Ma(r)king Popol Vuh

Refereed Journal. Joe Bray, Miriam Handley, and Anne C. Henry have argued that “to mark a text is also to make it; [and] features such as punctuation, footnotes, epigraphs, white space and marginalia, marks that traditionally have been ignored in literary criticism, can be examined for their contribution to a text’s meaning.” In 2007 The Newberry Library disbound the oldest surviving text of Popol Vuh for conservation. That process made it possible to examine a number of paratextual markers calling into question popular perspectives of Popol Vuh as Indian auto-ethnography. This refereed article published at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill seeks to raise modern awareness of the manuscript’s paratext and its meaning for traditional assumptions of Popol Vuh’s survival and its narrative/textual boundaries.

In their introduction to Ma(r)king the Text: The presentation of meaning on the literary page, Joe Bray, Miriam Handley, and Anne C. Henry point out that “to mark a text is also to make it; [and] features such as punctuation, footnotes, epigraphs, white space and marginalia, marks that traditionally have been ignored in literary criticism, can be examined for their contribution to a text’s meaning” (xvii). The Newberry Library recently disbound and digitized the oldest surviving text of Popol Vuh.1 In its disbound state, one may plainly observe a number of paratextual markers that have not been addressed in print editions, but that call into question the popular perspective that Popol Vuh is Indian auto-ethnography. This paper seeks to raise awareness of these marks and their meaning for traditional assumptions of Popol Vuh’s survival and its narrative/textual boundaries.

To give a brief background, Popol Vuh is a mythistory of the Quiché Maya of central highland Guatemala.2 Once subjugated by Pedro de Alvarado in 1524, the task of pacification largely fell to the Catholic monastic orders who, in their zeal, often destroyed or suppressed much of the culture. Traditional evangelical approaches proved less effective among the Maya where native culture and religion were seemingly indivisible from language itself. But the Dominican Order was arguably suited for this challenge because it had embraced target-language competency as a core tenet since the thirteenth century, and, given the interrelatedness of culture and language, some missionaries seized upon learning the native (hi)stories for this purpose. Nevertheless, such practices carried some risk as evidenced by the Inquisition’s scrutiny of Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún concerning his Florentine Codex. Today, writings from the colonial period that deal with Indian culture are mainly seen either as missionary apologetics or as Indian subversion.3

The position most commonly taken on Popol Vuh is that a missionary-educated Indian used his knowledge of European alphabetic writing to capture and preserve the oral recitation of an elder sometime in the 1550s. Roughly a century and a half later, Dominican missionary Father Francisco Ximénez is thought to have obtained this phonetic redaction from a parishioner, which he then transcribed and translated in parallel columns of Quiché and Spanish. What is not generally understood is that Ximénez incorporated the mythistory within a broader ecclesiastical treatise written expressly for priests. This treatise, titled Tratado segvndo de todo lo qve deve saber vn ministro, superintends “Popol Vuh” and an appended scholium. In turn, Tratado segvndo is bound with and preceded by a Quichean grammar, Arte de las tres lengvas.4

The modern editorial presentation of Popol Vuh can be traced to French cleric Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg whose 1861 French edition first coined the title and divided the content into parts and chapters. But more importantly, Brasseur published Popol Vuh apart from Ximénez’s adjoining material that, together with the exuberant Americanism of the nineteenth century, emphasized Popol Vuh as an Indian auto-ethnography rather than as a missionary exposition. The construction and presentation of Ximénez’s manuscript went unrecognized for the following eight decades. Even after Ximénez’s manuscript resurfaced in the 1940s, Popol Vuh’s narrative and textual boundaries seem to be defined by its nineteenth-century parameters, which were the co-incidence or co-presence of the parallel Quiché and Spanish.

Imposing rigid textual and narrative boundaries on the manuscript is problematic because Ximénez is always present by way of his translation and the contextual permeation of his leading and trailing discourse. Assuming that the Quiché transcription controls the narrative boundaries dismisses Ximénez’s involvement and disinherits his paratextual contributions. The left margin of the first folio recto, for example, contains several important markings: a cross-reference to his scholium at the end of the volume, a Biblical cross-reference, and three sequential Arabic numerals (Figure 1). These are post-composition annotations and as such indicate that there is something greater at work beyond the mere signification of the narrative text on the page. In many cases, David Scott explains, textual accoutrements “indicat[e] various latent or implicit connections within” (28-29).

