Esotericism of the Popol Vuh by Raphael Girard

Theosophical University Press Online Edition

Chapter 1


Four hundred years ago, in the manuscript known as the Popol Vuh, a Quiché wise man wrote down the age-old traditions of his people. He transcribed them in his own language, but used Roman letters.

It has not been possible until now to penetrate into the esoteric meaning or even the historical validity of this document because, to put it simply, it is written in a symbolic language not easily understood by us. Nevertheless those sacred texts, so obscure for the Western mind, are not only perfectly intelligible to the Quiché-Maya but form a fully living reality for them.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Father Francisco Ximénez discovered the Popol Vuh and translated it into Spanish, saying that

it was conserved among the Indians in complete secrecy, such secrecy that not even a written record of such a thing was made by its guardians of old; and, being in the parish of Chichicastenango and investigating that point, I found that it was the doctrine first imbibed with the mother's milk and that everyone knew it almost by heart. — Fr. Francisco Ximénez, Historia de la Provincia de San Vicente de Chiapa y Guatemala, Guatemala, 1929-31

Those words eloquently express what the Popol Vuh meant and still means to the aboriginal of Quiché-Maya descent, as I was able to prove to my satisfaction during 32 years of ethnographic research among diverse peoples representative of that culture. It is likely that such a document is the reproduction of a prehispanic codex, "written in antiquity," as the author of the Popol Vuh puts it.

To interpret this mythic material, at once very old and always young, one must thoroughly understand and be familiar with the Indian's way of thinking, feeling, and expression, explore the deepest levels of his thought, know his mental processes, his religious ideas — in a word, his spiritual reality.

Until now no investigator has succeeded in entering the hidden recesses of the Maya soul because of the systematic concealment the Indian has employed to protect his sublime cultural values.

In my judgment this explains our ignorance of the spiritual reality of the Indian's present and past which pulsates throughout the Popol Vuh. Hence, we have many literal translations of this scripture from the Quiché into Spanish, French, English, and German, but up to now none reveals the true meaning of this most valuable document which sums up the history and the soul of the Quiché-Maya.

The historical value of the Popol Vuh is evident not only in the text itself, which describes the story of the Quiché-Maya through the ages, but also in the express words of the native scribe, who by way of introduction says: "This is the origin, the beginning of the old Quiché history; here we will put down the old history, the beginning, the origin of the Quiché people and all that they did [their history]."

The Chortís confirm that historical character of the Popol Vuh in the very title of their drama called "The History," which in a magnificent synthesis reproduces the essential episodes of the Quiché epic.

Interpreting the Quiché's opinion of the book, Father Ximénez titled his Spanish rendition the History of the Origin of the Indians of this Province of Guatemala. In this way the Quiché-Maya define their own conception of history by declaring that the mythic accounts in the book are also historical narrations; that is, they form a mytho-history.

One must not, then, look for a part on mythology and another part on history in the Popol Vuh. As this study will show, the same style characterizes the whole work from the first to the final page. There are no divisions into chapters, the text of the manuscript is unbroken, and the narration continuous from beginning to end.

Such an arrangement is typical of the Quiché-Maya mentality and moreover projects itself in their system of measuring time. Actually, all of their calendric series, like those of their history, are connected without a break, so as not to disrupt the cosmic order. Their system of chronomagic is copied from mythical models, archetypes of all their menta-l architecture. Hence the Quiché-Maya peoples live in continuity with their past, which for them has no mystery inasmuch as the myths are the foundations of their cultural consciousness. We, in fact, are dealing with a unified history that embraces in continuous succession the whole historical-cultural process: history written in terms of mythological thought, which is historical for these people.

It is of paramount interest to learn the method by which the Quiché-Maya express their conception and systematization of history. That method is revealed in the cyclical doctrine of the Ages that contains all the events of the past and the present in a historic totality.

Those events are brought together in four serial historic periods or Ages, of which three comprise periods already ended, i.e., the past, while the fourth corresponds to the present which began with the latest creation. Existing cultural forms belong to the present or Fourth Age; by the same token, those of the past are nonexistent because they were transformed and incorporated into the present.

