Popol Vuh

Tikal Central Complex Temple IIRoughly 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—Folio from the Madrid codexall 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.

Fresco depicting scene from Popol VuhPopol 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.

Digital still of cover page for Popol VuhPopol 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 with his order, presumably at the Convento de Santo Domingo in the capital. 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.

Editorial History

Distinguishing the popular and historical context of Popol Vuh depends crucially upon understanding the text’s editorial history as well as the editorial actors themselves (which is extensively reviewed in the first chapter of my doctoral thesis). The first two editions of Popol Vuh are arguably the most influential of all. The first published edition of Popol Vuh appeared in 1857 by Carl Scherzer. The second published edition of Popol Vuh came in 1861 by Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg who first coined the title “Popol Vuh,” divided the narrative into chapters, and added extensive notes. But whereas Scherzer retained Ximénez’s title (“las historias”) and two of the prologues, Brasseur discarded Ximénez’s paratext and attached his own 262-page prefatory “dissertation sur les mythes” that effectively recontextualized the narrative as an ethnographic work rather than as a missionary endeavor. Brasseur was also extremely opaque about his source material and after Brasseur died, Ximénez’s manuscript vanished.

Following Brasseur, all editions until 1947 were indirect works based on Brasseur and Scherzer (and to a lesser extent, Ximénez’s monolingual redaction found in Historia de la provinçia). One of the more recognized works was by Georges Raynaud in 1925. One of Raynaud’s students at the Sorbonne was Miguel Ángel Asturias who collaborated on the edition and produced a Spanish translation in 1927. Asturias, in turn, brought Popol Vuh back into the literary consciousness through his novel, Hombres de maíz.

In 1941, Guatemalan diplomat Adrián Recinos (re)discovered Ximénez’s manuscript in The Newberry Library and prepared the first direct edition in nearly a century. Since then, editions can reasonably be assumed to be based principally on Ximénez’s manuscript. Brasseur’s influence is still evident, though, in the perpetuation of his “Popol Vuh” moniker and in the chapter divisions. Some editors have attempted to versify the Quiché text. The following table gives the prominent editions of Popol Vuh.

Direct editions

1857 Text AvailableScherzer, Carl. Las Historias del Origen de Los Indios.
(There are two imprints of Scherzer’s edition, Vienna and London)
1861 Text AvailableBrasseur de Bourbourg, Charles Étienne. Popol vuh. Le livre sacré et les mythes de l’antiquité américaine.
(There are two imprints of Brasseur’s edition, Paris and London)

Indirect editions

1872 Gavarrete, Juan. El Popol Buj. Versión española de la traducción de Brasseur de Bourbourg comparada con la de Ximénez, con notas tomadas de ambos comentadores y concordancias con las Santas Escrituras.
1908 Spence, Lewis. The Popol Vuh. The Mythic and Heroic Sagas of the Kichés of Central America.
1913 Pohorilles, Noah Elieser. Das Popol Wuh. Die mystische Geschichte des Kicé-Volkes von Guatemala nach dem Original-Texte übersetz und bearbeitet.
1925 Raynaud, Georges. Les dieux, les héros et les hommes d l’ancien Guatémala d’après le Livre du Conseil. [based on Brasseur’s edition]
1927 Asturias, Miguel Ángel. Los dioses, los héroes y los hombres de Guatemala antigua o el Libro del Consejo. Popol Vuh de los indios quichés.[translation of Raynaud]
1927 Villacorta, José Antonio Villacorta. Manuscrito de Chichicastenango. El Popol Vuj. Estudio sobre las antiguas tradiciones del Pueblo Quiché.
1944 Schultze Jena, Leonhard S. Popol Vuh: Das heilige Buch der Quiché-Indianer von Guatemala.

Modern editions

1947 Recinos, Adrián. Popol vuh. Las antiguas historias del Quiché
1950 Goetz, Delia, and Sylvanus G. Morley. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiche Maya. [English translation of Recinos]
1971 Edmonson, Munro S. The Book of Counsel: The Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala.
1973 Estrada Monroy, Augustín. Empiezan las historias del origen de los indios de esta provincia de Guatemala. Popol Vuh. [“Edición Facsimilar”]
1985 Tedlock, Dennis. Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life. [revised 1996].
1999 Colop, Sam. Popol Wuj: Versi6n Poetica K’iche’.
2003 Christenson, Allen J. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya.


Derivative editions (1862-1946)

All of the editions between 1861 and 1947 are derivative editions based on Brasseur, Scherzer, and Gavarrete. Gavarrete was a librarian/archivist in Guatemala who copied part of Ximénez’s Historia de la provinçia (which it will be recalled contained a monolingual redaction of what is found in his ecclesiastic treatise). Gavarrete’s copy created some confusion as to the “original,” which is now believed to be the one in Berlin. Brasseur’s version gained a lot of traction through Georges Raynaud and his student Miguel Ángel Asturias. Asturias in turn seeded Popol Vuh into the Indianista literary movement of the twentieth century effectively adding another transatlantic dimension.

Modern editions (1947-)

Ximénez’s Historia de la provincia served as the source a minor edition by José Antonio Villacorta in the 1930s.

1927 José Antonio Villacorta C. Manuscrito de Chichicastenango. El Popol Vuj. Estudio sobre las antiguas tradiciones del Pueblo Quiché.