An Account of the Popol Vuh
Well, the Quichés believed that there was a time when all that exists in heaven and earth was made. All was then in suspense, all was calm and silent; all was immovable, all peaceful, and the vast space of the heavens was empty. There was no man, no animal, no shore, no trees; heaven alone existed. The face of the earth was not to be seen; there was only the still expanse of the sea and the heaven above. Divine Beings were on the waters like a growing light. Their voice was heard as they meditated and consulted, and when the dawn rose, man appeared. Then the waters were commanded to retire, the earth was established that she might bear fruit and that the light of day might shine on heaven and earth.
'For, they said, we shall receive neither glory nor honour from all we have created until there is a human being—a being endowed with reason. "Earth," they said, and in a moment the earth was formed. Like a vapour it rose into being, mountains appeared from the waters like lobsters, and the great mountains were made. Thus was the creation of the earth, when it was fashioned by those who are the Heart of heaven, the Heart of the earth; for thus were they called who first gave fertility to them, heaven and earth being still inert and suspended in the midst of the waters.'
Then follows the creation of the brute world, and the disappointment of the gods when they command the animals to tell their names and to honour those who had created them. Then the gods said to the animals:
'You will be changed, because you cannot speak. We have changed your speech. You shall have your food and your dens in the woods and crags; for our glory is not perfect, and you do not invoke us. There will be beings still that can salute us; we shall make them capable of obeying. Do your task; as to your flesh, it will be broken by the tooth.'
Then follows the creation of man. His flesh was made of earth (terre glaise). But man was without cohesion or power, inert and aqueous; he could not turn his head, his sight was dim, and though he had the gift of speech, he had no intellect. He was soon consumed again in the water.
And the gods consulted a second time how to create beings that should adore them, and after some magic ceremonies, men were made of wood, and they multiplied. But they had no heart, no intellect, no recollection of their Creator; they did not lift up their heads to their Maker, and they withered away and were swallowed up by the waters.
Then follows a third creation, man being made of a tree called tzité, woman of the marrow of a reed called sibac. They, too, did neither think nor speak before him who had made them, and they were likewise swept away by the waters and destroyed. The whole nature—animals, trees, and stones—turned against men to revenge the wrongs they had suffered at their hands, and the only remnant of that early race is to be found in small monkeys which still live in the forests.
Then follows a story of a very different character, and which completely interrupts the progress of events. It has nothing to do with the creation, though it ends with two of its heroes being changed into sun and moon. It is a story very much like the fables of the Brahmans or the German Mährchen. Some of the principal actors in it are clearly divine beings who have been brought down to the level of human nature, and who perform feats and tricks so strange and incredible that in reading them we imagine ourselves in the midst of the Arabian Nights. In the struggles of the two favourite heroes against the cruel princes of Xibalba, there may be reminiscences of historical events; but it would be perfectly hopeless to attempt to extricate these from the mass of fable by which they are surrounded. The chief interest of the American tale consists in the points of similarity which it exhibits with the tales of the Old World. We shall mention two only—the repeated resuscitation of the chief heroes, who, even when burnt and ground to powder and scattered on the water, are born again as fish and changed into men; and the introduction of animals endowed with reason and speech. As in the German tales, certain peculiarities in the appearance and natural habits of animals are frequently accounted for by events that happened 'once upon a time'—for instance, the stumpy tail of the bear, by his misfortune when he went out fishing on the ice—so we find in the American tales, 'that it was when the two principal heroes (Hun-Ahpu and Xbalanqué) had caught the rat and were going to strangle it over the fire, that le rat commença à porter une queue sans poil. Thus, because a certain serpent swallowed a frog who was sent as a messenger, therefore aujourd'hui encore les serpents engloutissent les crapauds.'
The story, which well deserves the attention of those who are interested in the origin and spreading of popular tales, is carried on to the end of the second book, and it is only in the third that we hear once more of the creation of man.
Three attempts, as we saw, had been made and had failed. We now hear again that before the beginning of dawn, and before the sun and moon had risen, man had been made, and that nourishment was provided for him which was to supply his blood, namely, yellow and white maize. Four men are mentioned as the real ancestors of the human race, or rather of the race of the Quichés. They were neither begotten by the gods nor born of woman, but their creation was a wonder wrought by the Creator. They could reason and speak, their sight was unlimited, and they knew all things at once. When they had rendered thanks to their Creator for their existence, the gods were frightened and they breathed a cloud over the eyes of men that they might see a certain distance only, and not be like the gods themselves. Then while the four men were asleep, the gods gave them beautiful wives, and these became the mothers of all tribes, great and small. These tribes, both black and white, lived and spread in the East. They did not yet worship the gods, but only turned their faces up to heaven, hardly knowing what they were meant to do here below. Their features were sweet, so was their language, and their intellect was strong.
