Electronic Open University AMERICA ANTIQUA III




The first question a palaeographer should ask is: "What kind of writing has been used in the manuscripts and for the inscriptions ?". As far as the Maya writing system is concerned, all kinds of answers have been given. To one group of researchers e.g., it is a rudimentary, fragmentary, rebus-like writing, and to another group it was a phonetic writing. But what was it in reality ?

We can state that in the past there were around 400, except for the variants, different ancient writings (of which some still exist). This implies that the characteristics are rather scattered, which does not make deciphering easier. To have an idea of the graphic differences, one just has to take a look at the Roman, Greek, Arab, Hebrew, Egyptian, Coptic, Chinese, and Sanskrit writings. Today we are in a new stage of development - electronic writing - but speaking of ancient writings, one generally distinguishes the following 4 major stages of development :

  1. symbolic and object writing;
  2. pictographic writing
  3. ideographic writing;
  4. phonetic writing.

As soon as there are conventional signs which contain a certain information, and which can be read in a certain direction, linked to conventions, we call it a writing. The prehistoric drawings in the caves at Lascaux, Altamira and so many other places in Europe, Africa, Asia and America, included rock art with petroglyphs and frescos like of Teotihuacan, can be regarded as the predecessors of writing. They are the roots of what will later develop into writing.


We have banners, flags, standards, uniforms, quipus, totems, headdresses, military distinctions, grecas escalonadas, colors, etc. as symbolic and object writing. Later, in another lecture, we will present some Ancient American examples.


The creation of stylized drawings already distinguished man from other animals and concrete objects could be used to communicate information to his fellow-men, and, in the first place, as was his conviction, to the good and evil spirits surrounding him, are called pictograms or in some cases hieroglyphs. The writing itself is named pictographic writing. This rudimentary form is confined to reflecting only the concrete form of objects. Even with a great number of pictograms one cannot express the whole language and thoughts of human beings.


It took some time for man to realize that by joining ideas to pictograms he could increase the potential of expression these drawings have. We will give a typical example by means of illustration : to most ancient people a circle or a disc pictographically represented the sun. By adding, always according to convention, notions like 'day', and 'light' or heat' to the pictogram, it is changed into an ideogram. This considerably increased the faculty of expression. We would like to draw the reader's attention to one of the few advantages of pictographic and ideographic writing, vs. their universality. Indeed, anyone can immediately 'read' pictograms and ideograms in his own language. A striking example in this context are our traffic signs, which can also be understood by foreigners.

In spite of all its improvements, ideographic writing with its very high number of ideograms, was no real solution. The writing system remained restricted in its expressive faculties, remained defective. Every writer and reader had to learn a great many signs by heart, which meant a serious handicap. Thus the writing system was reserved to a small "elite", who acquired both knowledge and power.


Some of the ancient writings developed into a phonetic writing system with about 200-300 syllabograms or with only 30-50 phonograms, each one with only one reading or pronounciation. The phonetic writing is linked to one or several languages.

This evolution covering 3 main stages, took a long period of time. Many writing systems did not get the chance to develop completely. The problem is knowing whether the Maya writing system was at the initial, middle or final stage of its evolution at the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century.


According to our palaeographic analyses, the writing system used in the Maya codices stems from a pictographic writing which, at the time the codices were written, had developed into a syllabic, almost alphabetical system that retains a few archaic vestiges of pictograms and even iconograms. If there had been no Spanish Conquest, the Maya writing system would have evolved into a complete phonetic one , i.e. it would have become purely alphabetical and syllabic.

Owing to the brutal interruption, by the Conquista, that occured just at the peak of transition and development, Maya writing is polyvalent to a degree that is both extraorinary and puzzling, our habitual notions of writing are concerned. The polyvalent character of the graphic elements, hieroglyphs, prefixes, and suffixes usually takes one or several of the following forms :

  • pictogram,
  • ideogram,
  • phonogram,
  • iconogram,
  • astrogram,
  • determinative,
  • anagram, and
  • synogram.
Now let us verify each one of these particular forms.


Originally, Maya writing was composed of pictograms. Pictograms are, as we already know, simple pictures of concrete objects like the sun, man, mountain, sea, tree, etc. Here we should stress that pictographic writing is not connected to the phonetic character of the language and consequently it is a universal and international system. This means that anyone can 'read' the pictograms immediately in his own language. A Fleming would read the first pictogram (a circle or disc) as "zon", a Frenchman as "soleil", an Englishman as "sun", a German as "Sonne", a Spaniard as "sol", and a Maya as "kin".

