Popol Vuh

by

Dennis Tedlock

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Popol Vuh: Part One Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator explains that what follows is the beginning of the ancient world in the place called Quiché. It will be an account of how the world was created by Sovereign Plumed Serpent, Xpiyacoc, and Xmucane. The narrator mentions that they're recording this story "amid the preaching of God," or after the Spanish invasion. They say that they're doing this because there's no longer a place to see this text, which is known as the Council Book. The person responsible for reading and making sense of the book has a hidden identity.
The framing of the story to follow indicates that recording the story is probably illegal, though it's absolutely necessary in order to preserve it for future generations. By refusing to name names of those who are writing the text and of the person responsible for reading and interpreting the text, the writers guard against persecution should a Spanish invader discover this copy.
Themes
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon
Names, Power, and Memory Theme Icon
Related Quotes
In the beginning, there is nothing under the sky. There are no people, no animals, no landforms; there is only the sky and the sea. Sovereign Plumed Serpent is in the water, and the group of gods known as the Heart of the Sky are in the sky. Those three gods, Hurricane, Newborn Thunderbolt, and Sudden Thunderbolt, descend from the sky to speak to Sovereign Plumed Serpent. They wonder what the dawn should look like, and they decide to empty out the sea to create land. However, there will be no one to praise their work until they create humans.
Even at this point, when the world is only an idea to the gods who will create it, a central concern of theirs is who will praise their work. This places worship and praise at the very heart of Mayan theology, and also shows that being able to worship is one thing that makes humans human. Per the logic of the story, humans were created for this exact purpose.
Themes
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
What It Means to be Human Theme Icon
With this, land suddenly rises out of the ocean. The gods pull mountains out of the land, and trees grow on the mountains. Sovereign Plumed Serpent addresses Hurricane, Newborn Thunderbolt, and Sudden Thunderbolt, and says that he's pleased with their work. Sovereign Plumed Serpent goes on to create rivers, and only then do the gods worry about creating beings to populate their new world.
When the gods don't have to do anything but think about creating a land mass in order to do so, it stands as an early indicator that the Mayan people place a great deal of emphasis on thought and the power of the mind. Later, this notion manifests as the idealization of characters who are successful tricksters.
Themes
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Sovereign Plumed Serpent creates animals and distributes them throughout the mountains. When he realizes the animals need guardians, the deer and birds step forward. Sovereign Plumed Serpent settles the deer in canyons along rivers and tells the birds that their nests are in trees and bushes. He instructs the deer and birds to multiply.
When Sovereign Plumed Serpent recognizes that the animals need guardians, the story begins to suggest that there's a need for hierarchy among all the characters and beings in the Popol Vuh. This is another way of creating a logical system of organization for the world and the culture to come.
Themes
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Finally, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, Hurricane, Newborn Thunderbolt, and Sudden Thunderbolt instruct the animals to talk to each other and to praise their creators. The animals, however, only chatter and howl in different languages. The gods are perplexed and declare that their work is subpar. They address the animals and say that since the animals cannot speak, the animals must accept that they will one day be food for the humans. With this, the gods demote the animals from their role as guardians of the land.
Again, asking for praise shows that worship is essential to being properly Mayan. Further, the fact that the animals cannot praise the gods is what makes them subhuman, and what dictates how the hierarchy is organized going forward. Animals' lowness on the hierarchy is evidenced by the fact that they're already placed below currently nonexistent humans.
Themes
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
Names, Power, and Memory Theme Icon
What It Means to be Human Theme Icon
Next, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, Hurricane, Sudden Thunderbolt, and Newborn Thunderbolt decide to try again to make humans, as the first dawn is quickly approaching and they need humans to cultivate the land. They decide to attempt to create humans that will be able to praise and respect the gods. The gods make a body out of mud, but the body doesn't hold together and the being speaks nonsense before dissolving into the water. The gods allow the being to dissolve and then discuss how they might make a better human. They decide to call on the gods Xpiyacoc and Xmucane for help.
