Popol Vuh

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Popol Vuh

Popol Vuh (ca. 1558)

A scriptural monument to native Mesoamerican culture, the Popol Vuh (Council book) preserves the myths, hymns, prayers, chronology, royal genealogy, astronomy, and prophecies of the Quiche-speaking Maya. A compilation of CREATION LORE, saga, ancestral WISDOM, and inventive STORYTELLING, the original text is older than the law codes of Moses and Hammurabi, the Harappan lore compiled in the Rig Veda of India (1700-1400 B.C.), and the AVESTA of Persia (ca. A.D. 530). The Mayan codex surveys tales of the supernatural from tribes of the Sierra Los Cuchematanesa Mountains in north-central Guatemala, which stretch from southern Mexico south to Guatemala and east into northern Belize. In 1558, only three decades after Spanish conquis- tadores seized Central America, Diego Reynoso, an Indian Christian convent and a historian, translated the complicated narrative from the Quiche alphabet into Spanish. In both languages, the two-stage text recalls the Meso-American agrarian culture and religion from 1500 B.C. to the classical period from A.D. 250 to 900, which saw the construction of Chichen Itza, Mayapan, and Uxmal.

The Popol Vuh follows native fortunes up to 1523, when a 28-year-old conqueror and looter, Captain Pedro de Alvarado of Badajoz, Spain, began pacifying the Guatemalan highlands under the command of explorer Hernan Cortes, conqueror of the Aztec of Mexico in 1521. After the Spanish burned two native kings, buildings, and all hieroglyphic manuscripts, Quiche speakers preserved their heritage by memorizing segments of the Popol Vuh to pass on to their children along with native dance and ritual. In 1722, a Dominican scholar, Francisco Ximenez (or Jimenez), discovered Reynoso's bark-paper manuscript in El Calvario Church, at Chichicastenango, Guatemala, but dismissed the pagan allegory as stories for Mayan children. Ethnographers have since refuted church literary analysis and treasured the manuscript as the equivalent of the Hebrew creation lore of Genesis (ca. 500 B.C.) and the Hindu epic Ramayana (ca. 400 B.C.). Archeologists validated the Guatemalan text by comparing literary episodes to iconography on a 1,500-year-old Mayan temple complex.

The Beginnings of Life

Like the Japanese Kojiki (A.D. 712) of Ono Yasumaro and Navajo creation lore, the cosmogeny of the Popol Vuh depicts the earth's beginnings from a single beneficent deity. The plumed serpent Gugumatz, or Q'uk'umatz, earned reverence as the “maker and modeler, bearer and begetter of all living things, heart of lake and sea, plate and bowl shaper, midwife and matchmaker, defender and protector. He is mother-father of life and humankind, breathgiver, heart-giver, upbringer of a lasting light, and knower of all, whatever there is” (Popul Vuh 1996, 64). The fluid verse depicts a primeval nothingness, like soup in a pot, humming and bubbling with potential. Gugumatz takes pride in the unfolding of primordial earth from a mist and the separation of water from land. The cosmos reaches fruition with the planting of seeds and the shaping of living creatures, who master the first human task—to speak the god's name. The assignment resounds with the majesty and severity of the first commandment in EXODUS 20:2-3: “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The Popol Vuh describes a trinity of gods who choose a gardener to tend the hills and plains. For material, the trio builds their model out of maize growing on Guatemala's northern border with Mexico, where the first hunter-gatherers lived. The single crop becomes a symbol for all food plants that sustain humankind.

The Mayan codex follows a universal theme. The second stave of the Popol Vuh honors the first farmers, whom the gods mold out of clay. The purpose of the agrarian prototype is both procreative and devotional: The first tiller of the soil serves God as “a giver of praise, giver of respect, provider, nurturer” (68). Unlike the sonorous Hebrew account of Adam and Eve in GENESIS 2:7, 21, a humorous Mayan passage derides the faults of a clay being who stands lopsided, crumbles, and dissolves in rain. The gods replace their practice model with a figure carved from coral wood (the tropical guibourtia), but it, too, disappoints because of its stiffness and lack of feeling. The gods dispatch jaguars to demolish the wood man and scourge the earth with a hurricane and flood. The third try results in men shaped from maize and women from espadana, or tassel grass, a resilient swamp ground cover. Because the paired models prove flimsy, the gods send a bird and jaguar to devour them. Until better earthlings appear, the planet returns to a state of darkness and lifelessness, the author's allegorical image of the precreation status of Earth.

The Heroic Era

The Popol Vuh balances issues of sustenance and worship with fun and competition. Part two sanctifies tlachtli, or pok-a-tok, the onomatopoetic name for handball played on an earthen court and batted by shoulder, elbow, or hip through stone goals at each end. Twin players, Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu, protect their heads with feathered helmets and pad their hips, elbows, and forearms for striking a sphere molded from rubber, a substance tapped from the trees indigenous to South America. Like the early anthropomorphism in OVID'S Metamorphoses (Transformations, A.D. 8), the players' match against envious gods results in divine cheating and the slaughter of the human team. The disposal of the martyrs' heads leads to the positioning of Venus, the evening star, and the emergence of the skull-shaped calabash, a traditional Mayan bowl for serving cacao drinks. Thus, the mythic sacrifice serves a triple purpose, as revenge for the gods, a heavenly guide, and a useful vessel for humanity.

