Esotericism of the Popol Vuh by Raphael Girard

Theosophical University Press Online Edition

Chapter 7

The Parthenogenetic Conception of Hunahpú and Ixbalamqué

Following the Popol Vuh's biographical and genealogical summary of the parents of Hunahpú and Ixbalamqué, which expresses the successive stages of cultural development, we have the account of the twins' miraculous birth. For like the redeemer gods of the other great religions, those of the Maya religion also have a divine and a human birth.

Ixquic, daughter of Cuchumaquic, a prominent figure in Xibalbá, felt an irresistible curiosity to see from close up the famous, forbidden tree where hung the heads of the seven Ahpú transformed into gourds. She tried to get her father to accompany her, but in face of his refusal she decided to visit the tree alone. Gazing at the mysterious fruits, the young maiden asked herself: What kind of fruits are these? Do they have a good flavor? Could I reach one? Would anything happen to me if I did? These are questions that must in fact have preoccupied the first people each time they came upon some new botanical species whose properties they did not know.

Then one of the heads spoke, saying: "What is it that you want? There are only bones hung in these branches. Do you want us?" This response resolves the dilemma: the fruit of the calabash tree is not really edible and only the bonelike rind is useful. Here we have the origin and explanation of the etymological relation between the words for bone, shell, the corncob, and similar hard objects likened to the skulls of the Ahpú or the rind of the gourd, and which are regarded as necessary elements of all bodies (human, animal, and vegetable).

"I want you," replies Ixquic. "Very well, extend your hand," said the heads, their request being obeyed immediately by the maiden. Then the heads let some drops of saliva fall on the palm of her hand; but when she looked at her palm they had disappeared.

"In this saliva that we have cast into you, we have given you our progeny. Our heads no longer have anything over them; they are only bones and worthless. When we lived we were handsome, but now there remain only our heads from that time when we were great lords. Thus when we died we frightened everyone because we became only a skeleton [the source of the fear the natives have of the dead]. In the saliva is passed on to the children the knowledge that one has, whether they are children of lords, wise men, or orators. This knowledge is not lost when the parent dies, but is inherited, because it is the saliva deposited by lords, wise men, or orators, and only thus do the children of those ancestors endure after they begin their existence. This very thing have we done with you.

"Go up, then, to the earth's surface; you will not die. Remember our Word when you arrive there," the heads of the Ahpú told Ixquic, carrying out the will of the Word of Hunrakán.

The maiden returned at once to her house, having conceived the twins solely by virtue of the saliva that penetrated into her being. Thus were conceived Hunahpú and Ixbalamqué.

This is one of the most important passages of the Popol Vuh, inasmuch as it expresses a rule of Mayan biology: the law of heredity whereby parents transmit to their offspring their intellectual and moral as well as physical characteristics. Moreover, the divine origin of the caste of elders is also emphasized; its members receive their wisdom from Deity itself, and therefore they have to transmit it within their own lineage, and in this we have the remote origin of the hereditary institution of elders. It also explains the reasons why Chortís and Mayas are so jealous of their lineage. Of this the Chilam Balam of Chumayel says that the noble descendants of princes who ought to know their own lineage, and the kings who were properly governing them, will see that it was the kings' wisdom that gave them authority over their vassals.

The miraculous fertilization of Ixquic through the descent of the spiritual into the carnal exemplifies the mystery both of human conception and of the germination of maize (assimilated with Hunahpú, as will be seen), associating on this occasion for the first time the concepts of human fecundation and fertility of the earth, inseparable in the native mind. This theme will compose the leitmotif of Mesoamerican art, which will reproduce it in the most varied forms, from the sash hanging from the divine member in Maya statuary — like the saliva that falls from the heads of the Ahpú — to the figures in Mexican iconography of gods falling from heaven.

