The White House

Imagine if you will that the United States as a country has completely vanished and that the entire land mass north of the Rio Grande has reverted back to forest and grassland.Imagine that it is the year 3207 and that Maya archeologists have come north to explore our ancient civilization.Suppose they find an inscription on a pedestal in a ruined city that they think may have been Boston.The inscription is in characters totally foreign to them but after many years of work, they have figured out that the people who built this city used characters to represent sounds alone and not syllables.The partial inscription they found appears to say “John F. Kennedy served in the White House, 1961-1963.”

The Maya archeologists figured out a decade ago how this civilization used to mark time and so they can understand the dates.Of course, they don’t know if 1961-1963 refers to the time this monument was erected or to some event in the past or in the future.They can also figure out pretty quickly that John F. Kennedy must be a name.Who was he?What position did he hold?Is he one of their gods, a fictional person from their mythology, or a historical figure?Why was he important enough to have this monument erected to him in this place?Those would be puzzling questions, but not as difficult as the next problem.

What is meant by “served” in this context?In the old American language, the verb “to serve” meant to work for, to place food in front of, to be a servant.Yet that doesn’t sound important enough to be named on a monument.And what is meant by a “white house?”White is sak in the Mayan language and house is nah.So this John F. Kennedy person is associated in some serving capacity at a saknah. What can that possibly mean?Were there other houses colored white and what makes such a house any different from a house colored red, or green, or another color?

Of course, the people who put up the statue understood that “White House” can refer to the presidential residence itself, to the whole body of people who make up a presidential administration, to the executive branch of the American government, or to the president’s press secretary.Sometimes even the old Americans were confused and used the term indiscriminately.American democracy, at least as it was originally conceived, saw office holders as public servants.That meaning was much obliterated in the beginning of the 21st Century, but at one time a president was a servant of the people.Who knows what meanings those old Americans attributed to the terms as they were used on this monument?To the 31st Century Maya archeologists exploring the ruins of Boston, this is all a collection of unknown symbols, allegories, metaphors and mysteries.

The same sort of puzzle faces American archeologists as we dig into the Maya past of 1200 years before our own time.Jungle entombed the ancient cities of the Maya homeland and only in the late 19th Century were any serious attempts begun to investigate them.The Mayan inscriptions on temple walls and stelae, as well as writings on pottery, use many symbols, allegories, and metaphors which made perfectly good sense to the people who wrote them but are completely mysterious to us.One example is the verb ock bi which translates “to enter the road”.What road?The Maya had broad straight roads but why would the action of entering one be significant enough to be memorialized in stone?After much study, we have generally come to understand that ock bi is a verb meaning to die or to enter upon the road of death.We have come to understand that the Maya considered death as a journey into Xibalba, the Underworld, and so “entering the road” makes sense.Depending on context, however, it might also mean to enter a tomb to administer post burial rites or to enter a crypt to deposit offerings[1].Linda Schele in Maya Cosmos discovered that this “road” is also the trunk of the tree of life and furthermore she even equates it to the Milky Way![2]So it is not enough to figure out the literal translation or even the pronunciation for ancient inscriptions.Figuring out the allegories and metaphors is equally important.

So it is with the concept of ox witik.Ox is the numeral three.Wi is the word for “root”.Ti is a multipurpose preposition that can mean “in”, “on”, “to”, “with”, “from” or “at”.Ki is a phonetic sign but can also mean “heart”.So translating strictly from its components, ox witik might mean something like “three root from the heart”, which makes no sense.However, the components may not be significant at all and the combination of phonetic signs or syllables might produce a word or idea that has an entirely different meaning.In his dictionary of Maya hieroglyphs, John Montgomery shows witiki used as an adjective before the noun ahau which means “lord”.He says this translates into “witik lord” as some kind of title, but he offers no translation for witik.[3] (Note:the final vowel is often dropped, thus resulting in witik instead of witiki.)A similar dictionary by Peter Mathews and Peter Biro guesses that witik might be a plant name.This is a very questionable hypothesis which even they recognize with a question mark next to their entry.[4]Barbara MacLeod suggested that tiki functions here as an aggregate pluralizer, rendering the translation of ox witik as “three roots.”[5]

The term ox witik is found in two inscriptions at Copan in Honduras.The first is on the back of stela B, erected by Eighteen Rabbit on August 20, 731 CE.The second is on top of the famous Altar Q, which was activated by Yax Pasaj on March 1, 776.The term witik without the prefix ox appears in several other places in Copan.Altar Y has chul witik ahau as a title for “holy witik lord”.Altar A records chul witik without the ahau as a place name.Stela 48 has witik by itself as a place.On Altar G1, Yax Pasaj had chan witik inscribed which means “four witik.”Why he changed from three to four – if indeed he is even referring to the same thing – is yet a mystery.

