Popol Vuh

Fresco depicting scene from Popol VuhPopol Vuh is a religious narrative of the Central American Maya indians. Stated more precisely, Popol Vuh is a periconquest oral mythistory (myth + history)  of the highland Quiché (K’iche’) Maya. The mythic component comprehends a creation story, a diluvian suggestion, and epic tales of anthropomorphic ancestors. The myth transitions into history through its tale of an eastward ancestral migration to observe the first dawn through which the sojourners acquire fire and evolve distinct languages, tribes, and clans. We are told how the Quichean tribes arrived in the western highlands and there is an anecdotal account of how the Quiché rise to prominence over their Cakchiquel and Tzutuhil relatives. Popol Vuh also describes a society that, anthropologically speaking, seems to depict settlement and intertribal conflict of the terminal late classic period (roughly AD 790 to 1000). Popol Vuh concludes with regnal genealogies leading to the time of the Spanish conquest (AD 1524). Ontologically speaking, Popol Vuh exists as a product of exponential supposition and as a consequence there are really two distinguishable conceptual and physical Popol Vuh entities.

Popol Vuh has been extensively studied since the 1850s as an ethnographic and historiographic source on pre-conquest Indian culture. This is attributable to two main causes. First, physical anthropology did not mature sufficiently until after the Second World War such that it could explain the ancient culture. Second, there was a significant loss of indigenous culture during the early conquest. These two issues effectively reduced all study of the ancient culture to the accounts written by early European colonizers. The late Renaissance period also generated an epistemological predisposition for written records as being fixed, redemonstrable sources of information. Over time, these circumstances eroded popular understanding of Popol Vuh’s conservation.


Popol Vuh Title PagePopol Vuh survives by way of the seventeenth-century Dominican priest Father Francisco Ximénez. His interest in history and languages led him to author several treatises, one of which contains “Popol Vuh” in parallel Quiché and Spanish columns. Ximénez unceremoniously called these “las historias.” He left only a dubious suggestion regarding his acquisition of the source material and most of what is believed concerning its conservation is, in fact, speculation. At some point Ximénez incorporated bus transcription-translation into a larger ecclesiastical treatise containing—in this order—a grammar, a doctrinal guide, the historias, and a scholium. We know that Ximénez attempted to publish one of his other works in Spain, but there is no indication that he tried to publish this treatise. On the contrary, Ximénez’s prologues strongly suggest that he intended the work to be read only by clergy. When Ximénez was later commissioned (c.1710) to compile a history of the region, he reincorporated the mythistory into this work, albeit in a more prosaic form with chapters, captions, and commentaries.

Popol Vuh "Preamble"After Ximénez’s death in late 1729 or early 1730, his manuscripts remained in the convent of his order. When General Francisco Morazán expelled the clerics a hundred years later, much of the convent’s library transferred to the Universidad de San Carlos. Ximénez’s writings were seen there in 1854 by Austrian adventurer Carl Scherzer and also in 1855 by French Abbott Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg. Brasseur removed Ximénez’s ecclesiastic manuscript back to France and, furthermore, remained very secretive and misleading about his source material. With Brasseur’s death in 1874, his library passed to Alphonse Pinart whom he had met at the 1867 Paris International Exposition. Pinart fell into financial ruin in the 1880s and sold his collection at auction in 1883. The work containing “Popol Vuh” was purchased by or on behalf of Chicago magnate Edward E. Ayer for his personal collection. Ayer ultimately donated his astounding collection to The Newberry Library in 1897. His collection was so vast, however, that its transference was not complete until 1911. Ximénez’s manuscript was catalogued as Ayer ms 1515 under the title of its first treatise, Arte de las tres lengvas. In 1941, Guatemalan Ambassador Adrián Recinos (re)discovered Popol Vuh within Ximénez’s manuscript at the Newberry. This in turn paved the way for Recinos to publish the first direct edition in nearly a century. Ximénez’s manuscript is the oldest and only known written account of the narrative and is the principal source for editions. Over time, a number of misapprehensions have tragically entered mainstream Popol Vuh scholarship.

Editorial Agency

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 iteration is endowed with an intrinsic agenda that is revealed as much by the edition as by the lives of the editors. Ximénez’s paratext plainly disclosed a evangelical purpose. Scherzer was interested in credit for discovery of Ximénez’s authentic manuscript. Brasseur dismissed Ximénez’s paratext and endeavored to turn his edition into an ethnological study. Adrián Recinos sought to popularize Popol Vuh as a cultural artifact. Today, an objective understanding of Popol Vuh requires a fundamental appreciation of the layers of editorial agency (which is extensively reviewed in my dissertation).

