Esotericism of the Popol Vuh by Raphael Girard

Theosophical University Press Online Edition

Chapter 3

Cosmogony and Creation of the Universe

The Quiché codex begins by referring to the creation of the universe. Divinity — preexistent to its works — creates the cosmos, which extends through two superimposed, quadrangular planes — heaven and earth — their angles delimited and their dimensions established. Thereby is established the geometric pattern from which will derive the rules for cosmogony, astronomy, the sequential order in which events occur, and the marking out and use of the land, which for the Maya are all reckoned from that space-time scheme. The cosmic quadrangle the Popol Vuh refers to is determined by the four solstitial points and is divided into four equal parts by the astronomical cross whose arms align with the cardinal points. From most remote times the Indian, a great observer of nature, had noted the regular annual oscillation of the points where the sun rose and set. Then he observed that the star "sought the angles of the firmament, measured what was there, and quartered the measurements, establishing the points of what is in heaven and earth," inferring the squaring of the universe, a model that was applied to the quadrangulation of territory, of the village, the field and its labors, the altar, the house, plaza, etc. (Girard, Los Chortís, chapter 16, "Cosmogony").

The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel completes this information from the Quiché manuscript, stating that the four directions were indicated by landmarks (such as flint markers, trees) whose respective colors — red, white, black, and yellow — compose the gamut of ritual hues. There were created the four chiefs or regents of the directions, inasmuch as the existence of that quadriform plane automatically implied that of the four cosmic gods or suns and, therefore, of the light which tears aside the shadows of chaos. And this conception is explicit in the Popol Vuh where, some lines before mention of how the cosmic quadrangle is measured, "the birth of light by the mediation of Tzakol, Bitol, Alom, and Cajolom" is narrated.

For the Chortí wise man, solar light always has a double significance: actual light and metaphoric light, since from the sun both material and spiritual light is received, so that in accordance with native thought the preceding paragraph can be interpreted in its double sense.

It should be noted that at the beginning the Popol Vuh mentions only two cosmic planes, and says nothing about the underworld, whose integration into the universal system will take place in a time later than that of the creation. The Chilam Balam of Chumayel concurs with this when it places the creation of "Hell" in Nine Cauac, at an interval of eight stages or epochs removed from the formation of heaven and earth. This creation, incomplete to start with, reflects the imperfect and rudimentary state of knowledge of primitive man, who is able to conceive only the visible divisions of the world: heaven and earth. Later, on forming the idea of a subterrene astral world at the same time as new spiritual doctrines, inseparable from the phenomenon of the germination of plants, the existence of a third dimension to the cosmic structure was conceived.

With such a preamble, the Quiché scribe begins his narration, telling the reader that his intent is to conserve the traditions of his ancestors.

He then goes on to describe the creative process, which takes place through successive stages — along a ladder, says the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel — in which heaven is formed first, then earth and its contents: the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms, and finally man — a theory that accords with modern scientific thought.

Both the Popol Vuh and the Chilam Balam of Chumayel agree on the progressive order of creation carried out by a creator, which is an uncreated Divinity and the first cause of all that exists. This uncreated god exists before all being and antecedes its works. The Chilam Balam of Chumayel says in this regard: "On One Chuen, [Divinity] took out from itself its divinity and made heaven and earth. On Two Eb, it made the first ladder in order to descend in the middle of heaven and in the middle of the water." That is the ladder of clouds to which we have referred elsewhere (Girard, Los Chortís). And, further on: "All was created by our Father God, and by his Word, there, where before there was no heaven or earth, was his Divinity, which through itself made itself into a cloud, and created the universe. And its great and divine power and majesty made the heavens tremble" (Chilam Balam de Chumayel, trans. A. Mediz Bolio, Mexico, 1941).

With this the ontological aspect of the Supreme Being becomes defined, in the view of the Quiché-Maya. Heaven existed, says the Popol Vuh, even when there was nothing that had any resemblance to it. The tranquil heaven and the sea existed consubstantially in the quiet of the shadows (as explained in Girard, Los Chortís, chapter 16), where shone with cosmic clarity Divinity itself, called Heart of Heaven or Cabahuil, and its hypostases: Tzakol, Bitol, Tepetü, Gucumatz, Alom, and Cajolom, the formative aggregate of the Creator god or god-Seven, whose nature and functions have been defined elsewhere. Before creating the universe, the Supreme Being created the gods which are no more than vital extrusions of It itself.

