The Popul Vuh: The Mythic and Heroic Sagas of the Kiches of Central AmericaThe Popul Vuh: The Mythic and Heroic Sagas of the Kiches of Central America by Lewis Spence
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The “Popul Vuh” is one of the very few remaining books of the ancient Mayan culture that escaped destruction in the collapse of indigenous cultures in the wake of the Spanish Conquest and Christianization of the peoples inhabiting Latin America before Columbus. As such it is of great interest to us as a “Window on the World” or picture of what those cultures in their independent evolution of milennia prior to colonization might have been like, as well as a rich piece of mythological literature evidencing universal archetypes of the human collective unconscious.

The title, “Popul Vuh” translates as “Book of the Community”, “Book of the Council”, or more literally as “Book of the People.” It is a diverse classic of the Mayan people beginning with its creation myth, its invocation of the universal archetypal myth of The Flood, its epic tales of the Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, and its later civic histories, accounts of how the community expanded geographically, fell into divisions and disintegrated. It was also held to be a divinely inspired book of prophecy and revelations that could guide the community and its leaders as to the past, the present and the future, being a book of recorded history, a guide to ritual practice, and an aid to divination. The Popul Vuh itself gives an account of how the book was revered and used by the founders of the culture:

“They were the great Lords, they were people of genius…..Whether there would be death, or whether there would be famine, or whether quarrels would occur, they knew it for certain, since there was a place to see it, there was a book: the Council Book—Popul Vuh—was their name for it.”

The word “book” however may be misleading as the Mayans had no alphabetic writing prior to adoption of the Roman alphabet from the Spanish. Most likely the Popul Vuh was memorized and passed down orally, aided by picture books on dried bark containing glyphic pictureboards, something like a graphic novel, with the pictoral glyphs being prompts to memory to aid in the oral recitation of the saga.

Before exploring the rich content of the Popul Vuh it may be well to set the stage by recounting the general history of Mesoamerica and how the Mayan peoples and their culture fits into that timescape. The Europeans first encountering the American natives, once they got beyond Columbus’s initial error of imagining them part of India or Indonesia and conferring upon them the misnomer “Indians,” were hard put to account for who they were and where they may have come from. Some speculated they might be the “Lost Tribes of Israel” or other mythic peoples such as those of Atlantis. Or had they simply been there from the beginning of the world? Modern science and archaeology gradually put together a more coherent picture of their origins. Roughly speaking they are thought to have originated in East Asia and crossed in small groups from Siberia into Alaska during the last Ice Age when the glacial ice would have created a land bridge between the two continents across the Bering Strait, perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. From thence they slowly over millennia migrated southward and eastwards, populating the two continents of the Americas. Their ascent to higher civilizaation and agriculture was slow and less speedy than across Eurasia and thus their civic history begins to emerge and evolve at a later period.

Settled agriculture thus began about 6000 BC, several millennia later than in Eurasia, and large towns and cities centered on pyramid temples may have evolved from 1000 BC to the time of Christ, utilizing cultivation of maize corn, tomatoes, chili, chocolate,squashes and beans as a basis. Farther south in Peru an agriculture centered on potato cultivation supported a similar evolution.

The early evolution of these settled areas and proto-empires collapsed around 900 AD, most likely due to some combination of climate change, overpopulation and endemic warfare. The two empires encountered by the Spanish, the Aztecs and Incas were of much more recent origin, though they drew on the cultural heritage of the earlier collapsed cultures, the Mayans and Aztecs sharing roughly the same gods, perhaps similarly to Greece and Rome. The Aztecs rose from an obscure small tribe that migrated southwards into the Valley of Mexico in the 13th century, then rose to dominance in the 1400’s before being toppled by the Spanish in 1521. The Mayans had been reduced to subject peoples under the Aztecs. The Incas were similarly short-lived as an empire, though also inheriting from earlier precursors.

Roughly speaking, there are three main parts of the Popul Vuh: the creation myths and sagas, the sagas of mythic heroes including the Divine Twin Heroes Hunahpu and Xbalanque, and the civic histories detailing the founding of colonies and the later discords and divisions of the Mayan peoples.

