Popol Vuh


Dennis Tedlock

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Themes and Colors
Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
Heroism vs. Villainy Theme Icon
Names, Power, and Memory Theme Icon
What It Means to be Human Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Popol Vuh, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Names, Power, and Memory Theme Icon

Naming, both the naming of other things and the naming of oneself, is how characters in the Popol Vuh gain power. The Heart of the Sky and the Heart of the Sea gods want humans to be able to "name their names," and when humans and gods are victorious, announcing their names to their adversaries is often a part of their victory. Because this relationship between naming and power applies to an extensive cross section of characters in the text, the Popol Vuh insists that the greatest power comes from knowing and sharing one's own name and the names of other powerful individuals.

What this system does, in essence, is mark for the reader who is worthy of remembrance. By offering individual names, the text insures that the reader has the language to speak about individuals and their deeds specifically, which in turn gives those individuals power in the real world. By creating this link between naming, power, and memory, the text implies that it's a worthy goal to accomplish deeds that will lead one to be named as an individual. For the gods, this means that they'll be able to be worshipped, particularly when they also get to name what kinds of sacrifices they want as well. For humans, this means inclusion in the final sections of the text, where the authors list twelve generations of revered Mayan leaders and officials.

This system is especially important because it functions on a deep structural level within the text. In most cases, the heroic victors are individuals who state their names when they win a victory. Their adversaries, however, are often named as groups, not as individuals, as with the human conflict between the first four humans (Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Not Right Now, and Dark Jaguar) and groups of people who are simply referred to as "the tribes." During the divine conflicts, this deviates somewhat: though groups are still named as groups (as with the Xibalbans, the people of the underworld), the leaders of the Xibalbans are named specifically. By naming One Death and Seven Death as individuals, the text acknowledges that as gods, those two individuals are powerful—just not as powerful as the heroic gods Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the victors of this particular conflict. In turn, this reinforces the hierarchy that dictates that human foes such as "the Castilians" or "the tribes" are infinitely less powerful than heroic individuals or are simply unworthy of being named at all, while divine antagonists occupy a unique role wherein they're worthy of individual remembrance because of their divinity.

Throughout the final sections of the Popol Vuh, which concerns human activities and historical events, this system expands to include not just people, but places as well. As the human tribes, led by various named individuals, move around the Quiché kingdom and establish citadels, they name those citadels and the landforms they pass. In these situations, the humans assert their own power (by taking land), the power of their gods (by creating a place to worship those gods and remember their names), and finally, assert their power over the land (by naming that land and preserving those names for future generations). The success of those individuals is evidenced by the inclusion of maps in the text: the names of those places have persisted for nearly a thousand years, exactly because the Mayans named them and recorded the names in the Popol Vuh.

However, this is all thrown upside down with the framing of this particular version of the Popol Vuh. The text was written by Quiché people in Latin not long after the Spanish invasion, though recording their native stories was a crime and they had to do so anonymously to protect themselves. In this way, by refusing to identify themselves, the writers stand up to their Castilian conquerors and show that even this system set out by the bulk of the Popol Vuh isn't one that's entirely infallible. The definition of power must necessarily change with the times in order to ensure that these stories are remembered, so that these anonymous individuals can continue to identify those who are powerful, and make sure their names live on.

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Names, Power, and Memory ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Names, Power, and Memory appears in each part of Popol Vuh. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Names, Power, and Memory Quotes in Popol Vuh

Below you will find the important quotes in Popol Vuh related to the theme of Names, Power, and Memory.
Part One Quotes

We shall write about this now amid the preaching of God, in Christendom now. We shall bring it out because there is no longer
a place to see it, a Council Book,
a place to see "The Light That Came from
Beside the Sea,"
the account of "Our Place in the Shadows."
a place to see "The Dawn of Life,"

Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

So this is why monkeys look like people: they are a sign of a previous human work, human design—mere manikins, mere woodcarvings.

Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:
Part Three Quotes

After that, his son is like his saliva, his spittle, in his being, whether it be the son of a lord or the son of a craftsman, an orator. The father does not disappear, but goes on being fulfilled...

Related Characters: One Hunahpu (speaker), Hunahpu, Xbalanque, Seven Hunahpu, Blood Moon
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

"Our elder brothers will be remembered. So be it: they have lived here and they have been named; they are to be called One Monkey and One Artisan."

Related Characters: Hunahpu (speaker), Xbalanque (speaker), Xmucane, One Monkey and One Artisan
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:

"Where might you have come from? Please name it," Xibalba said to them.

"Well, wherever did we come from? We don't know," was all they said. They didn't name it.

Related Characters: Hunahpu, Xbalanque, One Death, Seven Death
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

"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.

Related Characters: Hunahpu, Xbalanque, One Hunahpu, Seven Hunahpu
Page Number: 138
Explanation and Analysis:

They put Seven Hunahpu back together...He had wanted his face to become just as it was, but when he was asked to name everything, and once he had found the name of the mouth, the nose, the eyes of his face, there was very little else to be said.

Related Characters: Hunahpu, Xbalanque, Seven Hunahpu
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:
Part Four Quotes

"What should we do with them now? Their vision should at least reach nearby, they should see at least a small part of the face of the earth, but what they're saying isn't good. Aren't they merely 'works' and 'designs' in their very names? Yet they'll become as great as gods, unless they procreate, proliferate at the sowing, the dawning, unless they increase."

Related Characters: Xmucane (speaker), Sovereign Plumed Serpent (speaker), Hurricane (speaker), Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Not Right Now, Dark Jaguar
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

They were blinded as the face of a mirror is breathed upon. Their vision flickered. Now it was only from close up that they could see what was there with any clarity.

And such was the loss of the means of understanding, along with the means of knowing everything, by the four humans.

Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

"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.

Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:
Part Five Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Not Right Now
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

Three Deer and Nine Dog, in the twelfth generation of lords...They were tortured by the Castilian people.

Black Butterfly and Tepepul were tributary to the Castilian people. They had already been begotten as the thirteenth generation of lords.

Don Juan de Rojas and Don Juan Cortés, in the fourteenth generation of lords. They are the sons of Black Butterfly and Tepepul.

Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

This is enough about the being of Quiché, given that there is no longer a place to see it. There is the original book and ancient writing owned by the lords, now lost, but even so, everything has been completed here concerning Quiché, which is now named Santa Cruz.

Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis: