The Popol Vuh is one of the few pre-Contact indigenous sources of Meso-American history and mythology before the Spanish Conquest. While the historical content of the book is currently studied as a primary source to help reconstruct the history of indigenous Meso-America with an unbiased perspective, there is little examination of the various translations of the text and its influence on modern literature of Central America. I will first examine the motivations of the initial writing of the Popol Vuh and the subsequent translation of it throughout the decades since its inception. Then, I will examine the usage of the Popol Vuh in Latin American literature, with Central American authors using it to foster nationalistic pride while indigenous authors using it to foster indigenous pride in their communities.
Due to the destruction of numerous Mesoamerican structures and manuscripts during the Spanish Conquest, it is difficult to collect and reconstruct the indigenous history and mythology of the Americas pre-conquest without the European perspective. Nonetheless, various indigenous manuscripts escaping the destruction from the Spanish conquistadors and Christian missionaries are the current examination of study by scholars of pre-contact indigenous history. One of these surviving texts is the Popol Vuh, which contains the mythology and history of the Quiche Mayans, whose communities are in the highland valleys of Guatemala. As a historical document, the Popol Vuh is one of the few indigenous primary sources that provide an outlook of ancient Quiche Mayan religion, society, cosmology, history, mythology, and governance. Due to its preservation and multiple translations, the Popol Vuh is one of the most read pre-contact indigenous sources read in the present day. However, while the Popol Vuh provides the mythology and history of the ancient Mayansand pre-contact indigenous life, its existence plays a more cultural role in present day Central America. The Popol Vuh is a book that is written and translates the preservation of the Quiche Mayan culture, converting others to Christianity, and fostering national and indigenous pride in Central and Latin America through literature. The original writers of the Popol Vuh preserve their histories and culture for future generations, while future translators of the text have religiousand nationalistic motives which affect the wording and content in each of the translations. Due to its mass translation and indigenous roots, the Popol Vuh has much influence in many Latin American literary works which help foster indigenous and national identities in numerous indigenous groups and nations in Central America.
The Popol Vuh is written and translates with specific motives in mind, which vary from the preservation of Quiche Mayan culture and the history of conversions into another religion. The original text is a “council book” for ancient Quiche Mayan rulers to receive advice from their ancestors on political and social matters, (Quiroa, 2011, 467). As the text also includes prayers, diviners and day-keepers have to look up and analyze specific passages as either divinatory or as a narrative in order to set dates for religious ceremonies or performances, (Quiroa, 2013, 69). For instance, the story of the twin heroes, Xbalanque and Hunaphu, reborn in Xibalba is seen as “metaphorically bringing the spiritual dimension of the upper and lower worlds to the surface of the earth” where the “Mayan ruler will serve as a conduit through whom the renewal of the world of the spirit can be channeled to mankind,” (Markman and Markman, 316). The powers and duties of Quiche Mayan rulers are seen as the incorporation of “gods, deified ancestors, ritual blood sacrifice, and the hero journey into a single coherent structure, a structure that unifies time and space, matter and spirit,” (Markman and Markman, 274). In this perspective, the myths serve as a model of behavior and rulership for each generation of Mayan rulers to ensure their reign is peaceful and prosperous. As for the Mayan in the non-ruling classes, the book also serves as a history of their ancestors as well as an explanation of various aspects of Mayan life such as what defines good and bad behavior, the need for human sacrifice, governmental structure, and the ascension of ruling power.
While the restructuring and retelling of history must focus on the most realistic and non-mythological series of events, the mythological component of history in the Popol Vuh is crucial to understand Quiche Mayan philosophy and perspectives on life. The incorporation of the mythology in the text is not for entertainment purposes, but rather to explain various complexities and mysteries of the world, how one’s actions and behavior can affect the world and other people, and the reasoning behind every day matters. The mythological content serves to “furnish the culture with a ‘logical model’ by means which the human mind can comprehend and even celebrate the ambiguities and paradoxes of human experience” seen through “multiple layers of meaning existing simultaneously” as the they are a means to “an understanding of the true sacred reality [that are shown through] their metaphorical quality,” (Markman and Markman, 58-59). The ancient Quiche Mayans view the mythological component in their history as metaphors to validate history through symbolism and metaphors, which help clarify the events and the people involved. The Quiche Mayans understood that the metaphoric mythology is symbolism to explain the events in their history but did not see it as a violation or misinterpretation of their history. Instead, it is a representation of their view of the world, where spirits, gods, and humans live and interact with each other.