First folio recto of Ayer ms 1515 with the parallel Quiché and Spanish content (sometimes designated Popol Vuh's "preamble")
Figure 1: The first folio recto of Ayer ms 1515 with the parallel Quiché and Spanish content (sometimes designated Popol Vuh’s “preamble”)

It is striking to note that Ximénez’s three numerals appear in proximity to three poorly-qualified assertions of indigenous rhetoric. The preponderance of Maya and Aztec discourse was oral (though perhaps facilitated by art and mnemonics). This lack of physical records possessing the concreteness of the European alphabet became a point of consternation for many Europeans in the New World. Even those such as sixteenth century Jesuit missionary José de Acosta who favored the intellectual capacity of the natives had a hard time understanding how, “sin letras,” they could possibly sustain history, speeches, poems, or performances (Mignolo 313). Acosta’s Jesuit brother Joan de Tovar addressed his quandary in this way:

Pero es de advertir que aunque tenian diversas figuras y caracteres con que escrebian las cosas, no era tan suficientemente como nuestra escritura, que sin discrepar, por las mismas palabras, refiriese cada uno lo que estaba escrito: sólo concordaban en los conceptos; pero para tener memoria entera de las palabras y traza de los parlamentos que hacian los oradores, y de los muchos cantares que tenian, que todos sabian sin discrepar palabra, los cuales componian los mismos oradores, aunque los figuraban con sus caracteres, pero para conservarlos por las mismas palabras que los dijeron sus oradores y poetas, habia cada dia ejercicio dello en los colegios de los mozos principales que habian de ser sucesores á estos, y con la continua repeticion se les quedaba en la memoria, sin discrepar palabra, tomando las oraciones más famosas que en cada tiempo se hacian, por método, para imponer á los mozos que habian de ser retóricos; y de esta manera se conservaron muchos parlamentos, sin discrepar palabra, de gente en gente, hasta que vinieron los españoles, que en nuestra letra escribieron muchas oraciones y cantares que yo vi, y así se han conservado. Y con esto queda respondido á la última pregunta de “cómo era posible tener esta memoria de las palabras,” etc. (Icazbalceta 263-65)

There are numerous Mesoamerican examples of epistemologies that called for knowledge to be deposited in and entrusted to living, human vessels, which consequently rise to the diminution of inanimate records of books or stone (Mignolo 317, 322-23). In fact, a strong theme of Popol Vuh is the living essence of orality as an innate human distinction. The animals are unable to speak or intone the names of the creators, leading the gods to ask themselves, “What shall we do to be invoked, in order to be remembered on earth? We have already tried with our first creations, our first creatures; but we could not make them praise and venerate us” (Recinos 86).5 The gods create the first human out of earth and mud. “At first it spoke, but had no mind.” Mud man proved unviable because it soaked up water, lost its shape, and dissipated. So the gods determine that “man, whom we are going to make, will nourish and sustain us, invoke and remember us” (87). Next wooden figures were created that “looked like men, talked like men, and populated the surface of the earth […] but they did not have souls, nor minds, they did not remember their Creator, their Maker; […] therefore they fell out of favor” (89). The gods next command the animals to gather white and yellow corn which is formed into the shape of a person. This time, their humans “talked, conversed, saw and heard, walked, grasped things […]. They were endowed with intelligence […]. Then they gave thanks to the Creator and the Maker: ‘We really give you thanks, two and three times. We have been created, we have been given a mouth and a face, we speak, we hear, we think, and walk’” (168). And as they multiplied, “they did not forget the name of their grandfather and father” (171).

In addition to the orality required of mankind, the narration abounds with references to saying, telling, speaking, uttering, listening, hearing, silence, and noise. Intellect and cleverness are manifested in speech, as is seen in the tests of Hunahpú and Xbalanqué in Xibalbá, and their defeat of Vacub-Caquix and Zipacná through dialogic trickery and deception. Popol Vuh itself survived the conquest through oral transmission.6 One would expect the narrative to reflect this pedigree, but there are several paradoxical instances where Ximénez’s translation appears to be conceptually contradictory, particularly in his translation of the Quiché word, xchicatzibaj. At the point of conquest, xchicatzibaj would have been translated as pintar ‘to paint,’ but xchicatzibaj experienced a linguistic broadening in the colonial period and also came to mean escribir ‘to write’ (Tedlock 27; Christenson, Popol Vuh 243). Ximénez uses both meanings in his translation, but his choice of meaning is exclusively escribir in the first folio recto and exclusively pintar in the subsequent folia.7

