The Popol Vuh is the single most important book written by the ancient Maya to have survived the Spanish conquest. It is one of the world’s great works of literature, containing an account of the creation of the world, the acts of gods and heroes at the beginning of time before the first dawn, and the history of the highland Maya people themselves. In addition to being a valuable resource for scholars, it is also a sublime work of literature, comparable with other great epic poems of the ancient world such as the Iliad and Odyssey of Greece, and the Ramayana and Mahabharata of India. The Popol Vuh was written by anonymous members of the K’iche’ nobility, a branch of the Maya that dominated the highlands of western Guatemala prior to the arrival of Spanish conquerors in 1524. Their present population is something over half a million, spread thinly through a series of market towns and smaller agricultural villages in the modern Guatemalan states of Quiché, Totonicapán, and Quetzaltenango.
Precolumbian Popol Vuh
In the preamble to the Popol Vuh, its authors wrote that the contents were based on an ancient book from across the sea (Christenson 2007, 64). In a later passage, the source of these writings is identified as Tulan, which they located across the sea to the east (Ibid., 259), apparently a reference to the Maya lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula. The K’iche’ lords held these “writings of Tulan” in great reverence and consulted them often (Ibid., 287).
The Maya lowlands had a tradition of literacy dating back to at least 200 BC, centered on a sophisticated hieroglyphic script. If the Precolumbian version of the Popol Vuh was like other ancient texts from the lowlands, it was painted on long strips of bark paper or deer skin which were given a thin coating of lime plaster to create a smooth writing surface, and then folded accordion-style into a codex book. A number of such ancient painted codices were seen by the first Spanish missionaries and administrators who arrived in Guatemala. Bartolomé de las Casas saw several hieroglyphic books about 1540. He wrote that they contained the history of the people’s origins and religious beliefs, written with “figures and characters by which they could signify everything they desired; and that these great books are of such astuteness and subtle technique that we could say our writing does not offer much of an advantage” (Las Casas 1958, 346).
Las Casas was particularly impressed by the fact that the Maya could write “everything they desired”. The Maya were, in fact, the only people in the New World who had a writing system at the time of the Spanish conquest which had this capability. Maya hieroglyphs are partly phonetic (glyphs which stand for individual sounds) and partly logographic (picture writing in which a glyph stands for an entire word or concept). Because of their phonetic nature, Maya glyphs may be placed together to form any word which can be thought or spoken. There is no evidence that such a script was ever developed or used in the Guatemalan highlands after the Late Preclassic; however, the authors of the Popol Vuh made clear that they based their writings on an imported text from the Maya lowlands. It is likely that some few scribes at the K’iche’ court were familiar enough with such books in their possession that they could read them in at least a cursory way.
There must have been hundreds of hieroglyphic books in the Maya world at the time of the Spanish conquest. It is one of the great tragedies of New World history that the vast majority of these were destroyed. Las Casas witnessed the destruction of a number of such books which were burned to “protect” the Maya from their traditional religion: “These books were seen by our clergy, and even I saw part of those which were burned by the monks, apparently because they thought [they] might harm the Indians in matters concerning religion, since at that time they were at the beginning of their conversion” (Las Casas 1958, 346).
Only four lowland Maya codices are known to have escaped these purges. We can only add our own laments to those of the Maya over the irretrievable loss of a people’s literary heritage. Of the many hieroglyphic books that once existed in the highlands, including the Precolumbian version of the Popol Vuh, not a single one is known to have survived.
The Precolumbian version of the Popol Vuh has unfortunately been lost. Even the authors of the sixteenth century manuscript copy wrote that the more ancient book could no longer be seen in their day, and that what they compiled was based on the original (p. 64). It should not be assumed that this was a word for word transcription, however. The few Precolumbian Maya codices that survive, as well as the numerous inscriptions found on stelae, altars, architectural wall panels, etc., all bear texts that are highly formalized and condensed references to dates, persons, and events that briefly outline the stories they wish to tell. These are often accompanied by illustrations to further elucidate the otherwise terse prose. No known Precolumbian text contains the kind of long story-telling devices, descriptive detail, commentary, and extensive passages of dialogue found in the Popol Vuh. It is more likely to have been a compilation of oral traditions based to one degree or another on mythic and historical details outlined in a Precolumbian codex with their associated painted illustrations.
Authors of the Popol Vuh:
The authors of the Popol Vuh were anonymous. In the text they refer to themselves only as “we” (Christenson 2007, 64), indicating that there were more than one who contributed to its compilation. The anonymity of the authors is unusual since most Colonial period highland Maya documents were prepared for some official purpose, and were duly signed by their authors as testimony of their veracity. For whatever reason, those who were responsible for compiling the Popol Vuh did not wish their identities to be known.
The authors were traditionalists, in the sense that they recorded the history and theology of the ancient highland Maya people without adding material from European sources. The Popol Vuh thus contains very little direct Christian influence. Although the traditions of the book were compiled after the Conquest, “under the law of God and Christianity” (Ibid., 64), its K’iche’ authors venerated their traditional Maya gods as luminous, wise beings who brought life and light to the world through their creative works. Such unapologetic reverence for the ancient gods would have been offensive to the Spanish missionaries. During the early decades of the Spanish conquest, the most obvious expressions of Maya religion and literature were either destroyed or forced into hiding. Old hieroglyphic books were singled out as dangerous hindrances to the conversion of the people and were actively sought out and destroyed. Those who were found in possession of such books were persecuted and even killed. As much as two hundred years later, Ximénez wrote that many ancient books were still kept in secret by the K’iche’s so that the Spanish authorities would not learn of them (Ximénez 1929-31, I.i.5). It was the loss of such precious books as the hieroglyphic Popol Vuh which may have prompted K’iche’ scribes to preserve what they could of their literature by transcribing their contents into a form which would make them safer from the fiery purges of Christian authorities.