"While the restructuring and retelling of history must focus on the most realistic and non-mythological series of events, the mythological component of history in the Popol Vuh is crucial to understand Quiche Mayan philosophy and perspectives on life."
During the Spanish invasion and destruction of Guatemala in the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors and Christian missionaries obliterated numerous Quiche Mayan manuscripts on the basis that they are the works of the devil that the Quiche Mayans need salvation. While Christian missionaries protected the surviving Quiche Mayans from execution and becoming slaves by the conquistadors, conversions became another method to control. The priests preach to their Quiche Mayan hostages that their indigenous culture and religion are the influence of the devil and must vanquish in order for their souls to reach salvation. Furthermore, Christian missionaries that aim to record and preserve indigenous culture through codices take their findings to the Vatican, never to be seen by the indigenous peoples. Nonetheless, a group of four anonymous Quiche Mayans began to rewrite the Popol Vuh as a means to preserve their culture and history. As they state in the start of the text, an anonymous person writes this document as there is no place to see the “Council Book'' in “The Light That Came from Beside the Sea” where they tell “[Their] Place in the Shadows” and “The Dawn of Life,” (as quoted in Popol Vuh, 63). However, there are doubts to the authenticity of the content as a pre-conquest source, due to it having the words, “now amid the preaching of God, in Christendom now,” (As quoted in the Popol Vuh, 63). Additionally, featuring the imagery of the trinity in the document further suggests that Christianity may have adjusted the content; therefore, not making it a genuine indigenous source from the pre-conquest era. To address these concerns, Dennis Tedlock argues that the trinity and its symbolism are from before the arrival of the Spanish, and that various details of metaphors, presence, and descriptions of sounds within in the Popol Vuh’s creation story and the Genesis’ creation story greatly differ, (Ochiai, Symbol and Meaning beyond the Closed Community: Essays in Mesoamerican Ideas, 78-79). Various archeological sites such as the Temple of the Foliated Cross in Central America support this with the images of the cross and trinity in both Mayan sculptures, pottery, tablets, mosaics, and temples. In addition to archeological sites, the various Quiche Mayan gods in the text share various similarities with other Mesoamerican cultures in Central Mexico and Central America. For instance, the Quiche Mayan creator god of storms and lightning, Heart of Sky, shares similarities in powers with god Chauk of the Tzotzil Maya, while Xpiyacoc shares similarities with the gods Itzamna and Pawahtun in the lowland Maya region. Both the Popol Vuh and the Chilam Balam of Tizimín books feature the fight and destruction of a crocodile-like earth monster that contributes to the creation of the land, (Vail and Hernandez, 48-51). The Dresden Codex and Chilam Balam books feature a flood that removes irresponsible people from the world for the proper humans to take control as well as depicting the importance of world trees as a source of life. Furthermore, the characterization in the Christian religion are not through duality, while ancient Mayan deities are “characterized by duality as such attributes as male-female, sky-earth, youth-aged, benevolent-malevolent, and human animal features,” (Ochiai, 95). Moreover, even though Christians convert the Mayans, much of the Mayans and other indigenous people of Central America still practice rituals and beliefs of their religion, in secret or in combination with Christian beliefs. As both the religions feature the trinity and cross symbolism, it is easier for some of the Quiche Mayans to accept some Christian beliefs. This results in both ancient Mayan religion and Christian religion mixing to the point where separating them can oversimplify and distort “the historical reality of how cultures collide, conflict, and coalesce,” (Powell, 138). Additionally, the text’s writing structure shows similarities to a performance piece rather than a literature piece, due to the original text being a narrative that includes musical, oral, and visual components as well as the text, (Lifshey, 44). This is seen at the beginning of the tale of the Hero Twins’ birth, where the speaker addresses and calls for a toast of their father, One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu, as if he is watching the performance, (As quoted in Popol Vuh, 91). Furthermore, the wording structure also reflects the ancient Mayan written system which uses less descriptive imagery as many Mayan written manuscripts often combine logographic and phonetic principles where the words offer “pictorial clues to [the words’] meaning” and the picture depicts elements “that can be read as words,” (Tedlock, 27-28).The text is written in the Roman alphabet rather than the Mayan hieroglyphs which Dennis Tedlock states is for “political and religious applications . . . as a mask for ancient texts” that make it “more extensive . . . [and] more open to understanding,” (Tedlock, 25). As most of the surviving Mayas are literate in the Roman alphabet rather than Mayan hieroglyphics, most of the Mayans have an easier time understanding the text. As a result of these efforts, the four anonymous authors' version of the Popol Vuh manages to survive under the Spanish conquistadors as well as conveying the information to the Quiche Mayan people. In this perspective, the Popol Vuh is both a pre-contact and post-contact indigenous source, with the content coming from eras before Spanish occupation but written in post-contact writing system as a survival mechanism to escape destruction from zealous Christian missionaries or Spanish conquistadors.
