Popol Vuh Provenance

Among the thorniest problems with Popol Vuh scholarship are the ethical issues of using unprovenienced material. Immovable Maya temples, altars, and stelae are self-authenticating. Other archaeological in situ artifacts are meticulously inventoried by their excavators to preserve their evidentiary value. Father Ximénez’s text, however, is not so easily addressed.

No dispute exists that the oldest surviving text of Popol Vuh is The Newberry Library’s Ayer ms 1515. Neither is there any dispute that it has been at the Newberry since the turn of the twentieth century when it was donated by Edward E. Ayer who had purchased it from Alphonse Pinart who had received it from Brasseur de Bourbourg. The disputes that Ayer ms 1515 is (or is not) Ximénez’s manuscript arise from inconsistent and contradictory statements from Brasseur concerning how and where he obtained Ayer ms 1515. Understanding the pedigree and provenance of Ayer ms 1515 Popol Vuh requires understanding the people that interacted with it.

Unlike modern literary texts, Popol Vuh is not defined by the static text that appears within the four corners of its pages. From Ximénez’s initial act of conservation to the present day, every edition and ever study of Popol Vuh promotes a different agenda. Ximénez plainly disclosed a evangelical purpose, though his paratext was cleaved from the narrative very early on with Brasseur’s 1861 edition. Scherzer seems somewhat disinterested in the narrative itself but rather keen for being known as its discoverer. Brasseur was plainly jealous of Scherzer’s recognition and Brasseur endeavored to turn his edition into an ethnological study. Today, arriving at an objective understanding of Popol Vuh’s significance requires a fundamental understanding of the agency of its conservator, Francisco Ximénez, of its first editors Carl Scherzer and Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, and to a lesser degree, of Alphonse Pinart and Adrián Recinos.

Francisco Ximénez

Father Francisco Ximénez (1666 – 1729) came as a Dominican missionary to the New World in February 1688. His companions were initially dispatched throughout the province to learn the native languages. Although initially delayed by the completion of his novitiate and his subsequent acceptance of an administrative assignment at the seminary, by 1691 Ximénez was in San Juan Sacatepéquez learning Cakchiquel. He attained sufficient mastery in only two months so as to be more ›

Juan Gavarrete

The name Juan Gavarrete appears only in connection with Popol Vuh and his identity remains apocryphal and elusive. Whatever can be gleaned from the scant historical record indicates that Gavarrete was an archivist working in Guatemala City in the mid-nineteenth century.more ›

Carl Scherzer

Karl Ritter von Scherzer (1821 – 1903) was born May 1821 in Vienna. Scherzer‘s true occupation remains a mystery, but he was never a physician. He worked a stint as a printer in both Leipzig and Paris and his participation in the 1848 revolution resulted in temporary exile. Scherzer spent three years in North America with Moritz Wagner from 1852 to 1855. It was during this trip that in 1854 Scherzer encountered several colonial manuscripts in the municipal library and in the library of the Universidad de San Carlos including three of Ximénez’s works: more ›

Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg

Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg (1814 – 1874) was born September 1814 in Bourbourg, France. After his ordination in 1845, Brasseur was recruited by Abbé Léon Gingras to serve in Québec. While his superiors insisted on additional studies in ecclesiastical history, Brasseur instead delved into the archdiocesan archives there at Québec and “published” his Esquisse biographique sur Mgr. de Laval, premier Evêque de Québec. Brasseur then left for Boston where he had previously formed a good relationship with Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick. Brasseur returned to France in late 1846 or early 1847. He joined an expedition to Mexico where he resided from 1848 to 1851.more ›

Alphonse Pinart

Alphonse Pinart (1852 – 1911) ambled through adolescence without direction until he met Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg at the 1867 World Fair in Paris. He was inspired to pursue a career in ethnology, though not in the same line as Brasseur. Whereas Brasseur keenly focused on Central American ethnohistory, Pinart preferred the languages of the Pacific ocean, from North America to the Indonesian islands.more ›

Edward E. Ayer

Edward Everett Ayer was born in November 1841 about the time that a military road established by Congress turned his birthplace of Southport (Kenosha) Wisconsin into an increasingly significant trade route. Ayer’s father opened a general store, contracted a blacksmith, and even dabbled in grain brokering. He sold his enterprise to buy land five miles south where a train station was to be built, and he had the fortune to participate in the planning of the town of Harvard, Illinois. His efforts led to limited railroad construction contracts.