The Creation Myth, or “Mayan Genesis” bears some similarities to the Biblical account, albeit without a single monotheistic Creator:

“This is the first account, the first narrative. There was neither man, nor animal, birds, fishes, crabs, trees, stones, caves, ravines, grasses, nor forests; there was only the sky. The surface of the earth had not appeared. There was only the calm sea and the great expanse of the sky. There was nothing brought together, nothing which could make a noise, nor anything which might move, or tremble, or could make noise in the sky. There was nothing standing; only the calm water, the placid sea, alone and tranquil. Nothing existed. There was only immobility and silence in the darkness, in the night. Only the creator, the Maker, Tepeu, Gucumatz, the Forefathers, were in the water surrounded with light. […] Then Tepeu and Gucumatz came together; then they conferred about life and light, what they would do so that there would be light and dawn, who it would be who would provide food and sustenance. Thus let it be done! Let the emptiness be filled! Let the water recede and make a void, let the earth appear and become solid; let it be done. Thus they spoke.

Let there be light, let there be dawn in the sky and on the earth! There shall be neither glory nor grandeur in our creation and formation until the human being is made, man is formed. […] First the earth was formed, the mountains and the valleys; the currents of water were divided, the rivulets were running freely between the hills, and the water was separated when the high mountains appeared. Thus was the earth created, when it was formed by the Heart of Heaven, the Heart of Earth, as they are called who first made it fruitful, when the sky was in suspense, and the earth was submerged in the water.”

Next, as in Genesis, is given an account of the creation of men in which the gods attempted to create living beings so that they may be praised and venerated by their creation. This differs from Genesis in that a more collaborative and experimental process occured including divine trial-and-error, with some botched aspects of the Creation being discarded and replaced with improved models. At first the gods, headed by the Sovereign Plumed Serpent, attempted to fashion man out of earth and clay, as in the case of Adam (Red Man of Red Clay.) This failed, however as the beings so fashioned lacked speech, souls, and intellect and quickly deteriorated. A Great Flood washed and dissolved the Botched Creation and the failed proto-humans away and the slate was wiped clean for another attempt, going “back to the drawing board.” The gods tried different materials, such as wood, but once again the created beings were too crude and were consigned to the “ashcan of history.” Finally, the gods, The Maker, Modeler, Bearer and Begetter, hit upon the perfect material out of which to fashion man—–corn, which was also the life-sustaining staple of Mayan and later Aztec agriculture:

“This the Forefathers did, Tepeu and Gucumatz, as they were called. After that they began to talk about the creation and the making of our first mother and father; of yellow corn and of white corn they made their flesh; of cornmeal dough they made the arms and the legs of man. Only dough of corn meal went into the flesh of our first fathers, the four men, who were created. […] And as they had the appearance of men, they were men; they talked, conversed, saw and heard, walked, grasped things; they were good and handsome men, and their figure was the figure of a man. Women were created later while the first four men slept.”

A “fourfold” orientation of the creation reflected the sacred place the Four Directions had in the mindset of the Mayans. One Adam & Eve pair were created for each of the four directional realms: North, South, East and West.

The second section of the classic deals with the sagas of the Mayas most beloved heroes, including in the fourfold pattern two sets of twins who struggle at odds with the forces of evil and the underworld.

The hero saga begins with the demise of Hun Hunahpú and Vucub Hunahpú, the defeated father twins who are succeeded by their ultimately triumphant offspring, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué. The ill fated fathers are summoned to the underworld of Xibalbá for playing their ball game too noisily. They are tricked and killed by Xibalba, the Lord of Death and ruler of the Underworld; Hun Hunahpú’s head is placed in a calabash tree where the skull nevertheless later impregnates Xquic, daughter of the Underworld Lord, by spitting into her folded hands. She flees the Underworld lords and lives with the mother of the demised twins in the Overworld where she gives birth to “Hero Twins” Hunahpú and Xbalanqué. Mistreated by their half-brothers Hunbatz and Huchouén, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué trick them into climbing a tree where Hunbatz and Huchouén are transformed into monkeys.

