The Mystery Behind the Maya Hieroglyphs

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

A brief introduction to Maya hieroglyphs and their history. Why were Maya hieroglyphs used, what do they mean, and have we managed to decipher them?

There was a time before the Roman alphabet dominated the way much of the world today reads and writes. The Maya hieroglyphic system is, in fact, one of the oldest writing systems and was in use from the third century BC to seventeenth-century BC in Mesoamerica. It would not be fair to compare the Mayan hieroglyphic system with the way we write today. Unlike European languages, the Maya used hieroglyphs that stood either for syllables or for whole words. 

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “hieroglyphics” as “a system of writing that uses pictures instead of words, especially as used in ancient Egypt.” While the Maya system of writing does not have anything to do with the Egyptian style, explorers from Europe in the 18th and 19th century thought that Maya writing looked similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs. The name has stuck around since, although there is no real connection between the two writing systems.

The Mayan writing system consists of over 800 characters. Some of these characters are hieroglyphic (pictorial) in the sense that they are recognizable and represent people, animals, and objects used in daily life. Others are phonetic i.e. they represent syllables. 

Mayan hieroglyphics have been found inscribed on pottery, sculpture, stone slabs, and stone lintels. Books made of tree barn consisted of these hieroglyphics during Mayan times. Unfortunately, however, all of these books (with the exception of the Maya codices) were burnt and destroyed by Spanish invaders.

Mayan Hieroglyphics sculptures found in Guatemala

A Brief History of Mayan Hieroglyphics 

For a long time, it was thought the Maya writing system may have borrowed heavily from the Isthmian script that was used by the Olmec and Epi-Olmec cultures during the Preclassic (or Formative) period. However, that changed in 2001 when a team of researchers, led by William Saturno, discovered a room with murals dating back to 100 BC in San Bartolo, northern Guatemala. Excavation efforts, which began shortly after the discovery, found samples of Maya hieroglyphics dating back as far back as to 200 to 300 BC.

Mayan hieroglyphic writing, which was the only true writing system in pre-Columbian Americas, remained in place until the Spanish conquest of much of Mesoamerica in the 16th and 17th centuries. Upon their arrival, Spanish priests began destroying works that used Mayan hieroglyphs as pagan. Anyone who was found writing in the Maya writing system was burnt at stake. 

Much of the wisdom humanity could have had access to was destroyed by these conquerors. A man by the name of Bishop Diego de Landa may, in fact, have single-handedly caused more damage than any other person. Landa, who arrived in Yucatan in 1549 CE, had in front of him the task of converting the Maya. Landa was of the belief that there existed a certain subversive faction among the Maya that wanted to go back to their own beliefs. When prayer and admonition did not work, Landa resorted to torturing the natives and burning Mayan books. In 1562, Landa burned over forty Mayan Codices and more than twenty thousand images and stelas. 

The Maya Codices

The Maya used Mesoamerican paper, made from the inner bark of certain trees, to create folding books today known as the Maya codices. Only four Mayan codices have been known to survive. These were made of either deer hide or fig-bark paper and they were folded like an accordion. Their covers were made of jaguar skin. The codices have helped scholars and researchers understand more about the culture and society during the Maya period. 

The content of the Mayan codices seems to deal almost exclusively with religious and astronomical matters. The Mayan Codices were made by scribes who noted down careful astronomical observations. The codices reveal valuable information about how the Maya viewed celestial bodies. 

The codices are named after the European cities that they were sent to. The Dresden Codex, which is considered to contain the most informative of the four codices, is kept in the city of Dresden in Germany and dates back to the 11th or 12th century. It consists of almanacs, predictions, tables of eclipses, accounting of days, and prophecies. The three and a half meter long codex is believed to have been painted by over eight scribes. They interpreted knowledge about planets and seasons with great precision. 

Six pages within the Dresden codex were devoted to calculating (accurately) the rising and various positions of the planet Venus. The “Venus cycle” is considered to be of extreme importance for the Maya. They used the cycle to determine the appropriate time for coronations and wars. 

The Madrid Codex dates back to the 15th century and is composed of two fragments. It contains religious writings and predictions. It has allowed historians and anthropologists interested in identifying the various Mayan gods and learning more about the rites and rituals that came with ushering in new years. 

The Paris Codex is perhaps slightly older than the Madrid Codex and provides us with valuable information related to the Mayan calendar. It contains prophecies for tuns and katuns and also a Maya zodiac. The codex discusses Maya rituals and ceremonies in detail, such as the ceremony held at the end of the 20-year period. 