Whoever they may have been, the authors of the Popol Vuh manuscript were trained in the use of European letters. Soon after the formal establishment of Christianity in highland Guatemala, Christian missionaries began to teach representatives of the various Maya lineages of Guatemala to read and write their languages using a modified Latin script developed by Fr. Francisco de la Parra. The first bishop of Guatemala, Francisco Marroquín strongly advocated this policy as a means of aiding the conversion effort to Christianity. The authors of the Popol Vuh undoubtedly learned to read and write with the Latin alphabet under the direction of Christian missionaries who were actively establishing schools for this purpose in major Maya towns.
History of the Popol Vuh Manuscript
Although the Popol Vuh is undated, internal evidence points to the work being completed between the years 1554 and 1558. The manuscript mentions that Juan de Rojas and Juan Cortés, grandsons of the kings burned by Alvarado during the Conquest, were alive and recognized as rulers when the Popol Vuh was written. The signatures of these kings appear on the last page of the Título Totonicapán, which is dated September 28, 1554 (Carmack and Mondloch 1983, 200-201). The Popol Vuh must have been written prior to 1558, because by that date don Juan de Rojas had disappeared from Colonial records and had presumably died.
The fate of the sixteenth century transcription of the Popol Vuh is unknown for the next 150 years. At some time during this period, it was taken from Santa Cruz del Quiché to the nearby town of Chuvila, now known as Santo Tomás Chichicastenango. Chichicastenango had long since eclipsed Santa Cruz in size and importance, and most members of the old nobility had transferred their residence there. Between 1701 and 1704, a Dominican monk named Francisco Ximénez, the parish priest of Chichicastenango, came to obtain the manuscript. Ximénez had served since 1694 in various Maya communities where he learned a number of dialects and studied Maya grammar so that he could teach it to newly-arrived clerics. He was particularly impressed with the K’iche’ language, calling it the “principal one of the world”.
Ximénez was interested as well in the ancient traditions of the K’iche’s. He noted that in his parish the people still conserved ancient “errors” which they had believed prior to the arrival of the Spaniards (Ximénez 1929-31, I.i.54). His curiosity concerning ancient K’iche’ history and religion may have overcome the suspicion of the guardians of the Popol Vuh manuscript, who allowed him to see it and make a copy. Ximénez wrote that other such texts were also in their possession:
It was with great reserve that these manuscripts were kept among them, with such secrecy, that neither the ancient ministers knew of it, and investigating this point, while I was in the parish of Santo Tomás Chichicastenango, I found that it was the doctrine which they first imbibed with their mother’s milk, and that all of them knew it almost by heart, and I found that they had many of these books among them (Ximénez 1929-31, I.i.5).
Ximénez transcribed the K’iche’-Maya text of the Popol Vuh, and added a Spanish translation of its contents. It is unknown what happened to the sixteenth century manuscript, although presumably Ximénez returned it to its K’iche’ owners.
The Poetic Nature of the Popol Vuh
The Popol Vuh is not only the most important highland Maya text in terms of its historical and mythological content, it is also a sublime work of literature, composed in rich and elegant poetry. K’iche’ poetry is not based on rhyme or metrical rhythms, but rather the arrangement of concepts into innovative and even ornate parallel structures. Seldom are the authors content with expressing a single idea without embellishing it with synonymous concepts, metaphors, or descriptive epithets. The K’iche’ poet is much like the composer of classical music who begins with a simple melody and then weaves into it both complementary and contrasting harmonies to give it interest and depth. Thus endless variations on a given theme are possible.
Books such as the Popol Vuh were not simply records of dry history, but universal declarations of the purpose of the world and man’s place in it. As Munro Edmonson points out, Mayan texts are meant to be “read and pondered rather than skimmed over” (Edmonson 1982, xiii).The written words were intended to conjure up an image in the mind, to give new life and breath to the gods and heroes each time the story was read. The beauty of the work depends not only on the story itself, but on how the story is told.
Carmack, Robert M. and James L. Mondloch. 1983. El Título de
Totonicapán. México, D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de
Christenson, Allen J. 2007. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Edmonson, Munro S. 1971. The Book of Counsel: The Popol Vuh of the Quiché Maya of Guatemala. Pub. 35 of Middle American Research Institute. New Orleans: Tulane University.
____________. 1982. The Ancient Future of the Itza: The Book of Chilam Balam of Tizimin. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Las Casas, Fr. Bartolomé de. 1958 [ca. 1550]. Apologética historia de las Indias. Vol 13. Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Españoles.
Ximénez, Francisco. c. 1701-4 Popol Vuh. Manuscript, Ayer Collection, Newberry Library, Chicago.
____________. c. 1701-4 Arte de las tres lenguas q'aq'chiquel, quiche, y tz’utuhil. _____________. Manuscript, Ayer Collection, Newberry Library, Chicago.
____________1929-31 . Historia de la provincia de San Vicente de Chiapa y Guatemala. Biblioteca “Goathemala” de la Sociedad de Georgrafía e Historia de Guatemala Publication 1. 3 Volumes. Guatemala Tipografía Nacional.
Citation: Christenson, Allen. "Popol Vuh". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 20 October 2009 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=27762, accessed 08 February 2023.]