The reversal of heroic fate begins on the Divine Twins coming of age and their rediscovery of ball game and defeat of their fathers by the lords of Xibalbá. Upon finding their fathers’ ballgame equipment suspended from the ceiling, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué resolve to revive the game and play joyfully until they are also summoned to Xibalbá by the Lord Death for playing too boisterously, “disturbing the peace.” The Lord of the Underworld repeats the strategem used on the fathers, inviting the new twins to a ball game against the team of the Underworld, with the concealed intention of also luring them to their deaths. Each day a new set of trials, ambushes and tricks are devised to bring about their end.

The game of the first day ends in a draw, after which the hero Twins are given a banquet and bid to retire for the night. They are given a cigar each and told they must stay locked in the charnel house smoking them all night but return the cigars one-hundred percent intact in the morning, on penalty of death, and that they will be watched all night to insure their compliance. In the Trickster tradition, however, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué find a solution. They have brought some supplies with them to the Underworld, including a jar of honey with which to refresh themselves from the exertions of the ball game. They smear the cigars-tips with honey which attracts the fireflies during the night. Observing from a distance, the Underworld guards see the lit-up cigar-tips covered with fireflies and believe the Twins are smoking them all night. In the morning they wipe the honey from the intact cigars and return them to the Lord Death, crying out in triumph “Let’s play ball!” to his chagrin.

Next, the Underworld team insists they must use a new ball. Concealed within the ball is a knife which should kill the twins. The Twins are tipped off, however and deflect the ball into a wall, where the knife is dislodged and exposed. The Twins then denounce the Lord of the Underground as a cheat for playing unfairly and as a coward afraid of losing a fair game. They threaten to return home in protest. The Lord Death relents and tells them if they stay and continue they can use their own ball.

Once again at the end of the day the ball game ends in a draw and the Twins are treated to a dinner banquet. On retiring for the night, however they face their third trial. They are locked in a cage with an assortment of man-eating monsters, beasts and demons. The Twins are up to the trick however, as in their ponchos they have concealed a collection of bones and scraps from the charnel house of the previous evening. They feed the demons and monsters with the bones and scraps and satiated they fall asleep instead of devouring them. Once again the next morning the Lord Death is chagrinned and outraged by their survival.

In the next trial the Twins are tricked and chopped to pieces, the remains being dumped in the river of the Underworld. The Twins’ remains, miraculously however, are transformed into catfish in the river which then are further metamorphosized back into the Twins’ original form. The Twins then miraculously reappear to win the ball game but the Lord Death, being a sore loser invites them again to a farewell dinner. There he congratulates them on their trick of being transformed into fish and back into humans, resurrected from death. He insists they must perform the same stunt on the Underworld figures, and if they fail they will die. The twins then begin to repeat the performance on the Underworld minions, putting them to death but this time refusing to to revive them. Blackmailing the Lord Death, they then demand that the Underworld must free humanity of the overworld from the dominion and tribute of death, except as punishment of human evildoers. Thus they return to the overworld and humanity having as a great boon delivered them from their prior subjugation to the power of evil and death.

The final part of the Popul Vuh deals then with the historical chronicles of the earthly Mayan people, including the building of temples and cities by a lineage of great kings, the expansion of their domains, and later the decay and disintegration of their empire. The colonies of their heyday break away and gradually even their languages evolve in different directions until in different colonies they cannot any longer understand the mother tongue and cooperate together, a sort of horizontal “Tower of Babel.”

