indigenous to Mexico as well as
cosmopolitan in distribution" (1991:43).
A Quiche Maya conception of souls is similar to that of the Mixe, but the name given to one of
these souls is the same as a Quiche dayname, while the meaning of the other soul's name can be
linked to another dayname. The two daynames are next to eachother in the 20 day sequence but for
one intervening dayname not expressed in this Quiche conception of souls. According to Earle,
there are two souls, one on the front side (angele ajmac) and one on the back (angele chijenel), the
first a sinner and the latter a guardian (1986:163). There is a Quiche dayname
Ajmac--corresponding to Yucatec Cib--that has the same name as this soul. Alerted to daynames,
it is but a short step to conclude that the soul on the back, the guardian soul, similarly relates to the
14th Yucatec dayname Ix (Jaguar, and see Kekchi Maya hix 'jaguar'). This dayname, Ix in
Yucatec, is Iix in most dialects of Quiche. In one dialect of Quiche this 14th day name is Balam
(Jaguar), and balam is the more common Mayan word for 'jaguar.' While the 'jaguar' is in several
Mayan groups seen as a "guardian," in Yucatec, the balam spirits are specifically called
"guardians" of various things important to humans, particularly of the milpa and of the village
(Redfield and Villa Rojas 1962:113-4).
If the back soul is a "guardian" and corresponds to Ix (Jaguar), and the front soul is a "sinner"
and corresponds to Cib, then the two souls corresponding to daynames manifest a sequence from
back to front but leave a hole between them where the dayname Men should be.9 In short Cib and
Ix flank the dayname Men, which is 'Seer, Shaman' in Yucatec, corresponding to Tz'ikin 'Bird' in
Quiche, which has been discussed above and related by analogy to the "bird" soul of the skull, the
bird in the center with the serpent wings, and the eagle avatar of the sun, which is itself related to
the animal familiars of humans and to the shaman himself. The point needs no belaboring. It is
simply that the description and location of human souls in the Quiche town referred to implies an
attachment to daynames, which can then be seen to imply or allude to an entity occupying the
central hole in the pattern; an entity that is central itself and that must be constructed or
reconstructed by the audience to the discourse on the soul.
THE MISSING KING OF CORN
Harrison has noted an interesting "built-in mystery" on Tikal's Stela 2 (1991). Two emblems
described by Schele and Miller and attributed an unknown function (1986:52), are found on Stela
2 and elsewhere in the Maya region, often flanking a ruler in the iconography. Referred to by
Harrison as Gods 7 and 9, because these emblems are accompanied by bar-and-dot versions of the
Maya numbers for 7 and 9, he wondered where number 8 was to be found. His paper solves the
mystery by positing the ruler to represent the number 8 by virtue of his impersonation of the maize
deity. On Stela D at Copan he found confirmation of his thesis; on the king's right side, just above
and slightly forward of the 9 emblem is the number 8 in bar-and-dot notation and a head that
Harrison takes to be the head variant of the number 8 and patron of the day Kan, i.e. the Maize God.
Although I interpret the cross in the 7 emblem and the sacrum or "May" glyph of the number 9 as
cosmic portals of the head and pelvic girdle respectively, and the encircled circlet atop the head
next to the number 8 as the cosmic conduit of the spine linking these portals,10 the way in which
7 and 9 relate to 8 are undisputed. Clearly the number 8 is the number of the Maize God, and at
least that part of the mystery is solved.
Although day names can be invoked and linked to the numbers involved here, and even used to
good effect in investigating and verifying the meaning, and thereby solving the mystery of the
hidden 8, it is nonetheless the numbers 7 and 9 that frame the almost everywhere unstated and very
important middle number 8. Again we have an example of the hole in the middle, created by the
framing components of a traditional structured sequence to which they allude and give meaning.
In order to have such allusions, by leaving out the middle; creating a hole that implies the
important object of the allusion, there needs to be a well established, well known, and relatively
invariant structure, be it an orally pronounced list of day names (visually laid out in particular
directions), a sequence of visually depicted animal forms, an agreed upon structure of the human
body, a sequence of numbers, etc. This relative invariance is present in Mayan traditions, and it is
particularly evident in the day names and numbers. Since for us, numbers are an area of such
invariance, one could imagine this kind of allusion being relatively readily interpreted by an
English speaker, as, for example if I were to outline
It would be relatively easy to surmise the nature and placement of the missing part.
Furthermore, it is not difficult to decipher some couplet compounds such as "heaven-earth" (a
reference to what is between them, space), when they deal with concepts relatively more
independent of cultural context. But in fact we do not significantly employ this particular kind of
literary convention, and so have not looked for its presence in Mayan oral discourse, script, and
iconography. Nor would we find it easy to interpret many of the holes and their contents alluded
to in Mayan discourse in its broader sense precisely because the meanings of so many of them are
culturally dependent. As we learn more about the structured sequences in Mayan cultures we can
expect to find more examples of the literary convention outlined here.
