Mesoamerican Speech Scrolls

Mesoamerican Speech Scrolls

by Diane E. Wirth

No where in any scripture besides Alma in the Book of Mormon, whether in the Bible or scriptures of the Restoration, are the words “breathed out” used with reference to express speech―except for Mesoamerica. This expression is not in Mesoamerican texts, but the concept is communicated in their art.

How do we demonstrate in art that someone is speaking? The most simplistic depiction of this action is in our cartoons, which practice started in the 18th century. The speech is contained in a balloon with a character talking.

Mesoamerican cultures, on the other hand, used what is referred to as “speech scrolls” on their monuments, murals, pottery, and codices (screen-folded books).  Stela at right is #13 from Seibal.

In Alma of the Book of Mormon, there are two verses using the expression “breathed out,” and in both scriptures the phrase denotes a loud warning. In the first verse, it is the Zoramites who were angry with the people of Ammon who were a righteous people. Alma 35:9 reads: “And he [the ruler of the Zoramites] breathed out many threatenings against them. And now the people of Ammon did not fear their words.”

In the second scripture from Alma 54:19, Moroni wrote to Ammoran, a Lamanite, with the intent of securing a release of Nephite prisoners after one of their frequent battles. Ammaron explains in his reply to Moroni’s epistle: “Behold, ye have breathed out many threatenings against me and my people; but behold, we fear not your threatenings.”

In Mesoamerican art speech scrolls emanate from the mouth and extend as though thrust from the throat with vocalization. This takes effort―the words are “breathed out,” so to speak. There are many examples of this with threatening speech scrolls, as was the case among enemies in the Book of Mormon.
A portion of this scene can be viewed in Figure 2 (above), which can be seen it its entirety on page 7 of the Selden Codex. Two Mixtec rulers are dashing over hill and dale (which represent towns) as they met ambassadors or travelers, who are obviously not welcome. Out of the mouths of the Mixtec warriors come speech scrolls with menacing flint knives attached, indicating they are verbally attacking the intruders, even with a mortal threat. 1 One might say it’s comparable to speaking with a sharp tongue―the recipient gets the message.  
Screaming in anguish is shown in a mural from Tepantitla, Teotihuacan Figure 3 (right). Notice the tears streaming from his eyes and the blood flowing from his chest. He has been sacrificed and literally howls, as is determined from his long speech scroll consisting of five loops.2 The victim may have offered himself to the gods because he is seen holding a live tree branch. Mesoamerican cultures believed that through death comes life.This symbolic vocalization through a speech scroll is usually used to express verbiage in a more congenial tone. Sometimes the curled scroll contains flowers, which would mean that a poem or song is being performed. The Maya occasionally used speech scrolls, but only in places that had influence from the valley of Mexico, such as Chichen Itza in the Yucatan or the coastal area of Guatemala.

Figure 4 (right) is a stone stela from Santa Lucia, Cotzumahualpa, Guatemala. The Maya ballplayer, with his arm raised high and a speech scroll emitting from his mouth, is speaking and saluting a messenger from the heavens.































important speech scroll is depicted on a clay cylinder seal or roller stamp (left), as this object is sometimes called. This seal comes from San Andrés off the coast of Tabasco, Mexico, close to La Venta. Decor































ated cylinder seals were a very common product or the ancient Near East, particularly Mesopotamia. When rolled out with ink onto fabric, skin, etc., it leaves an impression of the design. The Mexican seal of San Andrés (left) was made by the Olmec and dates to about 650 BC. Oddly enough, the words or song are not coming from a human, but are emanating from a bird (below).  





























































The bird has speech scrolls containing a logograph with a little face similar to the Maya ajaw glyph. Ajaw, depending on its context, may mean either “day” or “Lord.” According to anthropologist Mary Pohl of Florida State University, the ajaw with the three dots could read either a calendar date, but more likely, “Three Lord,” in other words, it may signify either a particular day or it could refer to the name of an Olmec ruler. Stephen Houston remarked that “the elements coming from the bird’s mouth are simply another example of the sophisticated iconography of the time.3 If this logograph combination actually represents an ajaw glyph, it may contain the earliest form of a Mayan word.We are reminded that the Jaredites also had a writing system Therefore, using the words "breathed out" in Alma makes perfect sense when considering the Mesoamerican practice of emanating sounds as depicted in their art. 





































Elizabeth Hill Boone, Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 58, 75.


Esther Pasztory, Teotihuacan: an Experiment in Living (Norman: Univeristy of Oklahoma Press, 1997), 207-208.


“Earliest Mesoamerican Writing?”, Archaeology, Vol. 56, No. 2 (March/April 2003), 10.





































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Wirth, Diane E.