Writing Borrowed Words: Links between Postclassic Yucatan and Central Mexico
FIGURE 28. Venus god from page 49 of the Codex Dresden. His hieroglyphic name has been highlighted.
FIGURE 29. The place sign of Xocotitlan in the Matrícula de Tributos (folio 8r).
FIGURE 30. The hieroglyphic name of the Venus god from page 49 of the Codex Dresden.
The first decipherments of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jean-François Champollion in 1822 were achieved by using a clever strategy. He focused on the Rosetta Stone, a carved inscription written in three different scripts: alphabetic Greek, a calligraphic form of Egyptian called Demotic, and, at the bottom, the famed Egyptian hieroglyphs.36 Champollion guessed that the stone presented the same proclamation three different times, in three different scripts. This presentation in triplicate would make it possible for speakers of different languages (or, more accurately, readers of different scripts) to understand what the stone said. The Greek inscription was in the 1820s easy to read, and it contained a number of non-Egyptian names, such as Alexander and Cleopatra. (Alexander the great had conquered Egypt in 332 BC, and for several centuries thereafter the region was ruled by a dynasty from Macedonia). Because these names had been brought to Egypt from elsewhere, the Egyptian hieroglyphic system would not have had preexisting representations for them. Champollion guessed that Egyptian scribes would therefore have spelled out these exotic names using phonetic signs. This guess proved correct, and formed the basis for the decipherment of thousands of other hieroglyphic inscriptions.
Personal names have been important in the decipherment of many different writing systems, including Linear B.37 We therefore end with a fascinating hieroglyphic spelling on page 49 of the Codex Dresden. The Aztecs never conquered the Yucatan (where Mayan speakers have lived for centuries), and so places from that region are not included in either the Matrícula de Tributos or the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. Nevertheless, Central Mexico and Yucatan were not as separated as the geographic visions in the Matrícula and Lienzo suggest.
The Codex Dresden contains a number of almanacs about the planet Venus. Page 49 illustrates one of the manifestations of Venus as the morning star (Figure 28). Surprisingly, this figure’s costume and face paint look a lot like the costume and face paint of a fire deity worshipped in Central Mexico, Xiuhtecuhtli (“Fire Lord”). The face of this god appears on folio 8r of the Matrícula de Tributos, where he forms part of the place sign for Xocotitlan (Figure 29). Xiuhtecuhtli’s drawing has been damaged, but if you look carefully you can see that he wears the same style of face paint as the incarnation of Venus in the Codex Dresden: thin black lines across the eye and across the cheek. The hieroglyphic inscriptions above the deity on Dresden 49 make his identification as a form of Xiuhtecuhtli even stronger, and suggest that this divine being had been imported to the Yucatan from Central Mexico (Figure 30). The deity’s name is spelled out using the logogram CHAK and the syllabic signs xi-w(i)-te-i. In Mayan, chak means red, and the xi-w(i)-te-i string of syllables are probably read xiwtei. This may be an attempt to spell the foreign Nahuatl name Xiuhtecuhtli.38 The name “Red Xiwtei[cuhtli]” is certainly appropriate for a fire deity.
A number of recent studies have focused on the connections linking the Maya region to Central Mexico.39 The image and xi-w(i)-te-i spelling on page 49 of the Codex Dresden offer a fascinating example of how a small detail, the spelling of a single name, can point to much larger phenomena: the exchange of words, the adoption of foreign gods, and the interactions of distant places.
Text by Byron Hamann
36 The Rosetta stone was not the only hieroglyphic monument that Champollion studied, but it is the first one he talks about in his path breaking Lettre à M. Dacier; Champollion 1822, 4. See also Gardiner 1927, 14-15 and Coe 1992, 37-41.
37 Ventris and Chadwick 1956.
38 Whittaker 1986; Taube and Bade 1991; Macri and Looper 2003, 287-288.
39 Braswell 2003; Macri and Looper 2003; Vail and Hernández 2010.