Altar Q

Altar Q contains an important clue to the meaning of ox witik.Altar Q is probably the most important dynastic history artifact anywhere in the Maya world.Around its sides are profiles of the sixteen kings of Copan from 427 to 776 CE.Each sits upon his own name glyph or euphemism that refers to him.Yax Kuk Mo, the founder of the dynasty, sits upon an ahau glyph, meaning ”lord”.All the kings are lords, of course, but the fact that this lord is sitting on that particular glyph most likely indicates that he was considered by the Copan elite as the supreme lord.The elements of his headdress spell out his full name.

The top of the altar tells the story of his coming to Copan and establishing the dynasty and ends with a reference to Yax Pasaj, the king who commissioned the altar.In this way the latter, who is the 16th to rule at Copan, is attempting to show his legitimate right to govern through direct descent from the 1st ruler.(Illustration of the top of Altar Q from Copan Note 66.).  

The translation of the inscription on top of Altar Q begins:“On September 5, 426, lord Kuk Mo received the Kawil scepter at the Root Tree House [crossed bundles with peek-a-boo head].”David Stuart holds that there is no clear phonetic value yet assigned for the crossed bundles glyph[6], although John Montgomery in his dictionary indicates ch’ok as a possibility[7].The “root tree house” is clearly indicated by the wi-te-naah glyphs below and behind the crossed bundles.The crossed bundles wi-te-naah place is used in exactly the same context in other Maya cities[8].Fash and Tokovinine have identified the crossed bundles with the House of New Fire at Teotihuacan[9] where new kings received their authority to rule.Yax Kuk Mo traveled to Teotihuacan for just that purpose[10]

The important point for our purpose here is that the wi glyph very definitely means “root” as in “origins” rather than as a botanical term.So if wi has any bearing in and of itself on the definition of witik, it is as an origin or source.Therefore the term ox witik at least contains a sense of a “three source” place or thing.

Altar Q goes on to say:“On February 8, 727, the Lord of the West (Yax Kuk Mo) came to the end of his journey”.There are a number of uncertainties in this section of the text, specifically at D2 and D4.Schele speculated that glyph C5 suffixed with li-ha may mean to establish or draw boundaries.[11]This could refer to the layout of the great plaza of Copan – and strata samples there indicate that at least part of the plaza was laid out in Yax Kuk Mo’s time – however the meaning remains unclear.Glyph D5 is ox witik.Schele suggested several times in her lectures and writings that ox witik may refer to the acropolis at Copan or some feature of it.Elizabeth Newsome postulated that ox witik may refer to Temple 22 at Copan[12]It is my hypothesis that Eighteen Rabbit on stela B tells us exactly what ox witik really is.

Stela B

Eighteen Rabbit raised up stela B on the major katun ending date of (August 20, 731) when he was about 50 years old and 36 years into his reign[13].Stela B is a remarkable political statement in stone.On its face, Eighteen Rabbit is shown in a standard pose decked out in the full panoply of royal regalia.At his belt are pouches of sting ray spines for his blood letting while from his body grow tendrils of maize – symbolizing the central role of his blood sacrifice to renew the fertility of the earth and therefore his central role in the cycle of life for his people.Elizabeth Newsome, in her exhaustive work Trees Of Paradise And Pillars Of The World, describes in detail the artistic and symbolic elements of this amazing monument, but for our purposes I wish to call attention its major theme.

