Article about the "The Popol Vuh" by Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Maya document, an invaluable source of knowledge of ancient Mayan mythology and culture. Written in Quiché (a Guatemalan Mayan language) with Spanish letters by a Mayan author or authors between 1554 and 1558, it chronicles the creation of man, the actions of the gods, the origin and history of the Quiché people, and the chronology of their kings down to 1550.

The original book was discovered at the beginning of the 18th century by Francisco Jiménez (or Ximénez), parish priest of Chichicastenango in highland Guatemala. He both copied the original Quiché text (now lost) and translated it into Spanish. His work is now in the Newberry Library, Chicago.

Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The following is an excerpt from the
translated by Dennis Tedlock
with commentary based on the ancient knowledge of the modern Quiche Maya

Having accounted for three of the above-ground episodes in the lives of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the Popol Vuh next moves back in time to tell the story of their father, One Hunahpu, and his twin brother, Seven Hunahpu (at the beginning of Part Three). This is the point at which the authors treat us as if we were in their very presence, introducing One Hunahpu with these words: "Let's drink to him, and let's just drink to the telling and accounting of the begetting of Hunahpu and Xbalanque." The story begins long before One Hunahpu meets the woman who will bear Hunahpu and Xbalanque; in the opening episode, he marries a woman named Xbaquiyalo and they have twin sons named One Monkey and One Artisan. One Hunahpu and his brother sometimes play ball with these two boys, and a messenger from Hurricane, a falcon,*(15) sometimes comes to watch them. The boys become practitioners of all sorts of arts and crafts, including flute playing, singing, writing, carving, jewelry making, and metalworking. At some point Xbaquiyalo dies, but we are not told how; that leaves Xmucane, the mother of One and Seven Hunahpu, as the only woman in the household.

The ball court of One and Seven Hunahpu lies on the eastern edge of the earth's surface at a place called Great Abyss at Carchah.*(16) Their ballplaying offends the lords of Xibalba, who dislike hearing noises above their subterranean domain. The head lords are named One Death and Seven Death, and under them are other lords who specialize in causing such maladies as lesions, jaundice, emaciation, edema, stabbing pains, and sudden death from vomiting blood. One and Seven Death decide to challenge One and Seven Hunahpu to come play ball in the court of Xibalba, which lies at the western edge of the underworld. They therefore send their messengers, who are monstrous owls, to the Great Abyss. One and Seven Hunahpu leave One Monkey and One Artisan behind to keep Xmucane entertained and follow the owls over the eastern edge of the world. The way is full of traps, but they do well until they come to the Crossroads, where each of four roads has a different color corresponding to a different direction. They choose the Black Road, which means, at the terrestrial level, that their journey through the underworld will take them from east to west. At the celestial level, it means that they were last seen in the black cleft of the Milky Way when they descended below the eastern horizon; to this day the cleft is called the Road of Xibalba.

Entering the council place of the lords of Xibalba is a tricky business, beginning with the fact that the first two figures seated there are mere manikins, put there as a joke. The next gag that awaits visitors is a variation on the hot seat, but after that comes a deadly serious test. One and Seven Hunahpu must face a night in Dark House, which is totally black inside. They are given a torch and two cigars, but they are warned to keep these burning all night without consuming them. They fail this test, so their hosts sacrifice them the next day instead of playing ball with them. Both of them are buried at the Place of Ball Game Sacrifice, except that the severed head of One Hunahpu is placed in the fork of a tree that stands by the road there. Now, for the first time, the tree bears fruit, and it becomes difficult to tell the head from the fruit. This is the origin of the calabash tree, whose fruit is the size and shape of a human head.   Blood Woman, the maiden daughter of a Xibalban lord named Blood Gatherer, goes to marvel at the calabash tree. The head of One Hunahpu, which is a skull by now, spits in her hand and makes her pregnant with Hunahpu and Xbalanque. The skull explains to her that henceforth, a father's face will survive in his son, even after his own face has rotted away and left nothing but bone. After six months, when Blood Woman's father notices that she is pregnant, he demands to know who is responsible. She answers that "there is no man whose face I've known," which is literally true. He orders the owl messengers of Xibalba to cut her heart out and bring it back in a bowl; armed with the White Dagger, the instrument of sacrifice, they take her away.*(17) But she persuades them to spare her, devising a substitute for her heart in the form of a congealed nodule of sap from a croton tree. The lords heat the nodule over a fire and are entranced by the aroma; meanwhile the owls show Blood Woman to the surface of the earth. As a result of this episode it is destined that the lords of Xibalba will receive offerings of incense made from croton sap rather than human blood and hearts. At the astronomical level Blood Woman corresponds to the moon, which appears in the west at nightfall when it begins to wax, just as she appeared before the skull of One Hunahpu at the Place of Ball Game Sacrifice when she became pregnant.