The Chilam Balam of Chumayel is more explicit about this, declaring that "the one that is the Divinity and the Power, brought into being the Great Stone of Grace, there, where before was no heaven, and from it were born Seven sacred stones, Seven warriors suspended in the spirit of the wind, Seven elected flames, and then seven times were lit the seven measures of the night." Further on the seven gods are spoken of in the singular as "the Descendant of seven Generations," produced by the Eternal, all of which is perfectly in accord with Chortí theological teachings (Girard, Los Chortís, chapters 7 and 17). The former quotation from this Quiché manuscript assimilates Divinity to heaven, an idea that has not varied even among contemporary Indians and has its linguistic correspondence (ut' e q'in: heaven, solar eye, God).

Cabahuil, according to the Quiché version, is the name of Divinity, synonymous with Heart of Heaven and Hunrakán. The etymological value of this word has been extensively discussed, but some time ago Gerónimo Román gave the definition of that "name of the supreme deity of the Guatemalan Indians which resides in the central point of the firmament." Francisco de Coto and also Father Varea point out that "gabuil means idol, picture, or image of God, or a statue or painting adored by the gentiles." The very same term is still used by the Quichés to designate their small idols as well as the incense containers which, like the small figures, represent the deity. In the Chilam Balam of Maní the central Deity is called Itzamná-kauil, a term equivalent to the Heart of Heaven or Cabahuil of the Quiché tradition.

The Supreme Being, after creating and delegating its powers to god-Seven, which is the creative Deity, assumes an essentially passive role, confining itself to the supervision and management of the universe; while the created gods, its sons, begin an active role, taking charge of "all the work," thereby exemplifying the duties of the sons with relation to the patriarch in the macrofamily. Thus the created gods, sons and hypostases of the Supreme Being, are those who continuously act on the mythopoeic stage. But in order that their acts be perfect, the individuality of Heart of Heaven or god-Seven must be integrated by means of all of its cosmic components. Accordingly, the Popol Vuh underlines this when it states that "with the coming of Tepeü and Gucumatz, there arrived the Word."

In earlier paragraphs Tzakol, Bitol, Alom, and Cajolom were identified as the Regent-gods of the four cosmic corners. These, on coming together in heaven in union with Tepeü and Gucumatz, form god-Seven or Heart of Heaven, an entity that is distinct from each one of its components but which embraces them all, agreeable to the Quiché-Maya's monotheist conception. In this view Tepeü and Gucumatz correspond to the sun at its rising and at its setting along the ecliptic, when the star moves through the zenith to form the astronomical cross by crossing the line of parallel with that of the meridian (Girard, Los Chortís, chapter on the Tzolkín). In this moment god-Seven, or the agrarian or creative god, acts, since only then are present all the hypostases composing it. Thus, "when Tepeü and Gucumatz arrived then was the Word"; that is, the act took place which created the earth. As explained elsewhere, Word and Action are equivalent terms with and are used in the same sense by the Mayas, Quichés, and Mexicans. The divine Word implies instantaneous creation, or the thing done. Accordingly, by this rule it is required only that the Chortí rain-magician say clearly what will be, that it should be. Identical conceptions are expressed in both Mexican and Mayan sources; for example, we read in the Vatican Codex that Tonacate-cuhtli created the first human pair with his Word.

It should be noted that the general name Gucumatz, the counterpart of Quetzalcoatl, is applied as much to a particular god — one of the septemvirate — as to the creative gods in general, which radiate light and are called Gucumatz "because they were covered with a green mantle like the quetzal bird." Gucumatz literally means "serpent-quetzal" or "serpent-bird." It can be translated also as "serpent with quetzal plumes," since the voice guc or q'uc means both quetzal (Pharomachrus mocino) as well as the long and beautiful green tail feathers of that bird; and cumatz means serpent. There is a synonymy between the solar ray as a symbol and the divine feathers or hairs of the plant-life mantle, whose magical properties are held to be equivalent. But the gods clothe themselves in the green mantle, the color of vegetation, only when they are involved in a creative act. The production of maize is equated with this, and it occurs during the rainy season determined by the passing of the sun through the zenith. At the same time and in imitation of the agrarian deities, the Chortí elder puts on his "dress suit," green in color like the divine raiments, and again we see the extremely close linkage between the myth and the ritual that is practiced by the Chortí. When the elder, called Hor Chan (head of the serpent), puts on his green mantle, he is compared to Gucumatz, the serpent with quetzal feathers; that is, the Agrarian deity of which he is the earthly representative. All this shows that the Chortí rites maintain a practice that has continued with little change since very remote times.