For distinguishing actual forms from those belonging to the past, and for expressing at the same time their genetic relation, the Quiché-Maya found a wonderfully simple formula. They made a sharp distinction between the now-dead past and the present, inserting between each Age or period a destructive cataclysm that annihilated the earlier one; that is, it is no longer possible to look directly at the former Age because it has ceased to exist.

Since the past is separated from the present, it belongs to prehistory. In this way, the first three racial cycles, which in their time formed actual periods lived through by the Quiché-Maya during their history, were destroyed. Those periods or Ages are at once separated from, yet united with, the present, as necessary parts of a whole; separated so as to distinguish the phases of the past, united so as to preserve the causal connection that relates the parts to the whole. Although the cultural characteristics of the past were erased (symbolically by a catastrophe), since they were replaced by those of the present, their mention is required to explain the living forms which have their roots in that prehistory.

In reality this past has not disappeared but rather has become transformed so as to incorporate itself into the common cultural property of today. Thus, for example, the giants of the First Age were transformed into cosmic bearers; the gods of the Second Age into the demons of today, and the virtues of the prehistoric period into the vices of the Fourth Age.

To understand the genesis of cultural elements, i.e., what they were before being incorporated into the present, one must understand what they are now in order to explain how, why, and in what circumstances they were transformed. What are the determining phenomena of their actual situation? This is very important, because in those phenomena lie the fundamental teachings of religious and historic doctrine.

The features of the past were seemingly erased, but were reinterpreted, and are found alive and vibrant in the present. In this manner mytho-history is narrated in a causal sense. It expresses the process of accumulation from the past into the present, the transmission of the cultural patrimony that grows from one epoch to the next. It enables one to perceive, in the flow of the historic process, variation in cultural elements; to follow, for example, the evolution of ethics or of institutions in relation to changes that take place on all levels of culture.

In other words, present-day culture is the product of the historic totality; therefore, the greater the portion of the past that affects contemporary culture, the higher in the scale of civilization will it be; that is, the cultural level of an epoch is directly proportional to the duration of its prehistoric past.

From this point of view, the conservation of all phases of the past, arranged in chronological succession, is needed to determine and explain the present. Mytho-history expresses, then, the course of the events in which the present originated, and those events are placed in relations of dependence or of succession in the warp and woof of the account known as history.

Upon this background the Popol Vuh projects in successive scenes the life of the Quiché-Maya man and people throughout their history. It describes with color and precision, in a simple, clear, and touching manner, the life of the type-family which characterizes the spiritual and material culture of each racial cycle: the family of Vukup Cakix in the First Age; of the Camé in the Second; of Ixmucané in the Third; of the civilizer-hero and the first four true men in the Fourth Age, showing forth the simple and human side of history and also the whole panorama of the type-culture of each epoch, chiefly the spiritual, social, and economic phenomena which formed it.

In the Quiché-Maya conception, history is man and the human group throughout time, a judgment that is not different from the definition modern scientific historiography gives to history as "the science which studies and explains by means of causal connections the facts of the evolution of man and his works (individual as well as collective and typical), as a social being" (Bernheim, Lehrbuch d. hist. Methode).

We have, then, an original source, written by Quiché-Mayas about the life of man, that embraces the whole process of human life and culture from the primeval horizon to that of civilization. Its historic fidelity is seen in the description of deeds and ways of expressing spiritual life that do not correspond to contemporary culture and were abandoned thousands of years ago, but which express the living reality of bygone cultures. The Quiché-Maya wrote true history before our own historians did so, a history that concerns itself with men, i.e., the living reality of a people and not of official events of no importance for the future.

The mytho-historic episodes exactly record the archetypal acts performed and gestures made in illo tempore by the remote ancestors of the Quiché-Maya. Such things not only took place then but do so anew, continuously, being repeated in the rites, the calendar,* the theater, and the customs of today. They are made real at each moment and always in the same way, so that in the practices of contemporary Indians they reach us as a faithful reproduction of history just as it has in fact evolved.

