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God A Stinks - Synesthesia in the Maya Afterlife

By Amy Giroux
The earliest Maya poetry is etched on a jade plaque along with the date 3483; "For those of us who come from within the world of letters that was 320 A.D., before there was any such thing as English literature" (Tedlock 258).

The scribes of the Maya documented the history, rituals, and beliefs of their people by creating multimodal texts on stone, ceramic, stucco, and paper. The stunning imagery which survived the ravages of the tropical climate began to come to light in the mid-nineteenth century with archaeological expeditions following in the early twentieth century. Maya textual forms of communication were strongly visual; the pictographic and chirographic images helped to create texts accessible to both the literate and illiterate Maya. Each of the aesthetic media chosen by the Maya artisans allowed the visual rhetoric of the imagetexts—defined by W.J.T. Mitchell as dialectical images with pictures and words in tandem (9)—to convey aspects of the Maya worldview. Through the efforts of many Mayanists, the specific meanings of these texts are coming to light (Coe). Contemporary scholars are able to analyze the imagery and have discerned commonalities with modern pictorial narratives.

Maya narrative imagetexts have been analyzed by comic scholars, and in his influential Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993) Scott McCloud proposes that pre-Columbian Maya screenfold codices were the first comics (10). More recent scholarship by Jesper Nielsen and Søren Wichmann suggests sequential art originated even earlier during the Late Classic Period (600-900 AD) where "sequential text-image pairings" appear on ceramics, stone, and stucco (60). Aaron Meskin disagrees, however, viewing the inclusion of Maya narrative imagery in the category of comics as "perverse" and excluding all early forms of sequential art from consideration as comics (373). Defining the term "comics" is problematic and critics now use terms such as "proto-comics" to describe early forms of sequential art (Witek 149). Regardless of whether some theorists consider Maya imagetexts as "comics" or "proto-comics," there is evidence that the Maya in Mesoamerica used graphic elements in their narrative imagery to convey sensory stimuli.

McCloud describes comics as a "mono-sensory medium" as it only allows vision to address the other senses (89). Comics artists use the concept of synesthesia to convey taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound through visual cues. Conventional comics evolved to use standardized symbolism such as action lines to show movement, or bubbles to show speech or other sounds. Additionally, comic strips—like film—use montage to arrange images so they can indicate movement and time (Lacassin 14-15). When a reader mentally processes the montage of the comic strip, the embedded synesthetic imagery triggers a connection between the visual and the reader's other senses. Karl Young describes these external visual stimuli as being "mirrored by an inner speech, inner sight, and inner sound" (25). Janis Nuckolls, Jorge Salgueiro, and others have analyzed synesthesia in contemporary comics, but they, as most scholars, base their studies on the more commonsense imagery such as sound.

The present study discusses Maya narrative art traits and notes that some Maya imagetexts contain scent imagery in a manner similar to contemporary comics. By focusing on the sense of smell and comparing modern comic olfactory symbolism with those on Maya sequential narrative ceramics—specifically, recurring iconographic images of a commonly depicted Underworld deity known as death God A—I argue that the Maya used standardized imagery for smells and thus employed a technique similar to today's concept of synesthesia. The Maya's prevalent use of olfactory symbolism, termed nose beads or nasal motifs, occurs most often as a single symbolic entity in front of the faces of kings, animals, and gods. However, through my analysis I found God A's iconography contains combined nasal motif imagery—similar to present-day comic examples of strong odors like Pasquale's garlic breath (Figure 1) or Jimbo's peppermint chewing gum breath (Figure 2) in Rose is Rose.

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I found a common set of Maya nasal motifs in God A's multifaceted olfactory symbolism that I interpret to depict the rotten stenches of the Maya afterlife. Maya scholars Stephen Houston, David Stuart, and Karl Taube have previously analyzed synesthesia in Maya imagery, and they took the idea further into the area of embodiment by investigating ingestion, senses, and emotion, concluding the Maya used visual stimuli to "trigger perceptions in others—hearing, smell, touch, and taste" (134).

Reading Maya Imagetexts

The debate over what constitutes comics is ongoing, and scholars will likely never reach a consensus. Joseph Witek contends there is more "semantic quibbling than productive critical inquiry" and suggests scholars move past defining comics and allow varied analyses of interest to proceed (149). Analysis of comics or sequential art requires interpretive reading. Both Witek and Charles Hatfield stress that "reading" is a critical part of comics and without a reader knowledgeable in the conventions applicable to the medium, understanding will not occur (Witek 149; Hatfield 135). Hatfield describes this knowledge as "learned competencies," and in the case of Maya narratives, contemporary scholars are applying comic-reading conventions to help interpret the imagetexts (135).