Edward Ayer enlisted in the military in 1861 and spent several years in the American southwest. During this time, Ayer was stationed at a mine near the Mexican border where, at roughly twenty years of age, he read his first book: Prescott’s history.[1] He is quoted as its having “seemed to open up an absolutely new world to me” (Lockwood 47-48). Ayer returned to Illinois at the conclusion of his service in 1864. Within a month, Ayer was in Chicago on business where he happened past a bookseller and bought Prescott’s full five-volume set. He recalls that day in his memoir:

I feel that that day, taking those books home, was, perhaps, the happiest day of my life up to that time; and going home I only touched the earth in high places. And I want to reiterate that the finding of Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico in that mine in Arizona in ’62, has been responsible and is to be credited as the principal force that has given me a vast amount of enjoyment in this world, and is absolutely responsible for the “Ayer Collection” in the Newberry Library, Chicago. (Lockwood 49)

After Prescott, one of Ayer’s earliest acquisitions was Thomas W. Field’s An Essay towards an Indian Bibliography[2] (Lockwood 162-63). Field’s essay lists an astounding 1,708 titles from his personal library, and is “especially valuable for its listings and analysis of the contents of the reports, published in Spanish, French, and German as well as in English, of early explorers who came in contact with the native tribes of North America” (Hoyt 437; Davidson 230). More extensive than even that of the Government’s Indian Department, Field’s collection exhibited “strong humanitarian views” and “denunciations of the perpetrators of cruelties on the Indians” (Sabin iii-v).

By the time it was auctioned, the Field collection also contained a number of other items that expanded his bibliography by orders of magnitude. Among these were A Dictionary of Books Relating to America From its Discovery to the Present Time and also A List of the Printed Editions of the Works of Fray Bartholomé de las Casas (Sabin 291). Field’s personal library included several names already familiar to this investigation, specifically, Brasseur de Bourbourg, Scherzer, and Ximénez (Sabin 32, 295, 370).

If the influence that Prescott had on him is any indication, it would follow that Field’s Essay Towards an Indian Bibliography had just as great an impact. Ayer had been a trustee of the Newberry since its incorporation in 1892. In 1897, he determined to donate his 17,000 pieces to the library, but because of the enormity of the undertaking, its completion tarried until 1911. However, in 1927, feeling that his namesake collection was not sufficiently known, Ayer had the Newberry disseminate a “pamphlet” to selected institutions and scholars containing “brief descriptive notes on the volumes, manuscripts, and other accessioned items in his library” (Lockwood 157). This is the summation of the Indian collection:

Indians of North America—Their Origin, Prehistoric Life and History: In this section are grouped the books treating of the origin of the Indians, all the way from the point of view of those who considered them the descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel, to that of the modern scientific anthropologist. The fascinating story of their prehistoric life is just beginning to be unraveled and told, and every year brings new revelations from archaeologists in all parts of the country. The history of many tribes is yet to be written and much can be done from sources found here. Under this grouping are books dealing also with the following matters: Indian arts and industries, trade, money, mythology and religion (including ceremonies and dances), music, physical anthropology, health and disease, missions and schools, and the biographies of individual Indians.

Indian Languages and Graphic Systems: One hundred and eighty-eight different languages or dialects are represented in the Ayer Collection. The books illustrating or treating of them include grammars and grammatical treatises, vocabularies and dictionaries, and some few school books; translations of the Bible, prayer books and catechisms; all very largely done by missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant. Of more recent date are books containing folk-lore and myths with both free and literal translations. Supplementing these are some fifty-five original manuscripts, and 50,000 pages of photographic copies of manuscripts, principally in the Mayan and allied languages. (Lockwood 158-59)

These materials argue compellingly that Ayer was indeed familiar with the scholarship on the Central American Indians. Whether Ayer specifically sought out Brasseur’s materials on the basis of Field’s Essay Toward an Indian Bibliography, or whether Ayer’s agents/dealers in Europe sought out the items connected to the bibliography, an aim to acquire Ximénez’s manuscript seems apparent. Lockwood notes that Ayer “used to love to sit of an evening with his wife near him, while he pored over catalogues from foreign book sellers [that] he might come across the two Jesuit Relations that had hitherto eluded his diligent search” (279).[4] Mrs. Ayer shared his enthusiasm; in 1916, she translated and published The Memorial Of Fray Alonso De Benavides.