With their sacrifice the Ahpú fertilize the earth, irrigating it with their own blood, thus bequeathing the ritual practices founded on the belief that "the earth needs blood for its sustenance," that divine fluid being correlated with rain, semen, and human blood itself as divine exudations, the essence of maize or of "grace." (See the definition of this word in "Theogony," Girard, Los Chortís.) This association of ideas is exhibited in the figure of the calabashes dropping saliva from high up in the tree, a paradigm of the belief that calabashes are instruments of the gods of rain, who pour down from the sky the waters which fertilize the earth. Because of its classification of the god-Seven and its positioning in the top of the tree, the picture the Popol Vuh gives us does not differ from one that we have reproduced from the Chumayel manuscript, showing the god of Heaven at the pinnacle of the cosmic tree, its "grace" falling upon the earth from on high.

image: god-Seven at the top of the tree


This resemblance is completed when later the calabash tree is seen to be the equivalent of the ceiba, the cosmic tree, which from then on becomes, like the Christian cross, the sacred emblem of the divine martyrdom. It is through the branches of the ceiba that human generations descend, as the divine twins, Hunahpú and Ixbalamqué, fell into the womb of their mother. Richtofen has said that the tree engenders the first feelings of property and of native land, ideas that could have no better application than in this case, because the cosmic and generative tree of the human species is the primary symbol of Maya nationality, linked with the concept of territory and of population increase. Such is the significance of the ceiba tree that was planted in the center of the public plaza, the center of the communal territory.

Veneration of the ceiba, as that of human skulls and ancestors, begins here. By their martyrdom the seven Ahpú achieve the posthumous honor of being the chiefs of the Quiché people, and this will be reinterpreted centuries later by the Nahua peoples as the legendary Chicomoztoc. The role of savior of peoples that is attributed to the fleshless heads of the seven Ahpú illustrates another linguistic peculiarity whereby the words for chief, caudillo, leader, and head are expressed by a common word in languages stemming from the proto-Maya trunk.

All this implies a progressive advance in the process of cultural formation that is projected in the ascent of Ixquic from the inferior cosmic plane to the earth's surface, where she will gain the immortality decreed by the Ahpú. Conceived in the underworld, Hunahpú will live upon the earth in order to exemplify the standards of conduct proper for the human race, as well as the development of the maize plant which comes to birth in the underworld like a fetus in the maternal womb, but which evolves on the terrestrial plane.

Just as the Nahuas took from the Quiché traditions the myth of the seven leaders of the people, they also took that of the virgin birth of Hunahpú, projecting this in the Aztec hero-god who, like Hunahpú, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, or Minerva, had a supernatural parentage. Huitzilopochtli is born on the Coatepeque hill, the equivalent of the Pucbal-chaj (see the explanation below). The Mexican Coatlicue, a functional replica of Ixquic, or of Isis, Devaki, Mylitta, and Ishtar, is the Virgin Mary of ancient world myths.

Six months after the miraculous conception, Cuchumaquic notes the pregnancy of his daughter and judges it a dishonorable thing — a reflection of the views of the period — and informs the Great Council of Xibalbá of the matter. The Council unanimously resolves to compel the maiden to reveal the name of her lover, but Ixquic can do no more than tell the truth about what had happened, stating that "never had she known the face of any man." This illustrates another Mayan custom which prohibits women, so long as they are single, from looking into the faces of young men, a fact confirmed by Landa who says, "the women were accustomed to turn their backs to the men when they happened to meet anywhere, and also when they served men something to drink. . . ." (Landa, D. de, Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, Mexico, 1938).

Faced with Ixquic's improbable explanations in justification of her sinful act, her own father orders the Tukur, servants of the Ahpop achij (dignitary of the mat, a name that confirms Hun Camé's post as Regent or Ahau) to sacrifice the girl in the fork of a tree far away, and after the execution to bring her heart in a cup, where it would be preserved. Immediately the four servants of Xibalbá went to get the cup and the stone knife employed for sacrifices, and took the girl toward the tree.

In these paragraphs of the Quiché epic we find good ethnological information regarding the manner in which human sacrifices were performed in that age, as also the utensils employed: the cup for preserving the victim's heart (identical with the cauhxicalli of the Aztecs), the knife of white stone, and the team of four executioners.

