Posted by: Johan Normark | October 8, 2009

Aristotelian/Linnaean classification and the Snake kingdom

I am stepping into a domain of which I am not an expert so take it for what it is. It crossed my mind while writing about the origins of the Kaan/Kan or Snake kingdom how our own Aristotelian/Linnaean classification system affects the way we categorize entities such as animals in other “cultural traditions.” In a comment on my post on the stairway raisers at Yo’okop, Stanley Guenter argues that the, among non-epigraphers, commonly used spelling of the Emblem Glyph of the Snake kingdom is wrong. It should be Kan not Kaan, but the meaning is the same. This brings me to the topic of which I am no expert.

Some animals mentioned in the hieroglyphic corpus are defined by what we call species, particularly those that have few species within the area, such as howler monkey and spider monkey. I do not know if there is a general term for “monkey” in the Maya languages, or if this is a definition based on Aristotelian/Linnaean classification that has no bearing on the Maya languages (or at least those before the conquest). Entering the word monkey in Lawrence Feldman’s Cho’lti’ dictionary on FAMSI (which is based on an earlier dictionary from 1695), I got batz (monkey, bearded – howler monkey), max (monkey – spider monkey), and acamax (animal like a monkey, yellow in the palms). As far as I can tell there is no general term joining spider monkeys and howlers as in a western biological classification system (although both monkeys are twins and brothers to the Hero Twins in Popol Vuh). The last term looks interesting and I wonder if the Cho’lti’ classified “monkeys” based on the “yellowness of their palms”? Pure guess from my side. However, if I am not incorrect I think that some Highland Maya groups argue that animals which have twenty digits can be coessences of humans (and this would suggest some kind of classification system unlike the Linnaean). In any case, the ancient Maya would have classified their animals and other entities along other lines of similarities that we may overlook.


Fer-de-lance (Bothrops atrox asper)

Fer-de-lance (Bothrops atrox asper)

As for snake, the Cho’lti’ dictionary says that chan means snake and icholai is a species of snake. I doubt that the Cho’lti’ had an idea of species that is similar to the Western concept. The friars who wrote down the early Colonial dictionaries were usually classifying animals along Aristotelian lines. This rank-based system relies on Aristotle’s distinction between genera and species. This is the relationship by which we usually categorize the world (and may therefore have pre-existed Aristotle himself). When we categorize animals or other entities we link the specific individual animal (such as a howler monkey) to a more general category of monkeys or primates. This category is in its turn part of an even more general category of mammals, vertebrae animals, etc. There are other ways to classify the world and DeLanda (2006) argues that Deleuze’s greatest contribution to philosophy and science is his replacement of the general and the specific. This is an important move since what actually exist is an individual entity (a haecceity), such as “this howler monkey”, and possibly (in DeLanda’s view anyway) the howler monkey as a species. However, monkeys as a general term only exist as a linguistic term and as a tool to classify animals. The howler monkey and the spider monkey are unaware that they both are monkeys (and so it may have been among the Maya as well since they classified animals differently than scientists do today).

What I wonder though, is that if the ancient Maya also used a hierarchical schema? I remember that I read somewhere that “folk classification” usually has a three levelled structure. Need to find that reference… Maybe icholai is a general term (but not species as implied in the dictionary since that is a contemporary term). The snake form is, however, a possible classification for all the different species that do exist in the area.

So, as for the Kan kingdom’s Emblem Glyph, does it show a “general” snake or is it more “specified” or does it actually have other connotations? The same goes for the “turtle lords” at Piedras Negras. Therefore, as in the example of the multilayered universe, there should be more research into how the European documents used in ethnographic analogies may have distorted the “original” ideas. Bhabha’s third space of enunciation should be taken seriously. This means that in the meeting between two “traditions” (or persons for that matter), a third space is always created that is a hybrid of the earlier two and which cannot be reduced to any of the other two. This definitely holds true for the early Colonial period.


  1. Johan,

    the word kan/chan (Yukatek vs. Ch’orti’) seems to be a generic word for snake. Modifiers can be added to this word to form other terms for more specific types of snake. For example, k’an chan in Ch’orti’ means “yellow snake” while ha’ chan (“water snake”) is, as expected, a name for a snake found in ponds. Noh Chan (“big snake”) is a word for the boa, etc.

    In the hieroglyphic writing system the logogram for CHAN/KAN is usually a rather generic snake’s head, although on occassion it can be shown with diamond patterns on its back and usually a set of fangs on its teeth, indicating a probable model in the fer-de-lance, the deadliest snake found in the Maya world. That said, the depiction is pretty much never entirely realistic as usual there are three or four long fangs shown protruding from the snake’s mouth, and such fangs, while typical of the fer-de-lance, are only found in pairs on the snake. So the Classic Maya consistently misrepresented the snake by providing it with more fangs than it actually has in real life.

    Regarding the term icholai, I haven’t managed to find this word for snake in any other Ch’orti’/Ch’olti’ dictionary, nor am I aware of it in other Maya languages. Perhaps it is, but I think it also possible that this entry is corrupt. If it is a real entry, my guess is that it would be a word for a specific type of snake rather than a generic word, just given how uncommon it seems to be. Kan/chan definitely seems to work better as the generic lowland Mayan word for snake.

  2. I guess the snake’s form is the main reason why people include various species within the generic term kan/chan (or are there other classification rules?). Perhaps the same with turtles and their shell. Apart from the Boa example, are the modifiers (yellow, water) only describing the colour or habitat of the snakes or are they directly referring to a particular species (I assume there are more than one species living in or near water)?

    So the Maya classification hierarchy would at least work at one or two levels (from a single snake to species and to snakes in general). In the Linnaean system we would include turtles and snakes within a greater hierarchy (reptiles). Are there any indications that the Maya (past/present) included different animals within such terms and what the organizing principle was (such as bats and birds being flying beings)? Is there a generic term for animal? The clear human/animal divide is probably a Christian invention and if this division is found in Colonial dictionaries, it may reflect another form of classification than the original one. Many questions…

  3. Your posts are always fascinating.
    Re: “the meeting between two “traditions” (or persons for that matter), a third space is always created that is a hybrid of the earlier two and which cannot be reduced to any of the other two”, so true of the Spanish Colonization.
    But also so true of all that went on before. Those two traditions were each hybridizations of earlier groups coming together and so on back through the past.
    The Spanish and the Maya at that moment were both already hybrids.

  4. Yes, that is always the case. As soon as there are at least two persons around we have a situation that creates something new. After that interaction it can be quite difficult to trace from where some aspects of the new constellation came from. This process is non-linear and it makes linear analogies (as is soooo common) useless other than on a very general level. If the general is abstracted too much from the particulars, then it will in itself also be useless since it can mean everything and nothing at the same time. Hence, my rejection of the Maya Culture idea. It does appear to include much meaning but just scratch a bit on the surface and you will find their is very little substance of that concept when you look at a single artifact. That culture is a hybrid of a hybrid of a hybrid, etc.


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