THE BURDEN OF OFFICE: A READING1
University of Texas at Austin
A reading provided here for the bundle representing office that is displayed on two
Classic Maya lintels is ihkatz 'burden'. It tells us nothing directly about the contents, but it
does tell us something about the position of the bundle in the socio-political scheme of the
ancient Maya and it may well tell us something about who spoke what languages and where
during the Maya Classic period.
Victoria Bricker has pointed out a fascinating relationship between the changeover of the
burden of office as it takes place today among the Tzeltal and Tzotzil speaking Maya of
Chiapas and the way it may have taken place in Classic Maya times . It concerns the knotted
bag representing the bundle of office.
Medallion necklaces serve as insignia of office in several
modern Maya communities.During the inauguration
ceremonies in Tenejapa and Zinacantan, for example, the
outgoing officials tie up their necklaces in cloth bags before
handing them over to the new officials (Bricker 1986:152).
In what appears to be an exact parallel taking place more than 12OO years ago, there
are bag bundles with knotted tops on Classic Maya lintels at Yaxchilan (e.g. Lintels 1 and 5),
apparently being held back then, as we can see graven in stone, with the same reverence that
is evident during change of office ceremonies nowadays in Tenejapa (Figure 1). And
Bricker makes the connection by means of a marvelous observation, and a cogent deduction.
The rulers of Classic period sites are often shown wearing
pectorals with medallions. The pectorals vary stylistically
from site to site...The fact that the same pectoral appears on
more than one monument at these sites implies that
they represent insignia of office rather than personal
jewelry (Bricker 1986:152).2
The knotted bundle on the lintels must therefore represent the bagged pectorals
being passed from antecedent to successor through the ritual of accession.3 Figure 1 shows
two representations of the bundle of office, tied with its knot on the top. This bundle as it
occurs at Yaxchilan is glyphically labeled with a collocation of three glyphs. Without
knowing what the glyphs say, one suspects that they might be naming the bundle with a
personal name, or naming it with a generic term, or naming a lineage associated with it,
or perhaps referring to what is inside the bundle. Now we are in a position to read this
glyph collocation, to know what it refers to, and to make some inferences about it.
The glyph collocation on the bundle is a sequence of three glyphs. They are,
including numbers referenced to Thompson's (1962) catalog, and the sound values
associated with the individual glyphs (cf. Figure 2):
1. "posterior date indicator prefix" (T679), has a sound value of i,
originally derived from Landa's alphabet and confirmed many times over.
2. "CA comb" (T25), has a sound value of ka, given in Landa's alphabet
and multiply reconfirmed.
3. "dotted (or spotted) KAN (maize)"(T5O7), has a sound value of tzi
as proposed in conjunction with persuasive argument by Stuart
(1987:16-25). The current reading in this bundle collocation of course
further confirms an already strong argument.
These glyphs in their correct reading order would be referred to by T (Thompson)
numbers 679.25:5O7, meaning that 679 is to be read first and is to the right of T25,
which is to be read second and which is above T5O7, which is to be read last.4
Together they spell out i-ka-tz(i), which can be readily identified now as meaning
'burden'. They are also spelling the Tzeltalan word that is currently spelled ihkatz, meaning
'burden'. So, now that we know what the glyphs on the bundle say, we have some further
information about the bundle, in addition to the relatively obvious iconography. This new
information says that the bundle is in fact labeled with what it functionally represents to the
participants in the ritual. It does not tell us what is in the bundle, nor even that it is a bundle.
Of primary significance here is that this word 'burden' represents a concept that is named
similarly today in Mayan languages; the concept of office holding.
Both civil and religious offices are referred to by Mayans today with the term 'burden'.
And this is despite the fact that the holding of office confers prestige and is a privilege that
is often paid dearly for. The reason is clear. Holding of public office is not just a privilege, it
is an obligation to the community; but it is also a burden because of the time and money it
takes to fulfill the burden of office. The concept of burden as applied to civil and religious
office and office-holding is referred to in Spanish by the word cargo, and is found almost
everywhere in Middle America applied to such public official posts.
If today's elective and appointive offices of community service--positions that are foci
of prestige and of power in the community (the current polity)--can be seen as burdens due to
the expenditures of time, labor, and capital involved in appropriately fulfilling one's social
and religious obligations in the service of the community, then what about the no less public
but doubtless permanent (once installed and barring unforeseen circumstances) and even
hereditary positions of Classic Maya rulership? Apparently they too referred to their role as
that of burden-bearer, as we have seen above.
In answer, one can guess that the ruler saw himself as responsible for the lives of all
his subjects and even for such things as the rising of the sun each day, to judge by the
"kingship" iconography that portrays the ruler of a polity as the center of the universe (cf.