We were told that the heads of the seven Ahpú were placed in the branches of a tree. Now we are told that the body of Ixquic is to be placed in the fork of a tree. These references bring to mind the secondary method of burial characteristic of the matriarchal epoch, practiced by peoples belonging to that cultural cycle. We know, for example, that the Talamancas do not recognize relationship by the paternal line but by the maternal; and although such relations among two people may be very distant, they never marry. These people do not inter their dead, but wrap them up and hang them in the air between two tree-forks. A year having passed, and the judgment having been made that the flesh of the deceased has now become earth, the Talamancas celebrate the funeral with great solemnity. A new wrapping and green leaves of the bijao plant (Musaceae family) are brought into the house of the deceased, whose bones are placed in order upon them and rewrapped just as done the year before. Then the suquia or healer calls to the soul of the defunct to come and witness the celebration. In the afternoon of the third day the suquias, adorned with many feathers, pick up the remains and carry them to the aypuc, the sepulcher belonging to the family of the deceased. These sepulchers are usually located on slopes or hills about a half-league distant from the houses. If the defunct was a brave or prominent individual, a macaw is carried, killed, and buried with the remains. If the dead person had a slave, he too is killed and buried, and the remains of his master placed above his own. Thus the slave can serve the latter in the afterlife and the macaw will provide feathers. If the defunct is a boy, his blowgun and dart bag are placed with the body; if a girl, her spindle and cotton are put there (Ricardo Fernández Guardia, Reseña Histórica de Talamanca, San José de Costa Rica, 1927).

We also know that the Crow Indians of the Sioux peoples practice secondary burial, placing the body in the fork of a tree. When only the skeleton remains, the bones are removed and deposited in a cave (Murdock). The Sioux belong to the same cultural horizon as the Talamancas and other North and South American peoples of middling culture.

We might extend these comparisons to many other peoples, but it is enough for our purpose to bring together the information given in the Quiché text with that offered us in ethnography, to show the historical authenticity of the Popol Vuh. We have in contemporary customs (as well as those of the 16th century) not only amplification and confirmation of the data provided in the famous manuscript, but also directives for their better translation and understanding. For example, the name Pucbal-chaj has not yet been correctly interpreted by the mythographers, because contemporary Quiché does not take into account certain archaisms found in the Popol Vuh. This obliges us to have recourse to comparative linguistics. We have a definition of the root puk or puc that determines the meaning of the name given above, in the Maya language of Yucatán (in which puúc means hill) as well as in the account of the Talamancas which calls the site where their dead are interred, aypuc, stating that this site is the sepulcher "made upon slopes and hills at a distance from their houses." Today that very custom can be observed among the Hicaques, who still build their cemeteries on the tops of hills at some distance from their communities, according to the author's personal investigation. All this shows the relative antiquity of the root puc, found so frequently in Honduras where elevated summits are named Erapuca, Puca, etc., and whose translation from the languages spoken there during the Colonial era is difficult.

The final a means stone, lacking the k because of aphaeresis due to reasons of euphony. The literal translation would be "hill of stone," which in fact describes a toponymic reality in Honduras where rock summits are meant. The same word having a similar meaning is again encountered in the word pukara (fortified hill) from the Quechua, in quipuca (hill, or place) in Chibcha, chuk ka (hill) in Paya, yúku (hill) in Otomí, etc., all of which shows this word's great age and also the prehistoric custom of burying the dead in hills distant from the population center.

Ixquic protested her innocence when confronted with the wicked decision of the Lords of Xibalbá, remonstrating that she had not transgressed the laws of honor and therefore did not deserve punishment (reasoning that conforms with Maya ethics and justice). She proclaimed that the life she bore within her body was conceived only because she went to express "her feelings to the heads of the Ahpú."

Faced with the dilemma of carrying out their masters' orders and possibly sacrificing an innocent person, the four Xibalban messengers vacillated, and they wondered how they would be able to present physical proof that they had indeed executed the girl. "Very well," said Ixquic to them, "but my heart does not belong to them. You shouldn't obey them or remain in their house, because it is only dishonor to kill persons without any cause whatever. Because they do that, I will overcome the Camé, who do not fear the presence of blood or of decapitated heads."

This is an eloquent profession of faith in the Quiché-Maya religious principles, which repudiate human sacrifice. By her proclamation Ixquic separates herself both spiritually and materially from her kind, and thus her heart does not belong now to them (an allegory having a double meaning). At the same time, the young woman tries to convert the Xibalban messengers to the new belief, inciting them to repudiate the false gods and warning that the prevailing religious ideas will be supplanted by the doctrines of the Ahpú, which contain the worship, articles of faith, and ethical force of the Maya religion.

