Popol Vuh is a text recounting the mythology and history of the Kʼicheʼ people, one of the Maya peoples, who inhabit the Guatemalan Highlands northwest of present-day Guatemala City.

The Popol Vuh is a foundation narrative of the Kʼicheʼ before the Spanish conquest of Guatemala.

It includes the Mayan creation myth, the exploits of the Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, and a chronicle of the Kʼicheʼ people.

The name “Popol Vuh” translates as “Book of the Community“, “Book of Counsel“, or more literally as “Book of the People“.

It was originally preserved through oral tradition until approximately 1550 when it was written down. The survival of the Popol Vuh is credited to the 18th-century Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez who made a copy of the original text in Spanish.

Like the Chilam Balam and similar texts, the Popol Vuh is of particular importance given the scarcity of early accounts dealing with Mesoamerican mythologies due to the purging of documents after the Spanish conquest.

History of Popol Vuh

In 1701, Father Ximénez came to Santo Tomás Chichicastenango (also known as Santo Tomás Chuilá). This town was in the Quiché territory and therefore is probably where Fr. Ximénez first redacted the mythistory.

Ximénez transcribed and translated the manuscript in parallel Kʼicheʼ and Spanish columns (the Kʼicheʼ having been represented phonetically with Latin and Parra characters).

In or around 1714, Ximénez incorporated the Spanish content in book one, chapters 2–21 of his Historia de la Provincia de San Vicente de Chiapa y Guatemala de la Orden de predicadores.

Ximénez’s manuscripts remained posthumously in the possession of the Dominican Order until General Francisco Morazán expelled the clerics from Guatemala in 1829–30 whereupon the Order’s documents passed largely to the Universidad de San Carlos.

From 1852 to 1855, Moritz Wagner and Carl Scherzer traveled to Central America, arriving in Guatemala City in early May 1854. Scherzer found Ximénez’s writings in the university library, noting that there was one particular item “del mayor interés” (‘of the greatest interest’).

With assistance from the Guatemalan historian and archivist Juan Gavarrete, Scherzer copied (or had a copy made) of the Spanish content from the last half of the manuscript, which he published upon his return to Europe. In 1855, French Abbot Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg also found Ximénez’s writings in the university library.

However, whereas Scherzer copied the manuscript, Brasseur apparently stole the university’s volume and took it back to France. After Brasseur’s death in 1874, the Mexico-Guatémalienne collection containing Popol Vuh passed to Alphonse Pinart through whom it was sold to Edward E. Ayer.

In 1897, Ayer decided to donate his 17,000 pieces to The Newberry Library, a project that tarried until 1911. Father Ximénez’s transcription-translation of “Popol Vuh” was among Ayer’s donated items.

Father Ximénez’s manuscript sank into obscurity until Adrián Recinos (re)discovered it at The Newberry in 1941. Generally speaking, Recinos receives credit for finding the manuscript and publishing the first direct edition since Scherzer.

But Munro Edmonson and Carlos López attribute the first (re)discovery to Walter Lehmann in 1928. Allen Christenson, Néstor Quiroa, Rosa Helena Chinchilla Mazariegos, John Woodruff, and Carlos López all consider the Newberry’s volume to be Ximénez’s one and only “original.

Father Ximénez’s source

It is generally believed that Ximénez borrowed a phonetic manuscript from a parishioner for his source, although Néstor Quiroa points out that “such a manuscript has never been found, and thus Ximenez’s work represents the only source for scholarly studies.

This document would have been a phonetic rendering of an oral recitation performed in or around Santa Cruz del Quiché shortly following Pedro de Alvarado’s 1524 conquest. By comparing the genealogy at the end of Popol Vuh with dated colonial records, Adrián Recinos and Dennis Tedlock suggest a date between 1554 and 1558.

But to the extent that the text speaks of a “written” document, Woodruff cautions that “critics appear to have taken the text of the first folio recto too much at face value in drawing conclusions about Popol Vuh’s survival.” If there was an early post-conquest document, one theory (first proposed by Rudolf Schuller) ascribes the phonetic authorship to Diego Reynoso, one of the signatories of the Título de Totonicapán.

Another possible author could have been Don Cristóbal Velasco, who, also in Titulo de Totonicapán, is listed as “Nim Chokoh Cavec” (‘Great Steward of the Kaweq’).

In either case, the colonial presence is clear in Popol Vuh’s preamble:

“This we shall write now under the Law of God and Christianity; we shall bring it to light because now the Popol Vuh, as it is called, cannot be seen anymore, in which was clearly seen the coming from the other side of the sea and the narration of our obscurity, and our life was clearly seen.”

Accordingly, the need to “preserve” the content presupposes an imminent disappearance of the content, and therefore, Edmonson theorized a pre-conquest glyphic codex. No evidence of such a codex has yet been found.

A minority, however, disputes the existence of pre-Ximénez texts on the same basis that is used to argue their existence. Both positions are based on two statements by Ximénez.

The first of these comes from Historia de la Provincia where Ximénez writes that he found various texts during his curacy of Santo Tomás Chichicastenango that were guarded with such secrecy “that not even a trace of it was revealed among the elder ministers” although “almost all of them have it memorized.

The second passage used to argue pre-Ximénez texts comes from Ximénez’s addendum to “Popol Vuh.” There he states that many of the natives’ practices can be “seen in a book that they have, something like a prophecy, from the beginning of their [pre-Christian] days, where they have all the months and signs corresponding to each day, one of which I have in my possession.

Scherzer explains in a footnote that what Ximénez is referencing “is only a secret calendar” and that he himself had “found this rustic calendar previously in various indigenous towns in the Guatemalan highlands” during his travels with Wagner.

This presents a contradiction because the item which Ximénez has in his possession is not Popol Vuh, and a carefully guarded item is not likely to have been easily available to Ximénez.

Apart from this, Woodruff surmises that because:

“Ximenez never discloses his source, instead of inviting readers to infer what they wish […], it is plausible that there was no such alphabetic redaction among the Indians. The implied alternative is that he or another missionary made the first written text from oral recitation.”

Story of Hunahpú and Xbalanqué in Popul Vuh

Many versions of the legend of the Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué circulated through the Mayan peoples, but the story that survives was preserved by the Dominican priest Francisco Ximénez who translated the document between 1700 and 1715.

Maya deities in the Post-Classic codices differ from the earlier versions described in the Early Classic period. In Mayan mythology Hunahpú and Xbalanqué are the second pair of twins out of three, preceded by Hun-Hunahpú and his brother Vucub-Hunahpú, and precursors to the third pair of twins, Hun Batz, and Hun Chuen.

In the Popol Vuh, the first set of twins, Hun-Hunahpú and Vucub-Hanahpú were invited to the Mayan Underworld, Xibalba, to play a ballgame with the Xibalban lords. In the Underworld the twins faced many trials filled with trickery; eventually, they fail and are put to death.

The Hero Twins, Hunahpú and Xblanaqué, are magically conceived after the death of their father, Hun-Hunahpú, and in time they return to Xibalba to avenge the deaths of their father and uncle by defeating the Lords of the Underworld.

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*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.