Schele and Miller 1986). With such responsibility for the life of the community, and given
the personal letting of blood and other rituals attendant upon proper fulfillment of the highest
office for the public weal, it may be perfectly understandable that the ideology perpetrated
and perpetuated would reflect itself in the word 'burden' in reference to the symbols of power
passed on in perpetuity to holders of the highest office of the land. Needless to say, it is to
be expected that lesser offices of community service would share in the metaphor of 'burden', in
a pattern of structural and conceptual replication that pertains even today in the structuring of
Mayan lifeways (Vogt 1969:572-581)
So, not only does the glyph collocation on this bundle to be found at the site of
Yaxchilan reconfirm Stuart's reading of tzi for the glyph known as "dotted maize", its
meaning beautifully confirms Bricker's deduction that the Classic Maya bundle must
contain insignia of office.
And there is another interesting consequence of our ability to read the glyph collocation
that decorates the front of the bundle. It has to do with the language of the Classic Maya at
the sites where the ritual bundle of office is labeled 'burden' in this way.
Many Maya epigraphers see Yucatecan and Cholan as the only languages really relevant
to the glyphs of the Classic Lowland Maya. But in fact it is really only in three languages
today that there is a correspondence between what the glyphs on the bundle say and the word
for 'burden'; Tzeltal, Tzotzil, and Tojolabal (sometimes lumped together in the same linguistic
subgroup and called Tzeltalan). Table 1 shows words for 'burden' in those languages for which
I was able to get data.
It is particularly interesting that Yaxchilan is located along the Usumacinta river
relatively close to the regions of Tzeltal and Tojolabal speech. Most interesting is the fact
that none of the Yucatecan and none of the Cholan languages have the word ihkatz for
'burden'. Essentially, Cholan and Yucatecan languages share the word kuch for 'burden'.
Apparently a representative of an earlier stage of either Yucatecan or of Cholan (when
there were just Proto-Cholan and Proto-Yucatecan) introduced kuch into the other subgroup
quite early, for it to have found its way into all of the Cholan and Yucatecan languages, and
the innovator undoubtedly passed it on to its own descendant languages as likely did the
borrower. The fact of borrowing is a deduction based on the lack of a common subgroup
containing just Yucatecan and Cholan languages at a node in the family tree just above these
two subgroups that are only very distantly related Mayan language groupings.
We cannot be completely sure, however, that Cholan (and/or Yucatecan) did not have
the word ihkatz for 'burden' during the Classic period. The reason is that the Tzeltalan ihkatz
'burden' is a reflex of what has been reconstructed for Proto-Mayan as *ihq-atz 'cargo/burden'
(Kaufman 1969:169). This means that some reflex of the word was in both Yucatecan and
Cholan at some time prior to its replacement by kuch 'burden', which itself reflects a
ProtoMayan etymon, in this case *kuch (Kaufman and Norman 1984:123). Therefore it
is conceivable, though not likely, that Cholan was being spoken at Yaxchilan, as suggested
in Josserand et al (1985:87-1O2).
In any case, an interesting consequence of the secure glyphic reading for the above
mentioned 'burden' collocation is that a Tzeltalan language seems to be the best candidate at
this point for the language of the glyphs of Yaxchilan. If this hypothesis is valid, it means
that the different Classic Maya sites must be studied mindful of their potential individuality
with potential reference to at least three different languages, Cholan, Yucatecan, and Tzeltalan.
A further qualification must thus be added to the use of the method of structural substitution
when glyphs from sites that are distant from one another in space (and for that matter, time).
The method cannot perhaps be applied quite as freely as when the assumption is that a single
language is being written in the Maya script.
PROTO-MAYAN *ihq-atz 'cargo, load, burden'
YUCATEC kuch 'carga, cargo, reinado, gobierno'
at-al 'pago, flete/cargo, load'
LACANDON kuch 'load, burden'
MOPAN kuch 'carga'
ITZA kuch 'load'
proto-Cholan *kuch 'carry' (Kaufman and Norman 1984:123)
CHOL kuchAl 'carga'
CHONTAL kuch 'burden'
CHORTI kuch 'burden'
CHOLTI kuch 'burden'
TZELTAL ihkatz 'load, burden'
TZOTZIL ikatzil 'cargo, load, burden'
TOJOLABAL ihkatz 'cargo (of man or beast); carry on shoulders'
JACALTEC ijatz 'burden, cargo, load'
MOTOCINTLEC aq'ol 'burden, cargo, load'
IXIL ijatz 'burden, cargo, load'
AGUACATEC eqtz 'burden, cargo, load'
MAM iiqtz 'burden, cargo, load'
TECO iiqatz 'burden, cargo, load'
USPANTEC ikyaq' 'burden, cargo, load'
QUICHE ikaq', eeqa'n 'burden, cargo, load'
CAKCHIQUEL ikaq'; ejka'n 'carga/cargo'
patal 'la carga o angarillas/load, cargo'
KEKCHI iq 'burden, cargo, load' ,
k'al 'burden, cargo, load' ,
pakom 'burden, cargo, load'
1 This paper has benefited from comments by Victoria R. Bricker, Nikolai Grube and
Barbara MacLeod. The orthography herein employed is a normalized variant of that used by
many Mayan linguists. It departs from the International Phonetic Alphabet in that x represents
/š/ of the IPA rather than the unvoiced velar fricative. ch represents /č/ of the IPA, and the IPA's
/¢/ is given here as tz. Vowel length is indicated here by means of doubling the vowel specified,
and the mid-central vowel often called schwa is represented here as A.
