The Popol Vuh "Council Book" or "Book of the Community") is a book written in the Classical Quiche language containing mythological narratives and a genealogy of the rulers of the post classic Quiche Maya kingdom of highland Guatemala.
The book contains a creation myth followed by mythological stories of two Heroic Twins: Hunahpu (Junajpu) and Xbalanque (Xb'alanke). The second part of the book deals with details of the foundation and history of the Quiche kingdom, tying in the royal family with the legendary gods in order to assert rule by divine right.
The book is written in the Latin alphabet but is thought to have been based on an original Maya codex in the Mayan hieroglyphic script. The original manuscript which was written around 1550 has been lost, but a copy of another handwritten copy made by the Friar Francisco Ximenez in the early 18th century exists today in the Newberry Library in Chicago.
The significance of the book is enormous since it is one of a small number of early Mesoamerican mythological texts-it is often considered the single most important piece of Mesoamerican literature. The mythology of the Quiche is believed to correspond quite closely to that of the Pre Classic Maya, as depicted in the San Bartolo murals, and iconography from the classic period often contains motifs that are interpretable as scenes from the Popol Vuh.
The original manuscript, called "The manuscript of Quiche," was written in Santa Cruz Quiche around 1550-1555. It is thought to have been written down from an oral recitation of a hieroglyphic manuscript that has since been lost. It was obviously written after the first missionaries arrived in Santa Cruz Quiche in the 1540s and is assumed to have been written before 1558. Judging from the genealogical part of the work, in which a prominent place is given to the Kaweq lineage, the author may have belonged to this lineage as opposed to the other royal Quiche lineages, the Nijaib, the Tam and the Ilok'ab lineages. Some have speculated that the author was a certain Diego Reynoso, also the author of another Quiche document, the Titulo de Totonicapan. Van Akkeren (2003) discards Reynoso as the author of the Popol Vuh, since the viewpoint in the Titulo de Totonicapan is biased against the Kaweq lineage - he thinks that the authors were in fact the heads of a faction of the Kaweq lineage called the Nim Ch'okoj.
Whoever the original authors were, The Quiche Manuscript was found in the Chichicastenango by the Dominican priest Francisco Ximenez in the early 18th century. He translated and copied the manuscript and added it as an appendix to his grammatical work "Arte de Tres Lengvas: Kaqchikel, Quiche y Tzutuhil". This manuscript was kept in a neglected corner of the Universidad de San Carlos library in Guatemala City, until it was discovered by Abbe Brasseur de Bourbourg and Carl Scherzer in 1854. However, "the Chichicastenango manuscript" has disappeared from history. Brasseur and Scherzer published French and Spanish translations a few years later.
Brasseur de Bourbourg in Rabinal found another copy of the Chichicastenango manuscript, also made in the early 18th century. Brasseur de Bourbourg brought the manuscript to Paris. Following his death, it was sold and resold and eventually wound up in the Chicago Newberry Library. This copy of Ximenez' copy of the original Quiche manuscript is the earliest extant manuscript of the Popol Vuh.
Since Brasseur de Bourbourg's and Scherzer's first translations, the Popol Vuh has been translated into English and other languages. The Popol Vuh is considered one of the literary treasures of the Americas.
The book begins with the creation myth of the K'ichee' Maya, which credits the creation of humans to the three water-dwelling feathered serpents:
and to the three other deities, collectively called "Heart of Heaven":
who together attempted to create human beings to keep him company.
Their first attempts proved unsuccessful. They attempted to make man of mud, but man could neither move nor speak. After destroying the mud men, they tried again by creating wooden creatures that could speak but had no soul or blood and quickly forgot him. Angered over the flaws in his creation, they destroyed them by tearing them apart. In their final attempt, the "True People" were constructed with maize. The following is an excerpt of this myth:
Today the Popol Vuh continues to be an important part in the belief system of many Quiche. Although most are now Catholic, they continue to blend Christian and indigenous beliefs. The original text is seen as difficult to understand, and a simplified version, Popol Vuh: A Sacred Book of the Maya, has now been published in English, Hungarian and Spanish, targeted towards adult and children who are unfamiliar with the Maya.
Classic Maya pottery shows some of the main characters of the mythological part of the document, such as the Maya Hero Twins and the Howler Monkey Gods. Certain scenes have been interpreted as referring to the 16th-century version of the myth, in particular the shooting of Vucub-Caquix and the restoration of the Twins' dead father.
This opens up the possibility that the accompanying sections of hieroglyphical text are ancestral to passages from the Popol Vuh. Some stories from the Popol Vuh continued to be told by modern Maya as folk legends; some stories recorded by anthropologists in the 20th century may preserve portions of the ancient tales in greater detail than the Ximenez manuscript. Read more ...
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