The Grolier Codex (or the Maya Codex of Mexico) was discovered in 1971, making it the most recently discovered of the four codices. It was first exhibited publicly at the members-only Grolier Club in New York. It is said to have been found in a Mexican cave in a wooden box along with a turquoise-colored mask and is considered to date back to 1230 AD, making it the oldest of the four codices. It contains a total of 11 pages of paper covered with images of pre-Columbian death gods and Maya iconography. 

Decoding Mayan Hieroglyphs 

Our fascination with breaking these Mayan hieroglyphs is nothing news. It dates back to the sixteenth century. Diego de Landa, though he caused a lot of damage, was also the first person to try to break Mayan hieroglyphics. He convinced a Mayan scribe named Gaspar Antonio Chi to match the signs of the Mayan script and the Spanish alphabet letter for letter. The scribe got extremely frustrated with Landa – when Chi was asked to pen any sentence he wanted to in Mayan hieroglyphs, he wrote, “I don’t want to.” 

It is believed that to date about 85 percent of Mayan hieroglyphs have been decoded. This must, however, not be confused with our mastery at reading them – the majority of the decoded glyphs have only been interpreted so far. 

Scholars have spent decades trying to understand this “code language” and thankfully their efforts have not been in vain. They have learned a lot about the Mayan language, culture, and society in the process of deciphering these glyphs. The work of three researchers (or glyph experts) in the 20th century revolutionized the way we have come to understand (and decode) the Mayan writing system. Their work has allowed us to learn that Mayan hieroglyphic writing was a fully functional system based on phonetic signs. 

Linguist Yury Knorozov discovered that Mayan writing was phonetic in addition to being hieroglyphic (pictorial). Heinrich Berlin established that certain glyphs referred to places or ruling families associated with those places. Tatiana Prouskouriakoff established that many of the glyphs recorded events in the lives of Mayan rulers and their families. 

Image of part of an artifact at Caracol that is covered in Mayan hieroglyphs.

Mayan Glyphs

 Deciphering the Maya writing system is no cakewalk. It is indeed a complex, perhaps even tedious, task. There were 800, as opposed to our 26, possibilities in the Mayan writing system. Some of them were logograms i.e. symbols representing whole words. About 100 out of the 800 were syllabary i.e. a set of written symbols that represent syllables that form words. In the syllabary, sounds are formed by combining consonants with one of the vowels. For the Maya, thus, the choices were endless. For example, there were five signs that could be chosen to represent the syllable “ba” itself!  

Mayan hieroglyphs could represent sounds, ideas, or both, and a single symbol could have multiple meanings. The same Maya concept or idea can also be written in many different ways. For example, take the Palenque ruler named Pacal. His name literally translated to “hand shield.” He is sometimes represented as the picture of a hand shield and sometimes phonetically as “pa-cal-la.” Sometimes he is represented pictorially and phonetically. 

The Maya were playful in their writing. They liked to use variety in their writing. The scribes, who were also often artists, would frequently use a combination of logos and syllable glyphs to write words. Different scribes might use different combinations of glyphs to write the same word. According to a documentary on the Mayan writing system, a sign could be written in abstract form, or as the head of a god or an animal; one sign could be tucked inside another, or hidden partway behind another. Two signs could fuse together, merging their attributes.

Mayan Number System

A polymath named Constantine Rafinesque came across a volume on the Americas in which five pages of the Dresden codex had been reproduced. He was fascinated by the images of the Maya glyphs and observed how there were never any more than four dots. 

Mayan numeric system

The Mayan number system used a base of twenty and they used bars and dots to convey numbers. A dot was one. Two dots represented two and so on until number four.  A bar, which came after four dots, represented 5. They added a bar after every five numbers. So seven would be represented as a bar and two dots. Nineteen would be three bars and four dots. Zero was written as a shell-like symbol. 

This was the first time anybody had ever deciphered a Maya hieroglyph. 

The Maya Script Today

If someone wanted to write in Egyptian hieroglyphics today on their phone or computer, that would be possible. The same would be true for Meroitic and Anatolian hieroglyphs. However, can the same be said about Mayan hieroglyphs? Not yet. 

Today efforts are being made to assign a Unicode code point to each Mayan hieroglyph. The Mayan hieroglyphs in Unicode would lead to the modern use of the script. It would make Mayan hieroglyphs searchable, standardized, and widely interchangeable. Researchers and scholars from different parts of the world would be able to add to a common database to collaborate on new discoveries in real-time.

However, one must wonder: would the Unicode be able to do justice to Mayan hieroglyphs? Doesn’t standardization not directly take away from the heart and soul of the Mayan glyphs – take away from what makes them unique? And would it perhaps give new life to an archaic form of writing? Could it help us revive a lost form of art and communication?

What do you think? Leave us a comment, we would love to read your thoughts on this amazing quest and adventure in time combined with the present time.

You might also enjoy