The Popol Vuh
Believed to have been written by an unknown Mayan scribe in the 1560s, the Popol Vuh (Council Book), was found in the church archives in Chichicastenango early in the 18th century by parish priest Francisco Ximénez. Amazingly, it survived the burning and destruction most Mayan writings fell prey to at the hands of the Spanish and lives on as an important document recording K’iche’ histories and legends. Ximénez painstakingly transcribed the document into Latin and then translated it into Spanish. It is now the only surviving copy of the Mayan text and resides in Chicago’s Newberry Library.
The Popol Vuh contains the K’iche’ peoples’ creation myths as well as their history before the arrival of the Spanish. Although there are some striking similarities with Christian writings, including the Old Testament, scholars believe these are coincidences rather than evidence of overt Christian influence — this despite the fact that the text was written about 40 years after the conquest. It mentions Christianity only at its beginning and its end, framing the narration (as opposed to the events themselves) of the Popol Vuh as taking place within the context of the Christian era, for better or worse.
The book describes the moment of creation as having been spurred instantly by the words of the gods themselves describing the moments preceding creation with, “Whatever might be is simply not there: only murmurs, ripples, in the dark, in the night.” It also describes how the gods attempt to create humans to give meaning to creation and have beings that can speak, praise, and keep the passing of time, first forming them out of earth and mud, which soon dissolves. The second version of humankind, the text relates, was created out of wood, but these beings were dull and could not speak in words. The gods decide to annihilate them by sending a flood and other devastations, including the revolt of the beings’ own possessions, which turn and destroy their owners. The book explains that the remains of this previous version of humankind are the monkeys and humanlike creatures we see today. The gods finally create humankind using corn, which is not surprising given its importance as a Mayan subsistence crop to this day.
Other similarities shared with the Bible’s book of Genesis include the explanation of astronomical features, including the Big Dipper, the assertion that woman was created after man, and the conclusion that man at one point had come too close to being like the divine, resulting in a confusion of languages to disperse humankind into different linguistic groups. The Popol Vuh is not without its own tales of heroics, the most prominent being the myth of the Hero Twins, who journey into the underworld (known as Xibalba), ruled by seven lords, and endure great hardships.
In addition to the interesting metaphysical speculation provided throughout the text, another fascinating feature of the Popol Vuh is that it may have served as a book of divination, with some hidden meaning if read in a certain way that allowed the reader to predict future events — hence its being referred to as the ”Council Book.” In a more literal sense, it also tells quite matter-of-factly of the impending difficulties that will arrive with the coming of ”enemies, hidden behind mountains and hills,” a possible allusion to the civil war and its atrocities. Despite the hardships, the book concludes that, ”Our people will never be scattered. Our destiny will triumph over the ill-fated days which are coming at a time unknown. We will always be secure in the land we have occupied.”
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com