Popol Vuh


Dennis Tedlock

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What It Means to be Human Theme Analysis

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.
What It Means to be Human Theme Icon

Because one of the primary problems the gods face is the question of how to create humans, the Popol Vuh is necessarily concerned with discovering what makes humans humanlike, gods godlike, and what makes either humans or gods into the best version of themselves. At the beginning of the Popol Vuh, after the gods draw land out of the ocean, they decide that they must next create humans to take care of the land, multiply, and worship them. These qualities become the defining qualities of humanity, and beings' success in completing those tasks offers the gods a way to decide if the beings they've created are appropriately human or not.

The gods first create animals as stewards of the land. Though the text implies that the animals will be able to care for the land, they fail miserably when the gods ask them to speak and praise their creators: all they can do is chatter and squawk. After this failure to praise the gods, the gods relegate the animals to being food for the humans they'll later create. Next, the gods create a human out of mud, which is a failure on all fronts, and then carve reasonably successful humans out of wood. The wood humans are able to both care for the land and multiply, but like the animals, they fail to worship their creators and acknowledge their origins when asked. The way that both the wood people and the animals are considered failures at humanity illustrates just how important worship is to the Mayan conception of what it means to be human: per the logic of the text, the wood people in particular are human in every way except in their inability to worship, which automatically categorizes them as not-human. This also suggests that per the gods' list of appropriately human attributes, the state of being human is a state of service. The gods desire human beings to perform acts of service for the land, for each other, and for the gods themselves. With this firmly established as an absolute necessity, the gods abandon their quest for a period of time while they go about shaping more of the world.

When the gods finally create the first four humans, the humans are described as perfect: they talk, they listen, they work and walk around. They're handsome and are able to see the entire world, and when asked, the humans thank their creators for making them. However, the gods quickly find a problem with these first four humans: unlike their other creations, these people are too perfect because they understand everything. To the gods, this suggests that these humans have the capacity to become divine themselves, which would therefore keep the humans from being properly devout. To fix this flaw, the gods blind them "as the face of a mirror is breathed upon," limiting the humans' sight and understanding. This means that the humans will need to spend their lives searching for meaning and understanding through their devotion to their creators, and by extension, through the study of the Popol Vuh itself. With this, the text declares that to be human is to not know, and to consequently strive towards understanding.

Through the gods' quest to create humans, the Popol Vuh doesn't just offer a simple recipe for humanity. Because the gods spend much of the book trying and failing to create humans in addition to their other trials and tribulations, the Popol Vuh also humanizes the very creators of humanity. In this way, though the Popol Vuh maintains that humans must be devout, care for the land, and multiply, it also makes it abundantly clear that to be human is to search, to try, and to ask questions about the world and one's role in it.

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What It Means to be Human ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Popol Vuh related to the theme of What It Means to be Human.
Part One Quotes

"It must simply be tried again. The time for the planting and dawning is nearing. For this we must make a provider and nurturer. How else can we be invoked and remembered on the face of the earth? We have already made our first try at our work and design, but it turned out that they didn't keep our days, nor did they glorify us.

Related Characters: Sovereign Plumed Serpent (speaker), Hurricane
Page Number: 68
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.

Related Characters: Xmucane, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, Xpiyacoc, Hurricane
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

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 Characters: Xmucane, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Not Right Now, Dark Jaguar
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.

Related Characters: Xmucane, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Not Right Now, Dark Jaguar, Hurricane
Page Number: 148
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.

Related Characters: Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Not Right Now, Dark Jaguar
Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:
Part Five Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Not Right Now, Dark Jaguar
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.

Related Characters: Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Not Right Now, Dark Jaguar
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis: