Now it still ripples, now it still murmurs, ripples, it still sighs, still hums, and it is empty under the sky,
Here follow the first words, the first eloquence:
There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, forest. Only the sky alone is there; the face of the earth is not clear. Only the sea alone is pooled under all the sky; there is nothing whatever gathered together. It is at rest; not a single thing stirs. It is held back, kept at rest under the sky."
—Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings, translated by Dennis Tedlock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), p. 72.
The Popol Vuh is the Mayan story of the creation and of the Hero Twins and their victory over the lords of Xibalba (the underworld). It begins with the origin of everything that is and proceeds to the account of this dramatic conflict. Explanations of the creation of humans, animals, the relationships among gods, animals, and humans, and the powers of the deities appear in the course of the narrative. The story of the struggle between the Hero Twins, Hunahpu (One Blowgunner) and Xbalanque (Little Jaguar Sun, or Jaguar Deer), and the lords of Xibalba also yields rich characterizations of Mayan social ethics, hierarchies, and cosmology.
The Text's History
Like most other creation stories, the Popol Vuh originated as part of an ancient oral tradition. Readers of Spanish or English, however, have access to a text version of the Mayan creation story that has a modern history. Mayan peoples had developed a rich tradition of hieroglyphic writing many centuries before Europeans invaded their lands. As anthropologist Dennis Tedlock recounts this history, the tradition of Mayan writing persisted despite the disruptions attending the end of the Classic Period. Much later, the Spanish compelled the Maya to yield to foreign systems of writing, but they also compiled grammars and dictionaries of Mayan languages. Once an alphabetic Mayan language system emerged, indigenous Maya scholars used it to sustain their own cultural heritage and created an alphabetic version of the Popol Vuh. A Christian priest, Francisco Ximénez, copied this text and translated it into Spanish in the early 1700s. This text is the basis of modern English translations, among which Tedlock's version has gained preeminence. Tedlock also emphasizes that the Maya people do not sharply divide myth from history and prioritize the latter, as people in some other cultures have often done, but instead ignore the boundaries established by these concepts as they make use of their own narratives of "mythistory."
Questions to Consider
- What are the various translations that any English-language version of the Popol Vuh has passed through? Should these facts influence our reading of the text, and if so, why and how?
- Does it matter whether or not there were such heroes as Hunahpu and Xbalanque? Why or why not? What are the limitations of or opportunities for historical study that our answer to these questions establish?
- Is the issue of the dating of the Popol Vuh important? How might we incorporate into our understanding of the Popol Vuh the long chronological gap between the origins of the Maya oral tradition and the early 18th century Spanish language text? How can we find out more about current scholarship on the Popol Vuh texts?
The authoritative English translation--quoted above--is Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. Translated by Dennis Tedlock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
An online version of the creation story taken from the Popol Vuh text, as well as other Maya links, can be found at this site, created by Debbie Ledo-Anderl at the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire:
A Mayan language syllabary is found at this site:
More information on ancient Mayan writing, with a catalog of glyphs, can be found at this University of Virginia website:
Information on Mesoamerican Civilizations and Mayan hieroglyphic text images are found at:
For a wealth of visual information, see the Mayan Art Pages assembled by Stevan Davies of College Misericordia:
A site on Mesoamerican Archaeology that offers numerous informative links is maintained by Thomas Bürglin:
Questions about the Text
These questions are of an introductory nature, and may be used as the basis for classroom discussion, papers, or both.
- What is the name of the people that generated this story? Where did (do) they live?
- Who are some of the key deities discussed in the Popol Vuh? How did they create the earth?
- What kinds of humans did the gods create and then destroy as failed attempts? What had gone wrong?
- Who is Seven Macaw and why is he destroyed? By whom?
- Describe and explain the relationship between the two sets of brothers, the older pair, One Monkey and One Artisan, and their younger brothers, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. What might be the cultural or ethical significance of this episode of the Popol Vuh?
- How do One Hunahpu and Blood Woman become the parents of the Hero Twins? Can you think of stories from other cultures that have a similar sequence of events? How might we explain or investigate this similarity?
- What do Xbalanque and Hunahpu learn from the rat? How do they receive this news? How do they reward the rat? What seems to be the significance of the ball game?
- What trials do Hunahpu and Xbalanque experience in the underworld? Who helps them to survive their various trials?
- How do the boys finally deceive and defeat the lords of Xibalba?
- What becomes of the Hero Twins? Are there parallels to this outcome and the results of other stories?
- If this story is understood to teach not only about creation, the gods, and the events in the lives of the Hero Twins, but also about ideals of behavior, what kinds of ethical lessons or examples could be derived from the story?
- Has this story remained significant to the Maya people in recent times? How could we find out more about the current importance of this story to the Maya?
Questions about the Text as Evidence of Past Civilizations
- What can the Popol Vuh teach us in a general way about Mesoamerican civilizations? What are some of the possible problems with or limitations of using the Popol Vuh as a source of cultural information? List and offer explanations of some elements of Mayan civilization based on your reading of the Popol Vuh.
- What kinds of questions specifically related to the age and translation of texts might modern scholars and students want to consider when evaluating the validity of the Popol Vuh as evidence about the ideas, values, and society of the ancient Mayan civilization? How might we pursue answers to these questions?
- How have scholars attempted to explain the similarities between the Popol Vuh and stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition? In what ways does the dating of textual artifacts affect these discussions?
- When was the Popol Vuh first translated into English? By whom? What is the current level of scholarly interest in Mayan civilization? How could we begin to answer these questions?
- When and where did the Popol Vuh begin to appear as a primary source text in courses on Ancient History? What can this fact teach us about the history of teaching and learning about the past in modern times?
- What other question(s) about the text would you like to ask or answer?