*The structure of the system of time-reckoning copies the mythological models. Like the type-Ages they represent, each calendric series expresses a period that is living and complete in itself and which terminates in abrupt and complete change. These cycles of time, like the series of history, function within a greater unity, as parts necessary to the whole. Despite the abrupt end of each mytho-historical cycle, the text of the Popol Vuh shows that their respective realities are displaced not by a sudden change of scene but through progressive modifications.

These facts explode the old prejudice (from the time of Montaigne and Descartes) that the American is the model of the man without history, and at the same time confirm the judgment of modern historians that myths have historiographic value. "The most important step modern critical history has made has been to learn, following in Vico's steps, that the greater part of the divine and heroic myths of old traditions . . . represent other kinds of historical reconstructions and explanations . . . in the form compatible with the a-logical and anthropomorphic mentality of the primitives" (Enrico de Michelis, El problema de las ciencias históricas, Ed. Nova, Buenos Aires; p. 259). The study of mythology was some time ago transferred from the field of literature to that of science.

The Popol Vuh contributes material that is extremely valuable for deciphering Quiché-Maya history, subject matter that allows us to follow the unfolding of its ideas, art, sciences — of the whole of its culture. And, for the first time in the annals of Americanist investigations, we can come to grips with the problem of history, pursuing the logical sequence of events from the oldest horizon up to the most recent rather than from a reverse direction; that is, beginning with causes rather than effects. With this possibility, the hiatus between paleoanthropology and ethnography or history is erased.

But what interests the specialist, perhaps more than the historic methodology of the Quiché-Mayas, is to know if there is a method that is communicable for establishing the correct interpretation of the Popol Vuh. And what is the technique within reach of the scientific method that will allow us to prove that such an interpretation really corresponds with the conceptions of these people and their real history?

The main object of this introduction is to explain the technique used in our exegesis, a technique which at the same time offers methods by which it can be tested.

As said, the conceptual analysis of mythologic themes that express the Quiché-Maya spiritual way of life can be accomplished only through an inner comprehension of indigenous thought, of the native's mental processes which are so different and removed from our own.

Lévy-Bruhl has already said that the interpretation civilized man tends to give to the beliefs, customs, and rites of primitive man never or almost never is the right one. Therefore we must place ourselves on the level of the native's mental perspective if we wish to understand his manner of spiritual expression and, even more, to witness and systematically study the secret and nocturnal ceremonies of his agrarian religion, celebrated by native elders in their own places of worship hidden in the forests.* Having become familiar with native thought and its methods of interpretation, the investigator will be able to recognize its spiritual meanings on whatever level these appear and interpret its ancient sacred texts in the light of today's reality.

*For further details about this method of investigation see my Los Chortís ante el problema maya, and also my reply to the critical review of Miss Betty Starr (American Anthropologist 53, 1951). In this present book I refer the reader frequently to pages or chapters in Los Chortís ante el problema maya, using the simple short-title form of: Girard, Los Chortís, in view of the inconvenience of reproducing in extenso the comprehensive ethnographic, archaeological, and linguistic material, and extracts from written sources, contained in that 5-volume work.

The myths can be clearly explained by means of the practices and ideas of the contemporary Indian. All his acts, individual and collective, including the physiological, are ceremonies that continually repeat the mythical models. To live and act in accordance with those mythical patterns is the constant aspiration of the Quiché-Maya.

The correlation between the present and the past, between the real, what exists now, and the mythical, is settled thanks to the fact that the myths prevail in the ceremonies. The whole worth of an investigation of this kind turns upon the native elders, unlettered but trained in the school of oral tradition. When they share with us their inner thought, they introduce us to a world until now unknown.

To verify the truthfulness of the information furnished by native theologians, we have recourse to the comparative method by which we can see whether data provided by various individuals who do not know each other exhibit internal agreement. This same method will bring to light systematic correspondences that exist between information derived from ethnography and that provided by primary sources, the writings of the Quiché-Maya themselves. Such systematic correlations between the myths, the written sources, and the facts of ethnography and linguistics, establish the solid basis on which our interpretation of the native texts rests.