Once she is out of the underworld, Blood Woman goes to Xmucane and claims to be her daughter-in-law, but Xmucane resists the idea that her own son, One Hunahpu, could be responsible for Blood Woman's pregnancy. She puts Blood Woman to a test, sending her to get a netful of corn from the garden that One Monkey and One Artisan have been cultivating. Blood Woman finds only a single clump of corn plants there, but she produces a whole netful of ears by pulling out the silk from just one ear. When Xmucane sees the load of corn she goes to the garden herself, wondering whether Blood Woman has stripped it. On the ground at the foot of the clump of plants she notices the imprint of the carrying net, which she reads as a sign that Blood Woman is indeed pregnant with her own grandchildren.

To understand how Xmucane is able to interpret the sign of the net we must remember that she knows how to read the auguries of the Mayan calendar, and that one of the twenty day names that go into the making of that calendar is "Net." Retold from a calendrical point of view, the story so far is that Venus rose as the morning star on a day named Hunahpu, corresponding to the ballplaying of Xmucane's sons, One and Seven Hunahpu, in the east; then, after being out of sight in Xibalba, Venus reappeared as the evening star on a day named Death, corresponding to the defeat of her sons by One and Seven Death and the placement of One Hunahpu's head in a tree in the west. The event that is due to come next in the story is the rebirth of Venus as the morning star, which should fall, as she already knows, on a day named Net. When she sees the imprint of the net in the field, she takes it as a sign that this event is coming near, and that the faces of the sons born to Blood Woman will be reincarnations of the face of One Hunahpu.*(18)

When Hunahpu and Xbalanque are born they are treated cruelly by their jealous half-brothers, One Monkey and One Artisan, and even by their grandmother. They never utter a complaint, but keep themselves happy by going out every day to hunt birds with their blowguns. Eventually they get the better of their brothers by sending them up a tree to get birds that failed to fall down when they were shot. They cause the tree to grow tall enough to maroon their brothers, whom they transform into monkeys.

When Xmucane objects they give her four chances to see the faces of One Monkey and One Artisan again, calling them home with music. They warn her not to laugh, but the monkeys are so ridiculous she cannot contain herself; finally they swing up and away through the treetops for good. One Monkey and One Artisan, both of whose names refer to a single day on the divinatory calendar, correspond to the planet Mars, which thereafter begins its period of visibility on a day bearing these names, and their temporary return to the house of Xmucane corresponds to the retrograde motion of Mars. They are also the gods of arts and crafts, and they probably made their first journey through the sky during the era of the wooden people, who were the first earthly beings to make and use artifacts and who themselves ended up as monkeys.   With their half-brothers out of the way, Hunahpu and Xbalanque decide to clear a garden plot of their own, but when they return to the chosen spot each morning they find that the forest has reclaimed it. By hiding themselves at the edge of the plot one night, they discover that the animals of the forest are restoring the cleared plants by means of a chant. They try to grab each of these animals in turn, but they miss the puma and jaguar completely, break the tails off the rabbit and deer, and finally get their hands on the rat. In exchange for his future share of stored crops, the rat reveals to them that their father and uncle, One and Seven Hunahpu, left a set of ball game equipment tied up under the rafters of their house, and he agrees to help them get it down. At home the next day, Hunahpu and Xbalanque get Xmucane out of the house by claiming her chili stew has made them thirsty; she goes after water but is delayed when her water jar springs a leak. Then, when Blood Woman goes off to see why Xmucane has failed to return, the rat cuts the ball game equipment loose and the twins take possession of it.

