THE HIEROGLYPHIC TEXTS
Early Mayan Accounts of the Flood
"More than fifteen hundred years prior to the conquest, the Maya developed a sophisticated hieroglyphic script capable of recording complex literary compositions, both on folded screen codices made of bark paper as well as texts incised on more durable stone or wood." (Christenson, 2003)
Russian linguist Yuri Knorozov (1955) was instrumental in demonstrating that many of the indecipherable Mayan glyphs have phonetic (syllabic) valuesthe concept was developed further by Proskouriakoff (1967). Since then we have learned that most of the previously unknown symbols are phonetic in nature (Knorozov, 1967, et al.), and now rapid progress in reading the hieroglyphs is opening up new vistas of Maya history (Schele & Friedel, 1990). Some scholars are inclined to believe the Maya inherited their hieroglyphic writing system from the earlier Olmec culture (Pohl, et al., 2002).
More important to our present theme, the recent discovery of the hieroglyphic platform at Temple XIX in Palenque (Stuart, 2000) opened up the doors to a new understanding of Classic Maya theology. The inscription begins with a description of "a series of cosmic events that occurred during the final bactún of the previous creation." (García, UNAM) The glyphs inscribed on the platform include the beheading of a "celestial crocodile" called the "Painted-back Caiman". The discovery was like shining a bright light into the recesses of a darkened cavern, illuminating our understanding of pre-Columbian Mayan theology.
According to Dr. David Stuart, professor of Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas, the platform bears an inscription of fourteen glyphs, many of which deal with the beheading of a creature he chooses to call the "Starry Deer Crocodile". In one of his several papers he intimates that the creature in the Mayan myths may actually be a personification of the Milky Way (Stuart, 1984)
In Stuart's view, the "Starry Deer Crocodile" is a variation or aspect of the "Celestial Monster" or "Cosmic Serpent" that was first identified by Dr. Herbert J. Spinden in 1913 (see Spinden, 1975). The Codex Tro-Cortesianus (left) depicts this Cosmic Serpent as participating in the release of the flood-waters destined to destroy the earth. (Eclipse glyphs are also in evidence.)
The image of a celestial caiman pouring out blood suggests a flood of torrential rain, as can be confirmed by the hieroglyphic passage written on the platform of Temple XIX which appears to refer to a deluge of blood. The fact that this was a deluge of blood as opposed to water can be confirmed by the logogram CH'ICH ("blood"). This is followed immediately by the phrase i patlaj ("and then it was formed"), suggesting a "creation of a new cosmic order" (Stuart, 2000). Mayanist Erik García comments:
"In this light the whole passage of the platform at Temple XIX alludes to a process of destruction, creation, and renewal of the universe initiated by the decapitation of a celestial caiman [crocodile] on the sacrificial date 1 Ezt'nab, which in turn caused a deluge of blood." (García, UNAM)
Flood glyphs from the Codex Tro-Cortesianus
For the Yucatec Maya, the flood was caused by Ajmuken Kab' (the "Subterranean Lords") and by B'olon ti' Ku' ("The Nine Gods") who had outraged "The Thirteen Gods" of the Heavens (cf. The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel) by the theft of a "divine insignia". As a consequence the sky fell as in the Chilam Balam version, but the four Bacabs (pillars of Heaven) are preserved as a foundation for the next world. This is most likely the reason that glyphs reading "Bacab" appear on page 74 of the Dresden Codex, which also has been interpreted to recount a story of the Great Flood (Thompson, 1972), but in these later accounts it is by water.
In the Dresden version we find eclipse signs that hang from a "water-band". Water gushes from the mouth of the Cosmic Serpent, as well as from the Sun and Moon glyphs. It is well-known that the scene of the flood preceeds the "New Year" page in the Dresden Codex; and the re-establishment of the four pillars (Bacabs) can be observed also, which has to be more than coinsidence. With the exception of the names of the dieties involved, all are nearly identical stories of the Great Flood.
