Esotericism of the Popol Vuh — Raphael Girard

Chapter 2

Esotericism of the Popol Vuh

We have various sufficiently acceptable literal translations of the Popol Vuh, and this is shown by the agreement between the text of the codex and the native customs, rites, beliefs, and theater in which the myths are dramatized so as to bring them within reach of the popular understanding by means of easily comprehended allegories. This makes possible useful comparisons as well as mutual corroborations between the text itself and the data of ethnography.

Learned Americanists such as Ximénez, the discoverer and first translator of the Popol Vuh, Brasseur de Bourbourg, Stoll, Brinton, Porohiles, Krickeberg, Douay, Seler, Max Müller, Sherzer, Lewis, Spencer, Beebe, Chavero, Batres, Jáuregui, Raynaud, Villacorta and Rodas, Imbelloni, Schulte-Jena, Recinos, and others, have tried to penetrate the dense veil of mystery that envelops the famous Quiché narrative. But hitherto no mythographer has succeeded in giving us a satisfactory explanation of the esotericism contained in that sacred book.

Even persons such as Flavio Rodas (Flavio Rodas and Ovidio Rodas Corzo are those in Guatemala who best know the Quiché customs) and Antonio Villacorta, who have been born among and lived with the Indian, believe it is impossible to clarify the abstract and philosophical conceptions buried in the Quiché legend. Most of its interpreters consider the esoteric meaning of the Popol Vuh to be lost, or else they formulate their hypotheses contrary to the native manner of thinking. Such is the judgment of the author of the prolog to the latest translation by Raynaud, published by the National University of Mexico in 1939.

J. Imbelloni, who has recently devoted his attention to the critical and comparative study of pre-Columbian sources, avoids analysis of the episodes concerning Hunahpú and Ixbalamqué, which form the most essential and extensive part of Quiché mythology, embracing five of the seven chapters into which Villacorta divides the mythic part of the Chichicastenango Codex (Imbelloni, El Génesis).

J. Imbelloni considers those myths to be "an interpolation of episodes much larger than the central discourse, the inclusion of which has made it extremely difficult to follow the connection between successive chapters, leading to misunderstanding even by persons who have worked on this codex for many years." Starting from that view, it is proposed to separate the more contingent portions from the basic framework of the text so as not to confuse such less essential elements with the permanent structure of the narrative, bearing in mind that the Popol Vuh has as its object to narrate the formation of the universe; moreover, that the development of this thematic unity includes the whole manuscript, but that the narrative sequence is interrupted by the insertion of a number of episodes in sections 2 to 6, or, in other words, practically the whole of the account.

Some translators have tried to "improve" the style of the Quiché text to make it conform to Western literary taste. Yet in the architecture of the Indian's language, as in that of his monuments, each word or sign has a very precise meaning, so that any modification or poor interpretation of one single word can completely destroy the meaning of a sentence.

From Ximénez, who rated "all these accounts as children's tales" (Fr. Francisco Ximénez, Las Historias del Origen de los Indios de esta Provincia de Guatemala, 1857) down to Imbelloni, the most substantial part of Quiché mythology has remained hidden. This shows a failure both to penetrate deeply into the Indian's mentality and to comprehend the essence of his religious conceptions, and therefore of his culture.

The fact is that these "puerile" legends, transmitted orally from time immemorial, contain the whole evolutive process of Quiché-Maya culture, its religion, society, and economy. They are an epitome of religious laws or articles of faith that are still in force and which were given to man by Deity before the Old World had the Hammurabi Code. Hunahpú — the civilizing hero of Quiché-Maya culture — is a redemptor-god, son of the Supreme Being. He is born immaculately like all the great religious founders and sacrifices himself for humanity, many centuries before the towering figure of Jesus the Christ becomes outlined in the panorama of human history. Hunahpú proclaims the tenet of the soul's immortality before Plato taught his doctrines, when the Greek mythology created by Homer and Hesiod did not yet exist. Hunahpú and Ixbalamqué transform themselves into human beings, have the same substance and experience the same life that man does, in order to establish the latter's patterns of conduct.

Before Heraclitus, the Quiché-Maya had the concept that men are mortal gods and gods immortal men, with the difference that among the latter, man, on dying, was transformed into an immortal being provided that he had complied with the precepts of religious ethics. The corollary to this idea is the conception of a harmonious world system and a relation between man and Deity and cosmos so close that perhaps no other religion equals it in this respect.

