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.