Popol Vuh

by

Dennis Tedlock

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Popol Vuh can help.

Popol Vuh: Part Two Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Two twin boy gods named Hunahpu and Xbalanque understand that Seven Macaw's self-magnification is evil, so they decide to try to take him down. The boys are adept at shooting with blowguns, so they decide to shoot Seven Macaw while he's eating and then take away all of his jewels and shiny metal.
Seven Macaw's reliance on the jewels and metal alludes to the role of those jewels and metals in Mayan culture: possessing them is one of the things that signifies a great ruler. By this logic, simply depriving One Macaw of these things will return him to his rightful place.
Themes
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon
Names, Power, and Memory Theme Icon
Seven Macaw has two sons with his wife, Chimalmat: Zipacna and Earthquake. Zipacna spends his time building up mountains, while Earthquake moves and softens the mountains. They do this to magnify themselves, just like their father. Zipacna declares that he's the maker of the earth, while Earthquake exclaims that he brings down the sky and turns the earth into an avalanche. Just as with Seven Macaw, Hunahpu and Xbalanque see that these are evil acts, and so the twins plan to kill Zipacna and Earthquake as well.
Notice that Hunahpu and Xbalanque don't appear to have any motive to take down these villainous characters except the recognition that what those characters are doing is wrong. This begins to suggest that goodness is something inherent to these two, which situates them as the true heroes of the story (but also makes some of their more drastic actions somewhat inexplicable).
Themes
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon
The narrator describes Seven Macaw's tree, where the bird god eats. One day, Hunahpu and Xbalanque hide under Seven Macaw's tree and wait until he comes to eat. When he does, Hunahpu shoots his blowgun at Seven Macaw, breaking his jaw. Hunahpu runs after Seven Macaw when he falls out of the tree, but Seven Macaw rises before Hunahpu can grab him. Seven Macaw rips Hunahpu's arm off and flies home to Chimalmat. When Chimalmat asks in horror what Seven Macaw has, he explains that the "tricksters" shot him and dislocated his jaw. He declares that once he begins roasting Hunahpu's arm over the fire, the twins will come to try to retrieve it.
While Seven Macaw has a vague plan as to how to do away with Hunahpu and Xbalanque, there's nothing particularly tricky about it. This continues to cast Seven Macaw as a villain, as trickery is a skill that's associated primarily with heroes. When Hunahpu loses his arm, it clearly shows that he's not infallible or exempt from such bodily harm. This begins to humanize the twin gods and make them more relatable as heroic characters.
Themes
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon
What It Means to be Human Theme Icon
As Seven Macaw schemes, Hunahpu and Xbalanque make plans of their own. They ask two gods, Great White Peccary and Great White Coati, to pose as their grandparents and travel with them to Seven Macaw's nest. They instruct the gods to tell Seven Macaw that they're nothing but useless and misbehaving orphaned children, and Great White Peccary and Great White Coati agree.
Unlike Seven Macaw, the twins have a plan to actually trick their adversary--which in turn situates them as the rightful heroes. Xbalanque and Hunahpu often pose as orphaned characters with no names, which offers a clue as to why the writers of the story didn't offer their own names: they're not just protecting themselves, they're emulating Hunahpu and Xbalanque.
Themes
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon
Names, Power, and Memory Theme Icon
Get the entire Popol Vuh LitChart as a printable PDF.
Popol Vuh PDF
When Great White Peccary, Great White Coati, Hunahpu, and Xbalanque pass by Seven Macaw's house, Seven Macaw is yelling in pain. When Seven Macaw sees the "grandparents" walking, he inquires as to where they're headed. They tell him that they're "making their living," and explain that the children with them are their pitiful grandchildren. Seven Macaw struggles through the pain to respond and asks the grandparents if they can possibly cure his pain. They explain that they're bonesetters and dentists, and agree to help Seven Macaw. Seven Macaw grouses that he hasn't slept or eaten since the twins shot him, and the grandparents declare that Seven Macaw just has a worm gnawing at his teeth. They explain that they need to pull his teeth and replace them.
Seven Macaw is too caught up in his pain and thinks of himself as being too important for someone to take advantage of him, and both of those thoughts actually facilitate this trick. This cautions the reader to remain humble about their status, and also suggests that one should behave more like the one-armed Hunahpu than Seven Macaw when faced with pain like this. This also suggests in a more overarching way that pain has the power to make people susceptible to trickery.
Themes
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon
Names, Power, and Memory Theme Icon
Seven Macaw asks if that's actually a good plan, since his status as a lord is dependent on his beautiful turquoise teeth. Great White Peccary and Great White Coati assure him that they'll absolutely replace his teeth with ground up bone, which they show him--but the narrator explains that this "ground up bone" is actually white corn. Seven Macaw finally agrees, and the grandparents pull out his teeth and fill the holes with corn. The grandparents then pluck the metal from around Seven Macaw's eyes, and he simply watches, ashamed, as his greatness disappears. Then Seven Macaw dies, as does Chimalmat, and Hunahpu gets his arm back. The grandparents set Hunahpu's arm, and it heals perfectly.
