Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mayan Hieroglyphs, Part I

I recently watched a NOVA documentary called Cracking the Maya Code, which explains the efforts of archaeologists, linguists, cryptographers, and artists to decipher the hieroglyphs left behind by the ancient Maya. As it turns out, Mayan script is syllabic, which means that they have a separate symbol for each syllable.[1] It took researchers a long time to figure this out because Mayan often has several unrelated symbols for each syllable.[2] Since, disappointingly, I don't have any new chapter art to draw for The Wheel of Time [3], I decided to try my hand at drawing Mayan hieroglyphs.

I found a website where they teach you how to write your name in Mayan hieroglyphs.[4] Rather than draw my name phonetically, which they suggest, I decided to capture the meaning. My name is derived from the Hebrew מַתַּתְיָה (Mattithyah).[5] It is a combination of the Hebrew terms מַתַּת (mattath), which means "a gift", and יָה (yah) which is a shortened form of "Jehovah". Thus my name means "Gift of Jehovah".

I then went to an English–Mayan dictionary.[6] The word ak'tu' [7] means "a gift" in Mayan and is spelled, hieroglyphically, ya-k'u-tu-'u. The word k'uh means "god" in Mayan and is spelled, hieroglyphically, k'u-hu. I also learned that the prefix u- (spelled u'-) and the suffix -il (spelled -li) is used in Mayan to indicate possession. So I want to spell u'-ya-k'u-tu-'u-il k'u-hu with Mayan hieroglyphs.

For the actual hieroglyphs, I used the drawings done by John Montgomery.[8] Mayan hieroglyphs are cataloged by Thompson numbers, so I will report the T-numbers (with links) of the hieroglyphs that I chose to use. Because of the large number of syllables needed, I decided to divide my name into two hieroglyphs. The first, u'-ya-k'u-tu-'u-il, would mean "the gift of":
  • For u'- I chose T13 
  • For -ya- I chose T126 
  • For -k'u- I chose T1016 (which has the added meaning "god" or "divinity")[9]
  • For -tu- I chose T89 
  • For -u'- I chose T1 
  • For -li I chose T83
This was still a lot to cram into one hieroglyph, so I combined T1016 and T89 (don't worry, that's allowed in Mayan writing). For the second part of my name I actually found hieroglyphs that meant "god" rather than trying to spell it using the syllable hieroglyphs. For this I initially chose this symbol (which is a combination of k'u- T604 and hu T740) and replaced T740 with T744a (the head of a quetzal bird). However, this didn't fill up all of the space, so I added another hieroglyph, T764, which means "serpent" but also sounds the same as the Mayan word for "sky" (chan). Then for added fun, I replaced the eye of T764 with T206, which also means "serpent" or "sky".

And this is the final result:

The meaning would be "the gift of the feathered-serpent god [10]"—me!

Read Part II here.


[1] This is in contrast to having a symbol for each sound (alphabetic, like English) or a symbol for each word (logographic, like Chinese). However, Mayan also has some hieroglyphics which represent entire words, instead of single syllables (which further complicated matters).

[2] Imagine if in addition to the symbol p we had six other symbols that stood for the same sound (voiceless bilabial plosive), all interchangeable. You can see how that would complicate decipherment. And spelling tests!

[3] If you don't know what I'm talking about, see my previous posts The Wheel of Time Chapter Art and Book Review: Towers of Midnight.

[4] See (choose English, then Ancient Maya, then Your name in glyphs!). This site also helps you to how to combine syllable glyphs in order to make words and explains what order to read the hieroglyphics in.

[5] Sorry, but I don't have IPA pronunciations for these.
      Recall that Hebrew is read from right to left.

[7] There are actually two other words in Maya which mean gift: may (spelled ma-ya) and sihah (spelled si-hi or si-hi-ha). But I liked ak'tu' better.

[8] See This includes both a syllabary (where you can see the different syllable hieroglyphics) and a dictionary (where you can see actual words constructed using hieroglyphics).
      You can also find overlapping, but non-identical sets of Mayan hieroglyphics in this .pdf (p. 9), in this .pdf (p. 50), or at this website (choose English, then Ancient Maya, then Your name in glyphs!, then scroll down to Step 3 and follow the links).

[9] It's an image of a monkey. Thus I also chose it since I was born in the Chinese calendar year of the Monkey.

[10] Historically there has been speculation that stories about the Aztec divinity, Quetzalcoātl, were corrupted versions of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (e.g. see President John Taylor's writings here). This is in part due to the fact that Latter-day Saints (Mormons) believe that after his resurrection, Christ visited the Americas to deliver his Gospel to the inhabitants of this hemisphere (to learn more, see here). However, modern scholarship has discovered that the original sources describing Quetzalcoātl were inaccurate and that there are fewer parallels between Quetzalcoātl and Jesus Christ than were originally suspected. For more information, see here and here (.pdf). Even so, I felt like it was okay to imply the "feathered serpent god" in my Mayan hieroglyphic since the feathered serpent represents a being which is both celestial and terrestrial, which Jesus Christ (Jehovah) was.


  1. Thanks for this. I was looking to do the same idea, so your posts are a helpful 'how to' :)