Stela B shows Eighteen Rabbit stepping out of a mountain.At his feet are the lower jaws of the mountain monster and over his head are the upper jaws.Up the sides are mountain masks to emphasize the point.Newsome makes a very good case for the similarity of this iconography to the façade of Temple 22 which Eighteen Rabbit completed sixteen years earlier[14].That building’s outer entrance is caught in the jaws of a mountain monster very much like stela B and it has masks up all four corners.Temple 22 was Eighteen Rabbit’s personal temple to replace Rosalila which he carefully buried.Rosalila is the name archeologists give to the shrine built over the tomb of the founder, Yax Kuk Mo.

The mountain monster’s upper jaws on stela B are overlaid by huge macaw beaks that early explorers took for elephant trunks.The eyes of the mountain monster are not ordinary mountain monster eyes but rather those of a quetzal macaw.This, then, is no ordinary mountain from which Eighteen Rabbit steps forth.It is in fact the mo witz, the “macaw mountain.”In fact, the inscription on the south side boldly states that stela B was erected ubah mo witz ahau, “in the image of the Macaw Mountain lord.”[15]Others have speculated where this macaw mountain could be, but the mountains around the Copan valley are quite undistinguished and there are no artifacts or remains that indicate that the people of the region considered any one of them to be at all special (Los Sapos nothwithstanding).

The only other candidate for a macaw mountain is a mountain constructed by human hands, specifically a pyramid.Such a mountain was constructed over the tomb of Yax Kuk Mo, whose name means “First Quetzal Macaw”.This pyramid is designated by archeologists as 10L-16, which encases the Rosalila temple within it and in front of which Yax Pasaj centered his Altar Q.  

The illustrationt is from the Code of Kings[16].It declares that stela B was commissioned on or August 16, 731, when three named Gods’ hearts were empty.The south side declares the formal name of the stela and stipulates that it is in the image of the Macaw Mountain Lord.

The next phrase is key: “Thus was completed 15 katuns” or 300 years which harks back to 431 during the reign of Yax Kuk Mo.Eighteen Rabbit goes on to say that he is the 13th successor to the founder.These two statements add weight to the mo witz iconography to link this stela to the tomb of Yax Kuk Mo.

There are more clues on the back of the stela which itself is entirely given over to a huge representation of the mountain monster.In the monster’s headdress is an ancestor figure with an oversized hat that calls to mind the tasseled head pieces worn by the Teotihuacan invaders who conquered Tikal in 378 CE.Newsome suggests that the ancestor figure on the back of stela B is the supreme lord and dynastic founder, Yax Kuk Mo.[17]In fact, Yax Kuk Mo hailed from the Tikal area, was a child at the time of the invasion, and was a soldier of Tikal when he came to take over Copan.Given the rest of the iconography on this monument, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that this ancestor representation is indeed the founder.

There are also three glyphs on the back of the stela – one in each eye of the monster and one in its mouth.The first glyph is mo witz, which again refers to “macaw mountain.”The second glyph is kan na kan, or “four houses of the sky” which refers to a centering of the four prime directions.At Copan, the “four skies” is a frequent term (it is used several times on stela A).It is a grounding and centering term which here is best translated as “ground zero”. The final glyph is baknal ox witik, which means “bone place three source.”To interpret what that glyph means, we have to look up into the sky[18].

Turtle and Hearthstones

The Maya were keen astronomers and developed their own interpretations of the night sky.They noted the band of the Milky Way and the ellipse of the planets.They identified constellations and assigned various animals to them and developed their own zodiac which operates similarly to our western one.In fact, Scorpio is the same in both.Susan Milbrath has written a brilliant study of Maya astronomy, Star Gods Of The Maya, in which she examines the connections between astronomical observations and Mayan iconography and inscriptions.In particular, she points to the three bright stars in Orion’s belt – Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka.These are the Maya constellation of the turtle.They are clearly portrayed as such in the cartouches from the north wall of room 2 at Bonampak and in the Madrid Codex.

The turtle is very important in Maya iconography.The turtle is the mountain monster whose shell cracks open to bring forth the maize god.The turtle is the symbol of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.The Maya marked the beginning of the current age (August 13, 3114 BCE) by the appearance of the turtle constellation in the eastern sky.[19].

The star Alnitak is also part of the constellation of the hearthstones.Alnitak, Saiph, and Rigel in the constellation Orion form a triangle just below and part of the turtle.The Maya called them ox ibxkub, the “three hearth stars” and Nebula 42 in the center of them is kak, or “fire.”The relation of the hearthstones to the turtle is very graphically illustrated in the Madrid Codex, where the turtle carries the three hearthstone stars in tripod formation on its back.[20].

