Popol Vuh

Popol Vuh Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Dennis Tedlock's Popol Vuh. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Dennis Tedlock

After receiving his P.h.D. from Tulane University in 1968, Tedlock dedicated his life to studying the Mayan peoples of Central America. With his wife, Barbara Tedlock, he conducted many trips to Guatemala and wrote extensively about his findings, much of which concerned translating hieroglyphic Mayan texts into English. His translation of the Popol Vuh earned the PEN Translation Prize in 1986, and he and Barbara jointly received the American Anthropological Association President's Award in 1997. Tedlock taught English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. In the 1980s he was a leading proponent of dialogical anthropology, which sought to give the native peoples in question (in this case, the Mayans) a more prominent voice in Western anthropological writings about them. To this end, Tedlock's translation of the Popol Vuh is notable because it uses interpretation and commentary from a modern Quiché daykeeper, Andrés Xiloj. Though Tedlock's translation of the Popol Vuh is the most common version today, he didn't write it: the Popol Vuh existed as an oral story and as a story recorded in hieroglyphs prior to being recorded in phonetic Quiché around 1550. It survived the Spanish conquest of Central America thanks to the Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez, who translated the text into a two-column version beginning around 1701. One column featured phonetic Quiché; the other recorded the story in Spanish. Ximénez's text now resides in the Newberry Library in Chicago.
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Historical Context of Popol Vuh

The Quiché people were a tribe that made up part of the Mayan empire in what is now Guatemala and southern Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula. Though documentation of the Quiché kingdom began around 1200 CE when foreigners from the Mexican Gulf Coast conquered the local tribes, tribes had been in the area since 600 BCE. Those foreigners are, presumably, what the Popol Vuh mentions as the first humans: they included the three Quiché lineages and four other tribes, all of which the book lists. The foreigners also brought the god Tohil with them. Beginning around 1495, the Quiché kingdom fought sporadically with the Aztec empire, which was then at its height. Around 1510, the kingdom finally became a vassal to the Aztecs. When the Spanish arrived in Guatemala, rival tribes aligned themselves with the Spanish and asked for assistance in defeating the Quichés. The Spanish army defeated the Quiché forces in 1524, and quickly set about subduing more rural communities. They set up missions, imposed Christianity on the surviving natives, and sought to destroy as much of the local non-Christian religion as they could. Because of this, there are only four known copies of the Popol Vuh in existence, and other pre-conquest books are rare. More recently, excavations of tombs have turned up what appear to be more books from before the Spanish conquest, but the books weren't well preserved and are often unreadable.

Other Books Related to Popol Vuh

The Popol Vuh is one of only a few surviving texts from the Mayan people of Central America, alongside the Chilam Balam (a collection of books that record traditional Mayan medical, religious, and historical knowledge in Latin) and the play Rabinal Achí. The Popol Vuh is considered an “ex nihilo” creation myth, a subgenre of creation myths in which the world is created out of nothing. The Bible falls into this subgenre, as do the creation myths of the Egyptians and the Maōri people. In that the Popol Vuh deals with the European conquest of the Americas, the book also shares thematic similarities with N. Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain, which tells the history of the Kiowa people and includes their difficult relationship with the United States government. Other books that tackle early colonialism and European contact with native populations include Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant, which takes place in Australia, and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
Key Facts about Popol Vuh
  • Full Title: Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life
  • When Written: The Popol Vuh existed as an oral story and was recorded in hieroglyphs prior to its translation to phonetic Quiché sometime in the 1550s
  • Where Written: The Quiché kingdom, modern-day Guatemala
  • When Published: The translation used in this LitChart was published in 1985
  • Literary Period: Postconquest
  • Genre: Creation Myth (Ex nihilo)
  • Setting: The Quiché kingdom (modern-day Guatemala), from a pre-human time period to the Spanish conquest of the kingdom in 1524
  • Climax: The sun rises for the first time
  • Antagonist: Seven Macaw and his sons; the Xibalbans, specifically One Death and Seven Death; the unnamed human tribes; the Castilians
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient

Extra Credit for Popol Vuh

Scary Stories. When Francisco Ximenez translated the Popol Vuh into Spanish in 1701, what he read scared him so much that he included a preface warning the reader that they were going to come close to being in contact with the devil. He even included a prayer for the reader to recite to protect themselves.