Esotericism of the Popol Vuh — Raphael Girard

Chapter 15

The Original Maya, Quiché, and Lenca Tribes

The next paragraph in the Popol Vuh has great historical interest because it gives the names of the peoples which, besides the three Quiché lines of descent, proceed from the same cultural trunk and probably occupied the same country, beginning with the Fourth Creation. The Quiché text says:

None of the three lines of descent forgot the names of their grandfathers and fathers who begat them there where the sun rises. Likewise there come those of Tamup and Ilocap with their thirteen generations, according to the tradition; the thirteen of Tecpán; the Rabinals; the Cakchiquels; those of Tziquinajá and those of Zacajip; there follow those of Lamakip, the Cumatz, those of Tujaljá and of Uchabajá; those of Chumialá with those of Aj-Quibajá; of Batenajá; the people of Acul, of Malamijá, of Canchajelep, and of Balam-Colop.
This is, then, the origin of the great tribes, as we call them; we will speak only of the principal ones. Many others came out from each group of the people, but we will not write about them, except only about the place where they were begotten, where the sun rises.

Nineteen tribes, including the Quiché, composed the ethnic group that was then settled in the common cultural homeland. Of these the Pocomams and Poconchis have been identified, according to Brasseur de Bourbourg; also the Rabinals and Zacajip as branches of the Quiché group, and the Cakchiquels and Tzutuhils (Tziquinajá). But as A. Recinos observes, until now it has not been possible to identify the remaining tribes.

Of those unknown tribes our attention is especially drawn to the Cumatz and the Balam-Colop. The first name means serpent in Quiché and Cakchiquel, and is the equivalent to chan in the languages of the northern group in the Maya family. Here we have the etiological definition of the Maya tribe inasmuch as Chan is the original name of this people, and is preserved today by the Chortís whose elders title themselves Hor Chan (chief of Chan) and call the group under their jurisdiction, chan (Girard, Los Chortís, chapters on Chortí religion and sacerdotal caste). This documentary proof, firmly supported by ethnographic information, is also upheld by the relationship that is evident between the Quiché and Maya peoples who for long periods shared a common language and culture. The reference in the Popol Vuh is of the greatest importance because it establishes the community of origin of the Quiché and Maya groups and their geographic contiguity in a remote epoch of their history, data corroborated by archaeology and linguistics (ibid., chapters on linguistics, archaeology, and history).

Chan, the generic name of the Mayas, is derived from their cultural totem, the serpent. This figurative ancestor gave its own blood to form the true men of Quiché-Maya culture. This is the reason why the serpent is an onmipresent motif in Maya art as a symbol of the divine nahual, and protector of the tribe and, by extension, of the whole nation derived from this original tribe. It passes by heredity from generation to generation to each group separating from the primeval tribe, so that all feel themselves joined together through their common belief in that totem. As said elsewhere, the Chortí community led by its elder regards itself as a serpent whose head (synonymous with chief) is that elder and whose body is the communal group. This idea is expressed pictographically in Mayan codices by the figure of a serpent with the head of god B, whose representative is the elder of the agrarian religion (cf. Girard, Los Chortís, chapters on religion).

All members of the group carry in their veins, by atavism, the blood of that common mythical ancestor of which they are descendants. This is why the Mayas consider the preservation of the purity of that divine blood an indispensable requisite for the very existence of the group, rejecting the introduction of any foreign element that might disturb its perfect homogeneity. It explains the hermetic character of the native community and the reason why the Chortís, and the other Mayan peoples who preserve their traditions, still regard as a public calamity — capable of receiving celestial punishment — any infraction of that basic law of their constitution. It is absolutely clearly put by the Chilam Balam of Chumayel: "The cause of our death is bad blood."

This aspect of Maya idiosyncrasy must be borne well in mind if we wish to understand the isolation and self-sufficient regime of the Old Empire tribes, or formulate adequate judgmental criteria to apply to outstanding problems of native culture, since this perception of the matter on the part of the natives themselves has not varied from the beginning of the historical era right down to the present day, and the future action of the Indian derives from his past.

Aside from these considerations, the historic Mayas or Chan reveal in the name of their totem itself the geographical location of their original homeland situated in Tamoanchan, i.e., in Paxil and Cayalá.

It seems strange that the Cakchiquel manuscript should explain the symbolism of the totem adopted by the classical Maya group while the Cakchiquels themselves adopted the bat, as the Popol Vuh says in a later part. But, as has been said, the vampire is identified with the sacred bird and the butterfly, symbols of the god of Heaven, while the serpent is rather identified with the Earth god. But both animals are inseparable from the anthropogenic myth expressed in the figure of the serpent-bird, of which the Cakchiquels took one element and the Mayas the other. All this helps once again to demonstrate the common genesis of the Quichés and Mayas.