Nielsen and Wichmann's in-depth analysis of the relationship of Maya sequential art and comics outlines the criteria for what they term "sequential text-image pairing" in an attempt to aid in a universal interpretation of the imagetexts (60). Since the intended order and ways of originally reading Maya sequential narratives is unknown, Nielsen and Wichmann propose a typology to categorize patterns of images for sequential accessing. The juxtaposition of image and text, or Hatfield's contention of diegetical (show) and non-diegetical (tell) symbols, can be analyzed for patterns that could suggest reading order and therefore interpretation (134). A substantial part of the reading of comics is the understanding of synesthetic imagery. The Maya combined text and character and setting images with sense imagery—all formal characteristics of contemporary comics—to produce readable sequential narratives. Some Maya ceramics have duplicate or parallel imagery (Kettunen 252), and I see these being read similarly to single-frame comics such as Family Circus or The Lockhorns; they are narratives created from single or multiple images with or without accompanying text. By focusing on reading the imagery on Maya artifacts containing images of God A, I interpret his iconography as containing multi-part synesthetic images of smells.

The early Maya were on the cusp of what Walter Ong terms "true literacy" as they conceptualized their lifeworld as a godworld. The characters depicted in the texts—whether human or god—were typically engaged in conflicts or struggles and thus agonistically toned (Ong 43-45). Europeans were appalled at the human sacrifice used by the Mesoamericans, though Mary Ellen Miller and Karl Taube argue that to the Maya, sacrifice was "a fundamental means to maintain world harmony and balance" (30). The imagetexts illustrating bloodletting, sacrifices, and the struggle between life and death play out across temple walls, screenfold codices, and on ceramic pottery, echoing Ong's definition of oral narrative style as including "enthusiastic description[s] of physical violence" (44). The Maya employed visual rhetoric to disseminate their worldview using a symbolic system Henri Stierlin describes as "belonging to an accomplished and mature plastic universe" (97). Maya imagetexts narrate both historical events and myths while simultaneously evoking strong emotions to help the Maya embody their belief system and to "affirm a shared reality" between the members of the community (Schele and Miller 41).

Many people are familiar with the stone relief sculptures and stelae of the Maya; however, much of the intricate imagetexts were painted by the Maya in screenfold books, on plaster-covered temple walls, and on ceramic vessels. The ceramics were made without the use of a potter's wheel, and the artists concentrated on making the surfaces sufficient for their writing. Writing, drawing, carving, and painting were synonymous to the Maya—each of the activities using the same verb stem, tz'ib (Coe 247; Stierlin 130; Reents-Budet 8). David Drew describes Maya pictorial ceramic vases and bowls as "one of the great little-known glories of world ceramic art" (323), but Stierlin warns researchers to not misrepresent Maya artifacts as art because "the original function of aesthetic creation was a quest for the sacred—an approach to the gods and to cosmic forces, attempting to tame them through beauty" (8). Analysis of the use of the ceramics and the reading of their imagery is more important than their overall aesthetics.

The abundance of these Classic period vessels attests to their use as funerary wares since they escaped the zealous hand of Spanish Bishop de Landa by being buried beyond his reach.[1] The imagetexts depicted on many vases are narratives showing Underworld scenes, some of which include God A (Benson and Griffin 4). The images are usually accompanied by glyphic texts which sometimes identify the date of the scene being recounted, the use of the vessel (e.g. to hold cacao), the type of vessel, and sometimes the artist's name.

Maya Synesthesia

The Maya and other cultures in Mesoamerica used sight, scent, and speech scrolls in their iconography to denote these senses. Houston, Stuart, and Taube's analysis of Maya iconography and epigraphy explores the concept of embodiment and discusses details such as ingestion, senses, and emotions. The authors used specific examples from sculpture and ceramics as evidence to support their theories. Synesthesia, as a "cross-modality" experience, is shown to be the principal communication method of the Maya scribes through both the epigraphic symbolism and the drawings themselves (Houston, Stuart, and Taube 136-139). Without other means to convey the concepts of bodily senses, the Maya drew specific symbols to denote them. In some cases, the same imagery has multiple meanings, such as flame, smoke, and new maize sprouts "all represented by the same double scroll" which, like homonyms, can only be understood in context (Schele and Miller 43).