The way that the text conceptualizes Seven Macaw's relationship to power as being dependent on his jewels and metal sets up an important distinction between those who are actually powerful and those who merely pretend to be. For Seven Macaw, the jewels are what make him powerful. Later, in the human parts of the story, jewels are a byproduct of power that already exists. This continues to situate power as something inherent to individuals, not something that's obtained by possessing material goods.
Themes
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon
Names, Power, and Memory Theme Icon
What It Means to be Human Theme Icon
The story shifts to Seven Macaw’s son Zipacna. One day, as he bathes on the shore, the Four Hundred Boys pass by dragging a log to build their hut. When Zipacna asks the boys what they're doing, they explain that they're struggling to carry the log. Zipacna offers to carry it for them, and he takes it right to the entrance of their hut. The Four Hundred Boys offer Zipacna shelter, but he refuses. They ask him for help with carrying the logs the next day, and Zipacna agrees to help.
Part of what makes Zipacna (who is generally considered a caiman, or kind of crocodile) a less than ideal character here is that he refuses the hospitality of the Four Hundred Boys. It’s also suggested that he is too strong for his own good, and uses this strength to “magnify himself.”
Themes
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon
After Zipacna leaves, the Four Hundred Boys speak amongst themselves. They decide that what Zipacna does is evil, and they should kill him. The boys devise a plan to dig a hole, get Zipacna to get into the hole, and then throw a log into the hole to bury him alive. The next day, they carry out their plan. When they ask Zipacna to help them dig their deep hole, Zipacna agrees—but instead of continuing the hole the Four Hundred Boys began, Zipacna digs a tunnel to the side so he won't die. When Zipacna is safe in his side tunnel, he calls out that he's surely dug deep enough.
Here, the story begins to offer the possibility that Zipacna is a less villainous character than the Four Hundred Boys believe, because he appears to be entirely capable of outsmarting the boys. This creates some room for characters to not be just heroic or just villainous. It places characters on more of a spectrum, which offers a much more realistic look at human nature as represented by these fickle and human-like gods.
Themes
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon
What It Means to be Human Theme Icon
The Four Hundred Boys throw another massive log down into the hole and then hide themselves. They reason that Zipacna will cry when he dies, and Zipacna indeed cries out. The boys celebrate their victory and go on to make their "sweet drink," which takes three days to make. They watch Zipacna's hole and wait for ants to bring up parts of Zipacna's body, and they're not disappointed. The narrator, however, explains that Zipacna is actually still alive at the bottom and is cutting his nails and hair for the ants to carry up. He hears the Four Hundred Boys say when their drink will be done.
The "sweet drink" is likely a type of mead called balché, which was a sacred drink for the ancient Maya. It was often used for ceremonial purposes, which explains why the Four Hundred Boys make it to celebrate their "victory" over Zipacna. It's possible that the text doesn't name the drink because of some greater historical context: the Spanish didn't like the drink and therefore banned it.
Themes
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
Names, Power, and Memory Theme Icon
On the day that the Four Hundred Boys' drink is finished, the boys all get drunk and lie languidly throughout their hut. Zipacna emerges from his hole and brings the boys' hut down on them, killing all of them. The narrator notes that it's possible the boys ascended to the sky and became a constellation called Hundrath, though the truth of that is unknown.
The narrator's aside here makes it abundantly clear that this text might not include everything. As such, it reinforces that the Popol Vuh was an oral story, and the many iterations of it in its oral form leave room for many different fates for the Four Hundred Boys.
Themes
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
Hunahpu and Xbalanque are very sad to hear that their friends, the Four Hundred Boys, are dead. They decide that since Zipacna is greedy and spends every day eating fish and crabs, they'll create a fake crab to trick him and exact revenge. Hunahpu and Xbalanque make the crab out of flowers and rocks and place the crab under an overhang at the base of a mountain. Once the trap is set, the boys walk along the water until they find Zipacna. They ask Zipacna what he's doing, and Zipacna explains that he's just looking for fish and crabs to eat. He adds that he hasn't eaten in two days, and he's dying of hunger.
Once again, the reason why Zipacna is considered a villain within the logic of the story is that his habits don't foster community, let alone acknowledge others: he's greedy and monopolizes important food sources, which tells the reader that this is a bad thing to do. By plotting to do away with Zipacna, Hunahpu and Xbalanque then are acting in a way that will allow communities to flourish because they're preserving food sources.
Themes
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon
Names, Power, and Memory Theme Icon
Hunahpu and Xbalanque "remember" that they saw a massive female crab down in a canyon. They explain that they tried to catch the crab, but it just bit and scared them. Zipacna asks the twins to show him where the crab is, but they insist they're too scared. They say that if Zipacna follows the river to the bottom of the canyon, he'll find the crab. Zipacna insists that the boys come with him, and explains that if they accompany him, he'll show them a place where there are birds to shoot. Hunahpu and Xbalanque agree.
