Spin Title #27: The Popol Vuh

 The Popol Vuh (Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings), translated by Dennis Tedlock

I am so happy with my Spin title!   The Popol Vuh is amazing stuff, and Tedlock puts in plenty of explanatory material to help with comprehension.  I loved it.  Mythology/religion readers, put this on your list!

The Popol Vuh is the holy book of the Quiché people in Guatamala -- the Mayans.  The book tells of the creation of the earth, the start of the Quiché, and goes right down to the writers' own day, which was the 1550s.  The men who wrote it down kept themselves anonymous for fear of punishment.   (Tedlock is of the opinion that they were the three Masters of Ceremonies mentioned near the end.)

Of course I can't go through the whole thing, but...at first there is nothing but a quiet sky and sea.  The gods arrive and decide to create an earth and people for it; they want the people to be able to name the gods and to keep the proper calendars to perform the needed rites -- to work and speak in orderly ways.  So they do this, but their people take a few trial runs, first resulting in animals (who cannot speak), mud that can't do anything, and monkeys (who couldn't be orderly).  Before their successful fourth creation of people, the narrative switches to the children and grandchildren of the first daykeepers, who make the created world safer for people to live in.  

One and Seven Hunahpu are ballplayers, gamblers, and adventurers.  They go to Xibalba (the underworld of death) and are defeated and killed by the Xibalbans, but magically impregnate a daughter of the underworld.  The resulting twins are Hunahpu and Xbalanque -- also ballplayer, but hunters too, and they are able to defeat the Xibalbans and impose some safety on the world.

Then people are created (four men and four women), and they create four tribes of peoples -- the Quiché and their related Mayan tribes.  Only later does the first sunrise occur, and everybody is happy to have a sun and moon!  They build great cities, their lineages and exploits are described, and eventually there is genealogy down to the time of writing.

What we have is called the alphabetic Popol Vuh, which was written down in the 1550s.  This is based on the original hieroglyphic Popol Vuh, which has been lost.  The original would have had a lot more astronomical calculations; this just tells the story behind the astronomy.  The mythic events that are narrated all have correspondences to the movements of the planets and stars, or to calendrical figures.  Venus' pattern is particularly important, but other astronomical bodies come in as well. The story has enormous scope, starting with the beginning of creation and ending with the authors' contemporary milieu.

Fr. Ximenez' 1701 transcription and translation of the Quiché text

I knew the Mayans had a lot of interest in calendar math, and developed more than one calendar system, but of course I didn't know anything much about the scope and depth of what they did.  An appendix gives a quick over view of the aspects that are relevant to the Popol Vuh, and it's fascinating stuff.  The system is used to this day by contemporary Quiché for divinatory purposes.  In "the calendar of the earth," (which isn't a solar or lunar calendar, those are different!) days go in cycles of 13 numbers and 20 names, which multiplies out to a 260-day cycle.  This is why the characters have names like One Hunahpu and Seven Macaw; that's the day that is significant to them.  Each day name only ever falls on certain numbers, and using the One and Seven numbers with a day name is a convention invoking the whole series of thirteen days with that name.

A favorite moment of mine is when the hero twins are down in Xibalba and locked in a house of bats.  These are not animal bats, but the Xibalban 'snatch-bats,' terrifying surprise attackers.  And they're called kamazotz' -- which should look familiar if you've ever read A Wrinkle in Time.   

Tedlock also has a really neat argument for a Quiché origin of the legendary La Llorona, which he thinks is descended from Lust Woman and Wailing Woman, who are sent by the first four men to the river, where they are to tempt the rival tribes to their deaths.

Here are some quotations!

And here we shall take up the demonstration, revelation, and account of how things were put in shadow and brought to light by the Maker, Modeler, named Bearer, Begetter, .... as it is said in the words of Quiché.  They accounted for everything -- and did it, too -- as enlightened beings, in enlightened words.  We shall write about this now amid the preaching of God, in Christendom now.

Again there comes an experiment with the human work, the human design, by the Maker, Modeler, Bearer, Begetter: "It must simply be tried again.  The time for the planting and dawning is nearing.  For this we must make a provider and a nurturer.  How else can we be invoked and remembered on the face of the earth?  We have already made our first try at our work and design, but it turned out that they didn't keep our days, nor did they glorify us.

These are the names of the first people who were named and modeled.  This is the first person: Jaguar Quitze.  And now the second: Jaguar Night.  And now the third: Not Right Now.  And the fourth: Dark Jaguar.

And then the face of the earth was dried out by the sun.  The sun was like a person when he revealed himself.  His face was hot, so he dried out the face of the earth.  Before the sun came up it was soggy, and the face of the earth was muddy before the sun came up.  And when the sun had risen just a short distance he was like a person, and his heat was unbearable.  Since he revealed himself only when he was born, is it only his reflection that now remains.  As they put it in the ancient text, "The visible sun is not the real one."

I had such a great time reading this amazing and complex work of mythology and religion.  I would love to learn more.  Don't miss it!


  1. check out the building alignments of the Anasazi Indians in the SW... more remarkable astral associations...

  2. This has definitely been on my list of things to read & it sounds like it should move on up...

  3. What a fascinating book - sounds like you got a LOT out of it too!

  4. Genesis stories in many religions seem to follow similar patterns regardless of where they're composed, don't they, though each one reflects the concerns and environment of the culture that treasures them. But the varieties of divinities! the complex relationship between the several calendars! I'm not sure I'd want to fathom all those out.


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