Commentary on Stuart and Houston's
Study of Mayan Place Names
in "Studies in Pre-Columbian Art
and Archaeology" #33, 1994.

© John Major Jenkins. September, 1995.

In the chapter of this 104-page monograph devoted to mythological placenames (pgs 69-80),
Stuart and Houston provide some intriguing information about certain "mythic" locations
which, however, are not identified clearly. Recent work by Schele and Freidel
( Maya Cosmos 1993) emphasizes the close relationship between Mayan
creation mythology and astronomy. This new perspective apparently
was not utilized by the authors, and can help us more thoroughly
interpret the mythological placenames given.

Background Thoughts

This is not a review of the entire monograph. My focus is on the section dealing with mythological placenames rather than on the historical-geographical ones. I'll admit right off that I have a specific viewpoint to offer. In reading a review of this monograph last week, I read that one of the mythological "sites" identified by Stuart and Houston was deciphered as meaning "black hole." I immediately thought of the dark-rift in the Milky Way near the ecliptic in Sagittarius. As my recent work on the astronomical alignment that occurs on the 13-baktun cycle end-date shows, this dark-rift is precisely where the winter solstice sun will be on the current era's end date in A.D. 2012. I don't have time to thoroughly review this here; my recent 110-page monograph ( The Center of Mayan Time , March 1995) explores this intriguing discovery with full documentation. However, some of this work will necessarily be mentioned as we progress.

The Black Hole = The Dark Rift in the Milky Way

The dark-rift in the Milky Way is a significant astronomical location whose mythological meanings have not generally been recognized. My work with the Mayan Long Count end-date and Mayan Popol Vuh creation mythology strongly suggests that this astronomical location is the cosmic "place of creation". The southern terminus of this rift is co-spatial with the crossroads of the Milky Way and ecliptic - what Linda Schele identified as the Mayan Sacred Tree (1993). (However, Schele looked at the crossing point in Gemini rather than Sagittarius). See Figure 1:

Figure 1. Milky way, dark-rift, cosmic birth canal,
the four directions, the ecliptic in Sagittarius:
the Place of Creation.

One of the dark-rift's mythological identifications is xibalba be (Tedlock, 1985:358) which means "road to the underworld." It is also the birth canal of the Great Mother (the Milky Way), the cleft in the branches of the calabash tree where One Hunahpu's head is hung prior to his rebirth (Tedlock and Tedlock, 1993:44) and, according to Tedlock (1992:256), it is also the place where the Hero Twins were conceived. The early forms of this mythic complex, at such sites as Izapa, show the Milky Way as an iverted caiman-tree (Schele 1993); other portrayals show similar iconographic arrangements involving frogs, snakes, jaguars and other chthonic deities referential to the Great Mother. In these depictions, the Milky Way / Cosmic Mother deity has her mouth open, and a solar Ahau figure is often right in the mouth. A view of the pre-dawn sky from Izapa on the winter solstice of, say, 50 B.C., strongly illustrates how this astronomical feature may have played a central role in early Mayan cosmology and myth-making. See Figure 2:

Figure 2.
Izapa, winter solstice of B.C. 50.

The dark-rift was mythologized as either the mouth or birth canal of the Milky Way deity - the Cosmic Mother or Great Creatrix. Although puns relating the "mouth" to the "birth canal" are obvious, the Maya were prone to apply many different mythic interpretations to the same observed object or process.[1] This apparently conflictive tendency is only a problem to our linear predispositions, in which words have strictly agreed upon definitions.