As in the account of the Virgin Mary's divine impregnation in Luke 1:26-35, the Mayan codex elevates womankind in biblical style by empowering females through parthenogenesis, or reproduction without fertilization. The severed heads of the twins puzzle Ixquic, the curious female equivalent of the Hebrew Eve and the Greek Pandora. She ponders the waste of two human lives: “What? Well! What's the fruit of this tree? Shouldn't this tree bear something sweet? They shouldn't die, they shouldn't be wasted. Should I pick one?” (98). The myth describes how saliva from the decapitated head of Hun Hunahpu becomes seminal fluid that impregnates Ixquic. From the virgin's dilemma in a merciless male-dominated society comes a scriptural substitute for ritual heart excision as punishment for her supposed adultery: Instead of lopping open her chest, the executioners accept a red model heart formed from the crimson resin of a cochineal croton tree. To win the love of the future grandmother of her children, Ixquic becomes the prototype of the female harvester. In response to her reverence for fruits of the soil, the gods give her twin sons, Hunahpu and Xpalanque, incarnations of their deceased father and uncle, who suffered beheading to rid the world of divine animosity. In a similar act of acceptance, the grandmother institutes Quechean rituals to ensure the annual corn cycle, a symbol of regeneration similar to the Isis and Osiris stories of ancient Egypt and the Greek Dionysian cycle.

The complicated story line of the Popol Vuh intersperses sacramental vignettes with trickster tales, accounts of salvation and shape-shifting, and the gymnasts and holy jesters of the Totonac, the Indian people inhabiting eastern Mexico. Centuries before Charles Darwin predicated human evolution from apes in Descent of Mun (1871), Mayan mythographers posited the reverse, the evolution of simians from early Guatemalans. Domestic scenarios justify a conundrum in world theology, the replacement of matriarchal-horticultural dominion with an all-encompassing patriarchal-agrarian regime. Ixquic's twins retrieve their fathers' remains from ignominy and promise perpetual reverence to fatherhood: “Your name will not be lost. So be it” (141). The two boys, ballplayers like their father, ascend into the heavens to become the sun and moon, the illuminators of the human world below. In part 4, a thanksgiving PRAYER venerates the divine sustainer for providing a “greening path,” the source of a “good life and beginning” (150). The poet's use of greening implies a cycle of renewal, a theme that permeates creation stories with the promise of perpetual beginnings.

Mayan Civilization

Like the book of Exodus (ca. 450 B.c.), the Popol Vuh accounts for the migration of the Quiche from mountains and caves of central Guatemala south to a warmer climate. Along the way, they feed a constant fire, the basis of sun worship similar to the Greek and Roman adoration of Apollo as light bringer, prophet, healer, and patron of the arts. From penitence and propitiation of the gods evolves Mayan civilization and a cessation of blood savagery. Tribe communicates with tribe. The sinful learn to weep and repent, a catharsis of sin that introduces the blessing of self-reclamation and spiritual healing, a gift that Aristotle extolled in GREEK DRAMA. As Guatemalan history succeeds legend, the account advances from myth to a chronicle of wars, fortified cities, spying, assassinations, and celebrations of triumph over enemies. At the height of tribal rivalry, the Popol Vuh speaks of the importance of self-defense against a race of canyon people: “Their lineages came to be bled, shot full of arrows at the stake. Their day came to nothing, their heritage came to nothing” (188). The expunging of the enemy's culture, like the flood that overwhelms earth, signifies the worst of God's punishment and a rationalization of imperialism.

In the last centuries of the Mayan Empire, violence becomes the dominant factor in the Popol Vuh. After overpopulation, environmental damage, and chronic combat sapped the Mayan empire after A.D. 900, survival involved aggression against rivals and cultic bloodletting, persecution, and sacrifice. The narrative concludes with Spanish invasions and the torture and burning of natives who refuse to convert to Catholicism. Mourning the rise of a Spanish empire in Meso-America, the poet laments cultural annihilation: “This is enough about the being of Quiche, given that there is no longer a place to see it” (198).

By analyzing the details of chronology and genealogy in the text, proponents of Quichean mythology disproved the contention that Native Americans, unlike European cultures, developed no concept of history or nationalism. In 1999, the Mayan teacher Victor Montejo tackled the problem of ethnic oblivion by composing a children's version of the text, Popol Vuh: A Sacred Book of the Maya (1999), an effort to preserve the aboriginal legacy for future generations.


Joseph, Gilbert Michael, and Timothy J. Henderson. The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Durham, N.H.: Duke University Press, 2003.

Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life.

Translated by Dennis Tedlock. New York: Touchstone Books, 1996.