"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."
--Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings, translated by Dennis Tedlock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), p. 72.
The Popol Vuh is the Mayan story of the creation and of the Hero Twins and their victory over the lords of Xibalba (the underworld). It begins with the origin of everything that is and proceeds to the account of this dramatic conflict. Explanations of the creation of humans, animals, the relationships among gods, animals, and humans, and the powers of the deities appear in the course of the narrative. The story of the struggle between the Hero Twins, Hunahpu (One Blowgunner) and Xbalanque (Little Jaguar Sun, or Jaguar Deer), and the lords of Xibalba also yields rich characterizations of Mayan social ethics, hierarchies, and cosmology.
The Text's History:
Like most other creation stories, the Popol Vuh originated as part of an ancient oral tradition. Readers of Spanish or English, however, have access to a text version of the Maya creation story that has a modern history. Mayan peoples had developed a rich tradition of hieroglyphic writing many centuries before Europeans invaded their lands. As anthropologist Dennis Tedlock recounts this history, the tradition of Maya writing persisted despite the disruptions attending the end of the Classic Period. Much later, the Spanish compelled the Maya to yield to foreign systems of writing, but they also compiled grammars and dictionaries of Maya language. Once an alphabetic Maya language system emerged, indigenous Maya scholars used it to sustain their own cultural heritage and created an alphabetic version of the Popol Vuh. A Christian priest, Francisco Ximénez, copied this text and translated it into Spanish in the early 1700s. This text is the basis of modern English translations, among which Tedlock's version has gained preeminence.
Questions to consider:
1 What are the various translations that any English-language version of the Popol Vuh has passed through? Should these facts influence our reading of the text, and if so, why and how?
2. Does it matter whether or not there were such heroes as Hunahpu and Xbalanque? Why or why not? What are the limitations of or opportunities for historical study that our answer to these questions establish?
3. Is the issue of the dating of the Popol Vuh important? How might we incorporate into our understanding of the Popol Vuh the long chronological gap between the origins of the Maya oral tradition and the early 18th century Spanish language text? How can we find out more about current scholarship on the Popol Vuh texts?
The currently authoritative English translation--quoted above--is Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. Translated by Dennis Tedlock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
An online version of part of the Popol Vuh text can be found at:
A Maya language syllabary is found at this site:
More information on ancient Maya writing, with a catalog of glyphs, can be found at this University of Virginia website:
Information on Mesoamerican Civilizations and Maya hieroglyphic text images are found at:
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