Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Popol Vuh

The Popol Vuh (book of the mat counsel or book of the counsel) is a centuries old book that contains myths of the Quiche Maya, in the north-central highlands of Guatemala. This book began as a secret attempt at cultural preservation. Later it turned into a translation project, and now it is a widely known literary work that is a part of half a million Quiche Maya’s religion.

Culture Preservation Attempt
During the 1500s (perhaps between 1554 and 1558), in the town of Quiche -- now Santa Cruz --, some Quiche Maya (possibly three “lineage leaders”) decided to preserve their culture. Using the Latin alphabet and either fig bark or deerskin, they made codices that recorded their myths, using couplets as their writing structure. These codices were smuggled to -- and kept secret in -- a town known as Chuu Lai that is now Chichicastenango.

Over one hundred years later, in 1701 one of these codices was discovered. A friar named Francisco Ximenez, the finder of the codex, knew the language of the Quiche. He copied the codice, then translated it into the modern Spanish of the time (from this Spanish translation, people have made English translations.) The book Ximenez made its way to Paris and now resides at Chicago’s Newbury Library.


First Part of the Creation Story
The Popol Vuh starts with the creation myth of human kind. Two gods, Heart of Sky and Sovereign Plumed Serpent make the earth but want a creation that will praise them. They make animals and trees, but these don’t praise the gods so they try to make men out of out of mud (or clay) but this doesn’t work.

They talk with two “diviners” Xpiyacoc and Xmucanc about what they should do, and the diviners say they think wood would work, but it doesn’t. However after the attempts of creating people out of mud and then people out of wood, the book switches to stories about the diviners descendants.

Seven Hunahpu and One Hunahpu
The first story involves Xpiyacoc and Xmucanc’s twin children, Seven Hunahpu and One Hunahpu (Hun Hunahpu), who gets married to a woman named Xb'aqiyalo. Xb'aqiyalo has twin sons Hun Chuwen (One Artisian) and Hun B'atz' (One Monkey). Seven Hunahpu, One Hunahpu, Hun Chuwen and Hun B’atz’ -- along with Heart of Sky’s falcon messenger who like to watch -- like to play the ballgame in a ballcourt in the east.

The Lords of Death, the gods of Xibalba (the Underworld), get mad at them for being loud. The underworld gods Seven Death and One Death (the most important of the Lords of Death) use owl messengers to issue a challenge to a ballgame in Xibalba’s ballcourt in the west of Xibalba.

Seven Hunahpu and One Hunahpu accept, and begin to travel to Xibalba’s ballcourt. Challenges meet them on their way, but they fail to overcome them. Due to their failure, the Lords of Death Sacrifice them and bury their bodies at the Place of Ballgame Sacrifice. One Hunahpu’s head was put in a tree at the roadside near the Place of Ballgame Sacrifice, and this tree becomes a calabash tree.

The daughter of Blood Gatherer (a Lord of Death) -- known by the name of Blood Woman or Blood Moon -- walks by the tree, One Hunahpu spits in her hand and she becomes with child. When Blood Gatherer finds out what has happened, he gets mad and tells owl messengers to sacrifice Blood Moon and bring back her heart. However, Blood Moon speaks with the owls and they agree to send back a piece of incense instead. The owls help her get to the earth’s surface.

Blood Moon finds Xmucane, tells her she’s her son’s wife. Xmucane doesn’t buy it, and sets a challenge for Blood Moon: gather corn from the garden. Blood Moon succeeds this challenge and Xmucane believes her.

Blood Moon gives birth to twin sons, Xbalanque and Hunahpu, who are known as the Hero Twins. They have a good life except for the fact that Hun B’atz’ and Hun Chuwen are hostile towards them. The Hero Twins trick the unkind pair into climbing trees they said game birds had fallen into after being shot. Once they got up in the trees, the Hero Twins make the trees grow so that Hun B’atz’ and Hun Chuwen are trapped. Hun B’atz’ turns into a howler monkey, and Hun Chuwen turns into a spider monkey.

Seven Macaw and His Sons
This story takes place sometime during the last one (the book is not clear). Heart of Sky wants the Hero Twins to get rid of Seven Macaw and his sons, who are arrogant.

