Posted by: Johan Normark | April 12, 2009

Sacbeob 3: Life is a road

Maya languages use the same root morphemes for nouns and verbs and the morphemes often have several meanings (Keller 2001:10). The word for road, which is be (in Yucatec), is modified with adjectives such as great, white, black, etc. This gives a semantic complexity where words have several concrete and metaphorical meanings. Be is used in greetings, general discourse, rituals, sayings and proverbs. Since be and its cognates are found in every Maya language there is reason to believe that it is an old morpheme (ibid:11). Angela Keller has analyzed Colonial and contemporary Yucatec sources and found over fifty distinct examples of the use of the word be, which she has organized into three categories: (1) Road (path, course, transit, bridge, canal and passageway); (2) Work (occupation, good works and government office); (3) Life (state of health, well-being, prosperity, present situation, course of life and destiny) (ibid:12). In all my other posts on causeways I shall focus on the first category. In this post I shall briefly discuss the other two categories.

A person’s life history is u ts’ola’n beel maak (“the ordered road (of a) man”). In Colonial records birth is called hok’ol be (“step onto road”). When people are “seen on the road” they are being born. Even the birth of time is likened to a road or an arrival (ibid:13-14). The word road is used in similar contexts in Classic period inscriptions, such as the death phrase och bih, “entered the road”, most likely the road to the Underworld and an existence beyond this (Montgomery 2002). The glyphic compound for och bih consists of a rattlesnake tail (och) and an ear spool (bih). Taube believes this represents the breath serpent/soul that passes through the road of the ear spool. Och bih is believed to refer to a rebirth related to fire, flowers and the road of the sun (Taube 2005:39-42).

Even cities had their own life roads or destiny. The destruction of the town of Champoton (Chak’an Putun) was labelled ka u satah ob be Chak’an Putun, “they destroyed the road of Champoton” (Keller 2001). This should probably be interpreted metaphorically in which Champoton’s life road was ended in relation to a may-cycle (a 256-year long cycle) (Rice 2004). Thus, the day and time itself and the destiny of an individual and other entities were and still are likened to roads where the possibilities can be either “open” or “cut off” (Hanks 1990:337). The relationship between roads and time can also be seen in the glyphs. The quincunx pattern (the bih glyph) is also found in glyphs relating to time, such as in some forms of the k’in (sun/day) glyph (Coe and Van Stone 2001:47). It is argued that the quincunx was associated with the sun’s path (the ecliptic) and its position during the sunrise and sunset at the solstices (Milbrath 1999).

In contemporary Yucatec the word be is used as a root for “day”. Be-heela e ~ be- la e, means “today, nowadays” (“the road right here”) and ka a-be means “the day after tomorrow” (“two road”) (Hanks 1990:312). In some Yucatec communities, road is included in the common greeting; bix a bel (“how is your road?”). A person’s road is a metaphorical road that is one’s well being and occupation. Important tasks are also roads and to accomplish something is to ts’oksah be (“finish a road”). To marry is called ts’okan u beel (“finish or complete one’s road”). After marriage, the women follow the icham be (“husband road”) and men follow the atan be (“wife road”). Matchmakers and advisors are called “road guides” (k’amal be in K’iche’ and aj bebesah be in Yucatec) (Keller 2001:11). The term aj mes in Tzutujil means “sweeper”, a person who “sweeps one’s road” (Carlsen and Prechtel 1994). When the Yucatec describe their goals or occupations they call it “their road”. The road of an individual is where he or she has been and is heading. Being “on the right road”, is when a person is progressing toward his or her goal (Hanks 1990). There is a good road that people tend to fall away from, ma’ tu ch’a’ik be (“not taking one’s road”), or to follow a “false road” (tus be) (Keller 2001:13).

Be is also used to describe tubular or canal-like passageways. The urethra is u beel wiis (“its road urine”) (Hanks 1990:312). A blood vein is called u beel k’iik (“its road blood”), a chimney is called u beel buts (“its road smoke”), and a canal is called u beel ha’ (“its road water”) (Keller 2001:13). The limestone conduit built on the stairway inside the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque (Martin and Grube 2000:168) was perhaps seen as such a road.

It may be of some interest to note that the bih glyph sometimes is infixed in the way glyph (“companion spirit”) and forms the word waybil (“sleeping room”, “lineage shrine”) (Freidel, et al. 1993:190-192). This effect is partly the result of the writing system, in which glyphs sometimes were infixed in other glyphs, but it could possibly relate to roads between different levels of the chaosmos through the waybil.

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