In 1908, Lewis Spence, one of the foremost scholars of myth and religion of his day, said of the Popul Vuh, “There is no document of greater importance to the study of the pre-Columbian mythology of America than the Popol Vuh.
It is the chief source of our knowledge of the mythology of the Kiché [the modern accepted form is the Quiche] people of Central America, and it is further of considerable comparative value when studied in conjunction with the mythology of the Nahuatlacâ, or Mexican peoples.” Popul Vuh means “Record of the Community” and is literally translated as “Book of the Mat,” perhaps because the earliest versions were delivered orally as people sat together on their woven mats.
The Popul Vuh is one of two sacred texts of the Mayan Indians of Mesoamerica, Central America, and Mexico that have survived. While the Popul Vuh belongs to the Quiche Maya of Guatemala, the Chilam Balam was written among the Maya of Yucatán in Mexico.
Mesoamerican history has been divided into distinct periods by historians and archaeologists for purposes of study. These are the Preclassic Period of history (2000 b.c.e. to 300 c.e.), the Classic Period (300 c.e. to 900 c.e.), and the Postclassic (900 c.e. to 1520 c.e.), the year before Hernán Cortés crushed the last major indigenous kingdom, the Aztec Empire, thus ending the rule of Mexicans.
The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, today’s Mexico City, succumbed to Hernán Cortés in 1521. The Mayas of Yucatán defied Spanish conquest until 1528, when they were defeated by Pedro de Alvarado, perhaps the most brutal of Cortés’s conquistadores.
The Popul Vuh can be dated from after the Classic Period among the Maya. The Mayan people existed in two communities, one in the northern Yucatán and the other in the Guatemalan highlands. The Chilam Balam owes its origin to the Mayas of Yucatán, and the Popul Vuh to those in Guatemala.
Today, although their kingdom has long since vanished, the Quiche Maya still exist in Guatemala as a definable tribe proud of the Popul Vuh, despite a brutal government campaign against them. Indeed some historians of Mesoamerica maintain that Guatemala was in fact the first home of the Maya people. What most scholars agree about is that the area influenced by the Maya was great.
In the aftermath of the Spanish conquest, there was a massive destruction of ancient Aztec and Mayan texts by the missionaries who accompanied the Spanish in their conquest of Mesoamerica.
Having seen the human sacrifice on a large scale by Aztec priests in the temples in Tenochtitlán (many victims were captive Spanish they had known), they determined such a culture could only be demonic and thus consigned the Mayan and Aztec books, or Mesoamerican Codices, to the flames.
Diego de Landa, who became the bishop of Yucatán, burned 27 hieroglyphic manuscripts in 1562; despite the criticism de Landa received as a result of his actions, historians believe that other missionaries probably followed suit. Three Mayan codices were known to have survived in Paris, Madrid, and Dresden, Germany.
However, both the Popul Vuh and the Chilam Balam appear to owe their survival to the direct intervention of missionaries who felt that the cultures that had been conquered were worthy of preservation.
After the conquest, missionaries set about to teach sons of the Maya and Aztec nobility Spanish to help them preserve their ancient culture in writing. It is Francisco Ximénez, who came to Guatemala in 1688, who played a pivotal role in the discovery of the Popul Vuh.
For a time after Ximénez’s death, it appeared the Popul Vuh had been lost, but it was recovered in library of the University of San Carlos in Guatemala. Researchers learned that Ximénez had placed it in his convent’s library, and it passed to the university library in 1830.
The Popul Vuh itself is a fascinating document that belongs in the category of creation myths, in which people record their understanding of the creation of the world. Dennis Tedlock, editor of a recent edition of Popul Vuh, records that its writers begin “their narrative in a world that has nothing but an empty sky above and a calm sea below.
When the gods of the sky and earth meet, ‘they conceive [of] the emergence of the earth from the sea and the growth of plants and people on its surface.’ After three failed attempts, the gods are successful in creating the first real human beings out of corn, a symbol of the importance of corn in all the indigenous cultures of North, Central, and South America.”
First, four men are created, and then four women to keep them company on the earth. “From these couples,” Tedlock explains, “come the leading Quiche [Maya] lineages.... Other lineages and peoples also come into being, and they all begin to multiply” to populate the face of the earth.