The hearthstones are the center of the Maya universe.Matthew Looper,  In Lightning Warrior, translates the creation myth from Quirigua stela C[21]: “At the beginning of the current age (August 13, 3114 BCE) the tripod is manifested.Three stones are bundled.Jaguar Paddler and Stingray Paddler plant a stone; it was at First Five Sky?; it was a jaguar throne stone.Ik Nah Chak? plants a stone; it happened at large town?; it was a snake throne stone.Itzamna bundled a stone; it was a water throne stone.It happened at Lying Down Sky, the First Three Stone Place, that the thirteen baktuns were completed.This happened under the supervision of the wak chan ahau.”Schele determined that the wak chan is really wakah chan – the Milky Way.[22](She also demonstrates that the Lying Down Sky is the Milky Way at nightfal when it appears to rest on the horizon.Later in the night its angle tilts vertical and becomes the Standing Up Sky.)In other words, the beginning of the current age happened when the Milky Way, Orion’s belt (turtle), and the Hearthstones were in a certain celestial position.

Schele reported the connection between the hearth stars of the sky and the hearth stones of the kitchen.“As three hearthstones surround the cooking fire and establish the center of the [Maya] home, so the three stone thrones of Creation centered the cosmos and allowed the sky to be lifted from the Primordial Sea.”[23] Because the stones were laid before the sky was lifted, they were laid on earth as well as in the sky.The connection for the Maya was clear and direct.Dennis Tedlock says that the three stars even today are represented in the three hearthstones of the typical Quiche kitchen fireplace, arranged to form a triangle with the fire in the center.[24]When Yax Pasaj assembled his three G altars next to Eighteen Rabbit’s stelae in Copan’s central plaza, he arranged them in a tripod grouping of three.Perhaps he was attempting to “reheat” the Copan dynasty after Eighteen Rabbit’s untimely death.

As in the heavens, so also on earth, the three hearthstones represent for the Maya a place of origin, foundation, center, beginning, and source for all that follows.This comes very close to the meaning of ox witik as a “three source” place or thing.Could ox witik and ox ibxkub be referring to the same thing?Could we express their meaning more accurately by translating them the same way as we use the concept of “cornerstone”?The three stars in Orion are the cornerstone of creation.The three stones of a Maya kitchen are the cornerstone of the home and family.Could ox witik be another way of using the concept of hearthstones as a cornerstone of something that was fundamental to the kings of Copan?

The Bone Place

The cornerstone of the dynasty at Copan and the source of its legitimacy was Yax Kuk Mo.Back on Altar Q, the text of C5 and D5 reads: jul-li-ja ox witik, which translates “he arrived or he drew the boundaries, ox witik.Ox witik has been interpreted as a place, as in a place where he arrived.But in Mayan, the subject follows the object which follows the verb.Therefore, it may be that ox witik is the subject of the verb to arrive; it could be the one arriving instead of the place arrived at.Perhaps ox witik is a metaphor for the beginning of the dynasty, Yax Kuk Mo, just as “five katun lord” is a metaphor for the 12th ruler, Smoke Jaguar.So jul-li-ja ox witik could be translated as “the ox witik arrived”.

We use the word “cornerstone” for both places and people.We speak of the US Constitution as the cornerstone of our nation, even though it is paper and not stone.The christian bible speaks of “the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” – an allegory for the rejection of the prophet Jesus by the Jewish authorities.Yax Kuk Mo was the cornerstone of the Copan royal dynasty and his tomb was the tangible cornerstone of their political and spiritual life.

Eighteen Rabbit makes this abundantly clear on stela B with the three glyphs on the back.The mountain monster out of which he emerges is the mo witz, the “macaw mountain”.It is the kan na kan, the “four houses of the sky”, the center of the universe or ground zero.Most tellingly, it is the baknal ox witik, the “bone place cornerstone.”Bone rituals among the Maya were common.Altar 5 at Tikal illustrates one in progress.William Fash, et al. describe their findings in the Motmot Tomb at Copan wherein the bones of a young adult female were revisited after burial, rearranged, and burnt.[25]The tombs of Yax Kuk Mo and the female in the Margarita Tomb believed to be his wife were re-entered several times and both skeletons were covered in cinnabar after the flesh had decayed.Eighteen Rabbit himself states quite directly that he oversaw a ritual in which his grandfather Butz Chan’s bones were cut.He recorded the act on stela A, dedicated on February 1, 731, just seven months before the events outlined on stela B.