Hieroglyphic vs. Phonetic Writing

The Maya devised a glyphic writing system which was multi-valued in its "defining" of experience. The differences between phonetic writing and hieroglyphic writing speak clearly about the differences in the cultures to which they belong. This is why it's so difficult for us to "get the message" of hieroglyphs. Glyphic writing allows for multiple interpretations of "a word", simply because it is portrayed visually. It is a picture-symbol referential to a whole complex of interpretations and meanings. This concept is akin to poly-valency in ceramic codices as studied by Reentz-Budet and others. Phonetic words are one step further abstracted from the immediacy and multi-dimensionality of experience, and require memorized "definitions" to denote their use and value. At the same time, poets struggling with the allegorical and symbolic inadequacies of phonetic writing frequently make use of homonyms - words like bear and bare, no and know - so there is hope. Early writing in Mesoamerica was a realistic depiction of what was being talked about (e.g., the monuments of Izapa). Later, pictorial writing evolved into more complex and abstracted forms, so that deciphering meanings has been a great challenge to modern epigraphers. However, it seems that even later picture books from conquest-era Central Mexico (e.g., the Codex Vindobonensis) reverted to a straight pictorial depiction of these mytho-cosmic legends.

The dark-rift is an astronomical location with multiple mythological meanings. It was represented in pictorial art in a variety of ways, each of which, however, "makes sense" metaphorically. I should interject here that this perspective on the dark-rift is my own, having been slowly arrived at through a few years of rather pointed research. In other words, scholars have yet to pick up on this important facet of Mesoamerican cosmography. Dennis Tedlock layed the foundation with some brilliant comments in the notes to his Popol Vuh translation (e.g., 1985:334), and I have launched off from there. Time will tell. At any rate, the importance of the "xibalba be" mythic complex - and its astronomical counterpart, the dark-rift - is just beginning to be under stood.

Since Olmec times, the jaguar's mouth was considered to be linked to terrestrial caves; both symbolized the door to the underworld, the realm of the ancestors. This motif-linkage was preserved in the early art of Southern Mesoamerica, in which the "mouth" of an "earth" deity is the place where an Ahau-warrior emerges (or is swallowed). This, of course, is an ubiquitous theme in Mesoamerican art and architecture, going back to very early Mesoamerican cave-emergence myths. At sites in the Yucatan and elsewhere, heads are often shown emerging from the mouth of a snake. A Toltec depiction shows a warrior coming out of the mouth of the celestial but snake-like Mixcoatl deity. See Figure 3:

Figure 3.
Warrior emerging from mouth of Mixcoatl,
the Milky Way.

A book by Karl Taube and Mary Miller called The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya (1993) identifies the Mixcoatl (cloud-snake) deity as the Milky Way. The "mouth" of the Milky Way would clearly be the dark rift, a glaringly present feature of the Milky Way when observed on a dark mid-summer's night. Also, 400 Mixcoas are spoken of in Central Mexican codices. Cloudsnake Rounds are periods of time associated with Calendar Rounds, suggesting the Milky Way was used as a kind of star clock.

My point is this: On the end-date of the 13-baktun cycle of the Mayan Long Count (December 21st, A.D. 2012), the winter solstice sun is right in the dark rift. The convergence of the winter solstice Ahau with the dark rift (Black Hole) in the Milky Way is caused by the slow stellar shifting known as the precession of the equinoxes. A reappraisal of the Popol Vuh, taking this World Age "creation" or "birth" event into account, suggests that One Hunahpu is reborn at this astronomical-mythological location as well. I published my initial findings in the December 1994 issue of Mountain Astrologer magazine. The article was entitled "The How and Why of the Mayan End Date in 2012 A.D." and was written in May of 1994. Now, with all this in mind, let's look at references to the Black Hole, Matawil and other mythological place names in Stuart and Houston's study, and perhaps I can offer some reasonable astronomical identifications for these "mythological" sites.