Examples of synesthetic imagery for speech appear in early Maya art with speech scrolls that would often connect to glyphs "rather like the bubbles in modern strip cartoons" (Stierlin 130). Will Eisner refers to these as "simply a ribbon emerging from the speaker's mouth—or (in Maya friezes) as brackets pointing to the mouth" (24). Figure 3 illustrates thin-lined scrolls that visually connect Hunahpú as Sun God and another being to their respective words within the image/text. Houston, Stuart, and Taube (142) describe the speech of Maya skeletons as "crooked and angular like bones," and in some cases bone-shaped imagery surrounds the corresponding glyphs such as the three sets of multi-part bone-like shapes surrounding the five glyphs in front of God A in Figure 4. Additionally, a number of Maya ceramic vases show scribes writing in or reading from codices. One such vase illustrates two elderly scribes with large open jaguar skin-covered codices with imagery emanating from the pages like present-day pop-up books. Figure 5 focuses on one such scribe who is kneeling with the large open book upon his lap. Scenes showing the use of codices with pop-up imagery evoke a synesthetic response as if the pages were speaking to the scribe.

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Houston, Stuart, and Taube feel that the evidence of synesthetic imagery for taste and touch is weak (175) but point out the prevalence of images containing items to ingest such as the tamales in the tripod bowl and the frothing pot of cacao in Figure 6. Examples of textiles to touch include jaguar pelts and cloth such as that in Figure 7. The most prevalent sense imagery in Maya imagetexts is smell—sometimes used in a pleasant way with kings and rulers and other times in a foul way as with death gods. Death and the Underworld are characterized by disease and the stench of decay. The Maya deities were depicted in ways that visualize these smells, and this case study, involving God A, helps illustrate the use of synesthetic elements for scents in Maya imagetexts.

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God A Synesthesia

In 1904, Paul Schellhas analyzed the three surviving pre-Hispanic screenfold books of his time—the Dresden, Madrid, and Paris Codices, categorizing the Maya gods illustrated therein. He labeled the gods A through P, since at the time, Maya glyphs were not yet understood. Schellhas, the first to categorize the gods, described God A as having "an exposed, bony spine, truncated nose and grinning teeth. It is plainly to be seen that the head of this god represents a skull and that the spine is that of a skeleton" (10). In addition to the skeletal form, God A's stomach is sometimes bloated and other times shows blood or decaying flesh (Taube 11-13).

God A's appearance on funerary ceramics indicates his role as an Underworld deity. His jewelry of death eyes and his odiferous emanations set him apart from the other deities of that realm as his scent imagery associates him with decomposition. Cizin is the epithet more popularly associated with God A. Taube points to phonetic evidence in the Madrid Codex (85c and 87c) showing the use of Cizin as a "pre-Hispanic epithet for God A" (145), and it is the contemporary name for the god of death of the Yucatec, Lacandon, Manche Chol, and Tzotzil Maya (Thompson 31). Cizin is from the root ciz, meaning flatulence, and God A is referred to as the "Stinking One" (Taube 14; Thompson 31).

The events depicted on ceramics containing images of God A are associated with the Maya afterlife. Michael Coe believes all Classic Period pictorial vessels were created specifically as burial wares to hold food and drink for the dead and contain iconography and glyphic texts illustrating scenes from Xibalbá (218-221). The Quiché Mayan name of the Underworld, Xibalbá, derives from xib, meaning "fear, terror, trembling with fright" (Schele and Miller 267). While Coe noticed a pattern to the ceramics' glyphs, which he dubbed the Primary Standard Sequence (PSS) in the early 1970s, it was not until Barbara MacLeod's dissertation research in 1990 that the structure of the PSS was more fully understood (Coe 246-247). Among the PSS glyphs are the type (painted/carved), shape (bowl, tripod, vase), and contents (e.g. cacao) of the vessel. These funerary ceramics, along with their Underworld imagery and accompanying glyphs, illuminate what Coe describes as "a complex scenography" (Coe 220).

God A is identified as one of the primary Underworld gods, associated with sacrifice, burial rituals, and the story of the Hero Twins, though there is disagreement over his name and function within Xibalbá. Many of the chthonic denizens in these ceramic scenes are shown in various styles and guises with certain characteristics prevalent in the imagery such as skeletal features, black marks representing decaying flesh, and disembodied eyes. This imagery brings to mind decomposition, and the Maya used additional symbolism to denote the smells associated with it.