The first Hero Twins story talks about how Xbalanque and Hunahpu try to destroy the arrogant Seven Macaw and his sons who are also arrogant, Earthquake and Zipacna. First they try to kill Seven Macaw with a blowgun but fail (they only break his jaw). Then they work with Seven Macaw’s doctors: the doctors pull out Seven Macaw’s teeth and take away the metal disks Seven Macaw wore around his eyes. When this happens, Seven Macaw turns into the Big Dipper. Scarlet macaws are seven macaw’s descendants.

Next comes Seven Macaw’s sons. First up is Zipacna, a dinosaur-like creature and oldest son of Seven Macaw. The gods of alcohol (the Four Hundred Boys) set a trap for Zipacna but he survives it and kills them (they become the Peleiades). The Hero Twins want to avenge their death so they stick a crab in a mountain crevice and when Zipacna goes to eat it, the mountain falls over on him: he dies and turns to stone. Then comes Cabracan (Earthquake). The Hero Twins cook a bird for him but cast a spell on it, and he dies. Cabracan is then buried in the east.

Underworld Ballgame: The Sequel
The Hero Twins get out One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu’s ballgame equipment and play at the same ballcourt. Again, the Lords of Death get mad at them because of the noise and challenge the Hero Twins to a ballgame. The twins use a mosquito to find out the Lords of Death’s names. They are clever and find ways to overcome the challenges of getting to the ballcourt.

The Lords of Death and the Hero Twins play the ballgame the next day. The Lords of Death use a ball that has a sacrificial knife in it. The ball breaks open and the knife tries to kill the Hero Twins but the twins overcome this situation. The Lords of Death and the Hero Twins agree to another game, except this time they will use the Hero Twins’ ball. Everyone agrees to bet flower petals on the game.

The twins loose the game on purpose, and the Lords of Death lock them up. The Hero Twins are successful at living through the night in the Razor House. Also, they are able to get the flower petals they owe the Lords of Death. After these trials, they survive being kept successively in the Cold House, Jaguar House and then the Bat House, though Hunahpu looses his head via a bat in the Bat House. To replace the lost head, Xbalanque puts a squash on Hunahpu’s shoulders.

An Unusual Interlude
The Popol Vuh then switches to another occurrence. Red light appears in the east -- it is dawn for the first time since the world began. An opossum (which the Popol Vuh calls “old man”) marks the sky with four black marks, which the book says represents the 20 day-names. It states that now there will be a 365-day solar year, and that the “old man” will start each year.

Back to the Ballgame
The book returns to the Hero Twins’ Xibalba story. The Hero Twins and the Lords of Death play the ballgame again -- with Hunahpu’s head as the ball. Xbalanque sends the head out of the ballcourt. The Lords of Death see a rabbit running around and think it is the ball. Xbalanque tries to substitute the squash with the head as the ball, but the Lords of Death realize he switched the two.

The Lords of Death then decide to kill them by setting up a trap: they take the twins to a fire pit, and begin to get some alcohol ready. The Lords of Death challenge the twins to a game of seeing who can jump across the fire pit. The twins accept but jump into the pit. The Lords of Death grind up the Hero Twins bones and put the powder in a river. The twins come back to Xibalba five days later as catfish and then turn into humans. They pose as dancers and illusionists. The Lords of Death ask the twins to entertain them.

Xbalanque “sacrifices” Hunahpu and brings him “back to life”. Seven Death and One Death want to undergo this kind of sacrifice. The Hero Twins sacrifice them, and this time the sacrifice is for real. The twins then declare who they really are. They state that the Lords of Death shall only accept animal sacrifices and incense.

The twins proceed to the Place of Ballgame Sacrifice. They try to bring Seven Hunahpu back to life but can’t. They then turn into the sun and the moon. For the first time since the world began, the sun rises and full daylight occurs.

Creation of Man
After the Hero Twins stories the Popol Vuh switches back to the creation story. Heart of Sky and Sovereign Plumed Serpent try to use corn to make people. The people made of corn are a success.

The Popol Vuh then relates how the population grew and tribes began to fight each other, with the Quiche coming out on top. The Popol Vuh finishes with a royal genealogy (a list of the rulers of the Quiche).


"Maya Calendar Origins"; Prudence M. Rice; 2007

University of Maine: William Palmer III Collection: Popol Vuh

Yale-New Haven Teacher Institute: Popol Vuh by Norine Polio

Westminster College: Summary of the Popol Vuh

California State University Fullerton: Professor Nancy Fitch: Popol Vuh

1 comment:

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