The once flourishing civilization then sees its Golden Age disappear and ever more debased ages of war and conflict ensue. The final sections, suradded after their conquest by the European Christians, gloomily lament the loss of their traditions, identity and suppression of the book itself as a just punisment of God or the gods for their sins, weaknesses and shortcomings but urges their history and the book not be entirely lost. This final syncretistic apologia is found in common with other similar attempts to preserve elements of pre-Christian cultures in a Christianized universe, such as the “Prose Edda” of Snorri Sturluson of Iceland, which seeks to preserve the sagas of the Norse Gods and Heroes, later celebrated in such works as Wagner’s operas, by transforming the former gods into myth in the tradition of preservation of the Greek and Roman Gods in cultural tradition as part of Western Civilization even after being superceded in religion by the Christian God. Some aspects of the prior tradition even survive in hybrid form within Latin American Christiantiy, as in the atavistic elements of the Mayan mother goddess incorporated in the cult of the Mexican “Virgin of Guadalupe.”

As it happened, the text of the Popul Vuh was only preserved by the thinnest of chances. Around 1700 a Catholic friar, Francisco Ximenez assigned as Padre to the area who had an anthropolicical avocation discovered the existence of the Popul Vuh, clandestinely preserved by some of the elders of the community, and he arranged for the transcription of a near complete Kiche language text using the Roman alphabet, alongside a Spanish translation. The Popul Vuh was then completely lost amoung the indigenous population, but Ximenez’s text and translation were preserved in the local archives of the University of San Carlos in Guatamala City and were rediscovered by German scholars in the 1850’s while visiting Guatamala and Mexico, and they made a copy which was later published in Europe. This itself was little known until a revival of interest in the 20th Century caused the text to come to popular attention, including its use in his works by the Guatamalan Nobel Prize winning author Miguel Angel Asturias. It has since been featured in numerous literary and artistic works, including Werner Herzog’s film Fata Morgana.

Other works that may give an introduction to the literary heritage of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica would include “The Legend of the Suns,” another version of the Mayan and Aztec Creation Myth, comparable to those contained in such sources as Genesis of the Bible, the Babylonian “Enuma Elish,” the Norse “Prose Edda,” “The Sacrafice of the Primal Man” of the Indian Rig Veda, Hesiod’s “Theogony” and “The Memphite Theology” of Egypt. The “Cantares Mexicanos” or “Songs of the Aztec Nobility” (1550)also give a picture of the mind of the Aztec aristocracy before and after the Conquest.

The Popul Vuh also influenced and was featured in the composition of my own recent contimporary and futurist epic novel, Spiritus Mundi. In Spiritus Mundi the Popul Vuh is at the center of the chapter “The Volcano’s Underworld” in the section “Teatro Magico” which is a surreal account of the alcholic and drug-induced crisis in the life of protagonist Robert Sartorius in Mexico City as he contemplates suicide on his fiftieth birthday. There he undergoes multiple sexual adventures, including the performance of cross-gendered nightclub singer Tiresias/Theresa at the Cafe Paradiso on the Mexican “Day of the Dead.” There Sartorius visits the “Teatro Magico” or Magic Theater in which he undergoes the hallucinagenic experience of being transported back in Cultural Timespace and where he and Tiresias surreally reenact the adventures of the Divine Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué in their ball game in the Underworld, along with scenes of Aztec human sacrafice involving the Aztec High Lord Tlacaelel and mythic sexual encounter with the Love and Fertility Goddess Xochiquetzal. These scenes draw on and echo many archetypes and motifs of World Literature, including those embodied Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Frazer’s Golden Bough and the visit of Odysseus to the Underworld of Hades in the Odyssey to visit the seer and prophet Tiresias.

For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:

For Discussions on World Literature and Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…

Robert Sheppard

World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads:…
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I: The Novel:…
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance

Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved

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About robertalexandersheppard

Robert Sheppard , Author, Poet & Novelist Pushcart Prize fof Literature 2014 Nominee Professor of World and Comparative Literature Professor of International Law Senior Associate, Committee for a Democratic United Nations (KDUN) E-mail: Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi, nominated for the prestigious 2014 Pushcart Prize for Literature in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious-thriller action criss-crossing the contemporary world involving MI6, the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorposates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In the US he serves as a Professor at Kean University, as well as having taught at Bergen Community College and Pillar College in NJ. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
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