There is, in fact, a strict parallelism between the mythic episodes and current ceremonies and customs; not only simple correlations of facts which correspond with and explain each other, but also — and this is the most important thing — regular correspondences of features between the whole mythological structure and the ritual system, the measurement of periods of time and native dramatic art. These are brought together in the same way, follow the same order of succession, express the same thematic development, and are based on the same doctrine, the same cosmo-theo-astronomical principles. The present explanation of the Popol Vuh is based, then, on presentation of actual, concrete facts which are available to ethnographic investigation.

But there is even more: since the myths, equally with the ceremonies, express the religious ideal of past, present, and future epochs, which all began in mythic times, it follows that this ideal is to be seen in both the racial culture as well as the archaeology, on whatever historical level these may be found. From this it follows that the prehispanic art of the Quiché-Maya, which was strictly religious in character, translates into the language of forms the same religious ideas that live and breathe in the pages of the Popol Vuh and in the religio-metaphysical way of life of the contemporary Indian.

Thus the range of correlation between the myths and the ceremonies extends to the field of archaeology (monuments, paintings, ancient codices). As with all Quiché-Maya cultural expressions, the interpretation of native art through history must begin from within and from there emerge, proceed from the spiritual to the external or objective form. This reveals the emotive impulse which gave expression to the forms and explains the meaning of millennial figures and symbols that, until now, have remained as enigmatic to the outsider as has the spirituality of today's Indian.

One must add to these test elements the documentary proof furnished by the testimony of written sources of the Mayas, Quichés, and Toltecs themselves, as well as Colonial sources reproducing native reports. This book establishes the fundamental soundness of those sources, which are all expressions of one mother-culture whose history is summarized in the Popol Vuh.

J. Imbelloni has already shown that these Maya, Quiché, and Mexican sources form a closely-connected unity and that their mythic material is identical.* Thus Maya, Quiché, Cakchiquel, and Mexican sources furnish an excellent tool for analyzing the Popol Vuh.

*El Génesis de los pueblos prehistóricos de América, Buenos Aires, 1940-41. Imbelloni gave his attention to the doctrine of the Ages and made felicitous interpretations of this part of Quiché-Maya mythology.

From all this it becomes apparent that the study of Quiché-Maya mythology can be tackled by the methodology of modern science and subjected to the kind of rigorous analysis now employed in the anthropological disciplines (ethnography, linguistics, archaeology, written sources, etc.).

The essential truths expressed by the myths concern interrelated concepts. Cosmogony, theogony, ceremonies, calendar, mathematics, astronomy, economy, family, society, government, etc., are derived from the identical patterns or models. We are faced with a reciprocal grafting of all into a cosmic whole at each moment. No cultural element can be extricated from that whole to which it is solidly linked.

For this reason there can be no question of arbitrary personal interpretations of any of the cultural phenomena. This would be almost impossible, since any interpretative error would become evident at once owing to the multiple ways (internal and external proofs) we now have at our disposal for establishing the truth of the matter; and moreover, it would result in an evident disagreement with the marvelous internal unity of the cultural complex.*

* When I was carrying on my investigations among the Chortís, I would at times doubt the exactitude of information given me by the elders, which sometimes seemed to be confused or illogical. But, on noting the agreement between the theological versions, their application in the ceremonies, and their correspondence with the myth paradigms, my skepticism vanished. The native elders were never in error in the routine employment of their old symbols, and they adhered in every smallest detail to the teachings of the Popol Vuh. In all the cases where I doubted them, it was I who was in error for believing, as do the majority among ethnographers, that the Indian must unfailingly conform to our manner of thinking. The reader will find specific references in this book to such incidents.

Such are, in broad outline, the methods employed in this analysis of the Popol Vuh, as well as the means for checking the results.

Of course, those who examine the spiritual phenomena of the native culture from the point of view of the Occident will have difficulty comprehending them, to say nothing of accepting that the myths, like the traditions, have suffered no alterations or deformations because of the passage of time.

