|Detail of a relief that dates to the 700s AD. Among|
the glyphs, you can spot several emblem glyphs.
Rediscovered in the late 1950s, the emblem glyph (actually made of several glyphs) is an ancient Maya title. It is understood to translate as "holy lord of such and such place" -- with each city-state's/polity's name put in the "such and such place" spot. When used, an emblem glyph would be placed next to the ruler's name. As to their meaning, debate still exists as to the nuances this title held in ancient Maya thought.
It was a man named Heinrich Berlin who began the rediscovery of emblem glyphs. In 1958, Berlin found that there were certain groups of three glyphs that only changed one glyph, the "main sign." He thought that these glyph groups, which he called emblem glyphs, seemed to be about founding families or the names of places.
An emblem glyph, in one view, starts with the adjective k’uhul. This is made of the k’uh glyph (the god C glyph, which looks like a head) paired with a glyph that the Maya popularly drew as one or more curving rows of dots with a “k’an cross” on top. (A k’an cross is a cross surrounded by a circular border.)
To the right of the k’an cross was a glyph for ajaw or “lord”. Under the ajaw glyph went the “main sign,” which the Maya tended to place “on top” of the k’uh glyph.
Alternately, you may see that the glyph with the rows of dots is transliterated as k’ul or ch’ul -- with no mention of k’uhul or layering. A third alternate you may find is it being transliterated as k'uhul.
How They're Read
|One of several known emblem glyphs for the Kaan, |
or perhaps Kan, kingdom aka the "snake kingdom."
Who Used Them
Both rulers of city-states that controlled other city-states as well as rulers of city-states that were controlled used emblem glyphs. And there are some sites that use the same emblem glyphs -- like Palenque and Tortuguero. (Which could mean different things, including the possibility that they were both ruled by rulers from the same royal family.)
Archaeologists have also found inscriptions where pairs of people -- brothers or sons and fathers -- both have the emblem glyph. However, the more important of the two has kaloomte' as part of their titles, while the less important one doesn't. One theory about this says that these were times where sites (such as Calakmul) were ruled by two people at once, with one being more powerful than the other. Another possible explanation is that the younger of the two people is being described as a future ruler.
As to their location in an inscription, that depends on the time period you look at. Before 500 AD, the ancient Maya would put it either before or after a ruler's name -- after 500 AD, they just did the latter.
It’s not entirely certain what emblem glyphs were referring to. They might be names for lineages, for a location or for dynasties.
There’s also a theory you might see that wonders if emblem glyphs main signs were names for “origin places” – and that an emblem glyph may have been a statement of power. That is, an emblem glyph was a ruler’s way of declaring that he or his ancestors were given the right to rule from his emblem glyph's origin place.
Consideration: Unidentified Emblem Glyphs
There are emblem glyphs that archaeologists do not know the sites for. One example is the Water Scroll emblem glyph. The Maya wrote about it in inscriptions that date to between the 500s and 700s AD. A theory suggests that the Water Scroll emblem glyph was the emblem glyph of the Belize site Altun Ha.
Cambridge Core: "Ancient Mesoamerica" Volume 29 Issue 1: "Kings of the East: Altun Ha and the Water Scroll Emblem Glyph"; Christophe Helmke, Stanley P. Guenter; Phillip J. Wanyerka; Spring 2018
Maya Decipherment: "Secrets of the Painted King List: Recovering the Early History of the Snake Dynasty "; Simon Martin; May 5, 2017
Google Books: "Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya"; Walter R.T. Witschey (editor); 2016
Google Books: "Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya: Rituals of Body and Soul"; Andrew K. Scherer; 2015
The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Oriental Institute Seminars: Number 4; "Religion and Power"; Nichole Brisch (editor); 2008 (Second printing with minor corrections, 2012)
Google Books: "The Ancient Maya" Sixth Edition; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006
Mesoweb: "PARI Journal" Volume 6, Issue 2: "Of Snakes and Bats: Shifting Identities at Calakmul"; Simon Martin; 2005
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Stela Fragment with Glyphs
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Relief with Enthroned Ruler
LACMA: Dynastic Vase (used as a model for the Calakmul emblem glyph image.)