The Popul Vuh

History of the Popul Vuh

The Popul Vuh is the Quiché Mayan creation story and was passed around the tribe orally. It was transcribed onto paper sometime around c. 1554 – 1558 CE by an unnamed scribe, during a time when the Spanish had invaded the Mayans and were actively forcing them to convert to Christianity. The only reason we can read the Popul Vuh today is because of a Spanish priest by the name of Francisco Ximènez. Between the years 1701 – 1703 CE, the Quiché had begun to trust Ximénez so they let him see the original Popul Vuh. He copied the text and later, translated it into Spanish. Today, it resides in the Newberry Library in Chicago.

Original manuscript of the Popul Vuh

The original Popul Vuh wasn’t divided into different chapters or books like it is today. When it was first recorded through oral tradition it was one big, uninterrupted poem. Today, it has been divided into four different books and includes a prologue. The prologue tells the reader information about the original work, such as, the time period it was recorded in, who the author was, and that it was part of an oral tradition used by the Quiché Mayans.

The leaders of the Quiché tribe used the Popul Vuh as a guide to consult when they became a leader. It would help them understand exactly what kind of leader they were supposed to be and how they were expected to rule. The text was also used by the seers of the Quiché tribe when they were holding festivals and events. It helped them to know which dates were perfect for which festival. Some translators hold the Popul Vuh to be a narrative of the Mayan calendar which could have been used by the Mayans to track planetary phenomena.

Ancient Uses of the Popul Vuh

The Quiché Mayans believed that the main purpose of the Popul Vuh was for it to be their instruction guide on how to correctly be a Mayan. This means that the text portrays someone who is Mayan through and through as one who embraces the Mayan “divine and human history (Tedlock).” It is said that the Popul Vuh essentially says that “if one wants to understand who and what a person is, and why that person is the way they are, it’s necessary to first understand where that person came from (Tedlock).”

‘Creation’ (1931), a watercolor by Diego Rivera illustrating a scene from the ‘Popol Vuh.’

The Popul Vuh explains that the Mayan civilization is made up seven tribes and also explains that they exist because of the gods. The gods wanted to be worshipped so they created humans to do just that, amongst other things. It took a while for the gods to create the correct version of humans. The first version of humans were made out of mud, but died when they soaked up water. The second version of humans were made out of wood, but when a flood came they were washed away. The last version of humans are made out of different kinds of corn, and are a lot sturdier than the other versions. These are the humans that survived. They were made out of corn because the gods wanted them to learn how to provide for themselves.

The Popul Vuh answers the questions of how and why everything, in the universe came to be. The text teaches big things like how the sky came to be and how people were formed. It also teaches little things like the tribe’s daily habits or why they are supposed to burn certain substances for certain gods. The intention of these teachings is to show the Mayans that everything they did had a purpose. They didn’t just go about their day, doing what they do without a reason.

The Popul Vuh is able to give a lesson in the way history works. It is able to teach the readers that history isn’t always told in a linear fashion, meaning that not everyone experiences the same thing at the same time. The Popul Vuh illustrates this through a few different ways. The first is that some of the stories told in the text are told twice just through two differing perspectives. Sometimes the text even goes so far as to tell a story then in the next chapter it tells a story from before the characters in the previous chapter were born. It’s been said that by understanding these perspectives, the Mayan culture cultivated an enlightened mindsight.

Works Cited