Popol Vuh

Fresco depicting scene from Popol VuhPopol Vuh is a religious text 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.

As of 01/16/2020, the following is being recompiled

Popol Vuh History and Agency

Popol Vuh Title PagePopol Vuh survives by way of seventeenth-century Dominican priest Father Francisco Ximénez (1666 – 1729) whose manuscripts contain the oldest-surviving written account. But even with Ximénez’s fortuitous conservation, Popol Vuh very nearly disappeared from history having narrowly survived political upheaval, larceny, three private collections, and two transatlantic voyages before reaching safe harbor in Chicago, Illinois in 1911.  Even so, the manuscript slumbered in obscurity until Adrián Recinos’ (re)discovery in 1941.

Francisco Ximénez’s conservation

Francisco Ximénez  arrived in the New World in 1688. Ximénez showed a remarkable aptitude for language and very quickly rose in ecclesiastical responsibilities becoming “Doctrinero” of San Raimundo by 1693 and of Santo Tomás Chichicastenangoin beginning in 1701.  Ximénez then served as the priest, doctrinero, vicario, and predicador-general of Rabinal from 1703 to 1714. Ximénez was eventually elevated to “presentado” but died before the letters of patent could be delivered.

Ximénez’s 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.

La Universidad de San Carlos

After Ximénez’s death in late 1729 or early 1730, his manuscripts remained in the convent of his order (probably the one in Rabinal) until General Francisco Morazán expelled the clerics in 1829 and Ximénez’s writings were deposited in Universidad de San Carlos library. History is silent as to how Ximénez’s texts made this journey. It is possible that the exiting Dominicans delivered them to San Carlos for safekeeping, but it is also very possible that the texts were simply seized by the government. It is noteworthy, though, that other religious treatises did not fare nearly as well and were damaged, destroyed, looted, or otherwise lost. The fact that all of Ximénez works made it to San Carlos can only be the result of intentional agency.

Once at the Universidad de San Carlos a civil servant named Juan Gavarrete developed a keen personal interest in Ximénez’s historical writings and in 1845 began composing a copyscript of Ximénez’s second monolingual version of the Quiché narrative from Historia de la provincia. (And though Gavarrete does not specifically indicate that he intended to publish Ximénez’s text, it would seems to be the best inference from the evidence.) Gavarrete either lost interest or failed to find a publisher, it was a direct result of Gavarrete’s familiarity with Ximénez’s writings that led to Carl Scherzer’s first published editionin 1857.

Carl Scherzer Publishes First Edition

Americanism and Indiamnism bexame extremely fashionable social interests in nonteenth-century Europe. Carl Scherzer accompanied Moritz Wagner and others on a Central American excursion from 1854 through 1855. As a scientific discipline, archeology was in its infancy which meant that studies of ancient peoples and civilizations derived primarily from the written accounts of the colonial Europeans.

In May 1854 Carl Scherzer arrived in Guatemala City and

Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg “Absconds” and Publishes Second Edition

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.

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, and of its fundamental editors Carl Scherzer, Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, and Adrián Recinos.

Narrative Versus Text

Popol Vuh’s human agency essentially created two different ontological entities. As a narrative, Popol Vuh is a cultural treasure; as a text Popol Vuh is a historical artifact.