The Popol Vuh

I stumbled across the Popol Vuh on Wikipedia of all places. I was editing a manuscript that partly takes places in Guatemala, and the American main characters come across people speaking K’iche’. I had never heard of the people group or language before and went online to do some basic fact-checking. Fifteen minutes later I had ordered a copy of Michael Bazzett’s poetic translation of the Popol Vuh from Milkweed Editions, and a few days later I had the book in my hands, complete with a handwritten thank-you note from a sales associate. (From one indie publisher to another, I have to say that it was a nice touch.)

The Popol Vuh, which means “book of the people” or “book of the council,” has a complicated transmission history. The K’iche’ original has been lost, and we only have the text because of Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez’s eighteenth-century translation into Spanish. Understandably given book burnings and European violence against Native American literary cultures, many critics have distrusted the accuracy of Ximénez’s translation. But recent archaeological discoveries of ancient stone murals depicting scenes from the Popol Vuh have helped solidify its reputation, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into a time and culture very unlike and yet very like our own.

Like any translator, Bazzett had to make compromises in rendering the text in poetic English, but he is open about them in his introduction. Most notably, he has excised the kingly genealogy at the end, which links the mythical figures of the Popol Vuh to the dynasties of historical K’iche’ leaders. Without this section, Bazzett’s Popol Vuh divides nicely into a creation narrative, where the gods frame and shape the world, and a heroic narrative of the twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque, whose deeds prepare the way for the very first dawn. At the end, the Popol Vuh leaves Hunahpu and Xbalanque behind to tie up the cosmic story of the world’s first humans and the first sunrise.

I picked up the Popol Vuh for research, to add some ground and depth for the made-up native tribes in the pirate fantasy novel I’m writing. And culturally the Popol Vuh was eye-opening and far different from the cosmic narrative of creation and redemption I’ve lived with my whole life (which is Middle Eastern in origin). I’m not used to creation stories including mosquitos biting gods, or houses full of jaguars, or great macaws pretending to be the sun. The foreignness reached a peak for me when the lords of the underworld got upset because One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu were making such a racket above them playing ball, so the lords of Xibala sent their demon owls to invite the brothers down to hell to settle the argument over a ballgame.

The writing style itself feels bare and almost alien to me as a contemporary reader, and probably wouldn’t fly in twenty-first-century prose. But a lot of the basic human questions posed by the text—why are people here? What do we do in the face of pride and misplaced power? How do we reconcile ourselves to the loss of our loved ones?—still resonate deeply. The literary structure is a complex weave of themes and wordplays that require additional notes for the English reader to understand, but the way the story comes full circle through multiple generations of demigods and how this leads to the dawn of the first day shows a delicate layering of character arc and plot climax that does feel very modern. I suppose it’s a pretty deep human impulse to want stories of completion, justice, and forward-looking hope.

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