Because the Popol Vuh follows several generations of both divine and human heroes, it offers a number of heroic and villainous characters for consideration as it explores what it means to be a hero. Overwhelmingly, the story ties heroism to three qualities: familial loyalty, religious devotion, and cunning trickery. All the heroes are adept and successful tricksters, loyal to their family members, and particularly in terms of the human heroes, they're overwhelmingly devout. By tying heroism to these qualities, the Popol Vuh provides important insight into the Mayan people themselves and what they value as a society.
It's important to remember that the Popol Vuh was a text that showed Mayan rulers how to rule properly and become heroes themselves. This turns the text into a teaching tool first and foremost, as its intent is truly to teach Mayan people how to be properly Mayan. It does this by offering an extensive cast of characters, some of which are easily and inarguably heroes, while others are heroic to a degree, but possess major faults. One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu fall into this second category: they fall for the tricks of One Death and Seven Death, and ultimately die because of it. However, the book implies that One Hunahpu in particular is redeemed in part because he fathers Hunahpu and Xbalanque: his inability to outsmart One Death and Seven Death is outweighed by the fact that his sons go on to do just that, reinforcing the importance of family within the definition of a Mayan hero. Hunahpu and Xbalanque are able to outsmart One Death and Seven Death, unlike their father and uncle, and upon their victory, they reassemble their maimed father so that he can be worshipped properly. This set of twins is very nearly faultless, which situates them as the most heroic heroes of the tale (and the most important celestial elements later, as they become the moon and sun).
Overwhelmingly, the text identifies villains by their hubris, or overblown pride and an exaggerated belief in their abilities. Most importantly, this quality is what makes villains susceptible to the heroes' tricks. Seven Macaw, for example, allows Hunahpu and Xbalanque to remove his turquoise teeth and the beautiful metal around his eyes because his vanity blinds him to the fact that Hunahpu and Xbalanque aren't actually there to help him; they're there to knock him out of his unearned and false role as the sun and moon. This plays out in the human world as well: the unnamed tribes believe wholeheartedly that they'll be able to overthrow the early Mayans because of their numbers and military skill, but they fail to recognize every single trick the Mayans play on them. With this, the text shows that though the Mayans certainly value familial loyalty and devotion, the true indicator of heroism is intelligence, cunning, and the ability to be a successful trickster—while the lack of these abilities, coupled with an overblown sense of pride, is the mark of villains.
Though this idea appears in all the stories told in the Popol Vuh, nowhere is it more apparent and weighty than in the framing story and the historical context of the Popol Vuh itself. The fact that the Popol Vuh was recorded illegally in phonetic Quiché by Quiché scribes is evidence of a successful trick on the part of the Quiché people under Castilian rule: it's proof that the greater Mayan civilization, and the Quiché tribes specifically—the heroes of the Popol Vuh—were able to trick their Spanish captors and break the law under their noses. With this, the text brings its exploration of heroics full circle, as the Quiché scribes use cunning and trickery to showcase their loyalty to their ancestors by listing names going back twelve generations, and their devotion to their gods by making sure their stories remain so that future generations have the tools to learn what makes a true Mayan hero.
Heroism vs. Villainy ThemeTracker
Heroism vs. Villainy Quotes in Popol Vuh
"In earth we must cook it, and in earth must be his grave—if the great knower, the one to be made and modeled, is to have a sowing and dawning," said the boys.
"Because of this, the human heart will desire a bite of meat, a meal of flesh, just as the heart of Earthquake will desire it."
But Hunahpu and Xbalanque aren't turning red with anger; rather, they just let it go, even though they know their proper place, which they see as clear as day.
And such was the naming of their names, they named them all among themselves. They showed their faces and named their names, each one named by the one ranking above him, and naming in turn the name of the one seated next to him.
"Listen, we shall name our names, and we shall also name the names of our fathers for you. Here we are: we are little Hunahpu and Xbalanque by name. And these are our fathers, the ones you killed: One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu by name. And we are here to clear the road of the torments and troubles of our fathers.
There were countless peoples, but there was just one dawn for all tribes.
"It's just a coyote crying out," and "Just a fox."
"Just a puma. Just a jaguar."
In the minds of all the tribes, it was as if humans weren't involved. They did it just as a way of decoying the tribes; that was what their hearts desired.
These three had sons, but Dark Jaguar had no son. They were all true penitents and sacrificers, and these are the name of their sons, with whom they left instructions.
On yet another occasion he would make himself aquiline, and on another feline...on another occasion it would be a pool of blood; he would become nothing but a pool of blood.
Truly his being was that of a lord of genius.
Whether there would be death, or whether there would be famine, or whether quarrels would occur, they knew it for certain, since there was a place to see it, there was a book. Council Book was their name for it.
They were great in their own being and observed great fasts. As a way of cherishing their buildings and cherishing their lordship, they fasted for long periods, they did penance before their gods.