There are three instances of xchicatzibaj as escribir in the first folio recto and Ximénez appears to have given each a corresponding Arabic numeral in the left-hand margin (Figure 1, shown previously). Also in this margin, Ximénez included a reference to his scholium at the end of the volume, which in turn uses the Arabic numerals to address the first folio’s assertions of European-style writing. The scholium reads in pertinent part:

Diçe num. 2. q’ lo escrive en tiempo de la cristiandad, y porq’ aunq’ avia libro en q’ todas estas cosas estaban escritas, y q’ vino de la otra parte de el mar, y q’ oy no se puede leer. lo çierto es q’ tal libro no pareçio nunca, ni se ha visto. y asi no se sabe si este modo de escrivir, era por pinturas, como los mexicanos, o, por hilos, como los peruleros · puedese creer q’ era por pinturas en mantas blancas, texidas figuras q’ denotaban las cosas […] y asi es factible conservasen en las memorias, y antiguallas (Escolios a las historias ln 318-26)

Several important impressions emerge from Ximénez’s commentary. One is that Ximénez has genuine doubt as to the pre-conquest physical formality of Popol Vuh in the sense proffered by the first folio. Another is that Ximénez considers it plausible that Popol Vuh was perpetuated chiefly on an oral basis.8 At this point we are presented with a seeming contradiction in the narrator’s affirmation of an antiquitous book. Furthermore, Ximénez’s cross reference bears witness to a shift in the narrative subject from first person plural in the first folio recto (“esto escriviremos ya en la ley de Dios, en la cristiandad”) to third person singular in the scholium (“lo escrive en tiempo de la cristiandad”). It is unexpected that the subject shifts not from we to they, but from we to the text. According to Michel Foucault, such shifts “refer to the real speaker and to the spatio-temporal coordinates of his discourse” (152). Furthermore, Constance G. Janiga Perkins has argued that shifts of this nature may point to a “fictitious speaker” and/or a “self-conscious writer” whose narrative persona exists primarily to build reader confidence (53, 61).

Writings from the colonial period were affected by the renaissance inversion of the author-function, which is to say, the relationship between author and text (Janiga-Perkins 47; Mignolo 324-25; Foucault). Prior to its inversion, “the texts that we today call ‘literary’ (narratives, stories, epics, tragedies, comedies) were accepted, put into circulation, and valorized without any question about the identity of their author; their anonymity caused no difficulties since their ancientness, whether real or imagined, was regarded as a sufficient guarantee of their status” (Foucault 149). But when the framework inverted in the seventeenth/eighteenth century, literary discourses came to require an explicit author: “We now ask of each poetic or fictional text: from where does it come, who wrote it, when, under what circumstances, or beginning with what design? The meaning ascribed to it and the status or value accorded it depend upon the manner in which we answer these questions” (149-50).

Title page from Ayer ms 1515 designating the start of the "Popol Vuh" content
Figure 2: Title page from Ayer ms 1515 designating the start of the “Popol Vuh” content

Ximénez’s title page (Figure 2, above) addresses many of the inversion impediments. It prominently displays Ximénez’s credentials, localizes the geography, states a purpose, and announces a textual formulation acceptable to Western readership. The text’s design is further explained in Ximénez’s third prologue (Figure 3, below).

Ximénez's Prologue from Ayer ms 1515 explaining his ecclesiastical purpose in conserving the "Popol Vuh" narrative
Figure 3: Ximénez’s third prologue from Ayer ms 1515 explaining his ecclesiastical purpose in conserving the “Popol Vuh” narrative

Ximénez seeks to “dar luz, y notiçia de los herrores, q’ tuvieron, en su gentilidad, y q’ todavia conservan entre si” (ln 20-21), and Ximénez is quick to take possession of the narrative as a personal endeavor: “Esta mi obra, y trabaxo” and “se reduçe esta mi obra” (ln. 14, 20). Ximénez attests in the scholium that the Quiché cultural/religious beliefs are still current, which he is uniquely able to present to other missionaries.

