A Fishy Story
By:  Justin Kerr
Vea este artículo en Español.

Pendant Head

For many years I have been seeing what I believe are abstract Maya concepts, condensed down to a specific image or group of images. On examining these images closely, we find that the Maya, as did many other people, use parts of complex imagery that would express a concrete idea. These images may be as small as one or two glyphs to express the primary standard sequence, or parts of other images that carry the message. Many of these abstractions have to do with mythological concepts. We have seven vases in the corpus which exemplify this concept. Six of these vases are very similar in that they represent swimming catfish. (Figure 1).

Figure 1. File no. K3266
Figure 1. File no. K3266

All three fish vases illustrated here show two fish rendered with dark upper bodies and white under sides while swimming against a dark ruddy background. (Figure 2) Each of the three cylinder vases has a white rim band with an inverted pyramid of circles or dots which is the crux of the argument. There is also a sinuous, almost paramecia-like form, which is surrounded by dots. I believe this is a form of the kimi (death) glyph. The fish have flowing bifurcated tails and a long barbel near the corner of the mouth.

Figure 2. File no. K5225
Figure 2. File no. K5225

The Maya are most adept at abstraction and symbolism, very often presenting an entire story, theme, or character in a very abbreviated form. We may then look at these catfish and their surroundings to see, if in fact, they convey a message other than that of merely being fish. Many of the abstract arguments presented on vases are based on themes from the mythology in the Popol Vuh. In Christian iconography, the presence of the fish, signaled Peter, the fisherman. Is there a Maya parallel in the presence of these catfish painted on a vase?

From the Popol Vuh translated by Dennis Tedlock:

""This is a good death for them, and it would also be good to grind their bones on a stone, just as corn is refined to flour, and refine them separately, and then:

’Spill them into the river, sprinkle them on the water’s way among the mountains, small and great,’ you will say, and then you will have carried out the instructions we’ve named for you," said Hunahpú and Xbalanqué. When they gave these instructions they already knew they would die.

…After that they summoned Xulu and Pacan, who kept their word: the bones went just where the boys had wanted them. Once the Xibalbans had done the divination, the bones were ground and spilled in the river, but they didn’t go far…they just sank to the bottom of the water.

…AND ON THE FIFTH DAY THEY REAPPEARED. They were seen in the water by the people. The two of them looked like channel catfish when their faces were seen by Xibalba." (Figure 3).

Figure 3. File no. K5464
Figure 3. File no. K5464

The Hero Twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué possess certain characteristics which help to identify them. There is a long list of these qualities, but for this presentation, we are only interested in a specific feature: the three dots that appear on their cheeks, most often found on Hunahpú. We can see him on a number of vases with the other attributes which identify him, including the dots that are tantamount to this argument. A few examples from different sources follow. The opening picture at the heading and (Figures 4 & 5).

Figure 4 from K1292       Figure 5 Glyph no. 1001 from Thompson's catalog.
Figure 4 from K1292. The large dot on the cheek signals both the number 1 for hun. Figure 5 Glyph no. 1001 from Thompson’s catalog.

These dots are always an inverted triangle. (Figure 6) Simon Martin (personal communication) suggests a phonetic reading of k’ul  (holy), in as much as this inverted triangle also appears on God C.  The dots in inverted triangle form also appear on the cheek of one illustration of God L.  It has been suggested (Inga Calvin, personal communication) that God L is possibly the grandfather-in-law of the Hero Twins, the father of Blood Woman, Xquic, the mother of the Hero Twins. This would then identify him with the family of the Hero Twins.

Hunahpú as ballplayer, from Naj Tunich cave
Figure 6  Hunahpú as ballplayer, from Naj Tunich cave.
(Drawing by Andrea Stone)

Note the dots on the cheek are in an inverted triangle whereas the dots on the cape are not.

Marianne Huber brought to my attention another vase with the same rim band and ruddy background as the others, but instead of the fish theme, was painted with large sun-like disks. (Figure 7) I felt that this new theme might still express the same abstraction as the fish does. Huber believes the image on the vase represents an eclipse; however my own view is that it represents the sun as a manifestation of the continuing story of the Hero Twins. Expressing the same theme in another media, at Copán, the large head found on the lower facade of Rosalila is the Sun God and he bears the three dots on his cheek. (Figure 8) At the end of the story, the Twins rise to the heavens where one becomes the Sun and the other, the Moon. (In some versions, Venus is substituted for the Moon.)

Figure 7 File no. K4871
Figure 7 File no. K4871

Figure 8 Sun head from Rosalila, Copán
Figure 8 Sun head from Rosalila, Copán

"Then they rose up in the midst of the light, and instantly they were lifted into the sky. One was given the name of the sun, the other, the moon. Then the arch of heaven and the face of the earth were lighted. And they dwelt in heaven."  (Popol Vuh)

It would appear that the designers of this group of vases were presenting the resurrection theme as death (catfish) and re-creation (the sun). They emphasized the relationship to the Popol Vuh by painting a symbol of the Hero Twins in life (the three dots) and in death (the kimi sign). These vases, as on many Maya painted, carved, or inscribed vessels, use abstract symbols to depict broad areas of Maya mythology. As in many mythologies, certain salient symbols are used as a sort of shorthand, bringing the entire story to the viewer’s mind. These symbolic statements may have been used as mnemonics to keep the reader or story teller on track, but more likely, their function was to enforce the precepts of a long-standing and deeply-felt religious attitude towards their basic mythology.

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