The above brings us to a consideration of the process of branching off and expansion of peoples separated at specific times from the same cultural trunk. Identification of any people in a particular epoch of history is determined by the name of their tutelary god, which is a symbol of their cultural and linguistic unity and the source from which springs their sense of common nationality. Although at bottom the gods of those diverse peoples are no more than distinct names for the same deity, that their names differ is sufficient to make of each a distinct god and therefore each has power and worship only among its own people. When through the passing of time and an extension over ever-widening areas linguistic differences come into play and are projected in the different names for the tribal god, this indicates the formation of a new nation. Idiom and tribe are coextensive only while there is preserved the same name for the tutelary god. Such is the process of the extension and separation of peoples which have emerged from a common cultural horizon but which, with time, have finally come to differ notably among themselves.

Further on the Popol Vuh gives us a precise datum in this regard, but there is even more: the famous codex speaks of the dispersion of "many other peoples separated from each nation," but these events are so far in the past that "it does not mention the names" of those peoples which have become lost to history.

This gives us a clear perspective of that centrifugal movement of peoples emigrating from a common cultural homeland in different directions and in differing moments of time toward peripheral and ever more remote regions, pushing one against the other, and corroborates the data of ethnography concerning the distribution of peoples and cultures over the Americas. Because of the constant increase in population growth, the Quichés themselves emigrate from their primeval homeland toward the north; and this will be discussed below, but before that we must speak of the Balam-Colop.

As we have demonstrated, Balam-Colop means "Tribe of the Jaguar," the equivalent of the generic name of the tau lepa (lineage of the jaguar) known today as the Lencas, and for whom the jaguar is the cultural factotum (Girard, Los Chortís, chapter 1). The root col (op is the particle for plurality) has remained just as invariable in Quiché as in Lenca, and in both languages has kept the same meaning, being translated by tribe, people, group of people, while in Mayan languages of the northern group col designates the milpa or farm. Col enters into the toponymy of a great number of Lenca villages. Moreover the Colop are identified as the Lencas by Vásquez (1714) and Vallejo (1893) (ibid.). Tau lepa, the house of the jaguar, the homologue of Nachan, the house of the serpent of Maya traditions, was the name of one of the great Lenca religious centers situated on the lake of the same name (Taulepa altered into Taulabe). Lepa is for the Lenca what Chan is for the Mayas: the totemic designation of a primeval clan, which became the name of the nation formed as a result of expansion of that clan. The civilizer-hero of the Lencas is Comizahual (the jaguar which flies), and the figure of this feline is omnipresent in the rock art and folklore of the Lenca area just as is its name in their regional toponymy. The Lenca goddess named Ixelaca is the same as the Maya Ixel, whose name and function has not varied in either culture, which once more demonstrates their very old relationship. We have already in the ethnographic part of Los Chortís ante el problema maya underscored the cultural features that the Lencas and Mayas have in common. The jaguar is a cultural element pertaining to a very old horizon and continues to be a god in Maya theogony.

While the Chortís use the same word for jaguar and puma, in the variation of the suffixes the Lencas establish a difference between the two cats to accentuate the individuality of their totem. It is worthy of note that the Lenca name for the jaguar is used in Mame, one of the oldest languages of the Maya group, to mean serpent (lepa = jaguar in Lenca; lebaj = serpent in Mame). On the other hand, the Lencas call the earthworm by the same word the Mayas use for serpent (chan = serpent in Maya, and earthworm in Lenca). Something similar takes place with the Quiché word cumatz, which is applied also to the caterpillar and the earthworm, while the Chortís call the earthworm lu kum (literally, earth-egg), the same word that in Chol is employed to designate the rattlesnake. With regard to the word lu, we will note in passing that this root has remained invariable in Chortí and Lenca, having the same meaning (earth) in both languages, showing both the great age of this word and the intimate linguistic relation between Maya and Lenca. With respect to the root pa < ba, from the Lenca word for jaguar, we will find it also in the majority of the tongues imitative of proto-Maya, as can be seen in the following list:

