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The Popol Vuh

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The Popol Vuh

Note:[1]

The Popol Vuh is the sacred book of the Quiché Maya Indians of Southern Guatemala, Central America. It certainly belong to the great works of world literature. The name Popol Vuh is usually translated as ‘book of the council,’ but opinions differ[2]

The story is written in mythological form and contains one of the deepest and most complete cosmogonies of the world’s literature. The structure and contents are comparable with those of the Purāṇas of the Hindus written on the other side of the world. It begins before cosmic existence, describes the preliminary and first phases of cosmic manifestation and its further evolution. The coming into existence of the earth and of the various kingdoms of nature is described in the Popol Vuh, as also in the Hindu Purāṇas. Then we find anthropogenesis in a number of subsequent phases, the development of the various principles of which man is composed, and finally a description of the origin and history of the human races, and the history of the Quiché Maya with their kings until afer the beginning of the Spanish era.

In the introduction, the Quiché Maya narrator tells us briefly what the Popol Vuh is about, that this is the way in which the Great Father and the Great Mother are glorified, and why the Popol Vuh is being written down, namely, because “amid the preaching of God, in Christendom … there is no longer a place to see it, the Popol Vuh,” “a place to see ‘The Light That Comes From Across The Sea,’ . . .” He refers to an “original book and ancient writing.”

The narrator goes on to say:

“This is the beginning of the ancient Word, here in this place called Quiché. Here we shall inscribe, we shall implant the Ancient Word, the potential and source for everything done in the citadel of Quiché, in the nation of the Quiché people. And here we shall take up the demonstration, revelation, and account of how things were put in shadow and brought to light.”

The first topic deals with the period before the processes of evolution of our universe had even started, the period called pralaya in Hinduism:

“This is the account, here it is:

‘Now it still ripples, now it still murmurs, ripples, it still sighs, still hums and it is empty under the sky.’

Here follow the first words, the first eloquence:

‘There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, forest. Only the sky alone is there; the face of the earth is not clear. Only the sea alone is pooled under all the sky; there is nothing whatever gathered together. It is at rest: not a single thing stirs. It is held back, kept at rest under the sky.’

‘Whatever there is that might be is simply not there: only murmurs, ripples, in the dark, in the night. Only the Maker(s), Modeler(s) alone, the Sovereign and the Plumed Serpent, the Bearers, Begetters are in the water, a glittering light. They are there, they are enclosed in quetzal feathers, in blue-green.’

‘Thus the name, “Plumed Serpent.” They are great knowers, great thinkers in their very being.’

‘And of course there is the Sky, and there is also the Heart of Sky. This is the name of the god, as it is spoken.’”

Then came the processes of cosmic mind preceding the manifestation of the universe:

“And then came his word, it came here to the Sovereign Plumed Serpent, here in the blackness, in the early dawn. He spoke with the Sovereign and the Plumed Serpent, and they talked, then they thought, then they worried. They agreed with each other, they joined their words, their thoughts. Then it was clear, then they reached accord in the light, and then humanity was clear, when they conceived the growth, the generation of trees, of bushes, and the growth of life, of humankind, in the blackness, in the early dawn, all because of the Heart of Sky, named Hunrakan, or Hurricane, in his three aspects. Thunderbolt Hurricane comes first, named Fire-in-the-Water, the second is Chipi-Cukulhá, the thunderbolt that beats downward, the third is Raxa-Cukulhá, the thunderbolt that beats upward.”

So there were three of them, as Heart of Sky, who came to Sovereign and the Plumed Serpent, when the dawn of life was conceived: “How should it be sown, how should it be dawn? Who is to be the provider, nurturer? Let it be this way, think about it: this water should be removed, emptied out for the formation of the earth’s own plate and platform, then comes the sowing, the dawning of the sky-earth. But there will be no high days and no bright praise for our work, our design, until the rise of the human work, the human design,” they said.

Then followed the actual materialization of the plans of the cosmic mind: first the earth, then the vegetable and animal kingdoms respectively:

“And then the earth rose because of them, it was simply their word that brought it forth. For forming of the earth they said ‘Earth’. It arose suddenly, just like a cloud, like a mist, now forming, unfolding. Then the mountains were separated from the water, all at once the great mountains came forth. By genius alone, by their cutting edge alone they carried out the conception of the mountain-plane, whose face grew instant groves of cypress and pine.”

And so on. Then: “And they planned the animals of the mountains, the deer, birds, pumas, jaguars, serpents, rattlesnakes, yellowbites, guardians of the bushes.” In a next stage all got their appointed ecological niche, some in the trees and others in the valleys, in the meadows, etc. Then they were told to speak, thus to be able to praise the gods. This they could not, at least not completely, because they were animals and therefore they were degraded.

But the purpose, from the very beginning, had been to bring forth humanity, which will be able to remember its divine origin and inner essence. This goes, as we will see, through several ‘experimental’ evolutionary phases. So then there is a new experiment to create beings: “It must simply be tried again, they said.” So then comes the building and working with earth and mud:

“They made a body, but it didn’t look good to them. It was just separating, just crumbling, just loosening, just softening, just disintegrating, and just dissolving. Its head wouldn’t turn, either. Its face was just lopsided, its face was just twisted. It couldn’t look around. It talked at first, but senselessly. It was quickly dissolving in the water.”

Therefore they decided to dismantle their work. And they planned again, taking karma and the law of cycles into account: “We’ll just tell Xpiyacóc, the grandfather, Xmucané, the grandmother, Hunahpú Possum and Hunahpú Coyote, to try a counting of the days, a counting of lots.” They do this by divination, using beans and maize kernels. Then they invoked Xpiyacóc, Xmucané. The divination is done and after the ritual they conclude:

“It is well that there be your manikins, woodcarvings, human in looks, human in speech. This was the peopling of the face of the earth. They came into being, they multiplied, they had daughters, they had sons, these manikins, woodcarvings. But there was nothing in their hearts and nothing in their minds, no memory of their mason and builder. (…) Now they did not remember the Heart of Sky.”

Because of their incompleteness and wrong behavior, they were finally punished and destroyed by a rainstorm that kept on day and night and flooded the earth. “And it used to be said that the monkeys in the forests today are a sign of this. So this is why monkeys look like people: they are a sign of a previous human work and human design.”

The second and third parts of the Popol Vuh tell us about the further evolutionary history of humankind. The fourth and fifth parts deal with the religious and political history of the peoples of southern Guatemala. I will now briefly summarize the second and third part.

There are three beings, giants, Seven Macaw and his two sons, Zipacná, the Mountain-maker and Cabracán, or Earthquake. They magnify themselves and claim to be the sun and moon, the builder of the earth and the destroyer of mountains respectively, thus having an appeal to the people that had perished (physically) in the flood, before the next race could be made. But those ‘flooded people’ did not have the power to discriminate between the surpassing greatness of the imitation sun and moon and the real ones which had not yet risen, because it had not yet dawned.

Then the two boys, the Hero Twins come into play, named Hunahpú and Xbalamque. Being gods, the two saw evil in the attempts at self-magnification before the Heart of Sky. So they decided to destroy the three beings. Each of the three had a weakness, by which he could be caught: Seven Macaw, who pretended to be the sun and the moon had a desire for sweet fruits and he was shot and wounded by Hunahpú’s blowgun while he was sitting in a tree, eating the fruits. But though wounded he could escape, and the two boys had to call Xpiyacóc and Xmucané, the grandfather and grandmother or the male-female togetherness of all the above-mentioned heavenly gods, to inflict final defeat on Seven-Macaw. Zipacná, the maker of mountains and volcanoes was tricked to his death by his appetite for crabs, which according to modern Mayas stands for sexual desire. Cabracán, the Earthquake was tricked on his way to the destruction of another mountain by his appetite for a roasted bird, caught for him by the twin boys, but poisoned with earth.

The Popol Vuh continues with the previous history of the Twin Brothers. Their fathers were Hun Hunahpú and Vucub Hunahpú, which means One-Hunter and Seven-Hunter. They were great thinkers and their knowledge was great. These in their turn were the sons of the original divine grandfather and grandmother, Xpiyacóc and Xmucane. One-Hunter and Seven-Hunter had two sons, called One-Monkey and One-Artisan. They became great artisans and great artists, fluteplayers, singers, writers, jewelers etc., due to what they were taught by their fathers. They lived with their grandmother Xmucané.

One-Hunter and Seven-Hunter spent all their time playing the sacred ball game and playing dice. Then one day they were called to Xibalbá, the underworld. On their way they crossed three rivers successfully: the River of Churning Spikes, Blood River and a river filled with pus. But then they took the wrong road, which led to their defeat. They met with the twelve lords of Xibalbá, the underworld, the leaders of which were One-Death and Seven-Death. The others bore names of terrible diseases. After some terrible tests and trials they were defeated by the twelve lords of the underworld. One-Hunter’s skull was placed in the fork of a tree on the road from the underworld to the earth. And at once the tree was full of fruits. These were forbidden fruits by decree of the lords of Xibalbá, because these fruits worried them. But the daughter of one of the lords of Xibalbá became curious and went up the road and stretched her hand toward the tree and suddenly her hand was hit by spittle from the skull. As a result she became pregnant and gave birth to twin brothers, which are our heros, Hunahpú and Xbalamque. In this mysterious way One-Hunter and Seven-Hunter procreated even after their defeat in Xibalbá. When the younger brothers grew up, troubles arose between the elder and the younger. Finally Hunahpú and Xbalamque defeated their younger brothers One-Monkey and One-Artisan, who turned into monkeys. Then Hunahpú and Xbalamque were, like their fathers, called to the underworld. They went through the same trials and after that through ever more terrifying ones, but now they knew what to do and they conquered the lords of the underworld. They became masters over life and death and could assume any form they wished. Finally they rose to the firmament to become the real sun and moon.