Years later, Adrián Recinos’ (re)discovery of “Popol Vuh” within Ayer ms 1515 would not be the only such occurrence.[5] Prior to this, John Cornyn found Sahagún’s long-lost Latin-Spanish-Nahua dictionary among the Ayer collection in the Newberry. Additionally, Father Junipero Serra’s 1769 diary was intercalated with other writings of his, but it appears that the dealers from whom Ayer bought the Serra holograph were ignorant of the full extent of the contents (Lockwood 165-66). Thus, Ayer’s blind acquisitions may well indicate a hope to find the relations intercalated within other documents or in the alternative, to find some mention of them.

When Ayer’s earnest study of the American Indian began sometime around 1880, it is said that he sought “to know about their origin, their prehistoric life, their primitive customs, and their first contacts with white men.” He wanted “books that told about the people” and “human experiences; not sophisticated abstractions” (Lockwood 81-83, 160). This is especially true of the colonial era, and not unlike Bartolomé de Las Casas, Ayer “endeavored to protect [Native Americans] from exploitations, and ever stood out for their rights before the Nation” (McDowell 212). Ayer advocated for proper education and military eligibility of Indians (212, 223-225).

In addition to his humanitarian aims, Ayer was enraptured by the authority and candor of first-hand experiences which he believed constituted “‘our first and best authorities’ on the region and the period with which they deal” (Lockwood 175). The realism that punctuated the period in which Ayer began his earnest collecting probably contributed to his particular bent. However, Ayer’s aim to preserve a snap-shot of Indian history and culture in its earliest and most pristine state is res in se ‘a thing in itself’ and as such imposed no enduring context to restrain the perpetuation of Brasseur’s re-characterizations. By the time of Adrián Recinos’ post-war edition of Popol Vuh, realism and naturalism had long since yielded to other critical approaches and other social interests.

[1] Prescott was in good standing and frequent communication with Alexander von Humboldt. It was the latter who first brought attention to the Maya codices when he reproduced a portion of the Dresden Codex in his 1810 work, Vues des cordillères, et monumens des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique. The likelihood that Ayer was further specifically aware of the Maya writing system is supported by Humboldt’s collaboration with George Catlin, said to be one of Ayer’s first acquisitions after Prescott. “Catlin must have been known to him early, and without doubt this author excited his [Edward Ayer’s] imagination” (Lockwood 161).

[2] The full title is An Essay towards an Indian Bibliography. Being a Catalogue of Books, relating to the History, Antiquities, Languages, Customs, Religion, Wars, Literature, and Origin of the American Indians, in the Library of Thomas W. Field. With Bibliographical and Historical Notes, and Synopsis of the Contents of some of the Works least known (Hoyt 437).

[3] Sabin explains that “the notes appended are sometimes by Mr. Field” (Sabin v). It would seem that if not Field’s, the remarks would be those of the publisher of the auction catalog. This note has no attribution.

[4] “The Ayer Collection contains all but two of this series—Copie de deux Lettres envoiees de la Nouvelle France, being the Relation for 1655, and Lettres envoiees de la Nouvelle France for 1659.” The “Jesuit Relations” are from 1632 to 1673 (Lockwood 174-75).

[5] Recinos receives credit for finding the manuscript and making its first direct edition. Edmonson (viii) and López (123) attribute the actual (re)discovery to Walter Lehmann in 1928.

Adrián Recinos

Adrián Recinos (1886 – 1962) was born July 1886 in Antigua, Guatemala to a notable family of Huehuetenango. He graduated from the Instituto Nacional Central de Varones in 1902 and subsequently earned a law degree from the Facultad de Ciencias Jurídicas y Sociales at the Universidad de Guatemala in 1907. Recinos entered politics the following year more ›