Dr. Karl Taube, professor of anthropology at the University of California, has pointed out that the myth of the decapitation and dismemberment of Iztam Cab' Ahiin is suspiciously similar to the Nahuatl version contained in the Histoyre du Mexícue (Garibay, 1979) which narrates the manner in which the gods Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl dismembered the body of the Tlaltecuhtli monster, and used its body parts to form the next world. (Taube, 1995)
Flood Glyphs from p. 74 of the Dresden Codex (ch. ix). The badly worn glyphs near the top speak of a "dark [black] sky and earth".
Although in the Classical inscriptions the liquid pouring upon hapless humanity was portrayed as blood, by the time of the Dresden Codex and the much later colonial sources the liquid is consistantly portrayed as water (i.e., rain). The flood tradition among the Mesoamericans is extremely old. The data contained in the Platform text of Temple XIX at Palenque, and associated inscriptions of that time, illustrate clearly that the Great Flood is not a late tradition, but proceeds "from a Mesoamerican cultural background whose origins become lost somewhere in the depths of time." (García, UNAM)
Four glyphs from the platform of Temple XIX
While it may be true that even the oldest of these Mayan texts may be little more than 2,000 years old, scholars have no doubt that such themes as world cataclysms and re-occuring cycles of the Ages of Mankind could have been carried down via sacred ceremonies (games, dances, initiation rituals, etc.) for thousands of years even if writing was not in continuous practise throughout the entire history of each and every Mayan tribe.
And even though our present knowledge of the Maya hieroglyphic system is still in the initial stages of development, resulting in sometimes clumsey and rather unintelligible translations, it is certain that all of the basic elements of world cataclysms and renewal are present in these documents and are becoming fairly easy to recognize. No doubt, in the next few decades the texts will become clearer to the experts and the resultant translations more deft. A lot has been learned since the days of de Bourbourg and LePlongeon.
So it seems that even though the original "translations" of the Troano MS. and Codex Cortesianus attempted by the Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg and Dr. LePlongeonnow held in disreputewere found to be unreliable, we have learned that the hieroglyphic texts of the Mesoamerican codices, as well as older stone-temple inscriptions, do relate tales of floods, cataclysms, and so-called "end of the world" scenarios, even though the lands inundated in these cosmic catastrophes so far remain nameless. But Atlantis enthusiasts everywhere will always be prone to associate such events with the famous "lost civilization" of our dim, but never completely forgotten, past.
Christenson, Allen J., "Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya," a translation and commentary by Christenson, Mesoweb, 2003.
García, Erik Velásquez, "The Maya Flood Myth and the Decapitation of the Cosmic Caiman," Instituto de Investigacíones Estéticas, UNAM, Pari Online Publications.
Garibay, Angel María, Tiagonía e historia de los Mexicanos, Sepan Cuëntos 37, Editorial Porrúra, Mexico City, 1979.
Knorozov, Uri V., Drevnyaya pisímenností Tsentralínoy Ameriki, or "Ancient Writing of Central America," Sovetskaya Etnografiya, Moscow, 1955.
Knorozov, Uri V., The Writing of the Maya Indians (Russian translation Series), Vol. 4, Cambridge, Harvard Univ. Press, 1967.
Pohl, Mary, et al., "Olmec Origins of Mesoamerican Writing," Science magazine, 298 (5600), 2002.
Proskouriakoff, Tatiana, "The Writing of the Maya Indians", Series 4 (Sophie Coe translator), Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge, 1967.
Schele, Linda & Friedel, David, "A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya," William Morrow, New York, 1990.
Spinden, Herbert J., "A Study of Maya Art, Its Subject Matter and Historical Development
," Dover Publications, New York, 1975.
Stuart, David, "Royal Auto-sacrifice among the Maya: A Study of Image and Meaning," Res, Nos. 7-8, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984.
Stuart, David, Las nuevas inscripciones del Temple XIX, Palenque, in Arqueologia Mexicana, Vol. 8, No. 45, 2000.
Taube, Karl A., "The Legendary Past: Aztec and Maya Myths," (2nd impression), British Museum Press, London, 1995.
Thompson, J. Eric S., "A Commentry on the Dresden Codex: A Maya Hieroglyphic Book," American Philosophical Society, 1972.
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