I wish to thank Dr. Leoncio Garza-Valdes for having provided me with a photograph of Chama
Vase II which began the investigation leading to this paper.
Notice that the Zapotec seated lord and shaman initiate, unlike this Maya whose head is framed
by two reptiles, has a "Xicani" turtle lacking a lower jaw on his head facing frontward, and a
rearward facing jaguar at the back of his head. These reptiles and the jaguar are to be compared
with souls or animal familiars below.
A Classic Maya lord with his head emerging from the maw, is not much different in conception
from current Mayan views of the neckline or collar area of the female garment as a symbolic portal.
This notion is not necessarily consciously manifested, but it can be retrieved from iconographic
evidence. Among Quiche Mayans in Nahuala Guatemala, for example, ceremonial blouses known
as a kumatz po't or popa po't (Spanish huipil) have a V neck--certainly symbolizing the
maw--flanked, significantly, on the shoulders by serpent designs.
The Yucatec names for the 20 days of the Maya veintena have been used for many years as a
standard form of referring to them. These were probably not the exact names used during the
Classic at Chama, although the meanings of the daynames seem to have much in common
The Eagle is symbolic of the sun after which the diviner is named in Cholan and Yucatecan (ah
k'in 'sun, diviner, daykeeper'), and the sun is also related to the king. Speaking the the Aztec day
Eagle, Thompson says "in central Mexico the eagle was a symbol of the sun...'Ascending Eagle'
and 'Falling Eagle' were names for the sun. Thus in Mexican belief the eagle was a name for the
sun itself, and also symbolized the priest, and in some way functioned as an intermediary between
man and that divinity" (Thompson 1971:82). Nonetheless, in trying to discover the meaning of the
day Men Thompson rejects much of the sun symbolism and relates the day to the Old Moon
Goddess (whom we would today refer to as the Creator Goddess and correlate with Xmucane of
the Popol Vuh).
One version of the "world tree" or axis mundi exists in the human body. It is the vertebral
column (spiny like the Maya yaxte' or ceiba world tree), sprouting from the lower and more basic
of the two "skulls" that the human body has, the pelvic girdle, and focally the sacrum (cf. Stross
Tobacco is referred to metaphorically in Nahuatl as the "nine times beaten" one, the "nine times
pounded" one (Thompson 1970:116; Heyden 1986:36), so it is significant that the Mixe use 9
tobacco leaves for this purpose.
In Miahuatlan (Oaxaca), "They also mix it [piecietl/tobacco] with the leaf of another plant which
they call nanctzi, that is, 'madre,' which they burn and inhale the smoke and eject it through the
nostrils. They say it eases headache and hay fever. They call this mixture suchietl, which is to say,
'flower that smells'...[the plant they call 'mother' is] in general use, especially among those afflicted
with asthma" (Spores 1965:972). This plant that they call 'mother' is surely the the datura plant.
The 15th of the 20 Zapotec day names is Naa which was identified by Seler as Mother, and the
day that is identified as 'mother' in Zapotec is the day corresponding to Men of the Maya calendar,
and to the corresponding Mixe day Juuiky 'Tobacco.' Tobacco (the Mixe name for the day) and
Datura are both deep green leaves, both curative, both hallucinogens, and both mixed together to
created suchietl. It would be surprising if they were not sometimes confused with one another.
The two souls may well correspond to the two skulls of the human body, the one in back
corresponding to the bottom one, the pelvic girdle (focally the sacrum). Since things develop from
the roots upward, it makes sense to see the soul corresponding to Ix (the back one) coming first to
be followed, after an intervening hole in the sequence, by Cib.
The encircled circlet is found in various forms in Maya epigraphy and iconography, including
the glyph known as jade (representing a jade bead), the Muluc glyph which is jade turned on its
side, and many examples of earplugs. Although a bead (and perhaps a drop of water) can be seen
as meaningful iconographic attributions to this encircled circlet, the various manifestations
(encircled circlet, encircled circlet divided with half circle and two projecting "buds", encircled U
shape, upside down water jug) lead me to believe that its prototype may be in the human spinal
column, sometimes with the vertebral projections depicted and sometimes not. What makes it
special, and a significant prototype for the jade beads of the ears, is that it represents the body's
version of the cosmic conduit linking the cosmic portals. Tzotzil Mayans refer to crosses at altars
as inner and outer "doorways" to the ancestral gods, linked by the "trail" or "conduit" (Vogt
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1. Chama Vase II showing seated lord in shaman initiate pose.
(after Villacorta, J.A. and C.A. Villacorta 1927:329)
2. Zapotec image of seated lord on stone from Mound III at Monte Alban,
Oaxaca. (after Urcid 1992(2):287, Fig. 5.22)