Roughly five hundred years before the Spanish conquest, the ancient Maya civilization that once erected breathtaking stone temples and civic complexes dissolved into small- and mid-sized regions of power and influence. The jungle swallowed their monuments and the Spanish conquerors, chaplains, and missionaries of the sixteenth century suppressed most of what remained of the pre-conquest culture. Of particular loss were their fan-fold “books” made from lime-bleached amate and adorned with the majestic figures characteristic of Maya writing. Only three such confirmed items survive today—the Madrid, Paris, and Dresden codices—all of which had already been whisked away to Europe long before their existence became known to the world. Still, Maya epigraphers could not meaningfully decipher these or their stone inscriptions until the latter part of the twentieth century. In the absence of authentic and comprehensible material, the written accounts of the Spanish establishment arose as the authoritative sources of historiographic and ethnographic information on the pre-colonial civilizations and populations. A number of these colonial texts are commonly recognizable, but perhaps the most recognizable of all is Popol Vuh.
Popol Vuh is the title commonly given to a periconquest narrative of the Quiché Maya Indians of central highland Guatemala (roughly the area around the present-day capital city). The content of Popol Vuh is chiefly a blend of myth and history. The myth comprehends a creation story that includes a diluvian suggestion and epic tales of anthropomorphic ancestors. The myth transitions into history through a tale of an ancestral migration to the east to observe the first dawn and from which the sojourners emerge with distinct languages, tribes, and clans. We are told how the Quichean tribes arrived in the western highlands and there is an anecdotal tale of how the Quiché rose to prominence over their related Cakchiquel and Tzutuhil tribes. 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 Conquest.
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 survives by way of the seventeenth-century Dominican priest Father Francisco Ximénez whose interest in history and languages led him to author several treatises, one of which contains “Popol Vuh” in parallel Quiché and Spanish columns. Ximénez, however, never refers to the text as “Popol Vuh” but rather “las historias,” which he incorporated 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.
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 Carl Scherzer and also in 1855 by 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 Edward E. Ayer for his personal collection which he ultimately donated to The Newberry Library over a period from 1897 to 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.