The Popol Vuh which is translated as the Book of the community or Book of advice is an ancient work of literature, a collection of legendary and historical narratives of the K’iche ‘people, the Guatemalan Maya people.
by Janice Friedman
The book, of great historical and spiritual value, has been called Sacred Book or the Bible of the Mayas by many authors.
It is composed of a series of stories that try to explain the origin of the world, of civilization, of various phenomena that occur in nature, etc..
The work is often described as the only book of the Maya that covers a variety of topics including creation, ancestry, history, and cosmology.
The Book also delves into the creation story, how beings created mankind and mention the great flood. This is why we can say that the Popol Vuh is without a doubt the most important ancient text ever written by the Maya, and which remains in existence.
It is distinguished not only by its extraordinary and vast historical and mythological content but by its literary qualities which allow it to be placed at the height of great epic works such as the Hindu Ramayana or the Greek Iliad and Odyssey.
The Popol Vuh is preserved in a bilingual manuscript written by Fray Francisco Ximénez, who identifies himself as the transcriber (of the Maya K’iche version) and translator of an old “book”.
Adrián Recinos, an author from Guatemala explains that: “The original manuscript (Popol Vuh) is not divided into parts or chapters. In fact, the text runs without interruption from the beginning to the end.
Nonetheless, the content of the Popol Vuh can be resumed into the following ‘chapters’:
- Histories of Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué
- Creation of man from maize
- Waiting for dawn and the permanence in Hacauitz
- Migration stories
- Founding of Gumarcah and List of generations
In this article, we take a look at the creation story offered by the Maya and what is written down in the Popol Vuh.
We find that the sacred Maya book mentions ‘beings’ who created mankind.
The beings who are said to have created mankind are referred to in the Popol Vuh as “the Creator, the Former, the Dominator, the Feathered-Serpent, they-who-engender, they-who-give-being, hovered over the water as a dawning light.”
The Creation Story
In the first part of the Popol Vuh, it is written how the ‘gods’ raise valleys and mountains from the primordial sea and create plants and animals.
They decide something was lacking, and therefore they went on to create beings that venerate them and make offerings to them.
The first three attempts fail according to the Popol Vuh:
In their first attempt, the creatures are the four-legged animals and the birds, but as they are unable to speak they decide to attempt one more time:
“Our work and our labor has accomplished its end. The earth then was covered with various forms of animal life. And the Creator and Former said to the animals: “Speak now our name!”
But the animals could not speak as a man. Then said their Makers: “Our glory is not yet perfect since ye cannot invoke us. Dens and food shall ye have, but as to your flesh, it shall be eaten. This is your destiny.”
In this new attempt, they form a creature of mud, but it dissolves when wet:
“Again there is counsel in heaven. Let us try again; let us make them who are to be our vehicles and nourishers.”
So the Creators determined to make man.
“Of red earth they molded his flesh; but when they had made him, they saw it was not good. He was without coherence, strengthless, inept, watery; he had been endowed with speech, but he had no intelligence, and straightway he was consumed in the water without being able to stand upright.”
In the third attempt, they make men of wood, but they realize that these beings are incapable to venerate them, which is why they decide to punish their arrogance with a hurricane, making their animals, their tools and the stones of their houses turn against them.
The Popol Vuh explains that monkeys are the descendants of the wooden men:
“Again the gods took counsel. It was decided to make man of the wood of the tzite cork-tree, and woman of the marrow of the zibac (willow); but the result was in no wise satisfactory — they were merely wooden mannikin.
“And these are the people who inhabit the surface of the earth. They existed and multiplied, but had neither heart nor intelligence, nor memory of their Creators. They led a useless life and lived like the animals. They were but an attempt at men.”
In the fourth attempt, they achieve their purpose and create man, who was constructed from maize, the Mayans staple, and sacred food.
The deity Itzamna is credited as being the creator of the calendar along with creating writing:
“Once more the gods commune together and the Creator and Former made four perfect men — wholly of yellow and white maize was their flesh composed. The name of the first was Balam-Quitze; of the second, Balam-Agab; of the third, Mahucutah; of the fourth, Iqi-Balam.”
Here is the interesting part of the Popol Vuh:
They had neither father nor mother, neither were they made by the ordinary agents in the work of creation, but their coming into existence was a miracle extraordinary, wrought by the special intervention of the Creator.
“Verily, at last, did the gods look on beings who were worthy of their origin.”
These men, who know how to fulfil their obligations to their creators, are able to see everything, in time and space, so the gods decide to cloud their vision. This is the humanity that now inhabits the earth.
Therefore we see that in the Popol Vuh, we see that the Creator, the Former, the Dominator, the Feathered-Serpent, they-who-engender, they-who-give-being communed on several occasions, and after several tries, “THEY” created MANKIND.
Does that ring a bell?