Pictograms are rather frequently used in composed glyphs. Long ago, in 1965-66 (33 years ago !), our attention was first caught by pictograms when studying a composed glyph that consisted of a head followed by an erect finger. It was, together with the day glyph IMIX, one of our first and most interesting decipherments.


Scholars considered this sign as the name-glyph of the rain-god 'Chac. This god is omnipresent on the buildings of Yucatan. Checking all Mayathan names with regard to fingers and toes, we came across the name ichac or 'chac for fingernails; 'Chac being the singular form ! So we concluded that only the pictogram of the nail stood for the name of the god Chac, and not, as everyone beleived before, the entire glyph. The latter represents a short sentence : Lac Chacan Ikil. Lac means in this case "idole". This conclusion proved to be a step forward in the study of the properties of the Maya writing system.


The second example concerns our decipherment in 1965 (!) of the hieroglyph Imix, the first day of the Mayan calendar. Imix is a hieroglyph composed of 2 groups of graphic elements. The word IMIX is bipartite too: IM + IX. In Mayathan IM means "breast", more precisely "nipple", and IX, among other things, designates the name of women or female animals. When studying pictures af a woman's breasts in iconographic drawings (ICO.2) in the codices, it is clear that the upper group of signs really represents a woman's nipple = IM. By deduction we may say now that the lower group of signs of the day glyph Imix has the value IX !

In 1964, we figured it out that the IMIX glyph can be read in two ways : from top to bottom (IMIX, nipple of a woman) and from bottom to top (IXIM, maize).

On account of their ideographic or phonetic values, these and other pictograms, were later used by the Mayan scribe in a kind of rebus-form. The writers gradually improved the writing system.

     2.2 IDEOGRAMS

We know that a pictogram becomes an ideogram when it transmits the idea "connected with" or suggested by the object. For instance when the circle or disc no longer merely represents the sun, but the notions "heat", "light" or "day", the pictogram has become an ideogram. The picture shows a few of the many examples of ideograms in Maya writing :

  • the skin of the snake (CHAN), "a pars pro toto", represents the entire animal, the snake;
  • and the edge of a tortoise shell the entire tortoise (AC);
  • the cross stands for the verb "to tie crosswise" (KAX, ZINAAN in Mayathan);
  • A footprint in the sand represents "movement, to go" (Bé), etc.
Neither ideograms or pictograms are linked to a certain language. They too are universal signs, just like our road signs or traffic signs.


Phonograms play a prominent part when composing glyphs. A phonogram is a phoneticized sign; consequently it is tied to one or several languages and can be read or pronounced in only one way. Where Maya writing is concerned, phonograms seem to have derived from pictograms, ideograms or iconograms.

Some signs in the Maya manuscripts are used in one place as a pictogram, and in another as a phonogram, depending on the requirements of the text. We should always bear this particularity in mind. In Mayathan, the phoneticized circle (the pictogram of the "sun") has the phonetic value KIN, and can therefore be used in compound form to create new words. When used as phonograms, the other pictograms in the table have as phonetic value, respectively IM, BAAC, BAAT, BóOL, Bé, ON, TZAB.

Most of the graphic elements (Vollemaere catalog) being used, are phonetic signs. In other words, most compounds of glyphs form a word, sometimes even a small sentence. In one of the following lectures, the reader will find some tables concerning graphic elements having phonetic value.


According to the Mayan palaeographic terminology we proposed years ago, an iconogram is a special drawing, being part of iconographic pictures,< which is quite rarely encountered as a hieroglyph or as a prefix or suffix in the text. In fact, an iconogram may be regarded as a pictogram as far as the outer form is concerned, but inside the hieroglyph it is supplied with phoneticized graphic elements. The latter form the name and/or indicate the functions or particularities of the object concerned (iconogram). A table gives a few examples of iconograms :

  • ICO.1 = CHICCHAN = cloth, textile, ...
  • ICO.2 = IM = breast, nipple;
  • ICO.3 = CHé or Té = tree;
  • ICO.7-A = KAP.KAN = bracelet, armbangle;
  • ICO.8 = CHAMAL = cigar;
  • ICO.9 = BAB = oar;
  • ICO.11 = NAB.Té = lance.

We should stress however that this is indeed a particular aspect of Maya writing. The heads of the deities are also composed in this particular way. This sometimes explains the heteroclite composition of iconographic figures which strikes the viewer as strange. Just have a look at the head of Xaman, the Pole-star. It is interesting to examine iconographic drawings, looking for other iconograms.