Here, by assuming the guise of two young, terrified, nameless boys, Hunahpu and Xbalanque actually gain power when they don't share their names. This suggests that though names carry power, it's entirely possible to manipulate this system in order to trick others—just as the writers of the story are doing by not recording their own names.
Themes
Names, Power, and Memory Theme Icon
As they walk, Hunahpu and Xbalanque explain that the crab bit them mercilessly. They say that they first entered the crab's cave on their stomachs, but when they tried entering the cave on their backs, the crab got scared. They suggest that Zipacna should enter the cave on his back, and Zipacna agrees. When they arrive at the crab's hiding spot, however, Zipacna hastily enters the cave face down. The crab, however, gets on top of him with her back down, and Zipacna cannot get ahold of her. He crawls back out and concedes that Hunahpu and Xbalanque were right about it being better to enter the cave on his back. Zipacna wiggles into the cave until only his lower legs are showing and sighs as the mountain comes to rest on his chest. He promptly turns to stone, defeated by the genius of Hunahpu and Xbalanque.
It's worth noting that the translator's forward to the Popol Vuh mentions that this scene includes a thinly veiled sex joke: when Zipacna has to jockey around to position himself so that he can best the female crab, it presents some physical comedy that shames him for both his food-related greed and the need to be in a particular position to "take" this female creature. It's also interesting to note that neither Hunahpu nor Xbalanque engage in romantic pursuits in the Popol Vuh, which suggests that romantic relationships aren't necessarily part and parcel with perfect heroism.
Themes
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon
Next, Hurricane speaks to Hunahpu and Xbalanque about Earthquake. Hurricane explains that Earthquake also needs to be defeated because what he does to the earth is emphatically bad, especially since he's becoming so physically large. He tells the boys to lure Earthquake into sitting down in the east. Hunahpu and Xbalanque agree. Meanwhile, Earthquake continues to bring down mountains. He can destroy them simply by tapping his foot.
While Zipacna and Seven Macaw were bad because they were simply greedy and thought too highly of themselves, Earthquake is more of a problem because he's creating lasting damage to the land. This means that he'll also be a problem for future humans if he's not reined in. Taken together, this reinforces the gods' hope that beings will be able to care for the land, not destroy it.
Themes
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon
What It Means to be Human Theme Icon
When Xbalanque and Hunahpu come upon Earthquake, they ask him what he's doing. He explains that he's breaking mountains, and he says that he doesn't recognize the twins. When Earthquake asks the twins their names, they explain that they're nameless orphans who hunt and trap. They tell Earthquake that they've been looking for birds at a mountain that's exceptionally tall, and there were no birds to be found there. They ask how it's possible that Earthquake destroys mountains when this mountain still stands. Earthquake is extremely interested in this mountain, and begs the twins to take him to it. They lead him to the east and walk on either side of him so they can shoot birds with their blowguns. The narrator explains that instead of shooting clay pellets, the twins shoot only air out of their blowguns—and they still kill birds. Earthquake is very impressed.
Again, when Hunahpu and Xbalanque omit the fact that they're the most powerful heroes of the story, it allows them to more easily trick Earthquake into trusting them, because he simply doesn't have the opportunity to make the connections between their names and their power. They do allude to their degree of power here by not shooting clay pellets and just shooting air. To someone less self-involved, this might indicate that the twins aren't what they seem, but Earthquake is too intent on proving himself and showing off to acknowledge that others also have powers.
Themes
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon
Names, Power, and Memory Theme Icon
When Xbalanque and Hunahpu have several birds, they make a fire and roast the birds. They coat one of the birds with plaster and decide to give that one to Earthquake when he gets hungry. They reason that they must cook the bird in the earth, since the earth will be Earthquake's grave. They also declare that this is the reason why future humans will desire meat, just as Earthquake does.
With this particular line of reasoning for why humans eat meat, the text creates an even more compelling link between future humans and their relationship to the earth. It essentially reinforces the idea that beings are connected to the earth, in this case by divine intervention, which in turn has a lasting impact on humans' lived experiences.
Themes
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon
What It Means to be Human Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Earthquake becomes hungry when he smells the cooking birds. He asks Hunahpu and Xbalanque for a bite, and they give him the plaster-coated bird. He eats the entire thing and the threesome continues eastward. As they walk, the bird causes Earthquake to lose strength in his arms and legs. When they reach the great mountain, Earthquake can't do anything about it. Hunahpu and Xbalanque bind Earthquake's wrists to his ankles and bury him. The narrator explains that Hunahpu and Xbalanque's deeds on earth are countless, but it's now time to explain their births.
Earthquake's origin story as a whole explains the presence of earthquakes: the fact that he rests in the earth shows that people recognize that earthquakes as geological events come from the earth itself, not from anything above ground. Tied up and in the ground, Earthquake has much less power than he did as an actual being, though he can still cause the ground to shake.
Themes
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon