Jan 25, 2006

Review: Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book Of The Dawn Of Life And The Glories Of Gods And Kings


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.


Hooda Thunkit said...

"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."

So, as I understand it, there is no original copy of the Popul Vuh,
but only the original (Ximénez) transcript, from which all further translations drawn?

When will we ever learn that the original works are pure within themselves and all translations are subject to contamination…

I'm getting a little better (very little) at reading your posts; at least I've heard of Quetzalcoatl before ;-)

historymike said...

Yes, you nailed it, Hooda.

Spanish priests destroyed much of the indigenous texts when they arrived to proselytize, considering these works to be pagan influences (or worse, satanic in origin).

A notable exception was Sahagun, who helped transcribe many indigenous texts.

Gypsy said...

I really enjoyed this reading. I saw a lot of correlations to the bible actually which I thought was weird as neither religion was around each other at this point. Its so sad that only four books remain because of the Spanish...

I really like you blog by the way...

Anonymous said...


Good post, HistoryMike. I've read the Popol Vuh a few times, and still enjoy reading this a mazing work of literature. Quetzacoatl (winged serpent) is a Christ like figure being, "wise as a serpant, and gentle as a dove", just like the hero twins who defeat the Lords of Destruction, they rise from the ashes, back to life. In this book, the twins are challenged to a sacred ball game, being sent to various houses, after intentionally loosing to these dark lords. The houses reflect different Chakra-like transformations; whereas the sixth house is filled with razor bats; analogy being the third eye, as bats do not see with their eyes. One of the twins looses his head in this house. In buddhism, when one gets to the sixth chakra, supposedly Maya's head must come off to see past the veil of illusion, or third eye. I'll write more later, if you want me to. Thanks again, Mike!