Blinking snake

Direction Glyphs

Constellation band

Glyphs for major directions and the center, after Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction, J. Eric S. Thompson, Third edition, University of Oklahoma Press, 1971 (first edition 1950); Rio Azul drawings in National Geographic Magazine, April 1986; and David Stuart, “The Hieroglyphs on a Vessel from Tomb 19, Rio Azul,” Maya File 229.

Notes on Mayan “Directions”

Nick Hopkins

These comments were originally posted on Aztlan, the mailing list devoted to Pre-Columbian cultures operated by FAMSI.

Kathryn Josserand and I searched through a lot of Mayan dictionaries looking for words for the directions, for a presentation at Penn’s Maya Weekend and later as part of a paper that is slouching its way to publication (I hope) in a Festschrift for Terry Kaufman (“Directions and Partitions in Maya Worldview“—?—the article is called something like that, I’m not at home to look it up).

For most Mayan langages, there are simply no words registered for “north” and “south,” even when “east” and “west” are in the dictionary.  When there are words, they may refer to climatological phenomena, as in a Chol dictionary where “norte” refers to a winter storm, not to a direction.  Other languages (e.g., Tzotzil) may use terms like “right side” or “left side” (of the sun’s path), but it varies from language to language which of these means “north” and which means “south” (i.e., whether the reference point is the Sun, presumably looking west, or a person, looking east towards the Sun).  The implication of this pattern is that “north” and “south” are not concepts of the same order as “east” and “west.”  And when the meanings of these latter terms are explored, they terms refer to the broad expanses of horizon between the solstices, not to cardinal points (although in some cases there is acculturation to Hispanic usage).  Likewise, many of the terms for “east” and “west” are based on the verbs “to exit” and “to enter”, plus the name for the Sun.  Specifically, we and Terry figured out that the origin of the Classic terms (still used in places) were most likely /*'el-ab' k'in/ and /*'och-ib' k'in/, where the “exit” ('el) and “enter” ('och) verbs are suffixed with instrumental suffixes that turn them into nouns, i.e., “exit place of the Sun” and “entrance place of the Sun,” literally, “where the sun comes out” (of his house) and “where the sun goes in” (to his house).  /'elab'/ is a term for the space in front of one’s door, where one comes out of the house, and /'ochib'/ is a term for a doorway, where one goes into a house.

Our hypothesis is that these descriptive terms suffered natural process of reduction over the years (before the Classic), so that the consonant /b'/ was lost in the clusters /b'-k'/, and the initial glottal stops and vowels /'e-/ and /'o-/ were lost, i.e., /*'elab'k'in/ became /lak'in/ and /*'ochib'kin/ became /chik'in/.  These are not unusual changes.

By the Classic these reductions had already taken place, so that the words could be written with the initial syllable signs /la/ and /chi/, i.e., /la-K'IN/ and /chi-K'IN/, respectively.

—Nick Hopkins, 6 August 2007

What this means is that while most of us will continue to gloss Mayan directional terms as having exact equivalents in English or Spanish, it would be well to remember that this is not truly the case.  A world where the sun wakes up in the morning and leaves by a door is very different from one in which the earth orbits the sun and directions refer to a needle’s orientation in an invisible field.

Northwest North
Xaman
Northeast
Northwest Northwest Northwest Northwest Xaman, North Xaman, North Xaman, North Xaman, North Xaman, North Xaman, North Xaman, North Xaman, North Xaman, North Xaman, North Xaman, North Xaman, North Xaman, North Northeast Northeast Northeast Northeast
West
Chik’in
Center
World Tree
Tzuk Te
East
Lak’in
West, Chikin West, Chikin West, Chikin West, Chikin West, Chikin West, Chikin West, Chikin West, Chikin West, Chikin West, Chikin West, Chikin West, Chikin West, Chikin Center, Zenith, Tzuk Te Center, Zenith, Tzuk Te Center, Zenith, Tzuk Te Center, Zenith, Tzuk Te Center, Zenith, Tzuk Te Center, Zenith, Tzuk Te Center, Zenith, Tzuk Te East, Likin East, Likin East, Likin East, Likin East, Likin East, Likin East, Likin East, Likin East, Likin East, Likin East, Likin East, Likin East, Likin East, Likin East, Likin East, Likin East, Likin
Southwest South
Nohol
Southeast
Southwest Southwest Southwest Southwest South, Nohol South, Nohol South, Nohol South, Nohol South, Nohol South, Nohol South, Nohol South, Nohol South, Nohol South, Nohol South, Nohol South, Nohol South, Nohol Southeast Southeast Southeast Southeast

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