Pre-Columbian Writing

Detail from the Dresden Codex

At the time the Spanish landed in he New World, there was only one Pre-Columbian culture that had a written alphabet, and that was the Maya. Now I have heard that in earlier centuries, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs of Northern Mexico had a written alphabet, but stopped using it after a certain point. Curiously, the Aztecs and Inca did not have their own alphabet, however advanced they may have been in other respects.

Right now, the only instances we have of writing in Mayan are glyphs at various Maya ruins and four surviving codices that escaped the religious zeal of the Spanish missionaries in destroying what they perceived to be heretical. And since the subject matter related to Maya religion, it was heretical insofar as Christianity was concerned.

The most famous destroyer of Mayan codices was Diego de Landa, the Franciscan Bishop of Yucatán in the 16th century. In a famed book burning conducted in 1562, de Landa had 27 codices burned at Mani. He described the Maya as being disconsolate at the destruction of so much of their culture at one time. Curiously, it was the same de Landa who wrote the Relación de Las Cosas de Yucatán, which preserved an astonishing amount of the culture and language, such that it is still studied by Maya scholars. It is still available in a Dover Publications paperback.

Do you see the dots and dashes in the above detail from the Dresden Codex just above the four seated figures? They are, in order, the numbers 16, 4, 9, 13, zero (yes, the Maya had discovered zero), 5, 12, 2, and 1. As you can probably surmise from this, the dashes represented the number five or a multiple of fives; and a dot, a one or multiple of ones up to four. It was a vigesimal system, meaning to the base 20 rather than base 10 like ours. Very likely, the numbers in the illustration represent a “long count” calendar date fixing a particular event in time. You can read more about Maya mathematics here.

The other interesting thing about the Mayan alphabet is that some symbols were hieroglyphic and stood for an entire word and others phonetic, standing for syllables. This confused scholars for years.

At the time I started visiting the Maya world, only the calendrical symbols had been decoded (mostly thanks to the selfsame good/bad Diego de Landa). In the last forty years, we have discovered that the Maya have a history. We have learned names of rulers and translated descriptions of events commemorated by Maya rulers.

 

Learn Your Classics!

Botticelli’s Venus

Botticelli’s Venus

The English letters are twenty-six in number. There is nothing like beginning at the beginning; and we shall now therefore enumerate them, with the view also of rendering their insertion subsidiary to mythological instruction, in conformity with the plan on which some account of the Heathen Deities and ancient heroes is prefixed or subjoined to a Dictionary. We present the reader with a form of Alphabet composed in humble imitation of that famous one, which, while appreciable by the dullest taste, and level to the meanest capacity, is nevertheless that by which the greatest minds have been agreeably inducted into knowledge.

THE ALPHABET.

A was Apollo, the god of the carol,
B stood for Bacchus, astride on his barrel;
C for good Ceres, the goddess of grist,
D was Diana, that wouldn’t be kiss’d;
E was nymph Echo, that pined to a sound,
F was sweet Flora, with buttercups crown’d;
G was Jove’s pot-boy, young Ganymede hight,
H was fair Hebe, his barmaid so tight;
I, little Io, turn’d into a cow,
J, jealous Juno, that spiteful old sow;
K was Kitty, more lovely than goddess or muse;
L, Laocoon—I would’nt have been in his shoes!
M was blue-eyed Minerva, with stockings to match,
N was Nestor, with grey beard and silvery thatch;
O was lofty Olympus, King Jupiter’s shop,
P, Parnassus, Apollo hung out on its top;
Q stood for Quirites, the Romans, to wit;
R, for rantipole Roscius, that made such a hit;
S, for Sappho, so famous for felo-de-se,
T, for Thales the wise, F.R.S. and M.D.
U was crafty Ulysses, so artful a dodger,
V was hop-a-kick Vulcan, that limping old codger;
Wenus—Venus I mean—with a W begins,
(Vell, if I ham a Cockney, wot need of your grins?)
X was Xantippe, the scratch-cat and shrew,
Y, I don’t know what Y was, whack me if I do!
Z was Zeno the Stoic, Zenobia the clever,
And Zoilus the critic, Victoria for ever!—Percival Leigh (1813-1889), Paul Prendergast, or: The Comic Schoolmaster