Considering the special place astronomy occupied in the religious, political and agricultural life, we need not be surprised to find many astrograms or signs representing stars or planets, in hieroglyphic manuscripts or on monuments. Now, how they look like ? Certain hieroglyphs are used to represent the heavenly bodies : stars, planets, constellations, the sun, the moon, ... The contour of these glyphs then changes radically becomes a square shape. See our catalog of astrograms : publications. There are some very interesting samples of astrograms, for instance on pages 22 to 24 of the Codex Peresianus. Some of the astrograms were already known, such as : :

  • AS.01 KIN = the sun, the day, ...;
  • AS.03 AKBAL = the night, darkness;
  • AS.07 U = the moon, ...;
  • AS.08 NOH EK = XUX EK = CHAC EK = AH AH SAH CAB EK = Venus ?
  • AS.11-A Solar eclipse;
  • AS.11-B Lunar eclipse.
Others we deciphered ourself:

  • AS.02 NOHOL = the southern Pole-star;
  • AS.03 NA = Milky Way;
  • AS.05 the planet Mars;
  • AS.06 TZAB = the Pleiades;
  • AS.08 AC EK = the constellation Gemini;
  • AS.10 ZINAAN = the constellation Scorpion;
  • AS.13 the constellation of the Southern Cross;
  • AS.19 the 3 stars forming the belt, with the sword of the constellation Orion;
  • AS.20 the rain of YUM KAAX, Lord of the field;
  • AS.21 Ursa Minor, CHIMAL EK ?
  • AS.109 the Moon is in the Pleiades;
  • AS.127 the Sun is in the constellation Zinaan;
  • AS.136 Venus is in the constellation Zinaan;
  • AS.137 the Moon and Venus in conjunction.


In Egyptian hieroglyphic writing so-called determinative signs were used. Does this also apply to Maya writing ? Up to now we have found only one example (a rather doubtful one) of what might be considered a determinative: the sign CAAN = sky, to be found in the hieroglyph of the day CIB. However, it seems to us that the interpretation of the day CIB and CABAN is not yet completely accurate. Furthermore we have as yet not come across any other example of a determinative in the Maya codices. What might perhaps be considered a special kind of a determinative is the presentation of the glyph in the shape of an animal head for sacred animals, and a human head for the names of gods (see example XAMAN, Pole Star°), and in the shape of a hand for important gestures and manual action.

     2.7 ANAGRAMS

One of the most important events in the process of deciphering Maya writing has been the discovery of the 'anagram' property. What do we mean by 'anagram' ? Glyphs are composed of one or several separate graphic elements. Formerly researchers took no notion of the following possibility. As we may use a multilecture method for the combined graphic elements by modifying the order in which the various components are to be read, it is understandable that we shall obtain different words, and, consequently, different meanings. In so reasoning, we have detected several cases of multilecture or anagrams, including :

2.7.1 IMIX

The hieroglyph for the first day of the Mayan calendar, IMIX, is the one that most frequently come across in codices and on monument texts. IMIX literally means "a woman's breast". But it is rather difficult to understand why the Mayas would have written "a woman's breasts", even when it is a splendid thing, hundreds of times in their manuscripts and on their monuments.

In 1965-66 we found the answer ! The upper sign of the glyph represents, according to the iconographic drawings of a woman's breasts, clearly the value IM = breast, nipple. Through a process of deduction we may therefore conclude that the lower sign stands for the value IX. Since the glyph for the day Imix has 2 graphic elements, it can be read in two ways as an anagram (cfr. figure) : either IM + IX = IMIX, or IX + IM = IXIM.

In all 21 Mayan languages IXIM means maize, which gives us the most exciting of all our decipherments. The Maya were really "people of the maize", being their main food, and this is the reason why we find the Imix-glyph so often in hieroglyphic texts. We may state that this hieroglyph, next to its use as a day of the calendar, in most cases is to be read as IXIM= maize (Zea Mays L.)!

2.7.2 NE

The tail of four-footed animals is called Né in Mayathan and in all northern Mayan languages. This iconogram can be found as an affix in certain grammatical constructions of hieroglyphic texts. But Né gives no second interpretation that might be useful in deciphering, unless one reads the components of this affix as an anagram: N + E = NE = tail, and E + N = EN = I, me, mine, my(self). The latter reading is almost always the right one in the codices.

2.7.3 AN

The same reasoning is valid for the compound graphic element deciphered as AN. The anagram of the two components gives : A +N = AN = past participle suffix, and N + A = NA = mother, etc. In other words we can state that when studying glyphs, in most cases the possibility of more than one interpretation, and naturally more than one meaning, should be born in mind. This does not make deciphering, and consequently interpreting the text, any easier, on the contrary.