With his own example, Hunahpú establishes the rules for worship and for the cultivation of the fields and lays down astronomical, ritual, and time-reckoning procedures inseparable from those rules. He also provides the standards of natural law and ethics contained in religious morality of a utilitarian character, based on the conservation of the individual, family, and society, and the principle of authority and economic security for the well-being of humanity. Hunahpú exemplifies the kind of ethical action which characterizes the ideal human type.

In the Popol Vuh are resolved those spiritual anxieties which have in every age troubled the human soul: the creation of the universe, the divine functions, the relation between Deity and man, the problem of the human condition itself, of duty and truth, virtue and sin, the origin of beings and things, of life, death, and human destiny, the causative laws of phenomena, etc. The Maya religion, which is one of salvation, has as its ultimate goal the development of inner tranquillity of soul within a harmonious social order wherein injustice cannot prevail, leading man to a happy afterlife, one merited through virtue, in conformity with the divine teaching exemplified by Hunahpú in one of those hitherto uncomprehended episodes of the famous Quiché codex.

The authenticity of this masterwork of Mayan thought has long been accepted by authors such as Brinton, Müller, Raynaud, Rodas, Villacorta, Recinos, and others who have shown that even though it was written during the Colonial era it is completely native and foreign to Western thought. But there is even more than that: the Popol Vuh is a document of retrospective history, unique among human annals. Its mythology, theogony, and cosmogony are projected on a historic background that faithfully registers the events which took place in different epochs or racial cycles, and describe the particular features of those periods, even where many of them were not known or had undergone modifications by the time the codex was written. We will furnish evidence for that in this study, in which will be described the successive prehistoric and historic epochs with their own customs, beliefs, implements, arms, and mode of life, drawing a picture of times past which differed from conditions that prevailed when the famous book was written. It also gives us a geographical description including the flora and fauna of the place where the original homeland of the Quiché-Maya culture was found. And those traditions, which have not mixed up the characteristics of one historic period with another, state explicitly the difficulties encountered in the beginning, during the primeval horizon, because of differences in language, doubtless referring to groups of distinct ethnic relationships which chance migrations had brought together into one area. Later on they tell us of the language differences found among peoples of the same racial and cultural background, details of considerable value for Americanist studies.

So, then, we have an extensive panorama of historic-cultural conditions firmly located in time, which, by means of the myths entwined in the history, enable us to reconstruct the evolution of Quiché-Maya life from its remotest past.

The veracity of the facts set out in the Popol Vuh is susceptible to many kinds of proof, thanks to comparative ethnology and archaeology on the one hand and, on the other, to the traditions and written sources of American peoples who, separated from the same cultural trunk in different epochs, conserve in distinct degree the features corresponding to the successive eras through which Quiché-Maya culture has evolved. Without leaving Maya territory, in Honduras we find a coexistence in the same country and the same moment of time of indigenous tribes belonging to the historic period (Chortís) and to the prehistoric (Sumos), according to the classifications of the Popol Vuh, while others (Hicaques and Payas) hold intermediate positions.

This process of cultural differentiation is repeated when the Quiché branch itself divides off from the Maya, evolving from then on in a parallel but independent manner. Starting from the Quiché-Maya separation, the Popol Vuh relates episodes that belong exclusively to Quiché history and do not concern the Maya. On the other hand, the sources and traditions of the latter record cultural advances in which the Quichés did not participate, such as the extraordinary and unique development in astronomy and time-reckoning, about which the Books of Chilam Balam and the Chortí tradition of the Dance of the Giants (see chapter 16) inform us.

Those achievements of the Maya are due to the fact that, as demonstrated by a study of the Tzolkín, they were the only people who did not move very far away from the astronomical baseline upon which the Mesoamerican calendar was constructed. When the two peoples separated, the essential features, character, and institutions of both had already acquired definitive form, unchanging and perfected, because patterned on a cosmo-theogonic model that would undergo no future alteration. This explains the basic difference between these two and other peoples who left the common homeland earlier, when the Quiché-Maya culture was still in process of coming to birth, and clarifies a fact that has appeared strange to some Americanists who, like E. Pittard, show that the Quichés have the traditions of the Mayas.

