The Maya, unlike most other peoples of the ancient Americas, wrote. We therefore possess a written record that documents the comings and goings of ajaw and other nobles. However, the Maya's notion of history may perplex the modern student. Glyphic texts are cryptically short, speak of obscure places, rituals, and entities far removed from the modern world. Thus, the texts that confront us present many problems that do not necessary plague historians of other parts of the world. For instance, we possess only those documents durable enough to withstand the harsh environmental conditions of the tropics. This limits our corpus of data primarily to stone monuments and ceramic vessels, which are the main sources of information for this website. Fortunately, scribal arts were highly valued at Palenque and the region possessed an abundant supply of fine-grained, durable limestone particularly suited for inscriptions and low relief carving. For these reasons the site of Palenque has preserved the largest corpus of inscriptions yet known.

Naturally, the Maya at Palenque and elsewhere were in touch with their own culture so they didn't take the time, especially in stone, to explain to the modern researcher the meaning of the sometimes-arcane language preserved in glyphic texts. Complex rituals are often named with a single word. For example, the word puluy, used to describe some of the rituals in Cross Group texts, means "to burn," but probably referred to a series of ceremonial actions similar to some of the scenes illustrated on this website in the section on ritual. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for our purposes, is the understanding that the Maya's notion of writing wasn't simply limited to books or other documents, but, rather, was conceived of as part of an overall artistic program that wove a complex web of reference among architectural form, iconography, and the rituals that occurred within and in front these sacred spaces and images.

"Glyphs" presents transliterations, transcriptions, and translations of a number of important texts from Palenque. However, the first two subsections provide general information about the study of Epigraphic Mayan (EpM). In this first section I review the basic issues of decipherment and our current understanding of the language and workings of the script of the Classic period Maya. The second section “Mayan Literature and Poetics” outlines the stylistic and formal elements of Mayan literature including broaching the question of what constitutes a Mayan literature and how it may be discerned when we lack an indigenous critical discourse on the subject.

The Origins of the Mayan Script and a Brief History of its Decipherment

The beauty and sophistication of the Maya script has attracted the attention of adventurers and scholars alike for well over a century and a half. There are a number of works that address the history of glyphic decipherment and scribal practice (see Kelley 1962, 1976; Schele 1982; Houston 1989; G. Stuart 1992; Coe 1992; Houston, Chinchilla Mazariegos, and Stuart 2001). Therefore, I will only present a brief history of the decipherment here.

Logosyllabic writing systems in Mesoamerica appear to have been innovated in the Middle to Late Preclassic periods (600 bce) by either the Zapotec, centered at the site of Monte Alban in Oaxaca, Mexico, or the writers of the Epi-Olmec script probably Mixe-Zoquean speakers (Justeson et al. 1985: Chapter 3; Justeson and Kaufman 1993, 1997; Kaufman and Justeson 2001). These first writing systems seem to have developed from earlier complex iconographic systems. However, the precise steps that bridge the gap between art and writing remain opaque, especially in the case of Zapotec where the script actually becomes more “iconographic” over time. John Justeson suggests that,

Writing systems develop when symbols from different systems of graphic communication are brought together into a single format in which the principles of no one preexisting system remain sufficient to interpret the relations of all symbols to one another, while linguistic principles do suffice to determine such relationships. (Justeson 1978:136)

While major strides have been made in the decipherment of Zapotec and Epi-Olmec, much debate still surrounds particular readings and interpretations (see Coe and Houston 2004; Kaufman and Justeson 2004; Urcid 2004). The Mayan script seems to have resulted from contact between the Maya of the Pacific coast and the above groups, perhaps especially from the Epi-Olmec.

The key difference between the Mayan script and other logosyllabic Mesoamerican writing systems that allowed for its linguistically more precise decipherment was a large corpus of inscriptions and its continued use into the Colonial period. In 1862, abbé Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg discovered Bishop Diego de Landa’s redacted manuscript Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan (Tozzer 1941), which contained a rudimentary Mayan “alphabet.” Following this discovery and his equally important find of a section of the Madrid Codex {link to famsi, and ritual pages}, Brasseur de Bourbourg attempted a phonetic approach to glyphic decipherment, which met with decided failure because of his misunderstanding of the basic consent vowel (CV) syllabic structure of the script. His failed attempt had dire consequences for phonetism in general because it indicated to many researchers that either Landa’s alphabet was a sham or that the script itself was primarily symbolic or ideographic.

Figure 1. Landa’s Alphabet (Tozzer 1941)
It seems that Landa, or at least those responsible for the redaction of his longer treatise on the Yucatan, did not fully understand the principles of Mayan writing. The multiple signs for what he thought were single letters confounded his conception of writing. We now clearly comprehend this confusion as being the result of a miscommunication between users of two different scripts—one alphabetic the other logosyllabic. However, as the following statement by Gaspar Antonio Chi, Landa’s main informant, suggests, the problem in comprehension might have been a bit one-sided.
Figure 2. ma’ ink’aati’ The sentiments of Landa’s informant, Gaspar Antonio Chi.
When asked to write something Gaspar Antonio Chi responsed with ma’ ink’aati’ or “I don’t want to.”

