Wordcatcher Tales: xoc, anagogy

From: Breaking the Maya Code, rev. ed., by Michael D. Coe (Thames & Hudson, 1999), p. 141 (third edition now available on Kindle):

Here were three glyphs … that the leading anti-phoneticist of his day [Eric Thompson] was reading in the Yucatec Maya tongue. That begins to sound subversive! Even further, back in 1944 he had shown that the pair of fish fins, or at times a pair of fishes, which flanked the Month-patron head in the great glyph which always introduces an Initial Series date on a Classic monument, is a rebus sign: the fish is a shark, xoc in Maya (Tom Jones has recently proved that xoc is the origin of the English word “shark”). And xoc also means “to count” in Maya.

These decipherments were all major advances, but Thompson failed to follow them up. Why? The answer is that Thompson was a captive of that same mindset that had led in the first century before Christ to the absurd interpretations of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Diodorus Siculus, to the equally absurd fourth-century AD Neoplatonist nonsense of Horapollon, and to the sixteenth-century fantasies of Athanasius Kircher. Eric had ignored the lesson of Champollion.

In a chapter entitled “Glances Backward and a Look Ahead,” Thompson sums up his views on Maya hieroglyphic writing. “The glyphs are anagogical,” he says. Now Webster defines anagogy as the “interpretation of a word, passage, or text (as of Scripture or poetry) that finds beyond the literal, allegorical, and moral senses a fourth and ultimate spiritual and mystical sense.”

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Filed under Britain, language, Mexico, scholarship, U.S.

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