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.
Father Francisco Ximénez came as a Dominican missionary to the New World in February 1688. His companions were initially dispatched throughout the province to learn the native languages. However, Ximénez was delayed by the completion of his novitiate and his subsequent acceptance of an administrative assignment at the seminary, but by 1691 the young priest was in San Juan Sacatepéquez learning Cakchiquel. He attained sufficient mastery in only two months so as to be sent to San Pedro de las Huertas to assist Father Francisco de Viedma who was convalescing a broken leg. In December 1693, Ximénez began his service as the Doctrinero of San Raimundo and in August of 1701 Ximénez began his curacy of Santo Tomás Chichicastenango (also known as Chuilá and virtually any combination thereof). Father Ximénez was the Curate of Rabinal from 1704 through 1714. During this time he also served as the Doctrinero, Vicario, and Predicador-General of that district beginning as early as 1705. Father Ximénez served in various other capacities until his death in late 1729 or early 1730. Sadly, he was appointed Presentado, but died before the letters of patent could be delivered.
Ximénez’s writings exhibit a clear passion for the native languages. He was also clearly invested in the history of the region and was commissioned to compile a history of the region. The first volume of his Historia de la provincia de San Vicente de Chiapa y Gvatemala includes a modified version of Popol Vuh, specifically, chapters two through twenty-one of Book One, Qve trata del tiempo de la gentilidad. As for his initial transcription and translation of Popol Vuh, most believe it occurred during his 1701-1703 curacy of Santo Tomás Chuilá (Chichicastenango) based on the caption of the title page. Interestingly enough, this very title page reads Empiezan las historias del origen de los indios de esta provinçia de Gvatemala. Ximénez never actually refers to the mythistory as “Popol Vuh.” In any event, his writings remained posthumously in the possession of the Dominican Order at the Convent of Santo Domingo, that is, until General Francisco Morazán expelled the clerics from Guatemala in 1829 causing these and other items to pass to the Universidad de San Carlos. In all there is rather little biographical information available and there are no known portraits.
Karl Ritter von Scherzer [Carl Scherzer in his Spanish editions] was born May 1821 in Vienna. His participation in the 1848 revolution resulted in temporary exile. He worked a stint as a printer in both Leipzig and Paris. Scherzer spent three years in North America with Moritz Wagner from 1852 to 1855. It was during this trip that in 1854 Scherzer encountered several colonial manuscripts in the municipal library and in the library of the Universidad de San Carlos. He found three of Ximénez’s works in the university’s library: an incomplete Historia de la provincia de San Vicente de Chiapa y Gvatemala, a vocabulary, and an untitled volume “of greater interest.” He made or had a copy made of the material that came to be known as “Popol Vuh” and published it in Vienna in 1857 as Las Historias del Origen de Los Indios. Scherzer’s edition was the first in print and his introduction contained a detailed inventory of the full volume that served as his source.
Scherzer’s travels with Wagner also formed the basis for his 1855 work, Sprachen der Indianer Central-Amerika’s während seinen mehrjährigen Reisen in den verschiedenen Staaten Mittel-Amerika’s aufgezeichnet und zusammengestellt. About the same time that he published Las Historias del Origen de Los Indios in 1857, he also published an account of his American travels as Wanderungen durch die mittelamerikanischen Freistaaten, Nicaragua, Honduras und San Salvador or Travels in the Free States of Central America: Nicaragua, Honduras, and San Salvador. This travelogue reads much like a personal diary.
In 1856 Scherzer boarded the Novara circumnavigation expedition and published his experiences in three volumes. He led an exploration to Eastern Asia and served as Austrian consul to Izmir, London, Geneva, and Leipzig. Scherzer died February 1903 in Gorizia. However, well before Scherzer’s death, Brasseur appropriated Ximénez’s writings for a different purpose, namely, to prove the origin of the Indians in accordance with his literal Biblical worldview.
Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg
Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg was born September 1814 in Bourbourg, France. After his ordination in 1845, Brasseur was recruited by Abbé Léon Gingras to serve in Québec. While his superiors insisted on additional studies in ecclesiastical history, Brasseur instead delved into the archdiocesan archives there at Québec and “published” his Esquisse biographique sur Mgr. de Laval, premier Evêque de Québec. Brasseur then left for Boston where he had previously formed a good relationship with Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick. Brasseur then returned to France in late 1846 or early 1847. He joined an expedition to Mexico where he resided from 1848 to 1851.
In 1852 Brasseur published Histoire du Canada de son église et de ses missions depuis la découverte de l’Amérique jusqu’à nos jours. This work, however, was met with significant controversy and Brasseur was lambasted for an affected, careless style punctuated with a looseness and inattention to factual detail. The Canadian backlash eventually prompted Brasseur’s bishop to withdraw his imprimatur, albeit somewhat ambiguously.