Surprisingly, even with the existence of the Landa-Chi syllabary researchers, due to their inexperience in non-alphabetic scripts, an amazing ignorance of Mayan languages, or because of contempt for the intellectual abilities of the Maya, often failed to begin their investigations from the signs comprising this list. Mostly, they misinterpreted or dismissed this valuable resource. The failure to decipher the script using this Colonial alphabet divided scholarship into two general camps—those favoring phonetism and those who did not. Unfortunately, in the first half of the twentieth century supporters of phonetism met with a string of incorrect readings, which was taken as further proof that, indeed, the inscriptions were merely symbols within a calendrical frame. For the above reasons proponents of a symbolic interpretation of glyphic meaning dominated glyphic studies until the translation of Knorosov research on phonetism and left researchers in kindred fields with the impression that while encoding a sophisticated calendrical system other components of the Maya script were unlikely to be deciphered and certainly did not represent a “phonetic” or glottalgraphic system. This unfortunately led to a general belief that Maya writing was a “limited system,” in the words of I. J. Gelb, a major theorist of writing in the mid twentieth century. He remarked that,

The best proof that the Maya writing is not a phonetic system results from the plain fact that it is still undeciphered. This conclusion is inescapable if we remember the most important principle in the theory of decipherment: A phonetic writing can and ultimately must be deciphered if the underlying language is known. Since the languages of the Mayas are still used to-day, and therefore well known, our inability to understand the Maya system means that it does not represent phonetic writing. (Gelb 1963[1952]:56)

Leaving aside the clear circularity of the argument, the real shame that this passage evidences is that once again information from an indigenous American culture had been overlooked in larger theoretical discussions of the development of writing.

Symbolic Approach

The symbolic approach was perhaps best exemplified by the work of Sir Eric Thompson. He did not entirely dismiss the existence of a phonetic component to the script, but he generally felt that the most profitable interpretative method involved the investigation of the iconic meaning of the glyphs. In some instances, especially in understanding numerical head variants and calendrical signs, this was a productive line of inquire that has yet to be exhausted. However, the iconic or symbolic evaluation of non-calendrical glyphs yields much less satisfying results. Thus, Thompson (see 1950, 1959), while ultimately incorrect in his views on phonetism, nevertheless provided a systematic bedrock for glyphic and calendrical studies and raised important questions about Maya poetic forms that have until recently been understudied (see Katherine Josserand; Hull 2003). Unfortunately, however, he effectively silenced the debate on phonetism until the 1970s.


Knorosov, however, working outside the paradigm represented by Thompson, realized both the importance of Landa’s Relación and the value of at least some knowledge of Mayan languages. Images from the codices allowed him to use Landa’s “alphabet” to decipher the names of animals pictured in scenes, like those illustrated below. The subsitution of signs found in association with these images allowed Knorosov to prove that there was a phonetic component to the Maya script as several other earlier scholars such as Léon de Rosny, Cyrus Thomas, and Benjamin Lee Whorf had argued previously, but had been unable to demonstrate conclusively. Knorosov’s accurate decipherment of a few signs (he misread many others) led to a cascade of new decipherments.

                        u-le-e ku-tzu                                     tzu-lu-TAN u-K’UH

        Software: Microsoft Office 
Madrid Pl. XX11                              Dresden page (40)


A renewed interest in phonetism was not the only key to glyphic decipherment. The methodology of structural analysis pioneered by Heinrich Berlin (1959) and Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1960) made it possible to approach glyphic texts without knowledge of the specific meaning or reading of individual words. Through the scansion of texts and by paying close attention to the dates separating events, Proskouriakoff showed that the inscriptions recorded dynastic history such as that seen in the texts of the Temple of the Cross {link to TC}. Berlin, using a similar system, identified a correlation between certain signs (emblem glyphs) and particular sites, which was later greatly elaborated upon by Joyce Marcus (1976). These signs, while better understood as titles (the Divine X Lord), were and are essential for the reconstruction of Maya political history. Proskouriakoff, in particular, demonstrated the historicity of the inscriptional literature and thereby ushered in a new period of glyphic studies that have culminated in such works on Maya history as The Forest of Kings (Schele and Freidel 1990) and more recently The Chronicle of Maya Kings and Queens (Martin and Grube 2000).

David Kelley (1968, 1976), following the methodological example of Hermann Beyer’s 1937 investigation of the inscriptions of Chichen Itza, united the structuralism of Berlin and Proskouriakoff and the phonetism of Knorosov and other earlier scholars in the first attempts at a true linguistically informed investigation of EpM. During the same period Floyd Lounsbury (1974), Linda Schele, Peter Mathews, Victoria Bricker, Barbara Macleod, John Justeson, Terry Kaufman, Katherine Josserand, and Nick Hopkins, through a revitalization of Thompson’s principle of substitution and an interest in Mayan historical linguistics and narrative structure, were able to build a solid foundation for the true linguistic decipherment of Maya Hieroglyphic texts. David Stuart, Stephen Houston, Nikolai Grube, and others, working and elaborating on these principles, soon expanded the catalog of known logographs and phonetic signs. Thus, by the time of David Stuart’s publication, Ten Phonetic Signs (1987), there were few serious scholars who doubted the logosyllabic nature of the Maya script or the fact that it recorded history. Knowledge about the script and the language that it represented had moved from paraphrases within a framework of dates to moments of phonetic transparency.

This was the state of glyphic studies in the early and mid 1990s, but since this time there has been another major jump forward in decipherment, primarily due to a profound increase in our understanding of EpM grammar. The foundations of the most recent advancements rest not only on the past work mentioned above, but also on an increased interest in glyphic spelling rules, the genetic affiliation of the language of the script, and its grammar. Scholars such as Erik Boot, Stephen Houston, Kerry Hull, John Justeson, Terry Kaufman, Alfonso Lacadena, Barbara Macleod, Martha Macri, John Robertson, Robert Wald, Søren Wichmann, Mark Zender, and others have made it possible to read EpM and see it for what it truly is—one of the first record literatures of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Because of the greater phonetic transparency of the script, answering the above questions has become possible. However, as one might expect, for each one of these points there are several different—sometimes opposing, sometimes complementary—theories. The GLYPH section of this website will serve as a partial guide through these new and exciting developments in the decipherment of EpM.

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