Onward to the Monograph

The chapter on mythological placenames is found on pages 69-80. A frequently occurring mythic placename in the Classic Period inscriptions is linked with events at the beginning of the current era, 4 Ahau 8 Cumku, (69). The glyphic passage consists of the elements glyph-T-128, "sky", Yax (first or green) and the NAL superfix. "In all cases, the text refers to the place of events that happened at" (71). Here I'll point out that the Long Count date refers, literally, to the end of the current era in 2012 A.D. rather than to the beginning. It does, however, appear that Long Count, Tzolkin and Haab dates on monuments such as Stela C from Quirigua are, in fact, referring to the "beginning" date of the current era, but it just may be that the Maya were looking at the event to happen on the end date to describe what had happened on the "beginning" date. This is in accordance with the nature of cyclic time and the cyclic return implicit in the 13-baktun cycle. We might say that, conceptually, the beginning equals the end. In fact, it is rather strange that the Maya recorded the "beginning" with a value of 13 in the baktun register. Considering that the Maya recognized place values greater than the baktun, there might be something alse going on here. In fact, one must make a leap to assume that the Maya just willy-nilly recorded the "beginning" of the current era as (rather than It's just as much of a leap (in the other direction) to entertain that these "creation" monuments are actually talking about something to occur on the end date. However, within modern Maya thinking, birth is thought to occur at the end of a process, rather than the beginning. Well, this is one for the debate club.

Prevalent "north" and "sky" glyphs point to the sky as the location of these mythological events (as Barbara Tedlock showed (1992), "north" probably means "up" or even "zenith" in Mayan cosmography). Another prevalent place-glyph associated with these settings is translated to mean "black hole" and is associated with the Mesoamerican ballgame and its ballcourts (71). In the Popol Vuh, there is a strong connection between ballcourts and the underworld (Tedlock, 1985:46). One Hunahpu's severed head is used as a ball in a game between the Hero Twins and the Underworld deities. Linnea Wren's paper "Chich n Itza: The Rhetoric of Conquest and Creation", presented at the Austin Hieroglyphic conference in March of 1995, shows how on the night of the summer solstice in era 865 A.D. the Milky Way overhead aligns with the Chich n Itza ballcourt. (This would be true, I would add, for the winter solstice as well, the difference being that on the summer solstice the dark-rift is directly overhead.) Thus, the "Black Hole" glyphic designation and its affinity with ballcourts and "entrance to the underword" contexts strongly associates it with the dark-rift in the Milky Way. Again, the dark rift is called the "xibalba be" or "Black Road" by the Maya (Tedlock 1985:358).

The "Black Hole" compound "when coupled with the Ahau title... can also appear as a name glyph of Classic Period Lords" (71). And one example from Lacanha appears after an ut-i (it happened) expression "in inexplicable association with a "birth" event that we presume to be mythological in character" (71-72).

So we have an association between the Ahau title of ruleship (originally meaning "sun"), the dark-rift-black-hole and a "birth" event. The dark-rift is the place where One Hunahpu's head is hung (Tedlock 1985:39,334); i.e., the crook in the tree is a metaphor for the rift in the Milky Way tree. From there, One Hunahpu's skull spits to impregnate Blood Moon with the Hero Twins. Thus, the rift is a place of conception, the celestial place of creation and birth, if you will. Other Mesoamerica depictions, such as the inverted Goddess from the Tamoanchan emergence scene in the Codex Fejervary-Mayer, clearly imply that the dark-rift was also conceived as the birth canal of the Great Mother, the Milky Way. See Figure 4:

Figure 4.
Inverted Goddess with birth canal as place of emergence.

Citlalinicue and Coatlicue are Aztec Goddesses that have been associated with the Milky Way.
Next, the "black hole" compound is occasionally coupled with a glyph designating a watery
environment. Water belongs to the feminine principle. Here we may have a reference
to the Milky Way's other identity as a river. A River of Stars, the River of Time,
the Waters of Life, the Blood of Life, the Flow of Blood, all the
Goddess-Mother's domain.