In this short list can be seen the alternatives of a very old root which came to designate the jaguar in some languages and the serpent in others, a fact that is projected in Mayan and Toltecan art in the hybrid figure of the jaguar-serpent, to which we have referred in previous chapters of Los Chortís ante el problema maya when discussing Mesoamerican art and its symbolism. The Quekchi seems to be an exception to the rule, making use of the term ix to mean jaguar, a root that in other languages is the prefix for the feminine. Ix enters into the name of the goddess Ixbalamqué of the Popol Vuh, a Lunar deity figured as a feline, and also into the formation of names for the moon in languages that have preserved their archaisms to any major degree as, for example, the Mame (ixjau = moon) and Uru (isis = moon, his = month). We must also note that in the languages of peoples that pertain to the prehistoric horizon according to the Popol Vuh's classification, the jaguar is related with the demon. Thus it is that the Ulua language uses the same word to mean both these (naual = jaguar or devil) and in the languages of the Sumo group, naual or ulasa means both jaguar and demon, in this case repeating the conception that the gods of the cultural cycle are the demons of the earlier period. Therefore the peoples that deify the jaguar extend back into prehistory.


By mentioning the Lencas among the tribes which at the beginning of the cultural era lived in the common homeland, the Popol Vuh expresses a historical reality having its full confirmation in the distribution of the native population. Ethnic cartography in fact shows that the Lencas and Mayas were contiguous during the whole of their long histories until the collapse of the Old Empire, when the Pipil wedge was introduced, which partially separated them in the southerly area. Both Maya and Lenca tribes had been developing in such a way that they began to cover large territorial extensions populated by hundreds of thousands of their descendants. Their expansive movements began from the Pacific Coast and moved inland, the Mayas occupying part of Honduras, Guatemala, Chiapas, the Petén, Tabasco, and finally all of the Yucatán Peninsula. The Lencas extended themselves through a large part of the Republics of Salvador and Honduras, to the east of the Maya area. The fact that the Balam-Colop should appear last in the Quiché list of tribal names seems to reflect their geographic position relative to that of the Maya peoples; they are a peripheral group in the area in which American culture was incubated.

If the tribe of the Chan and that of the Lepa-Col (Cumatz and Balam-Colop) could increase so much in numbers, we can infer that that process took place over a considerable lapse of time, which gives us an idea about the populating process of the other tribes, as well as those whose names are not mentioned, because they separated from the common trunk in even earlier times. All this helps us understand the way the continent has been peopled beginning with a sparse initial population. The oldest migratory movements seem to have followed the easiest route, that of the Pacific Coasts in a southward-moving direction. Supporting this conjecture is the fact that the Mayas, on moving inland into Chiapas, Guatemala, and Honduras in their slow migration from the Pacific toward the Atlantic, found the interior unpopulated (cf. Girard, Los Chortís, "Archaeology and History"); and those peoples that flowed back toward the north are carriers of the culture they acquired in Central America.

In their advance toward the interior of Honduras, the Lencas pushed aside small groups related to them by language and culture, which had preceded them but which, because they had separated earlier, possessed the cultural conditions the Mayas and Lencas had had in an earlier period of their history.

This explains the difference in social structure between the Lenca and Hicaque: the former are organized in tribes, while the latter preserve the clan as the largest social and political unit, which can still be seen in the group living in the Flor mountain, divided in two "halves" — that of Fidelio and that of Bertrand. The name the Hicaques give to themselves is Torrupán (family), which expresses the arrangement of the people organized by clans based on groups of families. The Payas, also related linguistically with the Lencas and Hicaque, descend from a primeval clan which had the monkey for its totem, today the protector of the whole nation. The Paya economic regime, like that of the Hicaque, is based mainly on cultivation of sweet manioc and maize; and both peoples practice polygamy — features placing them on an older ethnological level than the Lencas. Beyond the Payas in Nicaraguan Mosquitia and in the sector adjacent to Honduran Mosquitia, we find the Sumos whose family regime is governed by a pure matriarchy and whose economy is that of horticulture and the Age of wood. This cultural layer extends from the Atlantic slopes toward the south (the Talamancas) and continues farther into southern America.

Such a mosaic of cultural areas in so reduced a spatial extension gives us a living picture of the history of Mayan cultural development from the prehistoric age in a panorama extending from Copán — the apex of Mayan civilization — to the peoples of the Mosquitia who preserve a primitive mode of life. Each one of these peoples of the Mosquitia is characterized by a culture distinguishing it from the others, in spite of their living together in the same country, a fact that shows their independent evolution following separation from the common trunk. And this phenomenon confirms what was said at the beginning, that the Mayas of the Old Empire did not exercise influence outside the limits of their own territory. The degree of cultural advance of the various peoples is in direct proportion to their geographic distance from the Maya area. In other words the ethnologically oldest groups are the most distant in time and space from that cultural homeland from which they moved out, a fact that makes evident the spreading out of human groups in successive waves from a common center on the one hand, and on the other confirms the historical validity of the Popol Vuh. The ethnic panorama of Honduras reproduces on a smaller scale the process of cultural diffusion of the continent itself.


