Popol Vuh (Poopol Wuuj) is a corpus of mytho-historical narratives of the Post Classic K’iche’ kingdom in Guatemala’s western highlands. The title translates as “Book of the Community”, “Book of Counsel”, or more literally as “Book of the People”.
Popol Vuh’s prominent features are its creation myth, its diluvian suggestion, its epic tales of the Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, and its genealogies. The myth begins with the exploits of anthropomorphic ancestors and concludes with a regnal genealogy, perhaps as an assertion of rule by divine right.
As with other texts a great deal of Popol Vuh’s significance lies in the scarcity of early accounts dealing with Mesoamerican mythologies. Popol Vuh’s fortuitous survival is attributable to the Spanish 18th century Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez.
What follows is the chapter on the Gods seeking to create Wooden Effigy People to worship them, having failed with the animals, a part of the Popol Vuh Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People Translation and Commentary by Allen J. Christenson. The translation is a wonderful work of sensitivity that adds serenity and grace to the Popol Vuh.
HURACAN, along with Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent, then spoke to the Master of Days and the Mistress of Shaping, they who are seers: “It shall be found; it shall be discovered how we are to create shaped and framed people who will be our providers and sustainers. May we be called upon, and may we be remembered. For it is with words that we are sustained, O Midwife and Patriarch, our Grandmother and our Grandfather, Xpiyacoc and Xmucane.
Thus may it be spoken. May it be sown. May it dawn so that we are called upon and supported, so that we are remembered by framed and shaped people, by effigies and forms of people. Hearken and let it be so.
“Reveal your names, Hunahpu Possum and Hunahpu Coyote, Great She Who Has Borne Children and Great He Who Has Begotten Sons, Great Peccary and Great Coati, Jeweler and Worker in Precious Stones, Sculptor and Wood Worker, Creator of the Green Earth and Creator of the Blue Sky, Incense Maker and Master Artist, Grandmother of Day and Grandmother of Light. Thus shall you all be called by that which we shall frame and shape. Cast grains of maize and tz’ite to divine how what we shall make will come out when we grind and chisel out its mouth and face in wood,” so it was said to the Masters of Days.
Thus began the divination ceremony, the casting of grains of maize and of tz’ite, the revelation of days and of shaping. Then spoke the one Grandmother and the one Grandfather to them.
For this was the Grandfather, the Master of the Tz’ite, Xpiyacoc by name. And this was the Grandmother, the Mistress of Days and Mistress of Shaping who is at the foot, who is called Xmucane.
Thus they began to speak, to carry out their divination ceremony:If this is to be the provider and the sustainer, then may it now be sown that the dawn may come. You, grains of maize, and you, tz’ite; you, days, and you, the shaping — you are called, you are summoned.” Thus it was said to the grains of maize and the tz’ite, to the days and the shaping.
“Bring it to a conclusion, O Heart of Sky. Do not punish them further.Do not cause any more suffering for Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent,” they said.
Then they spoke straight to the point:
“May these effigies of wood come out well. May they speak. May they communicate there upon the face of the earth. May it be so,” they said.
“May it be discovered. May it be found. Say it! Our ears hear you. Speak! Tell it! May the tree be found that is to be carved and chiseled out by the Framer and the Shaper.
And when they had spoken, straightaway the effigies of carved wood were made. They had the appearance of people and spoke like people as well. They populated the whole face of the earth. The effigies of carved wood began to multiply, bearing daughters and sons.
Nevertheless, they still did not possess their hearts nor their minds. They did not remember their Framer or their Shaper. They walked without purpose. They crawled on their hands and knees and did not remember Heart of Sky. Thus they were weighed in the balance. They were merely an experiment, an attempt at people. At first they spoke, but their faces were all dried up. Their legs and arms were not filled out. They had no blood or blood flow within them. They had no sweat or oil. Their cheeks were dry, and their faces were masks. Their legs and arms were stiff. Their bodies were rigid. Thus they were not capable of understanding before their Framer and their Shaper, those who had given them birth and given them hearts. They were the first numerous people who have lived here upon the face of the earth.
THE FALL OF THE EFFIGIES OF CARVED WOOD
THEN came the end of the effigies carved of wood, for they were ruined, crushed, and killed. A flood was planned by Heart of Sky that came down upon the heads of the effigies carved of wood.
The body of man had been carved of tz’ite wood by the Framer and the Shaper. The body of woman consisted of reeds according to the desire of the Framer and the Shaper. But they were not capable of understanding and did not speak before their Framer and their Shaper, their makers and their creators.
Thus they were killed in the flood. There came a great resin down from the sky.
There came the ones called Chiselers of Faces, who gouged out their eyes. There came Death Knives, which cut off their heads. There came Crouching Jaguar, who ate their flesh. There came Striking Jaguar, who struck them. They smashed their bones and their tendons.
Their bones were ground up. They were broken into pieces. Their faces were ground up because they proved to be incapable of understanding before the face of their mother and the face of their father, Heart of Sky, Huracan by name. Thus they caused the face of the earth to be darkened, and there fell a black rain, a rain that fell both day and night. The small and the great animals came in upon them. Their faces were crushed by the trees and the stones. They were spoken to by all their maize grinders and their cooking griddles, their plates and their pots, their dogs and their grinding stones. However many things they had, all of them crushed their faces.
Their dogs and their turkeys said to them:
“Pain you have caused us. You ate us. Therefore it will be you that we will eat now.”
Then the grinding stones said this to them:
“We were ground upon by you. Every day, every day, in the evening and at dawn, always you did holi, holi, huki, huki on our faces. This was our service for you who were the first people. But this day you shall feel our strength. We shall grind you like maize. We shall grind up your flesh,” said their grinding stones to them.
Then their dogs said this to them:
“Why was it that you didn’t give us our food? All we did was look at you, and you chased us away. You threw us out. You raised sticks against us to beat us while you ate. Thus you have spoken to us. We could not speak; therefore we received nothing from you. How could you not have understood this? You did understand. We were forgotten because of you. This day, therefore, you shall try the teeth that are in our mouths. We shall eat you,” said the dogs to them. Thus their faces were crushed.
Then spoke also their griddles and their pots to them:
“Pain you have caused us. Our mouths and our faces are sooty. You were forever throwing us upon the fire and burning us. Although we felt no pain, you now shall try it. We shall burn you,” said all of their pots. Thus their faces were all crushed.
The stones of the hearth flattened them. They would come out from the fire, landing on their heads and causing them pain. They fled. They hurried away. They wanted to climb up on top of the houses, but the houses would fall apart beneath them and they were thrown off. They wanted to climb up to the tops of the trees, but the trees would not support them. They wanted to hide in caves, but the mouths of the caves closed up before their faces.
Thus the framed people, the shaped people, were undone. They were demolished and overthrown as people. The mouths and the faces of all of them were ruined and crushed.
It is said that the spider monkeys that are in the forest today are descendants of these people. This was their heritage because their flesh was merely wood when it was created by the Framer and the Shaper. Therefore the spider monkeys appear like people, descendants of one generation of framed and shaped people. But they were only effigies carved of wood.
As Fray Bernardino de Sahagún observed: the Mexicans “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations." We explore the history and legacy of the Nahua and Maya civilizations, both of which challenge our preconceptions.