Dominican missionary Francisco Ximenez in the early eighteenth century, finds and creates a Spanish translation along with another copy of the original wording before losing the document, which has not been found since. Arriving in Guatemala during the colonization phase of the Spanish Conquest, he and his fellow missionaries seek to convert the indigenous people to Christianity through various methods which include either the destruction of indigenous religions or finding some similarities between the two religions. Despite these attempts of conversion and cultural eradication, many of the indigenous Mayan continue to rely on oral stories and rituals of their ancestors while they are in the process of conversion to Christianity. Ximenez has experience studying and translating the various indigenous Mayan languages and mythology before his arrival. Still perceiving the indigenous religions as satanic and must eradicate their religion for the salvation of the indigenous people who became Christian through conversion. His translation is meant for his fellow missionaries to help them identify indigenous rituals and stories the Quiche Mayan still practice and tell, and make them recognize the role they play in indigenous spiritual and community lives, (Quiroa, 2011, 487). His translation includes various annotations that discredit any similarities between Christianity and the Mayan religions and that these stories are corrupt and impure, “Catholic truths,” (As quoted in Quiroa, 2011, 479 and 488). Ximenez’s translation, kept in a Dominican monastery until the independence of Guatemala, where liberal reforms forced the closure of monasteries transferring it to the University of San Charlos in Guatemala City. In 1854, Austrian Carl Scherzer found a copy of Ximenez’s translation, making another Spanish translation of it under the name of Las Historias del origen de los Indios de Guatemala in 1857. In 1861, Frenchmen Brasseur de Bourbourg secured Ximenez’s edition, making both a French translation titled Popol vuh. Le livre sacré et les mythes de l'antiquité américaine, avec les livres héroïques et historiques des Quichés that contains the Quiche text and focuses more on, “the precolonial context of ancient Maya civilization,” (Quiroa, 2011, 472). In 1911, Brassuar’s manuscript traveled to the Newberry Library, which contains a large collection of indigenous sources from all parts of the Americas, in Chicago in the United States of American. As they are historical documents, numerous scholars are able to study them to reconstruct the indigenous history of pre-contact America, but a few of the translations are available for public use or for the Quiche Mayans whose history and myths are within the book. While the oral history and myths of the Quiche Mayan s in the Popol Vuh are passed down orally in Quiche Mayan communities as before, the constant reinforcement of Spanish traditions and history in both religious and public schools that makes it difficult to maintain the oral tradition in some indigenous Mayan communities. Furthermore, the lack of public publications of the Popol Vuh and the teaching and/or study of it without a European perspective contributes to the racist perspective of indigenous people in Central America, continuing the belief that they have no history or culture before the arrival of the Spanish.