The comparative study of the features that characterize those diverse human groups which in different eras emigrated from the area wherein Maya culture was being formed, and that correspond to those which the Popol Vuh assigns to consecutive cycles of Quiché history, are dealt with in the chapter "Ethnography and Comparative Religion." (Girard, Los Chortís). We find that that study gives us a correlation between the information in the Quiché manuscript and what is derived from ethnography. The former — offering us a short vertical history that starts from the most primitive horizon of the hunter-gatherer period and passes on to the matriarchal-horticultural cycle corresponding to plant domestication, and culminates in the patriarchal-agrarian era — exhibits the evolutional process of Maya religion, its socioeconomic system, its art, and its means of subsistence: inseparable elements that shape a culture in constant motion. Thus groups which separated from that development at a given moment in time and, for one or another reason, kept their original features thereafter, exhibit a culture distinct from the one the Mayas succeeded in forging.

Thus, then, we will be able to follow Quiché-Maya history by means of truthful, written sources; and it is this history that is most essential because it explains the evolution of human thought, the progress of ideas, of the arts and sciences — in a word, of culture. And for the first time in the annals of Americanist science we will be able to address the historic problem, following the logical sequence of facts beginning with the primeval period and not the reverse. That is, we need not proceed from the most recent strata to the most ancient, in accordance with the research technique heretofore employed to try to infer the unknown from the known. That method, which in the past we have had to adopt in attempting to penetrate the mystery that envelops the remote pre-Columbian past, had its necessary limitations. For as we moved away from known facts and continued retreating in time, we found less and less information, problems multiplied, and the historic panorama became ever more complicated until it was reduced to a purely hypothetical exercise. It is, in fact, very difficult to go back step by step toward the commencement of a culture by beginning at its near end. Thanks to the instruction in the Popol Vuh, susceptible to proofs by ethnography as well as the other native sources, a decisive and definitive step has been taken toward the solution of the many and great Americanist problems, placing them on a new basis which future studies will go on to consolidate and perfect.

This is the transcendental importance of this work of the Mayan genius, a work that concedes nothing in philosophical value to the known great books which have guided the human conscience such as the Bible, the Vedas, Avesta, I Ching, the books of Brahma, Talmud, Koran, Tantras, or Puranas. Because of its historiographic merits, the Popol Vuh outreaches all of those and henceforth will wholly transform the course of Americanist studies.

For our exegesis of the Chichicastenango manuscript, we will use mainly the Villacorta-Rodas rendition because, in spite of its errors, we consider it the most faithful to native thought. For certain passages we will use the translations of other authors such as Raynaud and Recinos. As said, the Popol Vuh is divided into two parts. The first contains, besides the myths referring to creation of the universe, the history of the Mayas and Quichés up to their separation. The second part is concerned solely with the Quichés. In human history, as in that of nature, there are no abrupt changes; but as time passes, one notes the different phases that elapse and join during a culture's formative process. Then artificial divisions are established for the identification of those phases, making an abstraction of the transition periods between some and others.

This is the method employed by the authors of the Popol Vuh in their synthesis of history, showing that the traditions were faithfully transmitted from generation to generation and formulated after the events referred to. The important thing is that those events of the prehistoric epoch in which the deep roots of Maya and Quiché cultures are to be found, should not have been forgotten and should have come down to us, thanks to the extremely conservative character of the native and his form of government. The anonymous elder-chiefs, representatives and interpreters of divine laws and conservers of tradition, have in fact succeeded one another without a break, transmitting from one to another the cultural legacy just as this still occurs within the Chortí caste of elders. Thus they appear in the course of history as a single personality that perdures in their successors and repeats without alteration those ethical fables that continue to serve as models for conduct among today's Indians.

The classification in the Popol Vuh embraces four cultural horizons, three prehistoric and one historic. They correspond to the four Ages or Suns of Toltec mythology, and in both of these cultures — which stem from a common trunk — this historic synopsis is linked with sections of the calendar governed by "Regents," in accordance with the method by which Mayas and Toltecs recorded outstanding facts of their history in the very substance of their chronology and its change of calendric bearers. As we shall learn, the Popol Vuh projects the important events of Quiché-Maya history in the primary series of Imix, Cimi, Chuen, and Cib.

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