Now, the gods reveal another quality that will make humans human: the ability to cultivate and care for the land. When considered in tandem with the necessity of worship, this situates the state of being human as a state of constant service to the surrounding world. This also begins to allude to the importance of community to the Mayan culture, which is reinforced when the gods call on their community (as represented by Xpiyacoc and Xmucane) for help.
Themes
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What It Means to be Human Theme Icon
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Sovereign Plumed Serpent and Hurricane ask Xmucane and Xpiyacoc if they should mold humans out of wood. Xmucane and Xpiyacoc reply that wood is a fine medium, but they caution the gods of the Heart of the Sky to not deceive Sovereign Plumed Serpent. With this, the wood humans come into being. They multiply, but there's nothing in their hearts, nothing in their minds, and they don't remember their makers. They walk the new earth with no purpose.
Given the way the wood people are described, they can be seen as a metaphor for current, real humans without a purpose in life. These wood people go through the motions of life on earth, but their lives are small and meaningless because they don't recognize that they're a part of something bigger.
Themes
What It Means to be Human Theme Icon
Because of this, the wood people are considered to be just an experiment for humans. Though they look like humans, they have no blood, sweat, or fat. Promptly, Hurricane creates a flood to wash out the wood people. Resin rains from the sky, and several gods descend to gouge out the wood people's eyeballs, eat their flesh, and tear them open. Animals enter the wood people's houses, and inanimate objects come alive to crush their former masters. The animals and the inanimate objects tell the wood people that the tables have turned, and they will now eat and destroy the wood people.
The fact that absolutely everything turns on the wood people—from the gods to inanimate objects and the natural world—suggests that there are major consequences both for upending the hierarchy (by not worshipping the gods) and for not properly caring for the land. Essentially, being improperly human leads to upending the entire world order.
Themes
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What It Means to be Human Theme Icon
When the stones from the hearths begin flinging themselves at the wood people's heads, the wood people race out and try to climb on top of their houses to escape the flood, but the houses fall. When they try to climb the trees, the trees throw them off. The wood people try to enter caves, but the caves shut themselves and won't allow the wood people in. The narrator says that this is how the monkeys came into being: the wood people were left on earth with crushed faces, and are a sign that there were once other kinds of humans.
By turning the wood people into monkeys, the narrative creates a very visible reminder of the consequences of not properly worshipping the gods. This also adds to the sense of logic in regard to the world order: monkeys exist for a reason, and their existence isn't arbitrary. This allows a Mayan reader to be able to better understand the world around them, and thus better understand their place in it.
Themes
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
Names, Power, and Memory Theme Icon
What It Means to be Human Theme Icon
Related Quotes
At this time, everything is still dark; there is no sun. However, a god called Seven Macaw "magnifies himself" and impersonates the sun and moon, giving light to the flooded wood people. He declares that he's greater than the wood people and will therefore dictate their calendar. Seven Macaw decorates his teeth with turquoise and other jewels and arranges beautiful metals around his eyes, and his white beak shines like the moon. His nest is made of metal and "lights up the earth" when he sits in front of it--but the narrator explains that this isn't true, and the light from Seven Macaw's nest only reaches the area right around it. The true sun, moon, and stars haven't risen yet, but Seven Macaw continues to think of himself as a great god.
Seven Macaw's comment about dictating the wood people's calendar is a reminder to contemporary readers that the Popol Vuh is a narrative representation of the Mayan calendar. All the gods represent celestial bodies, and their interactions in the story show how the stars move in the sky. Here then, by believing he dictates the calendar, Seven Macaw insists that he's the most powerful being around. When he tries to embody a great god for the failed wood people, however, it reinforces for the reader that his power only exists in his mind—monkeys don't need a calendar.
Themes
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon
Names, Power, and Memory Theme Icon