Popol Vuh


Dennis Tedlock

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Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Analysis

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Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon
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Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Theme Icon

It's important to consider the Popol Vuh as the guiding cultural and religious document that it was for the Mayan people, and specifically the Quiché tribes that recorded it. For much of history, the story existed as an oral story as well as one that was recorded hieroglyphically; it was only written down phonetically after the Spanish invasion. Quiché leaders and seers used the text in its oral and hieroglyphic forms to guide how they were supposed to rule and arrange dates for events and festivals (the forward by the translator notes that the Popol Vuh is a narrative representation of the Mayan calendar, and someone familiar with the calendar will be able to use the story to track celestial events). At its heart, however, the text tells a Mayan reader how to be properly Mayan, and situates this image of a proper Mayan person that encompasses both divine and human history. Essentially, the text suggests that if one wants to understand who and what a person is, and why that person is the way they are, it's necessary to first understand where that person came from.

As the origin story of all Mayan people, the Popol Vuh explains how the seven tribes that made up the Mayan civilization in Mesoamerica came to exist, and why they came to exist in the first place: the gods created humans so they would have people to worship them and tend to the land, and the gods created them out of cornmeal and other staple foods that would then go on to keep the people fed and healthy. By answering both the how and the why of the origins of people, places, and animals, the story seeks to explain the workings of the entire universe, from a scale as large as the sky down to small-scale daily customs of people, including why hearthstones are arranged the way they are and why worshippers burn specific substances for the gods. This sets out the idea that everything has a purpose and nothing is arbitrary, which in turn teaches the reader to look for these logical connections as they piece together how the world works within this particular culture.

This sense of logic and order is particularly noticeable when the story discusses the natural world. Animals are essential characters in the Popol Vuh, as they function as messengers, guards, and antagonists in turn. Similarly, the Popol Vuh provides the reasoning behind the geological landscape, from the origins of the mountains to the reason the land is so dry. Deer and rabbits, for example, have short tails because Hunahpu and Xbalanque pulled the tails off of deer and rabbits when they found the creatures destroying their garden. Similarly, whippoorwills have short feathers because cutter ants chopped off their plumage, and they have gaping mouths because they love to sing. In this way, the book offers the reader a way to understand the entirety of the Mayan world and to understand that everything has a place and a purpose to carry out.

Because the story of the Popol Vuh isn't told in a strictly linear fashion, it tells some stories twice from slightly different perspectives, or returns to the past to describe a different story that happened simultaneously. In doing so, the Popol Vuh makes it abundantly clear that history itself isn't strictly linear; history happens to multiple people at the same time through many differing experiences. This idea is especially important when considering the origins of the sun, moon, and stars, celestial bodies that guide the entirety of Mayan civilization by dictating their calendar. The story first mentions that after their final victory over One Death and Seven Death, Hunahpu and Xbalanque ascend to the sky to become the sun and moon, while the Four Hundred Boys follow them to become the stars. This happens at the end of Part Three, before any mention of the final iteration of humans. Part Four then plunges the reader back into darkness prior to the creation of humans and follows the first humans as they wait for, pray for, and finally watch the first dawn. This nonlinear format is in part due to the fact that this version of the Popol Vuh was collected and arranged by modern, non-Mayan translators with the help of Quiché daykeepers: this version has been edited and arranged to make more sense to modern audiences, and the original was even less linear. However, the nonlinear format also stresses the importance of understanding that history is made up of many different experiences, both divine and human. Essentially, this story in particular crystallizes the idea that the origins of the Mayan people aren't just divine or just human. The Mayans derive their existence and their customs from both divine and human elements and actions, and through this interplay their culture develops a richness that can only come from acknowledging these multiple perspectives.

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Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture Quotes in Popol Vuh

Below you will find the important quotes in Popol Vuh related to the theme of Origins, Customs, and the Mayan Culture.
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 Two Quotes

"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."

Related Characters: Hunahpu (speaker), Xbalanque (speaker), Earthquake
Page Number: 87
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:

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.

Page Number: 105
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:

"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:

And this was when their grandmother burned something, she burned copal before the ears of green corn as a memorial to them. There was happiness in their grandmother's heart the second time the corn plants sprouted. Then the ears were deified by their grandmother, and she gave them names...

Related Characters: Hunahpu, Xbalanque, Xmucane
Related Symbols: Corn
Page Number: 139
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

It was staples alone that made up their flesh.

Related Symbols: Corn
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

"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:

There were countless peoples, but there was just one dawn for all tribes.

Page Number: 161
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:

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: