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Popol Vuh

Popol Vuh (pōpōl´ vōō´) [Quiché,=collection of the council], sacred book of the Quiché. The most important document of the cosmogony, religion, mythology, migratory traditions, and history of the Quiché, the original Popol Vuh was destroyed by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, but it was rewritten in Spanish by a converted Quiché shortly after the Spanish conquest. The language and literary style, the philosophy, and the life it reveals show the Quiché had reached a high degree of learning. A similar document, more historical in content and treating of the neighboring Cakchiquel, is the Annals of the Cakchiquel.

See the English version of the Popol Vuh by D. Goetz and S. C. Morley (1950); study by L. Spence (1908, repr. 1972).

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Popol Vuh

Popol Vuh

The Popol Vuh is the most important source of information on the mythology of the ancient Maya. A sacred book of the Quiché Maya of Guatemala, it was written down in the mid-1500s. A Spanish priest discovered the Popol Vuh manuscript in the early 1700s. After copying the text, he translated it into Spanish.

The Popol Vuh is divided into five parts. The first contains an account of the creation of the world and of the failed attempts to produce proper human beings. The second and third parts tell of the adventures of the Hero Twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqúe, and their forebears. The last two parts deal with the issue of creating humans from corn and then tell the story of the Quiché people, from the days before their history began to accounts of tribal wars and records of rulers up until 1550.

Creation of the World. At the beginning of time, the gods Hurucan and Gugumatz (also known as Quetzalcoatl) shaped the earth and its features and raised the sky above it. The gods then placed animals on the earth, hoping that they would sing the praises of the gods.

When the gods discovered that the animals could not speak, they tried again to make a creature that could praise its creator. Hurucan and Gugumatz called on the ancestral beings Xpiacoc and Xmucane to help, and together they created men of mud. However, these creatures talked endlessly and dwindled away. Next the gods fashioned humans out of wood. These beings populated the earth but soon forgot about their creators. The angry gods sent floods and various objects to destroy them.


The Hero Twins. In Part Two of the Popol Vuh, Hunahú and Xbalanqúe appear and take on the self-important Vucub-Caquix, as well as his sons, Zipacna and Earthquake. Using blowpipes the twins knocked out Vucub-Caquix's jeweled teeth, which gave him his radiance. Vucub-Caquix accepted corn as a replacement for his teeth. But because he could not eat with his corn teeth and because they did not shine, he was defeated.

In Part Three of the Popol Vuh, the story goes back to an earlier time to Hun-Hunahpú and Vucub Hunahpú, the father and uncle of the Hero Twins. These two disturbed the lords of Xibalba, the underworld, with their constant ball playing. The lords commanded the brothers to come to the underworld for a contest. Tricked by the lords, the brothers lost the contest and, as a result, were sacrificed and buried in the ball court. However, the head of Hun-Hunahpú remained unburied and was placed in a tree.

A young goddess named Xquic heard of a strange fruit in a tree and went to see it. The fruit was actually the head of Hun-Hunahpú, which spat in her hand and made her pregnant. She later gave birth to the Hero Twins. Hun-Hunahpú already had another set of twins, Hun Batz and Hun Chuen, who resented their baby brothers. When the Hero Twins grew old enough, they outsmarted the older twins and turned them into monkeys.

The Hero Twins became great ballplayers, as their father and uncle had been, and one day the lords of Xibalba summoned them to the underworld for a contest. The twins saw this as an opportunity to avenge their father's death. Challenged to a series of trials, they passed every one they were given. They survived a night in the House of Cold, escaped death in the House of Jaguars, and passed unharmed through the House of Fire. They almost met defeat in the House of Bats, when a bat cut off Hunahpú's head. The lords of Xibalba took the head to the ball court as a trophy, but Xbalanqúe managed to return the head to his brother and restore him.

underworld land of the dead

immortal able to live forever

Knowing they were immortal, the Hero Twins now allowed the lords of Xibalba to defeat and "kill" them. Five days later, the twins reappeared, disguised as wandering performers, and entertained the lords with amazing feats. In one of these feats, Xbalan-qúe sacrificed Hunahpú and then brought him back to life. Astounded, the lords of Xibalba begged to be sacrificed themselves. The Hero Twins agreed to the request but did not restore the lords of Xibalba to life. The twins then dug up the bodies of their father and uncle and brought them back to life.


History. The final two parts of the Popol Vuh tell how the ancestral couple once again tried to make humans who would praise the gods. The four men they created from maize became the founders of the Quiché Maya. These people praised their creators and flourished. The generations that followed them are listed in the closing section of the Popol Vuh.

See also HunahpÚ and XBALANQÚE; Mayan Mythology; Quetzalcoatl; Twins; Xibalba.

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Popol Vuh

Popol Vuh

The Quiche (K'iche') Maya of the west central Guatemalan highlands produced (ca. 1555) one of the more impressive works of literature written to date by a Native American author or authors (it is not known whether its creation was an individual or collective effort). Often called the "American Bible," it is a Mayan description of the creation and evolution of the world; in Quiche it is called the Popol Vuh (Counsel Book).

The work presents the history of the universe in Mayan terms. There are four Mayan cycles of creation, in each of which the gods attempt to produce worshippers for themselves. When they finally succeed, they find they have made man.

The mythology of the Quiche Maya was greatly influenced by their neighbors, and quite particularly by the Nahuatl-speaking peoples, from about the twelfth century on, when the Nahuas infiltrated Guatemala. The resulting Popol Vuh was thus a multicultural product.

The work is nonetheless clearly cognate with the emerging dynastic histories of the Classic Maya on stone monuments, depicting a patrilineal monarchy remarkably similar to that of the ancient Near East and its European successors.

The last creation and, particularly, the last few pages of the Popol Vuh are historical. They constitute a genealogy of the Quiche kings from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, and they allude to (but do not always circumstantially describe) prevailing customs of that period.

The Popol Vuh is the single most important native source for interpreting the history and culture of pre-Columbian America. This text, which was not published until the nineteenth century, has aroused the interest of ethnographers, historians, novelists, and practitioners of New Age spirituality. Of special note is the ethnographic work of the Nobel laureate Miguel Angel Asturias on the Popol Vuh and Guatemala in the 1920s and 1930s, which inspired his award-winning novel Hombres de maiz (1949; Men of Maize, 1975).

See alsoAnnals of the Cakchiquels; Ball Game, Pre-Columbian; Chilam Balam; K'iche'; Maya, The; Mayan Epigraphy.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Munro S. Edmonson, The Book of Counsel: The Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala (1971).

Dennis J. Tedlock, The Popol Vuh (1985).

Additional Bibliography

Chávez, Adrián I. Pop Wuj: Libro de acontecimientos: Traducción directa del manuscrito del padre Jiménez. Mexico City [?]: Ediciones de la Casa Chata, 1979.

Powell, Timothy B. "Recovering Precolonial American Literary History: 'The Origin of Stories' and the Popul Vuh. In A Companion to the Literatures of Colonial America, edited by Susan Castillo and Ivy Schweitzer. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Preble-Niemi, Oralia. "The Popol-Vuh and the Heroic Cycle in Men of Maize." In The Image of the Hero in Literature, Media, and Society. Edited by Will Wright and Steven Kaplan. Pueblo: Society for the Interdisciplinary Study of Social Imagery, Colorado State University-Pueblo, 2004.

Recinos, Adrián. Popul vuh: Las antiguas historias del Quiché. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1947.

Uzquiza, José Ignacio. "Relato del Popol Vuh, libro mágico de los mayas-quiché." In La palabra recuperada: Mitos prehispá nicos en la literatura latinoamericana. Edited by Helena Usandizaga. Madrid: Iberoamericana; Frankfurt: Vervuert, 2006.

Ward, Thomas. "Expanding Ethnicity in Sixteenth-Century Anahuac: Ideologies of Ethnicity and Gender in the Nation-Building Process." MLN 116:2 (March 2001), 419-452.

                                    Munro S. Edmonson

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Popol Vuh

Popol Vuh

Nationality/Culture

Mayan

Pronunciation

poh-POHL VOO

Alternate Names

None

Appears In

Ancient Mayan culture

Myth Overview

The Popol Vuh, a book of myths belonging to the Quiche (pronounced kee-CHAY) Mayans of highland Guatemala, is divided into five parts. The first contains an account of the creation of the world and of the failed attempts to produce proper human beings. The second and third parts tell of the adventures of the Hero Twins, Hunahpú (pronounced WAH-nuh-pwuh) and Xbalanqúe (pronounced shi-BAY-lan-kay). The last two parts deal with the issue of creating humans from corn , and then tell the story of the Quiche people from the days before their history began to accounts of tribal wars and records of rulers up until 1550.

Creation of the World At the beginning of time, the gods Huracan (pronounced wah-ruh-KAHN) and Gukumatz (pronounced gwah-kwuh-MAHTS) shaped the earth and its features and raised the sky above it. The gods then placed animals on the earth, hoping that they would sing the praises of the gods.

When the gods discovered that the animals could not speak, they tried again to make a creature that could praise its creator. Huracan and Gukumatz called on the ancestral beings Xpiyacoc (pronounced shpee-YAH-kok) and Xmucane (pronounced SHMOH-kah-nay) to help, and together they created men of mud. But these creatures talked endlessly and dwindled away. Next the gods fashioned humans out of wood. These beings populated the earth but soon forgot about their creators. The angry gods sent floods and various objects to destroy them.

The Hero Twins In Part Two of the Popol Vuh, Hunahpii and Xbalanqúe appear and take on the self-important Vucub-Caquix (pronounced voh-KOHB kah-kwish), as well as his sons, Zipacna (pronounced sip-AK-nah) and Earthquake. Using blowpipes, the twins knocked out Vucub-Caquix's jeweled teeth, which gave him his radiance. Vucub-Caquix accepted corn as a replacement for his teeth. But because he could not eat with his corn teeth and because they did not shine, he was defeated.

In Part Three of the Popol Vuh, the story goes back to an earlier time, to Hun-Hunahpú (pronounced wahn-WAHN-uh-pwah) and Vucub Hunahpii (pronounced voh-kohb WAHN-uh-pwah), the father and uncle of the Hero Twins. These two disturbed the lords ofXibalba (pronounced shi-BAHL-buh)—the underworld , or land of the dead— with their constant ball playing. The lords commanded the brothers to come to the underworld for a contest. Tricked by the lords, the brothers lost the contest and, as a result, were sacrificed and buried in the ball court. However, the head of Hun-Hunahpú remained unburied and was placed in a tree.

A young goddess heard of a strange fruit in a tree and went to see it. The fruit was actually the head of Hun-Hunahpú, which spat in her hand and made her pregnant. She later gave birth to the Hero Twins. Hun-Hunahpú already had another set of twins, Hun Batz and Hun Chuen, who resented their baby brothers. When the Hero Twins grew old enough, they outsmarted the older twins and turned them into monkeys.

The Hero Twins became great ball players, as their father and uncle had been, and one day the lords of Xibalba summoned them to the underworld for a contest. The twins saw this as an opportunity to avenge their father's death. Challenged to a series of trials, they passed every one they were given. They survived a night in the House of Cold, escaped death in the House of Jaguars, and passed unharmed through the House of Fire. They almost met defeat in the House of Bats, when a bat cut off Hunahpú's head. The lords of Xibalba took the head to the ball court as a trophy, but Xbalanqúe managed to return the head to his brother and restore him.

Knowing they were immortal, or able to live forever, the Hero Twins now allowed the lords of Xibalba to defeat and “kill” them. Five days later, the twins reappeared, disguised as wandering performers, and entertained the lords with amazing feats. In one of these feats, Xbalanqúe sacrificed Hunahpú and then brought him back to life. Astounded, the lords of Xibalba begged to be sacrificed themselves. The Hero Twins agreed to the request but did not restore the lords of Xibalba to life. The twins then dug up the bodies of their father and uncle and brought them back to life.

Creation of the Maya The final two parts of the Popol Vuh tell how the gods once again tried to make humans who would praise the gods. The four men they created from maize—their skin a mix of white and yellow corn, and their limbs shaped from corn meal—became the founders of the Quiche Maya. These people praised their creators and flourished. The generations that followed them are listed in the closing section of the Popol Vuh.

The Popol Vuh in Context

The Popol Vuh is the most important source of information on the mythology of the ancient Maya. A sacred book of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala, it was written down in the mid-1500s. A Spanish priest discovered the Popol Vuh manuscript in the early 1700s. After copying the text, he translated it into Spanish.

Key Themes and Symbols

One important theme in the Popol Vuh is the creation of life from natural materials. The gods try to create humans from mud, and later from wood. These are failures, and the gods destroy them. Finally, the first successful humans are created from corn—a crucial food in the Mayan diet. In this way, corn symbolizes life to the Mayan people. Corn is also used as the substitute for Vucub-Caquix's teeth after Hunahpú and Xbalanqúe knock out his real teeth.

Another important theme found in the Popol Vuh is the interaction of the living with the dead. This is seen throughout the myth of Hunahpú and Xbalanqúe, beginning with the head of their father talking to (and impregnating) a goddess while hanging from a tree. It is also seen when the twins journey to the underworld for a ball-playing contest; Hunahpú loses his head in the House of Bats, but is brought back to life, and both brothers later allow themselves to be killed and brought back to life. Then, after killing the lords of the underworld, the brothers bring their father and uncle back from the dead and return with them to the land of the living.

The Popol Vuh in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Although the Mayan civilization has dwindled greatly in the centuries following Spanish occupation, the myths recorded in the Popol Vuh still play an important part in the culture of the region. Stories in Charles Finger's Tales from the Silver Lands and Miguel Angel Asturias's Men of Maize are based on the Popol Vuh. The myths of the Popol Vuh also served as inspiration for Louis L'Amour's supernatural Western novel The Haunted Mesa (1987). The underworld of Xibalba appears in the 2006 Darren Aronofsky film The Fountain.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Mayan civilization had largely disappeared by the time Spanish explorers arrived in the New World. Some modern historians view the fall of the Maya as an example for modern society to learn from and avoid. Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, research the collapse of the Mayan civilization. Can you find any similarities between the fall of Mayan civilization and the current state of modern societies like the United States? How are they different? Do you think there are lessons to be learned from the Maya? If so, what are they?

SEE ALSO Hunahpú and Xbalanqúe; Mayan Mythology; Quetzalcoatl; Twins; Underworld

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