Popol Vuh is a dual entity that exists as both a physical text and as an ethereal construct. Its first two editions are arguably the most influential of all. While Scherzer’s 1857 edition focused narrowly on reproducing an archival document, Brasseur’s 1861 edition sought to offer an anthropological study (albeit it inept). It was Brasseur who first discarded Ximénez’s adjoining material, coined the title “Popol Vuh,” and divided the narrative into chapters. Brasseur also attached his own 262-page prefatory “dissertation.” Upon his death—and in no small way a consequence of his opacity and obfuscation—no one knew that Ximénez’s manuscript still existed nor that it had passed from Brasseur to Pinart, from Pinart to Ayer, and from Ayer to The Newberry Library.


All editions between 1861 and 1947 are indirect works based on Brasseur, Scherzer, or Ximénez’s Historia de la provinçia. One of the more recognized works from this period was by Georges Raynaud in 1925. Miguel Ángel Asturias studied under Raynaud at the Sorbonne. After initial collaboration, Asturias produced a Spanish translation in 1927. Asturias, in turn, brought Popol Vuh back into the literary consciousness through his novel, Hombres de maíz.

Adrián Recinos’ (re)discovery of Ximénez’s manuscript in The Newberry Library gave rise to the first direct edition in nearly eighty years. Since then, editions can reasonably be assumed to be based principally on Ximénez’s manuscript, but Brasseur’s influence is still evident in the perpetuation of his “Popol Vuh” title and in the chapter divisions. Some editors have attempted to versify the Quiché text. The following table gives the prominent editions of Popol Vuh.

Direct Editions

1857 Scherzer, Carl. Las Historias del Origen de Los Indios. (There are two imprints on Scherzer’s edition, Vienna and London)
1861 Brasseur de Bourbourg, Charles Étienne. Popol vuh. Le livre sacré et les mythes de l’antiquité américaine.

Indirect Editions

1872 Gavarrete, Juan. El Popol Buj. Versión española de la traducción de Brasseur de Bourbourg comparada con la de Ximénez, con notas tomadas de ambos comentadores y concordancias con las Santas Escrituras.
1908 Spence, Lewis. The Popol Vuh. The Mythic and Heroic Sagas of the Kichés of Central America.
1913 Pohorilles, Noah Elieser. Das Popol Wuh. Die mystische Geschichte des Kicé-Volkes von Guatemala nach dem Original-Texte übersetz und bearbeitet.
1925 Raynaud, Georges. Les dieux, les héros et les hommes de l’ancien Guatémala d’après le Livre du Conseil. [based on Brasseur’s edition]
1927 Asturias, Miguel Ángel. Los dioses, los héroes y los hombres de Guatemala antigua o el Libro del Consejo. Popol Vuh de los indios quichés.[translation of Raynaud]
1927 Villacorta, José Antonio Villacorta. Manuscrito de Chichicastenango. El Popol Vuj. Estudio sobre las antiguas tradiciones del Pueblo Quiché.
1944 Schultze Jena, Leonhard S. Popol Vuh: Das heilige Buch der Quiché-Indianer von Guatemala.

Modern Editions

1947 Recinos, Adrián. Popol vuh. Las antiguas historias del Quiché
1950 Goetz, Delia, and Sylvanus G. Morley. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiche Maya. [English translation of Recinos]
1971 Edmonson, Munro S. The Book of Counsel: The Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala.
1973 Estrada Monroy, Augustín. Empiezan las historias del origen de los indios de esta provincia de Guatemala. Popol Vuh. [“Edición Facsimilar”]
1985 Tedlock, Dennis. Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life.
[revised 1996].
1999 Colop, Sam. Popol Wuj: Versi6n Poetica K’iche’.
2003 Christenson, Allen J. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya.
All of the editions between 1861 and 1947 are derivative editions based on Brasseur, Scherzer, and Gavarrete. Gavarrete was a librarian/archivist in Guatemala who copied part of Ximénez’s Historia de la provinçia (which it will be recalled contained a monolingual redaction of what is found in his ecclesiastic treatise). Gavarrete’s copy created some confusion as to the “original,” which is now believed to be the one in Berlin. Brasseur’s version gained a lot of traction through Georges Raynaud and his student Miguel Ángel Asturias. Asturias in turn seeded Popol Vuh into the Indianista literary movement of the twentieth century effectively adding another transatlantic dimension.

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