Popol Vuh Summary


Popol Vuh

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Popol Vuh Summary

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Popol Vuh is a collection of Mesoamerican mythological and historical narratives emanating from the Mayan K’iche kingdom in modern day Guatemala. The only remaining sources for Popol Vuh are manuscripts in Spanish, transcribed by a Dominican friar, Francisco Ximénez, in the 18th century. Though many scholars assume that there must have been an original work from which Ximénez made his transcription, none has ever been discovered. Ximénez transcribed the work in two columns, the first being a phonetic rendering of the K’iche language in a mixture Latin and Parra characters. The second column translates the stories into Spanish. Though these writings changed hands several times they largely remained obscure until they were rediscovered and republished in 1941 by Adrian Recinos.

The title of the work loosely translates to “Council Book,” or “Book of the People,” and is made up of a creation myth, a series of epic tales and a genealogical record of rulers, which is thought to have legitimized the divine right of kings at the time. Popol Vuh was originally one long poem in the oral tradition, but as a publication has been divided into several books. It is sometimes likened to the Bible; this comparison is not necessarily accurate. While there are some similarities in the story of creation, in this case it also functions as a historical record before the coming of Christianity to the New World, as well as the early history of the K’iche, their migration and settlements up until they were conquered by the Spanish in the mid-1700’s.

In the creation myth animals pre-exist human beings, but they cannot speak nor praise the gods, so the gods attempt to create a nurturer who will remember them on earth. The first men are created from earth and mud similar to the Christian tradition in which Adam is created from dust; however, they have no heart and dissolve away in water. The second humans are made from wood, but they lack souls and are destroyed by a flood and other objects they had abused on earth. The gods are left alone, to glorify themselves.

Book II focuses on the exploits of the “Hero Twins” Hunahpu and Xblanque. Since there are no human beings on earth to give meaning to the gods, one deity, Seven Macaw, ascends above all others, refusing to acknowledge them and their works. The Hero Twins trick and kill him, restoring balance to the world. Book III features the father of the Twins (Hun-Hunahpu) and his brother (Vucub Hunahppu). They are both the sons of the god that originally attempted to create humans. They were lured into the underworld (Xibalba) by the Lords of Death to play a traditional Mayan ball game, but instead were murdered. In the underworld a virgin princess in attracted to the severed head of Hun-Hunahpu, which spits in her hand, impregnating her. The princess ascends to Earth in order to give birth to the Hero Twins. The twins challenge the Lords of Death to a rematch in the ball game, trick them and eventually destroy them. The Hero Twins become the sun and moon.

In Book IV humans are finally successfully created from maize, but at first are too knowledgeable and god-like themselves. Thus the gods make humans mortal, and limit their sight that they can only see that which they are closest to and know to revere the gods that made them. This book concludes with the migration of the K’iche down the coast and the genealogy of their tribal rulers.