When Hunahpu and Xbalanque begin playing ball at the Great Abyss they disturb the lords of Xibalba, just like their father and uncle before them. Once again the lords send a summons, but this time the messengers go to Xmucane, telling her that the twins must present themselves in seven days. She sends a louse to relay the message to her grandsons, but the louse is swallowed by a toad, the toad by a snake, and the snake by a falcon.*(19) The falcon arrives over the ball court and the twins shoot him in the eye. They cure his eye with gum from their ball, which is why the laughing falcon now has a black patch around the eye. The falcon vomits the snake, who vomits the toad, who still has the louse in his mouth, and the louse recites the message, quoting what Xmucane told him when she quoted what the owls told her when they quoted what the lords of Xibalba told them to say.

Having been summoned to the underworld, Hunahpu and Xbalanque go to take leave of their grandmother, and in the process they demonstrate a harvest ritual that Quiches follow to this day. They "plant" ears of corn in the center of her house, in the attic; these ears are neither to be eaten nor used as seed corn but are to be kept as a sign that corn remains alive throughout the year, even between the drying out of the plants at harvest time and the sprouting of new ones after planting. They tell their grandmother that when a crop dries out it will be a sign of their death, but that the sprouting of a new crop will be a sign that they live again.*(20)

The twins play a game with language when they instruct their grandmother; only now, instead of a quotation swallowed up inside other quotations we get a word hidden within other words. The secret word is "Ah," one of the twenty day names; the twins point to it by playing on its sounds rather than simply mentioning it. When they tell their grandmother that they are planting corn ears (ah) in the house (ha), they are making a pun on Ah in the one case and reversing its sound in the other. The play between Ah and ha is familiar to contemporary Quiche daykeepers, who use it when they explain to clients that the day Ah is portentous in matters affecting households. If the twins planted their corn ears in the house on the day Ah, then their expected arrival in Xibalba, seven days later, would fall on the day named Hunahpu. This fits the Mayan Venus calendar perfectly: whenever Venus rises as the morning star on a day named Net, corresponding to the appearance of Hunahpu and Xbalanque on the earth, its next descent into the underworld will always fall on a day named Hunahpu.

Following in the footsteps of their father and uncle, Hunahpu and Xbalanque descend the road to Xibalba, but when they come to the Crossroads they do things differently. They send a spy ahead of them, a mosquito, to learn the names of the lords. He bites each one of them in turn; the first two lords reveal themselves as mere manikins by their lack of response, but the others, in the process of complaining about being bitten, address each other by name, all the way down the line. When the twins themselves arrive before the lords, they ignore the manikins (unlike their father and uncle) and address each of the twelve real lords correctly. Not only that, but they refuse to fall for the hot seat, and when they are given a torch and two cigars to keep lit all night, they trick the lords by passing off a macaw's tail as the glow of the torch and putting fireflies at the tips of their cigars.*(21)

The next day Hunahpu and Xbalanque play ball with the Xibalbans, something their father and uncle did not survive long enough to do. The Xibalbans insist on putting their own ball into play first, though the twins protest that this ball, which is covered with crushed bone, is nothing but a skull. When Hunahpu hits it back to the Xibalbans with the yoke that rides on his hips, it falls to the court and reveals the weapon that was hidden inside it. This is nothing less than the White Dagger, the same instrument of sacrifice that the owls were supposed to use on Blood Woman; it twists its way all over the court, but it fails to kill the twins.