The rest of the book deals with the creation of present humanity, at least the Mayan stock, and how they twice received spiritual instructions and their tribal gods at Tula Zuyua, the Seven Caves over the sea to the east. Remarkable is that humanity in the beginning had unlimited sight and could look through rocks and trees etc. Then the gods limited their sight and their knowledge and understanding, because they could not allow the humans to be their equals. Then women were created in this race. A long time ago the people left their land of origin which was over the sea to the east, while other peoples and races remained there. They went to a place called Tula Zuyua, Seven Caves, where they received their deities and religious instructions, which became the guiding influence throughout Mayan and Mexican history. Then it tells of their migrations and settlements, wars, and magic and religious history. Representatives of a later generation paid a visit to the land of their ancestors to the east overseas, and received their lordship and wisdom teachings from Lord Nacxit, the ruler of that land. The history continues into recent times, even into the Spanish period, up to the moment the Popol Vuh was written down and handed over by a wise and compassionate Indian to his conquerors.

Some notes:

The creation story of the Popol Vuh is different from the creation story accepted by Christians, where God, of whom we know little, created the world and its inhabitants at once and in its definite form. The Popol Vuh proceeds step by step, and the gods sow seeds, the seeds of evolution. The gods themselves are constantly involved. They think, they look at the results, sometimes come to the conclusion that it is good and it is time for the next step, and sometimes that the effort is unsuccessful and the result should be degraded or even destroyed. Therefore the Popol Vuh is rather a story of evolution than a story of creation.

The gods themselves, though they are great thinkers and knowers and masters of occult powers and far above humans in these qualities, are not perfect. They do however, from the very beginning form an image of the goal of their creative efforts, which is a mankind which will remember its creators, people who can speak and who are “Givers of praise, givers of respect.”

Interestingly the idea of man already exists from the beginning, and all lower forms of evolution are efforts to realize this idea step by step. So in one sense, man – as an idea – is the oldest of all creatures and not the latest as modern science teaches, being the result of the trial-and-error brain development of some apelike ancestor.

Summarizing we can say that this is a very deep and comprehensive book of evolution, both cosmic and human, both physical and spiritual, both mythic and historic. It deals not only with the evolution of forms, as in the western evolution theories, but also with that of mind, the lower nature of man as well as the gods and the divine nature of man. And it deals with the cooperation of the kingdoms of nature as well as the principles which constitute man. And it deals not only with the evolution in the past and present, but in the descent of the higher mind in the realm of Xibalbá and finally its glorious ascent shows us the path for the future.

Further reading (book online): Esotericism of the Popol Vuh

  1. From: Global Philosophical and Ecological Concepts

    Publ. Motilal Banarsidass Pvt. Ltd.,

    Delhi, India 2010; 941 pp. (2 Vols.)

    ISBN: 978-81-208-3198-8 [<<]

  2. For the complete English on-line edition of the Popol Vuh by Delia Goetz and Sylvanus Griswold Morley, see

    http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/popol_vuh/book.htm#contents1

    It is an ancient tradition, nobody knows how ancient. It was written down by a wise Indian in the Mayan language, but in European script, in the middle of the sixteenth century, several decades after the Spanish invasion. Almost two centuries later, between 1701 and 1703, it was given on loan to a friar named Francisco Ximenez, whom the natives trusted. Ximenez knew Quiche fluently and copied the text from the original, and gave a Spanish translation in the column next to the transcribed Quiche text. The original he returned to the natives of Chichicastenango. It was then practically forgotten until the middle of the nineteenth century, and then only known by very few in the west. It was first published in French, in Paris by the priest E. Brasseur de Bourbourg, in 1861. Max Müller paid some attention to the scripture, but did not make a complete English translation, and had no high judgment about it. Only in the 20th century did it become more widely known. The first complete English translation, from Brasseur’s French translation, was prepared by P.A. Malpas in 10 articles in the theosophical magazine The Theosophical Path in 1930, but an interpretative translation of the first part had been published in another theosophical magazine, Lucifer, in 1894-5 by a person under the pseudonym of Aretas (possibly James Morgan Pryse). Quotes in this article are taken from: Tedlock’s, Popol Vuh ((Tedlock, Dennis (transl.): Popol Vuh; the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life, Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, (1985), 1986. [<<]