y aunq’ los Pes. antiguos les dieran çiertas historias de Stos. en su lengua q’ cantasen al tun, en lugar de las q’ ellos cantaban de su gentilidad, no obstante, yo entiendo q’ eso cantan en lo publico, y donde el Pe. los oye, y q’ alla en secreto haçen muey lindas memorias de su gentilidad. de estas cosas, y otras muchissimas q’ han llegado a mi notiçia, intento el formar estos escolios a esta su historia de ellos anotando lo q’ es historia antigua, y çitando a la historia q’ queda antes puesta. y anotando lo q’ toca en punto de nuestra Sta. fee catholica pa q’ mas comodidad tenga el q’ se quisiere approvechar de este mi trabaxo. (Escolios a las historias ln 131-39; emphases added)

Ximénez’s task as reporter/informer is not simply to quote and translate the Quiché discourse, but also the Quiché epistemology because, according to André Lefevere, translators and writers must manage a conceptual grid in addition to the textual grid. Their skill in managing the two grids “determine[s] how reality is constructed for the reader, not just of the translation, but also of the original” (77). For Ximénez, highland Maya discourse (analphabetic, anonymous, recitational) ran contrary to European expectations (written, authored, redemonstrable). The content of the first folio thus fulfills an important function by providing a suggestion of ancientness, concreteness, and currency in substitution for the author-function.9 As an added benefit, these attestations stood to preempt some of the problems faced by Bernardino de Sahagún who “found it necessary to defend the credibility of the speeches he was reporting” and also “to make clear that the content […] was not invented” (Mignolo 315).

The problem with the existing literature on Popol Vuh is that critics appear to have taken the text of the first folio recto too much at face value in drawing conclusions about Popol Vuh’s survival. Foucault cautions that “the author-function is not a pure and simple reconstruction made secondhand from a text given as passive material” (151-52). But this seems to be precisely what has been done with conclusions drawn from the first folio recto. It is not sufficiently established what the full extent of Ximénez’s interaction is with the text. To this end, Foucault says that the author-function can be used to evaluate incongruous words and expressions to determine the true speaker (151). And because the author-function “limits and controls every aspect of the text” (Janiga-Perkins 47; Foucault 148-59), we must not just simply accept the text as it is written (or claims to have been written). Ximénez’s preambles, annotations, commentary, and subsequent writings, his preoccupation with xchicatzibaj revealed through the implicit connection between the first folio and the scholium, and his nominative shift from we to the text suggest that Ximénez is excessively involved in managing the conceptual grid of the first folio. We are thus obliged to reconsider the authenticity of its statements with respect to the form of discourse. Without arguing what constitutes authentic discourse, we can at least identify that the statements are not fully indigenous. Accurate perceptions of Popol Vuh must include an awareness of Ximénez’s constant attendance beyond the narrow sense of copyist. Since Ximénez never discloses his source, instead inviting readers to infer what they wish from the first folio recto, it is plausible that there was no such alphabetic redaction among the Indians. The implied alternative is that he or another missionary made the first written text from an oral recitation.

In conclusion, the paratext of Ximénez’s manuscript brings new critical dimensions to the surface. Popol Vuh was part of a religious treatise composed specifically for European readers. Indigenous discourse was afflicted with a lack of epistemological credibility and needed an acceptable (i.e. alphabetic) formulation to be received, which in turn required a reasonably explicit author-function. Ximénez’s transcription and translation, to be successful, obliged some measure of conceptual grid management, and Ximénez is shown to be personally invested in the work. Ximénez’s paratextual ma(r)kers and the rhetorical architecture of the first folio recto problematize its inclusion within the narrative/textual boundaries and destabilize the traditional assumptions of the text’s survival. Including the content of the first folio recto in modern editions would thus seem improper unless the significance of its paratext is sufficiently explained. It is to be seen how future editions address these issues.

John M. Woodruff
Valdosta State University
The University of Alabama


1I approach Popol Vuh as a colonial text and therefore use the colonial spellings (i.e. Popol Vuh and Quiché versus Popol Wuj and K’iche’).

2The central highlands are found in and around the area of the present-day capital city.

3The foregoing synopsis is glossed from Quiroa (“Ideology” 282; Extirpation 55-70), Pagden (xiii-xl), and Megged (61-82). In contrast to the cited example of Florentine Codex, consider the literature on the Books of Chilam Balam for an example of subversion.