Matawil and the Black Hole

The Black Hole compound is associated with Copan Structure 22A, considered to be a popol nah , or community house. I should at least mention that Structure 22 at Copan contains a fascinatingly complex relief carving, arching over the inner door. Linda Schele (1993) relates that it portrays the Milky Way, the ecliptic, various ancestor deities, Chac of the four directions and, at one end of the Milky Way arch, the portal to the underworld. Copan is filled with these kinds of underworld-doorway depictions. And why is the underworld doorway on Temple 22 at one end of the Milky Way monster instead of in the center, over the sanctuary door? Because, as with the Mixcoatl portrayal in Figure 3, the dark-rift "mouth" is on one extreme end of the Milky Way snake - and astronomically the ecliptic divides the head from the tail (see Figure 1).

Another mythological placename is ma-ta-wi-la or matawil . Matawil, like Black Hole, can refer to either a title (as in rulership) or a location: "Similar shifts between title and toponym mark the use of the "black hole" compound" (75). The idea of a throne comes to mind, in which a celestial location is reserved for people of special position. The Milky Way / Mother Goddess would probably be a good home-base for Ahau rulers, and the crossing point of Milky Way and ecliptic - the place of creation - would certainly be a good throne for a ruler. This crossing point is also now known to be the center of the Mayan Sacred Tree, such as we see on Pacal's sarcophagus lid (Schele & Freidel, 1993). In Mayan creation myth, the Maize God (who is none other than One Hunahpu - First Father), sets up his house of rulership by "stretching the cord" and marking the sides and corners of his domain, an act thought to be centered upon the cosmic crossroads (Tedlock 1985:334), the crossing point of Milky Way and ecliptic (with the dark-rift nearby). The dark-rift in the Milky Way, being known as the xibalba be or the road to the underworld , is identical to the primordial cave of creation out of which come the first humans. It is also the place or cave of creation because it is the birth canal of the Milky Way Goddess-Mother. I also argue that One Hunahpu (First Father) is reborn from the dark-rift, because the winter solstice sun (First Father) conjoins the dark rift on (In other words, Ahau rulers, in emulation of the mythological-astronomical creation scenario, claim for their symbolic throne the Black Hole birth-canal in the sky. This may be why there is an association between title and location attributed to matawil and the black hole in Stuart and Houston's analysis.)

A depiction on page 76 from La Pasadita shows two men operating a fire drill (see Figure 5). The lower portion shows a gaping skeletal mouth enclosing a box of glyphs, including the matawil compound. Matawil is associated with dead ancestors, and the gaping skeletal mouth (being a common mode for representing the underworld) reiterates this Xibalban context (77).

Skeletal Jaws
"Mouth" to the underworld
Figure 5

Glyphic Jaws
Figure 6

Although it isn't mentioned in the text, I should point out that the "Black Hole" glyph shown on page 75 (Fig. 85b in Stuart and Houston) looks like a miniature abbreviation of the gaping skeletal mouth in Figure 89 (see Figure 6 above). The skeletal mouth seems to serve the same symbolic purpose as other mouths - passageways to the underworld; i.e., the xibalba be or dark-rift.

When placenames (mythological or otherwise) are attached to a verb, this indicates the location of an event (77). The matawil compound behaves like this, and in several texts describing the birth of certain deities, the matawil compound follows a birth event. Most likely then, "Matawil is where the deities are born" (77). In Mayan thought, life comes from death: one is dead before they are born. One comes into the earth plane from xibalba. One is born through the birth canal portal (the dark-rift/Black Hole) into this realm. Considering matawil's association with the dead ancestors of the underworld, the way to get from the underworld to being born on earth is thus through the birth-place, through the road which leads to/from the underworld .