The Xibalbans consent to use the rubber ball belonging to the twins in a further game; this time four bowls of flowers are bet on the outcome. After playing well for awhile the twins allow themselves to lose, and they are given until the next day to come up with the flowers. This time they must spend the night in Razor House, which is full of voracious stone blades that are constantly looking for something to cut. In exchange for a promise that they will one day have the flesh of animals as their food, the blades stop moving. This leaves the boys free to attend to the matter of the flowers; they send leaf-cutting ants to steal them from the very gardens of the lords of Xibalba. The birds who guard this garden, poorwills and whippoorwills, are so oblivious that they fail to notice that their own tails and wings are being trimmed along with the flowers. The lords, who are aghast when they receive bowls filled with their own flowers, split the birds' mouths open, giving them the wide gape that birds of the night-jar family have today.

Next, the hero twins survive stays in Cold House, which is full of drafts and falling hail; Jaguar House, which is full of hungry, brawling jaguars; and a house with fire inside. After these horrors comes Bat House, full of moving, shrieking bats, where they spend the night squeezed up inside their blowgun.*(22) When the house grows quiet and Hunahpu peeks out from the muzzle, one of the bats swoops down and takes his head off. The head ends up rolling on the ball court of Xibalba, but Xbalanque replaces it with a carved squash. While he is busy with this head transplant the eastern sky reddens with the dawn, and a possum, addressed in the story as "old man," makes four dark streaks along the horizon. Not only the red dawn but the possum and his streaks are signs that the time of the sun (which has never before been seen) is coming nearer. In the future a new solar year will be brought in by the old man each 365 days; the four streaks signify that only four of the twenty day names- Deer, Tooth, Thought, and Wind- will ever correspond to the first day of a solar year. Contemporary Quiche daykeepers continue to reckon the solar dimension of the Mayan calendar; in 1986, for example, they will expect the old man to arrive on February 28, which will be the day Thirteen Deer.*(23)

Once Hunahpu has been fitted out with a squash for a head, he and Xbalanque are ready to play ball with the Xibalbans again. When the lords send off Hunahpu's original head as the ball, Xbalanque knocks it out of the court and into a stand of oak trees. A rabbit decoys the lords, who mistake his hopping for the bouncing of the ball, while Xbalanque retrieves the head, puts it back on Hunahpu's shoulders, and then pretends to find the squash among the oaks. Now the squash is put into play, but it wears out and eventually splatters its seeds on the court, revealing to the lords of Xibalba that they have been played for fools. The game played with the squash, like the games played with the bone-covered ball and with Hunahpu's severed head, corresponds to an appearance of Venus in the west, the direction of evening and death. If these events were combined in chronological order with those that take place entirely above ground, they would probably alternate with the episodes in which the twins defeat One Monkey and One Artisan, Seven Macaw, Zipacna, and Earthquake, with each of these latter episodes corresponding to an appearance of Venus in the east, the direction of morning and life.*(24)

At this point we are ready for the last of the episodes that prefigure the cycles of Venus and prepare the way for the first rising of the sun. Knowing that the lords of Xibalba plan to burn them, Hunahpu and Xbalanque instruct two seers named Xulu and Pacam as to what they should say when the lords seek advice as to how to dispose of their remains. This done, the twins cheerfully accept an invitation to come see the great stone pit where the Xibalbans are cooking the ingredients for an alcoholic beverage. The lords challenge them to a contest in which the object is to leap clear across the pit, but the boys cut the deadly game short and jump right in. Thinking they have triumphed, the Xibalbans follow the advice of Xulu and Pacam, grinding the bones of the boys and spilling the powder into a river.

