Link to enlarge Masculine head from Palenque Chiapas after Michel Zabé WHO'S WHO IN THE CLASSIC MAYA WORLD
Peter Mathews

Classic Maya Names: Female Names
Péter Bíró and Peter Mathews

Numerous women are named in the inscriptions of the Classic Maya. Their importance as wives and mothers within the royal families ensured for many women that their names would be preserved for posterity. A few women ruled their kingdoms in their own right, and other women are prominently named and portrayed, as wives and mothers of kings, and as noble women in the royal courts of the ancient Maya. We have a few examples of women shown as military conquerors, and at least one instance of a woman captive.

In Classic Maya art, women are usually identifiable from elements in their portraiture (such as their long hair) and from their costume. In hieroglyphic texts women are identified from the presence, in front of their name, of a 'female head prefix', as it has become known. This prefix (T1000a in Thompson's catalogue of Maya signs [Thompson 1962:457]) represents a youthful female head, with a long strand of hair trailing down in front of her ear. (A variant of this sign, T1002, portrays a female head with the hair done up in a kind of bun above the ear, and without the long, trailing strand of hair.) One or other of these head variants almost always precedes the name (and titles, too) of women, as Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1961) first recognised.

The reading of this female prefix has long been a problem for Maya epigraphers, and over the years several readings have been proposed. The main candidates have been ix, ixik, ixok, na', and ch'up, all of which are words with the general meaning of 'woman'.

Until very recently, Peter Mathews thought that in order to avoid this confusion, and because there was no clear consensus on the reading, it would be best simply to refer to women in the Who's Who as 'Lady ...' This had the double advantage of avoiding the disagreement among scholars over the reading of the female head prefix and at the same time making the identification of women quite clear. However it also violated another principle used in the Who's Who, namely that whenever possible the original Maya word will be used, rather than an English or Spanish translation. The problem has always been that there are several different affixes that can be attached to the female head prefix. The sign i- can be prefixed, and -ki can be suffixed (indicating a reading ixik, but in other cases the head has a -xi suffix, indicating a reading ix; there is even one case of an apparent phonetic spelling i-xi, ix (Stuart 1998:386; Wagner 2003). In other examples, such as Stela 3 from Piedras Negras, signs that read -na immediately follow the female head prefix, which was seen by some scholars to indicate a possible reading na', the original meaning of which was 'mother'.

As so often happens in the world of academe, Mathews has been shown the light by one of his graduate students, Péter Bíró, who patiently explained to Mathews the error of his ways and a pattern in the glyphs which provides a likely solution. Those heads followed by -ki do indeed read ixik, but this glyph either follows on the end of a name or title or stands alone; when the female head is prefixed to a name the reading is ix. And the Piedras Negras examples with na are red herrings: the na in fact does not complement the 'female head prefix' but rather begins the spelling of the following word (Lopes 2003).

All this means that most of the 'female head prefixes' to names in the Who's Who probably read ix, literally 'female' but perhaps better freely translated as 'Lady'. In some cases the reading is ixik, but in those cases the female head is in suffixed position. Further testing and analysis may revise this view, but for now the reading Ix will be used to begin female names listed in the Who's Who in the Classic Maya World.

A specialised usage of Ix should also be noted. Some female names incorporate what look like emblem glyph forms. The male title equivalent reads (K'uhul) ... Ajaw, 'the (holy) ... lord', where 'lord' has the sense of 'king'. The female title reads Ix ... Ajaw, literally 'Lady ... Lord'. However in at least two colonial-period lowland Mayan languages, Yukatek and Tzotzil the compound ix ... ajaw means 'queen' (ix ahau in Colonial Yukatek [the Motul and the San Francisco Dictionaries in Bolles 1997] and the cognate form x'ojov in Colonial Tzotzil [Laughlin 1988:151]). In cases where a female 'name' is preceded by ix and followed by ajaw, it may well be that the translation should be 'queen'-indeed, the examples that come readily to hand do all involve wives or mothers of Classic Maya kings. This in turn begs the question whether some of the female 'names' recorded in the inscriptions are proper names or whether in fact they are titles, labelling the queen but not naming her. That, however, is grist for another mill.


Bolles, David
1997 Combined Dictionary-Concordance of the Yucatecan Mayan Language.
Available on the FAMSI Website:
Kaufman, Terrence F. and William M. Norman
1984 An Outline of Proto-Cholan Phonology, Morphology, and Vocabulary. In: Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, John S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell eds. Publication No. 9, pp. 77-166.
Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, State University of New York at Albany.
Laughlin, Robert M. (with John B. Haviland)
1988 The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santo Domingo Zinacantán with Grammatical Analysis amd Historical Commentary, Volume I: Tzotzil-English.
Smithsonian Contribution to Anthropology, Number 31
Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
Lopes, Luís
2003 The Maan Polity in Maya Inscriptions,
Unpublished manuscript in the possession of the author.
Stuart, David
1998 "The Fire Enters His House": Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts. In: Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, ed. Stephen D. Houston, pp. 373-425.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.
Wagner, Elizabeth
2003 The Female Title Prefix, Wayeb Notes 5.
Available on Wayeb Website

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