Ixquic then suggests to her four attendants "that they place the sacrificial cup before the tree." Then a red liquid drops from the tree into the cup, where it coagulates like blood and takes the shape of a human heart. Thus it was that the tree's sap substituted for her blood, and the tree also became the color of blood.

When the Tukur came before the Lords of Xibalbá, they delivered the substitute heart of Ixquic, which was in the bottom of the cup, to Hun Camé. It was then placed in a sack, and when the cup was empty it shone as if covered with living blood.

"Now build up the fire and put the heart on it," Hun Camé told them. His order was instantly obeyed, and when the flames had consumed it and the Lords of Xibalbá came near, they smelled the burning sap and saw the smoke produced by the blood, and realized that it was fragrant. This greatly disturbed them, and the four Tukur went up to the surface of the earth and became the servants of Ixquic.

This is how, says the Popol Vuh, the Lords of Xibalbá fared at the hands of the young maiden who made fools of them all.

The episode has many meanings. In the first place, it tells us of a new cultural element in the description of incense and its properties, an invention later than that of tobacco and the manufacture of cigars and which, as with all the important developments in the native American economy, was the discovery of woman and accomplished during the matriarchal-horticultural cycle. Ixquic shows the way to use copal, a tree native to Guatemala, which abounds in the southeast portion of the Pacific region in the same area as the calabash tree (jícaro). That country still provides the incense which the Indians of the interior use so abundantly.

In the Popol Vuh are spelled out both the essential and mystical properties of this gum resin, which coagulates like blood, gives off an aromatic scent when burned, and in addition has the ability to destroy evil spirits. Reference is also made to the sack used for storing the copal. From that time until today the Indians employ this incense in all their religious ceremonies with the object of warding off the bad spirits and thus purifying the air in both a figurative and literal sense, as well as perfuming the area with an aroma pleasing to the gods because of its divine nature. The Chilam Balam of Chumayel explains that the incense is "the heavenly resin," and that "its aroma is attracted to the central point of the sky." In the same way the peel of the copal is equated to "the waistband; to the vestment of God."

Because of their etymological relation, the liquid exudations of Deity are correlated with those of men, animals and plants; the Zend-Avesta makes the same kind of comparison. Thus the sap of the copal, blood, and rain — that is, the divine substance — are consubstantial, the smoke of incense also representing the clouds, while the rain gods can be figured on Chortí altars by either a solid ball of copal or a receptacle full of "virgin water" (see Girard, Los Chortís, chapter 12).

On the theogonic level, the ascent of Ixquic and the four converts from Xibalbá to the earth's surface denotes the appearance of the four cosmic bearers after the destruction of humanity by a cataclysm. This interpretation is based on Ixquic's role as Earth goddess, and as such she is inseparable from the four bearers which the Chumayel document calls the "Wills of the Earth" (Voluntades de la Tierra). The will of Ixquic, obeyed by the four acolytes of Hun Camé, is a figure expressive of the same concept. Further on, the Chumayel codex says that the Bacab "went rising up, calling to their Lord," an image which the Popol Vuh portrays in the ascent of the four Xibalban converts to the earth's surface. From other sources we know that the four bearers of the heaven escaped when the world was destroyed by the deluge" (Landa, Relación).

Nevertheless, it seems contradictory that the celestial bearers whom Mayan and Chortí theologians depict for us as giants should have their origin in the four messengers of Xibalbá, and this discrepancy is accentuated if we recall that the giants of the First Age were also converted into Atlantes. But such incongruities do not exist from the Maya point of view which equates the giants with the Camé, regarding them by the same token as "animals" because they lacked genuine human culture — that is, Maya culture — and therefore were made the vassals of the true gods. In no other source do we find such a clear explanation of this concept as in the Chortí drama, where the same actor — the Black Giant — personifies both the giants of the primeval epoch and also the Camé, in the beginning playing the role of the earlier giants and later that of the Lords of Xibalbá, in accord with the sequence given in the Popol Vuh.

Finally, in Mayan calendrics, Ixquic's triumph over the Xibalban lords marks the end of the period of the Camé regency and its replacement by another Ahau, of which we shall speak next.

Chapter 8