Left: Stone carving of the Mayan god Zipacna; image courtesy of FAMSI website
Translated by Dennis Tedlock; New York: Touchstone, 1996
The Popol Vuh is a Quiché text that attempts to explain the creation and meaning of the universe. Tedlock’s translation began with the acts of Mayan gods in a world in which there only exists “the pooled water, only the calm sea” and ended with the coming together of the three Masters of Ceremonies who founded the Quiché kingdom in the Guatemalan highlands: lords of the Cauecs, Greathouses, and the Lord Quichés. Originally written in Mayan hieroglyphs, the Popul Vuh was later transcribed into the Roman script; despite the attempts of Spanish missionaries to destroy all copies of the sacred writing, original hieroglyphic manuscripts were still in use at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
The only surviving copy of the text in Quiché (in the Romanized script) was discovered by a Dominican friar named Francisco Ximénez. He not only copied the Quiché writing but also added a side-by-side Spanish translation. In the mid-nineteenth century, two translations were undertaken; the first by an Austrian physician named Carl Scherzer in 1857, and the second by a French missionary named Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg. The Ximénez text is now archived at the Newberry Library in Chicago.
The merits of the text, of course, are that this is most likely the closest that scholars will ever get to a text written by pre-Columbian American peoples. The irony, of course, is that the text may show some signs of cross-culturation, both by other Central American peoples as well as by European Christians. There are numerous examples of creation myths in the Popol Vuh that mirror Christian concepts; the Quiché belief that the first incarnations of man were imperfect and needed to be destroyed is reminiscent of the Biblical stories of Noah and Lot. The appearance of the Plumed Serpent in the Popol Vuh has a likely connection with the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl, suggesting the interconnectedness of peoples in Mesoamerica.
The Popol Vuh is fascinating reading as a work of mystical appreciation for the wonders of the universe. While this reviewer does not ascribe to the sort of weepy romanticism often associated with exotic religious texts, one cannot help but be moved by passages such as the following:
They were good people, handsome, with looks of the male kind. Thoughts came into existence and they gazed; their vision came all at once. Perfectly they saw, perfectly they knew everything under the sky, whenever they looked. The moment they turned around and looked around in the sky, on the earth, everything was seen without any obstruction. They didn't have to walk around before they could see what was under the sky; they just stayed where they were. . . . After that, they thanked the Maker, Modeler.
Most of all, the text is a beautiful slice of humanity, and the writing is at turns magical, humorous, and historical. Rather than being seen as some sort of compendium of anthropological data, or as the long-lost key to the universe, the Popol Vuh should be seen as a snapshot of a unique worldview that continues to influence millions of believers in the modern Quiché world.