Following the paragraph that deals with the origin of the tribes and the emigrations of peoples, the Popol Vuh tells about the migration of the Quichés themselves because of the constant growth in population. "Many men were made and in the darkness they multiplied," says the Quiché text (A. Recinos version). In order to better capture the meaning of those words, we should remember that according to the religious code the procreative act can take place only during the night.

On becoming more numerous, the Quichés emigrated and, coming from the place where the sun arose, found themselves in an isolated region, all together and in large numbers. "They had nothing with which to maintain their strength; they could only gaze up to heaven and did not know why they had come so far."

Farther on, they "heard news of a people, and they went there." Then is related their initial encounter in foreign territory with peoples in a state of barbarism, an account which we quote because of its historical importance:

There were black people [barbarians] and white people [those of Quiché culture]. The physiognomies [physical types] of those people were distinct and so was their speech, as well as their manner of seeing and hearing. There were many of them under the sky; they were in the forests also, but their faces did not differ nor had they houses [a clear description of a natural grouping of individuals of equal language and culture, proper to the First Age]; they continually wandered about the woods and forests like mad people, like those possessed by folly [note once more that madness is here used as a synonym of barbarism]. This is how the Quichés described these people of the forests, looking down upon them — From A. Recinos's translation

The barbarians to whom the Popol Vuh refers spoke to those who came from where the sun rises. Here we should say that the "country where the sun rises," mentioned so often, corresponds to the original Quiché-Maya homeland where the sun that lit up the Fourth Creation was born, i.e., the region that saw the dawning of culture.

"Those people had only one manner of speech among them all [important historical information about the existence of only one linguistic group]. They still could not name the trees or the rocks." This, in Quiché thought, reveals that the barbarians they encountered did not worship before figures of stone or wood and lacked proper names for stone and wood, a description applicable to primitive Nahua peoples whose language lacks specific names for designating trees and plants, inasmuch as these names come from the Quiché-Maya language. In this regard see the study of Marcos E. Becerra upon Maya-Mexican linguistic connections in which he points out that all of the Nahua names of plants from hot climes and of southern origin, and whose termination is tl and tli, are suspected of having originated in Maya etymology with the termination in te (cf. Rev. Investigaciones Linguisticas, vol. 4, nos. 3 and 4, Mexico).

This is also confirmed by the fact that the religion and culture of the Nahuas are patterned upon that of the Quiché-Maya and the very names of their ancient gods derive from those mentioned by the Popol Vuh (Cipactli or Cipactonal, from Zipacná; Oxomoco, from Ixmucané; Nanahuatl from Nanauac, etc.).

In contrast with the inferior cultural level of those primitive peoples, the Quichés possessed a culture that had been fully developed as the result of a long evolutional process embracing three succeeding ethnic cycles. They were expert sculptors compared with the barbarians, who could neither "name nor work wood or stone." On the other hand, the Quichés "looked around to find what they might use to sculpt the figure of their gods so they could pray before them."

This valuable information, which points to the direction followed by Quiché emigration, will be corroborated by the Popol Vuh itself further on when it refers to the Quiché return from Tula (Mexico) to Guatemala in the following words:

After that they decided upon their return toward the place where the sun rises [an expression alluding, as said, to the cultural homeland]. And, when departing, they said, "We are going there, where the sun rises, toward that place whence our fathers came." This is what they said when they set out on their march.

But before devoting itself to the episode of the return to Guatemala from Mexico, the Popol Vuh goes into detail upon the reinstitution of human sacrifices among the Quichés, which because it was contrary to traditional customs brings about insurrections and serious outbreaks that culminate in the decision to abandon Mexican territory en masse. The text also emphasizes the linguistic differentiation taking effect among the tribes during their stay in Mexico, which gives some idea of the time that elapsed between the epoch of migration to the north and of the return to Guatemala, as well as the degree of expansion of population that was reached, inasmuch as linguistic heterogeneity is a phenomenon paralleling the separation and multiplication of peoples.

The archaeological and ethnographic data show that the Quiché group presents at the time noticeable differences in its customs in relation to those of the Maya culture, and its language reveals a prolonged contact with peoples of Nahua filiation. In the chapters on ethnography and comparative religion in Los Chortís ante el problema maya, the aforementioned episodes, and the part of the Popol Vuh which discusses the history of the Quichés themselves after their separation from the common trunk, are considered in greater detail.

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