Continuing the account of the Popol Vuh, we find that when they come together in the center, the gods deliberate, offer their opinions and views to each other, consult, confer about the future existence of the beings they propose to create, take care to assure that the latter have sustenance, and finally reach an agreement which fills them with satisfaction. And this celestial assembly occurs each time there is to be a creative act, which cannot be accomplished without the complete accord of all the parts. The same proceeding is mentioned in Mexican sources (the Franciscan, Gama, Chimalpopoca, and Mendieta Codices) whose thematic correspondences with those of the Quiché and Maya are clear. Elsewhere we have illustrated the Chortí theological concept by which the agrarian gods come together, deliberate, and cannot take any action that is not of common accord. "They call each other and convene in heaven in order to join together in one headship and decide unanimously what has to be done."

Aside from its theological meaning, this mythological allegory expresses the pattern which determines the parliamentary form of indigenous government wherein the "principals" come together, deliberate and discuss until they reach an absolute accord upon a resolution which thus becomes unappealable. Both this council of chiefs and the divine assembly are exponents of the social and monotheistic conception whereby the All is the sum of the constituent parts of a collegial body whose destiny must be decided by a unanimity. This is the precise political principle that governs the administration of the Indian's communal group, at once parliamentary and autocratic. The executive power is in the hands of a democratic theocracy, and all decisions taken by an accord among the "principals," representatives of the group, must be respected as a divine order.

The creative gods or Creative God having pronounced the proper word for Earth, this is born at once. " 'Earth!' they say, and then it is formed." The voice of Heart of Heaven is made objective in the trinomial — Lightning Bolt: its Brilliant Flash: Thunder. These instruments of the divine Word are spoken and written in the immensity of the heaven. There is a perfect concordance on this among the Quiché, Chortí, and Mayan theologies; and such concepts are illustrated in the Mayan codices which represent god B — the equivalent of Heart of Heaven — manipulating the lightning bolt, lightning flash, and thunder.

At this point in the account, the name of Hunrakán is mentioned for the first time — "he of a single foot" — as a synonym of Cabahuil and Heart of Heaven. Hunrakán as a variant of Heart of Heaven involves a very precise functional meaning in relation to the creative act. The mythological disappearance of the foot of Hunrakán externalizes the theogonic concept by which the god of Maize — which is born in the bowels of the earth from the foot of Heart of Heaven — is an extruded part or hypostasis of the Agrarian deity. In this case, and following this reasoning, the Earth as a cosmic plane is an unfoldment or image of the celestial plane and, moreover, as a goddess is an extruded part or hypostasis of Hunrakán, the god of Heaven.

It was a miraculous thing, says the Popol Vuh, strange and marvelous, how the mountains, the coasts, and the valleys of the earth were formed; how at the same time populated forests appeared on its surface. Then was formed "the roadway of the waters" and these began to flow forth at the foot of and among the mountains. Before the formation of the earth, the waters had vacated the place where it was to appear. Such picturesque description of the earth, "flat like a plate," and of the formation of the coasts and water courses speaks to us of a maritime landscape of broad coasts, limited by mountains and cut by rivers. This quadrangular plane — a paradigm of the altar table, the maize field (milpa), the patio, the floor of the house and of the ball court, perfectly level — was contiguous to the sea. Thus it was not the rivers but, instead, the "road" along which the waters flowed that was formed, a conception that corresponds to an apparently real geological phenomenon based on the water table or water level, the subterranean circulation of water, and its emergence in springs. In the permeable earth of the coasts, the water level appears generally at the level of the sea and resembles an underground extension of the ocean. From this came the belief that the earth is surrounded by water and built upon the sea. Since the waters were before the formation of the earth, it was necessary only to trace out the roads along which they should flow.

The Popol Vuh concludes by saying: "Thus was the earth formed, when it was created and populated by the Heart of Heaven, the Heart of Earth."

It should be noted that in the narrative the central deity is now termed Heart of Heaven and of Earth, and that this new variant appears as a result of the act which created the earth, to show that the god of Heaven is also the god of Earth. This new functional aspect of the same deity is a consequence of its earlier form — or name — which shows the god of Heaven deprived of his foot, which became the earth. The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel offers us the same allegory expressed in terms of the katún count. This source says that in Seven Caban the first earth was born, where for us it had not been before. The association of the glyphs Seven (exponent of the Agrarian deity) and Caban (Earth), expresses the same idea as the name "Heart of Heaven and of Earth," and this theogonic unity is externalized in Indian art by a two-headed entity or by the positioning of god-Seven upon the umbilicus of the Earth goddess. All this confirms the native conception that the variants of the name of a deity express distinct functions that it has or performs.

Chapter 4