Reading Guatemala: The Popol Vuh

A foreign power attempting to wipe out an ancient religion and culture. A story formed by oral tradition, written down by an unknown scribe in hopes that future generations would know their own history. That’s how the Popul Vuh came to be. And it’s an honor and a privilege to be able to experience it now.

The Popul Vuh is sometimes referred to as The Mayan Bible, but that’s misleading. It doesn’t claim to be the Word of God, or a spiritual text that tells the faithful how to live life. It’s the origin story¬† and cosmology of the Quiche Maya, who live in what is now modern-day Guatemala. The Quiche refer to it as an Ilb’al – an “instrument of sight” – and also as “The Book of the Mat”, since it was traditionally told to an audience of people sitting on woven mats

There are tales of silent nothingness, restless and vengeful gods, the making of the first men and women. The book concludes with the genealogy and migration of the Quiche Maya, and with this mournful passage:

This is enough about the being of Quiche, given that there is no longer a place to see it. There is the original book and ancient writing owned by the lords, now lost, but even so, everything has been completed here concerning Quiche, which is now named Santa Cruz.

There are numerous translations available, but I chose the one by Dennis Tedlock. I just read that he passed away last year, which makes me very sad; there are quite a few very lovely tributes to him out in the world which goes to show what an impact he had. He’s left a great legacy of translated works from both the Maya, and the Zuni people in the American Southwest. I’ll be moving on from the Popul Vuh to his translation of the Rabinal Ach√≠, a Mayan drama that survives from pre-Columbian times and that’s still performed annually in Guatemala. How cool is that? While I’m at it, I’m also reading a couple of books by his wife, Barbara Tedlock. It’s like a light switch has flipped for me, and I’ll be learning all I can about this corner of the world…stay tuned!

An original painting showing figures from the Popol Vuh
Popol Vuh, Oriente (image by Cuilomerto (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)

Country #38: Guatemala

Back to Central America! I’m never gone very long, and that suits me just fine.

Looking forward to what will be a very interesting adventure, I’m sure.