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Hieroglyphic Writing

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Hieroglyphic Writing (Stelae)

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     No doubt the Mayan system of writing is the most complex system ever developed on the North American continent.  The Mayas used over 800 symbols or glyphs to express their thoughts in writing.  Looking at a panel of glyphs reminds one of “story boarding”.


Some 85% of known glyphs have been deciphered.  All glyphs were not engraved into stone.  Many were “written” on handmade paper, and some were folded into sections, just as one would see a modern day cardboard sun shield covering the dashboard of a car.



     There are 3 main codices that have been preserved.  There is the Paris Codex, the Madrid Codex (in the museum there), and the Dresden Codex. 

     The Paris Codex contains 22 pages of predictions and a calendar.  The Madrid Codex has 112 pages and contains predictions and other religious writings.

     The Dresden Codex has 78 pages, and is almost 11 ˝ feet long.  It is believed that it was written somewhere between A.D. 1200 to 1250. The Dresden Codex was damaged somewhat in the early 1940’s.  The first page is so smeared it is completely unreadable.  It contains predictions, records of eclipses, detailed movements of Venus, and some almanacs.  The probability that it was written at Chichén Itzá, in the Yucatán is almost unanimously accepted among scholars. 

     Other than the 3 main codices, there is another one, which probably is the oldest.  It was discovered in Chiapas, Mexico in the 1970’s.  It was discovered in a cave, inside a wooden box.  It is called the Grolier Codex.  Its’ contents deal with the movement of the planet Venus.  It is about 10 pages in length and is dated about A.D. 1230.    

     There is a series of books called the Chilam Balam.  They contain prophecies, calendars and songs.  It is said that they are oral traditions which were begun  by a magician named Balam. They are now in written form.  “Balam” is the Mayan word for jaguar.  One can write the magician’s name in glyphs either by a glyph picture of a jaguar head, or by spelling the name out in glyphs such as “ba-la-ma”.

     Glyph signs may be a sound formed with a consonant and a vowel such as li, ba, ki or Bu.  A glyph may also be a word or an idea.  A glyph may carry both meanings simultaneously.

     Glyphs, besides being written on stalae, and in books, have also been found on shells, pottery, bone, jade, cave walls and ceilings, tombs, and other temple parts.  Some discovered pieces of pottery have glyphs which say who the maker was, for whom it was made, and the purpose for which the vessel is to be used.

Glyph Composite or Square


     Each composite, or square, or block, or cartouche is the equivalent of an English sentence. Each composite may contain from 3 to 50 glyphs, and each glyph may have its own prefix, suffix, superfix, and subfix.  The main glyph or sign will be the largest object, and usually in the center, with its superfix above it, its subfix below it, its prefix to the left, and the postfix to the right.

      They are to be read in this order: The superfix and the prefix are read first.  Then the main glyph or sign is read.  Then, the postfix and subfix are read.  An easy way to remember the reading order is to imagine the cartuche or square as a long sentence. It should be read top to bottom, left to right.  It is a sentence of 3 lines.  On the first line there is only one word.  The second line may contain three words; while if there is a third line, it will contain only one word.




The Hieroglyphic Sequencing Pattern


     The physical structure of the hieroglyphic form will be in a pattern of two columns, with any number of rows.  The two (vertical) columns are read as before, top to bottom, left to right.  Imagine 2 columns side by side; column A and column B.  Across both columns (A and B), at the top, you have row 1.  Beneath row one is row two.  Beneath row two, is row three, et cetera.  On a sheet of paper, make this drawing.  Label the rows going down as rows 1, 2, and 3.  At the top, label the columns A and B.  Now, see that as one reads from top to bottom, and left to right, the correct sequence of reading is as follows:  A1, B1, A2, B2, A3, B3, and so forth.


Doing a Translation


     Would you like to practice making a translation?  First, have at hand the most pictures  of Mayan hieroglyphics you can find, along with their meanings.   Take long  translations and divide them up into short sentences.  Generally the sentence structure is in this order for translation purposes.  The first part of the square, that is, the superfix if it has one, if it doesn’t, than it will be the prefix, is the time element.  Then the verb follows.  Next, the object follows.  Finally, there is the subject.  If there is an adverb or adverbial phrase, it comes last, after the subject.


     As an example, look at the following simplified sentence:  “Yesterday, practiced bow and arrows Full Moon.”   The first part of the glyph is the time frame.  In this case it was yesterday.  The second part says what was done (verb) = practiced.  Third is the object of the sentence = bow and arrows.  Finally, is the subject  = Full Moon (the person’s name).  There may not be a time frame or object given.  A shorter sentence may simply say as follows:  Was born Pacal.  As you see from the above sentence examples, the verb may be followed by either one or two nouns.  Where there are two, the first noun is the object and the second noun is the subject of the sentence. What if you want to include  an adverb or adverbial phrase?  It is placed after the subject.  An example might be:

Today ran Pacal swiftly.  One will likely find a number of short “sentences” rather than one long run-on sentence.  They will probably all relate to the same person or event.  In each “sentence” following, a bit of new information will be added to the account. 





     The most prolific places to find hieroglyphs are on stelae.  Stelae are found in many of the Mayan ruin sites.  The most popular ones are found at Tikal, Copán, Chichén Itzá, Palenque, and Uxmal.   Incorporated with the glyphs are the Mayan numbers.  For an understanding in reading the Mayan number system, refer to the topic  “Astronomy and Mathematics”.

Interesting and Informative Websites


are listed below.  Their value lies in their intrinsic hieroglyphic nature.