History of the Quiché Maya

What is the importance of the Maya book known as Popol Vuh?

Wooden statuettes
Wooden statuettes, Chichicastenango, EWooden statuettes, Chichicastenango, El Quiche, Guatemalal Quiche, Guatemala. Peter Langer / Getty Images

The Popol Vuh ("Council Book" or "Council Papers") is the most important sacred book of the Quiché; (or K'iche') Maya of the Guatemalan Highlands. The Popol Vuh is an important text for understanding Late Postclassic and Early Colonial Maya religion, myth, and history, but also because it also offers interesting glimpses into Classic Period beliefs.

History of the Text

The surviving text of the Popol Vuh was not written in Mayan hieroglyphics, but rather is a transliteration into European script written between 1554-1556 by someone said to have been a Quiché nobleman. Between 1701-1703, the Spanish friar Francisco Ximenez found that version where he was stationed in Chichicastenango, copied it and translated the document into Spanish. Ximenez' translation is currently stored in the Newberry Library of Chicago.

There are numerous versions of the Popol Vuh in translations in various languages: the best known in English is that of Mayanist Dennis Tedlock, originally published in 1985; Low et al. (1992) compared the various English versions available in 1992 and remarked that Tedlock immersed himself in the Mayan point of view as much as he could, but by and largely picked prose rather than the poetry of the original.

The Content of the Popol Vuh

Now it still ripples, now it still murmurs, ripples, it still sighs, still hums and is empty under the sky (from Tedlock's 3rd edition, 1996, describing the primordial world before creation)

The Popol Vuh is a narrative of the cosmogony, history, and traditions of the K'iche' Maya before the Spanish conquest in 1541. That narrative is presented in three parts. The first part talks about the creation of the world and its first inhabitants; the second, probably the most famous, narrates the story of the Hero Twins, a couple of semi-gods; and the third part is the story of the Quiché noble family dynasties.

Creation Myth

According to the Popol Vuh myth, at the beginning of the world, there were only the two creator gods: Gucumatz and Tepeu. These gods decided to create earth out of the primordial sea. Once the earth was created, the gods populated it with animals, but they soon realized that animals were unable to speak and therefore could not worship them. For this reason, the gods created humans and had the animal's role relegated to food for humans. This generation of humans was made out of mud, and so were weak and were soon destroyed.

As a third attempt, the gods created men from wood and women from reeds. These people populated the world and procreated, but they soon forgot their gods and were punished with a flood. The few who survived were transformed into monkeys. Finally, the gods decided to mold mankind from maize. This generation, which includes the present human race, is able to worship and nourish the gods.

In the narration of the Popol Vuh, the creation of the people of corn is preceded by the story of the Hero Twins.

The Hero Twins Story

The Hero Twins, Hunahpu, and Xbalanque were the sons of Hun Hunahpu and an underworld goddess named Xquic. According to the myth, Hun Hunahpu and his twin brother Vucub Hunahpu were convinced by the lords of the underworld to play a ball game with them. They were defeated and sacrificed, and the head of Hun Hunahpu was placed on a gourd tree. Xquic escaped from the underworld and was impregnated by the blood dripping from Hun Hunahpu’s head and gave birth to the second generation of hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque.

Hunahpu and Xbalanque lived on the earth with their grandmother, the mother of the first Hero Twins, and became great ballplayers. One day, as had happened to their father, they were invited to play a ball game with the Lords of Xibalba, the underworld, but unlike their father, they were not defeated and stood all the tests and tricks posted by the underworld gods. With a final trick, they managed to kill the Xibalba lords and to revive their father and uncle. Hunahpu and Xbalanque then reached the sky where they became the sun and moon, whereas Hun Hunahpu became the god of corn, who emerges every year from the earth to give life to the people.

The Origins of the Quiché Dynasties

The final part of the Popol Vuh narrates the story of the first people created from corn by the ancestral couple, Gucumatz and Tepeu. Among these were the founders of the Quiché noble dynasties. They were able to praise the gods and wandered the world until they reached a mythical place where they could receive the gods into sacred bundles and take them home. The book closes with the list of the Quiché lineages up until the 16th century.

How Old is the Popol Vuh?

Although early scholars believed that the living Maya had no recollection of the Popol Vuh, some groups retain considerable knowledge of the stories, and new data have led most Mayanists to accept that some form of the Popol Vuh has been central to the Maya religion at least since the Maya Late Classic Period. Some scholars such as Prudence Rice have argued for a much older date.

Elements of the narrative in the Popol Vuh argues Rice, appear to predate the late Archaic separation of language families and calendars. Further, the tale of the one-legged ophidian supernatural who is associated with rain, lightning, life, and creation is associated with Maya kings and dynastic legitimacy throughout their history.

Updated by K. Kris Hirst


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Maestri, Nicoletta. "History of the Quiché Maya." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/popol-vuh-history-quiche-maya-manuscript-171594. Maestri, Nicoletta. (2020, August 27). History of the Quiché Maya. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/popol-vuh-history-quiche-maya-manuscript-171594 Maestri, Nicoletta. "History of the Quiché Maya." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/popol-vuh-history-quiche-maya-manuscript-171594 (accessed March 31, 2023).