We now come to a most interesting passage, which is intended to explain the confusion of tongues. No nation, except the Jews, has dwelt much on the problem why there should be many languages instead of one. Grimm, in his 'Essay on the Origin of Language,' remarks: 'It may seem surprising that neither the ancient Greeks nor the ancient Indians attempted to propose or to solve the question as to the origin and the multiplicity of human speech. Holy Writ strove to solve at least one of these riddles, that of the multiplicity of languages, by means of the tower of Babel. I know only one other poor Esthonian legend which might be placed by the side of this biblical solution. "The old god," they say, "when men found their first seats too narrow, resolved to spread them over the whole earth, and to give to each nation its own language. For this purpose he placed a caldron of wateron the fire, and commanded the different races to approach it in order, and to select for themselves the sounds which were uttered by the singing of the water in its confinement and torture.'"
Grimm might have added another legend which is current among the Thlinkithians, and was clearly framed in order to account for the existence of different languages. The Thlinkithians are one of the four principal races inhabiting Russian America. They are called Kaljush, Koljush, or Kolosh by the Russians, and inhabit the coast from about 60° to 45° N.L., reaching therefore across the Russian frontier as far as the Columbia River, and they likewise hold many of the neighbouring islands. Weniaminow estimates their number, both in the Russian and English colonies, at 20 to 25,000. They are evidently a decreasing race, and their legends, which seem to be numerous and full of original ideas, would well deserve the careful attention of American ethnologists. Wrangel suspected a relationship between them and the Aztecs of Mexico. These Thlinkithians believe in a general flood or deluge, and that men saved themselves in a large floating building. When the waters fell, the building was wrecked on a rock, and by its own weight burst into two pieces. Hence arose the difference of languages. The Thlinkithians with their language remained on one side; on the other side were all the other races of the earth.
Neither the Esthonian nor the Thlinkithian legend, however, offers any striking points of coincidence with the Mosaic accounts. The analogies, therefore, as well as the discrepancies, between the ninth chapter of Genesis and the chapter here translated from the Quiché MS. require special attention:
'All had but one language, and they did not invoke as yet either wood or stones; they only remembered the word of the Creator, the Heart of heaven and earth.
'And they spoke while meditating on what was hidden by the spring of day; and full of the sacred word, full of love, obedience, and fear, they made their prayers, and lifting their eyes up to heaven, they asked for sons and daughters:
'"Hail! O Creator and Fashioner, thou who seest and hearest us! do not forsake us, O God, who art in heaven and earth, Heart of the sky, Heart of the earth! Give us offspring and descendants as long as the sun and dawn shall advance. Let there be seed and light. Let us always walk on open paths, on roads where there is no ambush. Let us always be quiet and in peace with those who are ours. May our lives run on happily. Give us a life secure from reproach. Let there be seed for harvest, and let there be light."
'They then proceeded to the town of Tulan, where they received their gods.
'And when all the tribes were there gathered together, their speech was changed, and they did not understand each other after they arrived at Tulan. It was there that they separated, and some went to the East, others came here. Even the language of the four ancestors of the human race became different. "Alas," they said, "we have left our language. How has this happened? We are ruined! How could we have been led into error? We had but one language when we came to Tulan; our form of worship was but one. What we have done is not good," replied all the tribes in the woods and under the lianas.'
The rest of the work, which consists altogether of four books, is taken up with an account of the migrations of the tribes from the East, and their various settlements. The four ancestors of the race seem to have had a long life, and when at last they came to die, they disappeared in a mysterious manner, and left to their sons what is called the Hidden Majesty, which was never to be opened by human hands. What it was we do not know. There are many subjects of interest in the chapters which follow, only we must not look there for history, although the author evidently accepts as truly historical what he tells us about the successive generations of kings. But when he brings us down at last, after sundry migrations, wars, and rebellions, to the arrival of the Castilians, we find that between the first four ancestors of the human or of the Quiché race and the last of their royal dynasties, there intervene only fourteen generations, and the author, whoever he was, ends with the confession:
'This is all that remains of the existence of Quiché; for it is impossible to see the book in which formerly the kings could read everything, as it has disappeared. It is over with all those of Quiché! It is now called Santa-Cruz!'