Use of symbols has characterized early communications as far back as petroglyphs, cave drawings, and our earliest art objects now for the most part being recovered from graves. Often, early art reflects a use of modeling that resembles the same element from other, far distant locations.
Glyphs formed a Mayan means of communication, and have been translated ever more deeply in present day studies of the civilization. Excavations are turning up ever more in-depth knowledge of the culture as relics are found and their history discovered.
Mayan glyphs are a combination of logograms (symbols that represent a word) and syllabograms (symbols that represent a phonetic sound or syllable). Any given word can be expressed by a lone logogram or a combination of syllabograms. Sentences were composed of both of these types of glyphs. A Mayan text was read from top to bottom, left to right. The glyphs are generally in pairs: in other words, you start at the top left, read two glyphs, then go down to the next pair. Often the glyphs were accompanied by a larger image, such as kings, priests or gods. The Glyphs would elaborate on what the person in the image was doing.
The glyphs were once thought of as an alphabet, with different glyphs corresponding to letters: this is because Bishop Diego de Landa, a sixteenth century priest with extensive experience with Maya texts (he burned thousands of them) said so and it took centuries for researchers to learn that Landa’s observations were close but not exactly right. Great steps were taken when the Maya and modern calendars were correlated (Joseph Goodman, Juan Martíñez Hernandez and J Eric S. Thompson, 1927) and when glyphs were identified as syllables, (Yuri Knozorov, 1958) and when “Emblem Glyphs,” or glyphs that represent a single city, were identified. Today, most of the known Maya glyphs have been deciphered, thanks to countless hours of diligent work by many researchers.
The Maya Codices:
Pedro de Alvarado was sent by Hernán Cortés in 1523 to conquer the Maya region: at the time, there were thousands of Maya books or “codices” which were still used and read by the descendants of the mighty civilization. It’s one of the great cultural tragedies of history that nearly all of these books were burned by zealous priests during the colonial era. Today, only four badly battered Maya books remain (and the authenticity of one is sometimes questioned). The four remaining Maya codices are, of course, written in hieroglyphic language and mostly deal with astronomy, the movements of Venus, religion, rituals, calendars and other information kept by the Maya priest class.
Glyphs on Temples and Stelae:
The Maya were accomplished stonemasons and frequently carved glyphs onto their temples and buildings. They also erected “stelae,” large, stylized statues of their kings and rulers. Along the temples and on the stelae are found many glyphs which explain the significance of the kings, rulers or deeds depicted. The glyphs usually contain a date and a brief description, such as “penance of the king.” Names are often included, and particularly skilled artists (or workshops) would also add their stone “signature.”
The appearance of the stelae at Copán shows use of glyphs to identify individuals, and tell about their heritage. Last week’s Altar Q has figures that trace a lineage that was the basis of the rule of the leader who had it created, to authenticate his reign.
Other cultures and societies have used such symbolism, and our own country’s tribes have left relics such as those at Albuquerque’s Petroglyphs. Egyptian writing took long ages to translate, and was the original heiroglyph translation.
The use of death heads, and probosces of butterflies, that go through a deathlike chrysalis stage, is associated with reverence for past rulers and shows them as returning from death to be assistance to the reigning house at the time of the sculpture.