72 pages 2 hours read


Popol Vuh

Nonfiction | Scripture | Adult | Published in 1554

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Summary and Study Guide


The Popol Vuh is a cultural narrative of the Quiché people that blends folklore, mythology, and historical accounts. The contents of the Popol Vuh have been relayed through oral tradition for many years, and its written form has suffered many losses following Spanish colonization of Latin America. Spanish colonizers destroyed nearly all Quiché texts and codices, including the Popol Vuh. Thus, the earliest known version of the Popol Vuh that exists is a Spanish translation by Reverend Father Franzisco Ximénez, Parish Priest for the Royal Patronage of the Town of Santo Tomás Chuilá, Mexico. Father Ximénez’s translation is the foundational text for all future translations of the Popol Vuh, including this edition, translated to English by Allen J. Christenson. The original authors of the Popol Vuh are unknown, although Christenson supposes that they are part of the Quiché literary elite.

The Popol Vuh begins in darkness, where only the sky exists, along with the principal creator deities, Heart of Sky, the Framer and the Shaper, Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent, and Xpiyacoc and Xmucane (who also go by He Who Has Begotten Sons and She Who Has Borne Children, respectively). Under the guidance of Heart of Sky, the creator deities map out the world they want to create, measuring it the way one would a maizefield, for cultivation. They eventually create the landscape and animals, and seek to create people who will worship them on earth. They try several times before they manage to create the first four men: Balam Quitze, Balam Acab, Mahucutah, and Iqui Balam, who please the gods greatly. Eventually, the gods create wives for them, too, along with other people who become the Tamub, the Ilocab, and other nations. The gods favor the first four men most as they express the most religious devotion. In these early days of the earth’s beginning, there is darkness, and the people seek the dawn.

Meanwhile, the creation of the sun, moon, and stars that give the sky light is taking place. This storyline begins with One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu, the sons of Xpiyacoc and Xmucane, who journey to Xibalba to suffer the many trials of the underworld lords who ultimately claim their lives. One day, the maidenLady Blood in Xibalba hears of One Hunahpu’s decapitated head, which hangs from a tree. The tree has mysteriously grown fruit that is indistinguishable from the deity’s skull. Lady Blood allows herself to be impregnated by One Hunahpu’s saliva and gives birth to Hunahpu and Xbalanque on earth. As Hunahpu and Xbalanque grow older, they win the favor of Heart of Sky by killing Seven Macaw and his sons for posing as a false sun and exhibiting greatness rivaling that of the creator deities. Heart of Sky watches over Hunahpu and Xbalanque as they eventually journey to Xibalba to avenge their father’s death. Hunahpu and Xbalanque’s success in Xibalba leads to the formation of the sun, moon, and stars in the sky. The creation of these celestial bodies is what the first people of earth see when they journey eastward to a place called Tulan Zuyva.

At Tulan Zuyva, the people discover the godsTohil,Auilix, and Hacavitz, and take the gods home with them. From the beginning, the gods show favor towards the first four men and their kin as they grant these people fire upon initial request. They also continue to favor the first four men and their kin, providing them with a divine decree that the men should go forth and conquer many lands to manifest their greatness. The first four men proceed to war with the other nations, besting them through strategy and assistance from the gods. They eventually move to a new citadel atop the mountain, Hacavitz, where they birth sons named Co Caib, Co Cavib, Co Acul, and Co Acutec.

When the sons grow older, the gods advise them to return to Tulan Zuyva to become ennobled. They return to Hacavitz with this news and learn that the greatness of their people depends upon migration and expansion. They continue to migrate to Chi Quiz, where they build a new citadel and give birth to more children. As time passes, they eventually move to Chi Izmachi where they continue to fortify their people. Finally, it is at Cumarcah where the Cavecs, Nihaibs, and the Ahau, also known as the three lineages of Quiché people, settle and divide into twenty-four lordships. The first four men and their wives pass away at Cumarcah, but leave behind a thriving legacy. At the Cumarcah citadel, the three Quiché lineages establish their greatness through expansion of their territories against other nations and divine oversight. The lords, Cucumatz, Quicab, and Cauizimah, are especially revered for possessing magical abilities endowed by the gods.

The Popol Vuh details the many generations of Quiché lords following Cumarcah and up to the arrival of the Spanish. According to Christenson’s notes about the more recent Quiché lords, the Spanish colonizers executed them as part of the Christian missionary objective to clear Quiché society of pagan influences. The final words of the Popol Vuh indicates, “There is only this” (287), suggesting that the text in its available form consists of only remainders of Quiché history,as the rest were lost to Spanish colonization.

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