Smell symbolism is prevalent throughout Mesoamerican art. Signs for breath appear on various items, and the use of these signs cover a "temporal span of some two thousand years" (Houston, Stuart, and Taube 141). Breath symbols hover in front of not only humans, but serpents, dragons, and other animals. The meanings of nasal motifs, normally rooted in the essence of life/death, are not taken literally as meaning a specific smell or scent.[2] Houston and Taube label the depiction of smells as "nose beads" since the images were drawn hovering near the nose. Harri Kettunen published a more extensive study and termed these devices "nasal motifs" (18). No clear consensus indicates the meaning of nasal motifs; some images may portray actual nose ornaments worn by the Maya, but numerous nasal motifs "are clearly associated with the non-physical world" (Kettunen 307). Kettunen's typography spans all Maya art forms and focuses on the placement of imagery near the nose of any being (18). His systematic study does not equate meaning to specific iconography but classifies the imagery into super- and sub-categories and identifies generalizations. For example, the super-category containing shuttlecocks, tassels, and separate multipartite items "appear to be associated—more than others—with abstract aspects (e.g. status, quality, or state) of the individuals and entities assigned with the motifs" (274).

Many of the olfactory images are floral in form and are possibly the life breath of the individual (Houston and Taube 267; Kettunen 307). A number of Maya deity figures are also adorned with nasal motifs, and Kettunen feels the motif does not symbolize death, but "life and continuation" (308). Houston and Stuart, however, proposed the white plumeria as a floral expression for death. The Maya link the plumeria and other flowers to the wind since it carries the scent of the flowers (267). Stuart equates the Ik' symbol (meaning wind) with death by defining a Late Classic expression, k'a'-ay-i/u-ik'-u-tis, as meaning "it finishes, his flower breath, his flatulence" since both cease at the time of death (Houston, Stuart, and Taube 143). Houston and Taube reiterate the concept by describing this as "two body exhalations, one sweet-smelling and oral, the other foul and anal" (qtd. in Houston and Taube 267). Although symbols used as nasal motifs likely had specific meaning to the Maya, those definitions are currently unknown and contemporary interpretations of God A's iconography imply that he stank. The remainder of this study concentrates on the imagery of these foul odors.

Using the typology defined by Kettunen for nasal motifs, I analyzed each of the emanations from God A for scent imagery. The sample of ceramics used for this study was selected from the Kerr Maya ceramics database ( Of the 1,851 (2009) vessels of the Kerr collection, 64 portray God A in his skeletal form. I noted that nasal motif symbolism can be found not only in front of God A's face, but in three other locations around his form—head, stomach, and rear. Figure 8 focuses on an example of a vase depicting God A trying to hold an infant, and the labels mark the supplemental locations of imagery.

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God A is usually depicted with a facial nasal motif on the ceramic vessels in the sample. Of these nasal motifs, sixty percent are what Kettunen calls shuttlecocks (Figure 9), interpreted as the image of the pedicel, sepal, and petals of a flower (104). In addition to a facial nasal motif, many times God A has what Schele and Miller refer to as "foliated scrolls" emitting from Cizin's rear to indicate flatulence (54). Additionally, the mo symbol, which is used to indicate an anus, appears on God A's image (Nielsen and Wichmann 71; Schele and Miller 53; Taube 13). I contend the Maya's combined use of facial nasal motifs in the foliated scroll symbolism links these images of God A to Stuart's death phrase, k'a'-ay-i/u-ik'-u-tis, "it finishes, his flower breath, his flatulence," as God A's iconography clearly embodies the concept of death (Houston, Stuart, and Taube 143).

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Table 1 summarizes the quantities of nasal motif imagery in the skeletal examples of God A and of note is the frequent occurrence of the Ik' symbol (36 times), equated by Stuart with death.[3] This analysis also found only four depictions of the Stinking One without scent imagery. Each location on God A can contain similar shapes to those Kettunen defined as nasal motifs. Although Kettunen and others have applied labels like "shuttlecock" and "knot" to various motifs based on their resemblance to contemporary objects, based on the nasal motifs' inclusion in God A's flatulence scrolls I interpret them to mean stench in those specific contexts.

