Monday, August 27, 2012

Thoughts on the Popol Vuh

From Wikipedia: "Against a backdrop of three stairs, a Maya ballplayer drops on his right knee to meet an exaggeratedly large ball. From a Maya Central Lowlands vase, 650 - 800 AD."
Probably the most widely-known New World creation myth is that of the K’iche’ (or Quiché) Maya of present-day Guatemala, the Popol Vuh* (“Council Book”). It’s known to us today through the work of a parish priest Francisco Ximénez, who transcribed the K’iche’ language and translated it into Spanish for preservation in 1701. There is some debate over whether or not his source was a pre-conquest document in Mayan script or the oral traditions of the K’iche’ people. There are, however, pre-conquest artwork depicting characters and events found in the Popol Vuh found on a number of documents and pottery, attesting to the age of the story.

If I were to summarize the Popol Vuh, I’d call it a sports hero drama, centered around the ancient Mesoamerican past-time of ballplaying. Like many B movies from the 1980s and 1990s, the plot consists of the “bad guy” team beating the “good guy” team, and the “good guy” team coming back for revenge. I can just imagine the twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque running around with their index fingers in the air shouting, “We’re number one!”

From Wikipedia: "The oldest written account of Popol Vuh (ms c.1701 by Francisco Ximénez, O.P.)"The creation account is polytheistic and serves to establish the origins of the K’iche’ Mayan people. Unlike the God of the Bible, the K’iche’ Mayan gods undergo trial and error, creating various human-like creatures and essentially pronouncing them “not good,” (i.e., unsuitable for service to the creator deities). In the text, these mistakes provide an explanation for the existence of monkeys, but would also allow the K’iche’ Mayan to easily incorporate H. erectus, H. neanderthalensis, and even Bigfoot into their myth. On the other hand, like most creation accounts, the Popol Vuh is ethnocentric rather than universal, serving to establish the origins of the K’iche’ Mayan people and verify its royal lineages of the K’iche’ Mayan. It doesn’t really allow for human existence outside of the Mayan and a perhaps a few non-Mayan nations found in Mesoamerica.

As scholars have no doubt discovered long before me, I noticed some interesting parallels between the Popol Vuh and the Bible while reading the K’iche’ Mayan account. One is the presence of a type of Eve and a type of the Virgin Mary found in the sports hero twins’ mother, Blood Moon (or Lady Blood), the virgin daughter of the lord Blood Gatherer. Like Eve, Blood Moon disobeys a higher authority by seeking fruit from a forbidden tree, and like Mary, she is impregnated by means other than natural sexual intercourse. Most importantly, also like Eve, through her comes redemption by the birth of her sons.

Two things about this redemption story contrast it with the Christian one. First, it’s the redemption of sinless (or more accurately, tricked) gods rather than sinful man. Second, although it’s an inspiring heroic tale, it doesn’t hold any special promise for mankind. However, the central point seems to correlate well with the Jewish creation account. The humans’ purpose in life is to glorify and serve the creator gods and care for the natural world in which they’re placed. And we can assume that any failure to do so would clearly not bode well for them.

*Before reading the Popol Vuh, I was only vaguely familiar with its name. I initially read Dennis Tedlock’s Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings (Touchstone, 1996), but later discovered Allen Christenson’s Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya (University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), which is also available free online. The latter is supposedly considered a superior translation. Also helpful in understanding the context of the work were the animated film Popol Vuh: The Creation Myth and the Maya (1987) by Patricia Amlin (above) and video and other interactive resources from the Invitation to World Literature, Part 8: Popol Vuh, provided by the Annenberg Foundation.