"But where is this Matawil?" (77). This query is now answer able with a good amount of certainty, but Stuart and Houston veer down another path in looking for the answer. They even say it clearly: There are hints "that Matawil corresponded to an area both enclosed and defined by skeletal jaws..." (77). Again, skeletans refer to the dead, jaws or mouths refer (as in the archaic symbol of the Jaguar's mouth) to the entrance to the underworld. The road to the underworld is called xibalba be , whose astronomical counterpart is the dark-rift in the Milky Way. I say they appear to bark up the wrong tree in the paragraph which attempts to explain where Matawil is, but maybe they're just being obscure. They do mention the early mythic history of Palenque and migration legends (which I should add, are tied to creation and emergence legends). A phrase they use here is rather distressing, which, again, makes me think they err: " terms of movements over a landscape fusing real and mythological imagery." (77). The counterpointing of "real" and "mythological" suggests that mythological places are being thought of as purely imaginary, without any place in the real world. However, Mayan mythology has been shown to be very concrete - it is observed in the sky - and this has been my guiding interpretative basis all along. That this interpretive key is missing is reiterated in Stuart and Houston's final words in this section on mythological placenames - which I'll get to momentarily. But to restate: if Stuart and Houston had embraced the key understanding that mythological events are found in the sky, they may have been more accurate in some of their interpretations.[2]

A Speculative Example

A final mythological placename (with event) consists of the number five, a glyph possibly meaning flower and the glyph NAL (house?). The creation text of Quirigua Stela C ostensibly locates this event in the remote, mythological past. (Of course, I would add, it may in fact refer to the immediate, astronomical future.) Five Flower House. Fifth Age, Ahau House. The Ahau House or Throne may refer, as we suggested before, to the center of creation, the place of creation and birth, the dark-rift as birth-canal. Five may refer to the quincunx cosmograms primarily found in Central Mexican art, suggesting the World Age doctrine (just guessing here). Anyhow, something involving creation and birth is going on here. Stuart and Houston point out that the same event seems to be portrayed on an intriguing design from an unprovenienced Early Classic tripod vessel (see Figure 7). According to an unpublished essay by an astute artist friend of mine, Mayan calendar student Mark Valladares, this common design-motif represents the female reproductive system with its and ovaries and eggs (Valladares, 1995); the cross refers to the crossing point of Milky Way and ecliptic - the navel of the sky.

Figure 7.
Ovaries, reproductive system, and birth-canal crossroads.

To support the notion that the crossing point is also thought of as a cosmic navel - from where the four directions are measured - I'll point out that modern Yucatec Maya healers imagine a four-directional schema emanating from the navel of the human body. Physical therapy begins and spreads outward from here to the body's extremities, the hands and feet. The prevalence of threes and sixes imply something associated with the feminine principle is being portrayed.[3] The "location" refered to is reiterated on the side of the vessel by a head variant of the "witz" or hill sign, with a cleft inside of it. "Cleft in Hill" seems to suggest a cave, with all the attendant complex of biological and astronomical inflections echoing around. The cave symbol also peripherally supports the womb/birth-canal interpretation of the main design. This last example is speculative and obviously not as strong as the previous ones.

In their sum-up of this chapter, Stuart and Houston say something profound: "just as the deities acceded to high office or gave birth, so too did they live in specific places, ranging from the "fifth sky" to the "black hole"" (80). But then they feel the need to keep humans separate from deities: "the overlap between human and mythological geography would appear to be small..." (80). Their conclusion continues by thus saying that human beings didn't perform rituals in the places where supernaturals were, nor did deities dwell among people. This is kind of true, but coupled with the previous quote in which their misconception of mythological geography as "not real" is restated, I think they're invoking a dualist framework where it is not appropriate. Terrestrial geography provided a parallel map to celestial geography, and astronomical events are the landscape of so-called mythological places and events. Sky and earth is the duality here, and the Mayan concept "skyearth" suggests that the Maya don't perceive these as separate realms. So, I can't accept that these two geographies - mythological and terrestrial - were "kept rigidly apart" (80). In that the entrance to the underworld could be found in a nearby cave, in the body of a woman, as well as in the dark-rift in the sky, celestial and terrestrial geographies are clearly interwoven. Said another way, dead ancestors and other deities are immediately present; much of Mayan ritual is concerned with feeding these ever-present beings.