Brasseur next traveled to Guatemala in February 1855 where he resided in and around the capital city, in Rabinal, and in San Juan Sacatepéquez until his departure in January 1857. Several months later, Brasseur published the first volume of his Histoire des nations civilisées du Mexique et de l’Amérique-Centrale. In 1861, Brasseur published Popol vuh. Le livre sacré et les mythes de l’antiquité américaine. This was the first of his series loosely titled “Collection de documents dans les langues indigènes, pour servir à l’étude de l’histoire et de la philologie de l’Amérique ancienne.” The second volume came out in 1862 titled Grammaire de la langue Quichée Espagnole-Française mise en parallèle avec ses deux dialectes, Cakchiquel et Tzutuhil, tirée des manuscrits des meilleurs auteurs guatémaliens.Although these three works deal directly with Popol Vuh content, Brasseur is very evasive about his source material.
In 1872 Brasseur printed a Bibliothèque Mexico-Guatémalienne précédée d’un coup d’œil sur les études Américaines. In this work Brasseur contradicts his prior statements concerning his Popol Vuh source material. Brasseur died in Nice, France in 1874.
Born in 1852, Alphonse Pinart ambled through adolescence without direction until he met Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg at the 1867 World Fair in Paris. He was inspired to pursue a career in ethnology, though not in the same line as Brasseur. Whereas Brasseur keenly focused on Central American ethnohistory, Pinart preferred the languages of the Pacific ocean, from North America to the Indonesian islands.
Pinart authored several papers and books in the course of his studies. He also amassed a considerable collection of documents in addition to Brasseur’s library which passed to him upon Brasseur’s death. Pinart never expanded upon Brasseur’s efforts. Pinart fell into financial ruin and sold his—and therefore Brasseur’s—collection in 1884.
Adrián Recinos was born July 1886 in Antigua, Guatemala to a notable family of Huehuetenango. He graduated from the Instituto Nacional Central de Varones in 1902 and subsequently earned a law degree from the Facultad de Ciencias Jurídicas y Sociales at the Universidad de Guatemala in 1907. Recinos entered politics the following year as secretario de la Legación de Guatemala to El Salvador. From 1910 to 1920 he rose to the rank of Subsecretario del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores. It appears that as a prominent leader of Estrada Cabrera’s political party, Recinos was elected to serve in the National Legislative Assembly from 1920-1921 before returning to the ministry of foreign relations under the presidency of José María Orellana (Estrada Cabrera’s successor). A stint as Ministro Plenipotenciario to France, Spain, and Italy followed from 1923-1925. Upon Orellana’s death, Recinos returned briefly to the National Legislative Assembly during the first year of Lázaro Chacón’s presidency.
Recinos’ career, however, changed considerably in 1928 when he arrived in Washington, D.C., again as Ministro Plenipotenciario, though completing his tenure with an ambassadorship from 1942-1944. After a series of coups that unseated President Jorge Ubico, Recinos returned to Guatemala to seek the presidency, but he lost the election to Juan José Arévalo and remained abroad for the rest of the decade. Recinos represented Guatemala in the United Nations from 1954 to 1959 before becoming Guatemala’s ambassador to Spain, serving there through 1961. He died March 1962 in Guatemala. His obituary in the New York Times regards him as one of the early proponents of the Organization of American States. Recinos was also active in a number of socio-political organizations including The American Society of International Law in Washington, D.C.
Recinos’ professional career is punctuated with socio-cultural endeavors. When Recinos started his diplomatic journey in the 1910s, he aligned himself, at least in part, with modernist thinkers also present in the capital. The earliest evidence of these relationships is with Virgilio Rodríguez Bateta, then director of Diario de Centro América. In or around 1917, and while serving as undersecretary of foreign affairs, Recinos and Rodríguez Bateta jointly came up with the idea of a society dedicated to the preservation of Guatemalan history. They found some support in President Estrada Cabrera’s administration and the Sociedad de Geografía e Historia de Guatemala formed in 1923. The Society declared its purpose as furthering the historical and geographical studies of the nation and to achieve their diffusion and popularization by whatever means possible. By the time Recinos published his edition of Popol Vuh in 1947, the Society had just released its eighteenth volume and counted among its titles the works of Antonio de Remesal, Francisco Antonio Fuentes y Guzmán, Juan Villagutierre Sotomayor, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Pedro de Alvarado, Francisco Vázquez, and the anonymous Isagoge histórico-apologética de las Indias. However, the Society did notpublish Recinos’ edition of Popol Vuh (it was actually published in Mexico by Fondo de Cultura Económica). Recinos served as president of the Sociedad de Geografía e Historia in the 1950s.
Adrián Recinos’ published or translated a number of ethnologic works. He was a close friend of Sylvanus G. Morley and each translated works by the other. Recinos translated Morley’s Guidebook to the Ruins of Quiriguá (1936) as well as Morley’s 600-page The Ancient Maya(1947). Morley in turn collaborated on the English translation of Recinos’ Popol Vuh (1950). Recinos completed the remainder of Daniel Brinton’s translation of Anales de los Cakchiqueles(also known as Memorial de Sololá), Título de Totonicapán, and various other indigenous texts, most of which had previously been passed by Brasseur.