Quiché-Maya culture, essentially mythological, is a case where science and history have not yet separated from mytho-religion. The Indian still lives in a mythological Age, the fourth of his cyclical history: that is, in a sacred space and time. That fact shows that his culture has been impervious to Western influence, and that the explanation of his cultural features is found in his myths.*

* The Amerindian is not an unusual case. Leo Frobenius in his book, Schicksalskunde tells us of the "Mythological Age of humanity," showing that our own history knew a phase in which culture was shaped by mythic norms. Sir George Grey, in his Polynesian Mythology and Ancient Traditional History of the New Zealand Race (1855), noted that the Polynesian people still lived in complete dependence upon their myths; that is, mythology among that people was a way of life. The primeval Asian people as well as the archaic Hellenes lived according to the same kind of norms (Miguel de Ferdinandy, "En torno al pensar mítico," Anales de Arqueología y Etnología de la Universidad nacional de Cuyo, vol. 8, 1947). Max Müller has shown that the texts of the Vedas have been handed down orally for a period of more than two thousand years, with such exactitude that there can hardly be found a doubtful accent anywhere in them (La ciencia de la religión, Ed. Albatros, 1945).

Although our exposition focuses on the historiographic aspect of the Popol Vuh, the historical facts cannot be separated from the mythic material into which they are integrated. For this reason, study of the Popol Vuh as a source of history must include the whole of that mythic material, which has a satisfactory explanation as well as many kinds of proofs in the primary sources mentioned above. Consequently the mytho-history expresses actual and not hypothetical truth.

The salient features of this history, which is many thousands of years old, fill the pages of the Popol Vuh. They are summarized in the conclusions and synoptic sketch given at the end of this book. They include all the fundamental problems of the Quiché-Maya humanity, as well as the type-events of man's life and destiny throughout its whole period.

The Popol Vuh forms a complete treatise of theogony, cosmogony, and astronomy. It gives us theology: the birth and formation of the gods, of men, of species and things; that is, the birth and formation of the words with which they are designated. It explains the creation of the universe, the place of the human being in the world, the relations of Deity with man, the ethical mission of the individual and group, the concatenations of events, the proper organization of society. It reveals the Indian and his world, his means of support, his spiritual aspirations, and the process of development of his institutions; in a word, the historical-cultural evolution of the Quiché-Maya people through their history, a unified history that contains all aspects of life and culture.

It is, then, a document that is unique in the annals of humanity, which explains the first moment of the life of a religion, a society, an art, a language: of a culture coming to birth, as well as the series of later developments composing the formation, growth, and evolution of Quiché-Maya culture.

For these reasons it will always be the source that must be consulted, the indispensable vade mecum of the ethnographer, archaeologist, linguist, historian, sociologist, and mythographer, and all who investigate the fields of Quiché-Maya religion, economy, and other phases of their culture. Until now these investigators have lacked a historical basis for orienting their researches.

The Popol Vuh gives identifying and classifying criteria for those cultural elements corresponding to each one of the Ages of Quiché-Maya history. Thanks to this masterwork of anthropology, we can now study phenomena formerly restricted to the area of theory and see that the evolution of Quiché-Maya culture is not always a straight-line progression. During its emergence, brought about through racial fusions, there is great progress, but at the same time notable retrogression, in relation to the primeval horizon. This prodigious work of Amerindian genius, which sums up the soul and history of the Quiché-Maya people, describes the activities, ways of life, and psychology of the men of the caves, as if it all were taking place before our eyes. The beginning of Quiché-Maya history coincides, in fact, with the first traces of man on this continent, which go back thousands of years before the Christian era. It follows, therefore, that the Popol Vuh is the oldest document that we know of concerning human history, earlier than the Rig-Veda and the Zend-Avesta, until now held to be the most ancient collections of sacred texts.

The spiritual contribution that the Mayan and Toltecan civilizations now offer us, stripped of the mystery that has enveloped them, is a factor of great value in this critical moment for humanity. The Popol Vuh concedes nothing in philosophical value to the great books that have guided the human conscience. Its revelations illumine not only Quiché-Maya history, until now so obscure, but also the history of mankind itself.

Chapter 2