If my own work is on the mark (Jenkins, 1994, 1995a and 1995b), it would seem that the birth canal of the Great Mother is an extremely important "mythological" location which, as is the convention, has an astronomical counterpart. Stuart and Houston's identification of the mythological placename called "Black Hole", with attendant contexts relating to ballcourts, mythological "birth" events, Ahau rulership, underworld doorways, and the beginning date of the current era (with likely reference to the astronomical events that actually occur on the end date), strongly suggest that the Black Hole concept refers to the dark-rift in the Milky Way in Sagittarius. As a result, we can begin to examine how this prevalent Mesoamerican concept, central to Mesoamerican cosmogenesis and calendrics, transforms from its realistic representations on Izapan Stelae, through its Classic Period abstractions, to its later pictorial expression in Central Mexican codices.


1. In sweat bath ceremonies of the modern Tzutujil Maya, in which emerging is a kind of symbolic rebirth, the word for the "door" of the bath house is the same as the word used for the human cervix or birth canal, yet it is also referred to as "the mouth". In addition, an unpublished Tzutujil creation story similar to the Popol Vuh is to be called "Of the Sweat Bath" (Prechtel 1993).

2. Stuart and Houston's study was drafted during the late-1980's while Schele's breakthrough theories came in the early-1990's. This may be why astronomical locations for these mythological place names were not sought.

3. There are compelling arguments for a universal association between the feminine principle and the numbers 3, 6 and 9; for example, the nine muses and three norns. Valladares (1995) believes the Mesoamerican "Nine Lords of the Night" to originally have been Goddesses. In early Mesoamerican thought, Peter Furst (1981) argues that the triangular "cleft-head" found so frequently in Olmec art is an attribute of the Bufo marines toad species; frogs are associated with the Great Mother because they call the rains. The triangle motif involving threeness also delimits the sacred space of the birthing passage.


Furst, Peter. 1981. "Jaguar Baby or Toad Mother: A New Look at an Old Problem in Olmec Iconography" in The Olmec and Their Neighbors . Dumbarton Oaks.

Jenkins, John Major. "The How and Why of the Mayan End Date in 2012 A.D." in The Mountain Astrologer. December, 1994.

Jenkins, John Major. 1995a. The Center of Mayan Time . Four Ahau Press.

Jenkins, John Major. 1995b. "Maya Creation: The Stellar Frame and World Ages". Unpublished article.

Prechtel, Martin. March, 1993. "The Vision of the Female Principle in Contemporaneous Mayan Society and Cosmology." Lecture Tape, 3 hours. Longmont, Colorado.

Schele, Linda and Freidel, David. 1993. Maya Cosmos .

Stuart, David and Houston, Stephen. 1994. Classic Maya Place Names , in "Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology" #33. Early drafts of this study were circulated in 1986 and 1989.

Tedlock, Barbara. 1992. "The Road of Light: Theory and Practice of Mayan Skywatching" in The Sky in Mayan Literature , Oxford University Press.

Tedlock, Dennis and Tedlock, Barbara. 1993. "Crossroads" interview in Parabola Magazine.

Tedlock, Dennis. 1985. The Popol Vuh .

Tedlock, Dennis. 1992. "Myth. Math, and the Problem of Correlation in Mayan Books" in The Sky in Mayan Literature , Oxford University Press.

Valladares, Mark. 1995. "The Overlay." Unpublished paper.

Taube, Karl and Mary Miller. 1993. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya.

Wren, Linnea. 1995. "Chichen Itza: The Rhetoric of Conquest and Creation." Paper presented at the 1995 Hieroglyphic Conference in Austin, Texas.

© September, 1995. Four Ahau Press
All Rights Reserved. John Major Jenkins
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0
This paper was made possible by the three norns
and the nine muses.