Nonetheless, in the following twentieth century, the Popol Vuh receives new translations that focus on and respect ancient Quiche Mayan culture and aims to create indigenous and nationalistic pride in both indigenous Mayans and Guatemalans. This is best shown in the translation of Protestant missionaries. Paul and Dora Burgess, which is meant for the Quiche Mayan people as it contains “meaningful K’iche’ phonemes” that are present as well as their “everyday common discourse,” which helps translators “ascertain the meaning of many obscure words” in the manuscript previously forgotten or mistranslated, (Quiroa, 2013, 88). Before working on the translation, the duo worked with the Mayans in high-land Guatemala from 1916 to 1964. During Protestant missionaries’ provision of educational opportunities in Guatemala of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with them creating Quiche Mayan translations of the Bible and the New Testament that do not discredit or condemn their indigenous religions and culture. Their translation of the Popol Vuh is bilingual with both Spanish and Quiche Mayan. It intends for the practicality of Quiche Mayan students trying to learn their culture. Moreover, the Quiche Mayan are involved in the translation process, with the Burgess’ receiving input from Quiche students from the Bible Institute and their edition is the first to credit a Quiche Mayan speaker as a prominent translator. As well as believing the text contains Quiche Mayan spiritual prayers, the Burgess’ sees the Popol Vuh as a “symbol of K’iche’ rights by which the Maya-K’iche’ could regain the dignity, pride, and cultural continuity that had been denied them by decades of social, political, economic, and cultural oppression,” (Quiroa, 2013, 89). Pride, confidence, and self-love grow and flourish from learning one’s history and legends—crucial components that numerous indigenous groups in Central and Latin America still struggle and fight for in the present day. While Ximenez’s translation is for religious conversion while Scherz, and Bourbourg translations are for scholarly use, Burgess' edition follows the original motivation of the text—helping Mayans learn and reclaim their culture from European and Christian influence. Unfortunately, the Burgess’ edition has not been published for public use; however, the creation of their edition has led to other Central American and indigenous people to produce newer translations of the Popol Vuh that center on Quiche Mayan culture and mythology with respect towards it. For instance, Adrian Ines Chavez’s translation of the Popol Vuh means to decipher the Castilian interpretation of text and presents the opening passage charging the issues of colonialism and laments “’what cannot be seen,’” (Lifshey, 47). Guatemalan writer Adrian Recinos’ Spanish translation is part of the global awareness of Guatemalan culture and serves as the basis of most modern translations into other languages. Quiche Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchú has her own translation from the 1990s and has her book I, Rigoberta—which tells her experience as a Quiche Mayan as well as their history since colonial times—in the same narrative tradition of the Popol Vuh. These translations follow suit the anonymous writers’ intention of their copy of the Popol Vuh—helping the surviving Quiche Mayan people to learn and reclaim their culture from the conquistadors’ attempts of making them despise their own culture.
"Furthermore, the lack of public publications of the Popol Vuh and the teaching and/or study of it without a European perspective contributes to the racist perspective of indigenous people in Central America, continuing the belief that they have no history or culture before the arrival of the Spanish."
The existence of the Popol Vuh as spiritual and literary piece provides a foundation forming for indigenous identities for indigenous people in Central America as well as nationalistic identities for many Latin American authors. In Guatemala, the Popol Vuh is a literary symbol of “national ‘indigenousness’” and became the national book in 1971, (Quiroa, 2011, 467). In the mid to late 1990s, the indigenous Maya political movement called “Movimiento Maya” that uses the Popol Vuh to reclaim “political space and the right to a cultural and spiritual existence in Guatemalan society,” (Quiroa, 2013, 69). At the same time, the Guatemalan government uses the writings in the Popol Vuh as “the heuristic source for knowledge of the ancient word” in order to reassert “Christian theology within the framework of Maya cultural paradigms,” (Quiroa, 2013, 66-67). In addition to fostering pride in indigenous communities and Central American nations, the mythological component served as a creative source of inspiration for Central and Latin American authors. For instance, Guatemalan writer Miguel Angel Asturias, who also did his own translation of the text, utilizes the same repetitive and emphatic writing structure in his works such as Hombres de maíz, El alhajadito, and Mulata de tal. In his Hombres de maiz, the narrative includes the first four humans’ prayer to the gods as well as reflecting the cultural significance of corn that’s featured in the Popol Vuh. Salvadoran artist and writer Salarrué uses the writings of the Popol Vuh as basis for his Atlantis fantasy in O-Yarkandal, while Guatemalan Virgilio Rodriguez Beteta's Los dos brujitos mayas, and Mexican Rosario Castellanos's Balun Canan uses the political aspect of the Popol Vuh in their works. Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier quotes Asturias’ translation of the Popol Vuh in his "Visión de América" and “Los pasos perdidos'' in order to reflect “a deeply rooted autochthonous American culture . . . and the world-age scheme of creation . . . that warns against mindless use of the machine,” (Brotherston and De Sa, 11). The story of the Hero Twins become allusions or are retold in various Latin American literature pieces. For instance, Nicaraguan Pablo Antonio Cuadra's long poem "El jícaro” uses tale of the Hero Twins’ mother Blood Moon as a way of foreshadowing the 1979 overthrow Somoza family’s tyranny in Nicaragua, (Brotherston and De Sa, 11). The characters of Blood Moon, One Hunahpu, and Seven Hunahpu are a reference in Omar Castañeda’s short story “On the Way Out” as symbols for the relationship between the protagonist and his mother who tries to cure him with a cure that is based on the mythology of the Popol Vuh, (Spina, 133). Much of these works include heavy criticism of the ineffective Eurocentric society of Central America as well as anti-American sentiment towards the equally Eurocentric United States. The creation and publication of these stories during a period where much of nations in Latin and Central America are forming a national identity that focuses on the nations’ indigenous heritage and culture rather than its European heritage. As well as celebrating and accepting indigenous culture, the focus on indigenous narratives and art instead of European narratives and art is a form of cultural rebellion against the oppressive elites in government, who place emphasis on European culture and often exploit numerous indigenous people of Central America. However, the celebration of indigenous culture and arts in most of Latin and Central American nations do not equate to the governments of the societies accepting and treating their indigenous people as equals. This literary tradition treats the mythology in the Popol Vuh as something as part of the past, not part of the present as the Mayans do. Consequently, it ends up being a nationalistic trend to gain popular support and neglects to help, protect, and/or respect the lives, human rights, and cultures of the indigenous peoples of Central America.
Nonetheless, the values and symbolism of the Popol Vuh are more effectively written by indigenous Mayan writers in discussions about modern issues plaguing indigenous communities in modern day Central America as well as offering suggestions on making the world a better place to live in. Mayan author Calixta Gabriel Xiquin’s Tejiendo los sucesos en el tiempo (Weaving Events in Time), takes a similar structure of story-telling and history telling of the Mayan people in the same manner as the Popol Vuh while also criticizing the needs of tourism, genocidal governments, false elections, research, and wars “that turn brothers into soldiers,” (As quoted in Sittig, 162). Juana Batzibal Tujal’s Mujer maya: Rectora de nuestra cultura reflects the harmony between humans and nature as outline by the Popol Vuh, as well as detailing the various ways how humans can live in peace with nature and to create a more fair society. In some cases, some indigenous writers take inspiration from the Popol Vuh’s the oral-written structure telling this history of the Quiche Maya and sought to do the same for their people, as seen with Rigoberta Menchú’s book I, Rigoberta. In addition to writing in their indigenous language in their works, many indigenous writers often use the mythological stories and the ideals in Popol Vuh in their works to criticize the treatment they receive from Central American and North American governments and corporations. By using the stories and philosophies in the Popol Vuh and their indigenous heritage, these indigenous Mayan writers create works that canons, in an original creation that reflects their “personal socio-historical experiences in contemporary society and as a result of colonization” which “paints a picture of their individual experience as perceived from within their cultures, villages, states, nations and world,” (Sittig, 154). Just like the anonymous writers of the Popol Vuh, these Mayan writers also seek to preserve their history and culture through writing but also make it public so others can gain insight as well as receive another cultural perspective of the world. While some Latin and Central American authors use the Popol Vuh’s stories and legends as basis for fantasy stories or allusions to make a certain point, the indigenous Mayan writers use the ideals and philosophies preserved in the Popol Vuh to offer spiritual and practical ways of making the world they live in a better place.
In conclusion, the Popol Vuh is a written historical document that translates the preservation of Quiche Mayan culture, conversion to Christianity, and fostering national and indigenous pride in Central and Latin America through literature. While the original writers write the text to preserve the culture and stories of their people for future generations, future translators have motivations centering on religious conversion which affect the wording and content in each of the text’s translations. Due to its connection with the indigenous past, the Popol Vuh has great influence in many Latin American literary works, which e foster both indigenous and nationalist identities. While the document is often a study of indigenous pre-contact Central America, the most essential component of the Popol Vuh is its cultural legacy on the indigenous people of Central America. As the Popol Vuh contains the myths and legends of the Quiche Mayans as well as their values and philosophy, the text is a source of creative inspiration for both Latin American and indigenous literatures. The preservation of the Popol Vuh and other indigenous sources is a physical symbol of indigenous cultural and historical resistance against European and Northern American colonialism.