After five days Hunahpu and Xbalanque reappear as catfish;*(25) the day after that they take human form again, only now they are disguised as vagabond dancers and actors. They gain great fame as illusionists, their most popular acts being the ones in which they set fire to a house without burning it and perform a sacrifice without killing the victim. The lords of Xibalba get news of all this and invite them to show their skills at court; they accept with pretended reluctance. The climax of their performance comes when Xbalanque sacrifices Hunahpu, rolling his head out the door, removing his heart, and then bringing him back to life. One and Seven Death go wild at the sight of this and demand that they themselves be sacrificed. The twins oblige- and, as might already be imagined, these final sacrifices are real ones. Hunahpu and Xbalanque now reveal their true identities before all the inhabitants of the underworld. They declare that henceforth, the offerings received by Xibalbans will be limited to incense made of croton sap and to animals, and that Xibalbans will limit their attacks on future human beings to those who have weaknesses or guilt.

At this point the narrative takes us back to the twins' grandmother, telling us what she has been doing all this time. She cries when the season comes for corn plants to dry out, signifying the death of her grandsons, and rejoices when they sprout again, signifying rebirth. She burns incense in front of ears from the new crop and thus completes the establishment of the custom whereby humans keep consecrated ears in the house, at the center of the stored harvest. Then the scene shifts back to Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who are about to establish another custom.   Having made their speech to the defeated Xibalbans, the twins go to the Place of Ball Game Sacrifice with the intention of reviving Seven Hunahpu, whose head and body still lie buried there. The full restoration of his face depends on his own ability to pronounce the names of all the parts it once had, but he gets no further than the mouth, nose, and eyes, which remain as notable features of skulls. They leave him there, but they promise that human beings will keep his day (the one named Hunahpu), coming to pray where his remains are. To this day, Hunahpu days are set aside for the veneration of the dead, and graveyards are called by the same word (hom) as the ball courts of the Popol Vuh.   At the astronomical level the visit of Hunahpu and Xbalanque to their uncle's grave signals the return of a whole new round of Venus cycles, starting with a morning star that first appears on a day named Hunahpu. As for the twins themselves, they rise as the sun and moon. Contemporary Quiches regard the full moon as a nocturnal equivalent of the sun, pointing out that it has a full disk, is bright enough to travel by, and goes clear across the sky in the same time it takes the sun to do the same thing. Most likely the twin who became the moon is to be understood specifically as the full moon, whereas Blood Woman, the mother of the twins, would account for the other phases of the moon.*(26)

With the ascent of Hunahpu and Xbalanque the Popol Vuh returns to the problem the gods confronted at the beginning: the making of beings who will walk, work, talk, and pray in an articulate manner. The account of their fourth and final attempt at a solution is a flashback, since it takes us to a time when the sun had not yet appeared. As we have already seen, the gods failed when they tried using mud and then wood as the materials for the human body, but now they get news of a mountain filled with yellow corn and white corn, discovered by the fox, coyote, parrot, and crow (at the beginning of Part Four). Xmucane grinds the corn from this mountain very finely, and the flour, mixed with the water she rinses her hands with, provides the substance for human flesh, just as the ground bone thrown in the river by the Xibalbans becomes the substance for the rebirth of her grandsons. The first people to be modeled from the corn dough are four men named Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Mahucutah, and True Jaguar. They are the first four heads of Quiche patrilineages; as in the case of the men who occupy such positions today, they are called "mother-fathers,"*(27) since in ritual matters they serve as symbolic androgynous parents to everyone in their respective lineages.

This time the beings shaped by the gods are everything they hoped for and more: not only do the first four men pray to their makers, but they have perfect vision and therefore perfect knowledge. The gods are alarmed that beings who were merely manufactured by them should have divine powers, so they decide, after their usual dialogue, to put a fog on human eyes. Next they make four wives for the four men, and from these couples come the leading Quiche lineages. Celebrated Seahouse becomes the wife of Jaguar Quitze, who founds the Cauec lineage; Prawn House becomes the wife of Jaguar Night, who founds the Greathouse lineage; and Hummingbird House becomes the wife of Mahucutah, who founds the Lord Quiche lineage. True Jaguar is also given a wife, Macaw House, but they have no male children. Other lineages and peoples also come into being, and they all begin to multiply.