Table 1 - Occurrences of nasal motifs for God A on 64 ceramic vessels from the Kerr Collection (
Motif Face Head Stomach Rear Total
Bone 1 2 0 12 15
Cimi 0 1 0 2 3
Dragon snout 2 9 0 1 12
Feathers 24 15 7 20 66
Hair (thin lines) 0 23 0 0 23
Ik' 1 3 19 13 36
Knot 0 31 1 8 40
Mo 0 0 1 1 2
Multi-part 3 2 0 4 9
Round 5 6 5 6 22
Shuttlecock 27 21 5 9 62
Spiral 2 2 1 1 6
Uncommon 5 20 9 18 52
Undetermined (eroded) 2 1 2 4 9
Total 72 136 50 99 357

My analysis found that the head, stomach, and flatulence imagery are frequently made of multiple iconographic nasal motif images. Figure 10[4] illustrates examples of combined imagery with the spiral and dragon snout attached to God A's hair, the Ik' symbol and a three knot with feathers protruding from his stomach, and a shuttlecock with feathers, a bone, and a Cimi symbol embedded in his flatulence imagery. Therefore, I propose that each individual piece of the image likely represents a separate odiferous smell which mingle together to create a miasma of decay. The twelve categories of scent imagery listed in Table 1 occur in a variety of combinations in God A imagery. The bones, shuttlecocks, Ik' symbols, dragon snouts, and spirals are reminiscent of the skulls, bones, onions, garlic, dead fish, cheese, and garbage cans appearing in modern comic strips such as Jeremy's morning breath in Zits (Figure 11). McCloud describes contemporary smell imagery as a visual metaphor since the images "[represent] an invisible one, our sense of smell" and do not truly depict what is shown in the image (128). The depictions of Jeremy's morning breath, Jimbo's peppermint gum breath, and Pasquale's garlic breath use similar multi-part synesthetic imagery as the Maya used for God A's stenches over a thousand years ago.

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This study focused specifically on the Underworld, and the graphical design of God A (Cizin) in his skeletal form, to illustrate the Maya scribes' use of synesthetic imagery for putrid smells. By analyzing the iconography of Maya God A on the pictorial ceramics of the Kerr collection, imagery associated with nasal motifs was found at four locations of God A's extrusions. By breaking down each of the emanations into their individual nasal motif symbols and comparing the variety to contemporary symbolism for comic smells (e.g. skulls and garlic), it can be seen that the Maya were adept at using synesthetic imagery to convey the noisome smell of decay to the reader of God A imagetexts.

Scott McCloud emphasizes the sequential characteristic of comics as being the most important, while Robert C. Harvey asserts that "blending verbal and visual content" is the predominant requirement (25). The Maya scribes incorporated both sequentiality and verbal/visual content in their pictorial narratives, and the similarities of this narrative form with comics should not be dismissed. The Maya's use of sequential art is specific to their culture—the content and context should not be compared to contemporary comics. The purpose and audience of God A imagetexts dealt with the Maya beliefs and understanding of the issues of death and the afterlife, whereas today's comics are for entertainment or social commentary. However, many of the formal features of comics can be found both in today's strips and in Maya sequential art. Though the text of many Maya artifacts have not been fully deciphered, the accurate pictorial depictions of events on the ceramics indicate skillful understanding and application of the concepts of human senses and how to convey meaning through synesthesia. While scholars such as Meskin argue that Maya sequential art existing in the realm of comics is perverse, careful analysis of the iconographic images can illuminate the fact that Maya artisans were sophisticated users of visual rhetoric and applied imagery in a synesthetic manner similarly to modern comics artists.


[1]De Landa purged the Maya culture of what he considered their heathen historical manuscripts by burning all the codices he could find. He recorded his act of destruction, stating: "These people used certain characters or letters, with which they wrote in their books about their antiquities and their sciences; with these, and with figures, and certain signs in the figures, they understood their matters, made them known, and taught them. We found a great number of books in these letters, and since they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the devil we burned them all, which they took most grievously, and which gave them great pain" (qtd. in Mignolo, 354).

[2]See Houston, Stuart, and Taube, The Memory of Bones and Kettunen, Nasal Motifs.

[3]The motif terms are those used by Kettunen in his typography.

[4]Drawings by Amy E. Giroux based on Kettunen: spiral (p. 731), dragon snout (p. 728), three knot with feathers (p. 729), shuttlecock with feathers (p. 726), bone (p. 738).

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