The Popol Vuh, or “Council Book”, is the most important sacred book of the Quiché Maya of the Guatemalan Highlands. The book itself dates to the mid-16th century and it probably originated as a transcription in Roman alphabet of an older pre-Hispanic text. In the 18th century the Spanish friar Francisco Ximenez translated the document into Spanish. Ximenez' translation is currently stored in the Newberry Library of Chicago.
The Popol Vuh is divided into three parts. The first part talks about the creation of the world and its first inhabitants; the second, probably the most famous, narrates the story of the Hero Twins, a couple of semi gods; and the third part is the story of the Quiché noble family dynasties.
According to the Popol Vuh myth, at the beginning of the world there were only the two creator gods: Gucumatz and Tepeu. These gods decided to create earth out of the primordial sea. Once the earth was created, the gods populated it with animals, but they soon realized that animals were unable to speak and therefore could not worship them. For this reason the gods created humans and had the animal's role relegated to food for humans. This generation of humans was made out of mud, and so were weak and were soon destroyed.
As a third attempt, the gods created men from wood and women from rushes. These men populated the world and procreated, but they soon forgot their gods and were punished with a flood. The few who survived were transformed into monkeys. Finally, the gods decided to mold mankind from maize. This generation, which includes the present human race, is able to worship and nourish the gods.
In the narration of the Popol Vuh, the creation of the people of corn is preceded by the story of the Hero Twins.
The Hero Twins Story
The Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, were the sons of Hun Hunahpu and an underworld goddess, Xquic. According to the myth, Hun Hunahpu and his twin brother Vucub Hunahpu were convinced by the lords of the underworld to play a ball game with them. They were defeated and sacrificed, and the head of Hun Hunahpu was placed on a gourd tree. Xquic escaped from the underworld and was impregnated by the blood dripping from Hun Hunahpu’s head and gave birth to the second generation of hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque.
Hunahpu and Xbalanque lived on the earth with their grandmother, the mother of the first Hero Twins, and became great ballplayers. One day, as had happened to their father, they were invited to play a ball game with the Lords of Xibalba, the underworld, but this time they were not defeated and stood all the tests and tricks posed by the underworld gods. With a final trick they managed to kill the Xibalba lords and to revive their father and uncle. Hunahpu and Xbalanque would then reach the sky where they will become the sun and moon, whereas Hun Hunahpu became the god of corn, who emerges every years from the earth to give life to the people.
- Read more about the Hero Twins
The Origins of the Quiché Dynasties
The final part of the Popol Vuh narrates the story of the first people created from corn by the ancestral couple of gods, Gucumatz and Tepeu. Among these were the founders of the Quiché noble dynasties. They were able to praise the gods, and wandered the world until they reached a mythical place where they could receive the gods into sacred bundles and took them home. The book closes with the list of the Quiché lineages up until the 16th century.
Importance of the Popol Vuh
The Popol Vuh is an important text not only for understanding Late Postclassic and Early Colonial Maya religion, myth and history, but because it also offers interesting glimpses into Classic Period beliefs. The episode of Hu Hunahpu hanging from a gourd or cacao tree, as well as his identification with the maize god, is an image often illustrated on Classic Maya vessels, as are the figures of the Hero Twins surrounding their father as he emerges from the earth as Maize gods.
Miller, Mary and Karl Taube, 1997, An Illustrated Dictionary of The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, Thames and Hudson.
Sharer, Robert J., 2006, The Ancient Maya. Sixth Edition. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California
Tedlock, Dennis (ed.), 1985, Popol Vuh: the Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. with commentary based on the ancient knowledge of the modern Quiché Maya. Simon and Schuster, New York.