Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mathoni and Mathonihah

Article updated October 31, 1012.
Jerry Ainsworth, one of the most colorful contemporary Book of Mormon explorers, is fond of this story. His most recent telling in my hearing was at the 9th Annual Book of Mormon Lands Conference sponsored by BMAF at the Salt Lake Sheraton on Saturday, November 5, 2011. Jerry was talking with a native Mayan speaker, asking him about the curious sibling names Mathoni and Mathonihah, two of the Savior's New World apostles mentioned in 3 Nephi 19:4. Jerry's Maya friend told him this was easy to understand. The two were twins. Mathonihah was born first, so he broke the water.

This anecdotal etymology has not been confirmed in scholarly sources, so it remains in the realm of folklore. I spoke with Jerry again at the 10th Annual Book of Mormon Land Conference held on October 20, 2012 and he verified that he has heard this explanation from multiple native speakers in northern Yucatan. The word "ha" meaning water, is well-attested in many Mayan dialects. A few examples, some of which are from Erik Boot's 2009 "Classic Maya-English, English-Classic Maya Vocabulary of Hieroglyphic Readings":
  • Altun Ha is an important Maya archaeological site 50 kilometers north of Belize City and 10 kilometers inland from the Caribbean. The name (which is modern) means stone water in Mayan.
  • Caanil Ha, attested in the Paris Codex, means sky water or rain.
  • Labna Ha means ancient house of water.
  • Misol Ha is a popular waterfall near Palenque. The name means falling or streaming water.
  • Och Ha is a Mayan verb meaning to enter water.
  • Sak Ha, found on a lintel at Yaxchilan, means white water. 
  • Ta Ha from the Dresden Codex means in water.
  • Xaman Ha was the ancient Mayan name for Playa del Carmen south of Cancun in Quintana Roo. The name means northern water.
  • Xel Ha is sometimes called the most beautiful aquarium in the world. Near Tulum in Quintana Roo and famous for its dolphins, the name in Mayan means entrance or birthplace of waters.
  • Xumul Ha is the Mayan name for the famous Aguas Azules cascades 30 kilometers from Palenque. The name means blue water.
  • Yaxha is an important Maya archaeological site near Tikal in Guatemala's Peten. The name means green water. We know from David Stuart's decipherment of the emblem glyph that Yaxha was also the ancient place name.
The contemporary standard among Mayanists is to use the term "Maya" as a noun or an adjective to refer to the people and their culture. "Mayan" refers to their language. Even though this usage is far from universal as you will notice in the Erik Boot citation above, this blog will follow the standard.