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!”
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.
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.