4Because the mythistory and scholium have their own title pages, their subordination to Tratado segvndo is mostly unrecognized and instead regarded as an inadvertent collation of discrete treatises. However, the volume’s four prologues reveal a purposeful concatenation of these elements on Ximénez’s part (Woodruff 72-76). Furthermore, the volume appears to have been so bound or collated since at least 1854 (Scherzer xi-xiv; Brasseur, Histoire xiii-xiv) and Giselle Simon, Director of Conservation Services at The Newberry Library, opines that the volume’s binding was consistent with nineteenth century work. She also believes it was likely bound in Guatemala: “I think it probably could have sustained more pest damage in Guatemala than it would have in France” and “if it was bound in Guatemala, I wouldn’t doubt it because of the worm holes and where they are and how they line up.”

5I am following the colonialist practice of using earliest editions for analysis and Recinos’ was the first edition after the (re)discovery of Ximénez’s manuscript. There are a number of more recent editions by Tedlock, Colop, and Christenson that are generally held in higher regard for their interpretation of the Quiché, but I am interested in Ximénez’s interaction with the narrative manifested through his semiotic determinations. Recinos’ edition adheres acceptably to Ximénez’s Spanish translation, which is the focus of this paper. The quoted passages may be compared with Carlos López’s transcription of folios 3r-4v, 33v, and 34v available online through The Ohio State University <>.

6I take this position on the basis that Popol Vuh was written alphabetically in the post-conquest environment strictly from memory (Christenson, Popol Vuh 36-37; Tedlock 30; Himelblau 2; Edmonson vii; Recinos 17, 23; Brasseur, Histoire des nations lxx). Most critics believe that this event occurred in the 1550s. Although this essay does not fully accept that premise, precisely when Popol Vuh was captured alphabetically is less important than the fact that it occurred after the establishment of missionary enclaves, which no one disputes.

7There is one exception in which Ximénez translates xchicatzibaj as escribir within the narrative body, but it is problematic because of Ximénez’s significant interaction with that specific folio. First, this folio is the object of an important synecdotal reference in Ximénez’s prologue to Arte de las tres lengvas (Woodruff 83-84) and as such indicates that Ximénez devoted special attention to this folio, possibly heralding a subconscious embedding of his Western predisposition. Second, Ximénez misspells a now obsolete Quiché prefix (compare Brasseur 208, Christenson, Literal 181). While the tzibaj root is translated accurately, the context would lend itself more to “nombrar” or “mencionar,” and there is demonstrable error on Ximénez’s part insofar as he does not (mis)spell the prefix in this fashion elsewhere in his manuscript.

8Ten to fifteen years later, Ximénez appears to have become even more certain of the idea, writing in his Historia de la provincia that Quiché (hi)story was something “que primero mamaban con la leche y que todos ellos casi lo tienen de memoria” (73).

9John Beverly has noted of testimonial writing that “the form of production and reception of the testimony confers [cultural or epistemological] authority” (10). In the case of colonial discourse, the requisite formulation was alphabetic writing, which automatically embeds an author-function.


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One Reply to “Ma(r)king Popol Vuh”

  1. The editors of Romance Notes did not publish the three photo illustrations, which have been restored here on this website. Citations of the essay’s text should be to the original publication. Citations of the essay’s text as it relates to the photo illustrations should cite this web page. An exact PDF version as published is available on Project Muse. This essay is subsequently cited by the following:

    Monteros, Pamela Espinosa de los. “Decolonial Information Practices: Repatriating and Stewarding the Popol Vuh Online.” Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture 48 (2019): 107 – 119.

    Hall, Matthew. The Imagination of Plants: A Book of Botanical Mythology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2019. Print.

    Rodriguez, Teresa Jeannette. Lady Blood: An Intuitive Inquiry into the Transformative Effects of Remembering my Ancestors. Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2018. Diss.

    Chen, Ning. “The Morphological Reading of the Mesoamerican Myth Popol Vuh.” Studies in Literature and Language. 13:3. 2016. 42-47.

    Andrews, Nicholas Jared. Texts of Protest: Perspectives on Suffering in the Book of Job and the Popol Vuh. California State University, Fresno, 2013. Thesis.