The only bone place that is the cornerstone of Copan, the center of its universe, and associated with a Macaw Mountain is the tomb of Yax Kuk Mo.It is located under structure 10L-16, not Temple 22.Eighteen Rabbit is therefore declaring to all who look upon stela B that he literally went into the mountain of the founder and there performed a ritual.Stela B is a representation of him emerging from the Macaw Mountain after he was finished.

Ox witik therefore is either the remains of the founder, his final resting place as the cornerstone king, or the revered temple which housed his remains.It would have been quite clear to the Maya which meaning to ascribe to the term ox witik from the context, just as we today know which meaning to ascribe to the term “The White House.”


This paper was first presented at a seminar at Copan in 2010 as part of a lecture series with the Institute for Maya Studies.  Janice Van Cleve is author of several books on the Maya, including THE KINGS OF COPAN IN THEIR OWN WORDS.  Copyright 2010.


FAMSI is the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.

Agurcia Fasquelle, Ricardo, ed.:Manual De Los Monumentos De Copan, Honduras.vol 1.Asociacion Copan 2010.

Bell, Ellen; Canuto, Marcello; Sharer, Robert, eds.:Understanding Early Classic Copan.University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology 2004.

Copan Note #66.“A Brief Commentary on the Top of Altar Q” – 1989.Linda Schele.

Fash, Barbara & William and Tokovinine, Alexandre:The House Of New Fire At Teotihuacan And Its Legacy In Mesoamerica.Harvard 2009.http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1173827.files/Fash_New20%Fire_2009.pdf.

Looper, Matthew:Lightning Warrior.University of Texas at Austin 2003.

Mathews, Peter & Biro, Peter:The Maya Hieroglyph Dictionary.FAMSI website, www.famsi.org.2006.

Milbrath, Susan:Star Gods Of The Maya.University of Texas at Austin 1999.

Montgomery, John:Dictionary Of Maya Hieroglyphs.Hippocrene 2002.

Newsome, Elizabeth:Trees Of Paradise And Pillars Of The World.University of Texas at Austin 2001.

Schele, Linda & Matthews, Peter:Code Of Kings.Scribner 1998.

Schele, Linda, Freidel, David & Parker, Joy:Maya Cosmos.Harper Collins 1995.

Schele, Linda; Freidel, David; Parker, Joy:Maya Cosmos.Harper Collins 1995.

Van Cleve, Janice:Yax Kuk Mo – Mover And Shaker In The Maya World.CreateSpace 2010.

[1] Schele,Code Of Kingsp. 157.

[2] Schele,Maya Cosmosp. 76.

[3] Montgomery,p. 270.

[4] Mathews, The Maya Hieroglyph Dictionary.FAMSI website, www.famsi.org.2006.

[5] Copan Note #66.

[6] Bell,p. 236.

[7] Montgomery,p. 269.

[8] For example, Quirigua zoomorph P and Rio Amarillo structure 5.Tikal stela 31 has a wi-ti-naah glyph in its early form, without the crossed bundles, at F5 and again at E15.

[9] Fash, see bibliography.

[10] Van Cleve, see bibliography.

[11] Copan Note #66.

[12] Newsome, p. 136.

[13] Van Cleve, bibliography.

[14] Newsome,p. 137.

[15] Newsome, p. 181.

[16] Schele, Code Of Kings, p. 164.

[17] Newsome, p. 141.

[18] Agurcia, p. 133 for some reason neglects to account for the last two glyphs.

[19] Schele,Maya Cosmos.p. 66

[20] Milbrath,p. 252.

[21] Looper,p.226.

[22] Schele, Maya Cosmos,p. 76.She concluded as well that the Milky Way and the trunk of the World Tree are one and the same.

[23] Schele, Maya Cosmos,p. 67.

[24] Schele, Maya Cosmos,p. 79.

[25] Bell, p. 68.

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