2 Mixe-Zoquean languages have apparent cognates referring to 'necklace'. (cf. Francisco
Leon Zoque namtzAmi 'necklace', Totontepec Mixe namtzAm 'necklace'). 'Necklace' is
apparently reconstructable to Proto-Mixe-Zoquean *nam-tzAmi, further analyzable into
Proto-Mixe-Zoquean *tzAmi 'burden, cargo' (from *tzAm 'to carry a burden') and Proto-Mixean
*nam 'new'. Totontepec Mixe not only has nam 'new, recent', but also a derived form nama
'to replace something old with something new', and tzUm 'tercio, carga/load, burden', which
is derivationally related to tzAm-koka 'hacerse responsable de un cargo/to take up a burden,
office' and 'engendrar/to engender'. Since the word for 'necklace' can be reconstructed at least
as far back as Proto-Mixean, and since the word can be analyzed into meaningful components
that so clearly hearken back to the conception, pointed out by Bricker, of pectorals and/or
necklaces serving as insignia of office, one suspects at the very least that Mixe-Zoqueans had
the concept quite early.
3 Victoria Bricker has brought to my attention the fact that there is temporal support in
the inscriptions at Yaxchilan for the idea that the bundles depicted on Lintels 1 and 5 represent
the bundles transferred during a change in office. "The calendar round date on Lintel 1, 11
Ahau 8 Tzec, corresponds to 9.16.1.O.O, which is the date of Bird Jaguar's accession.
The calendar round date on Lintel 5, 12 Ahau 8 Yaxkin, corresponds to 126.96.36.199.O, which is
the second uinal anniversary of Bird Jaguar's accession" (private correspondence, April 1988).
So, although accession is not explicitly mentioned on the Yaxchilan lintels, the dates strongly
support the inference that accession is their implicit topic.
4 Barbara MacLeod has alerted me to a Maya polychrome vessel with bundles depicted
that have three glyphs on each; T25.21:178 /ka.??.la) (Photo #2914 of the Justin Kerr
collection). She reads them as katzal(a) and relates them to a Yucatec word katzah tak'in
'(iv) atesorar/to hoard'. The bundles are not tied at the top with a knotted bow, and it is
possible that they represent a concept other than 'burden'.
Grube (1988) provides evidence for a reading of T21 as ab, in which case the glyph
collocation T25.21:178 would be ka.ab.al or perhaps kabal.
5 Barbara MacLeod and Nikolai Grube have independently pointed out to me that A7
and A8 of the Center Tablet of Palenque's Temple of the Inscriptions provide an example of
what may represent the expression read here as ihkatz (in a glyphic context that is not fully
understood). Although Linda Schele's drawing indicates T5O6 as the main sign, rather than
T5O7 (tzi), it is possible that dots characterizing T5O7 and distinguishing it from T5O6
might have once been present and have since eroded. Maudslay's drawing indicates dots at A7.
Nikolai Grube has additionally identified glyph collocations to which the ihkatz
reading may apply at Palenque (Temple XVIII stucco glyph #483), at Jonuta (Monument 2,
B2, in the possible variant form i(h)kitz), and on three vases.
First there is a Codex style vase, November 12 in which a being reclining on a coiled
serpent carries a large bundle with T679.25:5O7 inscribed on it. Style suggests the vase to
be of the Ik-emblem site, probably corresponding to Motul de San Jose, Peten.
Second the Vase of the Seven Gods (Grolier 49) shows a tied bundle behind God L
(seated on a Jaguar throne), with T215:597 inscribed on it. T679 would be covered by God
Third, a Tepeu 2 Vase With Palace Scene (Clarkson 1978, Fig. 1O) depicts a frog
carrying a large bundle. The accompanying text includes three glyphs that can be interpreted
to read y-ihkatzil 'his burden'.
Palenque and Jonuta are probably Cholan speaking sites during the Classic Period, and
if the ihkatz glyph collocation is in fact represented at either of these sites, it constitutes
evidence suggesting that Cholan had a reflex of Proto-Mayan *ihq-atz 'cargo, load, burden'
that did not survive into modern times. A similar conclusion is suggested by the evidence on
the ceramic vessels, with the additional possibility that Yucatecan also may have preserved
a reflex of Proto-Mayan *ihq-atz 'cargo, load, burden' until as late as Colonial times.
Most Codex style vessels were apparently produced in the Peten by what were probably Cholan
(and/or possibly Yucatecan) speaking artisans.
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_______, and William M. Norman. 1984. An outline of Proto-Cholan phonology,
morphology, and vocabulary. In J. Justeson and L. Campbell
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Figure 1 Yaxchilan Lintels 1 and 2. Drawing by Ian Graham (1982)
Figure 2 Syllabic glyph components of ihkatz. Drawing by Nikolai Grube
Above published in Mexicon 10:118-121