     2.8 SYNOGRAMS

It is fairly obvious that homonyms are represented by the same symbol or glyph. An enormous difficulty in deciphering Maya writing is that one single sign can also designate a synonym. In such cases only a good dictionary may help. The most important goal is then to find the original meaning of the sign or glyph, or graphic element. Here are a few examples of synograms:

2.8.1 YAX = NOH

The glyph YAX, derived from the hieroglyphs of the months YAX and YAXKIN, given by Landa, also represents its synonym NOH or NOHOL This can easily be verified by a graphic comparison with the hieroglyph representing the cardinal point NOHOL, or south. Now, how did these come to be assimilated ? The answer is to be found in the nomenclature of degrees of kinship :

- Nohol mehen, designating the eldest son (in relation to the father) is at the same time Yax.mehen, first son;
- Noh or Nohol means 'tall', 'big', 'south'; ...
- Yax = 'first', 'green', 'new'; ...

Having this information, the explanation is simple : the first (YAX) son is also the eldest and tallest (NOHOL) of the sons.

2.8.2 CAN = THAN

Landa's alphabet was not a great help, but his hieroglyphs of the days and the months on the contrary were very helpful. In 1966, when verifying all his glyphs and combinations, we got an idea seeing the hieroglyph AHAU (the 20th, and last day of the month) combined with 2 identical but unidentified affixes. The idea was to search in dictionaries and vocabularies for the word AHAU combined with 2 identical other words or syllables. At last, we found the name kan AHAUCAN, one of the four AHAU.CAN = high priest. The pronounciation of KAN and CAN was in the 16th century not so very and/or the Maya scribe used sometimes near-homonyms. The determination of the value of CAN/KAN for 2 identical affixes combined with the hieroglyph AHAU was one of our first successes at deciphering.

On the subject of CAN, we had noticed that, when consulting the Motul dictionary, 44 different words combined with CAN and THAN , were synonyms. The link between CAN and THAN is the meaning of "speech", or "conversation" . So we could translate Ahauacan as "Lord (rattle) Snake", "Lord Heaven", or "Lord Speaker". Relying on abundant examples, we were able to conclude that the affix CAN also represents its synonym THAN so we wondered which of the two values was the original one. THAN appears to be the original (see TUN/THUN). Problems like this, 2 identical affixes with a glyph, are not always so easy to solve.

2.8.3 CAUAC = ZAC

When comparing the hieroglyph of the day CAUAC to that of the month ZAC, we notice that both hieroglyphs, as given by Diego de Landa, are identical as to their graphology, except for the ZAC affixes. Therefore we may tentatively assert that CAUAC in certain cases does also represent the value ZAC. Confirmation of this interpretation can be found on page 98a of Codex Tro-Cortesianus, where we find a black and an apparently white tree, the latter having the graphic elements of CAUAC (ZAC = white). These same elements recur in this codex on page 104a, also known as "the page of the bee". /P>

Many years ago, we also found out that the graphic elements of the day glyph CAUAC forms the word KAXAAL HAA, rain (of the field), like its Aztec equivalent QUIAHUITLl, rain. The link between the two might be the presence of white clouds.

2.8.4 PAX = TUNKUL

Examining the hieroglyph of the month PAX, it struck me that the central part consisted of the already known glyph TUN. Having consulted various Mayathan dictionaries, we perceived that PAX is the same name for, among other things, a drum. A synonym for drum is TUN. The latter also occurs in the compound TUN.KUL, the sacred drum, the very same drum the Aztecs called TEPONAZTLI. So, originally the sign PAX had the phonetic value of TUN.KUL (even THUNKUL). A third interpretation discloses the sign as the anagram KULTUN, the stone on which potters grind the lime to a fine substance. The sign KUL, which we are now able to isolate thanks to our deciphering, means "plume' or 'divine/god-like". Signs that can also be used for their synonymous value, are called synograms.


The 3 hieroglyphic manuscripts that have been preserved, contain over more than 10,000 glyphs. After a comparative study of these glyphs, we were able to conclude the following. Essentially the Maya writing system boils down to a limited number of phonograms and a certain number of pictograms. With these graphic elements one can form thousands and thousands of combined hieroglyphs. These simple graphic elements can be repeated or combined to form new words or new syllables. Of these simple graphic elements we have deciphered a certain number, which in turn permits us to decipher hundreds and hundreds of hieroglyphs. For more information on the subject of deciphering hieroglyphs and the methods applied, the reader should consult our work notes and papers to various congresses and our other publications. On the other hand we will give a list of some graphic elements, and a table concerning the composition and decomposition of hieroglyphs which gives an idea about the Maya writing system.

That's all for now; till the next lecture. In our publication, "Deciphering Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing", one can find plenty more details. Publications.

For more information mail to mailto:antoon.vollemaere@skynet.be or contact :